Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Climate at AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting began Thursday in San Francisco. The AAAS doesn't shy from controversial issues. In the opening talk, AAAS President John Holdren showed a plethora of evidence favouring global warming. Climate change was one everyone's minds, for we were gifted with unseasonably warm weather.

February 16 issue of SCIENCE showed evidence of liquid water on Mars. That same morning in the Hilton's Franciscan Room C we heard about "The New Mars: Habitability of a Neighbor World." A photo from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HIRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows alternating layers of dark and light-coloured rock in western Candor Chasma. The evidence shows that fluid once flowed along these fractures. NASA's Chris McKay delvered an entertaining summary talk.

Friday afternoon was a business meeting of the AAAS Astronomy section, from which one rushed to "A New Frontier in Particle Physics" in Continental Ballroom 3. David Gross of UCSB began with with "Deep Questions About Matter, Energy, Space and Time." Other talks in the session described possibilites for the LHC and ILC. Burton Richter of SLAC finshed by describing other frontiers, including "dark energy." Richter and Gross made a friendly bet on whether SUSY will be discovered by LHC.

Friday night we heard from Larry Page, co-founder of GOOGLE. He believes that scientists should address human problems and do more to promote science. No argument here. One reason for trouble with physics is that the public sees no benefit. More than a half century ago physicists gave us nuclear power. That led to funding for higher energies, bigger collaborations and bigger science. Physicists were encouraged to seek ever-more theoretical particles. Around 1974 Richter and others discovered the J-psi particle, a success of the Standard Model. For the past 30 years physics has been stuck in a rut.

Even assuming "dark energy" exists, it has no conceivable use. It would be so diffuse in Space that it could not power a penlight. We need to develop a real source of energy, something to make even nuclear fusion look small. If there had been a 1907 talk at AAAS about the energy future, it would have been about coal and oil. Someone had already written that E = mc^2. Less than 40 years later we had nuclear power.


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