Messing with nature

Messing with nature

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Can man change the course of nature to suit his needs? Will nature turn on us in equal measure? Science writer John Rennie will delve deeper into these questions on Discovery's new show 'Hacking the Planet', Lakshmi Palecanda writes...

Today, there is a lot of information out there about various phenomena of the earth and sky. We take these phenomena for granted, for they are acts of God. 

But we seldom stop to think: what if we can change them? That is what the Discovery programme called Hacking The Planet aims to do. 

It is the brainchild of John Rennie, a science writer (credentials). An interview with him brought up a lot of interesting ideas. 
Rennie spoke of how the programme had come about. 

Rennie says, being a science writer meant that he learnt not only about new discoveries being made about various natural phenomena, but also speculations of what might happen if this kind of knowledge could be put to use to stop the destructive phenomena. 
So he had an idea about a show, which focused on what might happen if we start interfering with acts of nature, using it as a hook to talk about the underlying science, and then speculate about how far this understanding can be used to actually prevent destruction due to them. 

Christopher Cassel, the executive producer of Castle Pictures, liked the idea, and the show was born.

Scientific temper
Rennie says that the title of the show would sometimes make people nervous, because it appears to talk about upsetting the natural order of things. 
However, this programme is aimed at examining the theoretical ability and potential consequences of changing natural phenomena, while the rightness of such actions is totally moot. 

“One of the questions we tried to raise several times in these episodes was whether theoretically one could do something to, for example, stop a hurricane, the question of whether or not you actually should was a different point altogether. 
So, we try to get into why sometimes there could be unforeseen consequences that one might not like,” he says. 

“For example, with lightning, you may be able to stop it from striking in one area, but that could have the consequence of just redirecting it so it’s now going to strike someplace else.”
So which phenomena are amenable to action? 
“Well, it’s a little hard to say. What was sort of fascinating for me while working on this was to find that sometimes the phenomena that would be the hardest to imagine trying to do something to, might be much easier to actually manipulate than we would think,” says Rennie.

For instance, the basic mechanics of how hurricanes work is relatively simple and they are also gradual, so they might be easier to manipulate, compared to tornados, which are fast.

When asked about cloud-seeding to produce rain, Rennie says that his investigations have led him to question how effective our current efforts in creating rain are. 
“The science of whether or not what we’re doing really works is in some cases far less clear than one would think.” 

Though a lot of money is invested in trying to make it rain, it is hard to tell if the actual methods have made any difference. 
“Did you actually make it rain? Did you make it more or, is this what would have happened anyway? Experiments are being conducted to determine how well these things work.”

Nature as god
However, Indians who have always worshipped nature may not take kindly to the idea of changing her, right? 
Totally understandable, says Rennie, adding that even in the US, people do not like the idea of messing with nature. 
“This is why it was so important to us to talk about the idea of not just to look at this on what should we do, but to look at the question of what could be the consequences of trying to do this,” he adds. 

If we face drought due to global warming and climate change, these techniques may suddenly become relevant. 
At the time, we should be aware of the consequences, both good and bad. It should also be remembered that though phenomena like volcanoes and monsoons can be horribly destructive at the time, they have a creative, nurturing side to them too. So we could focus on how to reduce the damage, he says.
On a last note, Rennie acknowledges that all around the world, people have always cared about these things. 

When told about the special yajnas performed in India for rain, he mentions that native Americans always had their own traditions about this. 

“We have always been in the situation of sometimes wishing it would rain during a drought or wishing it would stop raining during the flood, and so people have always used (whether it was a prayer or concentration) what they sort of saw as the tools available to them at the time,” he concedes.

So, man is going to interfere with nature at some point of time or other, so it is better to examine the consequences. 
Is that the intent of the programme? 
Rennie says, “I think that’s right. And also to try to be sure that we avoid the circumstances, which would be the most disastrous or dangerous thing to do. The last thing we want to do is to try to prevent one disaster by creating another one.”

Be sure to watch this programme that promises to be different. Watch Hacking The Planet at 10 pm, every Sunday, on Discovery.