Friday, April 25, 2008
In a lecture at George Washington University on Monday, Professor Hawking
marked the 50th anniversary of NASA by calling for increased emphasis on
space exploration. Such occasions seem to call for a little futuristic
excess and Hawking obliged with a talk completely divorced from reality.
Mars may harbor life but it won't be very smart, so he wants to visit
planets on other stars. He compared people who think the trip would be
too expensive to those who opposed the risky voyage of Columbus.
Actually, Columbus was a careful man; had he possessed the technology he
would probably have sent a drone first. After all, he had miscalculated
the Earth's circumference. It was a good thing he ran into America or
they would have perished. We know the distance to the stars much
better. They are very far away - so far that we aren't going there. The
good news is that "they" aren't coming here.
Seemingly without warning, an additional 100 million people have been
plunged into poverty by the abrupt increase in the price of food. Most of
the people on Earth could not dream of owning an automobile. For them the
doubling of the price of wheat and rice is vastly more serious than $4
gasoline. Contributing to the severity is hoarding, the high price of
fertilizer, a shortage of fresh water for irrigation, and yes, the
diversion of food crops into bio-fuels. It's been thirty years since the
world faced a food crisis of this magnitude, but no one seems willing to
mention the Devil's name. A recent BBC report on the Sudan captured the
crisis perfectly: "The reality is that there are more people in one
refugee camp in Darfur today than there were in the whole of Darfur and
Khordofan in the 1930's!" The problem is not too little food, but too
many mouths. No matter what advances are made in the human condition,
they will eventually be lost if population is not constrained.
Human rights, he said, "are based on the natural law inscribed on human
hearts," and so indeed they are, although a scientist might prefer the
term "instinctive." Natural law also leads to women bearing children in
refugee camps at a high rate in spite of crowding and suffering. "The
pill" offers a simple technology to prevent conception, however the Pope
also warned against science that violates "the order of creation," which
includes contraception. In societies that grant equal rights to women,
however, including availability of the pill, the population stabilizes.
In a story I've been sitting on for two weeks because it seemed too far
out to be real, we must tell you that the Pentagon is issuing portable lie
detectors to soldiers in Afghanistan. It can't be used on U.S. personnel,
but they don't lie anyhow. It has two electrodes to measure conductivity
of skin and a finger clip that monitors heartbeat. It sells for $7,500.
What's New is prepared to certify that it works exactly as well as the non-