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Machine Impossible: Daunting Technologies Humans Can Dream Only

Machine Impossible

Daunting Technologies Humans Can Dream Only

Zeeshan Amin

Copyright 2017 Zeeshan Amin

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this book. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be distributed to others for commercial and non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized dealer. Thank you for your support.

Table of Contents

Note from the Author

Prologue: Technology Titans

Perpetual Motion Machines

Human Trees

Zero Pollution Engines

Time Machines

The Immortals

Afterward: The Technology Inferno

For H. who inadvertently led me to a path of self-discovery.

Note from the Author

Nearly a decade ago, while graduating as a mechanical engineer, I was passionate about the prospects of a solar-hydrogen vehicle. The concept was fairly simple: use photovoltaic cells to generate electricity; consume the generated electricity to electrolyze water, producing hydrogen and oxygen; and finally burn hydrogen into the vehicle engine instead of gasoline.

The output of such an engine would be water which can be reused for further electrolysis, generating more hydrogen for the next cycle of the engine – no need to replenish the fuel. The emissions of this engine would be water and oxygen which are already present in the environment – no worries about environmental pollution.

Captivated by the idea, I went on to pick the solar-hydrogen car as my graduation thesis. As I look back – after spending some time in the practical world– I find the idea of a viable solar-hydrogen vehicle somewhat outlandish. Not to discredit the other members of the project, it was a revealing experience for university students and I still cherish the battles we fought together and those we fought amongst us.

This book is not about hydrogen powered cars. However, it deals with certain impossible technology concepts that humans might never master. I can hear someone saying “Never say never” and “Nothing is impossible”. Yes, we should remain positive about the future but as we meld certain scientific principles with futurism, above two mantras seem exceedingly optimistic.

The book starts with a short narrative touching upon certain remarkable aspects of human inventiveness. After celebrating its technological achievements, I have questioned five technology ideas that humankind has dreamed since long. In my view, despite their brilliant ingenuity, humans might not be able to invent these technologies. Why? To answer this question, I let you follow the stories of some nearly impossible dreams fostering in human minds.

Prologue: Technology Titans

About 2.5 million years ago, on a unique planet called earth, an anonymous genius belonging to an archaic tribe of humans used a cobblestone to remove the sides of another cobblestone, thereby converting the later into a sharp-edged stone chopper. He or she was the first human inventor and this was the dawn of human technology.

About 2.5 million years ago, on the same planet earth, a mighty macho belonging to the family of apes unearthed a tree trunk and heaved it in swamp water. Recently, gorillas have been recorded to use tree trunks as makeshift bridges to cross deep patches of swamps.

About 2.5 million years ago, on another continent of planet earth, a particularly enormous organism, called an elephant, plucked tree branches and modified them in a peculiar way. Modern researchers have observed Asian elephants use tree branches to swat at annoying flies.

Three hypotheses can be constructed from the three figments depicted above:

One: humans are not the only technologists. Other animals can also have a knack for inventing tools. Though human mimicry is now regarded as a manifestation of Ape intelligence, any vestiges of technology transfer from ancient humans to animals or vice versa are absent.

Two: technology is older than humanity. Archaeological evidence suggests that elephants and gorillas existed long before human beings appeared on the face of the earth.

Three: technology stems from the needs of its inventors – it is utilitarian in nature.

These three premises, if accepted as truth, tend to defy the commonly perpetuated notion that science begets technology. Indeed, none of the animals and our ancient ancestors had any inkling about the intricacies of science yet they were inventors in their own capacity.

Not to discredit the esteemed scientists and engineers of the modern age, many contemporary technologies, from the laser to the atomic bomb, were invented by scientists, while their refinement is often done by engineers. However, science – a systematic study that explains how the world works – is a recent facilitator to the very functional nature of technology. In fact, this relatively new collaboration of science and technology has been vital for the stupendous industrial growth humankind has achieved during last few centuries.

Distinctly, compared to other animals, the technological advancement that human race has accomplished is unprecedented. None of those ancient cobblestone inventors had the foggiest idea that their descendants would one day ride cars, fly airplanes, set foot on the moon, fathom intricate genetic codes, and write and read books mentioning their own inventions.

This section of the book tells the story of why and how humans have become technology titans while others have not gone beyond their meager primal tools.

A vast majority of contemporary anthropologists are of the view that the first manmade tools invented in East Africa were mainly used to crack open animal bones in order to get to the marrow. This implies that the original human incentive towards technology was an instinct to survive.

A holistic glimpse at the earliest human habitats reveals that archaic men and women were literally mediocre – there were mightier predators like ferocious lions and irritable bears in the food chain; the competition for hunting was nothing but tough. By contrast, humans possessed neither piercing jaws nor powerful paws; so they invented flintstone choppers which they dug into leftover animal bones for retrieving residual edible tissue called bone marrow.

This portrayal may appear depressing to their modern descendants, yet it was a matter of survival for our ancient forebears. Whereas other animals have also been observed to make simple inventions, only human beings could not survive without tools, and consequently, only human lives have been increasingly shaped by the technology they have created.

Despite their many physiological similarities to apes, humans possess considerably larger brains. Compared to chimpanzee brains as big as 500 cubic centimeters, human cranium carries a brain averaging 1200 to 1400 cubic centimeters, which turns out to be around 2 percent of the total body weight.

Indeed, these dimensions are not the biggest in the animal world. An adult sperm whale possesses a brain as large as 8000 cubic centimeters; similarly, certain birds are known to have brains as heavy as 8 percent of their body weights. But then birds have unusually light bodies to facilitate their flight. Ostensibly, a mammal-to-mammal comparison would be more pertinent here.

Considering the fact that mammals having a weight of sixty kilograms have an average brain size of 600 cubic centimeters, humans with brains as large as 1400 cubic centimeters, are quite “heavy-headed” – they have an unusually large and heavy brain. An unusually large brain may point out towards superior intelligence but there are some trade-offs.

An enormous brain consumes enormous amounts of energy; whereas human brain accounts for merely 2 to 3 percent of the total body weight, it consumes 25 percent of its energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of apes require only 8 percent of their rest-time energy. Obviously, human brains are harder to fuel.

There could be two ways for archaic humans to satiate their immense energy needs: strive more for hunting animals – which was tough amidst stronger competitors – or alternatively, reduce energy consumption in other body limbs reserving the major chunk of the fuel for their massive brains.

Lacking enough food acquisition options and out of survival instinct, our ancient ancestors were bound to elect in favor of energy diversion from muscles to nerves. Consequently, their brains nurtured while their muscles atrophied; we are smarter than but not as muscular as other animals. Imagine the body builders who divert their food intake towards their biceps thus appearing more muscular; earliest humans adopted the opposite strategy.

As far as contemporary humans are concerned, this strategy of energy diversion has paid off well: chimpanzees are physically stronger than us – they can rip us apart in a combat – however, using our massive thinking machines, we have invented cars and guns so that we can shoot chimps and other mightier contenders from a safe distance; no need to wrestle.

Another singular human trait is their bipedalism. Unlike other mammals, humans are bipedal – they can stand and walk on two legs instead of four – an attribute that offers them a significant competitive advantage. Not only could primitive humans remain more vigilant about prey and enemies, being bipedal also meant that their arms were free from locomotion to perform other useful tasks.

Whereas human hands were free to make tools, the presence of an opposable thumb – thumb that can be positioned opposite to the fingers – was a bonus. Though most primates possess opposable thumbs too, yet humans have a unique ability to bring their thumbs all the way across the hand to ring and little fingers. Additionally, humans can flex the ring and little fingers toward the base of the thumb.

The remarkably flexible combination of opposable thumb and fingers allowed humans to make and manipulate tools with great dexterity. For a test, if you are tempted to neglect the importance of an opposable thumb, just try tying your shoelaces without using your thumbs.

Having superior brains, being able to walk on two legs instead of four, and granted with a deft pair of hands, humans were on the way to be the chief technologists. However, there are some missing links in this tale of technological progression.

Based on fossils bequeathed from earliest generations, modern anthropologists have transpired a surprising revelation: almost the whole of the incredible journey that mankind has traveled from flintstone choppers to the sophisticated technologies of twenty- first century has been covered in last 70,000 years. This period of 70 millennia is a momentous milestone that marks the beginning of human history; anything earlier than that is known as pre-historic.

On the known timescale of human existence spanning 2.5 million years, a period of 70 millennia represents only three percent of the entire voyage. Why anthropogenic technology remained limited to a few stone hammers, axes, and cleavers for the first ninety-seven percent of the total timespan? And which particular upheaval catapulted human inventiveness, through what seems to be a super-exponential growth, during the last 70,000 years? These are the questions that remain unanswered till date.

A naive way to explain this anomalous trend could be to claim that humans originally appeared only 70,000 years ago – a period close to the genesis of our unique technology. This means that there were no extant humans in prehistoric periods. Notwithstanding, genetic analysis of prehistoric skeletons refutes this idea vehemently.

Another viewpoint could be symbolically attached to the myth of Atlantis. In 360 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato told a story about an idealistic island that was drowned beneath the sea in a terrible natural catastrophe. Plato transcribed that one of the most significant hallmarks of this lost civilization was its sophisticated technology.

Devotees of the legend of Atlantis have suggested many possible locations of the lost island; however, whether Atlantis is a fact or fable still remains a myth. The legend of Atlantis signifies that there could exist an ancient civilization as technology-oriented as ours. Some recent discoveries of antique relics seem to reinforce this impression.

Almost two millennia ago, Hero of Alexandria, a Greek thinker, constructed a rudimentary steam jet engine called Aeolipile. Albeit ancient Greeks did not realize its potential and took it as a trivial toy, jet engines on modern airlines use the same principle to propel them through the air.

Amidst some relics found in Dendera Temple, near Luxor, southern Egypt, lays an object that has been controversially claimed to be an electric lamp, leading to another intriguing question: If the ancient Egyptians did have electric lights, how did they get their electricity? A two thousand years old artifact found in the remains of ancient Mesopotamia seems to provide an answer.

Discovered during the 1930s in Baghdad, Iraq, the two millennia old relic comprised a tiny clay pot containing a copper cylinder and an iron rod; a construction akin to a modern torch battery – only an electrolyte was missing. During the 1970s, scientists created a replica and filled it with grape juice; the arrangement gave an electrical current of one volt. Connected in series, these batteries could have produced a much bigger current – a hint towards ancient electricity.

In 1901, divers exploring a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera found remains of a wooden case. Dating from the 2nd century BC, the case contained around 30 gears arranged in a particular mechanism. Years of painstaking research over its reconstruction have led scientists to conclude that the machine was an amazing mechanical computer dating back to 150-100 BC, presumably the earliest known forerunner of the modern computer.

These high-tech souvenirs of yore point towards the likely existence of some primitive geniuses who could have produced technologies as good as or even better than today. Who knows how many more unbeknown mementos of ancient technologists await to be rescued from oblivion in dark caves, deep oceans or lost islands? At the same time, extrapolating our meager assortment of relics to infer the existence of prehistoric technology titans will be more than a stretch.

Whichever way it occurred, the consequences of human technology have been far more significant than its causes; especially, when we look at last couple of decades. During recent times, using our collective inventiveness, we have defeated numerous debilitating pandemics that used to wreak havoc during middle ages. While diseases like AIDS have still not rescinded in some parts of the world, they are no longer inextricable mysteries.

Likewise, the human race can proclaim with immodest hubris that in the twenty-first century, more people die due to overeating than hunger. Though malnutrition still remains a grave concern in certain parts of Asia and Africa and a sizeable population of this planet is still familiar with the torment of excruciating hunger, the dystopia of malevolent famines that used to gobble millions of lives in a single surge has been shattered.

During past hundred years or so, technological, political and economic upheavals have reinvigorated millions of humans from destitute to prosperity. Though these hundred years have also witnessed two world wars – one of which culminated into a nuclear cataclysm – the military annals of last few decades indicate that human beings have learned from their past imbecilities. With some exceptions, a majority of the civilized nations have started believing in coexistence instead of revulsion.

Some of the above thoughts may sound overly sanguine to some readers. But these are not intended to exonerate humanity from its unatoned sins. In our quest for glory, we have caused horrendous damage to nature. Guzzling on fossil fuels to meet our ever-increasing energy needs, we are left with little precious to pass on to future generations. By cutting forests and polluting aquatic habitats, we have contributed to the extermination of our fellow organisms. The list of our ecological crimes is virtually endless.

Thanks to their unique qualities, humans are already the indisputable technology titans of this globe. A major portion of the human population has surpassed the beastly survival struggles that their forebears had to wage. Living a prosperous, healthy, peaceful life, what will be the future goals of humanity? Off course, sustenance rather further enhancement of its ungratified existence.

The rest of this book elaborates some of the technological endeavors the contemporary humans are keen about. However, almost all of them are mere dreams that are highly unlikely to be realized as they either defy the basic scientific knowledge or pose existential risks to humanity itself.

*****

The Perpetual Motion Machines

The Free Energy Utopia

In the year 1979, Joseph Westley Newman, an American inventor, filed a patent request for his new invention – a super-efficient electric motor. For those who are unfamiliar with an electric motor, a brief introduction is in order. An electric motor is a machine that transforms electric energy (current) into mechanical energy (rotation). Whether it is a toy car or a washing machine, these motors are always operating behind the scene.

Four years later, Newman’s patent request was rejected by the United States Patent Office. The objection was that the inventor was claiming machine efficiency greater than hundred percent. Undaunted by the rejection, Newman appealed in the United States district court which requested the National Bureau of Standards to test the machine.

In June 1986, the National Bureau of Standards announced its verdict stating that the appellant’s claims were false. Under all conditions tested, the input power exceeded the output power. In no case, the device’s efficiency approached 100 percent, let alone exceeded it.

Since this book is not about Newman and his invention, a timely digression would be appropriate. However, before tumbling further into practical limitations associated with worldly machines, it would be apposite to describe efficiency itself.

The definition of machine efficiency is deceptively simple – the ratio of output and input. In case of an electric motor, efficiency is the ratio of the output mechanical energy it generates and the electrical energy that it consumes. A modern day premium efficiency electric motor has a practical limit of up to 97 percent, with the remaining 3 percent of input energy wasted as losses.

The output of all known machines is less than the input, attributed to inevitable losses. A machine with 100 percent efficiency implies that there are no losses. By extension, a machine with more than 100 percent efficiency – as was the claim with Newman’s device – means additional energy is being produced out of nothing – a free energy device.

The output motion of such a machine could continue indefinitely without stopping or slowing down thanks to the free energy being added continuously. This hypothetically incessant, consistent motion is called perpetual motion and the machine that produces it is known as a perpetual motion machine.

Speaking of machine efficiencies and the prospects of a perpetual motion machine, it is worth mentioning that Newman was not the first one to avow the attainment of perpetual motion. The history of perpetual motion machines dates back to the middle ages– a historical era between 500 and 1500 AD.

There are unverified accounts that the first perpetual motion machine appeared in eighth century Bavaria – present day Germany. Entitled as the magic wheel, it consisted of a wheel spinning on its axis powered by lodestones. Nonetheless, the first documented perpetual motion machine is accredited to an Indian author Bhaskara, as early as the twelfth century. Again, it was a wheel that supposedly kept spinning due to an imbalance created by flasks of mercury around its rim.

Although a few other attempts were made during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the idea of building a perpetual motion machine was losing its ground in the eyes of the approving authorities. During those times, an inventor could apply for and be issued a patent for merely a sketch or idea. There was no requirement to produce or build any real device. Consequently, anyone could come up with a novel, impractical notion.

By 1775, perturbed by a large number of ambitious patent applications, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris had issued a statement that it would no longer accept or deal with proposals concerning perpetual motion. On the other hand, Americans were still ardent about the outlook of a free energy machine that could work on its own without stopping.

Hitherto, perpetual motion machines were merely a technological endeavor. But during the nineteenth century, it became a lucrative arena for quacks. Some impostors would find investors to finance a theoretical perpetual motion machine, take their money for building a practical device, and invest it in banks or the stock market. Indeed, the investors got their money back when the machine was exposed to be a deception, but the criminals got away with the interest on that money.

The Philadelphia Hoax

Nineteenth century America was obsessed with the idea of a perpetual motion device, which invited tricksters to take advantage. The most famous hoax was devised by Charles Redheffer, a self-proclaimed inventor who enchanted Philadelphian public for a couple of years.

In the year 1812, Redheffer opened a house in Philadelphia where he placed a unique machine on display. The onlookers who came saw a machine that, according to its inventor, could run forever without an external aid. People were so fascinated that they agreed to buy a ticket – as expensive as $5 – for watching the machine in operation.

Redheffer himself was so enamored with his machine that he lobbied the state of Pennsylvania for funds to build a larger version. That proved to be a sheer mistake.

On January 21, 1813, the state sent eight inspectors to examine the machine. Upon arrival, the inspectors saw that the machine was in a room with a locked door, while the key was missing. They could only view it through a window, as Redheffer showed alarm that someone going near it might damage his precious invention.

To Redheffer’s misfortune, one of the inspectors, Nathan Sellers, had brought along his son, Coleman. The kid noticed that the gears in the machine were not working the way Redheffer claimed they did: the inventor claimed that his machine was powering an external device; young Coleman identified that the reality was the other way around – the external device was driving the machine.

Coleman shared his views with his father, who realized that what the youngster said made sense. However, instead of confronting Redheffer, Sellers astutely hired a local engineer to build his own perpetual motion machine – a replica of Redheffer’s machine. Having debunked the trick, Sellers let the news of Redheffer’s hoax spread throughout Philadelphia.

As his scheme fell apart, Redheffer fled to New York, where he set up a new machine and attracted large crowds again. Even here, doom followed the phony inventor. Amidst the New York spectators was Robert Fulton, a mechanical engineer best known for developing the first successful commercial steamboat. Fulton had noticed at once that the speed of the machine and the sound it made were uneven as if being cranked by hand.

Suspecting the authenticity of the device, Fulton tossed a challenge to Redheffer: Fulton would try to expose the real source of the machine’s energy, and if he could not, he would pay for any damage caused in the attempt. Under pressure from the crowd of visitors, Redheffer had no resort but to accept the offer.

As Fulton removed some boards along the machine sides, he found a cord running through the wall to the upper floor. Fulton rushed upstairs, where he found an old man sitting on a chair, turning a crank that drove the machine. Realizing they had been fooled, the crowd destroyed the machine on the spot. Once again, Redheffer fled the city immediately.

Leaving behind the amusing events of the Philadelphia hoax, and moving into the third millennium, the US Patent and Trademark Office eventually issued an announcement in 2001 that it will not grant a patent for a perpetual motion machine unless the person applying for the patent demonstrates a working model.

The Energy Chronicle

A few decades ago, humankind came to realize that provision of clean and sustainable energy for the future generations would be one of the most critical challenges ahead. To nineteenth century Philadelphians or New Yorkers, the perpetual motion machine was more of a superior invention. However, for contemporary humans, the idea of getting free energy signifies the continuance of their current energy-intensive lifestyles.

A vast majority of energy experts agree that we are on the verge of an impending energy crisis. This crisis is multifaceted and hence complex. In the following lines, we outline certain features of the looming energy predicament, though these features are vast subjects in themselves.

The crux of the matter is that humans of the third millennium are enormously dependent on energy resources; from food to transportation to communication, the role of energy is ubiquitous. Diminution in energy consumption would essentially cause cessation of modern civilization.

Whereas we cannot – or do not want to – dispense with our dependency on energy resources, these resources are both finite and scarce. Scarcity means that the available energy resources happen to be less than the collective wants of the human population. For generations, humanity has relied on fossil fuels – coal, oil, natural gas– for meeting their energy needs; and these fuels are depleting quickly.

Scarcity is closely linked with the economy: as fossil fuels dwindle, their exploration, retrieval, and processing become increasingly challenging, thereby raising the overall cost of these fuels which in turn is cascaded to all segments of the economy. If this happens, energy and its myriad outputs, from manufacturing to services sectors, will transform into rare, expensive commodities exclusively available to only those who can afford them.

Speaking of restricting the boons of energy to few elites only, it would be apt to reiterate the fact that disparity in energy consumption is already revealing across the globe. With less than five percent of global population, the United States consumes about one-fifth of global energy production. The per capita annual energy consumption in affluent countries like the US and Canada is nearly twenty times as high as in India, and about fifty times that in the poorest African nations.

Another critical aspect of modern energy usage is that humans, in their pursuit of better living standards, have caused an irreparable damage to the environment. Unrestrained combustion of fossil fuels during and after the industrial revolution have created adversities like global warming, air pollution, and associated health risks. As a consequence, disasters like rising sea levels, frequent heat waves, and changing weather patterns are already under way. (You will read more details on this in the third chapter).

In the backdrop of diminishing fossil fuels and concerns over burgeoning environmental pollution, energy entrepreneurs of the previous century tried to replace fossil fuels with nuclear fuels such as uranium. Whereas nuclear fuels propose promising potential for energy, tragedies like Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) have raised serious concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants.

Opponents of nuclear power further argue that health threats from radioactive nuclear wastes are no minor than those resulting from air pollution. In addition, these wastes can be exploited by terrorists to further their malicious intentions. Last but not least, nuclear fuels are also finite – humans will forage them in no time, and soon fossil fuel crisis will be replaced by the nuclear crisis.

From above deliberations, it is evident that humankind is looking for an energy panacea that is safe, secure, clean, cheap as well as sustainable. Sustainability refers to the altruistic desire that our extraction, production, and consumption of fuels should not compromise the energy needs of future generations. Both fossil and nuclear fuels are limited, polluting and by no means sustainable.

Most of the energy experts agree that any viable energy strategy for future will be a combination of conservation – reducing dependency and improving efficiency – and development of alternatives that could replenish themselves through natural cycles. These self-replenishing sources of energy are called renewable energy resources.

Most common examples of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, ocean, geothermal and biomass. Almost all of them derive their energy from the sun: in addition to direct sunlight and its extraction through photosynthesis (biomass), wind, hydropower, and geothermal energy are a consequence of earth’s natural cycles in which sun plays a pivotal role.

The good news is that attributed to virtually inexhaustible energy potential of the sun, the magnitude of the amount of renewable energy available on earth is astounding. For comparison, the influx of solar radiation arriving on earth is about five thousand times the power consumed by all contemporary humans worldwide. Moreover, renewable energy resources are intrinsically non-polluting as they exploit the naturally occurring energy cycles without disturbing the environment.

For such pollution-free abundance, terms like efficiency and conservation seem to be irrelevant. We could think of enduring instead further enhancing our energy-dependent lifestyles; there would be no need to make do with lesser resources as a copious amount is available. And that too, without contaminating the environment.

The bad news is that pollution-free profusion is only one side of the coin; the other side tells a different story – one of challenges and sacrifices: sunlight is unlimited but absent at night, we need to develop a dependable method for storing sunlight for nocturnal consumption; winds are also intermittent and not reliable in many parts of the world, we need to dedicate large lands for building wind farms; likewise resources like geothermal, wave and biomass are not fully exploited yet, the relevant technologies need to be developed extensively.

Despite being inexhaustible, renewable energy resources are not fully accessible. There are numerous technical challenges and we are uncertain if ongoing research can overcome the related barriers.

The looming energy crisis can be averted but only through long-term strategies incorporating a meticulously concocted mixture of energy conservation and renewables. Nevertheless, humans are so made that they always look for a magical wand that they can wave to solve their problems – can a perpetual motion machine be such a wand?

A Cornucopia of Free Energy

What if some new Newman invents a real, practical perpetual motion machine; will it sooth the energy woes of humankind? The answer is yes. A real perpetual motion machine will provide an unlimited supply of clean, safe, secure and sustainable energy; no need to ponder about cost as unlimited abundance eliminates price tags – a cornucopia of free energy at your disposal!

Such a hypothetical cornucopia could have staggering socio-economic implications at the global stage. In order to understand these implications, it would be obligatory to say a few words about economy.

An economy is a system that uses finite resources to create goods and services that we consume on daily basis. Since these goods and services are produced from finite resources, they are intrinsically limited in number. In order to produce more out of less, we need to economize – improve the efficiency of conversion through waste minimization. Conversely, an abundance of resources alleviates the need to economize. There is no economy required in the absence of scarcity.

The proposed plethora of the so-called free energy will have profound impacts on individual and societal scales. As individuals, humans will like to have more and more power-operated devices that could perform their laborious tasks. Probably everything with the exception of creative arts will be done through machines while humans could limit themselves to only those activities that they enjoy.

As societies, humankind will become increasingly aloof as reliance on neighbors and friends would be lessened. As enterprises will get free energy for their products and services, amenities would be available at cheaper prices. At the same time, workers associated with energy industry will face unemployment. In a knowledge-based economy, knowledge workers will be the real capital.

At regional and global scales, dependence on dominating oil-rich nations will be over. Likewise, global oil economy worth billions of dollars will be exterminated almost overnight. However, since nature abhors vacuum, knowledge services and intangibles such as tourism might replace fossil fuels as the staples of the new oil-free economy.

There is no Free Energy

Returning from the free energy utopia, let us now examine how real world machines utilize energy. Every machine needs a supply of energy, of which it uses some proportion to perform intended work, while it gives off the rest as waste heat. The starting energy equals the sum of the energy used to do the work and the energy expended as waste heat. This is known as the law of energy conservation.

Also known as the first law of thermodynamics, the law of energy conservation states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed but can be converted from one form to another. Those forms include mechanical, electrical, magnetic, thermal, chemical, nuclear energy etc.

In order to understand the law, let us consider a bow and arrow. By pulling the arrow back, a person does work in bending the elastic bow. The bent bow has potential energy– elastic potential energy, to be more scientific. When the person releases the arrow, potential energy is converted to kinetic energy as the arrow is now in motion.

As the arrow embeds itself into the target, it possesses neither potential nor kinetic energy. But the arrowhead and the target have a slightly higher temperature– they have thermal energy. Nothing lost and nothing gained, only a transfer of energy: potential energy to kinetic energy to thermal energy.

The law of energy conservation is a cosmic generalization. No one has ever found an exception to this rule. If anyone encounters a situation in which energy appears not to be conserved, there can be four possible conclusions:

One: Energy in one form or another is entering or leaving the machine. An example of external entry of energy is the effort exerted by the old man hired by Redheffer to crank his fake invention.

Two: There is some unknown form of energy involved that goes unnoticed or cannot be measured. In the next chapter, you will read an account of some researchers pointing towards a possible fourth phase of water that can transduce solar energy.

Three: Humans dealing with the machine are incompetent and making some mistake— necessary means and abilities are lacking. There is no dearth of precedents where wrong people are placed in the wrong positions.

Four: We have discovered an example where the law of energy conservation is being violated. While the first three scenarios are likely and do occur in nature, the fourth assertion is worth dismissing immediately.

A perpetual motion machine, having more output than input, would keep on creating additional, free energy causing an endless motion. This is a pure violation of the first law of thermodynamics which clearly states that energy cannot be created. In other words, producing more output than input is impossible for any machine. You don’t get something for nothing!

Heat Death

Going back to the example of bow and arrow described earlier, it is a hopeless fact that the thermal energy gained by the arrow and the pitiable target cannot be further converted into any other useful form. Heat occupies a unique position in the ladder of energies: all other forms of energy can be completely converted to it, but its conversion into other forms can never be perfect.

In any energy conversion process, some of the energy is essentially lost as heat. Since the lost heat cannot be recovered — just like dead cannot be recovered again— the phenomenon of irreversible heat loss is figuratively called heat death.

For instance, burning a fuel such as coal generates heat, light, some occasional sounds, and certain inevitable combustion gases. A lump of coal is a high-quality, highly ordered form of energy; its combustion will produce heat, a dispersed, low-quality, disordered form of energy. The trouble is that this energy conversion sequence is irreversible: diffused heat (and emitted combustion gases) cannot be ever reconstituted as a lump of coal.

As we continue consuming energy resources, we are continuously converting highly ordered substances to a relative chaos— a lack of order. This lack of order is called entropy. The term was coined by Rudolph Clausius, a German physicist. In 1865, Clausius stated that the entropy of the universe has an irreversible propensity for increasing to the maximum. This statement is known as the second law of thermodynamics.

The second law of thermodynamics is another revered principle that dictates the energy regime from subatomic to galactic scales. This law implies that with every passing instant, the disorder or entropy of the universe is increasing while available useful energy is diminishing due to inevitable heat death.

Eventually, when all energy available in the universe will “die” as unrecoverable heat, entropy or disorder of the universe will achieve a maximum value; it will not increase further. This imaginary event is called The Big Freeze and will ensue all cosmic movements to a complete halt. With the Big Freeze, the temperature of the universe will approach a value called “Absolute Zero”.

Real world machines and processes leave things changed permanently due to heat death. Any perpetual motion machine would have to take energy at some point, use it for work, and yet return everything to its original state, unchanged, without any heat loss, at the end of the cycle. This is a violation of the second law of thermodynamics which states that increase in disorder is unavoidable.

How to Build a Perpetual Motion Machine?

Departing from science and moving to the practical world of technology, let us see how we can build a perpetual motion machine or anything close enough. A practical perpetual motion device must possess certain uncharacteristic traits:

First of all, the machine should not have any rubbing parts. Parts rubbing against each other will essentially create friction which is a thermal wastage. Friction will entail loss of energy causing the machine to slow down and eventually stop. With all their collective ingenuity, humans are yet to create a perfectly smooth, friction-free surface.

Secondly, the machine must be operated inside a vacuum. Although smaller in magnitude, surface contact with air also causes friction. Aiming at an efficiency of hundred percent, even the slightest energy loss is unacceptable.

Finally, the machine should not produce any sound at all. Sound is a form of energy; the louder the sound, the more energy does the machine lose as wastage. Building such a frictionless machine with a completely silent operation is infinitely daunting for current lot of scientists and engineers.

The Demise of Physics

Like any body of knowledge, science is governed by certain holy rules – any violation thereof would annihilate the very foundations of contemporary scientific knowledge. A perpetual motion machine ¬– if perchance one existed– falsifies two of the most sacred laws of physical sciences.

In order for perpetual motion machines to be possible, some new body of knowledge would have to break physics as we know it. We would be wrong about everything from laws of motion to the theories of relativity. The logical structure of contemporary physics will have to perish and give way to something completely new.

An Implausible Proposition

A successful, practical perpetual motion machine can provide humankind with an eternal source of free energy. However, the idea is, above all, an implausible proposition of epic proportions.

You can find so many so-called perpetual motion machines on the internet but a majority of them do not have a patent. Though some machines have been granted patents during recent years, granting of a patent does not mean that the invention actually works. In all likelihood, the patent inspector failed to figure out the truth.

Since energy cannot be created and its loss is inevitable in the universe, any perpetual motion machine will be built upon the corpse of the current body of physical sciences. Building an absolutely friction-free, noise-free machine is an impossible task. Therefore, no genuine perpetual motion machine currently exists, has ever existed, or could ever exist.

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Human Trees

Food from the Sun

Around 2.5 billion years ago, some smart earthly organisms invented a mechanism to extract energy from incoming sunlight. By harnessing the energy in the sun’s rays and consuming carbon dioxide and water from the environment, they developed an ability to make their own food molecules. This unique capability allowed them to survive for billions of years without leaving their birthplace. These organisms are now called plants and the process by which they manufacture their food is called photosynthesis.

About 600 million years ago, some smarter organisms took on a rather selfish evolutionary path: they opted to be mobile organisms that could feed themselves on the food prepared by plants. Some of them even chose to forage other fellow mobile beings to meet their energy needs. These traveling creatures are called animals.

From a biological perspective, humans belong to the animal kingdom; they share several common traits with animals. Contrary to plants and just like animals, humans cannot make their own food. Not unlike animals, we have to move around to make our both ends meet. And perhaps the only benefits we can get from direct sunlight are receiving some vitamin D and release of some endorphins — neurotransmitters that relieve pain and induce euphoria.

Many of the modern human technologies including airplanes and bullet trains are a product of biomimicry. Can humans emulate plants’ photosynthesis to fulfill their own nutritional needs; can there be any human trees? Before answering this question, let us examine what it takes to make a plant or tree.

Green Mimicry

In the last chapter, we saw that energy can be transformed from one form to another so that the total sum is conserved. Photosynthesis is another energy conversion process that transforms light energy into chemical energy— energy locked in chemical bonds of vegetables and fruits that we get from plants.

The exact biochemistry of photosynthesis is intricate and somewhat irrelevant here so I will not bother the readers with the related chemical equations. Instead, the intention is to elaborate the mechanism using simple prose.

The term photosynthesis is a Greek compound combining photo (light) and synthesis (putting together). Like any chemical reaction, photosynthesis requires certain reactants present under the right set of conditions. The reactants, in this case, are carbon dioxide and water which occur in our environment naturally. The rest of the tale revolves around achieving the favorable circumstances.

All green plant cells contain certain organelles capable of absorbing solar radiations; they give plants their green color and are called chloroplasts. The green pigment inside chloroplasts is called chlorophyll and is responsible for absorbing sunlight for photosynthesis.

As it captures solar irradiance, chlorophyll converts light energy into a compound called ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) through a chemical reaction that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. This part of the photosynthesis is called light reaction as it requires sunlight. Oxygen is generated as a byproduct and is released to the atmosphere during this daylight activity.

The second stage of photosynthesis does not need solar radiations; hence these reactions are called dark reactions. Dark reactions involve the combination of hydrogen ions (obtained during light reactions) with carbon dioxide to form glucose; ATP molecules formed during the first phase are used to energize the dark reaction. The plants may use fresh glucose immediately or store as starch for later consumption.

The details of dark reactions were revealed by Melvin Calvin, an American biochemist, who won 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of chemical pathways of photosynthesis. In the honor of this discovery, dark reactions are also termed as The Calvin Cycle.

After delineating the process of plant photosynthesis, let us now muse over the prerequisites for making a human or animal photosynthesizer. In order to mimic a tree’s photosynthesis, we need to have chloroplasts in our cells which are absent in current human anatomy. Some nutritionists suggest that adding chlorophyll to our diet can enable us to take in the energy of the sun. Some enthusiasts even hint that chlorophyll is similar to hemoglobin present in our blood.

Hemoglobin is a protein that occurs in red blood cells of humans and animals. It contains an iron-rich pigment called heme which imparts red color to our blood. To be fair, chlorophyll and hemoglobin are comparable in some ways— they are amazingly similar in chemical structure — their functions are distinctly different though.

The primary role of blood hemoglobin is to carry oxygen from lungs to body cells. It also transports waste carbon dioxide from body tissues to the lungs from where it is exhaled into the atmosphere. By contrast, plants use chlorophyll to consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen to the atmosphere.

Unlike hemoglobin, chlorophyll releases oxygen as a byproduct; it has no capacity to retain oxygen like hemoglobin does in our bloodstream. Even if it did, the oxygen carried through leafy vegetables could create an explosion in our stomach by reacting with some flammable gases. Moreover, contrary to some bizarre claims, the human body lacks any capability to convert chlorophyll into hemoglobin.

In order to mimic plant photosynthesis in animals or humans, their cells need to be engineered genetically to introduce an equivalent of chloroplast. Indeed, humans are making breakneck progress in genome engineering but it is not just a technological contest. There are some treacherous compromises involved as well.

The Cost of Being a Tree

Plants seem to be smart creatures that do not need to strive for their nourishment. They are capable of making their own food “without moving a muscle”. But, given our fidgety nature, being a tree will not be an amusing experience for a human being.

Though originally opted as an evolutionary strategy, immobility has been the most evident plant trait for billions of years. Even if they desired, trees could not afford the luxury of trotting like horses. The primary constraint, in this case, is the low energy density of the incoming sunlight.

As a matter of fact, photosynthesis is one of the least efficient energy conversion processes. Every year, the sun throws about 3.8 × 1024 joules of energy to the earth, out of which 8.4 × 1021 joules are used for fruitful photosynthesis; an efficiency of 0.22 percent — remaining ninety-nine percent of incoming solar energy remains uncaptured.

Thinking like a human tree, this is a shameful performance. But unlike humans, trees are gratified creatures who remain pleased with their meager existences. What would be more embarrassing is that a human tree— if perchance one happened to exist— would be nightmarishly huge.

An average, healthy human in his or her prime needs around 2,500 Calories of energy on daily basis. The biggest chunk of this energy is consumed by an extraordinarily large human brain. The rest time neural activity of human brain accounts for around 25 percent of the total body energy consumption; a vexing mental exercise increases this value by a slight amount.

By contrast, plant energy needs — though exact values are obscure — are relatively little mainly because they are static creatures and they do not carry a power-hungry thinking machine. A human tree moving here and there and carrying a humongous brain will require a colossal surface area to capture enough sunlight to meet its excessive energy requirements; consequently, the hybrid will be a clumsy looking creature, sprawling disproportionately. You will have to stand in the sun throughout the day, still unsure about your nocturnal energy needs.

Another remarkable plant trait is their ability to absorb water from the ground; plant tissues that make this happen are called roots. Whereas plants have the luxury of absorbing water through roots, humans get water only through drinking. The human body is about 60 percent water. By contrast, plants are 95 percent water. Being a human tree would imply that we will have to gulp gallons and gallons of water, probably replacing our petty goblets with multi-gallon containers.

A Synergy for Energy

Human imitation of plant photosynthesis may sound like a hallucination. However, some shrewd animals have used clever tricks to exploit photosynthetic plants as a source of energy. They have deployed intelligent synergies with tiny plants such as algae to mollify a small part of their hunger with free food.

The most famous example of such an alliance is corals that encourage algae to grow inside their tissues. While the tenants get a free accommodation, the owners get to steal some of the energy that the algae make from sunlight. This kind of relationship in which both organisms get benefits from the synergy is termed as mutualism.

A group of sea slugs, called Sacoglossa, go one step further: they steal chloroplasts from the algae that they eat, incorporating the stolen organelles into their own cells. However, these chloroplasts do not last long, so to replenish their supply, the sea slugs must eat more algae. Not a bad effort!

Some researchers believe that chloroplasts — the tiny green cell organelles that are in fact nanomachines of photosynthesis— were independent organisms eons ago. Subsequently, they took up residence inside cells of other organisms where they have lived ever since. If this hypothesis is true, it suggests an interesting scenario where human genome could be engineered to induct chloroplasts in body cells.

Successful human trees must not only maintain chloroplasts inside their cells but should also pass them down to their offspring. This is far beyond current human capabilities; however, an eventual success could open new horizons for human and animal populations.

The Green Revolution

We owe a great deal to trees. The generous plants take in the carbon dioxide that we breathe out; in exchange, they give us oxygen that we breathe in. They help maintain the amount of water in the air; they do not let the ambient temperature exceed opposite extremes. In addition, they prepare for us energy-rich organic compounds such as sugars and starches which are an essential part of our diet.

Though this suggestion may sound somewhat delirious, what if humans could do all these things by themselves? What if a human could take the shape of a tree while maintaining his or her own individuality? Such a transformation could have profound consequences on humans and their environment.

According to World Food Program, every ninth inhabitant of planet earth suffers the torment of being undernourished. A majority of hunger-stricken people live in poor countries of Asia and Africa. More than three million children die every year before reaching the age of five due to malnutrition. Though we have defeated famines by and large, hunger remains a perilous menace for many.

Human photosynthesizers could not only alleviate hunger; it could also help us combat environmental pollution by quenching carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Donning an attractive green sheen, humans could use their own carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and their own oxygen for body metabolism. While anthropogenic activities are the most blameworthy cause of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and consequent global warming, human trees could redeem for the unatoned environmental sins of their non-tree forefathers.

The so-called “green revolution”, a state of nutritional autonomy, may cause folks to think differently. People may choose between labor and leisure, as work will become optional — only required to gain fancier possessions and not for food. Some of the people will work for intrinsic satisfaction while others will prefer to pursue the dreams of their childhood.

The Fourth Phase of Water

Getting back to the realm of reality where there is no free lunch, researchers are avidly interested in the prospects of human photosynthesis. A group of scientists has hinted towards a possible equivalent of chlorophyll in our skin— melanin, a pigment located in outer skin layer that protects the body against the ultraviolet radiation. The group claims that melanin could act as a light-capturing antenna collecting sunlight just like chlorophyll.

Another prominent study accentuates the role of water — the most abundant constituent of human body— as a light-absorbing substance. From schooldays, we have learned that water has three phases: solid, liquid and gas or vapor. But this study claims a fourth phase called the exclusion zone, abbreviated as EZ. The reason for this name is that this state of water excludes all solutes and does not dissolve anything.

The fourth phase of water has been described as a state between ice and liquid water, a kind of liquid crystal. More viscous, dense and alkaline than ordinary water, it carries additional oxygen; its chemical formula is H3O2. This phase is said to occur adjacent to hydrophilic — water loving — surfaces including our bodies. What is crucial here is that this phase thrives upon absorption of light.

The study proposes that water has the ability to transduce sunlight thereby converting ordinary water into more ordered, liquid-crystalline water, EZ— the fourth phase. This is a continuous process; additional absorption of radiant energy converts more ordinary water to EZ.

The presumed process of EZ generation resembles photosynthesis (described earlier) to a certain degree. Just like photosynthetic light reaction, this sun-powered process involves splitting of water molecules into positive and negative halves. The positive half combines with water to form hydronium ions while the negative half constitutes the building blocks of EZ. Adding more light creates more charge separation and the separated charges form a battery which, in essence, is an energy repository.

The components of this battery include water, sunlight and a hydrophilic surface. For comparison, water and sunlight play almost the same role here as in photosynthesis, and both are available in ample amounts. Nearly two-third of you and me is water, and who can deny the exuberance of sunlight that we enjoy.

However, the existence of a hydrophilic surface in our body — an equivalent of chlorophyll in this case — is still ambiguous. Who knows melanin, our skin pigment, could emulate plant chlorophyll enabling us to harvest energy from the sun. However, as more elaborate research is under way, drawing any conclusion at this stage will be a hasty generalization.

Trees are Trees, Humans are Humans

Some of the modern inventions are attributed to biomimetics. Examples abound: Wright brothers and their predecessors attempted at airplanes, taking inspiration from birds; When George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, removed burrs from his dog, he coined the idea of Velcro; similarly, Japanese refined their bullet trains observing the knife-shaped bill of kingfisher, a short-tailed, fish-eating fowl.

Contrary to above examples, humans have seldom tried to mimic the charming features of animals and plants on their own bodies. The reason is obvious: biomimicry involving human bodies poses some existential risks. An example of such existential risk is human photosynthesizers where humans will lose their humanism while imitating plants.

Whereas some researchers are determined to discover certain magical substances that could serve as human chlorophyll, the present human technology is totally unable to enable human photosynthesis. Moreover, even if we could enable it, there will be certain mind-boggling sacrifices involved.

Bottom line: trees are trees; humans are humans. Period.

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Zero Pollution Engines

A Tale of Environmental Redemption

On 5 December 1952, when Londoners awoke, yawning and rubbing their eyes, they could see the sun dawning beyond a clear sky. Afterwards, as they mingled with the bustle of banal metropolitan schedules, a light veil of fog started enshrouding the British capital. By the afternoon, the fog had taken the shape of a yellow haze as it blended with thousands of tons of smoke being pushed into the skies of London through its innumerable industrial engines.

For London inhabitants, fog was no wonder but this soot-laden mixture of fog and smoke—smog—was phenomenal beyond their senses. It was so dense that people walking in the street were unable to see their own feet. But the worst attribute of this smog was that it carried acidic particulates discharged from coal burning power plants, causing breathing problems for inhabitants.

Exacerbating the anguish, a high-pressure air system parked over London prevented any air from blowing and sweeping away the polluted mist. Four days later, when the toxic smog eventually subsided, it had already claimed 4,000 lives with 150,000 citizens hospitalized. Later estimates indicated that the actual death toll was more than 12,000.

Though the killer smog of London was a hapless episode, the city could not blame anyone except itself. The culprit was consumption of fossil fuels that were being burnt to meet the limitless energy needs of London dwellers. Regrettably, United Kingdom is not the only place where such environmental disasters can occur; other industrialized nations such as China and the United States are equally vulnerable. In fact, out of twenty most polluted cities, China is already home to sixteen.

The demon of environmental pollution was born as the industrial revolution got underway during the eighteenth century; it entered puberty during the twentieth century; and at the dawn of the twenty-first century, pollution had taken the form of a looming monster. An unwanted offspring of industrialization, the menace of environmental pollution remained largely overlooked till events like the London Smog occurred.

The killer smog of London forced the British Parliament to pass clean air act in 1956. Since then, realizing the hazard, the international community has taken many steps to abate environmental degradation due to fuel combustion. However, some environmentalists assert that now it is too late to act; the monster has already been unleashed and reducing the environmental pollution to zero or pre-industrial levels is next to impossible.

Last two chapters were related to human energy needs, both internal and external. This one is concerned with our environment and how we have impacted it. Can humankind redeem for its ecological crimes? Is zero pollution achievable? These are the themes of this chapter. Nonetheless, before learning about the remedy, it would be useful to know the history and symptoms of the disease.

Boons and Banes of Industrial Revolution

When human society was rooted almost 12,000 years ago — the agricultural revolution — the technology was confined to a limited number of tools used for hunting and burning fires. Since then, no other event in known history has impacted human lifestyles as profoundly as the industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution began in the mid-1700s in England and around mid-1800s in the United States. Though industrialization had kick-started earlier, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the development of first practical steam engine in 1769 was the real push that sped the revolution up to its full throttle.

The advent of the industrial revolution accompanied a rapid economic change that altered all aspects of human life. As new mass production centers were established, innovative inventions were contrived bringing in a myriad of conveniences in peoples’ lives. As a consequence of extraordinary technological progress, newer and cheaper products were made available to faraway communities, thereby improving their standards of living. With the unprecedented scientific advancement, disease diagnosis and medical care techniques were also improved.

The establishment of centralized production systems engendered the need for transportation of finished goods to local, regional and global markets. The resulting development in the transportation means— trailer trucks, trains, and ships—along with additional activities like road construction and fuel processing had serious environmental repercussions like air pollution, depletion of natural resources and habitats destruction.

With the dawn of industrialization, rural and suburban areas were swallowed by urban centers. As transportation networks expanded, the problems of traffic congestion, noise pollution, and air contamination emerged as serious environmental issues. More road vehicles meant more emissions, new road constructions and greater demand for oil exploration. This was in addition to increased levels of carbon dioxide emissions and greater potential for the greenhouse effect.

Before industrialization, people preferred to manufacture products that could last longer; they tended to repair rather than replace goods. As the industrial revolution promoted consumerism, nearly every city and town established an open-air dump, where citizens brought items that could not be otherwise reused, sold, or recovered. With the population growth, people produced more trash, turning city dumps into mountains of stinking and toxic garbage.

Prior to the industrial revolution, major health threats were linked with lack of sanitation. The launching of new products introduced additional pollutants like CFCs, volatile organic compounds, soot, and sulfur oxides. In addition to the health hazards linked with pollution, the quest for more and improved products at cheaper rates resulted in harsh working conditions for workers, inappropriately long working hours and child labor.

Starting from 1769— the year when James Watt patented his steam engine— world annual coal production had increased 800 fold until 2006; and a decade later, the consumption is still on the rise. Simultaneously, other fossil fuels are being extracted too. These fuels have been consumed ruthlessly during last two centuries for enhancing human standards of living, but not without a painful tradeoff.

Heaving reaped the benefits of industrialization, as humankind opened its eyes in the twenty-first century; it was in the face of an ecological calamity. There are myriad facets of this calamity with its sources both diverse and dispersed. Photochemical smog is not the only form of environmental pollution. It is just one of the symptoms of a deeply rooted disease. But before a detailed examination of the ecological illness, let us consider the portentous threats lurking over the global climate.

The Climate Catastrophe

Human-induced climate change can be explained in three simple steps:

One: Anthropogenic combustion of fossil fuels during and after the industrial revolution has caused increased levels of carbon dioxide in the environment.

Two: Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.

Three: Heat-trapping due to greenhouse effect has increased average global temperatures. This is called global warming.

What follows these simple steps is of enormous consequence, however. Warmer future climates will lead to rapid melting of glaciers leading to rise in sea-levels, causing flooding of coastal cities and densely populated river deltas. The subsequent lack of hygiene due to stagnant water ponds, heaps of sewage and poor relief facilities in under developed countries are likely to cause more water-borne diseases.

Changes in climate temperatures and rainfall patterns might affect crop production, creating issues of food security, especially in poor countries. Although developed nations are less likely to be impacted by these effects, they may have to expand their arable land.

Scientists claim that the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the resulting heat waves during summer are likely to increase heat-related illnesses and deaths. Elderly people and children are vulnerable to these effects, in particular. The heat wave that killed around 35,000 people in Western Europe in 2003 is a horrific example.

Even if we posit these climate threats as an exaggerated account, the current state of our environment is far from commendable. In our conquest for magnificence, we have transformed the only known life-bearing planet into an ailing planet.

The Ailing Planet

As we relish the luxuries of modern life, power engines that enable these luxuries also spew various pollutants to the atmosphere. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides emitted from fossil fueled power generators, industrial steam boilers, and vehicular engines combine with water in the atmosphere to produce dilute solutions of sulfuric acid, nitric acid and nitrous acid. These acids are precipitated back to the ground, making surface water and soil more acidic. This phenomenon is called acid rain.

The connection between acid rain and declining aquatic animal populations is indubitable. Toxic metals such as aluminum dissolve in acidic lakes; the increased concentration of these toxic metals adversely affects fish and other aquatic species. In addition, acidic water kills the small plants that feed fish, thereby affecting the whole food web.

Studies have indicated that birds living in areas with pronounced acid deposition have a greater likelihood of laying eggs with thin, fragile shells that may break and dry out before hatching. The problem is attributed to reduced proportion of calcium in the birds’ diet. Due to increased calcium solubility in acidic water, the plant roots lack calcium; so do the insects eating those plants. Thus, when birds eat insects with low calcium, they also face calcium deficit.

In addition to the detrimental effects of acid rain on animals and plants, precipitation of acidic substances corrodes building materials and metals. Historic sites in Venice and Rome are known to be worn away by acid deposition. Another example is the destruction of ancient Mayan ruins in southern Mexico, which is attributable to acid rain caused by uncapped emissions from oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

Apart from other pollutants, most coal-fired power plants are major mercury emitters. Mercury is present in coal in small traces and is released to the atmosphere during combustion. Mercury is a neurotoxin and, if deposited in an aquatic environment in the form of methyl mercury, it can accumulate in invertebrates and fish and is likely to affect their neural tissues.

During last quarter of the twentieth century, scientists identified some holes in the ozone layer. Ozone is a form of oxygen containing three oxygen atoms instead of two. It occurs naturally in the stratosphere between 19 and 30 kilometers above the earth, where it is produced as oxygen atoms split apart in the presence of sunlight, reuniting subsequently as a combination of three.

Ozone in the stratosphere protects earth and its inhabitants from high energy carcinogenic ultraviolet radiation. Certain chemicals called CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) contained in refrigerants, aerosol sprays, coolants and fire extinguisher blowing agents have been found to react with stratospheric ozone, creating loopholes in this protective shield.

Speaking of land pollution, the garbage accumulating in our surroundings can also have continuing effects on human health and the environment. Various studies have indicated that there are health risks for people who live near landfills, including increased rates of certain types of cancer. Some of the chemicals present in the garbage have the potential to contaminate underground water reserves and pollute the atmosphere.

Phthalate, a chemical present in plastic wrappings, soft plastic toys and plastic medical equipment, is known to interfere with human hormone functions. Similarly, industrial solvents like trichloroethylene, an artificial chlorinated solvent widely used in industry to remove grease from metal parts and textiles, and perchloroethylene, a chemical mainly used as a dry-cleaning agent, are of great concern because they are potentially carcinogenic.

The past few decades have witnessed amazing advancement in technology, especially in the field of electronics. Despite the remarkable facilities offered by these advances, they have given birth to a new type of hazardous waste, called e-waste. E-waste refers to the consumer electronics that are discarded or are useless. These discarded items contain numerous toxic wastes and are growing rapidly in our surroundings.

It has been estimated that around 50 million tons of electronic products are discarded annually around the world. Most of the electronic wastes are produced by developed nations, which are later exported to developing countries for disposal. Since the government regulations are either absent or are not enforced in these third world countries, the used electronic products are often easily accessible to general public, who are exposed to health hazards associated with e-wastes.

The primary concern with e-wastes is the hazardous content they carry. Studies indicate that more than 1000 chemicals including chlorinated solvents, PVC plastics and various types of gases are used for manufacturing of electronic products and their components. For instance, computer monitors, typically contain 4 to 8 pounds of lead, a heavy metal known for causing brain damage among children.

Similar to monitors, flat panel TVs contain large amounts of mercury, which is a proven carcinogenic. Switches and batteries contain cadmium and nickel, which are toxic for humans, animals and plants alike. Metal housings and joints, often coated with chromium corrosion protector, cause toxicity in liver and kidney. Similarly, beryllium dust generated from relays, connectors and motherboards are highly poisonous for humans when inhaled.

A lesser known form of environmental pollution is thermal pollution. The cooling towers used in power plants release heat directly into the atmosphere, which raises the air temperature drastically, thus contributing to global warming.

Water heating due to thermal pollution alters marine ecology to a great extent. Since hot water holds relatively less oxygen; many species in aquatic habitats face difficulty in survival. Similarly, during nuclear plant startup, shut down for maintenance and then sudden startup creates abrupt temperature changes in water contained in lakes. These thermal shocks can be lethal for certain aquatic species.

According to World Water Council, 3900 children die every day due to waterborne diseases. Water pollution is one of the most offending environmental problems and is indicative of the misuse of the planet’s resources. Water pollution refers to any physical, chemical or biological change in water quality that adversely affects living organisms or makes it unsuitable for desired purposes. Waste water discharged from various sources contains many pollutants that create serious health hazards for humans.

Infectious diseases are among the most serious consequences of water pollution; especially in developing countries, where sanitation may be inadequate or non-existent. Waterborne diseases occur when parasites or other disease-causing microorganisms are spread via contaminated water. The resulting diseases include typhoid, intestinal parasites, and most of the enteric and diarrheal diseases caused by bacteria, parasites, and viruses.

Pills of Recovery

During last couple of decades, we have tried various remedies for curing our ailing planet. Let us have a synopsis of these recovery pills starting with coal-fired power plants.

Several solutions have been proposed for reducing the environmental impacts of coal burning in power plants. Increasing the efficiency of power generation, retrofitting old plants with newer and more efficient technology alternatives, carbon sequestration, promulgation of carbon taxes, switching to low sulfur and nitrogen coals and use of clean coal burning technologies such as fluidized bed combustors and installation of scrubbers in flue gas streams have been tried as possible pollution reduction measures.

Carbon sequestration refers to the removal of carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Alternatively, carbon can be directly seized from industrial emissions sources such as fossil fuel power plants. After capturing carbon dioxide from its emission source, it is stored in deep saline aquifers, old oil and coal beds or in deep oceans. In certain storage sites, carbon can be retained for decades or even centuries.

One of the most popular economic strategies to discourage excessive fuel consumption is the implementation of carbon taxes. For this purpose, a certain value of money is added to the original price of carbon fuels, making them expensive, so that the consumers use these fuels more prudently. Further, the revenue generated from carbon taxes can be invested in cleaner energy resources.

Another market-based tool to reduce greenhouse emissions is carbon trading. Unlike carbon tax, which is a rigid levy upon carbon-emitting fuels; carbon trading proposes a more flexible economic solution to global warming.

Carbon trading works much like trading of other commodities: a governing body sets a cap on the level of emissions and issues certain allowances to emitters; the emitters or members of the scheme can sell and buy carbon allowances among other members. For example, a company that produces too many emissions can purchase allowances from a company producing less than entitled levels; in this manner, achievement of overall targets is ensured.

Trading in gas emissions was initiated in the United States during the 1990s when the government imposed a cap on sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants. However, UK was the first country to execute an economy-wide implementation of carbon trading in March 2002 and was able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5.9 million tons in just over three years.

At the dawn of the third millennium, TransAlta, Canada’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases announced a voluntary plan to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2024. Off course, a zero emission target can only be practically achieved by carbon trading. A similar example is Chicago Climate Exchange, a pilot project that trades in carbon emissions like a stock market. Several renowned companies like Rolls-Royce, Ford, Motorola, and IBM are its members.

After industrial power units, the second largest and relatively mobile pollution sources are road vehicles. The pollutants emitted by car exhausts depend on several factors and can be effectively reduced if appropriate measures are taken. Vehicles with better emission control systems have been designed in order to cater the problem of air pollution.

According to US Environmental Protection Agency, today’s passenger cars emit 90 percent less carbon monoxide compared to their counterparts of the 1960s mainly due to the introduction of catalytic converters for emission control.

In 1985, a convention was held at Vienna to investigate the cause of ozone depletion. Two years later, 30 nations of the world gathered in Montreal and it was jointly avowed that chlorofluorocarbons are the leading cause of holes in ozone in the stratosphere. This declaration is famously known as the Montreal Protocol. Today the gradual elimination of ozone-depleting chemicals is being driven across the globe.

Although open-air dumps are still a common site in some third world countries, most of the dumps in the developed world have been cleaned and covered up. In some places, they have even been transformed into parks, housing colonies, or commercial establishments. The garbage produced by the citizens is now buried into hidden dumps, called landfills which are not open for public view.

Recycling of garbage is even preferable over landfill waste disposal as it is environmentally benign and facilitates conservation of natural resources such as trees and water. By turning wastes into useful stuff, recycling saves energy resources required for making new raw materials. It also saves useful landfill space. It has been estimated that every ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, 7000 gallons of water, 4100 kilowatt-hour of energy and three cubic yards of landfill space.

Although water pollution has been raised to threatening levels, some commendable control measures have also been demonstrated. A triumphant example is that of Thames, England. After the industrial revolution, Thames became an easy drain for toxic wastes from domestic and industrial sewers. However, in 1950, England carried out a massive cleanup funded by millions of pounds contributed by both public and industrial communities. During the 1980s, the river showed a remarkable improvement and 95 fish species including pollution-sensitive salmon returned to the river.

Is Zero Pollution Achievable?

Though humankind has made several laudable efforts to abate the hazards of environmental pollution, reducing it to pre-industrial levels is altogether a different matter. The task at hand is much more perplexing that you might think.

More than eighty percent of our industrial and domestic energy needs are met through burning of fossil fuels. All fossil fuels are organic in nature, therefore carbon emissions are a natural outcome. Moreover, these fuels contain other elements such as sulfur and nitrogen so their burning produces additional harmful pollutants too.

Another key challenge is that the combustion of these fuels is imperfect. From motor vehicles to most of the electricity produced at power plants, the primary form of energy involved is heat. The device that converts heat into other useful forms of energy is called a heat engine. A common example of a heat engine is a car engine in which heat energy is released from fuel combustion, later converting into mechanical energy or motion.

Like any real-world process, combustion of fuels and subsequent conversion of heat into other energy forms are imperfect. The inherent inefficiency of energy conversion processes results in heat losses to the environment. As explained earlier in this book, irreversible heat loss or heat death during energy conversion is inevitable. So just because heat death is a universal reality, thermal pollution is an unavoidable phenomenon.

Being carbon-based, all fossil fuels must emit carbon dioxide during combustion. While other pollutants such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides might be controlled through technological improvements such as fluidized bed combustors and installation of scrubbers in flue gas streams, carbon dioxide is a natural product of fossil fuel burning.

We have invented ways to capture and dispose carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but do these methods lead to zero pollution? The environmental implications of carbon storage in deep oceans are also a serious concern as carbon dioxide remains dissolved in water and may potentially harm aquatic life. Thus instead of removing pollution, we are merely displacing it to a location far from our sight.

Critics of carbon taxes and trading argue that these schemes cannot materialize significant reduction in carbon emissions since they do not discourage the polluting behavior of the emitters. Rather, they will reinforce the social inequality between developed nations and third world countries. In addition, the European Trading Scheme does not cover emissions from transportation and aviation industry, which contribute almost half of their total emissions.

While several European nations like Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Finland, Austria, Italy and Germany have imposed carbon tax on their fuel consumers, countries like Great Britain have refused to accept the proposed carbon tax idea, as they doubt the achievement of desired results in this way.

Likewise, opponents of recycling doubt the usefulness of the process and present several objections. Recycling is a manufacturing process, and like any other manufacturing process, it consumes energy resources; thus production of recycled goods leaves its own environmental footprints. Hence recycling has a limited contribution in reducing the volume of generated wastes.

If we lack any viable strategy to eliminate carbon pollution, the obvious solution is to replace fossil fuels with non-carbon alternatives. Various alternatives have been proposed including nuclear energy for power generation, alternative vehicular fuels such as hydrogen and ethanol, and renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, biomass, geothermal etc.

The problem is that none of these carbon-free alternatives have the technological feasibility to replace fossil fuels, at least not at present. There are many challenges and whether the ongoing research can overcome those challenges is still dubious. Moreover, despite being less polluting than fossil fuels, these alternatives also do not promise zero pollution. They also contaminate the environment in their own ways.

In this situation, the last choice we are left with is to reduce consumption of resources. But how much should we reduce? We are talking about zero pollution here. What will be the economic impacts of such a drastic transition? And are the associated environmental benefits good enough?

Is Zero Pollution Optimal?

After examining the technological difficulties in achieving zero pollution, let us say a few words about the economic repercussions of this noble initiative. Economists have argued that it is not optimal to reduce pollution to zero. The cost of this reduction would probably exceed the benefits.

For instance, critics of carbon tax argue that it is a regressive tax; by discouraging the use of widely employed carbon fuels, it will take society several decades back and hinder the ongoing progress. The United Nations has also objected that carbon tax is an inefficient way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in poorer countries as they do not have the essential resources to set, monitor and enforce such schemes. Similarly, small scale recycling is often expensive compared to other waste disposal methods like incineration or landfill disposal.

Talking in economic terms, if the advantages received from reducing pollution exceeds the associated costs, only then society would benefit from a reduction in pollution. Thus if the cost of pollution abatement is just equal to the benefit from pollution abatement, then we have reached the point where society’s welfare has already been maximized with respect to environmental quality; and we should choose to live with the remaining pollution.

Zero Pollution Could Mean Extinction

In our quest for glory, we have created an ecological imbalance that remains a threat lurking over current and future generations. During last two and half centuries, the excessive combustion of dirty fuels and unrestrained consumerism has caused the environmental pollution to exceed alarming thresholds.

We have made some efforts to abate the hazards of pollution, but probably it is too late. The challenge is much bigger than our marginal efforts, while we cannot roll back the resource-hungry lifestyles that we enjoy.

Reducing the environmental pollution to zero or pre-industrial levels would essentially imply that we have to recede to pre-industrial living standards. This reversal of industry, economy, and society will mean the cessation of our convenient lifestyles. Since the current human generations lack the immunity of our pre-industrial forefathers, the recessive implications of zero pollution could possibly lead to the extinction of human race.

*****

Time Machines

Traveling through Four Dimensions

Around the year 250 CE, a group of pious youth, fleeing away from the tyrannies of Decius, the reigning Roman king, took refuge in a cave near Ephesus, an ancient Greek city — present day Turkey. They had religious differences with the monarch, so he had ordered their persecution. Upon arriving at the cave, the escapees were so weary that they went to sleep.

When they woke up, they felt that they had slept for a few hours only. They sent one of them to the city for buying food. However, the shopkeeper was amazed looking at the ancient coins that the man possessed. Upon investigating further about the ruler and whereabouts of the city, the group realized that they had slept for nearly 300 years.

This story has been mentioned in various religious scriptures with varying particulars. Irrespective of the specific details of the anachronistic miracle, the account of cave sleepers takes us to the central theme of this chapter: traveling through time.

For the cave sleepers, time had stopped while it was running as normal for the rest of the world. Such anachronism might have been a shocking predicament for the men least expecting it. Nonetheless, modern humans have been profoundly charmed with the concept of time travel as it promises them unprecedented powers. Traveling back in the past, you can correct your mistakes; similarly, moving forward through time, one can look ahead and chalk out flawless future plans.

The term time machine was coined by H.G. Wells, a prolific British writer, in his 1895 novel. Since then time machine — the imaginary device that makes time travel possible — has been a popular science fiction. However, in reality, it has remained just that — a science fiction. For decades, time travel lay beyond the fringes of respectable science, often viewed from merely a recreational perspective.

After a relatively dry discourse on environmental science, this chapter is intended to take you on an entertaining journey through time, both backward and forward. But before that, let us look at time through an unorthodox spectacle.

The Fourth Dimension

Imagine a two-dimensional living being. Yes, just like you see in a passport photograph. The poor creature— in case we could have one— will carry the burden of a terrible existence. It will have to take food from its mouth and spat out the waste from the same place as there is no third dimension. Luckily, it is just a bizarre imagination, the reality is always three-dimensional; three dimensions are a minimum for life to exist.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein suggested the idea of a four-dimensional space. All of us are familiar with the three banal dimensions (length, breadth, and height); Einstein combined time with the three spatial dimensions to form a four-dimensional world called spacetime.

In his special theory of relativity, Einstein proposed that the measured interval between two events depends on how the observer is moving; an observer moving relative to another observer will experience different durations between the same two events. Thus, according to Einstein, time is variable and ever changing. It even has a shape. It is bound up with the three dimensions of space through an inescapable linkage.

The notion of four-dimensional spacetime is beyond the imagination of any ordinary human as we live in a three-dimensional space from cradle to grave. It is our hackneyed instinct to regard time as eternal, absolute, immutable — nothing can affect the steady tick of the clock. We always think of time as a universal quantity that will be measured the same across the cosmos. It seems hard to visualize that different observers could measure different time intervals between the same recurrent events.

For this very reason, spacetime is one of the most non-intuitive concepts in physics; it was an awfully hefty intellectual leap for a young man staring out the window of a patent office in the capital of Switzerland. Nevertheless, Einstein’s imaginative ingenuity did not remain limited to time; he also postulated a novel concept of gravity in his general theory of relativity.

Imagine a trampoline with an iron ball resting in the center. The weight of the iron ball causes the fabric on which it is sitting to stretch and sag slightly. Now if you roll a smaller ball across the trampoline, it tries to go in a straight line at a constant speed following Newton’s laws of motion, but as it nears the massive object and the slope of the sagging fabric, it rolls downward, essentially drawn towards the more massive object. This movement of a smaller object towards a more massive one is called gravity.

According to Einstein, gravity is a consequence of curvature or bending in spacetime (trampoline surface in this case). Thus every object having a mass creates a little depression in the fabric of the cosmos. The trampoline and iron ball example is nearly analogous to the effect that a massive object such as the Sun (the iron ball) has on spacetime (the fabric) and the small ball (earth or other planets). It causes the fabric of spacetime to stretch and curve. This curvature of spacetime is called warp.

The spacetime warp is the basis of certain concurrent concepts that hint towards the possibility of building a time machine. But before getting into the details of a time machine, it would be imperative to say a few words about another ubiquitous reality called light.

An equally significant consequence of Einstein’s theories is that speed of light is invariable. While two observers moving at different speeds relative to each other will observe different time intervals between the same sequences of events, the speed of light for both spectators will remain the same — the speed of light is a universal constant (in vacuum; it decreases slightly in water).

According to E = mc2 — probably, world’s most famous equation — speed of light © has a crucial role to play in mass-energy conversions. The significance of this role was evident during the Second World War when humanity witnessed the nuclear tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, further conversation about those sad episodes would be an ill-timed digression.

How to Build a Time Machine

Though the intended function of a time machine is obvious — to transport us into the past or future¬ — how such a miracle will come about is obscure. In order to resolve the matter, we can split the intended function into two sub-functions: traveling to the future and going back into the past.

In theory, future travel seems less daunting; many theoretical physicists approve its possibility if the practical challenges are surpassed. The key idea here is to slow down time. There can be two ways of impeding the passage of time: by moving at the speed of light or by exploiting sheer gravity.

As explained earlier, Einstein’s special theory of relativity states that two observers moving relative to each other will observe different time intervals for the same set of events. This can be further elaborated through an imaginary phenomenon called “Twin Paradox”.

Suppose you have a twin sister. If you could travel much faster than your other half, the ticking of the clock will be delayed for you. Consequently, your hour will be stretched longer than your sister. This is called time dilation.

As a consequence of time dilation, you will be able to observe happenings before your sister — you will be transported to your sister’s future. In addition, you will age slowly compared to your twin. However, for the effect to become noticeable you will have to move very fast; ideally, as fast as light.

Another way time dilation can be approached is by using gravity. Einstein’s general theory of relativity presents gravity as a consequence of spacetime bending or warping. Going back to the analogy of trampoline, the smaller ball rolled on to the fabric travels in a straight line with a uniform speed. But the warping in the fabric produced due to the mass of the larger ball causes the smaller ball to change its direction and travels towards the bigger ball, ultimately slowing down through the valley created by the larger ball’s weight.

If we replace the larger ball with an even larger ball, a deeper sagging in the fabric will further enhance the gravitational impact causing the smaller ball to collide the large one, eventually coming to halt. The small sphere will be almost static on spacetime canvas while the rest of the world will be moving as normal. This reminds me the story of cave sleepers narrated in the beginning of the chapter.

Having debunked the secret of future travel, let us now take on the more challenging task of commuting back into the past. The most realistic way to travel back to bygone times is to create shortcuts between two widely separated points in space. These short paths are called wormholes.

Suppose you are roaming through a mountain range. As you traverse through the peaks and valleys of the range, you come across a straight tunnel passing through the heart of a mountain. Unless you are a daredevil, you will be pleasantly surprised as you have found a shorter way.

Since there are many massive objects scattered across the universe, the fabric of spacetime is warped or curved just like the peaks and valleys of the mountainous range. A wormhole, also called star gate in science fiction, is like the shortcut tunnel through the curvature of spacetime. Scientists have suggested that a hypothetical wormhole can constitute a time machine enabling two-way time travel — both past and future.

A wormhole time machine can be created in three steps:

One: Create a wormhole — a shortcut tunnel¬ — through space.

Two: Place one mouth of the wormhole near a gigantic object such as a neutron star. The immense gravity of the star will slow down time at this point of spacetime.

Three: Place the other corner of the wormhole on another carefully selected point with a different gravity and hence different spacetime warp. Consequently, time will flow at a different speed at the other chosen point.

Your time machine is ready. If you are located near the neutron star, you are already in the future relative to the other chosen point. Just enter through the wormhole tunnel and you will exit at the other end at an earlier point in time — you have made it to your past.

Unfortunately, all of above is a scheme limited to some tedious mathematics. There are certain nearly impossible tasks to be accomplished before realizing the fantasy of time machines. The following part of the chapter elaborates those limiting obstructions.

There is a Universal Speed Limit

In the preceding section, it was explained that one way to achieve time dilation and future travel is to flash as fast as light. In reality, the maximum speed we have ever been able to attain is 24,791 miles per hour (NASA’s Apollo 10 moon mission). By comparison, the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second (not per hour); with a maximum record speed of 24,791 miles per hour or 6.9 miles per second, our achievement level is only 0.003 percent and we need to move 27,000 times faster than our previous record.

Do you think we can improve the design of our space vehicles to approach the superluminal speed? No, we can’t; not even in theory. In fact, the relativity theory that links time dilation with superluminal speed has also postulated that speed of light is the universal speed limit. No material object can approach, let alone exceed it.

Let us assume that we want to build a space shuttle that could travel through space at a speed as fast as light. Einstein’s special theory of relativity states that as we increase the speed of an object, its mass increases. We do not notice any massive increments at our marginal speeds, but any object that approaches the speed of light will have an infinite mass. Moving an infinite mass through space will require an infinite amount of energy. We are already amidst an energy crisis!

You might ask how light particles manage to achieve the incredible speed limit. The answer is that light particles called photons do not possess mass. The same hand that created space and time billions of years ago, imparted photons this excessive speed.

Don’t Mess with Gravity

Being constrained by the universal speed limit, one might think of deploying gravity for time dilation. But this is not a thoroughfare as well.

Consider a massive object such as a neutron star. At the surface of a neutron star, gravity is so strong that time is slowed by about 30 percent relative to earth time. Viewing from such a star, earthly events would resemble a fast-forwarded video. But standing on such a massive object is next to impossible. In order to understand this, it would be useful to go back to the creation of the universe.

Almost 13.5 billion years ago, time, space, energy, and matter came into existence in a gigantic explosion. It all started with an infinitesimally tiny, dimensionless dot — imagine a dimension a billion times smaller than a proton. Now assume that the mass of the whole universe is compacted in this tiny dot. Such a massive dot will have nearly infinite gravity. This is called singularity.

At the moment of the creation of the universe, there was no space, no time, no matter and no energy. Singularity was the only presence. Then a sudden expansion caused the creation of universe in a single blinding pulse. This sudden expansive explosion is called the Big Bang. That is how contemporary scientists describe the creation of the universe.

Getting to the neutron star where you plan to stand for relishing your slowest hour, the matter contained in a neutron star is so dense that all the people on earth can be fitted in a teaspoon of this exotic matter. Though this is far from the singularity, such high density of matter yields unimaginable gravity.

According to Einstein, gravity causes spacetime warping. The intensive gravity at the surface of a neutron star will create a whopping curvature in spacetime, creating a hole deep enough to swallow anything in no time. This hole is called black hole — nothing, even light, can escape this warping; hence the name black hole; a dark hole seems to be a better term though.

A black hole represents the ultimate time warp; at the surface of the hole, time stands still relative to Earth. However, trying to approach a black hole would be a foolhardy idea; its immense gravity will pull you in a split second before you could witness the fast-forwarded happenings of your twin sister.

The Chronological Dilemma

Assume that we have discovered a way to create “antigravity”, enabling us to traverse through a wormhole without being swallowed by a black hole. Now imagine a time traveler that commutes through a couple of decades in the past, and murders his grandparents before his father is born. And if his father is not born, how can he or she come into the world? And if this time traveler is not born, who will murder the grandparents?

This is one of the mind-boggling paradoxes that defy the causality principle, which states that an effect cannot occur before its cause. In this case, the procreation between the grandparents is the cause of the time traveler’s existence. How can the traveler exist before the procreation takes place? There is an unfathomable tangle in the chronology of events.

Proponents of time travel have proposed an exclusive solution to this chronological dilemma. They emphasize that a time traveler will not be able to perform any task that disturbs the causality loop. Thus going back into the past, the traveler will not be able to do anything that hinders his own existence, including murder of his grandparents. In other words, people traveling into past or future will not enjoy the free will that their present offers.

Living in the Present

Human beings face enormous difficulty in living and thinking in the present. They either remain engrossed in their previous blunders or are found daydreaming about the optimistic future plans. Nevertheless, in doing so, they miss the most governable part of their life — the present.

Being able to travel through time has been one of the most fascinating dreams of mankind. Scientists have suggested various theories claiming the possibility of time travel. However, these are theories only. We cannot exceed the universal limits of speed, neither can we defy gravity. Even if we could, there are some unexplainable paradoxes. Therefore, building any kind of time machine is merely a dream, highly unlikely to be realized.

Better seek living in the present!

*****

The Immortals

Defeating the Inevitable

Around 200 BC, Qin Shi Huang, a Chinese emperor, assigned a servant named Xu Fudong with an immensely tedious task. His assignment was to search the “Elixir of Life” that could grant the emperor an eternal life. So the servant set sail eastward with thousands of young boys and girls, never to set foot on the Chinese soil again.

Legend says that the crew never returned as they were seeking for an impossible mission and reappearance as a failure meant nothing but execution at the hands of the emperor. Legend also says that these men and women accompanying Fudong settled in what we today know as Japan.

What happened to the emperor? Well, the same as what happens to every mortal— he died— ironically, at the age of just 50. Qin Shi Huang, best known for building the Great Wall and later destined to be the founder of Qin dynasty as well as the first emperor of a unified China, was not the only one fanatical about immortality. As you will see later in this chapter, humans of the third millennium are quite zealous about the idea of defeating the inescapable anticlimax called death.

Though the medieval science — replace that with pseudoscience in the twenty-first century— of alchemy is often thought to be aimed at turning ordinary metals into gold, another clandestine goal of the mysterious endeavor was to discover the elixir of life, a remarkable potion that would stop the ageing process and grant eternal youth.

But stopping the ageing process does not imply immortality. Immortality means living forever. Can we eliminate the fearsome onslaught of death from our existences? Can we even slow the ageing process? Is immortality a realistic goal? These inquiries are the focus of this last chapter.

Though humans are the only creatures obsessed with immortality, scientists have identified certain other living organisms having seemingly infinite lifespans.

The Immortal Species

It is evident from scientific research that compared to humans and animals, certain plant and fungus species have extremely long life spans. For instance, a tree belonging to a certain species of bristlecone pines found in California has been claimed to be more than five thousand years old — the oldest known living organism on earth.

In the animal kingdom, tortoises are known for the longevity of their lives. A tortoise living in India’s Alipore zoo set a record that won’t soon be broken — it survived for 250 years. Though this number is more than twice any age modern humans have ever attained, it is a naught compared to the pine tree of California.

In addition to their many biological differences, plants age differently compared to animals. As animals age, their individual cells wear out and die, their metabolism ceases to exist, and they no longer perform their biological functions like division and creation of new cells.

On the other hand, when certain plant species lose their effective cells due to ageing, their remaining cells get extra effective. For instance, the plant develops an ability to pump water higher into the trunk — that is why you find ancient trees so tall. For such plants, most likely reasons for death would be diseases, insect attacks, or storms, but rarely a natural death. However, this unique ability pertains to only a few special plant species; others die on annual basis, leaving seeds for the next spring.

Another way trees are different from animals is that they lead two lives: one above ground and the other below. Whereas trunks and leaves can live a span of 40 to 140 years, their roots— the underground life— can be as old as 80,000 years. Likewise, vast fungus colonies that live underground have been thought to be many tens of thousands of years old.

Anomalous tendencies towards aging are also revealing in some members of the animal kingdom. Biologists have found certain jellyfish species that can reverse their aging, and actually disassemble their bodies back into their immature form so they can start growing all over again. Well, that is an idea closer to incarnation rather than immortality but still a smart capability.

Though there are no known animals or humans to have entered the “immortal” league of old trees, biologists have debunked the secret of long-living plants. In reality, it is not the actual plant itself that stays alive for thousands of years, but its natural clone. In case of long-lived trees, a shoot grows into a new tree, remains connected to the old tree, and the old tree dies.

Though the new tree is genetically identical, is it really the same individual? Scientists tend to stick with strict biological definitions of immortality, and in this case, that plant is considered immortal.

As a matter of fact, these so-called immortal trees are cheating at immortality. Despite the apparent longevity of their ages, they can die due to storms; insect attack, or worse still, humans can flip them down using their state-of-the-art machinery. Thus they are not immortal; though they may claim to be amortals — dying through accidents but not due to ageing.

We certainly haven’t discovered any individual organisms that are millions of years old. Immortality doesn’t just mean living for a couple thousand years; it means living forever. Let us now look at death from a technological perspective.

A Technical Issue

Through the course of human history, death has been accepted as an unavoidable reality. Various religious dogmas have sanctified death as a metaphysical experience. While Abrahamic religions treat death as a transition to an afterlife, Hinduism promotes the idea of multiple lives. Thus death has been typically acknowledged as a normalcy, opening a way to reincarnation and subsequent entry into heaven or hell.

As a consequence, until quite recent times, the real causes of human death were deemed of little significance. However, in the twenty-first century, we are able to ascribe any human death to a set of medical conditions. A few examples of these conditions include heart failure, lungs cancer, brain hemorrhage etc. Being familiar with the precise causes of death, its persona is changing from a metaphysical experience to a physical or technical issue.

By the same token, when people die in road accidents or plane crashes, we set commissions to find out the causes of the catastrophe. So often we end up with the conclusion that there were some technical failures behind the accident, that it could and should have been evaded, and we resolve to avoid such happenings in future.

If death is a technical problem, it should have a technical solution. Just like we make schemes to improve on road accidents and plane crashes, can we prepare remedial action plans for tackling medical conditions that lead to ageing or even death? In fact, we have already made some attempts in this realm.

For instance, if the heart stops pumping, we can revive it with medicines and electric shocks. In the worst case, we can even implant a new heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of premature deaths worldwide, followed by cancer and other chronic medical ailments.

Another leading cause of death in old people is ageing. Many old people, when they die, are free of any medical ailments; their body systems are functioning as normal. For such deaths, the underlying technical issue is ageing or gradual deterioration of biological systems.

Today, about two-thirds of all deaths are from old age. The scientific name for ageing is senescence and it can occur in two ways: in the first type, old cells of the organism lose the ability to divide and create new cells. Thus as worn out cells die, they are not replaced by new cells. It is analogous to a fuse slowly burning down over its lifetime.

The second type of aging happens to the whole organism. It means the whole body is unable to keep itself alive. And with cells dying and not being replaced, things only get worse. Eventually, the whole system gets out of order and even otherwise healthy people develop chronic diseases and ultimately die.

The exact reasons behind ageing are still being studied. There are many concurrent theories. One of them suggests that cells are not able to divide and create new cells due to imperfections in DNA replication. This is typically associated with free radicals — highly reactive substances that can damage DNA and cells, leading to cancer, cardiovascular problems and diabetes. Another viewpoint is that oxygen itself rusts or oxidizes the body tissues.

Looking at statistics on life expectancies over last hundred years, it seems we have done a fairly good job at tackling the technical problems behind ageing. Until very recently, our average life span was around 45 years. Today, we can claim a world average of more than 70 years. Our next target could be hundred years, but there are some fallacies to be rectified.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the global life expectancy was less than 40 years, primarily because people died early due to malnutrition, incurable diseases, violence etc. Today, we have nearly eliminated famines, pandemics, and wars; so people can live on to approach their natural age. Even a century ago, those who survived hunger, ailments, and violence lived up to eighty years. As a matter of fact, we have not defeated ageing; we have just reduced the likelihood of premature deaths.

So we have understood and tackled some of the technical problems behind premature deaths and we are still studying ageing. But how far can this endeavor take us? Though contemporary doctors are already treating these diseases as technical problems, can they overcome them? Can we defeat the death-related technical issues by investing time and money in researching cancer, germs, genetics and nanotechnology? After say fifty years, will we able to claim an average life expectancy of more than 100 years. Possibly; but a number as big as 500 years is probably out of our league.

A Bunch of Immortalists

In 1964, a physics teacher named Robert Ettinger proposed the idea of freezing a body so that it could be revived later by advanced technologies. This unique but still impractical idea is called cryonic preservation. Since then, a couple hundred people have been cryonically preserved.

The first person to be frozen in this way was James Bedford on January 12, 1967. Since then, dozens of cryonics organizations and societies have been established around the U.S. Today, the biggest cryonics organization is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, where Bedford is still frozen. Alcor has nearly 100 frozen patients at its headquarters in Arizona, awaiting their highly unlikely reincarnation.

On September 18, 2013 Google ventured into a unique enterprise. Along with Arthur D. Levinson, an American businessman, Google founded a company called Calico (California Life Company). The major objective of this organization is to tackle ageing, and consequently increasing human lifespans. Calico works through a multidisciplinary team of experts from medicine, drug development, molecular biology, genetics, and computational biology.

By dint of the rapid development of fields such as genetic engineering, regenerative medicine, and nanotechnology, some experts suggest that humans might overcome death by 2200. Some devotees of immortality even maintain that anyone possessing a healthy body and a wealthy bank account in 2050 will have a solemn chance for being immortal.

These immortalists propose that just like preventive car maintenance schemes, every ten years or so, you will walk into a clinic and receive a revival treatment that will not only cure illnesses, but will also regenerate decaying tissues, and upgrade brains, hearts and other body limbs. Before the next treatment is due, doctors will have already invented a surplus of new medicines, upgrades, and gadgets to augment your effective lifespan.

Is Immortality a Realistic Goal?

Regardless of whether humans achieve or fail to achieve immortality, the notion will provoke numerous what ifs in human psychology, society, and economy.

Irrespective of our religious idiosyncrasies, almost all of us follow some form of ethics in our daily lives. A large part of these ethical commitments stems from fear of death. Immortality or absence of death falsifies incarnation and judgment against sins, and hence there remains no strong reason for religious piety or social righteousness — end result could be a societal fiasco.

Immortal or rather amortal humans would be the most anxious people in history. We mortals take risks with our lives on daily basis, because we know they are going to end someday. So we do many daring things like going on hikes in the Himalayas, or for surfing over precarious ocean tides. Being amortals, we will be hesitant in taking even small chances like crossing the street or trying a new type of food; we will be way too skeptical about our surroundings.

Amortal professionals will not retire at the age of sixty. Today, we learn a profession in teens and twenties and then spend the rest of our life in that line of work. Though we still learn a few tricks of business in forties and fifties, but the last decade of our career is usually a downhill, waiting for retirement. What will be the retirement age for an amortal? And if your boss will not retire, how will your professional growth occur? And where will the new graduates be employed?

In the domain of national and international politics, the results might be even creepier; especially in the non-democratic countries, where a ruler is expected to rule until death. So if the monarch will not die, how will the crown prince be crowned? There might be a political anarchy.

Although average life expectancy has doubled over the last hundred years, it would be overoptimistic to deduce that we can double it again to 150 in the coming century. Any hopes of eternal youth in the twenty-first century could lead to a bitter disappointment; it is not easy to live knowing that you are going to die, but it is far more risky to believe in immortality and be proven wrong.

Death is Inevitable

Fear of death is the most dreaded sensation shared by all humans. From ancient emperors to modern scientists, many have tried their hands on immortality. In fact, the pursuit is still ongoing. But death is mandatory as it ensures the natural balance of life.

No matter how much efforts we make, we cannot achieve immortality. Immortality means living forever, a life without death. Even if we achieve an unlimited life expectancy— a body without expiry date — we will still be amortals, not immortal. We can still die in a natural catastrophe or an accident.

Immortality or amortality are merely crazy dreams. Death is inevitable.

*****

Afterward: The Technology Inferno

Compared to our archaic cobblestone ancestors, we have certainly come a long way. We no longer retrieve bone marrow from scraps leftover by other carnivores. Rather, we keep the same ferocious carnivores in zoos and circuses to entertain us. While we once competed with them for survival, we are now helping some of their endangered species to evade possible extinction.

Humans of the twenty-first century have nearly defeated lethal pathogens and terrible famines that used to kill them. With the advent of fields like biotechnology, genetic engineering, and information technology they have gained exceptional controls. They have even transcended the boundaries of their home planet, and are looking forward to colonization in the extraterrestrial world.

Being the undisputed technology titans of planet earth, what is the biggest threat to humans? Probably, humans themselves. The same technology that we have created to enhance our lives can be used to exterminate the human race. While we have already caused nearly irreversible damage to our planet, can we escape our own onslaught?

While biotechnology can be used to eradicate cancer, the same knowledge can be used to devise biological weapons. Whereas information technology has enabled a plethora of facilities, cyber warfare can empower non-state actors to destabilize super powers. Where genetic engineering can alter disease-causing DNAs, it can be abused to facilitate genocides.

What can be worse than the unanticipated aftermath of our technological endeavors? Water is life. But its overdrinking can kill us. Likewise, excessive reliance and losing control over technology can transform our lavish empire into a technology inferno.

*****

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Machine Impossible: Daunting Technologies Humans Can Dream Only

Written by an engineer, this book explores some of the nearly impossible technological dreams fostering in human minds. Humans are the undisputed technology titans of planet earth, yet there are certain technology concepts they might never turn into reality. Though we are determined to invent every seemingly impossible machine, certain scientific principles block our way. Similarly, there are some technological pursuits that could cause existential risks to humanity itself. Why can't we invent these impossible machines? And where could this quest lead us?

  • ISBN: 9781370409266
  • Author: Zeeshan Amin
  • Published: 2017-02-04 12:55:11
  • Words: 19225
Machine Impossible: Daunting Technologies Humans Can Dream Only Machine Impossible: Daunting Technologies Humans Can Dream Only