Gregg Easterbrook

The wonder of the universe

Dec 22, 2010 19:24 UTC


Tuesday morning, I rose at 2 A.M. and stood for an hour in the freezing cold to watch a total eclipse of the full moon, occurring on a solstice: a conjunction that last occurred in 1638, and won’t occur again until 2094. Standing there, I wondered if this exceptional moonglow would give me a superpower — nothing to report yet. The sense of awe I felt right away.

The more astronomers look out into the universe, the more vast and majestic it is understood to be. As the holidays arrive, and the year comes to a close, it is well to ponder this.

Many generations ago, our ancestors gazing up at constellations and eclipses believed the cosmos bounded by such stars as could be seen unaided by the eye. Just a century ago, even after people considered themselves advanced owing to developments like powered flight, it was not known that any other galaxies existed. Our Milky Way was considered the totality of creation.

In 1923, the existence of galaxies beyond the Milky Way was proven. Initial estimates were that there might be as many as a few dozen additional galaxies — a number then viewed as stunning. The latest estimate, from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, is 100 billion galaxies. The count is expected to rise.

Star estimates have risen in concert. A century ago, even the best-informed believed the Milky Way contained perhaps a few million stars. By the 1960s, astronomers contended the Milky Way held a billion stars, a number many found hard to believe. By the 1980s, the estimate had grown to 40 billion stars. Today it’s thought the Milky Way contains at least 90 billion stars and perhaps as many as 400 billion. Many other galaxies are likely to contain similar numbers.

The good and bad of 2011

Dec 15, 2010 17:54 UTC

With 2011 around the corner, what big developments might be expected in the coming year? Here are a few possibilities, bad and good:

Bad: Freshwater shortages. China is depleting its aquifers at an alarming rate in order to grow rice, the most water-intensive cereal. Freshwater supplies are approaching critical in much of the Middle East.

Discussion of climate change has focused on rising temperatures, which in and of themselves aren’t a threat and have some positives (such as lowering winter heat demand). As UCLA geographer Laurence Smith shows in his important new book The World in 2050, nearly all our globe’s surface freshwater is in glaciers and snowpack. Warming is causing “more of the world’s water to leave the mountains to run to the sea,” warns Smith, and “no amount of engineering” can reverse this loss in the short term.

Tax cuts and giveaways won’t save the economy

Dec 8, 2010 03:05 UTC

“If we don’t take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could …  jeopardize our recovery.”

–President Barack Obama, January 2010.

“Next year [I will] start presenting some very difficult choices to the country” on debt reduction.

–Obama, June 2010

Bartender, giveaways for everyone!

–Essentially what Obama said, in so many words, December 2010.

Barack Obama pledged to reduce the national debt during his presidential campaign, but instead has added $2.7 trillion to that debt so far – more than the entire national debt in the year 1975. Throughout 2010, he repeatedly promised there will be no more treating the Treasury as a cookie jar. Now, suddenly, there will be $900 billion in new giveaways, financed entirely by borrowing.

What we should be taxing: greenhouse gases

Dec 1, 2010 21:30 UTC


Bravely, international diplomats, United Nations officials and environmentalists are meeting in Cancun this week to demand that other people use less fossil fuel. Bravely they met in Copenhagen a year ago to make the same demand, after also bravely meeting in Bali, Montreal and similar resort locales in prior years.

I will skip the obvious point about the greenhouse gases emitted by the jets and limos that bring the participants to these annual confabs, where preaching-to-the-choir is the order of the day.

Most of what happens at the annual international conference on climate change has been decided on in advance, so the greenhouse emissions could be avoided by a tele-meeting. But then the delegates won’t get a paid trip to Cancun!