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Davos X Factors

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On January 23-27 the World Economic Forum held its tres chic annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.  Admission was by invitation only.  Nick Paumgarten of The New Yorker offered the following explanation of how different segments of society view the annual Davos event:

People like to project onto Davos their fears and fantasies about the way the world works. Right-wingers see insidious, delusional liberalism, in its stakeholder ethos and its pretense of world improvement.  They picture a bunch of Keynesians, Continentals, and self-dealing do-gooders participating in some kind of off-the-books top-down command-control charade.  Left-wingers conjure a plutocratic cabal, a Star Chamber of master puppeteers, the one per cent – or .01 per cent, really – deciding the world’s fate behind a curtain of heavy security and utopian doublespeak.  The uninvited, the refuseniks, and even many of the participants see a colossal discharge of hot air, a peacock strut.  They all deploy, with a sneer, the term Davos Man, coined by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, who decried a post-national wealthy globe-trotting élite.  Davos Man can be either a capitalist oppressor or a Commie conspirator.  Either way, he is a windbag, a pedant, and a hypocrite. Businesspeople who have never been to Davos find many ways to be dismissive of it: “I can’t do business there.”  “It’s too political.”  “It’s not what it used to be.”  The translation may be that that person has not been invited.

The World Economic Forum’s website explained the role of its official communities:

A key part of the Forum’s activities is the creation of distinctive communities of Member and Partner companies as well as leaders from civil society for more informal opportunities for interaction.

I would assume that at this year’s meeting, one of the most popular topics must have been risk management – including risk aversion.  Ever since the financial crisis, the world has been on the verge of economic chaos.  The possibility that Silvio Berlusconi could return to power in Italy has heightened concerns that the European sovereign debt crisis could reverse course from its current recovery trajectory and head into oblivion.

One of the World Economic Forum’s communities is the Risk Response Network.  The RRN “was launched to provide private and public sector leaders with an independent, impartial platform to map, monitor and mitigate global risks.”  It is comprised of individual representatives of leading global corporations, research institutions, media outlets, governments and NGOs.  The Risk Response Network released a 78-page report for this year’s annual meeting entitled, Global Risks 2013 — Eighth Edition.  The report’s topics included:  Testing Economic and Environmental Resilience, Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World, The Dangers of Hubris on Human Health and Building National Resilience to Global Risks.

I found Section 5 of Global Risks 2013 to be particularly interesting.  It begins on page 55 of the report and is entitled, “X Factors”.  The report described this section in the following terms:

In this section, developed in collaboration with Nature, a leading science journal, the Risk Response Network asks readers to look beyond our high-risk concerns of the moment to consider a set of five X factors and reflect on what countries or companies should be doing to anticipate them.

*   *   *

X factors are serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict. They capture broad and vaguely understood issues that could be hatching grounds for potential future risks (or opportunities).

The five X Factors discussed in the report were these:

Runaway climate change:  Is it possible that we have already passed a point of no return and that Earth’s atmosphere is tipping rapidly into an inhospitable state?

Significant cognitive enhancement:  Ethical dilemmas akin to doping in sports could start to extend into daily working life; an arms race in the neural “enhancement” of combat troops could also ensue.

Rogue deployment of geoengineering:  Technology is now being developed to manipulate the climate; a state or private individual could use it unilaterally.

Costs of living longer:  Medical advances are prolonging life, but long-term palliative care is expensive.  Covering the costs associated with old age could be a struggle.

Discovery of alien life:  Proof of life’s existence elsewhere in the universe could have profound psychological implications for human belief systems.

My favorite was the last X Factor:  Discovery of alien life.  Although the report focused on the notion that astronomers involved in the study of exoplanets could find spectral information revealing chemical signs of life, the last paragraph of the section provided some insights on the fear which has been keeping this subject under wraps for years:

Through basic education and awareness campaigns the general public can achieve a higher science and space literacy and cognitive resilience that would prepare them and prevent undesired social consequences of such a profound discovery and paradigm shift concerning mankind’s position in the universe.

So The Powers That Be are worried about “undesired social consequences” and “paradigm shift”.  Why is that not a surprise?

Those in search of “the right stuff” on this subject might be interested in what the late astronaut, Gordon Cooper had to say about it.

A good “basic education and awareness campaign” should begin with that video clip.


 

Revenge Of The AstroNerds

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April 20, 2009

I used to be an AstroNerd.  Back in the mid-1980s, I was a member of the Chicago Astronomical Society.   On the second Friday of every month, I would attend the monthly meeting at 7 p.m.  We would usually see slides of the spectacular space pictures taken by an astronomer who had the opportunity to use the telescope at some major observatory and there would be a discussion period.  Back then, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope seemed as though it would never happen because of the tragedy involving the Challenger space shuttle.  At the Chicago Astronomical Society meetings, I was amused by the fact that some of the members were outraged because manufacturers of “hobbyist” telescopes (such as Celestron and Meade) were introducing new scopes, driven by a hand-held computer, allowing the user to view dozens of different celestial objects over the course of an hour.  These complainers had been used to working on calculations as to where to find some binary star or nebula they wanted to see and spending almost the entire night trying to find it.  Suddenly, any spoiled brat with two thousand bucks to spend, could get involved in astronomy with a much greater reward.  To the old-timers:  this was cheating.  At the end of each meeting, I would walk home from the Adler Planetarium and watch Miami Vice.  Although I have yet to purchase a really nice Celestron, I eventually did move to Miami, where there is so much humidity and city light, you can only see a small handful of stars even on a clear, “winter” night.  To escape the reflected urban light, some people take their telescopes out to the Everglades and feed themselves to the alligator-sized mosquitoes.  Others risk death by driving along the two-lane, Overseas Highway (the head-on collision capitol of the world) to go sky-watching in the Florida Keys.

Last week, I was amazed by the television program, 400 Years of the Telescope, broadcast on PBS.   (It’s also available on DVD at the above link.)  I found it shocking that currently, there are a number of absurdly enormous earthbound telescopes under construction.  Apparently, computer technology can be used to enhance the images from these scopes to rival the views from the Hubble.  As for the Hubble, I was surprised to learn that the numerous repairs to that device, beginning with the heroic job by astronaut Story Musgrave, actually included upgrades.  The current image quality from the Hubble is now “hundreds of times better” than its designers ever anticipated.  An example is this photograph of the Orion Nebula taken in 2006.

Given our current economic crisis, astronomy and space exploration are having more trouble than ever obtaining funding.   An example of this is discussed in the current (May) issue of The Atlantic.  (As an aside, this issue has three great articles about the economy here, here and here.)  Thomas Mallon wrote an article about the current effort by a number of scientists and Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, to develop and launch a privately-funded spacecraft that would be propelled by sunlight.  They anticipate that this concept could eventually be used for interstellar flight.  As Mallon pointed out, NASA will soon be out of the business of launching people into space, with no viable plan on the drawing board to continue doing so:

Between the shuttle’s planned retirement in 2010 and a new system’s development, the U.S. government will have to rely on the old Soviet Soyuz to get crews and supplies up to the International Space Station.  Worse, the first of our own new launch vehicles, Ares 1, is already beginning to look unreliable, at least in tests.  American politicians now mostly avoid the old conditional trope “If we can put a man on the moon” — because we can’t, not anymore.

Mallon explained that Ann Druyan has found it difficult obtaining funding because these days, the people with the enthusiasm for space exploration and the money — are using it to pay their own fare for a ride into space:

The Discovery Channel did put up a quarter million dollars to jump-start the renewed effort, and she has her fingers crossed for a few big potential donors she can’t really talk about.  Even so, she can’t get over the general timidity and lack of imagination she keeps encountering, and she’s particularly aghast at the scads of cash some ego-tripping big-money men seem willing to spend on personal space tourism:  “Isn’t the whole planet enough for them?”  Google’s Sergey Brin — whose company the project also appealed to, unsuccessfully, years ago — is yet another billionaire who hopes to romp around in orbit.

Although The Great Recession is having an attenuated impact on the super-rich, its consequences for society as a whole will be incalculable if too much scientific research is put on “hold” indefinitely.  Let’s hope that some billionaires rise to the occasion and save us from falling into a dark age of scientific stagnation.  Come on, Bill Gates  —  give your fellow nerds some help!