My Little Eco Rant…

“Change!” It’s incredibly cliché and overused. When people say the word, it creates more questions than answers. From campaign slogans to kitty litter box instructions, that simple word creates an array of mental images. But, I’m going to say it anyway – We have to change.

The traditional concept of the “American Way” as established in the 20th century (bigger, faster, fatter, cheaper, etc.) is clearly and undeniably unsustainable. I realize that telling people they need to change the way they see reality isn’t exactly a winning campaign strategy for an aspiring politician, but it has to start at some point.

The world’s oil supply has been on the decline for decades and climate change has been accelerating, wreaking havoc in the form of crazier weather and more intense storms. The Earth itself is at a tipping point and yet most of the world’s leaders are more concerned with drilling for more of a dwindling resource (it’s called “fossil” fuels for a reason) than investing in and improving renewable, sustainable sources of energy.

America is the richest nation on the planet and leads the world in natural resource consumption…and we only account for five percent of the global population. We produce incredible amounts of waste and pollution, which is to be expected from a developed society like ours. However, the fact that other nations around the world are striving to become like us should be a motivation for us to set an example.

Faster, sleeker, sexier cars are fun…but do they really improve one’s life? Buying everything in bulk may be economical, but it isn’t always the best option. Cheaper, hormone-filled foods treated with large amounts of chemicals may be convenient and delicious, but they have disastrous health implications for the body and the planet.

Higher profits and expansion are key to any successful business, but it shouldn’t be the goal of life. Capitalism creates superior products and innovations, but it can also create massive amounts of poverty, pollution and waste. In short, it is not the cure-all for every ailment.

I have nothing against technological innovation or progress; I’ve always been a geek, fascinated with new technologies and the promise of a better tomorrow as depicted in pop culture hits like Star Trek. I am incredibly thankful that I live in a prosperous country like the United States. I love my country and am optimistic about her future…even if her priorities are frequently out of whack.

Things like improving the efficiency of solar power technology and increasing incentives for green technology and renewable energy sources should be some of our top priorities as a species. Governments need to pledge to follow international treaties that treat climate change for what it is: a global crisis that affects everyone.

I know this kind of “rant” may simply be seen as a stupid, tree-hugging, hippie, pink0-commie plea for change, or something…and I don’t care. Shrug away. Laugh it off. Call me young and naive. Continue living in ignorance. I care about the future of this planet. I’m not trying to boost my own ego…to the contrary – Long after I’m gone, I want humanity to be thriving and continually improving. I can’t, in good conscience, focus solely on my own life and ambitions and ignore the consequences of contemporary policies.

Simply closing one’s eyes doesn’t make the rest of the world temporarily disappear. Get real and do something. Live your life with the knowledge that your decisions have consequences. Vote for candidates who are committed to humanity’s betterment and survival. Stay up to date on scientific advances and updates. Realize that while you may live in a sovereign nation, you share a planet with billions of other people and millions of other species. Change. 😉

My Two Cents On Our *Really* Big Universe

You are incredibly special. You are also incredibly insignificant. Once you realize your place in the universe, this little paradox makes more sense.

One of my favorite movies is Contact. Aside from the fact that it contains brilliant acting and a captivating plot, one of my favorite quotes is in it. When answering the question if we’re alone in the universe, the main character says, “If it is just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.” Waste of space is right. The universe is incredibly huge…mind-blowingly enormous.

The fastest thing in the universe, light, can circle the Earth seven times in a single second. Our galaxy, one of hundreds of BILLIONS in the KNOWN universe, is so enormous that it takes light more than 100,000 years to get from one end to the other. As far as we’ve been able to calculate and detect, the KNOWN universe is 13.7 billion years old…yes, it takes light almost 14 billions years to get from one end of the universe to the other.

Our galaxy alone has hundreds of billions of stars. We’ve discovered several hundred planets orbiting many of those stars. Some are within their star’s habitable zone, meaning water could be present in liquid form. Where there’s water, there’s potentially life. Liquid water may also be one of many ways life can thrive. There may be life swimming through oceans of liquid methane, like the methane ocean on Saturn’s moon, Titan. The possibilities are endless.

Want to have your mind blown again? This universe may be one of several…but that’s a whole other topic 😉

As insignificant as we are, we are also incredibly special. Life on this planet is present in many places, from the ideal pastures of the Great Plains to underwater, super-hot hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the oceans. It is resilient and when the right chemicals and building blocks are arranged in just the right way, simple life forms evolve. Climates and geography determine what life will be like. The rest is left up to time, lots of time.

As large as the universe is, it is entirely plausible and realistic to imagine that life is thriving elsewhere in the cosmos. At this very moment, while we’re pondering whether or not it is all just a big “waste of space,” there could be an intelligent species in some other part of the universe also looking up into the skies and wondering whether they are alone. The feeling one gets from imagining that we are one of countless intelligent species in the universe is almost spiritual; The universe itself is the thing that connects us all.

Before I end up writing a novel, I’ll leave you, the reader, with this stunning video. Astrophysicists at the American Museum of Natural History created this animation – to amazing detail – of the known universe. Watch and be amazed…

To Boldly Go

Attention all sci-fi fans (myself proudly included): This month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or “Darpa,” held a symposium for its 100-Year Starship Study. Some of humanity’s brightest minds meet at events like these to discuss our star-crossed future and ways to bring that future to the present.

Kenneth Chang, a science reporter for the New York Times, wrote a brilliant article on the subject. Among the participants interviewed at the 100-Year Starship Study symposium was Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, an organization devoted to designing a starship.

Current methods of propelling spacecraft are extremely slow on the cosmic scale of speed. Helios 2, a space probe launched in the 1970s, broke the record for fastest man-made object at 157,078 mph. The nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, is only four light-years away (note: light travels 186,282 miles per second and thus 5,878,499,562,554 miles per year…has your head blown up yet?). At Helios 2 speeds, it would take approximately 19,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. We definitely need a different and much faster propulsion system if we are ever going to travel between the stars.

Thankfully, NASA is looking into an old idea to breath new life into space travel. Originally, NASA planned to use nuclear reactors to power future missions to Mars and beyond after the success of the moon landings. NASA tested nuclear engines in the late 1960s and The British Interplanetary Society worked on a design for a fusion-powered starship in the 1970s in a project called Daedalus. For those who don’t know, fusion is a nuclear process that powers stars like our sun…it’s reeeally powerful and efficient. The promise of nuclear propulsion and fusion is travel to the stars in a matter of decades instead of eons.

Fast-forward to 2011, where NASA’s future seems uncertain and the discovery of hundreds of extrasolar planets have changed our outlook of the universe. Icarus Interstellar is reviving Daedalus and enhancing it with four decades-worth of technological and scientific advances, according to Obousy. By 2020, NASA projects that it may be ready to use new nuclear engines, where the fuel is super-heated liquid hydrogen (the most abundant element in the universe). Only time (and funding) will tell.

As a science fiction fan, I find this incredibly fascinating. Famous author Isaac Asimov bluntly said, “Humanity has the stars in its future…” I’ve always dreamt of traversing the stars, going where no man has gone before. By the 22nd century, our species may be making trips to other stars. I realize I may not be alive when that happens, but as a humanist and eternal optimist, I know humanity will get there at some point. Science and technology will continue to advance and expand our horizons. We will trek across the galaxy some day. We will eventually be a multi-planet species.

While I’m alive, I’ll continue to follow NASA’s and other space agencies’ missions. I am confident we’ll colonize the planets and moons of our solar system within this century (after all, the groundwork is being laid for extraplanetary manned missions). Who knows, maybe some day I’ll get to travel to the moon or even Mars. There may be a time when I’ll get to explore the liquid methane oceans of Saturn’s mysterious moon, Titan. I take great pride in our civilization’s achievements and find a certain comfort and peace in knowing that humanity will flourish long after I’m gone. I can’t help it; I’m an idealist.

A design for a starship by Icarus Interstellar