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Military Technology and the Science that Shapes our World

by: Austin Arrington
October 21, 2014

In the history of human civilization new scientific knowledge has run parallel to advancements in military research and technology. While immeasurable losses and human suffering can directly be connected to the use of military technology, history tells us a paradox — the research behind tools of warfare has also improved our scientific knowledge, quality of life, and everyday technology, practically ushering in the modern era.

Before touching on the global effects of U.S. military science and technology, let us first take a brief look at some advancements born before the modern era. Thermodynamics, a branch of physics studying the relationships between heat, energy and work, is applicable to nearly every branch of science and engineering. The first law of thermodynamics states that while energy can transform into different states, it cannot be created or destroyed; the total energy of an isolated system remains constant. One of the sources of this knowledge is Count Rumford’s observations of heat from discharged cannon barrels in the 18th century. Another example coming from the 18th century is John Harrison, a clockmaker who devised an ingenious method for the British Navy to determine a ship’s longitude at sea. This led to further advancements and support in the field of astronomy (not to mention maritime navigation).

With the beginning of the 20th century and the start of the first so-called “Great War, ” both the Germans and British delved into the deep well of chemistry, studying nitrates and conducting experiments to uncover the earthly djinn of chlorine gas and hi-tech explosives.

Physicists became involved in the war effort by creating advanced methods to detect German U-boats or submarines in both World War I and World War II. This research produced some of the first and most foundational findings in regards to the development of wireless technology. (Stop for a minute and image your life now without wireless) Wireless technology has had a fundamental impact in the way that modern humans view their relationship to space, fostering interconnectivity and supporting the pace of modern globalization.

The “Haber process” also played a role in Germany’s war effort. Chemist Fritz Haber discovered the process to make ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. The Haber process by producing nitrogen fertilizer capable of sustaining higher crop yields has significantly influenced the world we live in today. The use of nitrogen fertilizer is estimated to sustain one-third of Earth’s population. During WWII the U.S. government built many plants to supply nitrogen for TNT and other explosives, which post-wartime were used to make ammonia for fertilizer.

The age of the atom had dawned by World War II; a fiery urge to conquer all obstacles, understand our existence and the nature of energy. The U.S. Manhattan Project uncovered knowledge on nuclear chain reaction, ultimately leading to the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a strange twist of fate that Japan is now one of the most technology advanced powers in the world, with a long and complicated historical relationship with nuclear energy (taking for example most recently the radioactive contamination and blowback from the Fukashima incident).

The German nuclear team featured Werner Heisenberg, a theoretical physicist who laid the groundwork for quantum mechanics. With his uncertainty principal, Heisenberg revealed the impact of observation on our ability to know what is being observed; proposing a limit to the precision at which variables of a particle can be viewed at the same time.

If the science coming out of WWI & II in large part shaped the world we live in today, one might ask what sort of scientific and technological questions should our military be concerned with today?

Thus far the technology of the 21st century is more information-based, reflecting the evolution of computers, satellite imagery, GPS, Geographical Information Systems, digital communications and cloud networks. The U.S. and other world governments have their minds on cybersecurity; how to protect the state’s economy, infrastructure, and civilians from hacking threats and database leaks. In general there has been a much larger global push towards surveillance technologies. This push is arguably connected to a need to track global terrorism — the blurred lines of guerilla combat and civilian entanglement marked by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. The same drone technology employed throughout the Second Gulf War is now being considered for domestic surveillance and even commercial purposes (Amazon even has their own fleet of these busy worker bees).

With the world becoming increasingly aware of the perilous environmental situation Earth is now faced with, the U.S. military has begun to act on climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. The Army Corps of Engineers has done an admirable job at fighting the “war on environmental degradation” through various conservation and bio-remediation projects. Some circles view geo-engineering of Earth’s atmosphere as a feasible solution to the doomsday climate projections supported by many leading scientists.

In the struggle to adapt to climate change, the sheer technological prowess and expertise of military powers and their partners can be used to enact massive climate relief efforts (similar to how armies send food and other aid to countries in need). Lockheed Martin Aerospace has even adapted equipment installed in the C-130 transport aircraft to drop “seed bombs.” The same technology used for the precision planting of landmine fields can be used to plant up to 900,000 trees a day!

There are projections supported by global authorities such as the United Nations stating that climate change at its current course will conceivably lead to massive global unrest. Increasing sea-level rise along with growing environmental stress on food systems may cause the displacement and potential death of millions of climate refugees, collapsing economies and perpetuating social inequalities.

Today it seems there is hope that humanity is stepping out of the paralyzing fog of nuclear annihilation. It’s gotten to the point, or at least now we are aware, that in order to support the rise in global population countries must begin responding to the ecological threat now facing our planet. This will require unprecedented collaboration between nations — the free sharing of information and scientific knowledge to create the renewable energy sources needed to support sustainable infrastructures; using the Internet to organize social movements and environmental restoration projects; effective land planning and resource use programs; finding innovative ways to reduce the carbon footprint of developed and developing countries.

This task will not be easy. There are very smart people who say that it’s an unwinnable war — the human race has already gone too far down the path of environmental ignorance, and the impact of climate change is irreversible at this point. The data on this point is different depending on the source and climate knowledge is growing nearly every day. However, history takes into account the resiliency of humanity — our ability to adapt to catastrophe and overcome staggering odds.

Imagine militaries of the future as warrior stewards of our global environment; protectors of social good; a technological, human power capable of building a safer and more just world for all people.

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