Wednesday, March 2, 2011


A good portion of my hope for the human species these days rests with developments in science and technology. This new century (and millennium), now entering its second decade, is undeniably a period of phenomenal change, of new things arising and familiar things falling away. Very often these things perishing or undergoing change, as all impermanent things must (including ideas), bring equal amounts of pain as they do pleasure in their passing. That anguish is greatest for those who cling to the past because they have invested so heavily (their livelihoods, careers, even their sense of identity) in things that are at best transitory, particularly during intense historical periods that compress (social) paradigm shifts and technological developments so far-reaching one is tempted to compare them to the movement of tectonic plates that alter continents and reshape the surface of the earth. Old and often cherished ideas and ways of life die; new experiences arise and require a new vocabulary, a new grammar, and a new vision.

For example, a glance at the thirty years between 1895 and 1925 discloses a startling shift from the horse-and-carriage world of my great-grandparents (who lived a hairsbreadth from slavery and when the average life expectancy was forty-seven years in 1902) to one in which the era of the Victorians ended, quantum mechanics provided a deeper understanding of matter than Classical or Newtonian physics, and new forms of art emerged----poetry’s free-verse movement, the revolt against formalism, the paintings of Picasso. New philosophical and conceptual models took hold.

During a very short time 100 years ago, our lives filled with the all too familiar “furniture” of the 20th century. Just three dizzying decades produced such forms as the airplane, radio, modern naval submarine, diesel engine, typewriter, electric iron, talking pictures, television, x-rays, zippers, and the calculating machine; all this and more came into being and restructured the possibilities of our lives.

However, even that period of accelerated change seems lethargic when compared to the tempestuous moment we find ourselves immersed in at the beginning of this new century. Given the sequencing of DNA, and the exponential progress in such fields as biotechnology, robotics,  nanotechnology and the remarkable development of bio-printing, our grandchildren may live in a world as experientially different from the 20th century as our time is from, say, the 18th. As a species, we have sent probes to Mars, Venus, comet Tempel 1, and to objects in the outer solar system like Saturn’s moon Titan---all with the aim of clarifying the origins of our universe and delivering knowledge unknown to our predecessors. (A company with the wonderful name Genetic Savings and Clone, sadly now defunct, once offered to duplicate your cat for only $50,000). “Chimeras,” creatures genetically engineered with the traits of two species---florescent animals, for example---are already among us. Three years ago, scientists achieved “quantum teleportation,” the transfer of physical characteristics between atoms. Scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider have crashed proton beams, one step toward recreating the conditions in the universe just after the Big Bang. And President Obama has promised a manned mission to Mars in twenty years as well as calling for ramping up our nation's investment in education devoted to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Scientist Greg Wray describes the situation well when he says, “People have this sense that as twenty-first century humans we’ve gotten as high as we’re going to go. But we’re not played out as a species. We’re still evolving…”

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