Friday, March 6, 2009
How alone are we? The first images from the 1976 Viking Lander on Mars
were a disappointment to space romantics. No one expected to see cities or
canals; that was ruled out by the Mariner 6 and 7 flybys just two months
after the Apollo-11 Moon landing. But the harsh, rock-strewn landscape
gave no hint of life on any scale. Years of exploration by Rovers have
found nothing to soften that image. Perhaps a sample return mission will
offer evidence of microscopic life or fossil life on Mars, and there are
still moons of the gas giants to explore. But Kepler now takes the search
beyond the solar system. The 21st century opened with the discovery that
there are planets around other stars, indeed many planets around many
stars. Are there planets like Earth that are neither too hot nor too cold
nor too massive with abundant water and low ionizing radiation? They are
being called the Goldilocks planets, if they exist. Kepler was launched
today to search for them.
In 2000 Sir John Templeton had an epiphany; instead of "spiritual
progress," the Templeton Prize would henceforth be given for "spiritual
discoveries." The next six winners were all physicists who justified their
spirituality by the anthropic principle and the moral law. The moral law
states that people know right from wrong. Darwinians would not disagree;
knowledge of right and wrong has an obvious survival value for social
animals. It's an instinct wired into our brains by natural selection.
Catholic theologians would say the knowledge of right and wrong is planted
in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. The anthropic principle, is another
matter, it contends that the universe is designed for life. If so, it's a
shockingly inefficient design; vast regions of the universe are clearly
unsuited to life as we know it. Stated another way, the anthropic
principle merely says that "if things were different, things would not be
the way things are." Everything we have learned tells us that there is no
plan. We have some control over our life, but no clear instructions on
what to do with it. Consider the stem cell issue.
The decision by President Obama to lift restrictions on federal funding of
human embryonic stem cell research will be announced on Monday. Extracting
a stem cell kills the day-old embryo from which it's taken, but these are
embryos that are already slated to die. They're left over from in vitro
fertilization, raising the question of when we become a person. After
eight years of frustration, Obama's executive order could put America back
in the lead in the treatment of many cruel diseases, particularly when
combined with stimulus funding.
The immediate challenge for research agencies is to spend their unexpected
wealth from stimulus, according to Jeffrey Mervis in today's Science.
Basic research budgets at both NSF and NIH have drifted downward since
2004, but will increase sharply in 2009, and Energy will do even better.
It must go through a 30-day period of public comment, but the Obama
administration quietly rescinded job protection for health workers who
refuse to provide care they find objectionable. The rule was an IED
planted by Bush after Obama won the election. Aimed at abortion, the rule
allowed health workers to refuse to participate in care that violates
their personal beliefs.