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[Note:I became politically active and committed on the day 20 years ago when I realized I could stand on the front porch of my house and point to three homes where children were in wheelchairs, to a home where a child had just died of leukemia, to another where a child was born missing a kidney, and yet another where a child suffered from spina bifida. All my parental alarms went off at once and I asked the obvious question: What’s going on here? Did I inadvertently move my three children into harm’s way when we settled in this high desert valley in Utah? A quest to find answers in Utah’s nuclear history and then seek solutions followed. Politics for me was never motivated by ideology. It was always about parenting.
Today my three kids are, thankfully, healthy adults. But now that grandchildren are being added to our family, my blood runs cold whenever I project out 50 years and imagine what their world will be like at middle age—assuming they get that far and that there is still a recognizable “world” to be part of. I wrote the following letter to my granddaughter, Madeline, who is almost four years old. Although she cannot read it today, I hope she will read it in a future that proves so much better than the one that is probable, and so terribly unfair. I’m sharing this letter with other parents and grandparents in the hope that it may move them to embrace their roles as citizens and commit to the hard work of making the planet viable, the economy equitable, and our culture democratic for the many Madelines to come.]
I address this letter to you, but please share it with Jack, Tasiah, and other grandchildren who are yet unborn. Also, with your children and theirs. My unconditional love for my children and grandchildren convinces me that, if I could live long enough to embrace my great-grandchildren, I would love them as deeply as I love you.
On behalf of my generation of grandparents to all of you, I want to apologize.
I am sorry we used up all the oil. It took a million years for those layers of carbon goo to form under the Earth’s crust and we used up most of it in a geological instant. No doubt there will be some left and perhaps you can get around the fact that what remains is already distant, dirty, and dangerous, but the low-hanging fruit will be long-gone by the time you are my age. We took it all.
There’s no excuse, really. We are gas-hogs, plain and simple. We got hooked on faster-bigger-more and charged right over the carrying capacity of the planet. Oil made it possible.
Machines are our slaves and coal, oil, and gas are their food. They helped us grow so much of our own food that we could overpopulate the Earth. We could ship stuff and travel all over the globe, and still have enough fuel left to drive home alone in trucks in time to watch Monday Night Football.
Rocket fuel, fertilizer, baby bottles, lawn chairs: we made everything and anything out of oil and could never get enough of it. We could have conserved more for you to use in your lifetime. Instead, we demonstrated the self-restraint of crack addicts. It’s been great having all that oil to play with and we built our entire world around that. Living without it will be tough. Sorry.
I hope we develop clean, renewable energy sources soon, or that you and your generation figure out how to do that quickly. In the meantime, sorry about the climate. We just didn’t realize our addiction to carbon would come with monster storms, epic droughts, Biblical floods, wildfire infernos, rising seas, migration, starvation, pestilence, civil war, failed states, police states, and resource wars.
I’m sure Henry Ford didn’t see that coming when he figured out how to mass-produce automobiles and sell them to Everyman. I know my parents didn’t see the downside of using so much gas and coal. The all-electric house and a car in the driveway was their American Dream. For my generation, owning a car became a birthright. Today, it would be hard for most of us to live without a car. I have no idea what you’ll do to get around or how you will heat your home. Oops!
We also pigged out on most of the fertile soil, the forests and their timber, and the oceans that teemed with fish before we scraped the seabed raw, dumped our poisonous wastes in the water, and turned it acid and barren. Hey, that ocean was an awesome place and it’s too bad you can’t know it like we did. There were bright coral reefs, vibrant runs of red salmon, ribbons of birds embroidering the shores, graceful shells, the solace and majesty of the wild sea…
…But then I never saw the vast herds of bison that roamed the American heartland, so I know it is hard to miss something you only saw in pictures. We took lots of photos.
We thought we were pretty smart because we walked a man on the moon. Our technology is indeed amazing. I was raised without computers, smart phones, and the World Wide Web, so I appreciate how our engineering prowess has enhanced our lives, but I also know it has a downside.
When I was a kid we worried that the Cold War would go nuclear. And it wasn’t until a river caught fire near Cleveland that we realized fouling your own nest isn’t so smart after all. Well, you know about the rest—the coal-fired power plants, acid rain, the hole in the ozone…
There were plenty of signs we took a wrong turn but we kept on going. Dumb, stubborn, blind: Who knows why we couldn’t stop? Greed maybe—powerful corporations we couldn’t overcome. It won’t matter much to you who is to blame. You’ll be too busy coping in the diminished world we bequeath you.
One set of problems we pass on to you is not altogether our fault. It was handed down to us by our parents’ generation so hammered by cataclysmic world wars and economic hardship that they armed themselves to the teeth and saw enemies everywhere. Their paranoia was understandable, but they passed their fears on to us and we should have seen through them. I have lived through four major American wars in my 62 years, and by now defense and homeland security are powerful industries with a stranglehold on Congress and the economy. We knew that was a lousy deal, but trauma and terror darkened our imaginations and distorted our priorities. And, like you, we needed jobs.
Sorry we spent your inheritance on all that cheap bling and, especially, all those weapons of mass destruction. That was crazy and wasteful. I can’t explain it. I guess we’ve been confused for a long time now.
Oh, and sorry about the confusion. We called it advertising and it seemed like it would be easy enough to control. When I was a kid, commercials merely interrupted entertainment. Don’t know when the lines all blurred and the buy, buy, buy message became so ubiquitous and all-consuming. It just got outta hand and we couldn’t stop it, even when we realized we hated it and that it was taking us over. We turned away from one another, tuned in, and got lost.
I’m betting you can still download this note, copy it, share it, bust it up and remake it, and that you do so while plugged into some sort of electrical device you can’t live without—so maybe you don’t think that an apology for technology is needed and, if that’s the case, an apology is especially relevant. The tools we gave you are fine, but the apps are mostly bogus. We made an industry of silly distraction. When our spirits hungered, we fed them clay that filled but did not nourish them. If you still don’t know the difference, blame us because we started it.
And sorry about the chemicals. I mean the ones you were born with in your blood and bones that stay there—even though we don’t know what they’ll do to you). Who thought that the fire retardant that kept smokers from igniting their pillows and children’s clothes from bursting into flames would end up in umbilical cords and infants?
It just seemed like better living through chemistry at the time. Same with all the other chemicals you carry. We learned to accept cancer and I guess you will, too. I’m sure there will be better treatments for that in your lifetime than we have today. If you can afford them, that is. Turning healthcare over to predatory corporations was another bad move.
All in all, our chemical obsession was pretty reckless and we got into that same old pattern: just couldn’t give up all the neat stuff. Oh, we tried. We took the lead out of gasoline and banned DDT, but mostly we did too little, too late. I hope you’ve done better. Maybe it will help your generation to run out of oil, since so many of the toxic chemicals came from that. Anyway, we didn’t see it coming and we could have, should have. Our bad.
There are so many other things I wish I could change for you. We leave behind a noisy world. Silence is rare today, and unless some future catastrophe has left your numbers greatly diminished, your machines stilled, and your streets ghostly empty, it is likely that the last remnants of tranquility will be gone by the time you are my age.
And how about all those species, the abundant and wondrous creatures that are fading away forever as I write these words? I never saw a polar bear and I guess you can live without that, too, but when I think of the peep and chirp of frogs at night, the hum of bees busy on a flower bed, the trill of birds at dawn, and so many other splendorous pleasures that you may no longer have, I ache with regret. We should have done more to keep the planet whole and well, but we couldn’t get clear of the old ways of seeing, the ingrained habits, the way we hobble one another’s choices so that the best intentions never get realized.
Mostly I’m sorry about taking all the good water. When I was a child I could kneel down and drink from a brook or spring wherever we camped and played. We could still hike up to glaciers and ski down snow-capped mountains.
Clean, crisp, cold, fresh water is life’s most precious taste. A life-giving gift, all water is holy. I repeat: holy. We treated it, instead, as if it were merely useful. We wasted and tainted it and, again in a geological moment, sucked up aquifers that had taken 10,000 years to gather below ground. In my lifetime, glaciers are melting away, wells are running dry, dust storms are blowing, and rivers like the mighty Colorado are running dry before they reach the sea. I hate to think of what will be left for you. Sorry. So very, very sorry.
I’m sure there’s a boatload of other trouble we’re leaving you that I haven’t covered here. My purpose is not to offer a complete catalog of our follies and atrocities, but to do what we taught your parents to do when they were as little as you are today.
When you make a mistake, we told them, admit it, and then do better. If you do something wrong, own up and say you are sorry. After that, you can work on making amends.
I am trying to see a way out of the hardship and turmoil we are making for you. As I work to stop the madness, I will be mindful of how much harder your struggles will be as you deal with the challenges we leave you to face.
The best I can do to help you through the overheated future we are making is to love you now. I cannot change the past and my struggle to make a healthier future for you is uncertain, but today I can teach you, encourage you, and help you be as strong and smart and confident as you can be, so that whatever the future holds, whatever crises you face, you are as ready as possible. We will learn to laugh together, too, because love and laughter can pull you through the toughest times.
I know a better world is possible. We create that better world by reaching out to one another, listening, learning, and speaking from our hearts, face to face, neighbor to neighbor, one community after another, openly, inclusively, bravely. Democracy is not a gift to be practiced only when permitted. We empower ourselves. Our salvation is found in each other, together.
Across America this morning and all around the world, our better angels call to us, imploring us to rise up and be as resilient as our beloved, beautiful children and grandchildren, whose future we make today. We can do better. I promise.
Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and led several grassroots campaigns to make polluters accountable. He wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon, was an administrator of the award-winning Salt Lake City Public Library, and then retired to the canyons of southern Utah. His latest work, just published, is Dance, Don’t Drive: Resilient Thinking for Turbulent Times. His essays can be read at chipwardessays.blogspot.com. He can be written at email@example.com. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
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The Next 50 Years Looking to the FUTURE âIt is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.â Countless examples attest to the truth of this famous quip, often attributed to Yogi Berra. In 1943, IBM chairman Thomas Watson said there might be a total world market âfor maybe five computers.â Forty-four years earlier, Lord Kelvin predicted that âradio has no future,â proving that a brilliant practitioner in one area can completely miss the significance of developments in a different field. Past âexpertâ prognosticators doubted the utility or appeal of everything from personal computers and televisions to online shopping and overnight package delivery. Meanwhile, others forecast that by now weâd have flying cars, colonies on Mars, and fusion power too cheap to meter. Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov correctly anticipated videophones and giant flat TV screens. But even Asimov sometimes got it wrong. In a 1964 essay looking ahead 50 years to 2014, he predicted that appliances would be powered by radioisotopes rather than electricity and that most jobs would be done by machines, freeing up people from actual work. âMankind will . . . have become largely a race of machine tenders . . . [and] will suffer badly from the disease of boredom,â he wrote. Still, itâs deeply engrained in human nature to gaze into a crystal ball and imagine what the future will bring. And in many cases, we can look at todayâs technologies and anticipate how they will evolveâand how they may bring surprising changes that emerge from a series of incremental advances. Until recently, driverless cars seemed like a distant dream, for instance, yet weâve had most of the underlying technologiesâfrom computer-controlled braking to detection of vehicles in the next laneâfor years. So itâs worth taking a journey of the imagination down the path of continued development of todayâs technologies. 44 Making a World of Difference
Grand Challenges Foremost among the challenges are those that must be met to ensure the future itself. In 2007 NAE at the request of NSF, convened a diverse international panel of some of the most accomplished engineers and scientists of their generation. The panelâs task: to consider broad realms of human concernâsustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of livingâand propose a set of the challenges most in need of 21st-century engineering solutions. The panel did not attempt to include every important goal for engineer- ing. Rather, it chose the problems we must solve to ensure survival of a livable Earth and the well-being of its inhabitants. Earthâs resources are finite, and our growing population currently consumes them at a rate that cannot be Brought to You by Engineering sustained. Among the most pressing concerns, then, is the need to develop O ver the next half century, we can foresee tacklingâand new sources of energy while also preventing or reversing the degradation of solvingâmany of the pressing problems facing humanity the environment. Another is to find new methods to protect people against and society today. An NAE report in 2008 describes 14 pandemic diseases, terrorist violence, and natural disasters. The engineering Grand Challenges for Engineering, such as creating better solutions to challenges such as these can no longer be designed solely for medicines, restoring and improving our cities, and providing more isolated locales, but must address Earth as a whole and all the planetâs people. sustainable sources of energy. Yet even as some of these challenges As the panel concluded in its 2008 report, âa world divided by wealth and are met, new issues will arise, sometimes in the form of adverse poverty, health and sickness, food and hunger, cannot long remain a unintended consequences of our successes. In every case, engineering stable place for civilization to thrive.â will be critical to the solution. Perhaps most important, though, while our imaginations may be â¢ Make solar energy economical spot-on in some cases, in many others the future will be far different â¢ Provide energy from fusion than what we now foresee. It will bring answers to questions we â¢ Develop carbon sequestration methods arenât asking, and solutions to needs we donât know we have. It will â¢ Manage the nitrogen cycle enrich and enhance human lives in ways that are simply impossible to â¢ Provide access to clean water predictâsurprising and delighting us, and creating innovations that â¢ Restore and improve urban infrastructure soon will seem impossible to live without. Mobile phones, for â¢ Advance health informatics example, were a staple of science fiction and a goal of engineers for â¢ Engineer better medicines years, but the first clunky models were something of a hard sell, and â¢ Reverse-engineer the brain we certainly didnât know we needed smartphonesâor social mediaâ â¢ Prevent nuclear terror until suddenly we did. Todayâs youth find it hard to believe that â¢ Secure cyberspace previous generations could function without these inventions. â¢ Enhance virtual reality Whatever the shape of the future, the underpinnings and most of â¢ Advance personalized learning the details will come from engineering innovations. As computer â¢ Engineer the tools of scientific discovery scientist Alan Kay, president of the Viewpoints Research Institute once said, âThe best way to predict the future is to invent itââand thatâs To learn about the Grand Challenges for Engineering visit the precisely what engineering does. î¬ projectâs interactive website at www.engineeringchallenges.org Engineering Ideas into Reality 45
New Materials, New Possibilities F rom the Stone Age to the Iron Age, epochs of human history have been named after materials. Thatâs not surprising, because new materials open the door to entirely A new and unexpected applications and developments, weaving new threads into the tapestry of human progress and changing how we live and work. Todayâs Information A new materialâ Age might justly be called the âSilicon Ageâ because of the enormous capabilities provided by grapheneâis a layer of carbon silicon-based devices and applications, although modern advances have also required numerous only one atom other crucial materials, from optical fibers to high-strength alloys. The silicon frontier will be B thick, discovered extended farther, no doubt, but new materials may take us beyond a simple extrapolation of by physicists Andre Geim (bottom, left) todayâs technology, meeting the needs that we donât yet know we have. and Konstantin Novoselov, who won Scientists and engineers are now hard at work leagues at UCLA, Williams fashioned the the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their creating and exploring the potential of new worldâs first molecular logic gate, the building C groundbreaking materials. In the early 2000s, for example, block of digital circuits. If such âmolecular experiments. physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin electronicsâ devices could be used to create Novoselov at the University of Manchester in viable computers, they could put the power England were tinkering with graphite and tape. of a hundred workstations on a chip the size They realized that it was possible to peel off a of a grain of sand. D layer of carbon so thin that it was only one We donât know if the central processors atom thick. This material, dubbed graphene, of computers 25 or 50 years from now will be was almost completely transparent, yet so built from graphene, self-assembled molecules, dense not even helium could pass through. DNA, or any of a number of other exotic Possessed of immense strength, it also had materials emerging from todayâs laboratories. E interesting electrical properties, which Geim We do know, however, that the enormous and Novoselov nailed down by studying dozens advances in materials (and concomitant leaps of ultrathin electronic devices they made from in computing power) that have already graphene. Their work won them the 2010 Nobel transformed our lives in 2014 will continueâ Prize in Physicsâand pointed to a new path perhaps even accelerate. Engineers will create F for devices. âGraphene could change the ever-smaller devices, exploiting the strange electronics industry, ushering in flexible world of quantum mechanics, where atoms can In this series from devices, supercharged quantum computers, exist in different places at once and affect each HP Labs, each successive image electronic clothing and computers that can other across considerable distances. âMaterials is magnified interface with the cells in your body,â predicted with genuine quantum properties will have about 10 times the the New York Times in 2014. enormous impact,â says Venkatesh Narayana- previous one, from (A), the wafer on Meanwhile, in Hewlett Packardâs Quantum murti, professor of technology and public which 625 64-bit Science Research Lab, Stanley Williams has policy at Harvard Universityâs School of memories are built novel devices with a completely different Engineering and Applied Sciences. And other imprinted, through (F) a close-up of approach. His idea: Use chemical reactions improved or new materials will enable continual a single memory, to grow switches and wires that assemble advances in everything from cars and planes to with one bit stored themselves into circuits. Working with col- the buildings we live in. î¬ at each of the 64 intersections.
The future is now: Flying drones that deliver packages and cars that drive themselves are already being tested, while virtual reality software helps train aviators both to fly a plane and to jump out of it. A World of Embedded Intelligence I n 2014, we already have sports watches that record workouts and autonomous flying drones the size of birds. But imagine dramatically shrinking those devices and many others, while also adding the raw computing power of todayâs supercomputers. Imagine similar giant leaps in sensors, communications capabilities, displays, software, batteries, and mechanical actuators. Put all those together and we can embed intelligence in virtually anythingâfrom light bulbs and refrigerators to cars and complex manufacturing tools. Already, smart devices can answer simple inquiries and understand simple commands. Itâs not a stretch to predict that these capabilities will improve enough to make it appear that devices are thinking, speaking, and acting independently. Some of these devices will fail in the market, but others will hit the sweet spot that delights consumers and improves or enhances their lives. Hereâs just a sample of what may be possible, some of which is already taking shape: Virtual reality technology that trains the military. Cars that drive themselves, in constant communica- tion with other vehicles and with traffic signals. Appliances and houses that respond to voice commandsâmaybe even know what you want automatically. Displays that cover entire walls,
Entrepreneurs and engineers are using 3-D printers to create everything from custom toys and machine parts to working prostheses. enabling us to put an art gallery with treasures like the Girl with a Pearl Earring in our homes, visit with grandma in what feels like an adjacent room, negotiate a deal across the âtableâ with partners in Tokyo or Kazakhstan, have a prime seat at the opera or rock concert, work with a personal trainer, or take a virtual climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. One of the NAEâs Grand Challenges, enhancing virtual reality, will Reshaping Industries N be easily met, predicts Ray Kurzweil, now ew materials are one driver of change. Development of new manufacturing methods and tackling natural language understanding at tools is also crucialâanother job for engineers. Consider 3-D printing. GE Aviation used to Google. âBy the early 2020s we will be make jet engine nozzles by welding together 18 different parts. But not for its latest, most routinely working and playing with each other efficient engine. The company now builds the nozzles one layer at a time by precisely in full immersion visual-auditory virtual depositing material with a 3-D printer, in much the same way an ink-jet printer sprays on paper. environments,â he writes. Another Grand Challenge, tailoring education to meet indi- 3-D printing is a potential game changer for at his 3-D printer and hands it to you,â says vidual needs, will also be met, says Leah H. todayâs factories, warehouses, supply chains, John Wall, vice president and chief technical Jamieson, dean of engineering at Purdue distribution systems, and delivery companies. It officer at engine and power systems manufac- University. âI absolutely believe it will be also has the potential to eliminate the waste of turer Cummins. Or imagine inventors dropping possible to build interactive systems that raw materials in manufacturing processes. by the local 3-D print shop to print out working provide personalized learning environments.â Instead of machining or forging a part like a prototypes of their latest ideas. You could even The future world could bring what Asimov connecting rod, a 3-D printer puts material just print stuff in your own home. anticipated a bit too earlyâthe creation of where itâs needed, like an oyster building up its Itâs also theoretically possible, if you have robots that read, learn, and even feel. Such shell layer by layer. â3-D printing sounds trite, the right materials, to print almost anything, robots could take care of the elderly, file tax but you can build structures that you could never including living tissue. If you needed a new returns, build houses, and discuss the origins of do any other way,â says Paul Citron, retired vice liver, say, doctors might extract a few of your the universe or the latest escapade of the next president for technology policy at medical stem cells, transform them into liver cells and generation of reality TV stars. âWe will have device maker Medtronic. This technology makes print out your new organ. âBy the early 2020s another intelligent species on Earth,â predicts it possible for anyone to become a manufacturer. we will print out a significant fraction of the Danny Hillis, chairman and cofounder of âImagine that instead of having to stock parts at products we use, including clothing as well as Applied Minds, LLC. î¬ an auto supply store, the guy goes to a keyboard replacement organs,â predicts Googleâs when you ask for a part. He then makes the part Kurzweil. î¬ 48 Making a World of Difference
Expanding Our Connections M any visionaries foresee that people in future decades will want to be connected even more than they are today, and that such connections will improve their quality of life. If so, engineers will be the architects of this hyperconnected future. âThe connectivity of everything is within a decade,â predicts Charles Holliday, Jr., former CEO of du Pont. âIt will change how we think about managing our lives.â And by 2025, âinformation sharing over the Internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries,â according to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Centerâs Internet Born without an arm, six-year- Project. The developing world will continue to leapfrog old Alex Pring the old wired infrastructure, as remote villages connect of Groveland, to the larger world with wireless broadband networks. Florida, practices picking up objects with his new 3-D As is frequently the case with new technologies, printed prosthetic hyperconnectivity will offer challenges along with arm and hand, opportunities. Will the regulations written for telephone designed and made by engineering communications need to be rewritten for the Broadband students at the Age? Can cybersecurity efforts not only keep the hackers University of at bay but also keep criminals and terrorists in check? Central Florida for about $350. Can we find a balance between hyperconnection and personal privacy that is acceptable to most people? GE Aviationâs new Governments and societies will need to grapple with jet engine (left) includes a fuel these questions and challenges, but engineering nozzle made by advances will underpin the solutions. î¬ 3-D printer. Engineering Ideas into Reality 49
Making Energy Sustainable I ntelligent, hyperconnected devices, 3-D printers, and other technologies will bring surprises, meet unanticipated needs, and change our lives in ways that are hard to imagine. But some aspects of the future are easier to predict. To create a better, richer, and healthier future for all people and nations, we know we must tackle and solve problems that are already obvious now. to warming has increased in recent years. energy more efficiently. Something as simple J. Craig Venter (far left) is working on Thereâs âcompelling evidence that increasing as better insulation, such as ultralight aerogels, synthesizing algae temperatures are affecting both ecosystems can dramatically reduce the energy needed to to replace fossil and human society,â warns the 2014 National heat and cool homes and factories and run fuels. In France an experimental Climate Assessment. refrigerators. thermonuclear Thus, the energy mix is as important Engineers are also working to design reactor project is asâor more important thanâthe total energy safer, cheaper nuclear reactors. As a virtually under construction (above). needed. If we want to avoid contributing to the carbon-free source of reliable energy, ânuclear carbon dioxide buildup by burning fossil fuels, power has to play a significant role in the efforts both to switch to renewable or other future,â says Cumminsâs John Wall. It may also low-carbon power and to use less energy must be possible to harness the fusion reaction that go forward. Wind power and solar power powers the sunâanother NAE Grand Challenge. currently represent about 7 percent of overall A research reactor, the International Thermo- One of those big challenges is creating a generating capacity, and engineering advances nuclear Experimental Reactor Project, is now sustainable supply of energy. Energy is crucial there and elsewhere are in the offing. Improve- under construction in Cadarache, France. to maintaining and boosting standards of ments in wind turbines and solar panels, for Although fusion energy still faces daunting living. To bring billions of people out of poverty, example, are rapidly making them more technical hurdles, many experts remain hopeful. therefore, weâll either need more energy or efficient and cheaper, and new battery âI think weâll have fusion, maybe not in 50 huge improvements in energy efficiencyâor, technologies promise to solve the problem of years, but eventually,â says Julia Phillips, vice most likely, both. But right now, because of intermittency. Argonne National Laboratory, for president and chief technology officer at our dependence on fossil fuels, humans are instance, is leading a major multi-institution Sandia National Laboratories. emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse effort to build a battery with five times the Meanwhile, other creative ideas abound. gases into the atmosphere at a rate that energy density of todayâs best, at one-fifth the For example, Caltechâs Frances Arnold, winner exceeds anything the Earth has experienced cost. Such batteries could also make electric of the 2011 Draper Prize, is using the techniques in millions of years. Since 1900, the planet cars far more practical and attractive, weaning of directed evolution to produce new biocata- has warmed by about 0.8 degree Celsius much of the transportation sector from the lysts to convert cellulose to sugars and then to (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit), and the number of fossil fuel pump. biofuels. In other labs researchers use catalysts extreme weather events scientists are linking Huge improvements are possible in using and other materials to mimic photosynthesis 50 Making a World of Difference
and capture energy from sunlight. At least five different designs are Feeding the competing to turn the energy from ocean waves or tides into electricity. Smart micro-grids promise not only to keep the lights on in U.S. cities, but Worldâs Billions T also to bring renewable power to remote villages in developing countries, he combination of massive harvesters bypassing the need for expensive power lines and central power plants. and other farm machinery, precision Some visionaries believe human ingenuity and engineering wizardry fertilization, genetically modified crops, can easily wean humanity from fossil fuels within 50 years. Kurzweil, for one, and other advances has dramatically predicts that âby 2030 solar energy will have the capacity to meet all of our boosted yields of corn and other crops across the energy needsââincluding providing enough extra power to purify vast United States and around the world. At the dawn amounts of salty water. Meeting the Grand Challenge of making solar energy of the 20th century, about 50 percent of the U.S. economical thus could also satisfy the growing need for clean water, another population was involved in food production. Grand Challenge. A surplus of energy would also make it possible to power Today that number has dropped to 2 percent. scrubbers that can pull carbon dioxide and all other forms of pollution from the air, says Cherry Murray, dean of Harvard Universityâs School of Engineer- But to feed the worldâs growing number of people, ing and Applied Sciences. we will need another increase in productivity. One The conventional wisdom, though, is that wind and solar alone canât of many possible answers to this problem is provide enough energy for a growing world, especially when the wind dies harnessing the potential of genetic engineering or the sun sets. Many experts insist that the world will depend on fossil fuels and fermentation. Biological engineers are already for a sizeable percentage of its energy for a least 50 more years. âEnergy is growing gene-spliced algae that make a full set of going to come from a lot of different sources,â says Holliday. In particular, if the protein building blocks, or amino acids, that for no other reason than it is plentiful and cheap, the world is unlikely to we need in our diet. Turn that algae into flour, and stop burning coal soon, with 2,300 existing coal plants and more than 1,000 we could replace millions of acres of amber waves proposed new facilities. So, to reduce emissions in the medium term, even for the long-term, wide-scale implementation of improved technologies for grabbing the carbon from fuel or carbon dioxide from smokestacks is essential. And additional innovations are needed to pave the way for safe storage of that carbon, meeting the Grand Challenge of developing carbon sequestration methods. Creating a cleaner, more sustainable energy future will require hard decisions based on data and evidence, which can come from engineering advances such as more powerful supercomputers and sophisticated sensors on land, in the oceans, and in space. The decisions themselves are typically outside the realm of engineers and scientistsâbut scientists and engineers will need to engage them as they work to create solutions to the worldâs energy problems. As a practical matter, according to the National Climate Assessment and a joint report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperatures presently in place make some climate impacts inevi- table, even if greenhouse gas emissions were to cease. So, as we hedge our bets by striving to change the energy mix, engineers also face the challenge of helping society adapt to the changing global environment. î¬
A Healthier Future A mong the many medical advances from the lab of MIT chemical and biomedical engineer Robert Langer are polymers designed to dissolve at different rates in the bloodstream. Encapsulate a drug or a vaccine inside tiny spheres made from these materials, inject them into the blood, âWeâll have local food in home gardens, and the microspheres will âdeliverâ the actual medicines to the site of cancers or other tumors days or weeks later. âIt may sound hanging gardens, and hydroponic gardens trivial, but it can help change the face of medicine,â says Langer. in all sorts of interesting places.â To fight deadly diseases such as tuberculosis or Ebola, doctors must of grain with giant stainless steel vats filled with fermenting microbes. Slip in treat people with multiple, periodic doses of drugs or vaccines. Yet in the genes for muscle and blood proteins like actin and myogloblin, along with many parts of the world, itâs hard enough to get patients to health genes for healthful fats, and algae or other microbes could even make what clinics once, let alone every few weeks. Microsphere technology J. Craig Venter, chairman and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, dubs solves that problem. Patients could be given full courses of treatment âmotherless meat,â ending the need for a home on the range. or vaccinations with a single injection. Suddenly, once-intractable Venter calculates that microbial factories could produce as much food diseases can be cured or prevented. as our current system of agriculture using only one-tenth the land area. If we Over the next few decades, bioengineers are expected to create wanted, we could turn the Great Plains back into a vast prairie teeming with many more such weapons in the fight against infectious diseases. buffalo, or bring forests back to many areas of the world that were cleared for These innovations might include malaria and tuberculosis vaccines as cultivation. Plus, the approach would solve one of NAEâs Grand Challenge well as cheap, effective (and simple to administer) drugs against HIV, problemsâmanaging the nitrogen cycle to reduce the nutrient pollution and robust technologies for delivering clean water and providing thatâs harming the worldâs creeks, rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. basic sanitation in underdeveloped countries. By 1980 the world had Of course, thatâs just one possibility. Harvardâs Murray and others have eradicated smallpox. Itâs not a great leap of imagination to think that different ideas for feeding the worldâs billions of people. Murray predicts that we can finish the job of eliminating polio and make dramatic inroads a global disasterâsuch as a disease that wipes out all wheat or rice cropsâ against cholera, AIDS, diphtheria, and other terrible infectious will bring a dramatic shift from todayâs industrial monoculture agriculture to a diseases. The benefits would be enormous, not just in reducing infant distributed, local system, where a wide range of plants are grown on rooftops mortality and increasing life expectancy, but also in boosting produc- and other spaces throughout cities and communities. âWeâll have local food in tivity, economic growth, and standards of living all over the world. home gardens, hanging gardens, and hydroponic gardens in all sorts of But thatâs just the beginning of how science and engineering interesting places,â she says. In fact, this trend toward more local food is have the potential to transform health. Drop in, for instance, at the already beginningâeven without a major crop failure. î¬ Stanford lab of Karl Deisseroth, which recently tackled a project so 52 Making a World of Difference
The idea: make an intact, transparent brain with all of the body before we ever get sick,â he predicts. Paul Citron, retired from Medtronic, expects that its internal structure and wiring visible.... As a result, for diabetics âan artificial pancreas will become researchers can now chart all the connections between a reality,â staving off the many complications of neurons, a significant step on the journey toward meeting diabetes by precisely controlling blood sugar. MITâs Langerâwho was awarded the 2002 another Grand Challenge, reverse engineering the brain. Draper Prize for âbioengineering of revolution- ary medical drug delivery systemsââpredicts that it will be possible to regenerate spinal cords, to replace failing organs and body parts with engineered tissue and to turn the body into its own drug factory by injecting the manufac- turing instructions in the form of messenger RNA. âThe combination of biology and engi- neering will lead to all kinds of new things, improving the quality of care and quality of life,â he says. Just as with computer power and the connected world, these advances could be of tremendous benefit to humanity. Weâll get longer, healthier, more productive livesâand, with advances in brain science, a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. But the technology will also raise difficult risky that Deisseroth enlisted only those intervene successfully in everything from questions and ethical dilemmas. Will society be colleagues whose careers were sufficiently addiction and epilepsy to schizophrenia and willing (and able) to pay for expensive new established that they would not be set back by Parkinsonâs disease. Meanwhile, researchers treatments and approaches for everyone, or will a failure. The idea: make an intact, transparent predict that advances in understanding the these advances benefit only brain with all of its internal structure and wiring biology of the rest of the body will make it pos- the rich? Once it becomes visible. The team succeeded, figuring out how sible to tame autoimmune diseases and cancer. possible, will we rush to to support a mouse brain with an external Similar gains will come from reading tinker with our genes to hydrogel skeleton, then dissolving away its humanityâs genetic code, from cataloging all of create new generations with opaque fat. As a result, researchers can now our proteins, and from manipulating genes and superior athletic abilities or chart all the connections between neurons, a biology. Danny Hillis of Applied Minds foresees intelligence? It could indeed significant step on the journey toward meeting making real-time measurements of the be a brave new world. another Grand Challenge, reverse engineering chemicals coursing through the body, and then âHuman engineering will be the brain. using computing tools like data mining and inevitable,â says J. Craig Eventually, with better understanding of pattern recognition to spot chemical signals Venter. Once again, how brain chemistry as well as brain circuitry and going awryâlong before any actual symptoms tomorrowâs society decides the underlying mechanisms of biology and of illnesses appear. âWeâll be able to see a to use its new engineering disease, medical professionals may be able to problem coming and intervene on the side of powers will be crucial. î¬ Engineering Ideas into Reality 53
China alone must build the equivalent of a city the size of Boston every 17 days to accommodate the 14 million additional people per year projected to live in the countryâs urban areas. alone must build the equivalent of a city the tion systems to cope with higher populations. size of Boston every 17 days to accommodate In the United States, urban engineers can the 14 million additional people per year envision a future where the number of cars projected to live in the countryâs urban areas. drops and an increasing proportion are shared. How can we keep all these people from ending When not in use in the denser, future city, many up in sprawling shantytowns cars might sit around in automated multistory all over the world? garages. Need a car? Call one with your Cities, Limits, and New Frontiers Many urban planners suggest that the answer smartphone. It may even drive to you and chauffeur you around. When youâre done, A half century from now, one of the most critical factors determining lies in taller, denser cities. âpush a button and the car parks itself in the what the future looks like will be this: how many people will be According to Antony Wood, parking garage,â says Holliday. Urban planners packed onto the planet? The United Nationsâ best estimate is that the executive director of the and engineers are already exploring many of global population will climb from todayâs 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion in Council on Tall Buildings and these possibilities. 2050. But higher fertility could send that soaring past 15 billion by the end of the Urban Habitat, engineers With more than 40 percent of the worldâs century. Or if the developing world emulates the low birth rates of countries like already know how to build population living within 60 miles of coast- Italy and Japan, the number could actually decline by then to 7 billion. soaring structures two or linesâand many more along riversâengineers three kilometers tall. Whatâs must also figure out how to make cities more Either way, the consequences will be profound. harder is maintaining the vitality of urban life in resilient against rising seas, river floods, and A more populated world increases the chal- a city of super-skyscrapers. So much of the extreme weather events. In the aftermath of lenges of providing food, health care, and vibrancy of a city goes on at ground levelâin 2012âs Superstorm Sandy, for instance, New housingâeven bumping up against the limits of parks, shops, and restaurants. The answer may York City has developed a detailed plan for what the planet can support. On the other hand, be to bring that vitality upward. âIf a city gets reducing the damage from future storms. The lower population numbers mean that average ten times more vertical and ten times denser, engineering steps that New York and other age will climb quickly, making it harder to care then we need to replicate the ground level in cities could take are as simple as elevating for the elderly. The number of people older than the skyâcreating urban habitats in the sky,â homes and moving the mechanical guts of 65 is on track to exceed those younger than 15 in says Wood. That shift would be a major buildings from the basement to higher floors, most countries within a decade or twoâfor the undertaking for urban planners and civil or as complex as re-creating and reengineering first time in human history. engineers. the buffer of coastal wetlands that can protect One trend thatâs safe to predict, however, Of course, future cities wonât be able to cities from raging storm surges. is increasing urbanization. More than half the function without other vital engineering But engineering the path to the future is worldâs people now live in cites. A million more advances: replacing and redesigning aging not just about planning for disaster, coping are born there or move in every week. China water mains and sewers; reshaping transporta- with potential limits, or finding solutions to 54 Making a World of Difference
innumerable problems. As this chapter tries to V I E W F R O M A FA R convey, itâs also about eradicating diseases; lifting millions out of poverty and sickness; forging stronger, more resilient communities; and A First Step to Other preparing for many possible futures. Itâs about Planetary Systems making life richer and more fulfilling. Itâs about The Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009 pushing back the frontiers of knowledgeâeven to search for planets orbiting other stars, has freeing us from the bounds of Earth. âWithin 25 found many such systems, including at least one, years, weâll go to space as routinely as we go the Kepler-186, with a planet similar to Earth in what grocery store today,â predicts Wanda Austin, astronomers call the âhabitable zoneââthe dis- president and CEO of The Aerospace Corpora- tance from a star at which liquid water can exist. tion. âIt could be for fun or because itâs critical Kepler-186 is 500 light-years away, meaning that for our survival.â light from its star takes 500 years to reach us. cal axis of the solar lensâto the closest point Just imagine what it would mean to use With the technology of the next decade or two, where the light from the object we want to look 500 light-years is much farther than we can send at, bending around the Sun, comes into focus engineering advances to finally understand the a probe to do a flyby. (above). The trick is getting our telescope out mysterious dark matter that makes up most of But we can undertake missions in the next there. The focus of the solar lens begins 3.2 light- the universe or to discover extraterrestrial life. few decades that could let us look more closely days from the Sun and continues outward, with âContributions from engineering will bring many the image quality improving as the telescope at some of the planets Kepler has found. Scien- more astonishing insights about ourselves, our tists and engineers have proposed to do this by gets farther away from the Sun. Earth, and our universe in the next 50 years,â taking advantage of an effect first predicted by Over the next half century, engineers will says Princeton Universityâs Robert Socolow. Albert Einstein in 1936ânamely, that the gravity develop new probes that will be smaller, lower Decade by decade, century by century, of large objects would bend light, just as a glass mass, and easier to propel to high speeds than engineering has taken us further and further lens does in a traditional telescope. Astronomers anything weâve launched so far. They will be from the first glimmerings of human art and already use gravitational lensing to get better powered by new propulsion systems, such as ion culture on the walls of Paleolithic caves. And to images, from our perspective on Earth, of objects rockets or âlight sailsâ (below left) that catch the located beyond large stars or galaxies. However, solar wind speeding from the Sun at more than some experts, itâs even helping us leave behind they canât âaimâ a galaxy or re-position Earth to million miles per hour. With a push from a laser some of the darker side of human nature. Harvard choose what to examine. beamed from Earth, our telescopeâs light sail University cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argues We could use our Sun itself as a gravitational could reach the focus of the solar lens in a few that as human society becomes more modern years. As engineering advances make probes still lensâexcept we canât do it from Earth, or even (in large part from technological advances), we from Earth orbit; weâre much too close. Instead, smaller and less expensive, we could even launch become a kinder, gentler species. âYou can see we have to send a telescope out along the fo- a swarm of space telescopes to different focal [the decline of violence] over millennia, over points of the Sunâs gravitational lens, giving us centuries, over decades, and over years,â he says. close-ups of more distant stars and the means to âWe are probably living in the most peaceful time detect radio or optical signals that might in our speciesâ existence.â indicate an advanced civilization. Itâs a highly controversial idea, but a hopeful âThe new frontier of the 20th century was and attractive one. If the march toward greater our solar systemâ says David Messerschmitt, Roger Strauch Professor Emeritus of Electrical enlightenment continuesâand the flowers of Engineering and Computer Sciences, University engineering bloom as they have throughout of California, Berkeley. âAnd the new frontier for historyâthen the next half century really will the 21st century will be interstellar space in our be worth looking forward to. î¬ region of the Milky Way galaxy.â î¬ 55