Machine tool manufacturing and 15-billion years of cosmic evolution
Posted by Bert Maes on November 18, 2010
Story by Matt Bailey
If you are machine tool manufacturing specialist or a student considering a long-term career as a CNC technologist, the following might spur you on and add a little inspiration to your day.
In 1979, American astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan co-wrote and presented an epic, 13-part TV documentary called Cosmos, in which the Cornell professor contemplated the origins and the immensity of the universe, the wonders of the solar system and the possibility and likelihood of extra-terrestrial life. The show was a huge success, on both sides of the Atlantic, due in no small part to its host’s ability to communicate complex and fascinating concepts.
In the very first episode Sagan used the familiar Roman calendar to illustrate the enormity of time since the universe was formed, during what astrophysicists refer to as the ‘Big Bang’, 15-billion years ago. He asked his audience to imagine that each month, from January to December was equivalent to one-and-a-quarter-billion-years. Each day using this scale is ‘worth’ approx 40-million years and each second, 500 years.
Sagan went on to explain that if we imagine the Cosmos began on January 1st, it was in May that the Milky Way was born and September when our Sun and Earth were formed. Early life, he explained, began soon after, but the first humans only appeared on the cosmic scene sometime around the penultimate day of the year. It wasn’t until December 31st 11:59 and 20 seconds, however, that humans applied their ability to make and use tools, organised themselves into societies and built cites. ‘We humans, appear on the cosmic calendar so recently,’ said Sagan, ‘that our recorded history occupies only the last few seconds of the last minute of December 31st.’
The first, primitive tools were found in Tanzania, on the African continent, and have been dated at around 2 million years. Using Sagan’s scale, CNC machine tools, and all of the modern accoutrements and conveniences that we create with them, including aircraft, motor vehicles, domestic appliances, computers, medical devices, space craft and satellites – we’ve engineered and manufactured in the last seconds, just before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, where we live now.
We owe our standard of living to tools and their evolution and our future depends on how we choose to use them. When Sagan recorded Cosmos the world had a stockpile of 50,000 nuclear warheads, also made using numerically controlled machine tools, capable of destroying every city on the planet several times over. Thankfully, the world’s nuclear arsenal has been reduced dramatically and the global arms race is, we hope, forever behind us. But, unless we find new and better ways to engineer and make the things we take for granted; ways that do less damage to the environment and use less of our irreplaceable resources, we still run the risk of what came to be known in the Cold War as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
‘We are the legacy of 15-billion years of cosmic evolution,’ said Sagan. ‘We have a choice: we can enhance life and come to know the Universe that made us, or we can squander our 15-billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first few seconds of the next cosmic year depends on what we do in the last few seconds of this one.’
CNC machine tools, and the people who operate them, will play a vital role.