Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Who Can You Trust on Climate Change?

Today's New York Times examines Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli's one-man crusade against climate science.  Take a look at it here.

The ongoing battle over climate change highlights a central problem in a population that is under-educated in science.  The question is, who can you trust?  For those who have not gone to the trouble of educating themselves on climate science, you just have to trust what you're being told.  But for a subject as contentious as climate change, you're being told two radically different things.  One the one hand, you have a large majority of scientists, who have reached a consensus.  They tell us that climate change is real, and that human activity is the primary agent of global warming.  Some of the details remain to be nailed down (for instance, how fast is it happening, how extensive will the damage be, how high will seas rise, etc), but the main storyline is clear.  On the other hand, you have some politicians, media personalities, and a small minority of scientists, who cast doubt on the whole affair.  This group can be broken up into two main varieties: those who don't believe climate change is happening, and those who do believe it is happening but think we humans are not responsible for its creation or its resolution.

The population is left to decide who is right.  Who do you choose?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Why Should We Go to Space?

Sometimes I ask myself, "why should we go to space?"  It's a question I think many of us have probably asked ourselves.  I can tell you all sorts of reasons why our exploits in space are extraordinary, but that doesn't really answer the question.  It's a question that needs to be answered, though, and any advocate of space exploration should have an adequate response. 

Every year, as the United States has to draw up its budget, there are lots of considerations.  How much do we spend on defense?  How much can we afford to take care of the poor, the elderly, the children?  How much do we send abroad for humanitarian purposes?  And how much do we invest in education, and technological advancements here at home?  Each of these are very important, but when money is tight, we have to make some difficult decisions.  We have to get our priorities in order, and the composition of the government determines those priorities, sometimes but not always along party lines.

When it comes to making cuts, space exploration sometimes finds itself on shaky ground.  It can feel like a luxury item, like that cable sports package we like but don't really need.  Looking at the billions of dollars spent on manned space flight or space telescopes, for instance, it's easy to wonder how many children that might feed, or how many teachers that could pay (but of course, it's an equally valid question to ask how many fighter jets and warheads we could stand to do without).  No expenditure exists in a vacuum, though, so while we can easily imagine all the good that an extra 10 billion dollars might do for any single program, we have lots of commitments and we have to figure out how to spread the money around to cover all our bases.

Our ventures in space began with a decidedly defensive purpose.  When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, it became clear that we were vulnerable to an unprecedented threat: intercontinental ballistic missiles.  As was typical of the Cold War, we set about the task of demonstrating our technological prowess.  It was a matter of national security, after all; the best way to deter the Russians from destroying us with ICBMs was to make sure everyone knew we could do the same thing to them.  But as a lovely side effect of that scary time, the United States began a preliminary reconnaissance of the solar system.  In a breathtaking achievement, the US landed a man on the Moon just 12 years after the first satellite was launched, and only 66 years after the Wright Brothers' first powered flight.  Since the beginning of the space age, we Earthlings have sent robotic emissaries to all of the major planets; investigated the myriad moons of the outer solar system; landed robotic spacecraft on Mars, Venus, and Saturn's moon Titan, with a few rovers exploring the Martian landscape; built an enormous space station in Earth orbit; connected the world through a dazzling array of communications satellites; and stared into the vast depths of space, peering 13 billion years into our remote past, and accumulating data that is impossible to collect from Earth's surface.

We are so incredibly fortunate to live in this age of great discovery.  The human species has spent its entire modern existence -- many thousands of years -- looking up at the stars and wondering what they are.  But it's only in the last 2 or 3 percent of that history that we have been able to work out some of the answers.