Ebbs and Flows

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

Alien-yet-familiar worlds are discovered around distant stars, extreme weather batters the Earth, stimulus spending energizes renewables, and the stem-cell debate reignites.

Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

Earlier this week, scientists from the European Southern Observatory announced that they had discovered at least five and perhaps as many as seven exoplanets orbiting an otherwise unremarkable distant star, HD 10180. It’s 127 light-years away, in the constellation Hydrus. The five confirmed planets are all roughly equivalent to Neptune in mass. A sixth, Saturn-mass planet may lurk in the system’s outskirts.

As if on cue, on Thursday NASA announced its own major planetary find. The agency’s Kepler space telescope had found a pair of Saturn-sized planets orbiting a star now dubbed Kepler-9, more than 2,000 light-years from Earth. The two planets are in an orbital resonance, with the inner one orbiting twice for every orbit of its outer partner. By measuring small variations in this resonance caused by the gravitational interactions of the planets, astronomers will be able to learn far more about this system than otherwise possible.

Both announcements also contained more speculative and stirring possibilities. A putative seventh planet around HD 10180 is estimated to be 1.4 times the mass of Earth, and would be the lowest-mass planet yet detected around another Sun-like star. Besides the two Saturn-class planets, Kepler-9 may harbor a third planet 1.5 times the size of Earth. But the resemblances stop there: A star-circling “year” on either planet wouldn’t be much longer than one of our days, and the surface temperatures probably hover around 2,000° C. These worlds are devoid of life.

Back on our own fertile Earth, temperatures are of course much more tolerable, but they are rising, with increasingly clear disruptive repercussions. 2010 is on track to be the hottest year on record, and the northern hemisphere’s summer has seen extreme weather and record-breaking heat waves on a global scale. A huge drought in Russia has devastated its wheat harvest. In China, mudslides from torrential rains have claimed more than a thousand lives. And in Pakistan, floods have created a monumental humanitarian disaster, displacing more than 20 million people.

It should be no surprise that in the US, the response to these adverse events in faraway lands has been rather muted, because the response to extreme weather right here at home has been muted, too. This summer also brought brutal heat waves to the eastern seaboard, major flooding to the American heartland, and even a deluge that submerged downtown Nashville—all with minimal ripples of recognition registering throughout the country.

While Americans may be ignoring the warming world, they do seem to be paying slightly more attention to one of its key causes: the nation’s excessive and unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels. Aside from the failure of the US Congress to pass meaningful climate and energy legislation, there is some good news for a domestic energy revolution.

On Monday, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory released its detailed analysis of energy use in the US during 2009, finding that energy use dropped nearly 5 percent over the last year. While much of that can be attributed to the economic recession, some is also due to increased utilization of solar and wind power. The following day, a White House report on the $787-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act highlighted how portions of those funds were driving significant progress in reducing the costs of solar power and batteries for electric cars, and in increasing the nation’s renewable energy production capacity.

The White House report also emphasized that the ARRA funds are fueling the race toward the long-fabled “$1,000 genome,” a price point at which personal genome sequencing would become far more affordable and widespread, potentially transforming US healthcare and biomedical research. Yet another event this week just might indirectly reduce those future gains: A US district judge ruled that federal funding of research with human embyronic stem cells violates federal law. This effectively overturns not only the Obama administration’s policy, but also that of the preceding Bush administration, and could jeopardize research into a variety of treatments for disease.

The Obama administration has already stated it will appeal the ruling, but Congressional action to remedy the situation is also possible. In the meantime a large number of federally funded human embryonic stem cell projects have been placed on hold, and even more are potentially at risk. Fortunately, progress in stem-cell research can still continue through non-federal funds, and the prevailing zeitgeist does seem to favor an eventual nullification of the decision: Yesterday, another overreaching legal case bit the dust when an appellate judge dismissed a lawsuit that claimed CERN’s Large Hadron Collider risked destroying the Earth.

Lee Billings is a staff editor for Seed. He likes space.

Originally published August 27, 2010

Tags biotechnology climate law space

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