On the sunny side

Editorial Notebook

March 06, 2004|By Will Englund

THERE IS a strong human urge to lament the sorry state of things and point out to the dunderheads in charge how to make them better. Maybe nowhere does this find a purer voice than on the editorial pages. Always the bad news -- it's unrelenting.

And yet, although you'd never know it from the tone, there's a kind of built-in, necessary optimism to this way of thinking. An editorial, by definition, has to have faith that problems can be fixed -- and, once fixed, stay fixed.

But today is Saturday, so let's take a break from the belief in a brighter future in places like Iraq or the federal budget or the Baltimore City public schools. Let's talk about some big things in the news that could go wrong -- in a really big way.

The Gulf Stream, for instance. Some scientists believe that decreasing salt levels already recorded in the North Atlantic (from the melting of glaciers) could lead to an abrupt halt in the conveyor of warm water to the northern latitudes -- and they mean abrupt. A Pentagon study made public last month examined the possible consequences, based on a similar event 8,200 years ago, and they begin with a big freeze starting in, oh, six years or so: a Siberian climate in the heart of Europe, worldwide shortages of food and water, inevitable migrations.

We'd retreat to a Fortress America, the authors believe, nuclear proliferation would be unstoppable, and wars would no longer be fought over religious differences or other such quaint notions; they would be about survival. The worst of it is, no one would know whether the cold snap would last 10 years or a thousand.

It might not happen, of course, but the current issue of the journal Nature reports that scientists are puzzled by a sudden warming of the water at the very bottom of the North Pacific, and worry that some similar mechanism may be at work.

Or how about nanobots? These are molecule-sized robots that could presumably carry out highly intelligent medical procedures inside your body. Of course, proponents say, they'd have to be able to replicate themselves to be effective -- and, well, would you want a colony of nanobots inside you undergoing something like genetic mutation? If that seems too fantastic, just remember that there's always the chance a new virus could arise -- naturally, or in someone's lab -- that would be highly contagious and overwhelmingly fatal.

Asteroids, anyone? In January, it looked for a day or so as though one was likely to hit Earth. It probably would not have led to mass extinctions, notwithstanding the collision thought to have done in the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. For one thing, some now believe that it didn't take one big asteroid back then but a storm of them to wipe out the big reptiles -- that, plus an atmosphere already full of greenhouse gases, though from volcanoes and not from power plants in the Midwest. Astronomers at UCLA think they know what set off that storm: a chaotic wobble in Saturn's orbit that would have exerted powerful tidal forces on the belt of asteroids between Jupiter and Mars. Bet you never worried about Saturn's orbit before.

Last month, scientists described how a black hole can tear a star to shreds. But if a black hole can be said to have a bright spot, it is this: Our own sun is safe. For now.

This week, NASA excitedly announced that in the distant past there seems to have been liquid water on Mars. Was this good news -- or a premonition? Will a space probe land someday on the third planet from the sun and report back to wherever it came from that there may once have been water there -- possibly even life? Now there's an optimistic thought for you.

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