Saturday, January 3, 2009

2009: International Year of Astronomy

2009 has been designated the International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations General Assembly. And I'm not sure they could have picked a better year for the designation.

During 2009, a space shuttle mission will be launched to make repairs and upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest scientific and technical feats we've achieved. Not only will these upgrades replace some failed systems, but newer and better instruments will be added to the orbiting observatory, meaning that over the next several years (until it is de-orbited in a fiery mass) Hubble will be more powerful than it has ever been before. And we've all seen what it could do before!

Not only that, but the Kepler mission will finally launch this year and, while it is unlikely to find many planets its first year, its discoveries will excite the imaginations of a great many people.

And the year has started off with some great night skies showing the moon and Venus, Jupiter, and the vastness of stars in the Milky Way. CNN also has a collection of great astronomy photos in their Space Spotlight.

Go out when you get a chance, preferably with a telescope, and take a good look at the sky. Consider the vastness of it all, and wonder why it's there, if not so we can go see it, explore it, touch it.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Things are changing. That's no surprise; our universe is not a static place. Just in the course of my life, we've seen the creation of the commercial Internet, Space Shuttles, Mars rovers, the sequencing of the human genome, personal genomes on-demand, a vaccine that can prevent some forms of cancer, and much, much more. The future holds even greater promise.

Not only that, but people are living longer (that's one more thing science has done). I will likely live longer than my parents (though not by much). My son, though, his generation will likely live to be 120-150 years old, and they'll live most of their lives healthy, if groups like the Methuselah Foundation have anything to say about it.

So what changes might I see in my lifetime? What changes will you see in yours? What changes will my son see in his?

That's the question that the Edge's World Question Center wants to know: What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?

They asked that question of a sizeable number of eminent thinkers in a variety of fields and, naturally, they got a variety of answers. Interestingly, in addition to such luminaries as Gregory Benford, Robert Shapiro, Laurence Krauss, and Aubrey de Grey, they also have input from the likes of Alan Alda and Brian Eno.

Some of the posts are really insightful; some less so. But it got me wondering. What if more than one of their suggestions are correct? It's one thing to talk about advanced artificial general intelligences, or molecular-scale manufacturing, or synthetic biology. But what if we're talking about all of those things, at roughly the same time? It seems unlikely (barring the AI causing a Singularity and creating the other advances). But what kind of world might we live in if advanced AIs could create anything they wanted, including living organisms, at the molecular level?

There's a lot of promise, but also a lot of risk and questions. Read the answers on the Edge's site, but while you're doing so, keep in mind the risks of some of these predictions coming true. And, if it scares you a little bit, take a trip over to the Lifeboat Foundation website.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Do It Yourself

I've always said that you don't have to be a professional working in a sterile lab in order to contribute to the advancement of science and technology, and it looks like others are starting to catch on. The Associated Press ran an article a few days ago about amateurs using relatively inexpensive equipment, working out of their homes or garages, to genetically engineer new life forms.

The best quote in the article is from computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson, who is working to alter the bacteria that create yogurt to glow in the presence of melamine, who said, "People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process." And that's exactly the point: making a contribution, yes, but also learning something.

It sounds interesting, but the biological sciences are not really an area that I've had any training (other than what I've taught myself and what I learned in biology class in 9th grade). I have been thinking, though, about picking up some equipment for a little physics experimentation out in my garage.

The point is that you can do something. Maybe you can work on genetic engineering, or maybe you can experiment with radioactive decay in your garage. Maybe you can write computer software for scientific simulations, or maybe you could just run the BOINC software (and, by the way, the organization responsible for BOINC is looking for help with programming, translating, testing, and documenting their software, if you have any of those skills). But do something.