“THE AGE OF CONNECTIONS:
THE PAST DECADE OF INNOVATIONS AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS”
The last 10 years
|This is a windpark in Galicia, Spain. In 2010, windpower produced 16% of Spain’s energy needs. Spain is the fourth largest wind energy producer in the world, following the United States, Germany, and China.|
What are the most important human developments of the past decade? This question is almost certainly going to provoke argument and contention, since different people might have widely different ideas about what is most “important.” And our calculations of importance may factor in, to varying degrees, perceived impact on our lives now, in the current day, as well as forecasts of potential mid-range or long-range effects on human populations and on the rest of our ecosystem, including other organisms (plants, animals, etc.), the earth’s atmosphere, oceans and water supplies, climate and weather systems, and overall resources.
Many important developments were actually refinements or new applications of older technologies. Satellite technologies allow you to pinpoint your exact location on the earth, and new imaging techniques allow you to zoom in on your house from space. Music is downloadable, with a pocket-sized player holding thousands of songs. Technologies trying to free us from the tyranny of petroleum dependence in our energy needs are being developed. We have now mapped the human genome, and we are exploring other planets and other moons in our solar system. And, after years of debate and controversy, there is growing consensus that our emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels are creating a serious global warming over time.
This list of these events is intended to be controversial; it is likely that many of you would pick some different things than we did.
This time period sets the stage for our future destiny as a species and for the destiny of the rest of the planet.
“WHERE THE HECK ARE WE?”
WIDESPREAD USE OF GPS & SATELLITE IMAGING
One of the major everyday practical benefits of the space program (besides Teflon!) has been the use of orbiting satellites for global communication (satellite TV, weather forecasting, long-distance phone calls) as well as being able to find out precisely where you are on the earth. By triangulating your position with a global positioning device (now built into most modern cell phones), using at least four GPS satellites, you can presently pinpoint your location to astonishing degree of precision and tell what time it is. And with such tools as Google Earth, you can see detailed satellite images of your house, your street, cities, and natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest.
“CH-CH-CH-CH-CHANGES, TURN AND FACE THE STRAIN…”
OVERPOPULATION & CLIMATE CHANGE
Human population on the Earth has increased dramatically in the last 200 years. From a mere 1 billion people in the year 1800, the number of people rose to over 1.5 billion by 1900, and now has climbed to almost 7 billion today. Some projections estimate that the world population could reach 10.5 billion by the year 2050, which would be a 50% rise in just 40 or so years. This population increase is primarily due to more efficient food-growing and food-distribution technologies as well as new medical advances such as antibiotics. And all of these people, with all of their needs for food, energy, transportation, and goods in our modern mechanized world, are currently straining the world’s resources and drastically affecting world climate. This acceleration cannot be sustained in the long run: famine, drought, disease, warfare, and political turmoil will take their toll on societies living too close to the edge, that have too many people to survive a major catastrophe on a planet with a quickly warming climate, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and drastic climatic events (such as the ‘epidemic’ we have been experiencing of extreme droughts, terrible hurricanes, and raging floods). Controlling the world’s population and our effect on the Earth’s climate will be major challenges to the human species in the future.
The world’s present energy needs are primarily met by the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels. Gas, oil, and coal are burned to power engines, heat your house, and produce electricity. Not only does this increase the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, a cause of global warming, but these are non-renewable resources. It is estimated that the vast stores of these resources will be all but depleted in the next century or two. Nuclear energy is another source currently used, based on the fission of uranium isotopes. The future of nuclear energy may hold great potential, but it has already been shown to be dangerous in the case of a malfunction or if not properly monitored (as in the case of Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobol in the Ukraine). Nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste that must be disposed of and can be deadly for hundreds of years, and nuclear reactors can also be used by countries to develop weapons-grade uranium, or become potential sites of terrorism.
“WHO ARE YOU?”
THE HUMAN GENOME PROJECT
In the nucleus of every one of your body cells is all of the information that is needed to theoretically make another copy or clone of yourself. This information is found in your 23 pairs of chromosomes (one of each pair inherited from your mother and one from your father). The first sequencing of a complete human genome was accomplished in June of 2000. This research revealed that the DNA making up your chromosomes contains approximately 3 billion base-pairs organized into around 25,000 genes that code for proteins. It also appeared that perhaps 97 percent of the genetic code had no apparent function (sometimes called “junk DNA”).
RECENT ADVANCES IN ASTRONOMY
This is a great time to be an astronomer. New telescopes, new unmanned probes to other planetary bodies, and new analytical techniques are rapidly increasing our understanding of the cosmos and its origins. The Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and a number of probes to other planetary bodies in the solar system, and the powerful Hubble Telescope have virtually revolutionized our view of the cosmos, and we can expect many more exciting discoveries in the future.
STEM CELL & RELATED RESEARCH
Stem cells are fertilized embryonic cells that have not yet differentiated into specialized body cells (e.g. bone, muscle, heart, fat, tendon, brain). Recent research has indicated that these stem cells have great potential in the treatment and possible cure of a variety of human ailments such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s Diseases. Stem cells can be directed to develop into specific types of body cells. There has been controversy associated with stem cell research, as some people have regarded these fertilized embryos as the beginnings of human life. Others argue that these stem cells are an invaluable tool for the benefit of humankind.
“KEEP ON SEARCHIN”
WIDESPREAD USE OF SEARCH ENGINES
The ability to do research and ferret out important or obscure information has never been easier, largely due to web search engines that allow you to enter key words or concepts and even ask questions. Search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, Bing, Ask, and in China, Baidu, have revolutionized the way students, professional scholars, journalists, politicians, and the general public can find things out. Web search engines allow the user to find appropriate web sites for the subject, to mine information from databases, and to access images, video clips, songs, maps, news, online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, books, scholarly articles, stores, and so on. And the list keeps on growing.
“SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIENDS”
THE RISE OF NANOTECHNOLOGY
Nanotechnology is an aspect of material science that deals with structures that are less than 100 nanometers in size (a nanometer is one-millionth of a millimeter). For comparison, the thickness of a human hair is about 50 microns (or 1/20th of a millimeter), or 50,000 nanometers. Nanotechnology can be applied to a range of purposes, including industry, medicine, and other types of research. It is basically concerned with manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale.
“HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE…”
INSTANTANEOUS COMMUNICATION & WORLD-WIDE CONNECTIONS
Although portable cell phones and computers have been around for the last several decades, it is only in the last ten years that they have become a much more valuable everyday tool. With wireless connection, these devices can be used for email, connect to the internet, telephone anywhere around the world, have video face-to-face telephone calls, find out exactly where you are, do your banking, pay your bills, check the weather, check what movies are playing in town (and how they were reviewed), take pictures or videos, find maps to route you, read major newspapers, look things up on an on-line encyclopedia or dictionary, keep in touch by instant messaging (such as “twittering”), plan and organize social movements and protests, download and play music, keep your daily calendar, check the stock market, etc. etc. Such versatility in a pocket-sized device would have been unheard of just a few years ago.
“LIVING FOR THE FUTURE”
THE IDEA OF SUSTAINABILITY
Sustainability has been described as “the capacity to endure.” This is a big question, what human population levels and overall level of resource use will our fragile planet be able to endure? It is becoming apparent to many scientists and world leaders that the human species is living beyond its income. We cannot sustain the rate at which we consume fossil fuels. Sustainability would include population control, alternative energy sources, the preservation of important natural resources such as forests and wetlands, maintaining natural ecosystems of plants and animals, the reuse and recycling of the resources that we use, reversing the enormous extinction rates occurring today (estimated to be thousands of times greater than the average over the course of the evolution of life), constructing energy-efficient buildings made of ecologically friendly materials, and consuming local rather than imported foods.