Interview: David Brin from Life After People

LIFE AFTER PEOPLE, premiering Monday, January 21st, 2008 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on The History Channel.

What would happen to planet earth if the human race were to suddenly disappear forever? Would ecosystems thrive? What remnants of our industrialized world would survive? What would crumble fastest? From the ruins of ancient civilizations to present day cities devastated by natural disasters, history gives us clues to these questions and many more in the visually stunning and thought-provoking new special.

We had the privilege of interviewing David Brin, one of the experts from Life After people. David Brin is a scientist, speaker, technical consultant and world-known author. His novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. Brin received his Bachelor of Science in Astronomy from the California Institute of Technology, and both his Masters of Science in Applied Physics and Doctor of Philosophy in space science from the University of California, San Diego. Brin’s work focuses on a number of themes common to contemporary North American science-fiction literature. His primary focus is the impact on human society of technology man develops for himself. Brin’s 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and near-future trends such as the Internet. Brin is a futurist whose scientific work covers an eclectic range of topics, from astronautics, astronomy to optics. As a founding contributor to, the online publishing venture for short stories and essays, David was a “Top Ten Author.” His essays poke at convention and question comfortable assumptions. As a speaker and on television, Brin shares unique insights — serious and humorous — about ways that changing technology may affect our future lives.

We’ve seen an animation of the Sears Tower in Chicago collapsing. Can you explain the sequence of events that would lead to a steel-framed skyscraper collapsing with no humans around to maintain or use it?

Buildings like the Sears Tower are built with powerful strength in an up-down direction. Even decades of zero-maintenance – allowing windows to break and moist air to rust the girders – would not weaken this up-down strength appreciably, before other factors took their toll. Picture a very tall drinking straw. It can take a lot of weight for a long time.

What the designers fear is weakness in the lateral directions. For example, when the World Trade Centers came down, it was because the floors (that people walked upon) were weakened by the fire. When one of these gave way, it fell on the floor below, which caused that floor to collapse, while the outer walls held firm. For a while, until so much rubble wall tumbling down the middle that it PULLED inward on the strong out walls, causing them to buckle.

This can happen to the Sears tower, decades after maintenance stops, when:

1) ground water from Lake Michigan causes a tilt

2) broken windows let harsh storms get a strong grip on the tower

3) rusted supports are pushed sideways.

Which common species of animals have grown so dependent on humans that without us their populations would dwindle? Which would thrive?

Today’s dairy cattle need to be milked far more than their calves could manage. Wool sheep do not shed, they’d suffocate in summer. Many dog breeds are too absurd to manage without us. But many bird species would love our towers, while they lasted.

Assuming humans suddenly disappeared leaving all other species untouched, how long will it take for another dominant species to emerge? Can you speculate which evolutionary path it might take?

We haven’t a clue how likely is the giant leap from basic, chimp and dolphin level intelligence, to our own. I suspect it is a huge leap and Earth may never pull the trick off again. (In my science fiction novels, I portray humanity helping dolphins & chimps make the final jump.)

Question: Your biography describes you as a futurist. As a futurist, what are the primary aspects of the human nature that you contemplate?

We appear to be much smarter than evolution needed us to be. (In order to master nature with fire and stone tools.) This excess of brains may kill us. Or save us. I keep my eyes open for opportunities that we may have missed.

You’ve done quite well publishing and televising your ideas. Is it particularly difficult for someone in your field to be taken seriously yet still express your ideas fully? Do you find it necessary to temper your imagination with hard evidence or a “dose of reality?”

I was trained as an engineer and a scientist. I have taught physics. I know how rooted the world is in natural law. And yet, the other side of my brain feels the rhythms of the ancient storyteller, weaving mysteries and adventures by the campfire. It is a strange combination and one that may be unique to humanity. I cannot think of any logical reason why another species would combine the two. Certainly, no other human civilization than this one ever encouraged it!

Are there any grand changes that you would prescribe that would make humanity’s destiny more promising? Any words of advice?

I would show everyone that self-righteous indignation is the exact opposite of practical problem solving. We have a myriad problems to solve. We got as far as we did by negotiating, instead of falling for the old, old trap of demonizing each other.

Interview By: Emma Loggins


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