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Why a Mars settlement could never be a libertarian paradise (Zach Weinersmith, Part 2 of 2)

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This is a human-generated transcript, however, it has not been verified for accuracy.

Danny Crichton:
Let's just start with the beginning of the project. I mean, this is not your first book, this is not your first rodeo, and I believe it's not even your first rodeo with your wife Kelly, who you two have worked together on a variety of projects, complementary skill sets, et cetera, but you've always been in this science world. And I'm curious, obviously colonization of space is a big issue. Musk has popularized this idea of a multi-planetary species. So it's in the water, it's in the air, so to speak, neither of which, by the way, exist on Mars, but-

Zach Weinersmith:
There's water. There's water. And by some definition there's air.

Sam Arbesman:
There's very, very thin air.

Zach Weinersmith:
Yes, very thin air. Yes.

Danny Crichton:
Thin, poisonous air. Yes. But how did you get into A City On Mars and why the project?

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah, so we wrote this book called Soonish, which did all right. And it was a more typical book. It was a book on future technology, and the basic thrust of it was we would pick some cool stuff people are talking about and then see what the actual deal was. And two of those chapters, two of the sections from that book concerned space, one was about cheaper space launch and one was about asteroid mining. So we did rundowns on these things. And one thing that we noticed though was we would ask people questions like, "Well, wait a minute. If you're mining a ball of nickel and iron from an asteroid for use on earth, how do you get it back here legally?" And when I say when you are doing it, the you is always unspecified, but it could be Kim Jong Un, or somebody maybe you'd rather not be doing it.
Or for that matter, America. If you're not American, maybe you don't feel great. I don't necessarily feel great about our government having that kind of power, especially because whoopsies happen a lot in space. And so we had asked a couple of people what's the deal on that? And in retrospect, I know why we didn't get answers we wanted. I think we were talking to the wrong people with one or two exceptions, but we were given equivocal answers or sort of, "Well, that's an interesting thought. Someone should work that out." And so the original thought for this book was we thought space element was incoming fairly soon. There are huge developments right now, we can get into this on the technology side on cheap access to space and other stuff. And we thought it was coming soon and that it would be valuable to have a book that was looking at the people side. So meaning the goal was to write a book about space governance, but you can see very quickly that requires you to know what space is actually like, biological effects, psychological effects, some economics and this and that.
But broadly speaking, the initial version of this book would've been more upbeat. And then in the process, I would say about two years, maybe two and a half years into our research, we mutually had slowly worked around to saying, this is much harder than advertised, possibly more dangerous to the home planet than advertised. And also there are big chunks of the story that are left out of mainstream accounts. There are things where there's actually an answer to a question and it's treated as if it's unknown. And just also lots of ticky-tacky, technical stuff that actually really matters for the plausibility of some of these ideas. And so then the book became, instead of just laying out how we might do this, laying out the huge problems and then a proposed long-term strategy, which we call Wait and Go Big. But yeah, so that's basically how the book came about.

Danny Crichton:
Well, I think it's interesting is there's been this democratization of space. We weren't able to launch a lot of stuff into space. It was very expensive. NASA, the Russians, two countries, now China, a few others are sort of joining onto the bandwagon. But it was a very elite expensive proposition. And the cost of getting those payloads now has declined dramatically, exponentially over the last decade. But I think you start in a very interesting place with the book because you start with biology and you start with people.
In the first part, you're focused on not just the biologic of the actual physical body itself, a human going into space, but also the psychology side. I'm curious because I think the chapter title was something like All Astronauts Lie, and you have a really funny disposition throughout the book, I will say. I like the style, I like the tone, but you have this kind of concept of like every astronaut has lied about their experience in space. So why don't you talk a little bit about your research here and what you learned about the astronauts who went up and then came back down to Earth.

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yes. So I would actually say the psychology chapter was probably the hardest to write. In an early really bad draft, that section was like 20,000 words long. It was just a monster everything section.

Sam Arbesman:
Oh my God.

Zach Weinersmith:
And our editor, I think... Not just our editor, basically every reader was like, please, I've had enough. And the reason for that is I would say you have this field of study where the data is basically bad. I mean, that's not saying the researchers are bad, although I think perhaps some are or not qualitatively bad, I just mean the quality of the work is not top-notch. And there is some better work being done now, I think. But it becomes, as a writer, very hard to resolve a picture of what you should say to an audience when the data is so grab baggy.
And then as you mentioned astronauts, and this'll sound like a joke, but it's true. Astronauts lie about their medical and psychological status. It was almost amazing. So one of the big research things we did for this is we read, I don't have the number, it's like two or three dozen space memoirs, like a high percentage of all space memoirs. Even the obscure, nobody reads ones. We read them and we were just combing through for little tidbits. And one of the almost universal things was lying to medical staff.
And I was really pleased by the way, because what's amazing about that is these are voluntary admissions. So people, they don't have to talk about this, but it comes up over and over and over and can even, if you read some of the stuff pre-space, when we're just talking about aviation like Chuck Yeager stuff, which is moving towards space, they talk about lying. So this tradition predates rockets. It's an aviation tradition that makes its way into rocketry. And for people who don't know, the reason you lie to medical staff is because, and Michael Collins says this very specifically, and he is not the only one. When you go in the room, you are on flight, meaning you get to go up and you can only leave that room still on flight or grounded.
So there's no reason to be honest, you cannot improve your status by extra honesty. And so you have to lie. And so we started keeping a list and we documented this huge number of examples. And my very favorite one was the super obscure book with interviews that were done 20 years ago with old cosmonauts. And they got the woman who was the backup to the first woman in space, last name was Ponomareva. And she said that the men of the Soviet program, they taught us how to lie to medical staff. They were all doing it. So it was like, "Oh my God, I have cross border, cross-gender evidence of deception."
And so what's important about that? Mostly I just wanted to tell these stories. That was another section we had to cut down because there were so many lies. But the point is if you want to know the psychology of astronauts, it's really hard because one, you're talking about really inhuman people. These are not normal people that get selected for these missions. These are people who can perform under extreme pressure and are extremely detail oriented. And frankly weird. There's a somewhat obscure book by a woman named Patricia Santi where she just goes through stats on astronauts and they're just really not regular people.
And so your data's all messed up, but also the weird data set is filled with liars. And so the only other thing you can look at are what are called SIMS and analogs and just SIMS are sometimes called chamber studies, but basically you stick humans in a maybe space-like situation on earth and watch them. But there are people who believe, and I think they have something that these studies are not super reliable because they don't actually simulate the environment of space. You're not actually going to die. There's a door you can exit through and then you could look at Antarctica or submarines and they have the same problem, but at least there is some risk of being Antarctica. But the overall thrust is we don't know, but things have actually been basically okay in space. People hear these rumors about people going mad in space and it's never happened. There've been little incidents but nothing serious.
And so you see why it was hard to write all this up, but the big picture is it's okay, but if you're building a settlement, if you want 1000 people, you're not off the hook because they need to have basic psychiatric services. No one's ever had a severe psychiatric break in space. There are protocols, but they're protocols for getting them home in 24 hours. They're not, what do you do if you're stuck on Mars for two years?

Danny Crichton:
Well, and I think this gets one of the biggest challenges, which is you're talking about settlement. We are talking about a large quantity of people. So if you think about the space program, you're identifying these extreme outliers. At Lux here we have a company called Variant, which tries to find these six Sigma standard deviations away from the median people, people who can breathe on the water for... or not breathe on the water for hours at a time. Just exceptional individuals. And that's easy if you're looking for five, 10 folks to crew a space shuttle, it's very different when you're trying to crew an entire colony because there's just not that many people at those standard deviations.

Sam Arbesman:
And I feel like it's even a bigger problem when you think about long-term space settlement, which is the next generation where there's going to be a reversion to the mean, where it's like, oh, it's great that we have all these outliers that we can actually find them and suddenly we just have average people.

Zach Weinersmith:
Regular people. Yeah. One sort of example of that, which we didn't end up putting in the book, but a historical analog is you have a lot of Colonies reformed in the America that were based on a religion. And often they would have people who they were in this group, they felt the Holy Spirit, but then in the next generation they didn't have that same whatever it was. And so you get people who are just like, we did talk about this in a paper we wrote on the idea of space communes, and we mostly wrote it up. It was something people talk about that's been analyzed a lot. So there was actual economic data on how these things work, but one standard finding is for that first generation that says, I'm going to live on a commune. They, maybe, can really work without needing to be compensated for their labor. They just want to be part of the commune, but the next generation, maybe, doesn't feel that way. And a couple generations down the line, they don't have that. They're not these abnormal people who can live in these environments.

Sam Arbesman:
I agree. It's a problem.

Danny Crichton:
I was just thinking of that Gen one, the next generation on the colony that just like, this is suburbia Mars, why can't I be in Hollywood or Broadway or somewhere interesting. Why did you have to do this mom and dad? And they just get angry. And there's just this whole lying flat notion on Mars and the whole communism fall apart, but it's like survival base. It's not like, I don't know, winners California where you can be on the hippie commune and leave and everything is going to be okay. But I mean, Sam, I mean you read the book. I'm curious, what were some of the highlights for you? Because it was New York Times bestseller, you are number one on Scientific Americans for 2023. I mean, it was really a rock star book and one that was really fun. I mean, I hate to say it, but when I look at the scientific American science books, they tend to be very serious, like a Godel, Escher, Bach style. I'm going to have to set aside an intellectual window.

Sam Arbesman:
Yeah, that was... it does go against Hofstadter.

Danny Crichton:
But, Sam, I was curious with some of the highlights for you, particularly intriguing.

Sam Arbesman:
No, that's a good question. Yeah, it was definitely a lot of fun. The issues around the next generation, the whole thing around space babies and pregnancy in space and giving birth. These are non-trivial issues. That was one thing, managing closed complex ecosystems and with agriculture, that's another thing that really resonated with me. But I would say the biggest thing was the extent to which I had not given really any thought to space law. And that clearly seems to be the major factor that complicates everything. The other stuff, oh, maybe we can solve, I don't even know if we can, but there's the physical things that maybe can be solved. But the law stuff just was crazy more. It was much more complex than I realized.

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah, I'm glad to hear you say that because we had to push for law stuff. There's a little bit of stuff we had to cut out, but an original conception, it was like, we'll do a little bit about space law. And then when you add in the needed historical context, both on the history of rockets, but then also other international regimes that are related to the way space law works, it just ended up ballooning. And it's funny because my sense is people either love it or are bored to tears by it. That's why we tried to have as many jokes as we could in that section, that bit about the true story about Nazis highlighting a penguin in Antarctica. I was so glad I found that because it was like, this is going to get us through an international law. We're going to talk about the highlighting a penguin. It'll get us there.
Yeah. No, it's incredibly important. And just for me, it's fascinating. There's just little stuff. One thing we didn't end up using except for a little bit, we talked about it a tiny bit, but there's a whole history of how we think about land as a thing you can sell because it's distinct. If you sell someone a fish, they eat the fish, and then it disappears. Whereas land is like this permanent set of coordinates on the surface, and indeed it is treated differently in the law. And so it actually is really valuable to have some kind of conception about what it actually means to buy land and how it's distinct because it interfaces with space law. And this kind of stuff is, for me, very exhilaratingly exciting, but not to every type of nerd.

Danny Crichton:
Well, I will say what's interesting is the specific context in which a lot of this came out. So the outer space treaty comes out in the late 1960s. You have the moon agreements, you also have the laws around Antarctica and the idea that the poles would be kept as kind of neutral territory. So what's interesting is space was not accessible. And so it was an easy agreement to say, "Look, no one can really access it. We only can get one or two folks up there. Yuri's up there. We've got Neil Armstrong and a few others up there. But ultimately it doesn't seem like anyone's going to do anything. Now with the accessibility of democratization, though, we have multiple nations, tens of thousands of objects are now floating around in lower Earth orbit and above. And it's a very different world where I don't think that agreement would ever come together in the way that it did at the time, that kind of reality-

Zach Weinersmith:
I think you're right. And it's not just because of the democratization, there's also... There's one thing that we chanced upon that I think is really important for this history, which is if you go back, we have numbers in the book on this, but if you go back to the 1930s, there's something like I think we used, the number we used was how many nations were in the League of Nations, and it was something like 30. And that's even that is bias because some high number of those were just under British control. And then if you go to, I think, by 1975, you're up to 100 something, and today there's like 200 nations. And so just as a kind of mathematical quality to the way the world works, it's just harder to get business done. If you have two and a half empires ruling the world, they just have to come to an agreement.
But when you have all these nations with equal say, it just gets harder. And so, one thing that happens with space, if your audience doesn't know even the space gets law, really starting in 1967 formally, and then a bunch of little treaties come out. And there's been nothing since 1975. I shouldn't say a law person would disagree. They'd say there are resolutions and evolving norms and things, but in terms of big widely signed documents, there's nothing. And the big thing to me to realize about this... Oh, well, the big thing for your audience if they don't know is that space is a commons. That's really important that you're not allowed to claim parts of it, you being a state or a person. But the big context that we really wanted to get across was like, this isn't some weird law. That's not some weird thing we did just for space.
It's not exactly, but it's similar to how it works in Antarctica. It's very similar to how it works in the deep seabed. And so the broad thrust of the 20th century is post-World War II, these big swaths of territory that we could never access before due to technological limits become accessible. And they're all regulated, broadly speaking in the same way as commons. And you could debate why, right? That's hard to know. But probably what's going on is, one, concerns about environmentalism, which start coming to the for mid-century, two concerns about war because obviously World War II was not great and people didn't want to start a scramble in the battle old days. And then also these places all kind of suck. They're not like instant profit machines. So maybe if someone had discovered Atlantis and it was filled with diamonds, the law would've been different.

Danny Crichton:
Finders, keepers, losers, weepers.

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah. Right. I actually wondered about that by some freak-like situation, like a giant island rose from the ocean. I don't know what would go on. I think there's a decent chance it would just become a commons. We'd all be too scared of war. And anyway, resources matter a lot, but they're not the main source of human wealth. This is something we talk a little about. So maybe it would just be wilderness. I don't know.

Danny Crichton:
Let's move it back to biology because I do think one of the core aspects when we talk about the science of this, and obviously Sam knows this category really well, is the biology of space. Space is not a pleasant place to be as a human being. And last year, we had an episode with a professor here at Columbia, Chris Mason. His view is that we actually need to recreate humans from the ground up using genetic engineering to be prepared for space that we can actually be prepared to breathe, don't change Mars to adapt to humans, change humans to adapt to Mars. And so rebuild their chemical pathways around lungs and lung supplies, et cetera. That probably does not meet your desire around where you think the world should go. I'm curious for both of you-

Sam Arbesman:
It would fit the go big in terms of the Wait and Go Big Part.

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah, that would be a good long wait.

Danny Crichton:
And that episode, if I recall, we titled it the next 500 years of Spacefaring Civilization. So the waiting is built into that title. But I am curious, when you come back to the biology and biological sciences here, what's really pragmatic here? I mean, what do people get right? What do people get wrong and where's the divide between those two?

Zach Weinersmith:
So let me do a quick rundown. So in terms of just human physiology, when you send an adult human to space, what happens to them? And the big caveat with all this is almost all the data we have, with the exception of the couple of times people went to the moon very briefly, all the data is from the international space station or previous space stations or short tops. And the important thing about that is you're in microgravity, like basically zero gravity. And so we know the effects of that. They might be deeply ameliorated by being on the moon or Mars. We don't know that though. So we know reliably in space and microgravity, you lose bones very quickly, especially those bones you don't really use in space. One of the stats we found really freaky was there were studies finding something like one to 1.5% of bone density loss in the hips per month.
And so for people who wonder how that's even possible, well, almost nobody's gone to space for a year. There's a handful of people who've done it. A regular sent on the ISS is six months, and most people have gone for much shorter. It's just, you can look it up on Wikipedia. It's really just a tiny number of people who've been there for very long. Typically, when they come home, they can't walk. They need help to walk and for a variety of reasons, they've got weakened muscles, weakened bones. They also have lost something called baroreflex, which is when you lie down and you get up, your body has to be like, oh my god, gravity just changed and maybe you're a little lightheaded. That's a reflex. And so you lose that or at least partially lose it. And so it takes some time to adjust. And that is despite doing strength training for hours a day, most days of the week.
There's also probably increased cancer risk for radiation. And I say probably because just the understanding of radiation and cancer is really complicated. The general view is it is risky. There's one of the really weird things pretty reliably, you lose your vision. Astronauts, especially older ones, are sent to space with what are called SAG. I can never remember what the acronyms stand for, Space Adjustment Goggles, maybe. Anyway, on the assumption that they'll get more nearsighted. We don't really know why, it's thought maybe because when you're in zero gravity, you do get this reliable fluid shift, the shift of fluids upward because your body's no longer having to pump from your feet because there's no gravity orientation. And so maybe it's messing with the shape of your eyes or the nerves that feed your eyes. But we don't know. It's especially freaky because there's equivocal evidence of cognitive effects. So if you're seeing nerve damage in the eye, maybe that's just the canary in the coal mine, maybe not.
We don't really know yet. So that's what space does. Where it gets really freaky does when you talk about a settlement is the question of reproduction. So imagine all that stuff I just said, but on a fetus that has to be carried to term. And then on a child that has to grow up and then a developing body that spends 20 years developing, we don't know what the effects are. And there's an unfortunate tendency among some space popularizers and science fiction authors to be like, well, the way evolution works is you evolve for your environment. So people on Mars, they'll be tougher against radiation and they'll have X, Y, and Z.

Danny Crichton:
How very Laplacian evolution. I thought we threw that out of the science-

Sam Arbesman:
May be over tens and thousands of years. But yeah.

Zach Weinersmith:
Right. I would actually say even over tens of thousands of years, you will evolve to be adapted to your habitat, not to Mars. So as an example, I can't remember who said this, but I thought it was really interesting idea. An example of a more plausible evolutionary trajectory would be, suppose in a Mars habitat, there are lots of trace gases that cause spontaneous abortion. You will eventually change the gene frequency so that you have the genes that can endure that.
So that would be a subtle gene shift that you wouldn't even observe as opposed to humans tend to be like, well, their skin's going to change and their lungs will do something. Or they're like big broad characteristics rather than micro gene frequency changes. So there's a much more boring story here. As to the question of human genetic enhancement, there's a whole book on it for people who want, it's edited by Konrad Szocik, someone we call out for disagreement with him, but he did edit a whole volume. I think George Church contributed an article that I don't think he meant as a joke about eliminating the gene for body odor to improve morale.

Danny Crichton:
Well, that and The Woolly mammoth, one of the two, whatever we can pull out.

Zach Weinersmith:
I've named it St. Nobio, it'll be paradise. So my basic view on this is one, obviously it's quite a hard problem if you want to talk about 500 years, I guess. But to me, trying to predict beyond about 100 years is silly. You just don't know enough. But also with anything like recognizable technology, the idea that you're going to adapt a child, right? A child who had no say in this, you're going to adapt them to a hostile environment distant from the homeland of old life as we know it, so that possibly they can't even go home... home meaning earth, I mean to the home planet. The idea that that is even remotely ethical is bizarre to me. I mean, maybe if there's some future we want to go so far in the future that there's nanobots, so you can just fix whatever and we don't have to think about it all right.
But the idea it'd be like adapting a child to the South Pole so that they can't leave. I mean, it's just obviously, to me, obviously unethical, and this is something we talk about a bit because I worry when people hear me say unethical, they're thinking I'm being fuzzy headed philosophy stuff. But one thing we talk about is if you want to send a million people to Mars with how little we know about human reproduction in space, it has to be thought of as experimenting on children for no reason, right? If it was a Noah's Ark situation, earth's going to die. We have to send people. Fine. Maybe that's justifiable. But without the data and our data on even vertebrate reproduction in space is almost nil, you're basically experimenting on babies. If there are men and women who are willing to sign a waiver and put themselves through that enormous risk, I am libertarian enough to say Godspeed, but once you bring kids into it, it seems to be just clearly unethical.

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