From time to time I give a public talk called “The History of the Milky Way Galaxy, 14 Billion BCE to the Present Day.” It’s fun to step so far back that we see the whole picture, and few of the details. It’s actually not a very well-named talk, as the last ten minutes are all about predictions we can make about the Universe billions of years into the future. One thing we can predict is the fate of our Sun, which will exhaust its hydrogen fuel supply and swell up into a Red Giant, in about 5 billion years time. (Not 5 million, in case you were worried.) What will it take for us to be there to see that happen? For one thing, solar astronomy is going to get more difficult: before even one billion years have passed, the Earth is likely to have become uninhabitable. We’ll have to move.
When browsing the back pages of the newspaper and reading about the many extrasolar planets being discovered at the moment, it’s easy to daydream beyond the “readily-available organic compounds” and “rugged exteriors” of our potential new home, and start to wonder about who we might meet out there. This thought presents us with a new problem: what will the neighbors say? If we do get as far as meeting up with alien civilizations, though, we’ll have some good stories to tell them.
“We,” in this daydream, means, of course, “we earthlings,” and, whether those storytellers are descended from humans, or from our distant relatives, we can hope that some of our very human mistakes will make it to the campfires of whichever rocky planet of whichever star system we end up in. The distinctions between nations, races, and perhaps even species will have been long forgotten in the build-up to this long-awaited meet-up: we’ll be telling tales from Earth, and what we all learned there.
We already know what makes for a good fireside tale: the stories we tell our new neighbors will typically involve some sort of adversity, either natural or, more often than not, self-inflicted, and how we learned to overcome it. We caused our own climate change back on Earth: the first few hundred years after we figured out what was happening were pretty tough - but there was an ice age about ten thousand years’ later, and by then we knew just what to do. Remember that time we detected that asteroid, coming right at us, and managed to deflect it? And how we figured out government, more or less by trial and error? We worked at it, and co-operated, and carried on talking to each other, and made mistakes, and learned from them, and here we are. I find this daydream oddly comforting. It gives me a way to be hopeful: whatever happens this week, we’ve learned a lot - and we’re bound to learn a lot more in the coming years, about who we are, and how we want to do things.
As you can see, my daydream is about future off-planet campfire stories that are somehow triumphant. But those stories won’t really be about winning: our neighbors won’t be interested in our conflicts, which by then will seem too petty, too small to bring up. True, our success will have been survival - we’ll have lived to tell the tale, after all - but I think in the end our stories will mostly be about doing things well. As my mum used to remind us, often, “it matters not whether you won or lost, it’s how you played the game.”