The conference in question is Pale Blue Dot, an irregular workship series dedicated to sussing out new means of finding intelligent life in the universe, in particular the relationship of astrophysics and biological evolution. Last night, however, was mostly about how we're all going to die.
Dr. David Morrison of NASA opened with a lecture on "Cosmic Impacts and Evolution," which had a little bit to do with how asteroids killed the dinosaurs and led to the possibility for mammals to develop, and a whole lot to do with how scientists are trying to figure out how to prevent the same thing from happening to us, only they can't get the money for it. He was later joined on a panel by Dr. Jill Tarter of SETI, Dr. J. Craig Wheeler of UT-Austin and Dr. David Grinspoon of Colorado, nominally to talk about life developing as a result of cosmic turbulence, but actually to talk about how royally fucked we all are. The only thing missing was this video. (A really fascinating video, by the way, even though it is needlessly hyperbolic, with it's city-sized asteroid).
What strikes me is that nothing I heard was new to me. And I'm hardly a specialist. So I can't imagine what the actual scientists in the audience must have thought. Although I've since learned that the workshop is aimed not just at science professionals but also, even primarily, at journalists, and that makes it all a little more sensible: science reporters are remarkably stupid people, at least to judge from the vast sum of science journalism dedicated to burning questions such as "Evolution - is there any real evidence?" and "Do scientists get kicked out for believing in God?"
The panel, in a nutshell:
-Big things are out there.
-So are little things.
-It's the little things that are scary.
-I, Jill Tarter, inspiration for the Jodie Foster character in Contact, feel that science education is lacking.
-We need money to find the little things.
-Surely our quantitative findings will convince the governments of the world to get together and sing "Kumbaya" and provide all the funding we could ever want.
It's that last point that just about made me laugh. As was pointed out and ignored, we currently have a world-threatening disaster looming, with plenty of quantitative evidence, and we're ignoring the holy crap out of it. And that brings me to the other depressing thing I read yesterday, via Billmon:
Our global furnace is out of control. By 2020, 2025, you will be able to sail a sailboat to the North Pole. The Amazon will become a desert, and the forests of Siberia will burn and release more methane and plagues will return.This from an interview with James Lovelock, whose previous credits include the discovery of the ozone hole. It all feels very Chicken Little-ish, but so did the ozone hole 40 years ago; the whole thing is at the Washington Post, and it's very interesting in a miserably unpleasant way.