Falling Walls Conference 2014: Second Session at a glance

Session two saw a range of subjects presented on the Falling Walls stage, from African science development to far-away planets and novel energy solutions.  Thierry Zomahoun challenged the audience to question their assumptions about Africa.  While most associate the continent with disease, poverty, and corruption, Zomahoun notes that “Africa is transforming,” largely through the use of science and technology.  Scientific publications are up, safety has improved, and corruption indices in many places score better than several European nations.  To move further, he contends, the region needs to become the hub of the next scientific revolution, a tall order that is nonetheless bolstered by a long heritage of important findings.  “We need to bring Africa back into the realm of scientific innovation,” Zomahoun says, through investments in education, technological leapfrogging, and advanced research.

Lisa Kaltenegger provided a whirlwind tour of extrasolar planets, spherical bodies outside of our solar system that harbor alien worlds.  The two primary modes of extrasolar planetary discovery are luminance blocking when a planet goes in front of its sun, and wobbles that result from the gravitational interaction between the planet and its star.  She notes that the planet-searching mission Kepler found thousands of potential planets in recent years, yet its search space was miniscule on a cosmological scale.  Excitingly, “there are a lot of small planets out there, and every star seems to have at least one planet,” says Kaltenegger, opening up millions of new worlds for future discovery.

Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor, discussed his vision of press freedom.  Past eras saw a barrier between journalists and readers, constructing a perception of expertise and didactic relationships.  But recently, “we were confronted with the readers,” Rusbridger says, “and it was very disconcerting for many journliasts.  Many of these people knew more than we did.”  He spoke about his paper’s famous involvement with Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowdon, and the leaks of American government secrets over the last couple of years.  Given the permeability of borders and physical infrastructure in this digital age, control over information is a futile effort, and understanding this new reality is imperative.  Many governments seem unable to accept this sea change, perpetuating longstanding efforts to control information in traditional, and ultimately useless, ways.

Nate Lewis discussed the wall of our energy infrastructure.  The challenge, he noted, is not that we have too little energy, but that we have too much, and nowhere to throw the waste products.  “The Stone Age,” Lewis analogized, “did not end because they ran out of stones.  The fossil fuel industry will not end because of too little fossil energy sources.”  Political decisions associated with climate change must be made with partial information, and Lewis criticized attempts to avoid commitments while waiting for complete answers.  After all, any effects that do occur “will change our planet’s atmosphere for a time scale of about 5000 years, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases in 30 years completely.”  With a tour de force of paleoclimate records and climate models, Lewis demonstrated the dangerous road down which modern civilization is progressing.  Alternate scenarios include carbon dioxide sequestration or nuclear power, but the Caltech professor is betting on solar energy.  After all, nature has done pretty well with photosynthesis over the last couple of billion years, and if we use such molecular mechanisms as inspiration, it might be possible to avoid a very risky global experiment.

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