In 2017, an astronomer, Jane Graves, at Cardiff University in the UK, found something unusual. It was so unexpected that she decided it was necessary to get other astronomers to verify what she found. This is the way science works best; people working together to make sure that what they are seeing is accurate.
What she found were indications that the molecule phosphine was in the upper atmosphere of Venus. This was remarkable because phosphine is usually produced as a by-product of some kind of living organism. Venus’ current atmosphere consists of high concentrations of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. Due to being closer to the sun and the presence of those gases, the temperature on Venus is about 900 degrees F. It was surprising to find possible signs of life in such a toxic environment.
Further study may be able to determine what kind of creature created this molecule. It certainly won’t be anything like a Wookiee or an Ewok. It won’t resemble those little, gray, bipedal, creatures that are usually blamed for whisking humans away in their space ships and exploring their bodies in strange ways. Whatever may be there, absorbing energy from the clouds above Venus, it won’t resemble anything on earth. It could be a tiny blob that has figured out how to feed itself and reproduce, and therefore can be classified as a form of life.
That is why, compared to Venus, or any other planet that may exist somewhere in the vastness of space, Earth offers such a unique environment. Earth has high levels of the kinds of nutrients that more easily support life. Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon are plentiful. Oxygen and Hydrogen together make water, which has facilitated the creation and survival of many forms of life.
Life on Earth is bountiful. There are between eight and ten million different species eating and reproducing on our planet. They range from the tiny microbes in our stomachs and intestines to the whales that are slowly vanishing from our seas. There are big trees and beautifully colored flowers. There is poison ivy.
Life on Earth is so varied and abundant that some people, in an attempt to reconcile evolution with their religious beliefs, put forth the idea that instead of life being created by the special conditions of Earth, their view is that Earth was designed by some unknowable force to bring forth life, especially humans, who could thank this force for their existence. I don’t believe things happened that way.
However, there is little doubt that humans now hold a special position among the creatures on Earth. For centuries, humans, like all of Earth’s creatures, learned how to adapt to their environment. They learned how to feed themselves, find shelter, find and use what was available to them, have children, and protect themselves and their children from the many forms of danger that might threaten them.
Over the last 300,000 years, humans have slowly refined their methods of solving those basic challenges. They changed from being hunter-gatherers to becoming farmers and traders. They began to live in larger and more complex societies. They learned to use tools and to use other sources of energy, such as animals, wind, and flowing water, to help them with their more arduous tasks. These kinds of changes came about very gradually, usually taking hundreds, if not thousands of years.
But recently, beginning less than two hundred years ago and accelerating at a very rapid pace, humans have found ways to deal with these challenges that are totally different from what people had been doing for thousands of years, Since then humans have had to learn new skills in order to survive and thrive in the world they have created. However, so far, our evolution has not yet adapted as quickly to those changes. Our bodies and minds are still designed to cope with the challenges to the lives humans were living 3000 to 250 years ago. Although, there is now some evidence that many of the new technologies are changing the brains of the users of those technologies.
We are in the midst of what many economists are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or as they have branded it, Revolution 4.0. The beginning of this period is marked as either the turn of the 21st Century, or else 2007 when the first iPhone and Twitter became available to everyone. We are now living in a time when so many ways of working, communicating, manufacturing, learning, and even meeting and mating, are constantly changing. We have machines that use Artificial Intelligence to guide us through many decisions. They collect kinds of information that our human brains could never process. We have already built technologies that are building the next generation of technology.
We have come to accept that change is constant and will continue. Many of us, especially those of us who are older, did not expect to have to be learning so many new things as our lives slow down. However, we have found it quite convenient to just say “Alexa (Seri or Google) turn on the coffee pot,” or, “show me reruns of I Love Lucy.”
This is a totally new era in human history. We are attempting to design new technologies that will reshape the world instead of being shaped by it. We hope this will allow us to live longer, healthier, happier, more satisfying lives. In some ways, we are obviously succeeding. However, it is also becoming clear that there we are far from having a shared vision of what that world should be like. This is lack of agreement has been creating a lot of confusion, and turmoil. These changes have happened so rapidly that most people do not know what is happening or how to react. The changes seem to be bringing us as much stress and anxiety as happiness and satisfaction.
There is a small group of designers and implementers who are leading the way. They are thrilled with the progress they feel they are creating. Following them are a larger group of enthusiasts and early adapters. An increasing number of people are now learning how to use these new technologies to their advantage. The technologies help solve all kinds of problems and open many new, never imagined possibilities.
There is an even larger group who are just falling into line, but who are adjusting, and learning to benefit from the new technologies. Other people are trying to keep up with that group, but they are slow to learn and uncomfortable having to do so. This is probably the largest group of people.
However, not everyone is welcoming all of these changes. There are entrenched groups of people who are strongly resisting the widespread use of the new developments. Are they depriving us of having easier, happier, healthier lives, or are they saving us from becoming controlled by our own machines? Probably, some of both.
The fates, fortunes, and employment of most people on Earth are still dependent upon the old ways of solving life’s basic problems. This is especially true of those who have gained a great deal of power and money from the way things have always worked. Some examples are the people who work in older industries such as gasoline-powered cars, fossil fuels, and agriculture. They have been working hard to stop, or at least slow down, the adoption of new ways of doing things.
There are also people who are baffled and a bit frightened by all of these changes. Most of them are uninformed about how these changes have altered their lives, and that has left them confused and angry. There is yet another large group of people who are on the receiving end of misinformation. They are being purposely mislead by the small group of powerful people who will lose power and money as these changes continue to transform the cultures and societies all over the world.
The degree of turmoil, disruption, and resistance has become so intense that it has become difficult for many groups to even agree on what they are experiencing. There are disputes about what is the truth, what are facts, and what are totally fabricated lies. The situation has become so confusing that many people are using the new technologies to spread arguments that oppose the science that created the machines they are using. Many people are becoming so unsettled that they are retreating into superstition and mysticism because that gives them a simple explanation of all of the chaos.
The problem can be summarized by the simple quote from the great science fiction writer, Willaim Gibson: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”
His insight has been clearly illustrated by how the US is attempting to distribute the vaccine for COVID-19. Some few, very aware people know how to get the vaccine and have already gotten it. Many others are eager to get it and will find ways to do so. Right now, the government we have is inept and doesn’t know how to solve the distribution problem. It doesn’t seem to care, and that confuses many people. It makes them hesitant to take the vaccine. Others don’t trust anyone, and they feel the vaccine is just a plot to control their bodies and minds.
These kinds of difficulties are not just related to our problems with the vaccine. We are being confronted with many complex problems that will require a great deal of studying, planning, and cooperation to solve. We need to improve our education and understanding of these issues so that governments, scientists, journalists, educators, and all of our citizens can build a consensus about how to proceed. Creating divisions and factions has been destroying us.
The virus has shown us how closely intertwined our lives are with people all over the world. What happened in China, Italy and Boston is now killing people in Iowa. Unless we learn to improve our skills of critical thinking and learn how to build trust in each other the future will become even more unevenly distributed. Depending upon our old methods of tribal rivalries and zero-sum games will only continue our downward spiral. It will lead to heightened tensions, and more conflicts, which will then be met by authoritarian and repressive measures by those who have, against those who need.
That’s a future I want to avoid.