Grant Young

Grant Young

Exoplanets have been in the news a lot lately. NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, designed to search for earth-like planets outside of our solar system, has already discovered over 3,000. Many of these planets are in the so called Goldilocks zone. Not too hot, not too cold; just right for life. New estimates suggest there may over 40 billion earth sized planets in the Milky Way.

Scientists have been debating the probability of life in the Universe for many years. But Kepler shows that planets orbiting stars are far more abundant than once thought. There are over 100 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. But that’s just the beginning. There are around two billion galaxies in the universe. Mind numbing!

Astronomer Frank Drake proposed an equation in 1961 to estimate the number of advanced civilizations in the universe, long before the first exoplanet had been discovered. Using the “Drake Equation,” astronomers now estimate there are between 1 and 72,000 advanced civilizations in the Milky Way. Multiply that by two billion to get civilizations for the entire universe.

I’ve been following this research for many years, and I love imagining what life in other worlds must be like. Then last summer I had a realization. If there’s so much life, where the heck is everybody? Turns out I’m not alone. Enrico Fermi of the Manhattan Project often discussed this issue with colleagues over lunch, and thus the “Fermi Paradox” was born. Maybe advanced societies only communicate for several hundred years before collapsing. Perhaps intelligent life that invents technology is far less likely than we think. There are many possibilities. After all, even majestic whales with their massive brains aren’t known for their technological innovations.

New NASA telescopes will detect indicators of organic life on exoplanets, so the answer to one of humanity’s biggest questions – Are we alone? – is within reach. If the answer is ‘no’, whole new worlds of wonder open before us and even the wildest science fiction movies will seem pedestrian. But if we are, against all odds, alone, I expect an equivalent amount of wonder.

With a Perspective, I’m Grant Young.

Grant Young is an industrial psychologist. He lives in San Francisco.

Grant Young

Some experts predict automated cars will be commonplace in five to ten years. Ride sharing and automobile manufacturing companies are investing heavily in this technology. Yet I was not surprised by the recent news of a fatality caused by misuse of a Tesla’s autopilot.

On a recent family vacation to visit cousins in Sweden, we rented a new Volvo that had many automatic features, although unlike a Tesla, the driver was mostly in charge. I was excited to try this technology: cruise control that followed other cars, automatic steering to keep you in your lane, to name a few. This was the brave new world of car automation and I was excited to give it a try.

My family tolerated several minutes of my enthusiastic discussion of these features. It was exciting the first time our Volvo followed the car in front from highway speed down to a complete stop, through a round-about, and then back up to highway speed without ever touching the peddles. When I veered slightly in my lane, the steering wheel would turn itself to correct my path. If I got too close to the edge, the wheel would shake to let me know. A coffee cup symbol appeared at one point to warn me I was getting erratic and suggested a break. Amazing.

Over time, however, frustration replaced enthusiasm. I couldn’t always get the cruise control to follow the car in front. Sometimes when changing lanes, the car would fight me by turning the wheel in the opposite direction. Oddly, our smart car wasn’t bright enough to realize that a brake light on the car ahead meant the driver was slowing. By the end of the vacation it became obvious that safely using the automation took a lot of effort and was very different than normal driving. The last hour of the trip I shut off the automation and just drove the car. It was easier that way, and probably safer, too.

All new technologies need time to develop and I’m excited that companies are pushing the envelope. But judging from our Swedish holiday, the future of automated cars may be a little farther off than the experts seem to think.

With a Perspective, I’m Grant Young.

Grant Young is an industrial psychologist. He lives in San Francisco.

Grant Young

It was a special day for science geeks in the Bay Area –the
arrival of the Solar Impulse, the first solar powered aircraft to
circumnavigate the globe. I had followed the ninth leg of its historic journey via webcast starting in Hawaii, hoping it would pass over San Francisco before landing at Moffett Field 62 hours later.

In my fruitless attempt to encourage my three teenagers to join me in observing the remarkable event, I suggested we ride bicycles to the Presidio, to avoid the anticipated traffic from other excited observers. I joyfully showed them the webcast as the graceful aircraft neared California, to which my 16-year old daughter suggested that an airplane capable of only 50 mph was hardly an accomplishment, regardless of its power source. I hope my suggestion that the Wright Brother’s first powered flight lasted only 12 seconds registered.

Much to my amazement, Presidio traffic was sparse. Only a handful of people joined me near the Golden Gate Bridge to observe an around-the-world flight using not a drop of fuel, harbinger of a future in which carbon free global transportation is commonplace. History was upon us, yet my fellow San Franciscans chose not to look.

The next morning I listened to the Earth Day sermon at my local church. The sermon implored that God had not given Man the right to exploit other humans, animals, or His earth regardless of our superiority. It occurred to me that God’s message was gracefully on display in the skies above San Francisco just 12 hours earlier. The sermon’s message was powerful yet my secular instinct recognized that ultimately the selfish gene pushes us to the same conclusion. It seems both God’s will and our own DNA works against self-destruction.

This unique weekend said to me that we can have a carbon-free future, but only if we choose to make it so. Pioneers, like the Swiss entrepreneurs who envisioned the Solar Impulse, and the scientists and engineers who solidified that dream, are bravely showing us the future. But ordinary citizens owe it to the pioneers and scientists to pay attention to their feats and spread the word.

With a Perspective, I’m Grant Young.

Grant Young is an industrial psychologist and aviation enthusiast. He lives in San Francisco.