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Signposts in time

By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.

This week, Quirks & Quarks is celebrating 35 years on the air, which is a great opportunity to reflect on the incredible changes that have taken place since 1975, when we debuted on CBC Radio, and where we stand today.

As you will hear on our anniversary special, every field of science has seen remarkable advances in the last three-and-a-half decades. Robots have been to all the planets; telescopes have taken us to the edge of the universe and back to the beginning of time. The Human Genome Project, Dolly the sheep, genetically modified foods, nanotechnology, home computers, the internet ... none was imagined back in 1975. The list is very long.

All of these achievements have left us so interconnected with science and technology that we don't even realize it in our day-to-day lives. So, here's a little exercise. Think about a typical day in your life, from the moment you wake up until you return to bed, and count the number of times when either a scientific principle or technology comes into play.

Your morning alarm goes off and the device on your side table intercepts electromagnetic waves sent through the air from a local radio transmitter, to tell you the morning news, weather and traffic. You reluctantly turn on the light, which taps into a continent-wide electrical grid, kept alive by generating stations fueled by coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, hydro, wind and solar.

Stumbling into the bathroom, you see your sorry-looking face in the mirror. The revelry last night has taken its toll and your head is pounding. You open the medicine cabinet, which contains a wide variety of chemical and biological agents, designed to improve your health and maybe your looks. One bottle contains little pills that somehow know how to find your brain and relieve the symptoms of a hangover.

Turn on the tap to start the flow of water that has been pumped from a local lake, reservoir or underground aquifer, filtered, chlorinated or blasted with UV light to fill your glass. Where does that water go when it's poured down the drain, or in a few more minutes, down the toilet along with your personal contribution to the environment? Throughout this day, you will use about 300 litres of water, many times more than people in most other countries in the world.

In the kitchen, you turn on a stove to make coffee, using natural gas that has been piped hundreds if not thousands of kilometers across the country from the gas fields in the west. You cut up fruit that has been shipped from California or Costa Rica, add sugar brought up from Cuba, then pour on a little milk from a local dairy.

During breakfast, you check emails, Facebook, text a couple of messages and check movie listings on your hand-held device that connects to the electronic network that circles the globe.

If you drive to work in a modern vehicle, it knows you're coming from the key fob in your pocket and unlocks the doors as soon as you touch the handle. Seats and mirrors automatically adjust to your personal settings. The ignition switch reads the chip in the key, identifying it as authentic, then does a complete system diagnosis before turning the engine over. Once started, the GPS contacts satellites orbiting the Earth, to identify itself and its position on the planet to within a few metres.  If you are a thief who has hot-wired the car, it will silently report the theft to a central monitoring agency, who will keep track of its movement and even cut the power to the engine.

As you begin to drive, the engine burns gasoline that might have been pumped out of the ground in Canada, shipped to Texas for refining, shipped back to Canada and sold to you for a cost per litre that is less than bottled water. As you drive, the internal combustion engine, using the same four-cycle principle developed more than 150 years ago, will use less than 20 per cent of the energy in the gasoline to turn the wheels. Eighty per cent of the energy will be thrown away as waste heat, most of which is blown out the tailpipe along with a chemical cocktail of combustion byproducts that will alter the interaction between the Earth's atmosphere and the Sun.

That's the first hour of your day.  You can take it from there.

The most important lesson to come out of these remarkable achievements over the last three-and-a-half decades is the interconnectedness of nature. Science used to be taught in discrete subjects, so the biologists had no idea what the physicists were doing and vice versa. Now there is astro-biology, geo-physics, marine geology, or paleo-climatology. We now see the world as a tightly woven web, where everything affects everything else and more importantly, that we humans are pulling on a lot of the threads.

On top of that, people are less connected to nature, as more of us live in cities, are less eager to travel internationally because of terror threats, and choose to experience the world through electronic networks rather than take a stroll in the woods.

So what lies ahead?

Many of the dire predictions for ecological change in the future are due to begin within the next 35 years; issues of energy, climate change, water, food, population. Will we have the wisdom to apply what we've learned so far, to avoid the worst outcomes?

Either way, I hope there will still be a program like Quirks & Quarks around to document the remarkable events in science and technology that are yet to come.

(Listen to the Quirks 35th Anniversary Special on CBC Radio One on Saturday, November 13, at noon; or download the MP3 file anytime after that from the web page).