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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Column: The middle children

“We are the middle children of history.”  This iconic line from the movie Fight Club was right on the money, but not in the sense that Tyler Durden meant it.  It is the year 2012, and humanity is stagnant. Our generation is in a chronological sweet spot; we were born too late to explore the world, and we were born too early to explore the universe.

The first cell phone was released in 1973.  Sure, our phones now have 4G connections, gigabytes of memory and large color displays and can give us access to any piece of information on the internet in an instant, but at their core, they are still cumbersome handheld devices.

The Ford Model-T came off the production lines 104 years ago.  Even with all our technological advances, the modern car still rolls on four wheels and combusts hydrocarbons to get from A to B. The space shuttle was designed and built in 1972, 40 years ago this year. After all that time, hardly any major innovations have been made in the systems that bring humans and cargo to orbit.

And I am disappointed. There is no one place where we can point a finger to the reason for this stagnation. Times change, regimes change, administrations change, and with them, so do goals, budgets and mission statements. The efforts of the modern superpowers have been focused on maintaining the status quo in an oil-based economy. Political races have degenerated into flat-out lying and mudslinging. Politicians themselves are more concerned with simply getting reelected than actually making a difference.

What happened to the 1960s when we had our sights set on the stars? If someone from 1960 were transported forward in time to 2012, what would they expect to see change in the intervening 52 years? Space colonization? Hovering cars? Rejuvenation technologies keeping everyone young? Cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, or the common cold? These ideas were not just science fiction fantasies to scientists in the past; they were goals meant to be met.

When our time traveler learned that none of these have been achieved, they would ask the same questions that I am asking right now: What happened? Why?

In a recent interview, Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who provided the original funding for Facebook, commented on the fact that Warren Buffet invested over $40 billion in 2009, and he invested it in a railroad … a railroad that carries coal.

In his New York Times article “Where are the jobs?” columnist David Brooks says, “There has been a loss of utopian élan.” The current sentiment leans more towards dystopian. Another striking observation is that although there has been an explosion of environmentalism and environmental technology, that green ethos has in effect stifled the development of “big science.”  The most recent big science project is the Large Hadron Collider at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), and that was started in 1998.

It was big science that created the nuclear reactor. It was big science that created particle accelerators to further our understanding of the universe. Big science gave us RADAR, and it mapped the human genome, and it gave us LASERS that are being used to research fusion energy at the National Ignition Facility. These big projects are where the true advances exist.

Although it is painful to admit, many of the great advances in human history have been made during times of conflict and war. Need leads to an end, and there is little need.  We are not in World War III, we are not at risk of invasion and there is no longer a threat of “mutually assured destruction.”

There is something to be said about the human condition if our greatest advances come at times when the threat of death is imminent. What we need is a change of perspective. While death by war is a faraway possibility for most researchers and scientists, humanity will face a much larger threat than war if we do not find new ways to sustain ourselves.

HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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