On one of the latest images sent by the Voyager 2 space probe as it left the solar system, experts were able to identify our planet: a blue dot. This colour, so obvious when we look at satellite images, is due to a unique phenomenon in our solar system. It is the chemical composition of the atmosphere, to which we owe the existence of biological life on Earth.
Underneath this protective layer of the atmosphere is the essential part of our globe – the earth beneath our feet. Both of these geophysical structures – the earth and the atmosphere – interact with each other and thus, at their contact point, conditions formed to enable us, humans, to live a safe and healthy life. For years, however, like the Eloi (from the futuristic vision created by H. G. Wells in his novel The Time Machine), we carelessly used the resources of our planet, especially its surface. Not so long ago we learned how negatively our actions affect the properties of the atmosphere, disturbing the balance of the conditions necessary for life on Earth. We have created a dangerous situation for ourselves and for our entire biological life.
We know quite a lot about the earth’s atmosphere. Its properties and changes can easily be experienced in the big cities of the world. On a hot day our eyes tear up and we get a bad cough, caused by inhaling urban "air". Even a short distance from the metropolis some of us notice a change in the night sky caused by lights emitting from the big city. We read about the problems of our atmosphere in newspapers, like in reports from international conferences devoted to global warming caused by humans. However, we have yet to learn how to regulate or sanction the impact of the Earth on the atmosphere. After all, no one is going to write legislature regulating the impact of volcanoes on the atmosphere.
We know much less about what is happening to Earth beneath our feet. We learn a little about it in school, but - ashamed to admit it- our knowledge does not go deeper than the thin surface of the planet. Take the oceans, for example. We know little more about their depths than Professor Aronnax, (a character in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea), knew about it back in the nineteenth century.
And yet, it is the Earth, its construction and properties that we should know about as much as possible! If only to make reasonable use of what is inside her. After all, the entire modern civilisation is based on the use of these resources.
We can easily see signs of irresponsible use of our planet’s resources when we travel through the Silesia region of Poland by lesser used roads, along the gigantic heaps left over from coal mining. Burning gas candles over oil wells seen from the satellites in areas such as the Persian Gulf, remind us of our civilisation’s dependence on oil. In North Dakota, similar constructions show us how the centre of today’s US economy is starting to become dependent on shale gas. Sand dunes along Athabasca in the north of Canada show the scale of fuel extraction from oil-bearing areas. But one day the energy cost of extracting these fuels will equal the energy we can get from them. At that point extracting natural fuels will no longer make sense. Hutber’s law is inevitable… The microscopic (compared to our lignite mines of today) African and Australian uranium mines will provide us them with fuel of the future. Fuel, which for thousands of years would free our civilisation from the need to construct dumps, build oil pipelines and monstrous tankers. If only we wanted to do that…
The blue planet hides not only the fuel, but also the minerals and ores needed by our civilisation. Rare metal mines hidden in the Far East countries provide us with the materials needed to build one of the most sought after goods in the world: electronics. Without it, there would be no mobile devices, computers, batteries or TESLA cars. How long will these resources last us? When, how and what can we replace them with? How can we get them in a reasonable manner (such as recovering them from giant heaps of computer scrap, somewhere on the beaches of less accessible islands in the Pacific)? How little do we still know about it!
And yet science is revolutionising our use of the Earth’s natural resources. We entered the twentieth century producing the same metals and their alloys, already known to our ancient ancestors. However, this was changed with the discovery of duralumin and today we have thousands of different metals. Digital photography has freed us from the use of silver in the photochemical processes of prints. We look at pictures on our computers and similar devices. These in turn require other minerals and materials in their manufacturing processes.
Again referring to the book The Time Machine – we should not leave all these issues for the future inhabitants of the underworld to deal with: the Morlocks. By know we should know much more about our interaction with the Earth. What are the effects of our agriculture? Do we manage the surface of our planet wisely enough to save our forests and jungles – the only producers of oxygen, so needed by us and biological life in general? Knowledge of the Earth is necessary in order for us to live on it safely so that we can better defend ourselves against the natural phenomena taking place in the crust and the interior of our planet. Knowledge of the Earth is also needed so that we know how to build houses resistant to seismic processes and their (often tragic) consequences. Finally, we need our knowledge of the Earth to know the processes of the formation of our planetary system. It most likely hides the mystery of how our planet deserves the honour of being the only blue dot in our part of the Cosmos. Researchers who spend months in the Arctic and Antarctic regions are not doing it to establish the limits of human survival skills. They do it so that we know how to prepare for the challenges that nature will force us to face. Global warming? New ice age? Whatever is coming – we need to know how to handle it.
That is why the upcoming Picnic is dedicated to knowledge about the Earth. How much do we know about her, her surface and what’s inside her? How do we use this knowledge? How do we take care of our planet, and how are we destroying it? What can we expect from her, both good and bad? Joining us for another Scientific Picnic you will learn many new facts, without which we would only be uninvited guests on Planet Earth. But when we get to know them – we can feel like the hosts of this blue dot, the only spaceship carrying us through the cold, dark and the very unfavourable Cosmos. Let’s learn how to take care of our ship and use it as best as possible for the next thousands of years, before the Sun will annihilate our planetary system. At that point we will need to know how to relocate to distant planets. In order for us to be ready when that time comes and to know how to choose a good new Earth – we still need to gain much more knowledge.
We look forward to seeing you at the 21st Science Picnic!
Prof. Łukasz A. Turski