We're living in the era of the noosphere: a term that describes how humans fundamentally change the world around them. Just like the atmosphere or the biosphere, the term "noosphere" describes a feature of our entire planet — except that this feature is us.
But it won't stop there. What other "spheres" will we discover or create as we keep expanding our knowledge and technology? Here's our speculation about all the spheres to come.
No one entirely knows who came up with the idea of the noosphere. It was definitely used by geologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his 1922 book about the development about the universe. It was also mentioned, and considerably fleshed out, by Soviet geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky. Others ascribe the idea to a lecture by Édouard Le Roy, a French mathematician.
Whichever man can claim to have had the idea first, they all circle the same concept: The noosphere admits human cognition as a part of the environment of the Earth. De Chardin described the process best. First there was the geosphere, the inanimate matter that made up the rock of the world and the gas around it. Then there was the biosphere, the ever-changing biochemical make-up of life and its effect on the world around it. Finally there was the noosphere, when one of these biological creatures developed the mental and practical power to change the world in ways that no other creature could.
But where does this change start? Single-celled organisms and plants, by pumping out carbon dioxide, respectively, have changed the atmosphere far more than humans have. Insects, especially in swarms, can transform the landscape as dramatically as humans can. Animals can burrow and excavate more territory than humans can. So what's so special about humans?
The noosphere proponents lived at the dawn of the nuclear age, and so they declared that the noosphere emerged when humans gained the power to "transmute the elements." Fair enough. If they'd continued into the Space Age, a good case could be made for the noosphere starting with human travel to space, and to other celestial objects, both in mind and in body — something that no other animal has managed to do on its own.
But if you grant that the noosphere exists, as a concept, it lets us know that whole new systems are still emerging, and still going to emerge. And that gives us a chance to coin more terms ending in "-sphere" to describe our world. Who could resist that? I have a few in mind.
This chronosphere is the sum total of the biological mass on Earth once time travel has been discovered. Plenty of people have studied the effects of time travel on history, and on the love life of Marty McFly in the 1980s, but few have taken into account the biological aspect. Although time travel will allow people to, say, pop back in time and grab a few dodos to breed and re-introduce them into the wild, no one would be able to (or willing to) so completely overhaul history that they are able to preserve the original conditions in which the dodos lived. So the chronosphere would account for the effects of long-dead species on what is essentially a new environment. The chronosphere would also be more multidimensional than current systems.
The biosphere is what happens biologically on the planet from minute to minute. The chronosphere would have to account for the past, current, and future state of the biosphere all at once.
Some day, we're going to find out that we're not alone in the universe. Sure, we might only be sharing the solar system with, for example, a few scraps of algae on Europa, but we won't be alone in the galaxy as a whole. And we'll be unlikely to want to keep all of that life on Europa and all of this life on Earth. There is going to be some crossover. If aliens ever do land, they'll be even more crossover, and multiple worlds will share and change each of their biospheres as contact continues. The overall biological system will be known as the extranosphere. Technically, the extranosphere might already exist. It seems that astronauts sometimes jettison waste into space. We've been flinging our poo around like the primates we are. If some of that crossed over to a place where any microorganisms in it could survive, even for a time, we've taken hops in and out of the extranosphere already.
This is a technicality. Although we were getting a handle on the atom at the time of Le Roy and Teilhard, genetic engineering was a pipe dream at best. If they had been around, they'd almost certainly have cited the fact that humans can now mix and match genes directly to make engineered creatures as part of the sphere of human cognition. But they're not around, and I am. Perhaps, though, the genosphere threshold should start out when scientists recently created synthetic DNA that could self-replicate. That wasn't just mixing and matching genes to bring out desirable traits — which people have been doing ever since they discovered selective breeding of farm animals. Making a new chromosome (albeit one that mostly copies an existing one) on a chemical synthesizer and sticking it into a bacteria is a little different from all of that.
The technosphere is pretty much what it sounds like, but could look like many different possible futures. One could argue that as soon as someone sticks something permanent in their head (or elsewhere) that allows them to do things no other human can do, like sensing magnetic fields or running at a hundred miles per hour, a new kind of creature has entered the world. Alternately, when computers wake up and start playing around with our nukes, we can say that they've caused a catastrophe that neither humans, nor animals would, and we've entered the technosphere. Or the technosphere could be as simple, and annoying, as having nanotechnology get out of hand and having to swat mosquitobots whenever you're out on a picnic. Whatever it is, it ushers in a new phase of the world.
What strange new "sphere" concepts do you think we're going to enter into? What do you think we've already been in? And couldn't they have found a better name for their concept than "noosphere"? Let me know!
Top Image: NASA