By Josef Eisinger©
To estimate the likelihood of extraterrestrial life developing on planets that orbit stars other than our sun, one must review the history of life on Earth, from our planet’s fiery formation some 4.5 billion years ago to the present. Earth’s story represents, after all, the only example of such an occurrence that we know of. (See my article “Are We Alone? Ruminations about Extraterrestrial Life,” Parts One and Two, in the June and July 2017 issues of WestView.)
Because a time span as vast as the Earth’s age is difficult to grasp, it is helpful to collapse it into a single year and to suppose that Earth was formed on January 1st. In that make-believe time domain, the first primitive organisms appeared (we don’t yet know how) by springtime and soon bacteria populated Earth’s oceans. When summer came around, photosynthesizing cyanobacteria proliferated and were responsible for adding oxygen to our oceans and the atmosphere. It was not until a month ago, in early December, that multi-cellular organisms flourished in great variety and that the first vertebrates (fishes) made their appearance, as did land plants and insects. Dinosaurs roamed the continents about two weeks ago, while primates evolved in just the past week. It was during the past few minutes that modern humans emerged from caves, learned to farm and to build cities; Julius Caesar was assassinated only 12 seconds ago.
This essay casts an even narrower focus on Earth’s past and considers (cursorily) what humanity has wrought in the past two seconds, or, in real time, in the past four centuries. It was during that brief period that humans first caught a glimpse of their place in the universe. We have, indeed, the distinction of belonging to one of the first generations that knows—albeit imperfectly—the age of our universe, what it consists of, even the laws of nature that govern it. We owe this insight to countless inquisitive individuals who have revealed the astonishing story of the origin of the universe and how humanity arrived at the present situation.
And where do we find ourselves? We are at the threshold of what might aptly be called the technological era of evolutionary history. We don’t know where it will lead, but assuredly, it arrived with astonishing speed, abetted by a veritable crescendo of scientific and technical achievements. Just consider these few mile-posts along its way: Our ancestors learned to use fire approximately one million years ago, but it was only 10,000 years ago that they learned to construct a forced-air furnace hot enough to extract metallic lead from its mineral, galena. The Iron Age and the earliest civilizations arrived soon after that (some 5,000 years ago) but it was only four centuries ago that humans recognized that Earth orbits the sun (and not the other way around). At about that time (around the 17th and 18th centuries), chemistry and physics were first placed on a firm, mathematical footing, thanks to people like Newton, Leibniz, Lavoisier, and Faraday. Their discoveries opened the door to modern science which was not long in coming: Electromagnetic waves and the laws of electromagnetism (Hertz, Maxwell) were discovered two centuries ago, while atomic structure, relativity theory, and quantum physics (Planck, Bohr, Einstein) arrived about one century ago.
The semiconductor transistor, without which today’s digital world is inconceivable, was discovered a mere 60 years ago. Indeed, one of its discoverers played poker with this writer in a weekly game of scientists working at Bell Telephone Laboratories—the institution, incidentally, which is responsible for much of what defines today’s world (e.g., transistors, lasers, CCDs, and LEDs). After transistors were integrated into chips, about 40 years ago, personal computers came on the market and were quickly embraced by one and all. The internet soon followed and that almost indispensable gadget, the smartphone, made its debut a mere decade ago. Soon, self-driving electric cars will populate our highways, and our electronic tether, the smartphone, can now be worn on the wrist. (Are implants next?) Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is waiting in the wings, along with its imponderable effects on society.
People everywhere took to smartphones with remarkable alacrity, compared to past technical innovations (e.g., the printing press, steamships, railways, the telegraph, the telephone, air travel). But new technologies often cause employment disruption and even political unrest, and their consequences may not always be as benign as the smartphone’s: They are capable of altering human behavior in fundamental ways, as has already been demonstrated on the political scene.
However, as Niels Bohr pointed out, it is very difficult to make predictions, especially where the future is concerned.
Josef Eisinger is a physicist and professor emeritus at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. A Village resident for over 50 years, he is the author of over 150 scholarly articles ranging from nuclear physics and molecular biology to the history of science. After retirement, Eisinger published Einstein on the Road, and Einstein at Home (Prometheus Books 2011, 2016) as well as the memoir Flight and Refuge. Reminiscences of a Motley Youth (Amazon 2016).