Fear of the future: A world gone M.A.D.
Are we standing on the brink of Mutually Assured Destruction?
Many people would say the world is going mad, but we can likely find ways to deal with that. What we can't deal with, however is a world gone M.A.D.
M.A.D. stands for Mutually Assured Destruction, an accurate description of what would happen if the world's countries armed with nuclear weapons engaged in direct, all-out confrontation. It may seem far-fetched as we distance ourselves form the Cold War. Yet, it is the most dangerous existential threat to our collective survival. Not just ours, but also that of countless other life forms on the planet.
In 1933, as Hitler was ascending to power in Germany, Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd proposed the notion of a nuclear chain reaction, whereby neutrons released from radioactive atomic nuclei would hit other heavy nuclei like little bullets, causing them to split (fission) into smaller nuclei. Every time this splitting happened, a little bit of energy was released. Do it for a huge number of atoms really fast and you get a chain reaction, releasing a huge amount of energy. In 1939, together with Enrico Fermi, Szilárd showed that a multiplication of released neutrons was possible.
Szilárd knew that the possibility of a chain reaction represented a critical turn in history. An explosive device with an uncontrolled chain reaction would have devastating consequences. Szilárd convinced Einstein to write a letter to Franklin Roosevelt urging the US to start a serious bomb-making effort, before the Nazis did. The result, in late 1941, was the Manhattan Project, a massive secret effort in Los Alamos led by J. Robert Oppenheimer and overseen by Major General Leslie Groves.
On July 16, 1945, the first fission bomb was detonated in the desert of Alamogordo in New Mexico. The mushroom cloud went 40,000 feet up in the air and broke windows 100 miles away. Years later, reminiscing about the dramatic event, Oppenheimer famously quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Just a few weeks after the successful test, on August 6 and August 9, the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—still the only use of atomic weapons on a civilian population. Within a few months, between 90,000-146,000 people died in Hiroshima and 39,000-80,000 in Nagasaki.
In May 2016, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima to offer his respects for the victims—the first visit to Hiroshima by a sitting U.S. president. “We have known the agony of war," he said. “Let us find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons."
Unfortunately, we are very far from this goal. After the fission bomb came the much more powerful fusion or thermonuclear bomb, or H-bomb, whereby for fractions of a second the fusion of isotopes of hydrogen into heavier nuclei repeats the processes that in related ways light up the sun and stars. It is the closest realization of the Promethean myth, humanity controlling the fire that the gods used to light up the heavens.
From the Cold War to the present
The U.S. built its first H-bomb in 1952, believing it would guarantee its total nuclear supremacy. In less than year, the Soviets had tested their first H-bomb. Panic ensued.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the world witnessed an accelerated buildup of its nuclear arsenal. The Cold War was in full effect. As former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry reported in his memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, only sheer luck prevented the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis from deteriorating into a full-blown nuclear war by sheer luck. Working then at gathering information about the Soviet missiles being deployed in Cuba, Perry believed that every day would be “my last day on earth."
At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. had 1,054 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 656 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Different sources cite different numbers; for example, the online textbook Alpha History reports that by 1962 the U.S. had almost 7,000 nuclear warheads while Soviet Russia had 500. In any case, the numbers are staggering. Soon, other countries would be part of the nuclear club: the UK, France, China, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan. Now, North Korea is the new threat.
A massive decommissioning program was initiated. Thousands of nuclear weapons were destroyed under the SALT I and II treaties and then, at the end of the Cold War, under the START I and II treaties of the early 1990s. (There were issues with implementation and ratification, of course.) The New START Treaty was ratified in 2011, forcing the numbers of still-operative strategic nuclear missile launchers to be reduced in half. The numbers dropped, but a huge number of weapons are still active. Notably, the treaty doesn't regulate the number of stockpiled nuclear warheads, which remains in the high thousands in both Russia and the U.S.
M.A.D. remains as much a threat today as it was in the 1960s.
To this we must add a whole new dimension to the problem: the threat of nuclear terrorism. In his book, Perry describes a scenario where terrorists build an improved nuclear device and blow up the White House and Capitol Hill, killing more than 80,000 people and unleashing complete chaos. Or it could be a war between India and Pakistan, with devastating global impact. And North Korea remains a nuclear threat.
Nuclear warfare may seem a distant worry in the minds of many; with more immediate problems, people's thoughts tend to drift off. Children no longer do nuclear safety drills in school as they used to in the 1950s and 60s. The danger is actually higher now, given the level of global political instability and the rise of terrorist extremists not concerned with the value of human life. Alternatively, nuclear conflict may start in the hands of an unstable politician with control over nuclear weapons. What Hitler couldn't do during the Second World War, others now can. This is why the famous Doomsday Clock, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is at its closest to midnight—two minutes—for only the second time in history. The other was 1953.
To truly dismantle the global nuclear arsenal would take a concerted effort with strict supervision from a conglomerate of countries. Nuclear materials must be neutralized. Maybe this is the sort of global initiative that lives in the realm of dreams. History shows that no political leader would want to let go of the explosive technologies that guarantee his/her power. On the other hand, those who understand the real danger of nuclear holocaust would hopefully agree that using nuclear deterrence to insure peace is a very dangerous bargain. Let's all point our guns at one another, but no one can pull the trigger, okay?
My kids do this with their Nerf guns. Until someone pulls the trigger. Or the gun misfires. And a shower of bullets ensues. A reading of Cormac McCarthy's deeply disturbing novel The Road may be helpful, followed by Perry's sobering memoir.
It is ironic that the same Enrico Fermi who first implemented a nuclear chain reaction in the laboratory came up with the Fermi Paradox: If there are intelligent aliens somewhere in the galaxy, why haven't they visited us? In a nutshell, Fermi reasoned that if intelligent aliens exist in our galaxy, they'd have had plenty of time to colonize it in the past 10 billion years. But they haven't. One of the (many) possible answers to the Fermi Paradox is terrifying: any civilization that reaches nuclear capability is bound to destroy itself.
Let this be a warning to humanity and its collective future.
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Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.
- Empathy is a useful tool that allows humans (and other species) to connect and form mutually beneficial bonds, but knowing how and when to be empathic is just as important as having empathy.
- Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, Bill Nye, and actor Alan Alda discuss the science of empathy and the ways that the ability can be cultivated and practiced to affect meaningful change, both on a personal and community level.
- But empathy is not a cure all. Paul Bloom explains the psychological differences between empathy and compassion, and how the former can "get in the way" of some of life's crucial relationships.
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