Population is measured by statistics, marked by numbers. Demographics can be plotted on number-based pyramids, and growth can be charted on line graphs tracing births and deaths over time. On the World Census website, you can obtain an up-to-date estimate of the number of people in the world at the click of a button. We keep track of populations, quantifying them constantly. We have no trouble regulating records. But do we have any means of controlling population growth itself?
Since the Industrial Revolution took off in the West during the late 1700s, advancements in technology, sanitation, and public health have continually lowered death rates around the world, causing population growth to skyrocket. This sudden exponential growth of the world population is often described as an “explosion” — a term that, at first glance, connotes anything but control. In many cases, explosions signify violence, feelings of danger, historical knowledge or firsthand experience with nuclear bombs or terrorism. However, in other contexts, we have learned to regulate explosions, telling them how to happen and when to stop: chemistry lab experiments, fourth-of-July fireworks, cartoon characters who comically mishandle dynamite and spring back to life. The occasions and implications of explosions, as well as our level of control concerning them, vary greatly. But all explosions have in common the same general process: starting suddenly, spreading quickly, permeating their surroundings, and effecting change.
Welcome to Issue 86.3 of the Yale Scientific. This issue will explore “The Human Population Explosion,” from a wide range of perspectives, highlighting advancements in technology and medical care (from cryopreservation to African Sleeping Sickness); various human population phenomena (from the culture of citizen science to issues of elderly patient care); and the larger picture of how human population dynamics fit into ecosystems and compare to other species (from the creation of a “Map of Life” on Earth to the discovery of potentially habitable exoplanets). Our hope in this issue is to provide an accurately complex picture of population. The problem with this goal is that population is not a subject that stops to pose for pictures — like a living organism, it is constantly moving and growing and changing. By the time this issue is released, there will be new data available on populations around the world. There will be new, more up-to-date statistics, pyramids, and line graphs. The button on the US Census Bureau website will refresh to a webpage that estimates a new, much higher number than it did when the pages of this issue left the press. But there is a thought that comforts the staff of the Yale Scientific as we face this issue, and on a larger scale, that comforts the human population as we grapple with our own dynamic growth. We as a publication and we as a species have commissioned the same photographer to capture population, a photographer that is constantly moving and growing and changing at a rate just as dynamic, if not moreso, than population. That photographer’s name? Science.