Saturday, August 08, 2015

Solving Drake's Equation - 70 Years & Counting

Last Wednesday, August 6th, marked the 70th anniversary of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.  The first time a nuclear device was used in war.  
The anniversary for the second use of a nuclear weapon is tomorrow, August 9th, seventy years after Nagasaki was bombed.  
It also means that mankind has spent seventy years, and counting, trying to be the first sentient species (as far as we know as of yet) to solve the Drake Equation.  
I have a fascination with the history of the atomic bombings.  Not because of my fascination with Japanese history and culture, necessarily.  It may seem ironic, but I have actually never spoken to any of my Japanese friends or acquaintances about the bombings.  I've been a member of my Japanese Language and Cultural exchange since 2006.  There have been nine anniversaries in that span when the subject might have come up but simply didn't.  I don't know if that's a good or bad thing.  It is what it's been so far.
The atomic bombings and the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons, first between two nations, then three, then more, has been a defining element of my generation.  It made the Cold War, with the anticipation of what would happen to mankind if it suddenly turned Hot, what it was.  I have lived my life under the prospect of nuclear apocalypse.  Sometimes it has seem close.  Sometimes as distant as a native California's contemplation of "The Big One" from the San Andrea's fault.  
The atomic bombings have more than their share of historical quirkiness.  For instance, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki were the initial targets of the bombs.  For "Little Boy," a uranium based, "gun-type" design, the only one of its kind ever detonated and so unstable that they stenciled "do not immerse in water" on its crate, for fear it might short-circuit and detonate, the original target was supposed to be Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital and cultural center of Japan.  When the list of targets was sent to then Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, however, he removed Kyoto from the list.  He and his wife honeymooned in Kyoto and had memories so fond from that time that he couldn't bear the idea of the city being destroyed.  He crossed Kyoto off the list.  Hiroshima, second on the list, took its place.  
The target for the second bomb, "Fat Man," a plutonium based, "implosion" design, which served as a the basis of all subsequent nuclear weapons made, was supposed to be the city of Kokura.  It was third on the list sent to Secretary Stimson and the site of the largest weapons arsenal in Japan.  On August 9th, when the plane carrying Fat Man approached the city, it was covered with clouds and with smoke from a factory burning from a bombing earlier that day.  The pilots dropping the bombs were under strict orders to only release the weapon if they had clear visual confirmation of the target site.  Several times the plane flew over Kokura.  Each time the clouds and smoke would roll in to cover the target.  Finally, the commander of the flight scrubbed the mission over Kokura and went on to its secondary target, Nagasaki.  
For years, the Japanese had a saying, "the luck of Kokura," to refer to a calamity that missed someone but befell a neighbor instead.  
There is also the "what might have been," aspect to this point of history.  If the testing in New Mexico had gone bad, or if the United States and its allies had decided that the losses would not have been as great as the one million casualty figure often quoted, and the plan to invade Japan, Operation Downfall, had proceeded, what would history have been like?  One aspect that most in the United States don't think or talk about is the fact that the Soviet Union, which had honored a non-aggression treaty with Japan throughout the war despite pressure by U.S. and other allies, finally declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria on August 9th, the same day the second bomb was dropped.  
What is even less well-known is that the Soviet Union had plans to invade Japan itself.  Specifically the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's main islands.  They scheduled their invasion to begin on August 24th, 1945.  This was a full two months before the United States planned to invade Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, in October.  In anticipation of the American led invasion (Japan has only two coastlines suitable for a "D-Day" style invasion, so it was easy for them to figure out where we'd be heading) the Japanese Imperial army sent the bulk of their forces south to Kyushu.  The Soviets would have faced very little resistance if the war hadn't ended when it had.  
I often contemplate the alternate history that may have resulted from this change.  A Japan, split in half as Korea and Germany were.  The atomic bombs becoming the post-war, Cold War threat, but without the graphic examples provided by the two devastated cities to strike fear at their use that pervaded the psyche of mankind.  What sort of challenges would that world have faced in keeping their use in check.  
But its humanity's ultimate destiny that I think these anniversaries touches on the most.  
Drake's Equation, which I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, is a probabilistic argument used to come up with an estimate of the number of active interstellar civilizations that exist in the Milky Way that we could communicate with.  It was born out of Fermi's Paradox, which states that, given the number of stars in the galaxy, and the number of habitable planets that we estimate orbit those stars, and the number of those planets that might have life, and the sub-section of those planets with life that could give rise to intelligent life, and the percentage of those that would become technologically advanced enough to communicate with us or travel to our world, factored over the apparent age of the galaxy itself, we should have been visited or connected by numerous alien species.  So...  Why haven't we?  Or as Enrico Fermi, who came up with the paradox, put it, "Where is Everybody?"  
The most obvious possibility that relates to the anniversaries I'm writing about is, they don't exist any more.  It could be that, upon the acquisition of nuclear power, which would be a prerequisite for any effort to send ships to other planets, a technological stepping stone at the very least, the overwhelming majority of intelligent alien species destroy themselves.  Just as we've imagined destroying ourselves since witnessing what two, very primitive versions of these devices could do.  
Building an interstellar society would require the resources of the entire planet.  Which means the technology to do so would be spread across the planet as well. 
In 1945, there was one country with nuclear weapons.  Today, there are nine.  At that rate of expansion of capacity, all 192 countries currently listed as members of the United Nations could have nuclear weapons by the year 3205.  If we last that long, of course.  On August 5, 1945, there were two functional devices.  Today it's estimated that there are 16,000+ nuclear devices.  This doesn't include the 50 or so warheads that are "missing."  By the same rate of expansion, by the year 3205, there would be some 322,000 devices.  
I should point out a truism about human technological development.  In the course of human history there is not one instance of a tool, or weapon, that mankind has stopped making once he made the first one.  They've been modified, upgraded, put to other uses, but never set aside.  From making fire with two sticks, fletching stone arrows, steam power, etc., we continue to make all of them somewhere on this world.  Unfortunate as it may be, I think it's far more likely that we'll hit that 322,000 number of devices before we'll see them all disassembled.  I hope I'm proven wrong.  
Earlier this month, the United States and Iran concluded negotiations on a treaty stipulated to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  I am not, in this blog, advocating a position on this treaty.  I understand the fears of the conservatives who were speaking out against it before they even knew the terms.  But I also think that this treaty, whether it is ratified or not, is part of our necessary, ongoing effort to be, as far as we can tell, the first intelligent species to solve the Drake Equation.  To bear this necessary technological burden and use it to pull ourselves out of our gravity well, instead of using it to dig our own graves.
If we do survive, and find a way to send our ships into the stars, I don't think we should be surprised to discover that more than one of those other worlds have been turned into graveyards of nuclear ash.  If so, we should pause, take a moment of silence, reflect upon the wisdom of our choices, or maybe just our blind luck, and be grateful that we found a way to do what they couldn't.  We'll then fire a wreath into orbit around those worlds, consecrate them to monuments of evolutionary immaturity, and carry on as best we can.  


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