How the discovery of radiation changed the future of humanity

A little over a hundred years ago, a passenger ship identical to the Titanic returned to Normandy (France), from the United States, with a very special item.

It was a summer day in 1921, and on board was scientist Marie Sklodowska-Curie, accompanied by her daughters, Irne and Ve. They were in possession of a single gram (0,oz) of radio, locked in a lead box kept in the ship’s safe. At current prices, the material could be worth US$ 1.5 million (R$ 8.5 million).

The cargo had been delivered to him by none other than the President of the USA. But it had been bought with donations from thousands of American women, who responded to a fundraising initiative by journalist Marie Meloney. reveal for the first time the interior of the atoms: the microcosm of activity and the cornucopia of energy within them. She had discovered new radioactive elements, the most of which was radio. That’s why she received her Nobel Prize first.

We all know how nuclear physics ended up altering our world forever. The gram given to Curie as a gift with further research on the tome that helped, in the end, led to the development of nuclear weapons.

What is less known, however, than decades before the bomb is radioactivity it had already revolutionized the world in ways just as profound as ours, only more subtle.

Eclipsed by the infamy of atomic weapons, this is the almost forgotten story of how radio forever transformed attitudes to time and where we may be in the timeline of history creating the first efflorescence of truly long-term thinking.

Up until that time, we knew the Earth was ancient, but we still hadn’t fully grasped how many millions of more years or billions could still lie ahead for humanity and the planet.

Curie returned from the US exhausted, but with the conviction that there were “unlimited possibilities for the future”.


Our sense of where we are in the story depends on our sense of that of how much more future history we hope is still ahead. In Europe, for generations, Christians thought they were much closer to the end of time than to the beginning. Doomsday was expected soon.

The first scientific treatments of the subject, based on extrapolations from physical processes rather than from scriptural prophecy instead, emerged in the years 1700. Naturalists began to try to predict how long the Earth would remain habitable.

People also began to realize that, compared to the geological past, humanity had just emerged with civilization even less so. In this context, it became sensible to suggest that whatever humanity could achieve might not yet have been done. The future has become a screen of hope. Optimists suggested that our species could continue researching, inventing, and improving until the Earth became uninhabitable.

The problem was that, in the Victorian era, science’s judgment of how much future lay ahead was relatively austere. Physicists had begun to calculate how long the sun could continue to shine, but since they mistakenly believed it generated heat by collapsing under its own weight, their estimates were too short.


, was released by Scottish mathematician Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) who was just ahead 80 a thousand years. After that, he declared, the Earth would be sterilized by the cold. Estimates of the end varied between the physical term, but in the last decades of the century the community has converged around the few tens of millions of years.

For many thinkers of this period, the relationship between “time for front” and “time spent” was depressing. Expressing the general mood in 1800, an Irish astronomer pronounced that our “Sun had already expended four-fifths of the energy it can. have originally owned”. Evolution had come this far; I didn’t have time to go much further.

With the end of the years 1700, there was little room for much optimism in the Earth’s distant future relationship. Then came the years 1899, and radioactivity was discovered. That changed everything.

In March 1910, the Curies demonstrated that the radio continuously emitted a Amazing amount of heat. This came from within the radio atoms themselves, rather than from an exchange with their surroundings instead. Radioactive tomes were furnaces.

Measures of the amount of energy within the tomes were shocking. Previously considered indestructible, this wealth was gradually being spent as the atom disintegrated, sometimes over billions of years. Perhaps the most suggestive example of this long atomic range for the future was a clock produced in 1899, powered by radio: it was designed to keep working for thousands of years.

These revelations launched a series of enthusiastic responses from scientists. Within months, an astronomer suggested that radioactivity might “give us a hint about the source of energy in the Sun.” Another celebrated Curie’s “unexpected” discovery of this “new energy source”, suggesting that if the sun is moved through “atomic energy release” rather than collapsing then we will have to extend the “scale of Cosmic time” by many factors.

The British newspaper The Daily Mail quickly published an article reacting to this. “Radio to our rescue,” he wrote boldly. For the newspaper, the habitable future of the Earth had just been expanded by “several hundred million years”. In 1911, experts were giving “15 billions of years” left of sunlight.

Having grown up believing the Earth was “falling” into “a final winter in the near future” , scientists welcomed the discovery of these small “atomic fires” within the heart of matter, which could apparently supply our world by orders of magnitude longer. We can no longer believe that “our decaying Sun” we, with a “yellowish-red hue” of solar senility, a journalist exclaimed, the radio coming “to the rescue”, “indefinitely extending the sweep of the cosmic timeline back and forth “.

During the years 1924, estimates about the future continued to expand. A prominent physicist, James Jeans describing the atoms as “pure bottled energy”, dared to estimate that our Sun contains enough “intact bottles” for an impressive 1 trail more years of sunlight. While this later proved excessive in years 1960 their life expectancy was cut to 5 billion years, it shows how far the time horizons were expanding.

Communicating the extensive potential of the future to the public in 1929, Jeans visualized a stamp on a 1 penny coin, balanced on a

obelisk feet tall. The thickness of the seal represented recorded history. The seal and the 1 penny coin together represented the existence of our species. The distance between the seal and the base of the obelisk was the age of the Earth.

Jeans did not stop there. He calculated how high a stack of seals, placed one on top of the other, you would need to show another 1 rail of years of habitability on Earth. “A pile the height of Mont Blanc” (largest mountain in Europe, 4.1800 meters of altitude), he concluded.

Jeans considered us “dawn creatures” on Earth, with “unimaginable opportunities for achievement” and “unexplored potentials” ahead.

Others would reach similar conclusions. Geologists agreed that “Homo sapiens is still a young species”. Already radiochemists celebrated a “deep shift in mental perspective”: from an idea that the heights of achievement belonged to a “Golden Age” of the past, physicists now suggested that they might be in the spacey future.

In short, Marie Curie’s discoveries completely reversed the relationship between expected future and established past. After having thought that they lived near the end of the story, people now recognized that they might be living in its beginning. The universe of mankind, at its most decrepit, now looked positively young.

Compared to the “cosmic” past, it seemed that Homo sapiens had only emerged in the last fragment of time. Serious and scientific attempts to improve the material conditions of the species had emerged within a fragment of that fragment.

Considering all this, geologists claimed that if we consider the human capacity to respond to moral rationalization as unique, then – although this faculty of ours is extremely fallible, it evidently remains – the era of ethical action on Earth may just be dawning. author enthusiastically in 1921, “if we pay attention to the modern pace of progress”. We can only “dimly conceive” what can be accomplished in the ages to come, if the “pace we are going” continues to be maintained even minimally.

After the radio revelations, Jeans explained that the physics message was one of “responsibility, because we are making the plans and laying the foundations for a future longer than we can imagine”.

In September 1928, these new responsibilities for the deep future of humanity were presciently articulated by the geezer Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, two months before he died.

When a journalist interviewed him, in his studio in Chicago, Chamberlin gave him a smile and said he was “an avowed believer in ample opportunity” for humanity.

Chamberlin pointed to the fact that humanity only I had just discovered the “huge energies” stored in the tomes. “So I believe we’re just at the beginning of things, just starting to learn how to think.” Our kind as a child, he added. “From Earth’s point of view, I’m a supporter of the idea of ​​a great future.”

More than most, he had already considered the ethical implications of an expanded future. Throughout his 60 years of career, he had pioneered theories about change climate: proposing, in 1898, that CO2 causes global warming. He even suggested that human activities were altering the Earth’s future climate. This requires “an altruistic purpose”, regulating “the” present, to protect “generations that may live tens of thousands of years from now”.

As of June 1898 A month before Curie introduced the term radioactivity Chamberlin claimed that our ignorance of subatomic processes means that we should be suspicious of Kelvin’s estimates of a modest future.

When advances in nuclear physics quickly proved him right in his predictions about the prospects for Earth, he began to insist that an expanding future demands a higher responsibility.

In 1910, based on this principle, he said that the best actions were those that combined over time grew and they became “great things” in the “long ages” ahead of us.

The “long influence” of altruistic actions, having effects on future ages like waves, amplifies their positive “contribution”. But, in the same way, the same applies to the “later” (later) impact of harmful actions. Prudence therefore requires that we be mindful of the use of the Earth’s finite “resources,” he wisely suggested. Universe in other ways: promised new methods of catapulting civilization out of this world.

Previous physics set a low ceiling for future tense, and the same applied to what was imagined about energy available. But here, in the mundane matter which we all have in abundance, coffers of energy have been revealed “of a magnitude in which we have no experience.” So wrote Frederick Soddy, co-discoverer of radioactive decay. “The energy is there. The knowledge that can use it is not yet.”

Although migrations within our Solar System have had been imagined before, hard to find, before 1899, people anticipating manned trips to other stars before 1900. However, by revealing a space in the expected future and in generous yet untouched energy, nuclear physicists have made interstellar travel suddenly seem possible… At least, at some point in the future.

O Russian visionary engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first to put it all together. In 1910, he stated that if you could reach the energy inside the radio, then you could propel a rocket to get to the nearest sun. within to 42 years.

What is important here is that achieving the interstellar exodus would separate the lifetime of humanity from the lifetime of our Sun, exploding the ceiling the size of humanity’s future once again.

“A pinch of radio would be enough for a one-ton rocket to cut ties with the Solar System,” Tsiolkovsky concluded. Humanity could then migrate “from Sun to Sun”, persisting through various cosmological timelines.

In 1924, biochemist JBS Haldane stated that if civilization were to be able to jump from star system to star system, it could last as long as the entire galaxy’s expectation of existence. He estimated that this could mean 60 trillions of years. “And there are other galaxies,” he added.

A voluminous future for galactic humanity was looming. But, as Chamberlin acknowledged, possibility and “opportunity” do not “guarantee actual achievement.” Jeans likewise warned that “an accident could replace our Mont Blanc of stamps with a truncated column of just a fraction…”

As a journalist at the time asked: we can ” paint optimistic pictures of the future on a hazy horizon a million years ahead”, but what about the potential pitfalls that could extinguish humanity, canceling out our “seductive hopes of progress” and the “worldwide picture of grandeur”? There may indeed be “almost infinite possibilities for improvement,” he wrote, but this only deepens the tragedy of lost potential should humanity somehow be prematurely extinguished “in the next thousand years, in the century to come or not next day”.

Scientists were confident that the risks from nature were comfortably low. The same, unfortunately, could not be guaranteed for the dangers presented by human inventiveness itself. Since 1903, there have always been recurring fears in both the press and the scientific literature that uncapping a tome could detonate the Earth “like a barrel of gunpowder”. Some have suggested that if the Earth is full of radioactive ores, then we live under “a warehouse full of explosives”; tinkering with atoms could set off a cascading reaction, immolating our planet.

In 1921, a melodramatic engineer at the University of Sheffield ( United Kingdom), caused a panic by boasting that he was about to successfully break a tome. Sensationally, newspapers said it could rock the planet. He received frightened letters from British citizens begging him not to complete his experiment.

No “cosmocataclysm” happened, of course. Messing with atoms did not ignite the Earth or turn our planet into a new star. But serious discussions were held, for the first time, about whether humanity could soon pose a risk to itself – through an accumulated technological might – greater than the threats coming from nature. These were suggestions that have since become darkly true. After developing thermonuclear weapons in the decade of 1950, humanity began to emulate the subatomic processes within sis successfully, enough to destroy itself and its extended future.

The irony that the nuclear discoveries initiated by Curie that later endangered this future were exactly the same ones that initially gave us a vision of a spacious future with ample potential.

Ideas for today

There are important lessons here for those looking to take a long-term view today. First, be careful about saying “never” when dealing with technological discoveries, particularly when the consequences of an invention could change the course of civilization forever.

A century ago, prominent physicists said that we take it was definitely impossible to release. One of them, in 1929, dismissed the “goblin” of nuclear energy as a “myth”. He advised everyone to “sleep in peace”, knowing that God had put locks on their “handwork” so that humanity could not disturb the universe. Eight years later, nuclear fission was unlocked by Lise Meitner.

Second, timetables for discoveries of this type are difficult to predict. Writing in 1924 about the long-term future of humanity, Haldane (one of the most skillful experts of his generation) found it reasonable to predict what round-trip journeys to the Moon would have to wait until the year 8 million. The feat was achieved by the Apollo spacecraft 15 only 60 years later.

Soddy, writing in , warned that once people figured out how to turn isotopes into weaponry in turn, an unprecedented destructive potential would be unleashed. All he could do was hope that “this discovery will not be made” until humanity has the foresight not to misuse it.

Haldane’s prediction and hope de Soddy proved to be wrong. The point here is that we, exactly a century later, are in an identical position when it comes to several new emerging technologies, from artificial intelligence to synthetic biology, that could endanger our entire future on. For example, it seems plausible that creating deadly pathogens will only become easier and cheaper, but we don’t know how long it will take before it becomes easy enough to pose a serious threat to everyone.

We need to There is more than “hoping” that we can deal with the challenges promised by new technologies before they are unlocked and unleashed. As with atomic power, technologies that change the world can be developed sooner than experts expect, so better to be prepared than to be complacent.

Equipped with a better understanding of how As the Sun ages and how sensitive the Earth’s climate will be to its aging, current predictions about future habitability have been reduced from the 1-rail year prediction made by Jeans. Many scientists now predict just under 1 billion years of complex life on Earth. However, on balance, nothing has yet been found – in the skies or on Earth – that implies that humanity cannot carry out its interstellar disposition in this period. Estimates of how long the wider Universe may continue to be able to sustain complex life are truly jaw-dropping.

The future of mankind may be astronomically large, as scientists did at the beginning of the century 40 realized. It might be comfortable enough to make some amends for all the frustrated, stolen, and wasted opportunities in history to this day. The actions with the greatest impact and resonance, then, should be those aimed at protecting this long-term perspective. However, at this moment, humanity remains as a teenager: irresponsible, although awakening for the first time to the fact that their actions may have irreversible consequences.

Probably the first “long-term”, Thomas Chamberlin put the question best in 1910: “The highest conception of altruism I can formulate is built on the thought of doing things that are firm enough to last and do good long after they have lost the name and record of those who launched them.”

*Thomas Moynihan the author of X-Risk : How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction (The X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction) and researcher at the Forethought Foundation at St Benet’s College, Oxford University. He posts on as @nemocentric and can be found at www

Back to top button