The moment man mastered nature

In Greek mythology Prometheus steals fire from the highest gods and gives it to mankind.

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Me skydiving tandem from 3.4 km above Wonderboom, Pretoria North, in November 2014

The moment man claimed Prometheus’s torch was not when he first controlled fire or found the wheel.

The moment he stopped being at the immediate mercy of nature was not when his brain swelled so large that he devised weapons that dislodged the lion from the apex of the food chain. It was not at the beginning of electrified country, or when he freed himself from the confines of the seasons to harvest food. And put aside the fact that after a test burn of a shuttle engine, which generates thrust by reacting hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and the white plumes billow into the air, rain falls.

It wasn’t even the instant the first atomic bomb exploded on a steel tower in a barren valley in Jornada del Muerto (Dead Man’s Trail) in New Mexico, US, on 16 July 1945. During this test, when the shock wave generated by high explosives compressed the plutonium core of the Gadget—according to Richards Rhodes, the historian who wrote the authoritative 1986 tome The Making of the Atomic Bomb—reducing its size from that of a small orange to an eyeball, ‘conditions within the eyeball briefly resembled the state of the universe moments after its first primordial explosion.’ Recreating this intense regime is now routine at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN on the border of Switzerland and France.

It was the moment the first hydrogen bomb, Mike, detonated on an atoll among the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean in 1952. The same author nine years later wrote in the sequel, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb:

Momentarily, the huge Mike fireball created every element that the universe had ever assembled and bred artificial elements as well.

Man created the means to produce everything that could be, is and will ever be observed, and then some. The Mike test was significant for both this reason and another. Fat Man, the implosion-type atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, of which the prototype was the Gadget, derived its explosive force from breaking apart a nucleus of plutonium by firing a neutron at it. This generated another neutron, which went on to split another plutonium nucleus. Splitting the nucleus, because it overcomes the binding energy, generates energy itself, which multiplies as the generations of neutrons increases. This process of splitting an atom is called fission, taken from the process through which a bacterium divides into two.

However, Mike used a different mechanism: fission-fusion-fission, where a fission reaction jump-starts a fusion reaction, in turn leading to a second fission reaction. Instead of splitting atoms, fusion combines them. This takes an enormous amount of energy to achieve; in fact, it only occurs naturally in the high-temperature cores of stars. In the Mike bomb this is accomplished by using the pressure pulse created by the burst of radiation through fusion to raise the temperature of the liquid deuterium to stupendous levels. At these temperatures atoms of deuterium can combine. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen with two neutrons rather than one. More properly, the hydrogen bomb is called a thermonuclear bomb because it generates these high temperatures.

Fusion generates the power that drives the stars. Throughout the life of a star, it generates all the elements on the period table up to iron; and the most violent event in the universe, a supernova, produces the rest and flings it all out into to the vacuum of space. These atoms finds themselves amidst the material that go on to make up planets and other cosmic objects. These atoms in turn find themselves in your body—you’re alive today because a star deigned to die. In short, we can harness the power of the stars. This power could make interstellar travel as routine as a gas stop. This clip from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey makes for a pithy vision of man’s technological journey.

It is almost unimaginable that because of the fact of mass-energy equivalence, the tiniest piece of a lump of wood can be harnessed to end all life in a hemisphere of Earth; in principle the amount of energy that can be generated by fusion is limitless. We started by elevating our kind above his conditions, but we now have power to wipe man off the face of this Earth. Let us, who are not removed from it but are part of it, not overcome nature so exceedingly and finally that we cannot reconcile our face with the soil whence we came.

It is true we jump from aeroplanes kilometres above the Earth as I did, launch space vehicles that reach other worlds, and double our lifespans through medicine. But let us temper our hubris with the sober contemplation that all the matter man has created, before and after Mike, constitutes only a fraction of the total contents of the universe, just 5%. The majority resides in so-called dark energy and dark matter. So it seems after all, the gods might have grudgingly permitted us Prometheus’s torch, which allows us to see out into the darkness only so far. For now they will not permit us a seat on Olympus. But with the rise of computing, which makes exponential leaps in capacity every other year, we might one day take that seat among gods and command their powers, too. In Arthur C Clarke’s words:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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