Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

Earth as a tourist destination

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In August, the journal Acta Astronautica published some dark thoughts by scientists at The Pennsylvania State University about what intelligent extraterrestrials might want to do to us if they ever find their way to Earth. This became hot news for a few days. While one can never rule out the possibilities that extraterrestrials might come here to exploit us, I’d like to offer a sunnier alternative.

For several years now, I’ve been convinced that if extraterrestrials ever do visit our dear little planet, it won’t be for conquest but for tourism. Extraterrestrial planetary connoisseurs will, I think, be attracted by Earth’s peculiar mix of water and land masses. They will like how plate tectonics and the geological rock cycle have only very slowly remodeled the surface of our continents, allowing rain and runoff to sculpt it into the many beautiful shapes that we so often take for granted. Their tours will take in the craggy, snow-capped peaks of our high mountain ranges, the broad valleys and deep gorges cut by our rivers, and the shorelines and island chains eroded into so many unique shapes by our oceans’ waves.

Earth will likely be prized for having the right range of temperatures to support water as solid, liquid, and gas—and all three in substantial quantities. Interstellar tourists will watch the calving of icebergs near its poles and then bask in its tropical rainshowers. They will also enjoy the pace of our planet’s cycle of evaporation and condensation, and the speed of our jet streams, which together produce such a diversity of weather patterns and cloud formations. Our sunsets will, I think, be particularly acclaimed.

They will appreciate the diversity of elements in Earth’s crust—a remnant of the long-ago nova of our solar system’s first sun and the subsequent re-aggregation of the matter thrown off by it, to form Earth and the other planets. Having been to other less chemically diverse planets, they will marvel at the range of colors and textures in our planet’s rocks, thanks to the many combinations that can be formed of its various elements.

Needless to say, any extraterrestrials who are able to travel to our planet must have gained so much control over matter and energy that they could engineer other planets to achieve whatever aesthetic effects they desire. But just as we prize natural diamonds over more flawless synthetic diamonds, the more discerning extraterrestrials will prefer the rare idiosyncrasies of naturally occurring planets like Earth.

The beauty of our planet owes much to the plants that cover so much of its landmasses, and to the softening effect they have had on the landscape—turning rocks and gravel into dark, rich soil. Interstellar visitors should enjoy how many of our planet’s photosynthetic organisms are multicellular, and in so many different sizes, shapes, and colors. Even to our Earth-accustomed eyes, the beauty of a landscape so often comes of how a diversity of plants have grown over the attractive shapes of the land itself. I suppose the home planets of our interstellar visitors are likely to have multicellular photosynthetic organisms, but still ours are bound to seem exotic to beings who haven’t grown up here. And the flowers and fruits that we so often take for granted may be unique to our planet’s angiosperms.

The beauty of Earthly scenes is further enlivened by the animals that move over our land, in our waters, and through our air. Terrestrial biped though I am, I’m guessing that Earth’s birds and flying insects will be most celebrated by interstellar visitors, followed closely perhaps by our brightly colored tropical fishes. Mammals may appeal to us humans, but most of them are rather drably colored, and they seldom make themselves as conspicuous to a casual glance as birds do.

The tourism appeal of our planet should benefit from the welcoming service they will get from our species. Once we have gotten over the initial shock of contact, and as we grasp the benefits to us of interacting with so technologically advanced a civilization, I am confident that we will extend the same gracious hospitality to extraterrestrials that people all over the world already do to human tourists. Not having yet encountered any other intelligent lifeforms from other planets, I can of course only offer my own hunches, but I doubt that many others will exhibit so many of the gentle and agreeable emotions that we humans do, or be so well-suited to supporting an interstellar tourism industry. With their vastly more advanced civilization, extraterrestrials will I think be charmed by our simple ways. Those who have come to enjoy visiting Earth will presumably resist any attempts by others to exploit our planet more violently.

I suppose even as beautiful a planet as ours won’t be for everyone. We have evolved on Earth and so are adapted to its particular conditions, and so to us its gravity and air pressure feel just right. Visitors from other mid-sized rocky planets may feel at home, but other extraterrestrials will presumably need technological assistance to feel comfortable here.

The big question will be whether they can tolerate the oxygen gas in our atmosphere. Thanks to the molecular adaptations of our distant single-celled ancestors, our cells produce anti-oxidants that protect us from the toxic oxygen free radicals produced from O2, and the O2 in our atmosphere actually helps in the release of energy from organic molecules. Extraterrestrials from other planets with oxygen-rich atmospheres should have analogous adaptations and so will be fine, but how common are those I wonder? The oxygen gas in our atmosphere has been produced from water molecules through the action of electron transfer systems in photosynthetic organisms. Such biochemical adaptations may evolve often on water-rich planets, in which case interstellar visitors would likely be unharmed by our atmosphere. Otherwise, the tourism potential of Earth would be more limited, as visitors would have to be encased in protective suits and so the experience could hardly be relaxing.

To appreciate the colors of our planet, they will have to be able to sense light in the wavelengths put out by our sun. Depending on what molecules their bodies are made of, they may need to grow their own food or show us how to develop chemically isolate environments in which we can grow their food for them. These and other problems will no doubt have to be solved before our interstellar tourism industry can really take off. But if they are motivated to vacation here, our visitors should take the lead in offering solutions. I just hope I’m here to see it.

© Joel Benington, 2011.


Written by Joel Benington

September 22, 2011 at 7:43 am

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