Friday, September 4, 2009

Science is a boon

Science and Technology
First let it be clearly understood that Technology is not and cannot be a bane. It never was a bane. It is only a boon. Can anyone imagine life in the twenty first century without science and technology. I write science and technology because technology is born, evolves, flows, grows and spreads because of science. The great discoveries or inventions of science have been epoch making and many of these have led to technological marvels. The development and making of the Steam Engine brought about the Industrial Revolution. That was the beginning of mankind having more than what Nature gave us. May be the wheel can be credited with the first technological breakthrough. It did add a lot to the speed and comfort of man. But the steam engine was not only for transport, it brought in its wake a host of other advances which gave man many new things. The invention of the electronic valve, later the same as solid state components and the modern chip have been the harbingers of new age. In social awakening the thoughts of Karl Marx gave birth to a new order and brought about communism. In science the making of the electronic tools brought about a whole new world of entertainment, communication, information and much more. The scientific discovery of radioactivity and nuclear energy gave us new tools and means to greater comfort and other benefits. It is a different matter that scientific advancement is also sometimes put to destructive ends. But that does not, by any means, detract from the boons that science bestows on us through technology.

Understanding Matter
Darwin’s theory of Evolution gave us the understanding of the beginning of man on this earth. I will not write about Evolution. Life, the human body and for that matter other living beings, are naturally so grand and mysterious that we have not fully understood the physiology and the functioning of the human body despite having decoded DNA and making very great progress in biological sciences even to create life in the laboratory. We can clone species and learn a great deal about their system. We have started learning to treat deadly diseases like cancer. More importantly, learning about the nature and the structure of matter, learning which is embodied in the Periodic Table, led to great advances.

The knowledge of isotopes, the discovery of radioactivity, the discovery of fission, have all led to technological advances and added to our comforts. Space science may not, on the face of it, look as if it has given us much. But besides the direct benefits in understanding the Universe, there have been several spin offs which have led to new very useful materials and techniques. Nuclear and Space Science and technology have given us many new implements, gadgets, special new materials and technical marvels like robots. The scientific discovery is such a fascinating field of study that one can go on and on. The discovery of X-rays, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Medical Scanners have revolutionized medical diagnosis. The discovery of Fission added a new source of energy to the rapidly depleting fossil fuels. In this review I want to touch upon two relatively recent contributions of science which have been technologically exploited to our benefit. These are the discovery of Radioactivity and Fission, both somewhat related.

Radioactivity is the spontaneous emission of certain radiations by some elements of matter. The radiations emitted are: gamma rays, beta rays, alpha rays. Gamma rays are very penetrating and radioisotopes emitting these radiations are used for industrial radiography, and also for treatment of cancer. An isotope of Iridium or of cobalt or cesium is used in industrial radiography. The same radioisotopes are also used in medicine. Iridium wires or cesium capsules are implanted in cavities to treat cancer. Similarly cobalt installed in machines is employed for treatment of deep seated cancers like lung, breast and so on. Very very briefly, the cancer cells are more sensitive to the gamma radiations than the normal cells and are more easily killed. Normal cells are also killed but much less and can recover. Lot of detailed understanding and technique is involved in the treatment. Naturally occurring radioactive isotopes are not suitable. The above mentioned ones and several others are produced artificially in reactors and accelerators. Radioisotopes are also put in many gadgets which find numerous applications.

Nuclear Energy
The discovery of fission led to the creation of nuclear reactors and generation of energy. Fission is a process in which a relatively less abundant isotope of the heavy metal uranium, when bombarded with the neutral particle neutron is broken into three smaller elements and in the process energy is released following Einstein’s equation of mass energy equivalence. The amount of energy released is huge and is used to convert water into steam and run turbines to produce electricity as in a conventional coal fired thermal power plant. Nuclear reactors have been built which produce enough energy to be able to generate upwards of 1000 MW of electricity in a single power plants reactor. Many countries of the world are having Nuclear Power Plants. France produces the most amount of electricity through nuclear means for its consumption. Russia and the United States also have several Plants to produce significant amounts of Nuclear Power.

Now the process of fission in the reactor also produces other elements which are radioactive. Trouble for nuclear energy comes from these. They have to be contained. Therefore, all the precautions and complications of nuclear power stem from the radioactive products in the process of fission. Lot of technology and science goes in the designing and construction of nuclear reactors. The isotope of uranium fissioning and giving energy gets depleted in the fuel of the reactor, it has to be replaced by fresh fuel. The depleted fuel or the spent fuel, as it is termed, has to be stored for cooling for considerable length of time and then must be disposed off safely. Many of the radioisotopes used in industry and medicine and research are produced in these reactors. Thousands of units of radioactivity are required and that can be made only over prolonged periods in reactors.

Final Word
The boon of science and technology becomes a bane when the same is deployed for destructive purposes. Both radioactive isotopes and nuclear energy are capable of sinister uses. Radiations from the radioactive isotopes are very dangerous. Large amounts of these can be fatal and also induce cancer. Similarly fission has been used to produce nuclear bombs of enormous destructive power. The energy, which in a reactor is released slowly and utilized, is created in a bomb in a matter of split second and released. The result is intense heat and intense radiation. But this bane is not the fault of technology but our failing.