As 2012 gets under way, predictions of doom associated with the Mayan calendar abound. But what if our world keeps moving right along, just as it calmly did amidst all of the fuss over Y2K?
Monmouth College biology professors Ken Cramer and James Godde have some ideas. They were asked to respond to five recently presented “game-changing” predictions by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, author of the book “Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.” Kaku’s predictions include the development of intelligent machines, a space elevator and a “replicator” that can create anything from almost nothing.
Looking ahead 100 years is not an exact science, as we learned from a series of predictions made in 1900. In some cases, the fearless forecasters’ sights weren’t set high enough, such as “The American … will live 50 years instead of 35 as at present.” Today’s data on aging shows that Americans live about 78 years.
In other cases, the bar in 1900 was set too high: “Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have practically been exterminated … a university education will be free to every man and woman … there will be no C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet.” That brings to mind a vision of 2,000 Monmouth Kollege freshmen attending an outdoor convocation (we didn’t kwite make it).
But Kaku might be on to something with his predictions, which he based on interviews with more than 300 of the world’s top scientists. He didn’t speak to Cramer or Godde, but they did offer their thoughts about two of his “game-changers” – fusion and space-based power and stopping the aging process.
“I’m not so sure about the ‘stop,’” Godde said. “Slowing it down sounds more attainable.”
Just as the human life span grew substantially in the 20th century, Godde believes it could make another big jump by 2100. In fact, he said, 150 could be the new 100.
“I can see – as long as everything else is OK with the planet – that living to 100 could be a common thing,” he said. “Our life expectancy is 70-something right now, so to make it to 150 might be possible. There’s got to be some limit, though.”
That limit, Godde said, comes from our body’s imperfections. Even as developments such as genome sequencing give scientists a better understanding of what makes us tick, there simply might be too many factors that would need to be controlled before our clocks run out.
“You can fix things that reproduce during your lifetime,” said Godde. “The cells that get damaged, you can fix that. But the body walks a tightrope. It only has so much time and resources to fix things. So, our body is not a perfectionist. It’s as if it’s saying, ‘Oh, well, that’s pretty close.’ Plus, there are parts of our body that have cells that aren’t going to divide and grow again. For example, our nerves and our brain cells are kind of a one-shot deal.”
Godde continued, “Scientists want to fix things better than the body does, but there are three billion base pairs of information in our genomes. It would be very tough to constantly scan all that information and look for red flags.”
Godde questioned what we might do with all those extra years, anyway, and pointed to research that showed some species of animals had their life spans increased by reducing their caloric intake, slowing down their reproductive process.
“They’re hungry all the time, but they live longer,” he said. “It would be more ideal to be young longer than to be old for a long time. Maybe it becomes normal to have kids in your 40s or 50s. That might be attainable.”
Godde’s vision for the future within Kaku’s prediction is for personalized medication.
“You know your DNA sequence from Day 1,” he said. “While there are medicines out there that work for most people, for some people that medicine is horrible. Personalized medicine is in the future. It will lead to less sickness and longer lifespans.
“However,” Godde concluded, “Things wear out. Forever is a tough thing to shoot for.”
“Forever” is also the incorrect answer to how long our planet’s fossil fuels will last. For several decades, mankind lived as if they would never run out but, fortunately, we are beginning to see the light in the way we see with light.
In fact, Kaku writes, “New forms of energy are desperately needed. … By 2019, fusion power becomes a major player. That is when the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) becomes operational in southern France.”
“People have been talking about nuclear fusion for 50 years, and it never happens,” countered Cramer. “I think the author is overly optimistic that ITER will be operational by 2019. … It is going to take an incredible amount of energy to get it started, and then they’d have to upscale it. The assumption, of course, is that it would take care of itself once it gets going,” but Cramer is skeptical, to say the least.
“Solar and wind are more competitive price-wise. We need to replace fossil fuels, but I’m just not confident we will. It’s so convenient, and we’re so addicted to it. … We’re taking oil from more and more extreme places. Taking it from the tar sands of Alberta, in particular, is an environmental disaster. The margins are getting smaller and smaller. What I mean by that is, it’s taking more and more energy to extract these materials.”
Americans are not only addicted to fossil fuels, but to high rates of consumption. Cramer said that just the night before he was interviewed, he had been to a popular restaurant with dozens of TVs and video games, not to mention extensive lighting.
“It seemed like it would take an entire power plant to run that place,” he said. “Conservation will make the resources we have last longer.”
What Cramer sees happening in the short run is demand for oil exceeding production, and prices going up exponentially.
“What’s going to happen is that people will be priced out of the market,” said Cramer, likening the situation to a scene from the movie “Soylent Green,” when a spoonful of strawberry jam cost $150.
“Change won’t really occur until people’s wallets are affected,” he said. “When gas is $7 or $8 a gallon, behavior will change.”
While nuclear fusion might be many more years away than some experts predict, Cramer is hopeful that another development might progress faster.
“Right now, a battery-operated car like a Nissan Leaf can run 60-70 miles on a charge in ideal driving conditions,” he said. “A few decades ago, computers were extremely large, but they’ve gotten smaller and smaller and more powerful. I hope that’s what will happen with battery power – that the batteries can get progressively smaller and that they’ll store more energy. Maybe several years from now, that same car will be able to go 500 miles on a charge.”
Another area in which advances can be made is solar energy.
“We have so much wasted space in areas where there is lots of sunlight, like roadsides,” said Cramer. “People will say, ‘Oh, you can’t have solar panels all along the road, they’re an eyesore. But we got used to telephone poles. We don’t even think about those anymore.”
Cramer also doesn’t think “eyesore” when he sees a wind turbine but, rather, “jobs.” He hopes that a wind farm outside of Monmouth will be operational by 2013.
“The local one has cleared all the hurdles,” he said. “They’re just waiting on turbines. … So I guess you can say I’m alternately pessimistic and optimistic when it comes to energy.”
But definitely count him as a pessimist on Kaku’s prediction about nuclear fusion.