Where & When
PLACE: the PGE Narodowy, Warsaw
DATE: 3 June 2017 (Saturday) from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
On one of the last pictures sent back by the Voyager 2 probe as it left the Solar System, experts managed to identify our planet – as a tiny blue dot. This distinct colour, so familiar when we look at satellite photos, is due to a phenomenon unique in our Solar System: the chemical composition of the atmosphere, which we owe for the very existence of biological life on Earth.
The main portion of our globe, i.e. the ground under our feet, is situated beneath that protective layer. These two geophysical masses, rock and atmosphere, interact with one another, and it is precisely their intermingling that gives rise to the conditions enabling us humans to survive safely and securely. However, for long years, much like the Eloi (one type of future humans envisioned in H. G. Wells' novel The Time Machine), we have all too carelessly consumed the resources of our planet, especially on its surface. Recently, however, we have begun to see how our own unfavourable actions affect the properties of the atmosphere, upsetting the delicate balance of factors necessary for life to survive on Earth. We have created a threat to ourselves and indeed to all biological life on our planet.
We know quite a lot about our atmosphere. Changes in its properties are something we can easily personally experience: on a hot day in many of the large cities of our globe, the "fresh" urban may cause our eyes to swell up with tears and our throats to become scratchy. Even kilometres outside the city limits, the older individuals among us will still notice a difference in the night sky, caused by the emissions of big-city lights. Newspapers often carry stories relating to problems with our atmosphere – reporting, for instance, on international conferences discussing the human-caused phenomenon of global warming. However, we remain unable to regulate or sanction the Earth's own influence on its atmosphere: no one imagines, after all, the enactment of legal regulations restricting the atmospheric impact of volcanoes.
We know significantly less about what goes on within the Earth under our feet. We are taught a bit about this in school, yes, but – it's a shame to admit – our knowledge really does not stretch any deeper than the very thin surface layer of the planet. Such as the oceans. We do not know much more about them than Professor Arronax (from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) knew back in the 19th century. And yet, paradoxically, it is the Earth that we should know the most about! At the very least, in order to sensibly harness what lies hidden within it, given that all of contemporary civilization is based on those resources.
Signs of the unwise utilization of what our planet has to offer can be observed in many places – such as when one takes a ride along the less-frequented roadways of the Silesia region, amidst gigantic slag-heaps left behind by past coal mining. The gas flares burning over the oil rigs in the countries of the Persian gulf, visible in satellite images, remind us of how dependent our civilization is on petroleum. Similar structures visible in North Dakota illustrate how the centre of the contemporary US economy is starting to grow dependent on shale deposits. The slag-heaps along the Athabasca River in Canada, in turn, serve to illustrate how intensively fuels have been mined from the oil sands of the region. However, one day the energy cost of extracting all such fuels will grow to equal the energy that can be obtained them, rendering it senseless to continue. Hubbert's "peak oil" theory, as this is known, is inescapable. The African and Australian uranium mines, of microscopic size compared to today's coal mines, will then be supplying us the fuels of the future. Fuels that for thousands of years could free our civilization from any need to pile up slag, string out long oil pipelines across the landscape, or build monstrous tanker ships. If only we wanted it…
Our Blue Planet has not only fuels to offer, but also the minerals and ores that our civilization needs. Rare earth metal mines situated far away in Far Eastern countries supply us with materials essential for manufacturing one of the world's most sought-after type of goods today: electronics. Without these metals there would be no mobile devices, no computer, no batteries, no Tesla cars. How long will these deposits suffice? When will we have to replace them, and with what? How can such resources be harnessed most sensibly (for instance, by recovering such metals from gigantic heaps – not of slag, but of scrapped computer hardware, lying out there somewhere on the beaches of the less-accessible islands of the Pacific)? How little we yet know about this!
And yet, science has been effecting a certain revolution in the way we harness the natural riches of the Earth. We entered the 20th century manufacturing essentially the very same metals and alloys that had already been known in antiquity. But this state of affairs changed together with the discovery of duralumin, and nowadays we have thousands of different metals. Digital photography has relieved us from having to use silver in photochemical image-reproduction processes. We view pictures on the screens of our computers and other devices. These, in turn, require different minerals and materials in their manufacturing processes.
To invoke The Time Machine once again – we should not simply set all these issues aside for the Morlocks, the planet's future underground residents, to deal with someday. Already now, we need to know significantly more about how we are affecting the surface of the Earth. What consequences is our agriculture having? Are we managing the surface of our planet sufficiently wisely to preserve the forests and jungles – the sole producers of the oxygen we and biological life need so much? We also require better knowledge of the Earth so that we can live more safely upon it, so that we can defend ourselves better from natural phenomena playing out within our planet's crust and mantle. Continued advancements in Earth science are crucial for us to be able to build homes resistant to seismic processes and their often-tragic consequences. Greater knowledge about the Earth is also crucial for figuring out the processes by which our planetary system was first formed. It probably conceals some clues about how our planet came to have the honour of being the only blue dot in our part of the Cosmos. The scientists who spend months amidst the ice of the Arctic and Antarctic do not do so out of a desire to push the limits of human perseverance; they do it so that we will know better how to prepare to face the challenges that nature has in store for. Global warming? A new ice age? Whatever comes, we will have to know how to cope.
All this is why we have dedicated the upcoming Science Picnic to our understanding of the Earth. How much do we really know about its surface, about its insides? How are we putting that knowledge to use? How are we taking care of our planet, and how are we devastating it? What good things and bad things can we expect in return? When visiting the next Science Picnic, you will learn about many new facts, without an awareness of which we humans would essentially be merely uninvited guests on the Earth's surface. But once we do realize certain things, we can feel like the stewards of this tiny blue dot – the only spacecraft we have to carry us through the cold, dark, and very unfriendly Cosmos. We need to learn how to take care of our ship and to use it as well as we can, through the many thousands of years until the Sun eventually destroys our planetary system. Then, we will have to know how to move elsewhere. Just think about how much more knowledge it will be necessary for us to have amassed by then, to be able choose a good new Earth.
See you at the 21st Science Picnic!
Prof. Łukasz A. Turski