By Marcelo Gleiser

With our ongoing discussion on the nuclear threat and how it's shaping our century, we should pause to reflect upon the causes for this mess. How did we get to this situation of having the power to destroy our civilization? What does it say about who we are as a species?

It may be a good idea to bring back what is apparently a disconnected topic: the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. In the early '50s, while having lunch with some colleagues at the cafeteria of the Los Alamos lab -- the same place where a few years earlier the first atomic bomb was invented -- the great physicist Enrico Fermi stopped eating and asked: "Where is everybody?"

His friends raised their heads and looked around for who was late. "No, I mean, the aliens. Where are they?"

Fermi went on to show, in his masterful back-of-the-envelope way, that if our galaxy was 10 billion years old and about 100 thousand light years across, an alien civilization that happened to flourish just, say, a million years before we did would have had plenty of time to spread about, colonizing the entire galaxy. In this case, he asked, why aren't they here?

There are many answers to this famous Fermi Paradox. But the one that matters the most to our discussion today is that aliens aren't here because any civilization that hits on nuclear weapons ends up obliterating itself.

Very gloomy indeed.

So, we must ask if the past 65 years of survival in a nuclear era are the exception or the rule. Are we like these aliens or are we different, preferably smarter? Is our future doom unavoidable? Are we incapable of assuring our survival while having weapons that are capable of global destruction?

The truth is nuclear weapons are monsters that will never go back into the box. No scientific discovery will ever go away. Once out, it will stay out, even if morally condemned by a majority.

The Faustian bargain we play with power has a very high price. The deal is irreversible. We cannot realistically contemplate a world without nuclear weapons. But we can still contemplate a world with a future?

Fear and greed got us to where we are now -- a deadly combination. For thousands of years, scientists and engineers have served their states in exchange for money and protection. We surround ourselves with enemies and must protect our country and homes at all cost.

Patriotism is the biggest sponsor of war. No wonder Einstein wanted borders to be abolished. We look at the United States, a country, or the European Union, where borders are there but increasingly invisible, and we have an experiment on stability and survival. Unless things get real bad (maybe California and Arizona fight for water?), it's hard to see this stability breaking down. So, is the solution, admittedly a very far-fetched one, a world without borders, a truly globalized society? Or is there another way that we can provide a safe environment for us to survive with deploy-ready ballistic missiles carrying nuclear heads with different flags painted on their fuselage? You tell me!

categories: Science and Policy

12:06 - April 13, 2010