Boldly Going

  • October 01, 2016
  • By Tony Wilson

BarTalk Nothing Official By Tony WilsonWe are living in amazing times

Tony WilsonIt’s easy to turn on the news or read the papers these days and, based on the journalistic axiom “if it bleeds, it leads,” get profoundly depressed about the state of the world and the future of the human race.

Whether it’s the Civil War in Syria, the disintegration of Iraq, the barbarism of ISIL, the change in the Earth’s climate, the refugee crisis in Europe, state-sponsored athletic cheating by Russia (not to mention Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its general aversion to the rule of law), the shooting of unarmed black Americans by police, inequality of wealth, racism, terrorism, religious extremism or the never-ending bigotry and intolerance espoused by Donald Trump, there are still good things to celebrate, and they have nothing to do with politics, law or Pokémon Go.

So in an effort to make you less depressed than you would otherwise be this October, (and to totally avoid law and politics), here are some good news stories to prove that we haven’t all gone to hell on a handcart.

Since 1988, when a methodology was developed to find planets outside our solar system by a star’s wobble, 3,518 exoplanets have been discovered! Most are in uninhabitable zones in their solar systems, they’re ridiculously close to (or far from) their suns, and are either too hot or too cold for liquid water necessary for life (“as we know it”). But in August 2016, Proxima b was discovered. It’s a rocky world (as opposed to a gassy one that’s hard to walk on) and it’s a bit bigger than Earth. But it’s in the so-called habitable “Goldilocks Zone” of its star, Proxima Centauri, and it’s a mere 4.2 light years from Earth. Better yet, it may have an atmosphere! The bad news is that a spacecraft launched today traveling (a mere) 4.2 light years with today’s technology, would take something in the order of 200,000 years to get there, when we humans will have evolved (or devolved) into something else.

Scientists are trying to develop a project called “Breakthrough Starshot” that would send miniaturized probes using nanotechnology (and weighing about a gram), at 20% of the speed of light to star systems with promising exoplanets, and in this case, those probes would arrive at Proxima b around 20 years after launch. It may well be that if this technology flies (pun intended), children learning about Proxima b today will be alive when pictures of this planet are taken and transmitted back to earth by those tiny probes.

Closer to home, but still on the “boldly go to the final frontier” theme, NASA has approved testing something called the EM Drive, that could send a spacecraft to Mars in 70 days as opposed to 425 days. For years, the drive was believed to defy the laws of physics, but a peer review of the technology indicates that it is worthy of more thorough investigation (and funding). Another technology on the drawing board, called DEEP IN might get a 100 kg probe to Mars in three days.

More good news? Humpback whales have returned to Georgia Strait waters after having been hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century by whalers (including my great grandfather!). Boaters have been warned to be on the lookout for Humpbacks so there aren’t whale and boat collisions.

Still more good news? Researchers have announced a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical trials involving almost 200 patients showed patients treated with a high dose of an antibody drug called “aducanumab” experienced almost complete clearance of the plaque buildup that prevents brain cells communicating, which in turn, causes irreversible memory loss and cognitive decline. Massachusetts-based biotech company Biogen wants to bring the drug to market.

So despite the gloom and doom you might watch on the nightly news or read about in the paper, we live in a Golden Age of scientific discovery.

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Tony Wilson actually remembers watching the very first episode of Star Trek in September
1966, 50 years ago. His views, even about good scientific news, are strictly his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Law Society of British Columbia, CBABC, or their respective members.