MANKIND'S BIGGEST MACHINE AND THE BIG QUESTION
In life's long and magical journey from the big bang to the present day there have been a series of amazing leaps forward. It began with the creation of atoms and elements, continued with stars and galaxies, then planets appeared with the first forms of life as we now know it. Individual cells teamed up to form larger animals and plants then came the VITAL step when photosynthesis arrived. (We wrote about this in last month's blog.) Yesterday I was enjoying my picnic lunch sitting in the sun and all around me was the colour green. Everywhere green as millions of leaves used sunlight to capture carbon from the air and convert it into sugars which feed the huge pyramid of life on Earth. Yes, even the tiniest seed has the subtle ability to collect the magnesium which is essential to make the chlorophyll. This is the magical chemical which absorbs red and blue light so effectively (which makes leaves appear green).
As you know, each year I harvest about 2 tons of carbon collected by my garden plants (grass from the orchard, weeds from the garden) – it goes on the garden at Christmas when the compost heap is emptied. The appearance of chlorophyll and photosynthesis was one of life's greatest leaps forward – transforming Earth, as it did, by capturing carbon and releasing the violently reactive oxygen in the process. Our atmosphere was transformed and the building blocks created for the dominant carbon life forms which now run (and swim) about on our planet Earth.
Today, as you read this blog, humankind is working to create what may well be the next great leap forward for evolution. The ITER (International Thermo-nuclear Experimental Reactor) is a BIG machine (now under construction in France) which has the potential to completely transform life here on Earth. If humans succeed (as I am sure ultimately they will) in creating their own “tame” star, held in a magnetic bottle maintained by super-conducting magnets, then virtually limitless (almost pollution free) energy will be available. The fuel comes from the heavy hydrogen in water but the concept comes from the extra-ordinary inventiveness of the human brain. For the first time in cosmic history, evolution is happening not by a chance coming together of particles or genes but by the deliberately applied cunning of a consciously intelligent mind. It's a new miracle happening before our eyes but, fortunately perhaps, receiving very little publicity so it has not become any kind of political “football”.
The ITER project is an unrivalled success story for a civilisation otherwise blasted by a money system which gives the wrong signals; a populist democracy which produces the wrong leaders; an agriculture which destroys the soil we depend on and a combination of fear and greed which drives unsustainable consumption. (A situation well summarised by “crazy man” Russell Brand in his article written 7 years ago – see Link to Book Summary `'Fear and Desire”) By some miracle the world's egotistical politicians have not managed to screw up the ITER by chest-thumping international competition. Every major nation is contributing, all information is being shared, no nation has been tempted to keep this magic for themselves. You can find out more from the excellent website at https://www.iter.org.
This then is the story of the BIG machine which may transform the human condition. It is not something the press or news media seem to take very seriously! Perhaps it's just because the press don't find success stories excite their public as much as disaster? ITER has only become possible because humans have devoted hundreds of years to careful and often inspired scientific and mathematical thought. The clever and inquisitive minds of generations of humans have produced this potentially epic step forward. As a relatively new life form, our civilisation can be proud of this achievement – just as we should be ashamed of producing its predecessor the nuclear bomb and dirty fission-powered nuclear power stations.
The BIG question for me is why this same intellectual power has never been applied to invent better cultural systems which foster a vibrant and healthy planet rather than our present (old fashioned) institutions which threaten to destroy it? Why is it that the successes of science and mathematics in understanding (and managing) the physical world have never been matched by similar successes in the social sciences? No-one can doubt that the forms of institutions which dominate and govern the management of human affairs are critical for our comfortable survival on our one and only planet. Despite this we do not have a single University or College of cultural engineering! Yes, we have psychologists, anthropologists, economists and sociologists (even philosophers) but none of these seem prepared to question the validity of such key institutions as bank money, populist democracy, private ownership, the corporate form, the “free” market or the fallacious human concept of a disconnected “I”. Surely if we can make a machine to hold our own “star” in a magnetic bottle we can devise cultural institutions which promote life rather than destroying it?