Dear Editor:

The politicians spent a billion dollars and talked for thousands of hours, yet they never spent ten cents or talked ten seconds on the two factors, biotechnology and global warming, that will define the 21st century.

Biotechnology is undergoing explosive growth. In 1953 Watson and Crick described the structure of DNA and in 1974 Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen combined the DNA of two different species to form a transgenic specie. In 2000 President Clinton announced that the first human genome had been completed at a cost of billions. I just had my genome sequenced for $300. Every day bioengineers are announcing new materials made by gene splicing; insulin for diabetics was one of the first. For years new seed varieties have been introduced to improve agricultural products. Drought resistant hybrid corn saved many Midwestern farmers during the current drought. Researchers at MIT and the University of Michigan have reported on producing gasoline directly from algae. Large scale tests are being proposed. It is only a question of time before human body parts are available off the shelf. Eyes are being grown in the lab and may be available within the decade. Enormous fortunes will be made and lost in bio-technology in this century.

Global warming will transform the earth in the 21st century. It has already made a start. The Arctic Sea ice, now at the lowest level ever, will be gone by the end of the century. Changing an entire ocean from ice to water will have profound effects on the earth’s weather. Ice reflects most of the incoming solar energy water absorbs most of the incoming energy. (See this month’s Scientific American for a more complete discussion.) With rising, warming oceans, hurricanes the size of Sandy will be the normal in the future and storm surges over 20 feet will occur on occasion. The Red states will not be labeled Red only for their politics, but also for their summer temperatures. The Gulf States will be virtually uninhabitable in the summer in the not-too-distant future.

Laymen seem to have little appreciation for the rate of technological change. When I was at the University of Illinois, “the computer” occupied the entire first floor of the electrical engineering building and the only thing it did was double the university’s electric bill. It was only seven years from the time the German physicists Hahn and Strassmann announced the splitting of the Uranium atom and the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the face of the earth.

Science is not a hoax.

Bob Dungan


This story was posted on December 6, 2012.