Genomic Time and the Immediacy of the Nuclear Threat: A Stark Contrast

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Our genes are made up of parts that can be traced back 300 000 years. Some will feel a bit constrained if limited to the approximately 300,000-year age of homo sapiens. Considering that parts of many genes in us are a few million years old, and even a few hundred million years old, let us identify with life going all the way back to the first cell some three billion years ago. Let us picture the past as being present in us.

In this vastly increased self-identity, let us look at the future. Everyone is aware of the asymmetry between the past, of which we have pictures, books and recordings, and the future, which is for the most part unknown and unpredictable. With this temporal asymmetry, a shocking picture emerges if nuclear weapons continue to play their present political role. As an example, let us take as 75 years the time period that has been free of nuclear war after 1945. All a pro-nuke weapon advocate can claim on the basis of probability theory is approximately another 75 years into the future without Accidental or intentional nuclear war.

Our temporal profile is this: we have toiled three billion years to reach this point in our evolution, and we now face 75 years before coming to the nuclear war wall, which could signify the end of humankind. Think that there is no other field of human endeavor that imposes such an asymmetry: raising a family, studying science and technology, setting up a foundation, creating art, all can extend to much more than 75 years. Of course, watching the news and listening to threats made or evoked by some nuclear arms promoters, we may conclude that even 75 years is optimistic.

For a more optimistic picture, note that new ideas in science and technology, and more generally in our modern culture, can spread over the planet in just a few years.  Extensive media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has shown that all countries can cooperate for a common goal, which in this case is preserving our lives and well-being. Let’s build on this solidarity.

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Michel Duguay studied physics at the Université de Montréal and at Yale University, graduating in 1966 with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He worked for 21 years at AT&T Bell Telephone Labs, then at Laval University from which he retired in January 2020. He has a keen interest in belief systems underlying major decisions made by political leaders and their social support groups.

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