Friday, October 22, 2009
Scientific experts from around the world met in Rome last week to discuss
the problem of feeding a rapidly growing human population in a world facing
a severe shortage of water for irrigation and the diversion of agriculture
to biofuel. In his 1970 Nobel acceptance speech, Norman Borlaug, who led
the green revolution, knew that hunger had not been abolished: "For we are
dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production
and the biologic power of human reproduction... There can be no permanent
progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for
increased food production and those that fight for population control unite
in a common effort." A fertility rate less than two would ameliorate every
problem humanity faces. What will it take for the world to learn?
As described by Joel Achenbach in this morning's Washington Post, "Seeking
a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation," the final report of
the 10 person committee led by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine,
came up empty. The 154 page report is unenthusiastic about the Ares I
rocket under development to replace the space shuttle, and suggested a
heavy lift rocket to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. Augustine
said NASA should be building spaceships that can travel to distant
destinations "rather than running a trucking service to low-Earth orbit."
Yes, of course, but what distant destination? The panel proposes a flyby of
Mars. A flyby? We conduct a huge and costly mission just to look out the
window? Perhaps they could point their cell phone out the window.
Two weeks ago, commenting on the Nobel Prize in physics, I invoked the
image of an eight-year-old child with a cell-phone camera. It was a bad
idea. I meant only to express my sense of wonder at how far digital imaging
has taken us since I struggled to get pinhole-camera images 70 years ago.
Those for whom the shadow box is an artist's palette were sorely offended.
I confess I don't own a camera. I join with Heisenberg in believing the
act of taking the picture subtly alters those whose picture is being taken.
A new report from the national research Council examines and, when
possible, estimates "hidden" costs of energy production and use. The damage
is the committee was able to quantify were estimated at $120 billion,
primarily reflecting health damages from air pollution from electricity
generation and motor vehicle transportation, and result in the death of
20,000 people each year. Half of which is due to the burning of coal.
Discussions of clean energy legislation in the Senate this fall are certain
to be strongly affected by these numbers.
Congress appropriated $9 million to refurbish the climate observatory, and
its instruments have now been removed at the Goddard space flight Center
for refurbishing. That's a good sign, but of course NASA says $9 million
is not enough. The observatory is meant to be located at the L1 point
between the Earth and Sun from which it will determine whether climate
change is due to variation in solar emission or human activity.