The Power of Nature

The recent earthquake destruction in Japan reminds us once again of the enormous powers of nature, and how small and helpless we are when a natural calamity strikes.

Besides earthquake and tsunami, there exist other destructive forces of nature including volcano eruption, hurricane, tornado, flood, drought and a big meteor hitting the earth. In fact, there still exist quite a few others not so obvious because we either make use of them or take them for granted.

Fire comes first to mind. Fire is very unique because it can be made by friction, a simple technique discovered by humans long time ago. Furthermore, we know how to put out a fire, but not an earthquake or a hurricane. Fire always presents a threat because it does not exist on its own. You only see fire when something is burning. Also, a huge fire can be ignited with just one match or an impact. Although humans are able to harness it, fire is a terrible thing when it burns out of control.

Electricity and magnetism are two other unique forces of nature. Humans only discovered how to make electricity as late as the 18th century. Later, the unity of electric and magnetic forces was recognized, hence the science of electromagnetism. In practice, among three of the forces of nature: electric, magnetic and mechanical motion, you can generate any one by providing the other two. Thus, we have hydropower using moving water to turn a turbine with a magnetic core for generating electricity. We also have motor power using electricity running in a wire wrapped around a magnetic core to generate mechanical motion. Finally, we have wind-power using wind force to turn a magnetic core to generate electricity.

Unlike fire, electric and magnetic forces are easier to control and can even be stored for later use. Due to higher costs of fossil fuels, new technologies have been developed for generating electricity such as solar and hydrogen fuel cells. Electricity has the potential of becoming the chief energy source especially in transportation.

Gravity is something we take for granted because we live with it everyday. You only realize the power of gravity when you fall from some height, or when something hits you on its way down. Without the gravitational force, we would not have the seasons, and nights and days because the earth would pass by the sun only once rather than revolving around it for years and years.

Talking about the sun, that’s one mighty fireball of nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms. The sun has been kind to the earth for a long time and won’t burn out for billions of years to come. The light and heat from the sun are the sources of life on earth, and of the variations in climate and ocean currents. Since life survives within only a narrow range of temperature (about 50 degrees Celsius), our dependence on the sun is very precarious indeed. A few degrees more on either extreme would mean slow death for the planet.

What about water? It’s a great resource and force of life, but a great destructive power at the same time. Water covers about 75% of the earth’s surface, discounting the melting solid polar ice, and the melting permafrost in Greenland and Siberia. The human body consists about 75% of water, too. Unlike fish, we can only survive on land. We have seen the horror of the tsunami. It’s more horrible to imagine the breakup or submerge of the continent, and the sea coming in to fill up the space.

There are still other unseen forces of nature such as the nuclear forces that hold together the nucleus of an atom. In 1945, the world witnessed this force for the first time in the explosion of two atomic bombs over Japan. Since then, the nuclear forces have been harnessed for peaceful purpose such as electricity generation. Harnessing the nuclear forces requires extreme care due to the radioactivity of both fuel and waste products. We must weigh the cost and risk against the benefit to be derived from nuclear power.

The biggest natural force is the Big Bang when the universe began, hurling matters out in all directions. Then the stars and planets and other heavenly bodies slowly began to form. Billions of years later when a star dies, it first greatly expands then collapses into itself to form a black hole. The absorbing force of the black hole is so great that not even light is able to escape. To calm your nerves, no black holes exist near our solar system. So you can sleep in peace.

My point is that, given the great powers of nature, we are really very small, dependent, and helpless creatures indeed.

(April 2011)

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