Big prizes for big ideas.

Discover Magazine’s Top 100 Stories of 2009 #69: Science Sets Its Eyes on the Prize
Big money awaits innovators who can build rockets, sequence genomes, predict people’s movie preferences, harvest energy from the tides, or explore the Moon.
by Darlene Cavalier
From the January-February special issue; published online December 25, 2009

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  • If only the human community could become as deeply curious and openly communicative about what the human species is doing in the world we inhabit as we are about the activities of wealthy and powerful people. Formidable human-induced global threats to human wellbeing and environmental health are just as evident as the conspicuous behaviors of the most greedy among us. To be a species with such remarkable self-consciousness, intelligence and other splendid gifts and to do no better than we are doing now is a source of deep sadness and occasional outbreaks of passionate intensity (likely signifying nothing).

    Still I believe in remaining engaged in this worthwhile struggle, one in which so many human beings with feet of clay have been involved for a lifetime. For me, the first fifty years of life were lived, as you might imagine, as if in a dream world, the one devised by the greed-mongering Masters of the Universe among us. I had no awareness that a single adamant generation would irreversibly degrade Earth’s environs, recklessly dissipate its limited resources, relentlessly diminish its biodiversity, destabilize its climate and threaten the very future of children everywhere.

    At least we can speak out loudly, clearly and often about these unfortunate greed-driven circumstances, even though they are discomforting and unwelcome, and in the process educate one another. Like many in the community of scientists have already reported, I do not have answers to forbidding questions related to the patently unsustainable ‘trajectory’ of human civilization in its present, colossally expansive form; but it seems our conscious denial of, and willful refusal to openly acknowledge, “what could somehow be real” means that the requirements of practical “reality” cannot be reasonably addressed and sensibly overcome. A colossal ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort is likely to be the end result of our abject failure, I suppose, to respond courageously and ably to the looming global challenges that appear to have emerged robustly and converged rapidly in our time.

  • If only the human community could become as deeply curious and openly communicative about what the human species is doing in the world we inhabit as we are about the activities of wealthy and powerful people. Formidable human-induced global threats to human wellbeing and environmental health are just as evident as the conspicuous behaviors of the most greedy among us. To be a species with such remarkable self-consciousness, intelligence and other splendid gifts and to do no better than we are doing now is a source of deep sadness and occasional outbreaks of passionate intensity (likely signifying nothing).

    Still I believe in remaining engaged in this worthwhile struggle, one in which so many human beings with feet of clay have been involved for a lifetime. For me, the first fifty years of life were lived, as you might imagine, as if in a dream world, the one devised by the greed-mongering Masters of the Universe among us. I had no awareness that a single adamant generation would irreversibly degrade Earth’s environs, recklessly dissipate its limited resources, relentlessly diminish its biodiversity, destabilize its climate and threaten the very future of children everywhere.

    At least we can speak out loudly, clearly and often about these unfortunate greed-driven circumstances, even though they are discomforting and unwelcome, and in the process educate one another. Like many in the community of scientists have already reported, I do not have answers to forbidding questions related to the patently unsustainable ‘trajectory’ of human civilization in its present, colossally expansive form; but it seems our conscious denial of, and willful refusal to openly acknowledge, “what could somehow be real” means that the requirements of practical “reality” cannot be reasonably addressed and sensibly overcome. A colossal ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort is likely to be the end result of our abject failure, I suppose, to respond courageously and ably to the looming global challenges that appear to have emerged robustly and converged rapidly in our time.