Elementary, my dear Watson

“The Earth,” as Carl Sagan once said, “is far too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.” I, for one, agree with his sentiment entirely. Indeed, I’ve always been the one to argue for space exploration. If nothing else, it seems entirely counterintuitive to me not to. The desire to explore and discover is, in my opinion, one of humanity’s greatest character traits. Sadly, it’s been proven to me on a number of occasions that not all of humanity shares this trait. Remarkably, I’ve even heard some astronomers tell me how they “don’t see the point in space exploration.” The point, as it happens, is that we’re starting to outgrow our planet. Perhaps dwindling resources might spur us towards space?

You see, the thing is that humanity is incredibly reliant on the natural resources buried inside our planet. Resources which are painfully finite. This afternoon, I found an article on New Scientist about the prospect that rare elements on Earth may be soon to become that bit rarer. While the term ‘element wars’ might be distastefully sensationalist,* they do have a valid point. Human society is using more and more of the rare metals in the Earth’s crust, and they simply won’t last forever.

Let me give you an example. Being as you’re reading this on the internet,** you obviously own a computer of some description. Maybe you have a shiny new laptop, or you’re reading this on your smartphone while you sit on the train. Do you honestly realise how many rare elements you’re using right now simply to sit and read this? The indium and gallium in LED screens. The lithium in laptop batteries. The tantalum and hafnium in your mobile phone. As for us scientists, well we’re even worse. Any astronomer, working with a telescope, will be relying on a host of rare and expensive elements, such as praesodymium, lanthanum, germanium and gallium. The mirrors in space telescopes like Spitzer are constructed chiefly from beryllium (actually one of the rarest elements in the Universe).

It’s a sad fact about modern society that it’s driven largely by capitalism and personal gain. And the trouble with that is that people aren’t willing to spend their precious money on things like research and space travel without asking what’s in it for them. If there’s no profit in it, then they won’t do it. Concepts like the “greater good” don’t seem to mean much to some of these people. But now there might finally be something to make it “economically viable” to engage in space travel.*** Particularly in light of recent news.

China is the largest producer of rare elements in the world. It’s also recently demonstrated that it may not always be willing to share its wealth. And by share, I mean sell. China is steadily restricting its exports of rare elements, and has recently been blocking shipments of such elements to Japan. There are currently some concerns that they may stop exporting such elements altogether by 2012. This is concerning, given the amount of technologies that depend on these elements.

I just hope that in all of this, it finally gives both governments and corporations the kick they need to start investing properly in space travel. If we could mine asteroids (and humanity is most certainly technologically capable of such a feat), perhaps we could finally lay such territorial bickerings to rest. The moon, too, has a wealth of minerals and resources. While I wouldn’t condone excessive mining, it has to be said that it would be foolish not to harvest something of the moon’s wealth. If nothing else, perhaps simply being on the moon would let people realise that Earth is far to small a place to be squabbling over.

*Sadly, this has become the norm for New Scientist.

**Unless for some reason you’ve printed my blog? Somehow that makes me feel a little uneasy, and I don’t quite know why…

*** For the record, I hate phrases like “economically viable.” Such phrases tend to be corporate euphemisms for “profitable.”

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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