Friday, October 10, 2014

The Control of Nature

This inscription on the College of Engineering building at the University of Wyoming urges humans to strive on to control nature in various ways.  It is a very apt inscription for a college of engineering, a profession oriented to improving on nature.*

I found it mentioned in John McPhee's fine book, The Control of Nature.  This book describes three large-scale instances in which humans are engaged in a titanic effort to control nature if possible.  These are: (1) The attempt by the people of Heimaey, Iceland to protect their harbor from volcanic lava by spraying it with water. (2)  The Army Corps of Engineers trying to prevent the change of the flow of the Mississippi from its present path into the Atchafalaya, and (3)  The residents of the San Gabriel Mountains trying to prevent debris from destroying their homes.

McPhee's book is excellent non-fiction; and well-worth your reading.  Each of the sections contains extensive descriptions of undertakings on a mammoth scale.  I found his description of the regulation of water into the Atchafalaya River to be particularly interesting, as the river commerce of the Mississippi would be impossible beyond a point, and New Orleans and Baton Rouge would face a wide but more shallow stream.

Humans have audaciously controlled nature in unusual ways.  For example, the construction of massive dams has allowed the control of flow of large rivers and the settlement of places that otherwise would be impossible.  Extensive causeways such as the one across Chesapeake Bay have linked areas that once were thought impossible to bridge.  We should not overlook the impact that girder-reinforced concrete structures have played in making high-rise cities possible.  And there are the remarkable developments in semiconductor physics which have made possible the computer and android technology.    

Some recent developments as genetically modified organisms, stem-cell research, space exploration,  developing new variants of plants, new breeds of dogs, cats, and ruminants as daring expansions of what humans are capable of; while others see these as dangerous and ill-advised.

This can even seen in the legends of antiquity and more recent times.  Daedalus's flight and Prometheus's stealing fire to benefit mortals can be viewed as cautionary tales against exceeding some ill-defined boundaries as to what's acceptable.  Likewise, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein can be seen as a warning against attempting to create life.  Some people might construe this as a warning against genetic surgery or in vitro fertilization.

In my opinion, it is our species' birthright to push the boundaries of possibility: to not just simply live in nature but to attempt mastery over it.  And, by and large, WE HAVE TO DO THIS!  Because of our numbers, and because of the various problems we face, we've lost the option to let things remain static.  Unfortunately, it's also part of our species' nature to be wary of too much change.  In that way, some of us have an unfortunate lack of nerve or gumption.

*As a joke has it, an optimist sees the glass as half full; the pessimist sees it as half empty; and an engineer sees the glass as twice as large as it needs to be,


Mike said...

Engineers are awesome.

Big Sky Heidi said...

Great post! We have too many neo-Luddites nowadays.

MarkD60 said...

I will read that book.

Linda Kay said...

Angel, I'm married to an engineer, and his mind works very differently from mine. He tends to look at all the specifics, while I just boldly go! We do have to keep on with all kinds of trial and error in our world and embrace change.

bakku-shan said...

I am daunted by scientists making major decisions. What about the mad scientists?

Bilbo said...

I think we need to be judicious in deciding just how much we want to control nature, because we can't always understand the end result of the changes we make. The recent stories that documented the drying up of the Aral Sea after the Soviet Union rerouted all its feeding rivers to water crops is a prime example.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Mike, I agree.

Heidi, There is too much reflexive opposition to change.

MarkD60, I hope it works for you like it did for me.

Linda Kay, I think the study of engineering and the math forces them to think about specifics.

Bakku-shan, I think that mad scientists are more a stock character than in real life.

Bilbo, You made a good point. They totally messed up the Aral Sea. I hope they don't have similar plans with the Caspian Sea.

Cloudia said...

Thoughtful, light, convivial. Nice style!

ALOHA from Honolulu
=^..^= . <3

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

That inscription was placed before the term "control of nature" was seen as an expression of impiety.

Atomic Dog said...

Uncontrolled nature can be chaotic. Mother Nature can be a bitch.

Anonymous said...

i work in the construction sector and have seen some truly fascinating projects - that said, I cannot get out of my mind the damage the hunger for steel and concrete is doing to the north west of this country - it is shameful.