In a year where the entire world seems to be on pause for the pandemic to burn itself out, it’s perhaps a bit strange to be thinking about humanity’s accomplishments considering the collective bloody nose our ego took from COVID, but for me, thinking about these things is a natural antidote to the doomscrolling I see people doing (and constantly trying to talk to me about.). Dust ourselves off and take stock of what we’ve accomplished collectively. We do live in an age of miracles and wonders. And we could use a bit of bigging up here in the bottom half of 2020 after a humbling by one of our oldest foes.
Since childhood, I’ve been slightly obsessed with the idea of Herodotus' Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; the collective accomplishments of ancient history so great they astonished. Even when I started travelling around the world, it was a theme, having now been to 5 of those 7 ancient sites. But… those and updated lists have always been about monumental architecture, construction, architectural or industrial wonders. Our late age is one defined not by the monumental, and no longer entirely large and physical in nature. I’m unimpressed with the Burj Al-Khalifa. It feels to smack of vanity more than accomplishment. Something for an age of egos and kings, not this century. I’d argue our greatest modern accomplishments these days are small to the point of invisibility despite their incredible impact.
As a thought experiment, and after a read of the late Hans Roslings' Factfulness (which does make a compelling statistical case for progress and betterment in the liberal sense), I started thinking about what a new Seven Wonders list should look like. In the end, this was what I came up with and why.
- Smashing the atom
- Vaccination and in particular, the eradication of smallpox
- Visiting every planet in our solar system (and exiting it)
- The sequencing of the human genome
- The Internet
1. Smashing the atom
Starting with the controversial one, smashing the atom fundamentally changed the calculus of war, gave us a new source of power, and unlocked the world of subatomic physics (and in a certain sense, cosmology). Did it end war? No. But excepting the two weapons dropped to end World War II, it has remained unused strategically and tactically despite the Cold War and MAD doctrine. It also ushered in a new era of such advances as radiation therapy, imaging, and other advances which are so invisibly part of our high tech world nowadays we honestly take them for granted.
More than anything, however, we better understand the baser building blocks of existence and the fabric of our reality in ways impossible to comprehend even a century earlier. I deliberately chose “smashing” the atom over ‘splitting, due to the fact we need to count fusion beyond its fissile twin and regardless of how little progress has been made on its promise of creating cheap, limitless, clean energy. Even now, safer, cleaner thorium fission reactors hold a legitimate possible path out of climate change despite the regulatory and PR hurdles nuclear power now has.
I wavered between vaccines and antibiotics but ultimately felt vaccination won out because it also focused on prevention, stopping disease before it got hold, and if we needed an indication of accomplishment rather than treatment, surely the eradication of smallpox, one of the most hideous and fatal diseases in existence now being extinct, is surely unparalleled in human history. Others, like polio, will surely follow. How many people has vaccination saved from ancient foes that have (literally) plagued our species versus antibiotics, I can’t say (I do remember reading somewhere that much of modern health improvements came simply from improvements in sanitation and which also allowed the urban densities we enjoy in modern cities).
3. Visiting Every Planet and Leaving the Solar System
While man landing on the moon was dramatic (despite the fact only 12 people have walked its surface and we’ve not been back in decades), I feel it’s flashy compared to our even more impressive but less showy accomplishment in exploration. Here at the start of the 21st century we have had probes and surveyors land and/or visit every planet in our solar system from the inner rocky worlds, to the gas giants, to the frozen worlds on the periphery of our solar system far from the life-giving sun. To say nothing of a host of moons orbiting those bodies, comets, and asteroids Even more impressive, Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and New Horizons have all moved beyond 120 AU and left our solar system’s heliosphere, an almost unimaginable distance and accomplishment (for the record, since I looked it up, Voyager I has now overtaken all other man-made objects and is now the farthest away with no other probe currently in motion capable of overtaking it. Voyagers and New Horizon are also still also actively sending information back to Earth.).
4. The Sequencing of the Human Genome
We have now read the alphabet and book of the very biological information which makes up each one of us (even if we don;t understand what all the words mean or how the story reads). An awe-inspiring accomplishment for sheer ingenuity, processing, and insight that has already had incredible ramifications for humanity and quality of life improvement and medicine that imagine we will hopefully even better understand and use as this century progresses. Besides its practical implications in medicine and health, unlocking this knowledge also gives us a better understanding of our hominid ancestry as well as the massive tree of life that has defined this planet over all others in the solar system.
5. The Internet
The reason you are reading these words now. Need I say more? It has redefined and altered economy, social relations, collaboration, and our ability to communicate in so many myriad ways. Like electrification almost a century earlier, it’s almost invisible as a force that has altered everything. While not without drawbacks and dangers such as concentration of economic and political power, it has still changed life completely and irrevocably for humanity (I cannot imagine us becoming less networked). I am specifically define the internet here as the infrastructure which allows us to communicate and compute across geographies and as a cohesive common communications network.
What the internet is to communications, flight is to physicality. We take it for granted now that we can board a plane, hurtle through the sky, and be on the other side of the world within a day, but it’s a superpower that a scant century ago was fantastical. Without it, our step to planetary exploration less than 50 years after that would have been impossible. Over other industrial improvements, such as electrification, containerization, and other economic miracles, flight more than any other has been transformative for giving us speed, safety, and merging of separate landmasses in a physical way the internet does from a communications and computational perspective.
Probably the most controversial item on this list, but step back for a moment and think about what an incredible accomplishment, perhaps unparalleled since the Library of Alexandria, that Wikipedia is. Effectively the sum agreement of all human knowledge, in an accessible, digestible, free to every person on the planet, and findable form… that is almost completely maintained by volunteer editors and article writers. Despite the fact it may not be absolutely correct at any single point in time due to bad actors, it is, over time, demonstrably correct. As an example of open, non-commercially compensated open source and altruism, it’s also remarkable providing a successful collaboration model beyond capitalism (in fact, trying to think of any more successful model than this and beyond, say Linux/GNU was difficult in terms of impact or breadth.). If nothing else, I’d have to say it’s made us a little bit smarter for its existence.
So, that’s the list. Admittedly, 7 was an arbitrary number defined by an ancient historian and I struggled to not add things to this list, but I’m interested in feedback. Am I being too specific and need to broaden some of what are implicit categories? Are there hidden figures that loom large in terms of impact or influence as accomplishments that I’ve missed? Violent emotions on anything I’ve included which should not be on? Violent rage-inducing omissions? Ping me on twitter @awws or on firstname.lastname@example.org
And this list is not to say humanity has it all figured out. If anything, this year has probably been watching our collective hubris and blind spots pay back tenfold. Despite these wonders, we have some difficult challenges still squarely in our wheelhouse we are still tending to ignore.
Serious issues around climate change, environmental degradation, and anthropogenic extinction which may be existential threats to humanity. The sad fact that the UN Millennium Development Goals fell well short of their awesome promise. Hunger, disease, and poverty still plague large swaths of humanity though so much less than they used to. And while human and civil rights have made astounding progress in the bottom of the last century, those wins have been more fragile than many of us would like to believe.
But for a strange year of setbacks it’s perhaps a little comforting to remind ourselves we are still capable of awe-inspiring accomplishments and progress that would have seemed like science fiction at the beginning of the 20th century.
Stay safe and healthy everyone.