baby born this year might change the world
Will he cure cancer? Will she find proof of life on Mars?
DANIEL B. CATON
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.
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
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
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
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
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.