TCS Daily

Whither Science?

By James Pinkerton - February 1, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's note: we interrupt the three-part progression of Jim Pinkerton's column-series to bring you this bulletin on the state of science and space.

We know from President Bush's State of the Union address that he's going to be tough on terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and the recession. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but clarity is the whole of leadership. And in his desire to be concise and clear, Bush left out some important matters - matters too important to be left out for long.

For the most part, of course, libertarians and conservatives applaud presidents who propose to do less rather than more. For us, less IS more - more freedom, more private economic activity. And so the Cato Institute praised Bush's relative political minimalism, noting with a sigh of relief that he proposed a mere 39 new or expanded initiatives in his address, comparing that number favorably to his government-maximizing predecessor, Bill Clinton, who proposed 104 initiatives in his 2000 address.

But there is one area where Bush could have thought bigger - and said a lot more. Of the 3840 words that he spoke, he did not utter the word "science" so much as once. Nor did he mention "space" or "NASA."

Of course, Bush is no Luddite. While he didn't mention "biotechnology," he seems perfectly aware of the importance of bio-R&D. He cited "bioterror" as an urgent concern, one of four top priorities for the beefed-up and moneyed-up Office of Homeland Security. And he also noted that such bioresearch would have additional spinoffs for public health.

Applying yet another high-tech solution to the terrorism challenge, Bush called for new nerdy initiatives to "track the arrivals and departures of visitors to the United States" and to promote American energy independence. These are good goals, suggesting that Bush retains a Texan's confidence in know-how and can-do.

Indeed, some say "not to worry" about those unstated sci-tech topics. Daniel S. Greenberg, the science writer and author of the recent book, Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion, notes that many categories were omitted in Tuesday's speech, from civil rights to rail transport. And yet, he adds, sometimes money-actions speak louder than words. As an example, Greenberg cites Bush's fiscal year 2003 budget proposal, which proposes funding increases for National Institutes of Health to $27.3 billion -- an increase of $3.7 billion, the largest one-year increase ever for NIH. Indeed, the biomed agency's total would be more than double the level of just five years ago.

Besides, increases in government inputs don't always yield increases in government outputs; sometimes, as in public education in recent decades, the correlation seems often to be negative. But if so, that's all the more argument for leadership, to make sure money is well spent.

Happily, the President stood strong for strategic defense. As he said, "We will develop and deploy effective
missile defenses to protect America and our allies from sudden attack." And of course, the Pentagon, slated for a $48 billion spending surge, is laced with high-tech programs. But if the anti-terror strategy is to be effective over the long term, Bush should think boldly about controlling the high frontier. For example, a space-based laser, parked in geostationary orbit over "evil axis" countries, ready to zap anything - or anyone - obnoxious, would be the sort of weapon that would combine offense and defense into one omniscient package.

But as long as we're thinking upward, we might as well keep going. At the dawn of a new century, at the beginning of a new millennium, we ought to be thinking about the human future in a universe that keeps getting more and more interesting - and beckoning. reports that two academics, Charley Lineweaver and Daniel Grether, both of the University of New South Wales in Australia, estimate that there may be a lot more planets out there. Already, about 80 have been discovered. So how many more do the Aussie academics think there might be? "At least a billion, but probably more like 30 billion," says Lineweaver.

How do the two researchers arrive at this number? If the Milky Way galaxy contains about 300 billion stars, they figure that 10 percent are probably sun-sized. And of these 30 billion stars, most or all have Jupiter-like planets. Moreover, Lineweaver adds, for every Jupiter-sized planet, there's probably an earth-sized planet. Of course, the Milky Way is just one galaxy; estimates of the number of galaxies in the universe range between 10 billion and 125 billion. Which is to say, there are quite a few stars out there, quite a few planets, and quite a few potential fonts of life.

It can be argued, of course, that America must do first things first - and that means win the war on terrorism and put the economy aright. Fair enough. But great civilizations can, at the same time, do second things second. That is, we can multi-task. We can seek out new avenues of exploration, confident that much of the technology we create along the way will feed back into America's security and economy. That's an opportunity that Bush has yet to seize hold of.

But there's still that nagging question. If the spacers are right, and there's so much cool stuff out there -- star stuff that could potentially support life - how come we never hear from anyone? Or meet them? That's a question that has haunted many. And yet it should haunt all of us. A lot.

We'll return to the third part in our series next week, in which we consider the "anthropic principle" - or is it the "misanthropic principle"?


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