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walk through time

Walk Through Time...from Stardust to Us
Six Winning Essays from the WTT at Singapore


Essay 5

As we draw closer towards the dawn of a new millennium, we may ponder on the impact that we humans have created on the future of life on Earth, or in other words, the evolution of life in the planet we call home. Would the skill and the knowledge that we harness today play an important role in the evolution of life in the centuries to come?

In my opinion, the answer is definite yes. The modern world has seen the birth and development of a whole new array of scientific fields and the mastery of several advanced techniques in various fields that were once deemed impossible. Of these, biology and nuclear physics will play the most important role in the growth and change of life in the coming thousand years. You may now ask, which one of these would leave the deepest impact on the evolution of life on Mother Earth in the next millennium? In my opinion, nuclear physics will definitely leave the greatest and most lasting impact.

I agree that the knowledge of cloning techniques, genetic engineering and the study of the interaction of living organisms with their environment is capable of shaping life on Earth. Since the cloning of Dolly by a team led by Ian Wilmut, the race has begun on the cloning of the organisms, ranging from rats to pandas and even humans. Closer to home, Singaporean scientists have succeeded in incorporating the inflorescence gene of jellyfish and fireflies into plants, making them glow at night. Moreover, researchers claim that the advancement of genetic engineering is bringing us closer to the eradication of cancer. As can be seen, these techniques have the combined potential of creating a large number of animals (or humans) with favourable traits. This will encourage the creation of super-cattle, save certain endangered animals from the brink of extinction, or even recreate the already extinct species.

Also, by continuous genetic engineering and cloning animals, generation after generation, the variety of traits in the animals for many species will be lessened by an unimaginable degree. The new conditions that life on earth will face due to future development of conditions in the solar system may cause a mass extinction, a situation not very different from the mysterious disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago due to a very simple fact - there are no mutants and not enough variety in the engineered species (possibly including humans) that possess characteristics which will enable them to face the new challenges imposed upon them. Also, natural evolution, now the supreme power in determining the development of all life forms, will be severely affected with the introduction of extreme forms of artificial selection.

As can be seen, the knowledge of genetic engineering and cloning is capable of both positive and negative impacts of enormous magnitudes on the evolution of life in the next ten centuries. Some may even claim that biology is the single most important field that would affect the development of life here to the greatest magnitude. However, I beg to differ.

After the controversial nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the later part of the 20th century has seen the rapid development of nuclear physics. While humans were once able to build fission plants, scientists have now discovered some new techniques of fusion, including fusion of hydrogen plasma in a building known as a tokamak with temperatures soaring to 10 000 000 Kelvins, and the cold fusion of hydrogen nuclei with orbiting electrons replaced by the heavier muons. The discovery of both fission and fusion would definitely lay the foundations for the more efficient production of energy in the next millennium, coupled with the decreasing cost of producing such energy, it is expected that many new nuclear plants will begin sprouting up all over the face of the Earth.

Consequently, two things may occur to affect the progress of life on earth - a nuclear war or the extensive use of nuclear energy. As more and more countries acquire the knowledge of nuclear fission and fusion, an irresponsible power may decide to spark off a war of total annihilation out of her own selfish interests. As a result, life on Earth may be completely destroyed by the vast amount of energy unleashed on their fragile bodies or the survivors severely mutated by the subsequent radioactive decay of nuclear waste strewn all over the Earth. Fantastic as this sounds, it is not impossible in the next millennium. Should this tragedy occur, evolution of life would almost surely by intensely affected and to a much greater extent than that of biology.

As the use of nuclear power becomes more extensive in the next millennium, we can expect more nuclear plants to be established and more nuclear waste to be dumped into some corner of the world. Although it is true that life can tolerate certain amounts of radiation, increased amounts of radiation from nuclear plants and waste would doubtlessly increase the likelihood of our descendants’ mutation. While some may argue that the shielding used to ‘package’ nuclear waste and in nuclear reactors would suffice, there would inevitably be a leakage of high energy gamma radiation with the capacity of inflicting immense damage on the genetic structure of any living organism, thereby mutating, if not destroying it. Hence, it is obvious that the evolution of animals would be sped up to a great extent as the mutation of species causes new ones to flourish in the blue planet. The fact stands - nuclear physics will unmistakably leave a lasting impact on the natural adaptation of life on Earth.

Then again, ecology will enable us to create extremely conducive environments for life on Earth like the building of biospheres. Although this allows living organisms in earth to enjoy extremely favourable conditions, over their resistance to slight changes in climatic conditions will weaken, leading to the evolution of weaker species. Evolution will then speed up due to the vastly different conditions that the inhabitants of Mother Earth are placed in. Biological warfare resulting from the creation of potentially toxic fungus, bacteria or viruses may be deployed by self-centre aggressors, possibly resulting in the flourishing of such lifeforms, accompanied by the destruction of many living organisms that we know of today. Life on Earth will never be the same again with biological warfare. Even if antidotes are invented to counter the effects of the biological weapons, the damage inflicted is likely to affect the evolution of life in the next hundred decades to a large extent.

So which will have a greater impact - nuclear physics or biology? I again stress that nuclear physics will definitely reign in the moulding of life in the next millennium. Although the biological sciences are capable of shaping evolution, they pale in comparison to nuclear physics. The biological sciences are merely capable of affecting evolution to a mediocre magnitude in the light of nuclear physics as their impact comes slowly and gradually. Hindrance of evolution with the development of ecology does not do much to shape the development of life here either. In contrast, nuclear physics, stipulating the widespread use of processes including nuclear fission and fusion will result in the ultimate increase in the dosage of high energy radiation (gamma rays and X-rays) that all creatures receive daily, thereby raising the probability of mutation of species in all different manners exponentially, promoting the evolution of life on earth.

The possibility of the occurrence of biological warfare and nuclear warfare is about the same. So which of these have a greater impact on the evolution of life in the next 1000 years. Although biological weapons have the capacity of unleashing new organisms into the environment, consequently affecting life on earth severely, its impact on the future is dwarfed in the light of the changes that nuclear warfare can bring. Extensive use of nuclear weapons may annihilate all life that we know from the face of the earth, coupled with the immediate release of large amounts of energy into the atmosphere, causing the world to become a raging inferno, not unlike the condition that Mother Earth was when she was much younger, then lapsing into a nuclear winter. Even if the nuclear war is less intense, evolution would also be adversely affected due to mutations resulting from the large amounts of short wavelength electromagnetic radiation released.

In the preceding paragraphs, we have seen how biology and nuclear physics can alter the evolution on Earth. After comparing and contrasting their various effects, it is clear that the latter will exert a far greater impact on the development of life here with the promotion of the widespread use of nuclear energy in all different manners. Only time can tell us whether a new field of science in the future would make an even more enormous impact on the development of life here.

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