Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reflections After the Flood…

I’ve not before written about the catastrophe emerging from the fourfold whammy that has hit Japan. They’ve suffered a historically significant and death-dealing earthquake, a murderous tsunami, the meltdown of one or more nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, and the poisoning of their land, ground water, sea water, and animal and Human life with radiation. The disaster has worldwide health, social and economic ramifications. It may be that wide swaths of land and sea will be uninhabitable by Humans for at least 25,000 years. If plutonium has leaked from Reactor #3, as seems apparent now, the land, drinking water and nearby ocean will be toxic for as long as 250,000 years. That is longer than our species has trod the Earth that we now befoul.
But, the news of the day adequately covers, albeit in a cursory manner, the steady rain of bad news coming from the confluence of Nature’s shrugs and surly moods, and the consequences of Human muddling and arrogance. I’ll instead write a bit about what might be pondered as we move forward as a species from this very moment.
First, let me be clear. I am not a reflexive anti-nuke power sort. We, the people and our democratically chosen governments (where they exist to whatever extent) can tell the nuke industry that the free ride is over; that it is time to solve the problems of nuclear waste storage and disposal, as well as the proliferation of nuclear materials across the globe. They must also design and build self regulating nuclear machines, or none at all. It is well past time for global industry to stop behaving like an adolescent who might at any moment blow off his neighbor’s fingers with the toss of a fire cracker. If we grow up and take responsibility for the perils inherent in sloppy engineering, we may gain a reasonable nuclear alternative to fossil fuels as just one arrow in our potentially environmentally benign quiver of tech.
Okay, so where are we today? We are dealing presently with the second most fundamentally powerful force at our disposal: nuclear fission. So far, we’ve been able to use it build bombs that can flatten entire cities with that power, and we can sort of use it to reliably and sometimes safely generate steam to make electricity with what is essentially 18th Century engineering and mid-20th Century physics.
Next up the ladder in terms of essential physical forces at our command is nuclear fusion, the power that makes the stars shine and gives birth to the elements of all life, including our own. As of this date, we can make bombs theoretically scalable to a power able to shatter planets. This potential was revealed in the math and physics of one Edward Teller, the real life model for the cinematic Dr. Strangelove. It is a blessing that Teller’s conjectures have not been proven in experiment and practice. Meanwhile, the promise of harnessing this power for the generation of cheap, pollution-free energy has been perpetually just over the horizon, coming within fifty years, for the past fifty years.
But, there is more in store. Today, at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), experiments are underway to probe deeper into the fabric of matter and energy with the grandest, most complex and sophisticated scientific instrument yet created on our pale blue dot of a world. As you read this, scientists and engineers are smashing sub-atomic particles together to potentially reveal the secrets of hidden dimensions in our own Universe, peering into theorized adjacent universes to our own, and they are perhaps on their way to producing sub-microscopic black holes that may, someday, be coaxed into birthing new universes on a lab bench. Shall we children of Earth then have at our disposal the power of a G-d? We better wise up fast, if that is in our future.
There is more, and more of a more pressing matter in view of our carelessness with the relatively feeble energies of fission and fusion. From LHC is likely to come the production of significant quantities of antimatter. That stuff will make the power of Teller’s Super Bomb look like a Forth of July sparkler if some careless lab tech bumps into a chair and drops the beaker on the floor. Matter and antimatter annihilate each other with a release of energy that dwarfs the potential of a giant star’s implosion and explosive radiance as a supernova.
Still, there is even more to awe ourselves into humility in the face of our inventiveness. Far below the almost unimaginable energies emerging from the birth of all we now can know, is the subtle ebb and flow of simple, organic chemistry, and the fundamentals of life. Recently, Craig Ventner’s team (the good folks that helped map the Human Genome) created the Earth’s first synthetic organism. It was just a very simple bacterium, and by no means the creation of life from scratch at Human hands. Nonetheless, the achievement was a signpost on the way to the day, coming soon, when our computers will control machine chemistry labs… and what will issue from those petri dishes will be Life born not of Nature directly, but through Human ingenuity and intention. We’ll be playing G-d, indeed.
So, here in the realm of The Living, we encounter the same issues as with nuclear tech and advanced physics. Can we be trusted with our own tech, or will it be our undoing? A generation or so ago, it was unthinkable that a teenager might have a computer capable of bringing a government agency such as NASA to its knees, or that a media savvy hacker might steal away and then reveal secret State Department documents to the world. But, that is now happening, and we can see the results. So, what happens when some kid in the Ukraine or Spokane, WA decides to make his own bugs? What happens when a maniacal tyrant figures that nukes are old fashioned, and would rather see a prolonged plague on his list of achievements, as opposed to a swift annihilation of his perceived enemies?
Yup… it’s time for our species to grow up.