Maybe it’s the upcoming election and the potential change that it portends. Or perhaps it’s the Large Hadron Collider, bogged down with electric failures, that has ceded the science-news space to other subjects. In any case, the last week has seen a slew of exciting, weird, and prescient science news too exciting to ignore, and too varied to all discuss in depth.
For one, the impersonal blackness of space welcomed a new nation as the Chinese launched their much-anticipated Shenzhou VII spacecraft, manned with three “taikonauts” trained for the country’s first spacewalk. Technologically speaking, it’s not a huge deal — Russia and the United States conducted their first spacewalks in 1965 — but for a country that has never dabbled in space exploration before, it’s kind of like going from zero to hero. It’s a beautifully symbolic, albeit dated, gesture; during the Cold War, space exploration was a status venture, and planting a flag on the moon (which the Chinese plan to do) an iteration of national strength. It’s apt that a post-Olympics China is now rediscovering these cachet-earning gestures. I genuinely hope that the Chinese discover the same side effects of national space exploration as we did back in the sixties: awe, fear, hope, and the humility of seeing our tiny pea of a planet from space. We need a good dose of that these days.
On Earth, however, Japan is cobbling together an entirely more ambitious plan, and perhaps one which will eventually eclipse rockets and flag-planting altogether: they are seriously considering building the world’s first space elevator. I’ve written about space elevators before (hey, Brian!), but it seemed like such a theoretical, dreamy concept then (“the space elevator is concrete, as though humankind were reaching its own tentative arm into the great beyond”); now the Japanese are looking at the idea with characteristic pragmatism, talking carbon nanotubes and shuttle payloads, throwing around ideas like “bullet train to space.” This is something to watch, scouts.
Meanwhile, NASA is just bungling everything, as usual.
In other exciting news, longtime readers of this website will know that Universe has had several manifestations, both in print and online, as a mutable science column. I’m especially proud to announce that a new such version has arisen (this may explain the recent silence at this URL) over at GOOD magazine’s website, where I’ve been doing a syndicated mini-Universe for the better part of a month, on subjects like commercial space travel, aquanauts, and the Large Hadron Collider. I’m really excited about this collaboration, and I encourage everyone to visit their well-designed website and travel through all the consistently awesome content (and toss a few “GOODmarks” my way).