A baby born this year might change the world

Will he cure cancer? Will she find proof of life on Mars?

Special to the Observer

Did he really die this year? That question will pop up in my mind this week as I encounter the deluge of annual reviews in the media. I'm amazed every year at the list of people we lost so recently.

Among the celebrities there were some scientists. In May we lost Raymond Davis, who discovered neutrinos coming from the sun. These subatomic particles are created in the nuclear reactions that power the sun, and may have zero rest mass (they would weigh nothing, if you could stop one and put it on the scale). Davis' early neutrino studies included work at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. Later he used a huge tank of what was essentially cleaning fluid, buried deep in a gold mine in South Dakota to shield it from wimpier cosmic particles that cannot penetrate the ground.

An enigma for researchers

The fact that he detected only about a third of the predicted rate provided an enigma that drove solar and neutrino physics studies for decades until the question was resolved: Neutrinos can "change flavor" on the way from the sun, with most of them being converted to a kind that would not be detected by his experiment. The 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Davis, along with others who explained the enigma.Time magazine will no doubt list James Van Allen's death in August. The magazine had included him in their list of "Men of the Year" 46 years ago for his discovery of the radiation belts that surround the Earth. Indeed, he made the cover of Time in 1959 for his discovery. Remember when accomplishment was renowned as much as mere celebrity?

These belts of particles from the sun are trapped by Earth's magnetic field, providing risks to satellites and astronauts yet also shielding us from harmful particles from solar storms. When the belts are charged up by such storms they dump into our ionosphere, resulting in an aurora that provides a stunning sky show, witnessed last week by viewers in the northern section of our country. A few years ago the lights were visible overhead in the Carolinas, at least for people not hampered by light pollution.

But I would like to turn our attention to a different sort of synopsis: Who was born this year?

No, not children of celebrities -- I couldn't care less about that topic. Rather, who might have been born?

Perhaps the person who will cure cancer just now made it into the world. Maybe he will take an unexpected route to the cure. Instead of a medical researcher it will be a mathematician/computer scientist who models the action of cancer with sophisticated software that makes current studies look like programming exercises in a Computing 101 course. He will perfect the model and then study the logic of the program's code to find a way to defeat the "algorithm of cancer."

The first future astronaut to walk on Mars? She will grow up in a competitively declining country (ours?) that finally burns out on celebrity and turns its attention to education. She will grow up watching the development of NASA's lunar base and get excited about science. Distracted by dinosaurs, a fascination of many curious youth, she will become a paleontologist. Exploring Mars, she will come across a sedimentary outcropping with clear evidence of past life on Mars. Things will never be the same.

A new kind of president

Mars trips are expensive. Still, we could have gone to Mars six times with the current predicted cost of the Iraq War. So, clearly, we need a new kind of leader to be born.

Maybe he or she entered the world this year. As a student, our future president will not only learn but keep learning. Someone who will study history, politics, science and world religions. He will become the best candidate not because of being black, but because of who he truly is. She will not ride the coattails of her husband or her gender, but will inspire us on her own. Maybe this person will abandon the two parties who continue to deliver mostly lame candidates and be the first independent elected to the presidency.

These would truly be people worth having. Were they born this year? Will we celebrate their lives, and then in a couple of generations, admire them after their deaths?

Let's hope so.