Voyage: A Macroscopic View

Today’s post is the final part of a collaborative miniseries on time dilation and relativity. Click here if you missed the introduction!

Steve disembarked on Earth 100 years after takeoff. Thanks to the effects of near-lightspeed travel, it’d only been a week for Steve.

Humanity had prospered. Lifespans had doubled, and new genetic engineering techniques eliminated the need for medicine.

During his postflight health checkup, a doctor asked Steve about his sore throat.

“It’s just a touch of strep throat I picked up last week,” said Steve. “I didn’t realize I was sick until a couple days ago.”

Puzzled, the doctor asked, “What’s ‘strep throat’?”

Only a few months later, humanity was destroyed by the ancient bacteria that returned from the stars.


Now we get to the end of the story! Yesterday’s protagonists, Harvey and Darby, are streptolococcus bacteria, the critters responsible for Streptococcal pharyngitis, more commonly called strep throat. Strep throat’s not very deadly, thanks to antibiotics like penicillin. But in this story, in growing beyond the need for antibiotics and perhaps even immunity, humanity’s left itself exposed to the return of an old foe who finds them much more vulnerable than before.

Fry's first glimpse of New New York City
What kind of guy chooses to go to the future? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we discussed immunity yesterday, I’d like to touch on time dilation again, this time from Steve’s perspective. I wonder, how did Steve get picked for this mission anyway? Reader misskzebra offered some insightful thoughts on the problem of leaving it all behind to go into an unknown future. What kind of person would volunteer to do this? Someone with no meaningful relationships? But if you already hate the time you live in, who’s to say you won’t just bring your problems with you into the future?

Interestingly, we’ve got a historical parallel available. Back before the days of mass transit and telephones, exploration by sea was a risky proposition. I’m thinking of the European explorers who gambled on the hope that land existed beyond the horizon’s end. And while colonialism has a sordid history, I have to admire the pluck and resolve of the families who left behind the comfort and safety of civilization for a life of isolation on a foreign shore. They left behind parents and children and spouses with no guarantee they’d see them again. I could fly to England before the day’s over today, but for those colonists, America might as well have been Mars.

It’s worth noting that like Steve, the European colonists also brought their germs with them, to devastating effect.

Nonetheless, I’m glad such adventurous people exist. They push the boundaries so that the rest of us can learn from their discoveries. But wherever you go, be it Alpha Centauri or Idaho, bring some penicillin with you. Let’s not start another epidemic when we reach the wilderness.

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