How trying to solve death makes life, here and now, worse

Maybe we should stop worrying about what happens after we die, and make the best of what we have on earth right now.

MICHAEL SHERMER: Yeah. Ray Kurzweil, I met Ray several times. He's a super good guy; I like him a lot. And I'm glad he's out there doing it in this sense. I'm not skeptical in a cynical way like I hope that those singularity people are wrong, no I hope they're right. I hope he does it. I hope he lives forever because that means I may have a shot at it, whatever that would even mean living forever. And so when people like Ray say to me, "Shermer, don't you want to live 500 years, 1000 years?" Listen, I'm 63 just get me to like 80 without my brain going crazy and I'm losing my mind and Alzheimer's and senility and get me to 100 without cancer and get me to 120 without being bedridden, just one step at a time, one problem at a time.

That's how progress really happens, incrementally slowly, not this grand let's aim for Utopia. I mean aim for it fine, but just take it one step at a time. Cancer there's like 50 different cancers that kill people, just tackle them one by one. Heart disease, Alzheimer's, senility, just solve those problems because we know that the human body is so complex that if you live to 150 or 200 there maybe other things that happen we don't even know yet. I mean most people 500 years ago had no idea about Alzheimer's other than a handful of people that seemed to have lost their memories, but now we realize because so many of us live that long.

So that's the problem with that is too utopian in their thinking. Just incremental steps. And then second, my skeptical alarms always go off when the chief proponent of an idea that's going to be the next big thing always says it's in our generation. Every religious leader and cult leader in history has always said it's going to happen now in our generation all the way back to Jesus who said, "There are some standing here before me now who will not see the end of time before I return." Okay, and we're still waiting. So when Ray says it's going to happen in 2040 it's within our lifetime, Ray what if it's 2140? I know you're doing all the blood cleansing but you're not going to make it another century now, so what if it's 3140 a thousand years from now? That's possible but you and I aren't going to be here to enjoy it.

Why sell it like it's got to happen in my lifetime because that always to me seems like you're just tickling that part of the brain that religions like to tap in, that sort of egocentric it's all about me and I want to continue on in the future. I get that of course I do too, but all the more reason we should be skeptical when the idea on the table being offered to us feels too good to be true. It almost always is. Not always but usually. And there's hardly anything bigger than offering immortality or the afterlife because – so here's the problem, we are all aware that death is real because we see it all around us, 100 billion people have lived in before us, they're all gone; not one of them have come back, not even Jesus in my opinion, but that's a different video.

And yet you cannot conceive of what it's like to be dead because if I asked you picture yourself dead what do you see? Most people say well I see myself there at the funeral in the coffin and my loved ones are hopefully grieving. No you wouldn't see that you wouldn't see anything because to see anything you have to be conscious. To conceive of anything you have to be a sentient being, you have to be conscious and if you're dead you don't have any of that you're just – really death is just nothing and the whole idea of the afterlife is fairly new. I mean the ancient Hebrews their idea of the afterlife was nothing, you're just nothing you're just gone that's it. There's no place to go with angels and flowers and whatever, it's just nothing. All that was added on centuries later and probably for socio-political reasons. Offer the peasants something nice so that they'll keep building our pyramids or whatever. Again, we can't conceive of what it's like to be dead and yet we see it all around us so this creates something of a paradox that we have to resolve in our minds. Most people resolve it by thinking well I'm not actually going to die I'm just not going to do it I'm going to live forever or I'm going to accept Jesus or whatever and I'm going to heaven.

Yeah but what if you're wrong? It's not a Pascal's wager where you can say I have nothing to lose and everything to gain because which religion and their version of the afterlife is the right one? Which one are you going to pick? Well the Christians we're the right ones. Yeah well there's a billion Muslims who disagree with you. They don't accept Jesus as a savior. They don't think he was even the Messiah or the son of God so now what? And they believe just as strongly as you do. So what if your God is the wrong one, your version is the wrong theory and they have the right one? You wasted your whole life investing on this idea and it turned out to be wrong. Why not jettison the whole idea entirely and appreciate the here and now because that's all we have. Whatever is in the hereafter, the here and now is what we have.

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Image source: NASA/Big Think
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  • Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
  • The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.

If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.

It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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