The Great Constants

The speed of light: the ultimate constant

My novel, “Dust Mites,” is set in 2075. The year is close enough in time that human society will be recognizably similar, yet distant enough that the particulars are impossible to predict. I have endeavored to create a plausible world (or, if you prefer, a plausible “Earth/Moon system”). I have no illusions, however, that the political, economic and cultural constructs of the future will bear much resemblance to the fictional world I have created. Technology will change in ways that no one can anticipate. Those technologies, whatever they are, will interact with human systems of such complexity that the outcomes are beyond reckoning.

But that’s not to say we can foretell nothing useful about what human politics, economy, and society will look like 55 years from now. There are constants — I call them the Great Constants — that set the parameters of change. The speed of light, the gravitational force, and the laws of Newtonian physics are immutable. The terrain and topography of the Moon will be the same five decades from now. Time will not repeal scarcity or the laws of economics. Human nature will not evolve appreciably over the course of two generations — humans still will seek wealth, power, domination over others and freedom from that domination. Even though technology will bring many surprises, we can suggest with some confidence that advances in computing power, artificial intelligence, robotics, materials science, and genetic engineering will outpace the rate of change in such institutions as government and the law. Whether humanity reaches “the Singularity” — an era of relentless, accelerating, irreversible change — is an open question.

Let me lay out some of those constants and how they have informed my writing of “Dust Mites.”


The speed of light is a constant. It takes more than a second for light to travel from the Earth to the Moon, and another second to travel back. Radio communications between Earth and the Moon has at least a two-second delay. On a prosaic level, that delay will change the way people carry on telephone conversations. In the world of business, in which computer algorithms compete for nano-seconds’ advantage in exploiting new information to buy and sell stocks, two seconds can create new opportunities for Earth/Moon information arbitrage.

Even more consequential is the role of gravity in Earth/Moon economics. Breaking free from the grip of Earth’s gravity — the so-called “gravity well” — requires vastly more propulsive power than escaping the pull of the Moon. That differential could make the Moon a more economically attractive base from which to maintain the growing array of Earth-orbit satellites, solar collection facilities, space manufacturing operations, and the inevitable orbiting battle stations and military facilities.

Geography and topography

One of the magisterial works of history, “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II,” by Fernand Braudel, reconstructed the Mediterranean world of the 1600s. The French scholar built his history of the era layer by layer. He started with the geography, topography and climate of the Mediterranean world and their impact on agricultural productivity and the density of human settlement patterns. He described the pace of transportation — by galley at sea, by ox-drawn wagon on land — and how it shaped the patterns of trade. He went on to examine how the speed of communication placed constraints on both the conduct of commerce and the ability of rulers to govern populations far from the centers of power.

We can proceed in a similar manner to elucidate the unique “geography” — or “lunography,” if you will — of the Moon and cislunar space. We can take into account Earth’s gravity well versus the Moon’s, Lagrange areas equidistant between Earth and Moon gravity pulls, and the protective shelter of the Earth’s magnetosphere. We can identify the unique resources of the Moon such as the distribution of meteoric metals, the abundance of solar and nuclear energy, and the paucity of elements needed to create air and water. We can catalog features of the “environment” that will affect human settlement such as low gravity, the atmospheric vacuum, exposure to solar radiation, and the omnipresence of lunar dust suspended by electrostatic forces. Likewise, we can describe the lunar terrain with its plains and craters and escarpments that may affect the selection of locales for human settlement.

In a subsequent layer of analysis, we can make informed conjectures about the energy economy of lunar colonies built around access to abundant solar power and He-3-fueled fusion power. We can identify the material resources available on the Moon — calcium, iron, magnesium, oxygen, silicon, titanium, and hydrogen — and how they might be transmuted into products useful for sustaining human life. And we can deduce the predominant modes of transportation — both within settlements and between them — in a setting defined by low gravity, near-zero atmosphere, abundant energy, and highly variable terrain.

Human nature

Certain behavioral traits are so deeply ingrained in human genome that they have shaped all human societies across the millennia. It takes no great leap of faith to anticipate that these universal traits will continue to apply to humans on the Moon in the year 2075.

Hierarchy of needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow posited the existence of a “hierarchy of needs.” The most basic needs are physiological — air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing and reproduction. The acquisition of those needs requires a higher order of needs: personal security, health,  employment, and property. Once those needs are satisfied, humans yearn for love, intimacy, friendship, and a sense of belonging to family, friends, and community. A higher level of needs arises from the desire for status, esteem, and self worth. While the expression of these needs may take a different form on the Moon than the Earth, it is safe to say that the same hierarchy will persist.

Xenophobia. For millions of years, humans, proto-humans, and the primates from which they evolved were social species in which individuals relied upon the group for survival. It is a deeply rooted tendency of primate psychology for individuals to draw distinctions between in-groups and out-groups. For millennia, the in-group was the kin group, the clan, or the tribe. As human societies became more complex, people defined “in” and “out” differently: on the basis of fealty to monarchs, race, caste, class, religion, nationality or ideology. Some settlers on the Moon may pledge loyalty to the universal brotherhood of man, but that will not stop them from drawing drawing invidious distinctions between their group and those with whom they compete for power, status, wealth or control. Inter-group conflict between humans is hard-wired into the genome and will persist on the Moon.

Wealth and power. Among humans at all stages of human evolution and history, attaining higher status in one’s group ensured greater access to resources, a greater likelihood of survival, and a higher rate of reproduction. Like xenophobia, the desire for respect, dignity, and status is genetically hard-wired into humans. While not every individual is motivated to maximize status, power and wealth to the same degree, within every population there are individuals who are so motivated. Humans do not enjoy equal status and wealth in the year 2019, and they will not in 2075 either.

Oppression and freedom As long as resources are unequally allocated within societies and across societies, people will argue over how to use the power of coercion to redistribute them. Likewise, as long as some people seek to dominate others for whatever purpose, those who see themselves as oppressed will yearn for freedom and liberty.

Laws of economics

The discipline of economics revolves around the concept of “scarcity.” Human desires (demand) always outstrip resources (supply). The great questions are how to distribute resources (1) most efficiently and (2) most fairly. The issue of scarcity will dominate lunar colonization, especially in the early stages when shortages are acute for everything that Earth dwellers take for granted, including water, air, and food. As a consequence, the material basis for lunar civilization will be very different than that of the Earth. Lunar settlers will re-structure their economy to make the most of things that are abundant (energy, rock, metals, silica) and conserve the things that are scarce (air, water, and organic material).

The Singularity

We cannot predict precisely what technological innovations will take place. But, following the logic of Ray Kurzweil in “The Singularity Is Near,” we can suggest that technology will advance rapidly in a broad front in several areas:

  • Computing power
  • Artificial intelligence/robotics
  • Genetic engineering
  • Nanotechnology.

I would add a fifth field, materials science. The greatest advances may come in response to conditions on the Moon as colonists build their material culture on an array of raw materials very different from that found on Earth .

Whether these technologies accelerate at an exponential rate, transforming humanity into something almost unrecognizable, as Kurzweil suggests, is an interesting speculation. Kurzweil contends that Artificial Intelligence propelled by unimaginably powerful computing power will overtake human intelligence and will accelerate humanity’s capacity to solve problems. Perhaps that is true. But for purposes of imagining the world of 2075, I assume that every advance in technology, twisted by human perversity, likewise can be used for mischief and evil. The condition of mankind is improving but it follows a crooked path.

De-Synchronization of Change

While the rate of technological change will accelerate, human institutions will not keep pace. As Heidi and Alvin Toffler argue in “Revolutionary Wealth,” some human institutions are more adaptable in the face of change than others. Business enterprises tend to be the most nimble, followed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Lagging the leaders are the American family and, even farther behind, labor unions, government bureaucracies and regulatory agencies. Bringing up the rear on Earth are schools, governance structures and legal institutions. And the Tofflers did not even consider technological change at the pace of the Singularity.

Because they will have the opportunity to reinvent key institutions from scratch, lunar colonists will likely be better adapted to the challenges posed by the Singularity — at least if they are free from Earthly control. One can reasonably anticipate that a major motivation behind lunar settlement, as it was with European settlement of the New World, will be to create new governmental structures, economic systems, and social institutions.