UCS has received a remarkable gift from an even more remarkable scientist.
William Borucki has served as the principal investigator for NASA’s Kepler Mission, which has discovered more than 1,000 confirmed planets.
“I’ve spent a large portion of my career searching for other worlds,” Borucki told us. “What we’ve found has underscored how important it is to protect this one. While we can detect other worlds, we cannot go to them. Our future is here on Earth and we must do much more to ensure that our planet’s climate remains hospitable.”
Dr. Borucki will share a portion of the funds he is receiving from the Shaw Prize in Astronomy – often considered the “Nobel Prize of the East” – with UCS to support its work on climate change.
We’re deeply touched and Dr. Borucki’s gift will allow us to do even more to educate the public and policymakers about climate risks. At the same time, Dr. Borucki’s own work speaks deeply to just how important it is to preserve and protect our own climate.
Kepler and the search for habitable worlds like our own
Carl Sagan called astronomy a “humbling and character-building experience” in his famous passage about the “pale blue dot” picture of Earth Voyager 1 took in 1990.
That image from the edge of our own solar system is indeed humbling and the findings from the Kepler Mission may be even more so. By checking for the tell-tall dimming of stars as planets pass over them in their orbits, scientists have discovered gas giants like Jupiter and smaller, rocky worlds like our own. Only a few of those Earth-like planets are in the so-called habitable zone, where their distance from their home star would allow for liquid water on the planet’s surface.
In the chart above, you can see that Venus and Mars are on the edge of our solar system’s habitable zone. Mars may once have held liquid water. And Venus, as many climate scientists will tell you, is the victim of a runaway greenhouse effect, and its surface is more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Our own planet is in the “Goldilocks” zone and our civilization has sprouted up amid a relatively stable climate. But the introduction of heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and destroying tropical forests is making our planet hotter. Thankfully, it will not turn into Venus. But as scientists have documented, higher temperatures can make regions of our planet functionally uninhabitable. Other researchers, including ones at NASA, have also warned that the long-term loss of major glaciers is inevitable and that resulting sea-level rise is a question of when not if.
We are getting a taste of that climate future already and it’s not pretty. Heat waves like the one that killed thousands in Europe in 2003 are 10 times more likely to occur than they used to be because of planetary warming. And cities around the world, including on the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts, are finding that flooding which used to be occasional is now constant as sea-levels rise.
Of course, we know that reducing emissions and switching to cleaner energy sources would dramatically reduce these risks. Speedily transitioning off fossil fuels and ending deforestation may sound daunting, but Dr. Borucki is right to remind us that there is no alternative.
The amazing things scientists can do
Dr. Borucki has an outstanding track record of public service science, having spent 53 years in the civil service at NASA. Early in his career, he worked on the Apollo program, studying problems related to atmospheric reentry. He is indeed one of the few scientists whose career touched both the Space Age as well as the Anthropocene, in which the human mark on planet Earth has become unmistakable. And, Dr. Borucki is said to have pitched the idea for Kepler five times before getting the green light. As with so many endeavors in science, persistence paid off.
I’m grateful for Dr. Borucki’s work in much the same way I’m grateful for the work of climate scientists: their discoveries challenge us to take a broader perspective on our world and on its future.
I’m doubly grateful for Dr. Borucki’s gift. We’ll do our best to honor his trust and his passion for science.
Posted in: Global Warming
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