Saturday, April 28, 2007

Gliese 581 C

Astronomers at the Geneva Observatory recently announced the discovery of what might be a terrestrial planet in around the star Gliese 581 in the constellation, While there’s still some debate about just how much solid ground there might be up there, it is interesting to see the progress we’ve made in our picture of the universe.

Four centuries ago, Galileo Galilei ran afoul of the Catholic Church for upholding the idea of a heliocentrism. We’ve since learned that even our Sun isn’t the center of the universe. It’s not even the center of our own galaxy for that matter. Now we’re closer to finding evidence that our solar system isn’t wholly unique in having terrestrial planets.

The discovery of a terrestrial planet in another solar system, some 20 light years away, fills in the edges of our biggest map in some very important ways. And it wasn’t all that long ago that we had a hard time getting a reliable map of someplace right here on Earth! (Really, not long ago at all. The last time I downloaded driving directions to somewhere… but I digress.)

Physicist Steven Hawking has said that in order to survive, the human species must go into space. Finding terrestrial planets outside our own solar system is certainly a step in the right direction, but we shouldn’t get too excited about looking for a westward passage to China just yet. In order to seriously explore the challenges of interstellar travel, we've got to establish a foothold in space right here in our own solar system.

It's also been said that if we can get into orbit, we're halfway to anywhere. In this case, I think the "we" is most important. We need established and functioning bases in orbit or on the moon, and we need to test our legs on Mars. By the time we get those things accomplished, planet hunting astronomers should have a pretty good selection of interstellar destinations to choose from.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Automotive X Prize

On April 2, the X Prize Foundation announced the new Automotive X Prize Like the recently awarded Ansari X Prize for space flight, this prize will go to the first group to successfully demonstrate a car that gets 100mpg, or equivalent energy usage, and is an economically viable production model. The group has already been fielding inquiries from well-known and unknown automakers alike. The foundation was inspired by similar competitions in history, like the Orteig Prize. Charles Lindbergh won the Orteg in 1927 by being the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Funds for the X prizes are supplied by a collection of forward thinking corporations and entrepreneurs.

Announcement of the new X prize came on the same day of the Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. the Environmental Protection Agency. The lawsuit included a number of states and organizations frustrated with the Bush Administrations lack of action on global warming. The court’s 5-4 ruling asserts that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. This is in contrast not only the Bush Administration’s position, but to the stated position of the EPA as well. However the court has yet to rule on whether the Agency is in fact required to regulate emissions. Furthermore, a set of standards by which to regulate these emissions would also have to be agreed upon by Congress and the White House.

I’m struck by the contrast in these two announcements. Both reflect the growing concern in our culture over the environment, yet they each represent a very different approach, and pace of change. On the one hand we have the gears of bureaucratic democracy and judiciary slowly responding to public pressure, and on the other we have the enthusiasm of competition and the race to be first in something new.

The winner of the new Automotive X Prize is anybodies guess at this point. But another interesting contest is being played out here. The role of influencing change in our technology and even our culture for the betterment of our environment is in question. Historically, culture and especially market forces move much faster than legislation or justice. But in the end, it’s likely that both governments and the private sector will find some role to play. Maybe for once, the real winners will be consumers and the environment.