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by Jan Sand
2006-10-26 10:09:21
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That cup of coffee you had this morning. Could you have done without it? Perhaps, but that air you had been breathing all night and have been breathing since is somewhat less dispensable. And a good many other Earth life forms are in the same boat. But some are not.

Original life arrived on this planet well-before green plants started pumping out oxygen and oxygen, when it finally arrived, was poisonous to life at that time. It was a while before an odd variation had the useful capability to utilize this dangerous element in its dynamic system. Most of us descended from this oddball creature but a few did not. The bacillus that produces botulism is anaerobic and there are complete undersea communities that prosper around hydrothermal vents entirely independent of oxygen.

Air is one of the basics, while food and water complete the set of absolute essentials. A few minutes without air is the most we can stand. A few days without water is dangerous and, depending upon the initial physiological condition, a lack of food may be possible for a month or two without being fatal. Our addiction to these three is absolute.

There are different words for addiction. One is 'basic necessity', one is 'habit', one is 'tradition' and some involve various mixtures of all three. Life is always challenging, always changing with variable homeostatic intervals sandwiched between, sometimes abrupt, sometimes very gradual changes. So it is advantageous to be able to tailor dependencies to new conditions.

It would be very useful to be independent of air, food and water. An astronaut or deep-sea diver would probably like to be independent of air and some system of capturing the exhaled CO2, quickly removing the carbon and recycling the oxygen would do the trick, but there are no systems for that now. A hydrological adventurer might do well with either biological or mechanical gills - some preliminary work as been done on the latter (read more here).

Food has two basic functions. It supplies energy and substance to keep all those multiple body machines functioning and in good repair. Water independence is essentially a problem of purifying urine and sweat, so that only H2O is recycled and that has been done in the space station, but is not yet in portable condition.

Revamping the human body to be independent of the basic necessities still has a very long way to go but may become essential in the long run for people to exist easily on other planets or in space. It would be very convenient for a planet dweller to grow green leaves out of his scalp and live on sunlight. Or, alternatively, slip a slug of radioactive material into a shielded pocket in his body to forget about eating for a couple of decades. Robots have the advantage here but even they are tied to inefficient energy storage in contemporary technology.

Habits are usually quite a bit more malleable, unless it involves hard drugs, but as people age they get used to doing things in a certain way or seeing things in a fixed way and find their minds refuse to flex to confront new realities. It was said that a whole generation of physicists had to die off before Einstein’s theoretical viewpoint became acceptable. I know for myself, if I am looking for my coffee cup with a specific mental picture of how it should look and it is lying on its side or is upside down it is invisible right in front of me.

Traditions of culture or religion or social organization become so fixed as to be almost impossible to change. The way people in the Middle and Far East treat each other and subgroups can sometimes be annoying, sometimes offensive and sometimes downright dangerous. This is the major problem in how cultures deal with each other. Within the relatively short period of a century, the intimate interaction of cultures and religions has repeatedly and more or less continuously resulted in violence.

As modern technology provides these intractable factions with the tools to do terrible damage to each other, the carefully woven fabric of social, cultural and economic world civilization is very much in danger of total self-destruction. Human cultures have, in the past, had the luxury of multiple hundreds of years in which to accommodate one another. The fantastic speed with which modern technology has given the world physical and communication access to its disparate and frequently incompatible parts is an explosive mix and it is now in the process of being ignited.

It seems we have outsmarted ourselves.

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Thanos2006-10-25 10:47:24
Very good article Jan

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