We Don’t Yet Have the Kind of Brain that Can Take the Idea of Colonizing Space Seriously. But Stephen Hawking Seems to Be Saying that We Need to Get One

I think I can understand why Stephen Hawking would be perfervidly attracted to the idea of space travel. He’s scheduled to get a smidgen of what it could be like on April 26. Zero Gravity Corporation is giving him a gratis ride above Cape Canaveral on its “vomit comet.” This is a Boeing 727-200 that permits passengers to lay flat and float during brief periods of weightlessness as the pilot does roller-coaster things with the plane’s attitude.

Dr. Hawking, the world’s reigning black hole physics expert, says he also hopes to fly on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Branson aims to take six passengers 70 miles high on flights, beginning in 2009.

Hawking’s adult life has been an almost unthinkable experience of bodily entrapment for the gifted mind it houses. As just about everyone knows, his is a brilliant brain housed in a body that, by all medical expectations, should have succumbed decades ago to Lou Gehrig’s disease. So I can appreciate the appeal that any opportunity to experience “feeling a little freer” might have for him.

But remember he’s spent his entire career envisioning what has happened, what is happening and what might happen in space. And he’s still at it.

Hawking now sees himself as a point man for an idea whose urgency may be accelerating much quicker than even an Arthur C. Clarke or an Isaac Asimov would have predicted a generation ago: the possible dependency of the future of the human species on the ability to get free of our own planet. Most likely to get away from our own solar system. To colonize space.

Why? Here’s Hawking at a Hong Kong news conference last year: “Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as a sudden global nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.”

At Brain Technologies, my colleagues and I have been tossing around both this very unsavory prospect and this very extreme solution for a couple of decades now.

Ours has been what you might call “an extrapolation of the long view.” After a while, we concluded that much more will be required than scientific and technical answers to periods of prolonged zero gravity, the disruption of circadian rhythms, the effect of cosmic rays on the immune system, the psychological dangers of boredom and loneliness and homesickness and the social aspects of prolonged living in cramped quarters—to name a few of the biopsychosocial challenges sure to come with prolonged space travel.

We felt—and we continue to feel—that the brain will need to evolve a significant new “worldview” before there can be any likelihood that colonizing space can legitimately be seen as anything other than science fiction or scientific grant writers’ pipe dreams.

In our book, Code of the Monarch: An Insider’s Guide to the Real Global Business Revolution, Paul Kordis and I sketched an ascending spiral model of brain-arbitrated worldviews based in sizable part on the late Clare W. Graves’ brilliant model of human levels of existence. We called the worldview where most of the brain/minds currently alive on the planet reside “Homo sapiens gregarius.” Our name for the worldview where most Americans reside is, in our scheme of things, “Homo sapiens stabilus.” In our guestimate, not until “Homo sapiens extensus” are we—or more correctly, our descendents, if there are any—likely to have a real shot at colonizing space.

As scoped out by our model of brains and worldviews, “Homo sapiens gregarius” is Worldview No. 2. “Homo sapiens stabilus,” today’s most prevalent information organizer in developed countries and societies, is No. 4. And where is “Homo sapiens extensus” in the picture in terms of becoming enough of a critical mass on the planet to make crucial differences?

No. 9.

Will we make it? At the height of his 30-second arc into weightless flight on April 26, I would like nothing better than for Stephen Hawking to experience the mystical epiphany of his incredible mental and spiritual journey and return to earth with an answer.

Here’s the conundrum that Paul Kordis and my colleagues have understood with growing concern for the past 20-some-odd years:

On one hand, at the cutting edges of the brain’s experimental organizing of how the world can be viewed, millions of the planet’s citizens are increasingly at home with hugely promising and liberating new ways to think and create, share and cooperate—worldviews that can sustain and protect life on our planet. On the other hand, the technologies these fecund “points of view” engender are flowing largely unimpeded into the hands of those using worldviews that render them incapable of understanding and avoiding the dangers. And those worldviews are home to billions of us, not millions.

Talk about a black hole.

I suspect that Stephen Hawking understands the dangers of all this better than most. And that this is why he’s willing to put his disease-ravaged body through the rigors of weightlessness. Even as our earth-bound problems explode, we must acknowledge that we know little about how we might begin to make space the means of our species’ survival. Dr. Hawking seems to be saying, “Listen up! This is a topic worth paying attention to.”

You can read about Stephen Hawking’s anti-gravity exploits here: Stephen Hawking Plans Prelude to the Ride of His Life [Registration will be required and a payment to view the entire article.]

Information on Paul L. Kordis’s and my book is available here: Code of the Monarch

A first-hand account of surprising changes in the brain that allow astronauts to adapt to weightlessness is available in a book released by NASA after the June, 1998, Neurolab mission. It is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office: The Neurolab Spacelab Mission: Neuroscience Research in Space

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