SECTION TWO: UNINTENTIONAL DISASTERS
One: Accidents from Experiments
Means of total extinction may not necessarily emerge from people with homicidal motives. Accidents from experiments can also cause human extinction. We know that many great scientific discoveries were unintentionally derived during experiments. Due to the uncertain nature of science, many accidental discoveries have proven to be even more important than the initial research goals that led to their discovery.
The discovery of X-rays—known as one of the three major physics discoveries in the nineteenth century—was discovered by accident. At the time, many physicists were engaged in the research of cathode rays, including German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen. When Röntgen accidently placed a bag of photographic film beside laboratory equipment, the film reacted. This incident started Röntgen thinking and he conduct repeated experiments, finally confirming that it was indeed the previously unknown X-ray that had penetrated the film wrapper.
The discovery of X-ray had great scientific value. X-ray not only propelled the development of physics but also played a significant role in the development of medicine. Roentgen himself was awarded the first Nobel Prize for his discovery.
The discovery of penicillin was also accidental. British pharmacologist and microbiologist Alexander Fleming had been committed to the prevention and treatment of wound infections, but he had not gained useful results in years of painstaking research. One day, he discovered a blank space around the bacteria he had cultivated; the Staphylococcus aureus that caused infection had disappeared. Further research showed that the Staphylococcus aureus had been killed by a type of mold that was only toxic to bacteria and not to white blood cells. This made the mold useful in treating human diseases, and Fleming named it penicillin.
Penicillin saved countless lives in World War II and became known as one of the three major inventions of that conflict, along with radar and the atomic bomb. It is still a cure for various inflammations today, and Fleming was awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize for his discovery.
Accidental scientific discoveries are numerous—after all, Newton discovered gravity when inadvertently observing apples falling from trees. However, not every accidental discovery benefits humanity. There are just as many examples of catastrophe brought on by accidents.
American politician and scientist Ben Franklin was very interested in electricity. When he observed the sound and light emitted from the Leyden jar, he thought of lightning and set out to discover whether the two kinds of electricity were the same. Franklin fashioned a kite out of silk and tied a thin piece of iron wire to it; he succeeded in “capturing” lightning and proved that it was the same as geo-electricity.
It is in fact extremely dangerous to capture lightning through a kite. Franklin only avoided catastrophe out of sheer luck. Others were not so fortunate. One year after Franklin’s experiment, Russian physicist Georg Wilhelm Richmann was killed by lightning while conducting the same experiment with his students. Franklin himself was almost killed in a later electricity experiment. When he was trying to electrocute a turkey with a Leyden jar, he shocked himself. After he woke up, he joked, “I have lately made an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat . . . I then felt what I know not how well to describe: as universal Blow thro’out my whole body from head to foot . . .”
Scientific experiments have often ended in catastrophe. Nitroglycerin is a potent explosive. After its invention, it was used widely in mining, road construction, and other fields. This type of explosive was unstable and complicated to produce. Nobel was dedicated to improving the safety and simplifying the production of this explosive; his younger brother assisted him.
On September 3, 1864, when Nobel’s younger brother and several technicians were studying simplified production methods, an explosion occurred and his younger brother and four others were killed on the spot. Nobel himself escaped the disaster because he was not present at the time.
After the incident, Nobel did not give up his research on nitroglycerin. He finally discovered that diatomaceous earth could absorb nitroglycerin and enable its safe transport, prompting him to start improving the explosive and its detonators. However, another accidental explosion caused him grave injuries, and Nobel barely escaped with his life.
Accidents usually happen because the science is still unknown. This inherent uncertainty of science means that no scientists can completely determine the outcome of scientific experiments, so accidental discoveries and catastrophic disasters will both occur during scientific experiments.
In March 2008, US nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner and Spanish journalist Luis Sancho filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court of Hawaii, demanding that the atomic crash tests conducted by CERN in the outskirts of Geneva be stopped.
Physicists had spent fourteen years and eight billion dollars building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in the outskirts of Geneva. They were planning to study the debris left from proton collision to find clues regarding the essence of mass and nature. Wagner and Sancho believed that the physicists had underestimated the LHC’s danger, and that it could create globe-gob-bling black holes, strangelets, or other exotic and catastrophic phenomena.
This was not Wagner’s first lawsuit. He had filed suits against the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1999 and 2000 in an attempt to stop its trial of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider; however, his lawsuits were dismissed and no accidents occurred during the RHIC experiments.
Wagner and Sancho’s lawsuits were dismissed as well. According to famous physicist Stephen Hawking, even if a micro-black hole were formed through such experiments, it would evaporate immediately. Hawking’s theory is still unproven, and it is this uncertainty that worried Wagner and Sancho. Many scientists have expressed concerns over high-level scientific experiments. When the first atomic bomb was being tested, scientists were worried that it would ignite the atmosphere. Subsequent tests prove this worry to be superfluous, and the LHC did not bring any disaster either. However, concern over scientific experimentation will never be unfounded. With the deepening exploration of science, more advanced levels of science and technology are bound to increase in power and ultimately possess the ability to exterminate humanity.
There is no doubt that no sane scientist will set human extinction as their research target, yet scientific research may not always progress as intended. It is entirely possible that some accidental occurrence will divert the path of research and result in some catastrophic outcome.
Scientific development still has a long road ahead, and future breakthrough will no doubt be more advanced and formidable. As such, the demons released through scientific accidents will be more terrifying as well. Our fears of scientific accidents only need to be fulfilled once for the doomsday of humanity to arrive.
Two: Misuse of Scientific Products
Uncertainty is one of the basic characteristics of science and technology. Many scientific products have already been manufactured and widely used, but their performance and safety are still hard to accurately predict. There have already been cases where misuse of products has caused catastrophe. As science continues to advance, these catastrophes will only escalate.
Catastrophic consequences caused by misuse of scientific products are numerous, so we will only name a few here. The devastation of the ozone layer was caused by Freon. Today, the world is limiting and will ultimately terminate the use of Freon. When Freon was first invented by the DuPont Company, it was highly regarded by scientists and even deified in some circles. Due to Freon’s non-toxic, non-flammable, stable and non-corrosive (to metals) characteristics, it was widely used in the refrigerating industry and many other fields. It was not known until later that Freon’s stability would cause irreparable damage to the ozone layer. We have discussed this in previous chapters.
The use of DDT stemmed from similar carelessness. Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller had dedicated himself to the research of pesticides since 1935. He discovered that DDT had a strong and long-lasting effect on insects but was non-toxic to humans and livestock. As a result, DDT became the first widely used organic synthetic insecticide, and Müller won the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Ten years later, the negative effects of DDT were revealed. Insects developed DDT resistance after a period of time, but their natural enemies had already been killed by then. As a result, pests became more rampant. DDT also caused eggshells to become thin and brittle, causing many bird species to be harmed. DDT also proved to be harmful to humans, as it could affect fertility in men.
Due to these hazards, all countries have stopped the use of DDT; however, since DDT is insoluble in water and its toxicity decays very slowly, its harm has lasted even thirty years after general termination. Thirty years later, DDT is still found in human and bird bodies, and even in penguin bodies in the Antarctic.
Catastrophe from scientific product misuse also results from premature application of products that have not been thoroughly studied. Such examples are too numerous to count. On December 3, 1984, a cyanide leak at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, resulted in twenty-five thousand direct deaths and 550,000 indirect deaths. Two hundred thousand more were left permanently disabled. The casualties of this incident rival that of a large-scale war.
The nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Kiev, Ukraine, and the nuclear power plant leak in Japan are still causing lasting damage, years later.
After the initial development of a scientific product, scientists usually have trouble determining its absolute safety. The more advanced the product is, the more uncertain its safety will be. Correspondingly, the more advanced a product is, the more destruction it will bring in the event of misuse. One day the destructive power from scientific product misuse will be enough to wipe out humanity.
Once scientific development advances to achieve total extinction capabilities, we not only have to guard against targeted attacks by psychopathic individuals but also inadvertent accidents in the laboratory and misuse of products. One conclusion becomes clear: due to its inherent uncertainness, once science and technology advances to a certain degree, total extinction will become inevitable. The only way to avoid human extinction is to stop scientific and technological development before it has the power to exterminate mankind.