"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


Our scientific and cultural heritage is abundant, and the threats to it are numerous—it is time to back up civilization. To do this we will need to establish secure sanctuaries (think of the monasteries of the Middle Ages) that preserve and update copies of the vital records and articles needed for the conduct of our society.

Robert Shapiro

Dear Mr. President,

The finest days of your administration thus far were the ones immediately after September 11, when you rallied the spirits of this nation by your stand against the terrorists, and the values that they stood for. You pointed out, quite correctly, that their actions represented an attack against civilization itself. But by raising the vision that our civilization was an entity that both needed protection and was worthy of it, you entered an arena of concern that extends far the particular threats of Al Queda and Saddam Hussein. Within your lifetime, the fabric of scientific information that underlies our technological society has become much more richly embroidered, and at the same time much more vulnerable. And its preservation is essential to the survival of our advanced civilization and even of our species.

At the time of your birth, in 1946, the scientific community was not yet generally aware that our heredity is stored in sequences of "letters" within the chemical called DNA. We now possess the complete DNA sequence for a prototype human being, as well as a mouse, a simple plant, and a number of other species. Each such sequence, or genome, contains millions to billions of characters, far too many to be stored conveniently in books; the data is kept within computers. The Chemical Abstracts Service had been tabulating the literature of chemistry since 1907, but when you were 11 years old, it established a Registry that systematically records, classifies and renders available information about the hosts of organic substances that exist naturally or have been created within laboratories. The number of such registered substances has passed 20 million and is growing by about 4,000 per day. Let us also note the endless reams of computer instructions, and the hardware that executes them, that makes possible the word processing instrument by which I am composing this letter, and the Internet that allows me to send it off immediately. No trace of these conveniences existed in 1946.

In the mid-twentieth century, technical information was stored in books. The most important works were duplicated in hundreds of libraries. A person who wished access to the information need only walk in, locate the appropriate volumes by use of a mechanical indexing system and thumb the pages to the relevant material. In the future, the sheer volume and complexity of the information will require digital storage on discs and tapes.

Apart from questions concerning authorization and passwords, up to date hardware and considerable familiarity with the software will be needed for access to these materials. Computer storage of each document will be limited to a few locations.

Such arrangements may work well when our society is in a healthy state, but very little provision is made for catastrophe. A number of different scenarios can be envisaged which would eliminate electrical power, disrupt or destroy networks, eliminate key personnel or otherwise prevent access to our technological and cultural heritage by survivors. The immense legacy of our civilization would be partly or wholly lost. Such catastrophes have been listed by many writers—they include bio terrorism and natural plagues, nuclear war, asteroid and comet collision, massive and unexpected climate change, famine associated with civil disorders and social collapse and others.

None of these events is probable on its own, nor even taken together do they represent the most likely course for the future. But we make no provision for these possibilities, then we as a civilization are taking the position of an author who does not choose to back up the novel he is typing on his word processor, or the home owner who carries no insurance and does not store his valuables in a secure cache far from his residence. Our scientific and cultural heritage is abundant, and the threats to it are numerous—it is time to back up civilization. To do this we will need to establish secure sanctuaries (think of the monasteries of the Middle Ages) that preserve and update copies of the vital records and articles needed for the conduct of our society. As their interpretation and reinstallation after a catastrophe would require hands-on human expertise, we would need staffed settlements, rather that buried time capsules. Such settlements would need to be remote enough to be immune from the varied array of disasters that might afflict humanity, but close enough top remain in direct contact, and to bring aid when appropriate.

Although a network of Biosphere-like settlements in scattered locations on Earth might be robust enough to weather most difficulties, there is a safer bastion which would provide inspiration and a variety of types of technological spin-off, in addition to its prime function of backing up civilization on Earth. The construction of a lunar base dedicated to that purpose would provide a superb goal for our newly-born century and millennium. It would also provide needed purpose and continuation to one of the great human achievements of your lifetime; the Apollo Program.

I have sketched out a goal that extends in time far beyond few years possible for one administration. The costs will require many years of investment, with private contributions and international cooperation highly desirable. The goals however could be embraced by you, and planning commenced, at only moderate cost at the present time. What greater enhancements of the concepts of Homeland Security and the war against terrorism could there be, than to extend their protection to the preservation of civilization itself, for the indefinite future.

Robert Shapiro
Professor of Chemistry, New York University
Author of
Origins; The Human Blueprint; and Planetary Dreams.

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