We live in amazing times. Consider this: only two hundred years ago, a French chemist named Pierre Adet confirmed that vinegar (5% acetic acid) and glacial acetic acid (100% acetic acid) are the same thing. Just a hundred years ago, we discovered the atom and the theory of relativity. Things are speeding up. Rapidly.
The future is now. New technologies are redefining what we thought possible in medicine and physics. Researchers have now found that you can teach a mouse a simple trick, and then by adding hydrogen sulfide - previously thought to be a toxic and noxious gas, and only recently discovered to be an important small inorganic signaling molecule - and moving all the oxygen, you can keep the mouse in a state of suspended animation, essentially indefinitely. The mouse can be in the middle of its trick, undergo suspended animation, and be at a state of zero metabolic activity for hours, and then when normal atmosphere is resumed, it resumes the trick exactly where it left off.
Or consider this: metamaterials have been found that can bend various wavelengths of light around an object, essentially creating what is affectionately known as a cloaking device. Such devices need to be patterned at 1/10 the scale of the frequency of the light they interact with, and so for visible light, that's on the order of 30-70 nm - the scale of viruses. Making visible light metamaterials out of viruses was what I wrote my NSF research proposal on two years ago.
And as I write this on my porch on a very hot Fourth of July, Facebook is blowing up about finding the Higgs Boson, which is the particle that gives other particles mass, and thus gives rise to gravity. It was the final particle required by the Standard Model, which is a subset of the Grand Unified theory, which is an intermediate step towards the Theory of Everything. As the squawks and counter-squawks go back and forth about it, my friend was quick to point out that it is simply 'consistant with the behavior of Higgs Boson, within five-sigmas.' Five sigmas means that there is a one in roughly 3.2 million chance that it's not it. Given the odds, I'm drunk on champagne. Let's be honest: I was anyway.
So the future, as we figure these things out, has the potential to be very, very cool. I'm geeking out of the future. And yet we are hurtling towards global catastrophe, rapidly, uncontrollably, like a drunk driver aware that he is drunk but driving 95 mph around Colorado mountain roads, yet recklessly decides to continue. One of these days, we're going to drive over the point of no return, and unless we decide collectively to slow down, sober up, and get to where we're going, many of us are going to die.
Why NOT fight to save ourselves? What have we got to lose from trying? I can only think that here is some deep-down hatred or fear that drives all of this self-destruction. We forget that as far as we know we are the only life in the universe, though for all that unlikeliness, it is likely very far away and this world is all we know. Let's face it: happy people are rarely drunk drivers. They know that it's dumb and that the consequences are dire. It is the unhappy ones that seem to decide the next millennia isn't worth seeing.
Looking around, I'm not surprised; I see a lot of those. Look at the news, look at the commercials. Look at the people on the street. I don't blame them, they have every reason to feel deeply uncomfortable with what civilization has become. It’s for them that I write this, because many of them are in positions of power and influence. We all are, in a way, as we cast our votes and decide how to spend our money. But those who would drive our planet toward unsustainability I ask: please, think about what you're doing to all of us.
High science requires a huge amount of infrastructure and resources to accomplish. Our analytical tools require precise engineering, exact purities of metal, and advanced minds dedicated to the understanding of how they work. That cannot happen in a civilization gasping for breath, or starving, or begging for water. It cannot happen without ready access to higher education for chemists, biologists, and engineers. It cannot happen when non-renewable resources run out and the foundries that purify our silicon for computer chips have no more coal or oil to fuel them. It cannot happen if our biosystems collapse and the food that sustains now 7 billion people can only sustain 500 million. These are real numbers put forth and it's roughly 92 out of every 100 people dead. It cannot happen if the water levels rise and displace millions. It cannot happen if we hate ourselves and each other in the name of ancient ideologies to kill each other. It cannot happen if we do nothing to help those that we elect do the very things they promise to change.
We are in the car of that drunk driver. Here in Ann Arbor and around the world, record heats, rainfalls, fire, storms are driving us to suffer on unprecedented scales. The signs are all around us. We are hurtling through the Mountains and approaching civilization’s Great Pass. If we do not stop, sober up, and let common sense and reason guide us, every passenger will die, and those that live will not recognize life as they know it. The sober, logical of us must let our voices be heard. We must insist on taking the keys away. We must let them know that this is entirely unacceptable, that our future is too precious to put in their hands, because someday, we want to float weightless among the stars.
About the Author
Chris Tom, Ph.D. Student, Chemical Biology
Published in: Student Voices