Fixing the mess
Being the issue the rescue of Mother Earth from irreversible ecological destruction, and restoration of The Sustainable Planet, to accomplish the task our grandchildren will need huge amounts of clean energy. Really clean energy. Fossil fuel will be out of question, because its impact on global warming. Nuclear power from Uranium and Plutonium fission unwanted, because is too much dangerous to our health. Other energy sources are ineffective or insufficient.
Almost all the energy produced on the earth surface is originated on the Sun. Oil, coal, and even wind power. Part of the internal heat comes indirectly from our star too, arising from gravitational movement. The rest of the heat comes from the decay of radioactive isotopes. The Sun produces its energy by nuclear fusion. Two nuclei of a heavy Hydrogen isotope brought together close enough, form a Helium nucleus. Since the Helium nucleus is lighter then the colliding nuclei, the mass difference is transformed in energy, according to the famous formula E=mc2 . Nuclear fusion is clean energy. A few kilograms of Hydrogen could supply electric power to an entire city for a long time, and the few kilograms of the inert noble gas created will anyway leave us for the upper atmosphere as soon as possible. We already produced this kind of energy: the H-bomb. Clean, indeed!
Do not blame Physics. Fusion is clean. We just do not use it the right way. A friend of mine said that nuclear power is the worst thing that happened to the human beings since the dawn of technology. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the Technological Human being is the worst thing that happened to nuclear power since the dawn of life on Earth. We mastered the nuclear fission about 60 years ago, and what have we done with it since then? Razed to the ground two Japanese cities, terrified the entire world for two generations, and piled the most powerful stock of poison ever existed. We mastered the nuclear fusion about 50 years ago, and what have we done with it? Terrified the entire world for two generations, destroyed the Bikini Atoll, and named … a swimsuit in Memory of it!
Well… perhaps I am a little bit cynic. After all we are doing also pacific use of nuclear fission: about half of the electric power in France comes from nuclear plants. Other nations make a similar, less extensive use of it. The point is, of course that we can harness the unhealthy nuclear fission in a controlled manner, but we cannot do the same with nuclear fusion.
The reason resides in the difference between the two highly exothermic reactions. In both processes matter is converted to pure energy, but where in fission the reaction is sustained by neutral particles (Neutrons) penetrating the nucleus of heavy elements, in fusion two positively charged light nuclei to merge must overcome the strong electromagnetic repulsion between them. In the A-bomb we make the fission going free, whether in the atomic reactor we withhold part of the neutrons, permitting the reaction to go slowly, or to stop altogether. The energy is there: we just decide whether curb it or set it free.
In nuclear fusion, on the other hand, we must give the Hydrogen atoms a great kinetic energy (equivalent to great velocity or temperature) in order to trigger the high-energy-yielding process. In Nature, in the Sun and other stars, the energy comes from the gravitational pressure of their huge mass. On Earth (at the present state of the art) we can do it only by imploding (exploding inward) an A-bomb on a Hydrogen-rich compound like Lithium Deuteride.
The ‘Cold Fusion’ is a scientific saga: it is the story of the attempts, made by serious scientists and by less serious … charlatans, to obtain nuclear fusion in the laboratory.
Think how wonderful will be to get energy at will with a micro-H-bomb in a test tube! But it is a tempest in a teacup: once in a while we hear for a few days of some fabulous breakthrough, until it is proven wrong, and the excitation subsides. Every time, at first hearing, the most serious scientists in the field lift an eyebrow but, surprisingly, nobody jumps up with a categorical “Impossible!”. Why? The reasons are Scientist’s Psychology and … Physics.
The Scientific Community has a strong ‘Esprit de corps’. Like every second lieutenant just out of WestPoint dreams to become the Chief of Staff, every scientist dreams to make a theoretical discovery like the Relativity or a practical innovation like the transistor. Not often somebody does it, and the Scientific Community reacts flattering the man: they feel he is one of them, after all. When something never seen before is discovered, the serious scientists ask two basic questions: “Is it impossible?” and “Is it false?”. They check. If the answer is “No” to both questions, then the answer is “Improbable, but true. Lets understand it better…” And they have plenty of work to do to refine the new discovery. Cold Fusion is not impossible by the strict point of view of theoretical Physics. Quantum Statistics and other sophisticate theories teach us that two Hydrogen nuclei naturally having the necessary energy to become Helium can meet even outside the core of stars, although the probability of such an encounter is extremely rare and, obviously, we cannot either catch the event in the happening, or get the resulting power for our use. What the scientists are trying to do is to give the Hydrogen nuclei the necessary kinetic energy the way the stars do: applying a strong pressure. Just squashing them together. Attempts have been made in recent years with an innovative workbench device: the Diamond Anvil Cell. Scientists obtained with this equipment a pressure comparable to that at the center of the Earth which, unfortunately, is still short by two or three order of magnitude of what we need: a pressure alike that at the center of a small star or a planet greater than Jupiter. Others are trying to apply ultrasonic energy or more exotic fonts of power, and concentrate them as far as possible. Meanwhile the work is without success, which does not mean that somebody will not find sooner or later the real breakthrough to make… the H-bomb in the test tube. We are waiting…
In parallel with the sophisticate efforts made in the laboratory, we are trying also the other way: brute force. The name of the game is Plasma Confinement.
Plasma is the forth state of matter (the others are, of course, solid, liquid an gas). The flame, the inside of a fluorescent neon lamp and the lightning are examples of plasma, a gas composed of atoms stripped of their electrons. Hydrogen plasma is basically a cloud of protons. Theoretically we could achieve controlled nuclear fusion if we succeed in compressing Hydrogen plasma to make the nuclei close enough for enough time to react.
Scientist tried two methods to achieve plasma confinement. The first is the Tokamak, where a Hydrogen beam is accelerated around a ring and focused by huge electromagnets. The method is very expensive and can be sustained only by public money. In recent years the government cut the budget and the future of Tokamak fusion is waning. Some hope still remains because of new technical advancements that succeeded in producing plasma with about 80% the energy needed to obtain nuclear fusion. We can presume that in the not-so-far future further technological advancements will help to achieve, at last, experimental controlled fusion, and bring renewed government funds to implement the achievement on a larger scale.
The same rationale is good for the second method: Laser Driven Inertial Confinement Fusion. Here scientists use a laser to deliver millions of joules of energy for a few nanoseconds to the surface of a hydrogen pellet. The hydrogen atom are ‘kicked’ toward the center of the sphere at very high speed, but they stop each another causing the temperature and density to increase for a brief moment to extremely high values, very close, at the present state of the art, to those needed for controlled nuclear fusion.
The Tokamak, Lasers beams and perhaps even the diamond anvil story tell us that the Controlled Nuclear Fusion is at hands. In a matter of a few years, a couple of decades the most, the scientists will obtain the process on pilot-plant scale. Presumably we will need ten-twenty years more to make it the main source of clean energy for the world. Around 2050 Controlled Nuclear fusion could be the energy source of choice, if we understand till then, of course, that we have not a different choice to survive the ecological holocaust we are bringing to ourselves with the use of ‘dirty’ energy.
At the end of Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” the ‘Nautilus’ is dragged inside a huge whirlpool, along the northern coasts of Norway: Maëlstrom, the revenge of Mother Earth over the human technology.
Our heroes, of course, escape to tell us the story…
Let’s play Trivia. What’s the greatest waterfall of them all? Niagara Falls? Angel Falls (Venezuela)? Victoria Falls (Africa)? Perhaps Tyssestrengene Falls (Norway)?
Wrong answer! You will never find the greatest waterfall on any geographic almanac, because it has no name.
It is 3.5 km high (more than Angel), has a flow rate of 5,000,000 cubic meters per second (20 times the Amazon River) and is situated… under the Denmark Straits, between Greenland and Iceland, not so far from Verne’s imaginary Maëlstrom.
The place is known mostly because on its surface DKM Bismarck sunk HMS Hood during WW II, but it could be famous in the future for a totally different reason.
Under the surface of the oceans the seafloor is uneven: most of it lies flat a few kilometers under the sea level; here and there it deeps down in abyssal trenches; in other places there are long mountain ridges. One of them connects Greenland to Iceland, like a dam between the Arctic Ocean and the deeper North Atlantic basin. The dam is ‘flawed’ by a submarine valley. Through it the dense Arctic waters pour into the Atlantic Deep as a giant cataract, 200 m wide and the same as thick. The cold dark raging torrent flows in the opposite direction than the warm Gulf Stream, replenishing steadily the Atlantic Ocean with chilly waters.
At the beginning of this chapter I affirmed that, besides nuclear and fossil fuel power, other energy sources are ineffective or insufficient. This is not entirely true. We make broad use of hydroelectric power, damming rivers and lakes and exploiting the kinetic energy of falling water, to spin turbines and electricity generators. The construction of big dams has been always an engineering challenge; here I present a huge challenge, a fantasy perhaps: the “Denmark-Straits Electrical Energy Project” (DEEP).
The idea is to build a series of watertight turbine-driven generators, all along the oceanic valley, a few hundred meters under the surface. Waterproof wires will bring the never-ending generated electric power to the coast, and there…
…well, that’s the point. What the hell will the Greenlanders do with it? The Icelanders don’t need it too; they produce enough geothermal power from their geysers…
Hydroelectric power has indeed a drawback. Although it is very efficient, we need to bring it long distances from the production plants to the consumers. We have still to develop efficient meanings to bring it to the other side of the globe. Another disadvantage is, of course, that its use for mobile devices (cars) is quite cumbersome.
I know that the DEEP project will never be considered by anyone (I’m not that naïve!), I am just using it to make some considerations. The reader is invited to join me.
The quest for energy is without doubt the most important challenge of the human species: if you have energy, you can do all the rest. We know of two ways to get energy: the sophisticate ‘creation’ of it from matter, and the more conventional exploitation of natural sources of it. Regarding ‘creation of energy’, we already saw that nuclear fission is very dangerous and unhealthy, and controlled nuclear fusion is not yet at hand, at the present state of art. Until we have it, we must rely upon the exploitation of the natural resources. We use mostly the chemical energy stored in fossil fuels (oil and coal) and the kinetic energy of moving and falling fluids (water and wind). Since the invention of the generator, we transform the extracted energy into electric power. As far as I know only in ‘Back to the future’ a natural electric power source (lightning) has been used directly for powering a car. It is interesting to note that we barely make ‘technological’ use of the two most diffuse forms of energy existing around us: the intrinsic heat of the oceanic water mass and the energy from solar radiation. Of course Mother Nature is smarter: she manages the global weather with the first and Photosynthesis with the last. And she does it in a recyclable manner.
We use more efficient forms of power, which, unfortunately, are ruining our environment in the long range. We use ‘dirty’ forms of energy. We must. But we can ‘clean’ them a little and, mostly, we can try more to use more appropriate sources of energy, according to the specific needs.
The name of the game is, again, sharing by international cooperation. It is possible, just willing, to produce clean hydroelectric energy in places were there is plenty of flowing waters and to bring the power where needed. One good example of such cooperation is the Iguassù project. Brazil put in most of the money for its realization, but the electric power is shared with Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay as well. My vision is that in the future the developed countries will undertake projects as DEEP and develop meanings to store the energy and to bring it in some ‘environmental-friendly’ form, whenever needed around the world. Image this future idyllic picture: people sailing to visit DEEP in a no-more-needed repainted undersea nuclear warfare ship named…Nautilus. A yellow submarine!
Imagine all the people sharing all the world...You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you'll join us, and the world will live as one (John Lennon).
The human psychology has its strange sides. We show empathy for the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable. There is nothing wrong with that, but in parallel we feel envy and harshness for the strong, the wealthy and the powerful, though without a good reason, if he is doing nothing wrong. Our behavior is frequently dictated by the commonplaces of the society around us: “If most people think he is a bad guy, it must be right”… which is not necessarily the truth or, more properly, the “truth” might change together with the changing society. The more time passes, the less we understand the behavior of our ancestors and we must count only on History. Unfortunately historians, who are subjected to the same commonplaces, write the History…
This is an alternative record for the History, concerning the “Media Mogul” Ted Turner, one of the richest men in the world, also the biggest landowner in the USA.
A few years ago, visiting Yellowstone National Park, Turner learned about the federal wolf reintroduction program, an effort to transplant wild wolves from Canada back in a region where they faced extinction. The touched billionaire soon founded TESF (Turner Endangered Species Fund), a non-profit organization aimed in restoring wildlife on Turner’s properties and adjacent public lands. In the short span of five years, the found is saving from extinction a few tenths of endangered species all over the USA. The effort is much more significant of what it seems at first glance because, in order to restore wild life, it is not enough to bring in your ranch a few prairie dogs and set them go free. You have to restore their environment as a whole: the land, the grass, the sources of food for them and … coyotes to feed on them. An animal in the wild means his entire Ecosystem.
Turner and his fellows understood it quite well. The TESF gathers together scientists from the academic world as well as skilled farmers. Solid scientific knowledge and theories are quite fine, but there is nothing better than the lifetime experience of a field-man. Both sides have different approaches to the same problems, and trying to solve them as a team produces a synergic effect: together they achieve a better result than the sum of what each one of them would have attained, working alone.
At TESF scientists, farmers, economists and other advisers are working together in the common effort to make the next Western picture: “… and they lived happily ever after in the West”, featuring Ted Turner as the art director, the producer and the leading-role actor.
Some people say, though, that Turner’s motivations are not so innocent. At TESF they study quails, because Turner likes to hunt them… he his by far the biggest bison rancher in the USA, but sells the meat to make… bison burgers. So what is wrong with that? Didn’t the American Indians hunt the bison to have their daily beefsteak? Buffalo Bill hunted them for fun. Selling bison meat raises money to pay for the wildlife projects. Look at the whole operation as a plain example of a self-sustainable wildlife environment, with financial sustenance as an integral part of it.
The work TESF is doing is the precursor of a pragmatic philosophy that will be applied in even large scale by the following generations, when more and more people understand that the time is come to restore our lost environment not by words, but by deeds. Global restoration needs global effort, which can be reached only with the cooperation between government authorities. Unfortunately bureaucratic departments act frequently as watertight compartments. International cooperation is even more difficult, because of the regional political interests involved. Here is where a private entrepreneur can do much more. Acting as a task-force leader, he can outflank the slow-moving bureaucracy. He can also set the following generations an example: like Gedeon in the Book of Judges: “What you shall see me do, do you the same”.
Perhaps not everybody likes the way loners act. Some people will say that Turner dances with the wolves for a fistful of dollars. There are many ways to achieve a goal… the good, the bad… the ugly, perhaps… I do not care if he is getting a few dollars more, as far as he brings the Wild West back to a better future…
There are serious reasons of concern about the Plutonium disposal facilities. Hoping that even evil association will be reluctant to handle such a dangerous waste material, not good enough to make atomic bombs readily, concomitant or subsequent natural catastrophes might still cause a world wide spreading of the Plutonium oxide.
We need a better place for it, the sooner the better.
Among the solutions you probably heard about the proposal of sending it into the Outer Space. At first glance the method is quite obvious: all you have to do is putting it in huge missiles aimed straight up and given enough thrust to overcome the Earth’s gravity. We already have the technology. But this solution is expensive, impractical and hardly smart.
It is expensive and impractical because we are talking about a payload (Plutonium + the heavy protective container) weighting as all the satellites sent in a high orbit since the beginning of the Space Era. We certainly cannot send all the existing Plutonium in the outer space by a single launch. We will need many thousands of huge and expensive rockets, and one single Challenger-like accident is enough to doom our work… you know… one payload of Plutonium well dispersed in the atmosphere by the explosion will do the job much better than a slow leak from any disposal facility.
A better solution is to find some suitable place on Earth. We have that place: the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The late Charles D. Hollister of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) first proposed the contingency plan.
The Plate Tectonic theory teaches us that the Earth’s continents are immense plates of rock floating on fluid hot magma. They slide slowly one by another. The continental edges, where they collide or separate, are the seismic and volcanic active regions. Among them you certainly heard of the “Fire Ring” all around the Pacific Ocean. But right in the middle, hundred of miles far from the edges, the continental plates are seismically inert. There the risk of earthquakes or volcanic activity is practically nil. The Central-Pacific oceanic plate is basically a huge submerged continent, laying four kilometers under water. The seabed is composed of a thick, solidified mud. All we have to do is to drill deep holes in it, put the Plutonium cases there and seal the burrow with small conventional explosions. The near-surface mud has an additional bonus: it is sticky. Even if the radioactive Plutonium leaks out, it will remain trapped in situ. It will take a thousand years before it spread a few meters, still deep under the Ocean.
A similar, though opposite approach, is to bury the radioactive containers deep near subduction faults at the continental-plate edges. The idea is that the surface rock will slowly plunge into the hot Earth’s Mantel. To my modest advice this approach is less promising, for a couple of reasons: we need to bore much deeper holes in an almost melted hot rock (have we that technology?). The crust subsiding movement is too slow: there is the risk that a volcanic eruption will bring the radioactive waste again up to surface, and mostly, once the Plutonium is down in the magma, there is no way to monitor its position.
Anyway or the other, we have to find a better way to quarantine for good the radioactive waste threat, the sooner the better.
In 1877 G.V. Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, observed dark greenish stripes on the surface of Mars. He called them “canali”. Though the most accurate translation of “canali” would have been “channels”, which means natural or man-made waterways, it instead got translated to “canals”, which means man-made trenches, generally filled with water. With the recent completion of the Suez Canal the interpretation was taken that large scale artificial structures had been discovered. The plain analogy spoke for evidence of intelligent life on Mars. The excitement over the canals on Mars took hold particularly of the young astronomer P. Lowell, who became famous later for a much serious matter: the seeking for the trans-Neptunian planet, Pluto. Schiaparelli himself remained skeptical of claims that these canals were artificial. Perhaps he thought that another compatriot, Giuseppe Verdi, had already realized the best fantasy around the Suez Canal inauguration, and what a great one: the “Aida”!
Lowell’s conviction, about an intelligent and technological advanced culture on the Red Planet, is another example how sometimes good fantasy can produce and influence bad science. After the discovery of the “canali” even scholars accepted the idea that Martians really exist and, since they live on a planet named after the Roman god of war, they surely are evil people and will soon leave their barren home to conquer our ocean-rich planet.
In more recent years a better telescope resolution, spacecraft explorations and rigorous analysis of the Martian surface brought to more conservative conclusions. The channels are natural structures carved billion of years ago by water or, as written in recent studies, by liquid carbon dioxide. The greenish color is a mere artifact, surely not vegetation. If life had been or is on Mars, it is assumed to be at most microbes. The sole questionable ‘proof’ coming from a meteorite found in Antarctica.
Although Martians digging huge canals is most probably mere fantasy, Hearthlings might soon find it a real necessity here on Earth. The rise of the mean surface temperature caused by the greenhouse effect, exacerbated by fossil fuel burning and forest destruction, will favor the expansion of desert areas. The Sahara will nibble the savanna in the south and perhaps cross the Mediterranean Sea in the north. Italy and other South Europe regions might soon resemble the North African nations. With a mere expansion of 1-2% the Sahara-Arabian desert will cover all of the Holy Land and Lebanese coast and take over Mesopotamia. Even if we stop destroying the tropical forest, it will take too long for it to recover and reverse the greenhouse effect. We, or better our grandchildren, will be forced to take active actions to stop the spreading of deserts. The only way to do so is to bring in water. The ideas are hardly new. Here one brought to my attention by an Australian friend of mine:
At about the same time of Schiapparelli’s discover, the Australian parliament rejected a project to dig a 400 km long canal from the Southern Ocean to lake Eyre.
Apart from Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent in the world. About 35 per cent of the continent receives so little rain, it is effectively desert. In total, 70 per cent of the mainland receives less than 500mm of rain annually, making it arid or semi-arid. The land is thirsty, but good land. In the middle of a depression, under the sea level, in the southern part of the country lays Lake Eyre, the largest of Australia. It is a shallow salty lake, with variable surface area. It is evaporating constantly and is periodically refilled by avaricious rivers and rare rainfalls of a hydrographic basin large about one tenth of the continent.
The project spoke about cutting a canal from Spencer Gulf and through Lake Torrens, the second largest, also salty and variable lake of Australia. The idea was to create a large internal sea, like the Caspian Sea. Naïve meteorologists thought that evaporation from the internal sea would create rain clouds all over the central Australian desert, transforming it in a fertile area. The Australian parliament rejected the proposal because of the high cost, and later scientists argued that it wouldn’t have archived the goal anyway for two reasons: first, there is no substantial evidence that clouds form over an internal sea in a desert region. If so, the region around the Red Sea should be a fertile one, and it is certainly not. Second, the canal will bring in so much salty oceanic water, which will transform in a few years Lake Eyre in the biggest salt quarry of the world. And salt is good if we enjoy seasoned green lettuce, but won’t let us enjoy Green Seasons.
If the project is re-proposed in the future, the engineers will have to consider also desalination of the oceanic water on its way to the Eyre, if they think to use it for irrigation.
So far for the central and southern part of Australia. What about the northern desert?
Here an idea I found on the Internet. It might seem curious at first glance:
North of the Australian continent lays New Guinea, the world’s second largest island. It is scarcely populated; only 0.1 percent of its surface is devoted to arable land. New Guinea is one of the wettest spots on Earth, its annual rainfall ranging from 2,000 to over 10,000mm. Its mountains and hills are almost entirely covered with a thick tropical forest and the lowlands with swamps. A few rivers compose the drainage system, the largest being the Fly River. It runs in the southeast and pours its unused waters into the Coral Sea. The Fly, among the greatest 25 rivers in the world, is very rich in water. Its outflow is twenty times that of the Darling-Murray, the largest Australian river; in fact more than the combined outflow of all Australian rivers.
The author of the article, a scientist from Sri Lanka, proposes to dam the Fly River and to bring part of its fluent waters to Australia, by a long 150 km tunnel laid under the Torres Straits, to Queensland and by aqueducts and irrigation canals to the entire area around Gulf of Carpentaria. A fertile North-Australian desert could accommodate tens of millions people from some third-world’s overcrowded country like Bangladesh.
I have my doubts whether this proposal will be taken seriously by anyone ever. The Australian friend of mine said that the author has a very superficial understanding of the Northern Australia climate. I assume that my friend knows it better. By a technical point of view, the effort needed is not much challenging than that done to accomplish the Aswan-Lake Nasser or the Iguassù project. The major drawback will be objection by local people. I am far from sure whether someone can convince the New Guinea residents, either from Indonesia and Papua, to destroy one of the last untouched natural paradises on Earth. Perhaps they will consent, knowing that the works will bring to them also electric power and plenty of arable land. Still, perhaps the author of the article is a little too much ‘wishful thinking’ that the Australian taxpayers will be ready to spend a lot of money to… accommodate a large population of strangers and became a minority in their own land!
Sorry, not finished yet !
(This paragraph will tell the sad story of the introdiction of the Nile Perch into Lake Victoria. The intentions were good. The results… God forbid!).
Archimedes had a tough thought problem: Geron, the tyrant of Syracuse, gave a pound of pure gold to his goldsmith, to make a sacred golden crown. When he received it, he suspected that the goldsmith substituted part of the gold with a less precious metal. The crown weighted a pound, and looked pure gold, so how could he possibly know, without melting it, if the goldsmith was cheating him? He submitted the problem to the Court Engineer. Archimedes thought a lot, without success. Finally he gave up and decided to take a break. He went to the swimming pool and thought to himself: “To the Ades (Hell) with that stupid, heavy crown, in such a hot day! Here I fill so fresh and light! … Just a minute, … light? … humm… Eureka!”. He went out of the pool and run stark naked in the streets of Syracuse to tell Geron about the buoyancy law: “A solid immersed in a liquid loses a weight equal to the weight of the displayed liquid… etc…”
Archimedes had his moment of glory, and we can imagine what happened to the cheating goldsmith…
I admit that my version is slightly different from the Vitruvius’ classic story, but it is anyway the best-known example of serendipity, the way a trained mind makes a great scientific achievement, thanks to a fortuitous event. We can look at it also as another example of the synergic effect: to discover the buoyancy law we needed the three things together: 1. The swimming pool, 2. The crown problem and, of course, … 3. Archimedes.
Two of them would have been not enough: Archimedes had been in the pool many times before, without discovering the law, and … what a golden crown could have achieved … alone in the water?
The History of Science is full of serendipity examples: Sir Isaac Newton discovered the Gravity Law, while sitting under a tree. Byron immortalized the event in ‘Don Juan’:
“And this is the sole mortal who could grapple
Since Adam, with a fall, or with an apple”.
We don’t know whether the apple fell on his head or not. Possibly he said just “Ouch!” when struck by the new discovery…
Kary Mullis invented the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) one warm evening in May of 1983. He was driving his car at that time on the Highway 128, California. He reported that the exact words he said for his ‘Eureka!’ moment were: "Holy Shit!".
Archimedes, Newton and Mullis are like jumps over the water pit in the 3000 m. steeplechase run. Once in a while high and far. Most of the time, though, science proceeds by short, slow, painstaking steps. One by one scientists put a brick over another to build the castle of human knowledge. We had and we will have in the future both type of scientific advancement. Sometimes wise men have a wonderful idea that cannot be implemented because it foreruns its times. It might be and might be not the fruit of a scientific mind: Leonardo da Vinci devised the parachute and the battle-tank 400 years before their practical realization, and Jules Verne’s heroes flew to the moon and sailed around the globe in the nuclear submarine ‘Nautilus’ much before real astronauts and brave sailors did for real. We can expect that some of the futuristic ideas as super-intelligent robots and interstellar trips might become reality during the XXI century, and that we will create new technologies we cannot even imagine by now. What could we achieve if we had them today! Just think of what Leonardo could have achieved with a desktop computer! … Don’t rush… the medal has another side: most probably, with a PC on is table, Leonardo would have never painted the “Gioconda”.
We don’t know what the future reserves to us. Perhaps it’s no good being ‘The man who knew too much’. Remember what Doris Day sung to her son in that movie? “Que serà serà”... still, even remaining with the feet on solid ground, we can foresee with good approximation what we will have almost for sure, extrapolating the present state of the art. It is a minimum, assuming (and not hoping) that the to-day sciences will evolve in total lack of serendipity and big jumps.
Enough with futuristic dreams. We have a big serious problem. To solve it the Human Species must relay mostly on hard and intelligent work. Optimistic secular scientists think that Serendipity might be of help. Believers that Celestial Wisdom will solve our problems, and Science-Fiction groupies will perhaps relay on someone in between the two: The Extraterrestrials…
The Greek tragedian Euripides devised the deus ex machina: a god, not involved earlier in the action, who descends in a stage machine to straighten out the mess humans have got themselves into.
Think of how wonderful it will be to have one for us right now. What about E.T.?
Extra-terrestrial life always fascinated the human kind. An entire branch of literature is dedicated to the issue: Science Fiction. Whether evil monsters or little cute green men, most of the extra-terrestrial of the stories are intelligent. More than that, they have a much more advanced technology than we have. Although this it is good mostly for leisure reading, scientists are thinking very seriously about ETI (Extra-terrestrial Intelligence). They have good reasons to do that. If Extra-terrestrials are indeed more advanced than we are, certainly they can teach us a lot. Besides this, there is the mere human curiosity to know if we are or not alone in the Universe. If we are doing good science, however, it is better to distinguish between facts and fantasy.
Scientists tried to ascertain what the real chances are of a close encounter of the third kind. In 1961 F. Drake formulated the number of Extra Terrestrial civilizations supposed to exist in the Milky Way. The Drake’s equation takes in account half a dozen factors, from the rate of star births to the fraction of intelligent living being that become technological, namely develop the capacity to communicate via radio with others civilizations outside their own planet.
Every factor is a number from zero to one, and reduces the probability, but, since there are so many stars in our galaxy, even a very conservative estimate considers the possibility that our galaxy is populated by a hundred Extra Terrestrial civilizations. More liberal estimates speak of a thousand, perhaps more ETI hanging around the Milky Way.
If there are so many Extra Terrestrials, why did not we meet any? The answer is: they did not get our message yet. We are transmitting our radio messages, at the speed of light, to the space for no more than a few decades. But only a handful stars are distant from us less than one hundred light-years. Even if some nearby star harbors ETI, and they got our messages, their answer might be still on its way back.
Will we still be here to get that answer? The last factor of the Drakes’ Equation multiplies the resulting fraction of technological civilization by the time such a civilization can survive.
We can extrapolate the value from only one single experience: ours. Our technological civilization is now a hundred years old, and in serious danger of disappearing. How long will we stay on Earth? Perhaps the answer is blowing in the Solar Wind.
My only hope is that when E.T. comes to pay us a visit at last, he will not ask himself: “Where are all the Humans gone?”.