Will mankind survive the death of the sun?

by on June 25, 2008 at 1:20 pm in Science | Permalink

In reference to my Bloggingheads appearance, one loyal MR reader emails me:

you said don’t be certain, be 90-10 or 60-40 then [you] said 1-99 that humanity dies out when sun’s gone.

Yes, I believe the chance is very small that humanity survives the death of our sun or even gets close to that point.  I’ll give it p = .005.  But what’s the chance I think that is the correct p or even in the neighborhood of the correct p?  Maybe 60 percent.  Of course my p estimate could go either up or down and after I apply meta-rationality p = .005 is where I end up, for better or worse.  I expect that fragile estimate to undergo lots of revision as I age, read more, etc.  I just don’t know if it will go up or down, thereby satisfying one of Robin Hanson’s canons of rationality (or some approximation thereof).

Why am I skeptical?  The Fermi paradox, for one thing, plus I observe that humans aren’t very good at solving large-scale collective action problems.  Our environment may be more fragile than we had thought and that’s without even considering the impact of man.

1 tom s. June 25, 2008 at 1:27 pm

Why not just set up a prediction market?

2 Jüri Saar June 25, 2008 at 1:56 pm

At these time scales what are the chances that we can call any intelligent species living on the planet even human? My guess is that something would have to go terribly wrong for us to still be talking about “humanity” in a few billion years?

3 MS June 25, 2008 at 2:01 pm

Actually, the more likely threat is that the sun will become too hot rather than disappear. The sun will become about 10% brighter over the next 1 billion years – and hot enough to boil away the oceans, essentially making Earth all but uninhabitable.

Either way humans will at some point need to develop a closed system livable environment independent of Earth over long term. We have almost no experience with anything of the sort as of yet.

4 wagonrunner June 25, 2008 at 2:08 pm

vinge-kurzweil singularity gets us and our robots to superintelligence so space travel becomes fun and easy.
why hang around earth when you can party at alpha centauri?

5 LK June 25, 2008 at 2:40 pm

[i]vinge-kurzweil singularity gets us and our robots to superintelligence so space travel becomes fun and easy.[/i]
Even if one discounts the potential for singularity and the changes it would force in the developmental future of humanity, technological development has been proceeding at an increasing rate. Within a couple hundred years, if it’s not all gone, human civilization may have evolved far past anything we can forsee.

6 Ed June 25, 2008 at 2:47 pm

The brightest minds of 1000 B.C. probably would have had trouble predicting the future course of technology. Even the brightest minds of the year 1990 would probably be amazed at the technological developments of the past 18 years. Predicting that we’ll survive in the distant future is difficult because we can’t predict future scientific and technological developments.

7 Kieran June 25, 2008 at 2:57 pm

But will The Sun survive the death of Rupert Murdoch?

8 VC June 25, 2008 at 3:12 pm

1. The Fermi Paradox – the universe is really big and no matter how smart you are, you can’t beat the laws of physics. The fact that we have not encountered intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe is proof of very little. It is less apropos for this question since we know, for a fact, that intelligent life exists here on Earth – which is the only important question.

2. It is unlikely, though not impossible that something we would call human will continue into perpetuity. We have the intelligence to make sure that happens, the question is will we have the bias to do so. Or will we recognize the flaws in our present form (genetic or flesh) and then choose to “play God.” Is that thing (a robot devoid of sexual desire for instance) still ‘human’ just because it thinks like a human.

3. It’s a bit unbelievable that an ecological disaster could wipe out humanity. Destroy modern civilization? Sure. Knock us back to a few million strong? Maybe. But wipe us out – we flatter ourselves. The only real threats with any possibility of getting us are manmade weapons, aliens with bad intentions and things hitting us from space. Things hitting us from space become less and less of a threat every day. We’re 25 years of concerted effort (75 of the present lallygagging) away from being able to handle this – a blink of the eye of the universe. We do exist in a weird window where unlike our grandparents we could see the asteroid that will killing us coming, but unlike our grandchildren we’ll be powerless to do anything about it (except maybe dig a big hole – if there’s time).

Aliens? See part 1. That leaves us with the madman with his/her finger on the bomb.

4. As more and more people have the possibility to wipe us all out (arguably 2 to 3 people and going up), the odds that one of them is dangerously insane goes up too. But, so does our ability to defend against them. A star wars defense shield may come to fruition in the future. Governments add checks and balances on leaders. etc…

Additionally, there will soon be more places to blow up. We could be 100 years away from a permanent settlement on Mars. 200 away from that settlement being self sufficient. So, said madman would have to be able to blow them up too.

So, I believe we’ll not only outlive our sun, but we’ll tow Earth away (for nostalgia) before the sun becomes a Red Giant. The clock is running, T – 7Billion years.

9 Doug June 25, 2008 at 3:26 pm

“Even the brightest minds of the year 1990 would probably be amazed at the technological developments of the past 18 years.”

I think they would be decidedly underwhelmed.

10 Dave June 25, 2008 at 3:40 pm

Evolution is not simply a factor of time. Given the lack of natural selection and barriers to gene flow, it is possible that (natural) human evolution will stop or slow drastically (if it has’nt happened already).

The latest guess of evolutionary biologists is that human evolution has not been driven by natural selection for the last 20K years or so, but rather by artificial selection. We’ve essentially been breeding ourselves like we have our domestic animals, albeit without any real planning. As such, our rate of evolution has been greatly increased, and looks set to accelerate even more as we understand more about our biology.

Humanity has been around something like 100K years, if we are being extremely generous. If we are still around when the sun dies, that means we are currently living within the first .001% of human existence. When you put it that way, it seems pretty unlikely.

OTOH, even five hundred years of economic/technological growth at fairly conservative rates end up with average individuals having more resources and capabilities that Bill Gates. Who knows what possibilities that sort of capacity might open?

11 Joe Teicher June 25, 2008 at 4:07 pm

in order to get a probability of 0.005 you must have a very broad definition of “human” or an extremely optimistic view of our robustness as a species. The death of the sun is 5 billion years away. If you assume a constant probability of survival, a .005 chance of surviving that long gives a .9989 chance of making it the next million years. None of the hominid species around a million years ago made it this far. I think we will make it a million years maybe 50% of the time, giving us a 7*10E-1506 chance of making it to the death of the sun.

12 John Dewey June 25, 2008 at 4:54 pm

MS: “Actually, the more likely threat is that the sun will become too hot rather than disappear. The sun will become about 10% brighter over the next 1 billion years – and hot enough to boil away the oceans, essentially making Earth all but uninhabitable.”

Yeah, I’ve read that. But one team of astronomers suggested a few years ago that mankind could alter the earth’s orbit:

“All that is required is for a large asteroid, about 100 km (62 miles) across, to fly past the Earth transferring some of its orbital energy to our planet. The asteroid would then move out to encounter Jupiter where it would acquire more energy that it could impart to the Earth on a subsequent encounter.

It sounds farfetched, but we’ve got at least a half billion years to figure it out.

13 Alistair Morley June 25, 2008 at 5:29 pm

As others observe this is silly-to-the-point-of-wrong on several counts. Plus, it puts me in a glum mood whilst enjoying a good single malt on a fine summer evening. Let’s be unfair to poor old Tyler, who probably meant it likely, by taking them apart;

When exactly do the lights go out?

1) “Uncomfortably warm” @ circa 1 Billion post present
2) End of (non-core) hydrogen burning circa 4 Billion post present
3) End of helium burning @ circa…..?

Any of these timescales are vast compared to the 100k age of homo sapien, which gives us plenty of time to coonsider…

What do you mean by “Survive”, exactly?

As others have ably pointed out, does the prediction encompass just current homo sapiens or does it include any direct successor species? A lot of people point out that current humanity is unlikely to be running the shop when the lights go out even with no cataclysm; but he might be fondly regarded as a old and interesting ancestor by the current management, who still cherish many of his values as well as his memory.

Actually, might I suggest a useful distinction between “deliberate successors” and “accidental successors” might be useful. The latter would include Killer Cyborgs that look like Californian politicians who ruthlessly re-make the Earth into New Jersey and run only Windows Vista. At this point Tyler could be forgiven for proclaiming “Score!”. But let us assume the succession is benign, or at least deliberately willed by at least a portion of the human population. Would any cybernetic, gene-jinxed, telepathic, spacefaring as-unto-the-Gods-themselves descendent be included?

At which point I think it can be convincingly argued that the technological capabilities of such a civilisation are such that it is not going to be seriously endagered by a lack of vitamin D. The three fixes might be entitled “hunker down”, “Emigrate”, or “New Bulb”.

Don’t Let the Sun go Down on me 1 : Hunker down

Nuclear fission and fusion fuels are abundant throughout the solar system, and you know; we can make lightbulbs already :-). Theres geothermal, or a host of clever ideas tapping the potential energy of the solar system.

Don’t Let the Sun go Down on me 2 : Emigrate

Theres nothing about insterstellar travel that makes it look physically impossible. Hell, the energy costs look feasible (crazy and ruinous, but feasible) now. But here comes our old friend economic growth, and despite recent headlines there is a very very long term trend of energy getting cheaper relative to incomes all the time….

See you in the Pleiades. Make mine a double.

Don’t Let the Sun go Down on me 3 : New Bulb

Of course, the tech geeks here will already be muttering “Why don’t you stir the damn stellar core!” or “Tow the Earth back a few million klicks”. Well, we just did.

Do I still have time for my tan?

At this point, allowing successor spieces and their capabilities into our remit, I think we can all stop panicking. A best, Tyler’s question really resolves into “Hmmm – I feel millenarian – I’ll give you 5% odds of something really bad happening to humanity before it develops awesome ubertech and acheives a stellar diaspora”. Fine, I can deal with that, but note that it will have to be pretty impressive to kill everybody. And you have to get everybody. A mere 6.1 billion kill-count is close but no cigar; those surviving damn hairless apes breed like…well… apes.

Ecological disaster? Global warming ain’t enough; no, not even with Gore’s emissions. Nuclear weapons? Pah. Too many people think “On the beach” is piece of brilliant meteorology. Rogue nanotech? Kinky, but causes serious engineers to burst out laughing. Killer comet? It needs to hurry up; another hundred years and those hairless apes will swat it like a tick. So I would’t worry too much about Doomsday while homo sapian is in charge. Millenarianism is mainly a sign of our own narcissism and self-importance; The apocalypse had better happen on our watch damnit – I’d hate to see it wasted on our kids!

Incidentally, and Tyler should have spotted this; it’s not really a collective action problem, is it? The sun is merely a public good. At a billion years of even very modest growth the resources afforded even to individuals would be immense (Social Security will still be broken though :-). The point being that it only requires some of post-humanity to survive, (or get frustrated enough to deal with the problem and just shrug the free riders ~ perhaps they could install shades or a Dyson sphere whilst they are at it?).

Anyway, the sun has finally gone down on this contributor, and my whisky is done, so adios.

14 Joshua June 25, 2008 at 8:00 pm

Is that thing (a robot devoid of sexual desire for instance) still ‘human’ just because it thinks like a human.

Humans, like any other lifeform, have a strong mating instinct hardwired into our brains. (What form it takes, and how we respond to it, are another matter.) If something thinks but has no sexual desire, then by definition it doesn’t think like a human.

15 Billare June 25, 2008 at 8:13 pm

So what? As technology advances, we will gain the power to artificially select the particular traits and desires we wish to. Chances are society will try to select for individuals who can live in close proximity in civil society, kinder and gentler than their brutish ancestors.

16 efp June 25, 2008 at 11:48 pm

The more pertinent question is: will humanity survive the death of Earth? There is probably 2-3 billion years before the oceans evaporate and Earth goes Venus on our asses. Consider that this is 2-3 times the entire evolutionary history of multicellular life.

17 reason June 26, 2008 at 5:10 am

And to think I used to criticise the GMU crew for being uninterested in practical questions!

18 wagonrunner June 26, 2008 at 10:01 am

they’re keeping the seeds in a hatch in scandinavia

19 wagonrunner June 26, 2008 at 10:12 am


will pappy van winkle be available so far away? will we be
able to get our hands on it in the other dimensions?

20 Robin Hanson June 26, 2008 at 5:07 pm

Oh come on – will you accept those atheists saying God is a trillion to one if only they also repeat the matra that they are only 60% sure this is near the right number?

21 Richard Yates June 26, 2008 at 6:03 pm

It is close to absolute certainty that humans will not be around (i.e. p>99.9999%). Why? Most species exist less than a million years (this is a guess, but I’ve heard an estimate that is in this range). The sun will become a red giant in 2 billion year. Therefore, humans won’t be around. QED.

Also, don’t you have Robin Hansen around at GMU? I thought he was a transhumanist. Those guys will tell you that not only will we evolve like other species, but we will take control of our evolution, so within a few hundred years there will be an explosion of speciation as humans transform themselves into a panoply of “other” beings.

And if you need a third reason… by then our silicon descendents will have scattered throughout the universe, just ask Hans Moravec. While some think our silicon descendents will busy themselves with the “care and feeding” of humans, I suspect they will show “benign neglect” for those who don’t take up their silicon ways. This neglect will inadvertently euthanize those who insist on persisting in a carbon-based format that can’t effectively compete with the more efficient silicon-based descendents.

22 Some of a Sort July 11, 2008 at 11:28 am

Taking all the info. into account from this blog makes me realize that more people should rather try and understand the psicological aspect of human existance and it’s seroundings then the physical, our psicological abilities in 10.000 years will be so evolved that thinking about it makes my stomach crawl inweards.

Many scientists beleave that with 100% of our current brain tissue, gives us the ability to move and change anything we would simply think of, that includes the sun people.

Seeing things the outher way and let’s hope all goes well for us humans.


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