One Try

Well, there are many things that we can only afford one shot at, but this particular issue I wish to discuss is arguably more important than my personal future happiness.

Revised at 11:30PM, 2020-September-08 NZST.

How are we sure, that Homo, our genus, is the maker of the first technical civilisation on this planet? This question persisted in my head, probably since my primary school readings of fiction and dubious mystery books. I thought I would (as a noble form of procrastination) outline a few facts that I believe supports the case that we are the first, and, quite probably, the last, to emerge from this planet that can achieve our current levels of technical proficiency.

From the perspective of our own past, some preliminary evolutionary considerations can be made. The environmental and thermodynamic conditions required for “intelligence” to be in favour was indeed rare. We owe our bipedalism, our properly placed thumbs, sugar-craving brains, and the worlds we managed to shape with those gifts, to the K-T comet that cleared the stage for us long before our story, to the receding forests on the African highlands, to the frozen northern Pacific ocean, and to the tigers and lions that didn’t hunt little tribes of us to extinction… to name a few.

I need to come clean that this is somewhat terrifyingly far from what I actually study for a living, and that I have to accredit Harari’s Sapiens, for inspiring most of these personal notions — which might be a sign to you that my thoughts on this subject have been shallow and stagnant. Take my rumblings with a grain of salt.

Still, the history of earth’s biosphere is way longer than the measly millions of years that the primates have arrived on stage. That much I do know. Time erodes a lot of things, including our trust in time itself. So, you might ask, longingly, maybe, could technology and science have happened to some entirely different branches of life than us?

Well, we know of ants that make tools and farm aphids. But probably not.

Other than the so-far general lack of archaeological footprints left by any long-gone technocratic societies, the most convincing observation, to me, is the (historic) prevalence of easily accessible natural resources.

We found, happily accepted, and sometimes wasted, the surplus carbon our planet haphazardly stashed over aeons (…oil, coal, plastic … a story for another day and awaiting more research). But our luck did not end there. For most of our early history, we had inorganic minerals in shallow caves, if not right on the surface. And that, to me, is a hint that nobody prior has seen much use in them.

The laws of nature dictated that our societies progressed from[1] bronze to iron, i.e. against the reducing agent strength ladder. Often, after metal tools became prevalent, agriculture evolved on the massively expanding fields , and industry emerged with the express aim to produce increasingly complex or powerful tools. The logic might have held up to an practically exclusionary extent in our history — civilisation did not thrive at places that generally lacked minerals, even though many of those states did have excellently arable land and massive settlements.

Today, more iron-rich and copper-rich ores come from inhospitable or technically challenging environments than when we started mining. Among other reasons, we’ve largely dug up the ones more within our reach. It perhaps stands to reason, that if humanity is to be wiped off the surface of earth nuclear-ly in our current era, whichever species[2] that emerges in another million years might not have any minerals to use.

They can pick up and recycle our rubbles. You think to yourself. Indeed, it might be sufficient, over geological timescales, for pulverised metropolis and dilapidated recycling plants to return some of their constituent metals to their natural state. But I doubt if this is good enough.

To begin with, without obvious hints of the way forward, in other words, without a easily accessible experience through which the future foragers can understand why these shiny bits from the ground promises a higher level of productivity, it’s possible our tech relics become more of an ornament than a industrial resource, like what humans have done with various cave minerals for thousands of years ourselves (I personally own a pendant made from a retired Pentium CPU; it’s as beautiful as it is useless). Secondly, the aspects of the term “natural resource” that we discussed so far are far from the whole story. I will present one example of the missing pieces to try to bring my arguments together.

By this point[3], many of you might have heard of how Napoléon treated his favorite visitors with alumin(i)um cutlery, and only less important guests of his got gold plates. But today, less than 200 years later, I am typing this essay up on an Aluminum laptop keyboard, protected from some 6th-floor wind by a presumably aluminum window frame. What made this dramatic cost drop possible?

Credit human ingenuity as you please, and I probably tend to agree. But the fundamental drive might be this naturally occurring chemical, Cryolite (Na3AlF6). It readily mixes with aluminium oxide, and its structure means that it significantly lowers the melting point of the latter. This mineral was mined completely dry off the face of the earth in 1987, by the way. Only industrially prepared alternatives are available for use since[4].

The ability to synthesise cryolites is only a tiny node on human’s industrial expertise today, but once upon a time, discovering them in nature was the key to the entire branch of aluminium-based technology. I cannot fathom how many little things like these played similar roles in our past, and how many achievements would have been impossible if they weren’t there.

I suppose that little factoids like the ones above make me appreciate the preciousness and uniqueness of ourselves, as earth’s one try at achieving cosmic greatness. That sounds self-righteous enough, but the chances we took to entangle our legends with the threads of our planet, the rare finds that we stumbled upon before we knew better, the rivers we crossed[5], and, at the same time, the almost certain stagnation and sorrow to ensue on this planet if we fail[6], make our newfound awareness of it all in our time a truly wonderful — and maybe equally heavy — but hopefully not transient — discovery.

FW, 100 seconds before midnight.

Footnotes and references

[1] Other than the obvious omissions (tin, lead, and zinc), there are also gold and silver. However, as they require little to no chemical changes to be useful, I would sometimes subjectively bin them together with the rocks. That being said, I’ve visited a modern gold mine in my home province, and understand that extracting gold today, surprise, is more complicated than just sifting streamwater in a fabricated version of San Francisco.

[2] Ant people and squid people look equally appealing to me. But again, the selection pressure on brains is a cosmically delicate thing. Boltzmann knows best.

[3] My sense of how well people around me are in knowing and using science is heavily biased as I progressed through my own education and travelled to various institutions. This is just a general comment and I will probably discuss it in full next week when my #DailyChemistry stored on Tencent Weibo gets permanently deleted as the service shuts down.

[4] Cryolite lowered the temperature required to get Aluminium via electrolysis from 2000 degrees Celsius to about 1000. From as much I can gather from my high school memory, the reaction is done in three scalable steps. You get HF by boiling Fluorites (CaF2, that glowing ore in Minecraft) in sulfuric acid. Then the HF is taken to react with an Al(OH)3 solution, after which the whole thing is heated in the presence of either NaCl or Na2CO3 to make the crystal. Still, I need to reiterate that if you’ve come for chemical engineering… You are probably reading the wrong blog. 

[5] Hi Dr Sagan.

[6] Though I sound grim, I do not worry too much. Our ancestors have definitely taken risks like this before. On the wild grass plains, some humble animals, not the strongest, not the fastest, and without almost all ferocity, made it to become us, against a fate of extinction.

I remain optimistic, that progress in science and technology solves our existential threats, though slowly, sometimes backtracking, and not exempt from strifes and struggles. Depleted resources? We most likely can find alternatives. Dead end of knowledge, and, by extension, a lack of vision for the future? That curse is eternal.

Of course, luck might as well be independent between risk-taking… such that us being unique says little about our success or viability up next.

What can I say? Take good care of your nuclear button, if you have one.

One thought on “One Try

  1. This question arose out of an online discussion with one of my professors … if I so eagerly want to “save the world”, why study theoretical physics?

    This essay is the first part of my attempt to answer that… The rest, of course, needs to be in action.


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