The invisible fundaments that are shaping the human world

My interview with bestselling author and astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell about fundaments, scientific thinking, China, Mars as Planet B, education, multidisciplinarity and the world after coronavirus:

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August 11, 2020

Once in a while, it’s important to reflect upon the things that we take for granted. If we want to understand where we come from, and where we might be going, we ought to understand which invisible undercurrents are steering us: from science and technology to the geographical dynamics that have made us who we are. No one can explain this any better than Professor Lewis Dartnell who is a research scientist specialized in astrobiology and the author of international bestsellers The Knowledge and Origins. That’s why I was thrilled to be able to interview him for our nexxworks Innovation Talks (follow us on Spotify or Apple podcasts) podcast.

These are some of the highlights of our conversation about fundaments, scientific thinking, China and Mars as Planet B but do listen to the entire podcast conversation as well, in which we talked about many more things among which education, multidisciplinarity, cities on Mars and the world after coronavirus:

Invisible fundaments & scientific thinking

In more than one way Lewis’ work zooms in on processes and knowledge that are at the same time incredibly fundamental and yet have become so ubiquitous and accepted that they are quite invisible. His first bestseller ‘The Knowledge’ is a thought experiment about how we could reboot civilization after a huge cataclysm, just like we would reboot a computer after it's crashed. “It’s not a prepper book”, as he likes to emphasize “but a way of exploring the science and technology behind the human inventions and discoveries that have enabled us to build the modern world. It’s a book “about appreciating everything that we take for granted. About how humans and their resourcefulness have built the world that we live in today.”

It reminded me of a famous quote by Carl Sagan who, 25 years ago said, warned us that “we live in a society, absolutely dependent on science and technology, and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology”. I thought that Sagan was referring to the fact that not fully understanding the fabric and dynamics of our civilization makes our situation a highly fragile one. Lewis saw the quote in a different light: “science has become so successful in our modern world and permeated into how everything is done, that it has in fact become invisible. People stop noticing it and therefore stop appreciating the role that it's playing.” He gave the anti-vax movement as an example of this. These people tragically believe that vaccinating children is potentially more harmful than the alternative because they have stopped appreciating the role of vaccines just because those have been so successful in fighting the likes of the measles, mumps, rubella and typhoid.

When science becomes invisible and therefore underappreciated, it’s crucial that we keeping teaching children (and adults) to think scientifically, according to Lewis. “That does not mean that they need to remember scientific facts. Science isn't a collection of facts and figures. It’s a process. It’s a way of thinking or studying the world around you so that you can be confident that the answers you come up with are true answers. And by thinking a little bit more scientifically, more critically and more analytically, that's what hopefully will stop people being lulled into things like the anti-vaxxer movement or the huge numbers of crazy conspiracy theories about 5G”.

How the earth made us wo we are, and still does

Lewis’ last book “Origins” also tackles this type of “invisible fundaments”, but in a very different way. It describes how features of our planet have had this guiding influence in the whole of human history. It goes back to our very origins as species, explaining how features of planet earth were so important in driving our evolution to become so intelligent, so adept at language and tool use as a species.”

A fantastic example is that of a Democrat-voting region that lies smack in the middle of Republican-red south-eastern US. This electoral anomaly closely follows the exposed geological remains of a 75-million-year-old sea. The reason is that the clay in the bed of this ancient ocean broke down into nutrient-rich soils that attracted the development of slave-tended cotton plantations in the 19th century. And still today, in a very different social climate, the greatest concentration of black African Americans still live along that band of 75 million year old rocks: people that are unfortunately often afflicted with socio-economic issues (poor salaries, poor health care and lack of opportunities) and therefore more likely to vote for the Democrats rather than the Republicans.”

I think that examples like these are hugely important to help us realize how utterly dependent humans are upon our environment which has shaped our history in so many ways. And the influence of the earth on humanity has not yet come to an end. For instance, one of the big reasons for China’s current rise in power is that about 80% of all rare earth elements in the global supply needed to make smartphones, iPad and PCs have come from there. “China is producing the lion's share of these modern technological metals. So in the ongoing trade dispute, the trade war between United States and China, two of the largest superpowers on the planet today, it is China that holds the Trump (pun intended) card in those negotiations.”

Still a long way from (living on) Mars

Knowing this, we should really start to be more careful with our planet and its resources. And yet we have ushered in the era of what many scientists call the Anthropocene, where humanity is now the dominant environmental force on the planet. “As a species, we are responsible for releasing more carbon dioxide into the air than volcanoes”, explained Lewis. “We are responsible for moving more earth and sediment with our mining and quarrying and building canals and roads and cities than all the rivers around the world and all the natural processes around the world. So this is why many geologists are now arguing that we should label the current geological era as the era of Anthropocene, the human era. And that is undeniably happening. We are changing the environment. We are changing the climate. We're changing the atmosphere and being irresponsible as a species.”

The question is, now that we have as big of an impact on the planet as it has on us, how this will evolve?

While some say that humanity could move to ‘Planet B’, Mars, it’s safe to say that we are still quite a long way from actually living there. True, commercial companies like SpaceX and Blue Origins are moving faster than slower government agencies like NASA and ESA would, but a lot still needs to happen before cities on Mars will be possible. Lewis also warned that having a possible plan B does not mean that we should act carelessly with this planet. “Trying to get us to live on Mars is almost like an insurance policy for the human species. But by doing that, we still cannot afford to make such catastrophic mistakes on the earth as we have been doing. Having a colony on Mars does not excuse us. It doesn't get us out of jail in terms of stopping pollution, climate change, ocean acidification and all these other environmental problems on earth. We still need to keep our house in order here.”

Feature picture of Lewis Dartnell by Catherine Frawley.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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August 11, 2020