12-16 February • Chicago
Our Planet and Its Life: Origins and Futures
The theme of the Annual Meeting—"Our Planet and Its Life: Origins and Futures"—calls to mind that 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. New understanding of the underlying processes and mechanisms that fascinated Darwin continues to be the focus of intense research 150 years later.
The dynamic forces of nature—seen and unseen, known and unknown—form the foundation for this theme. Evolution surrounds us. The reconstructed record of Earth's past reveals evidence of change over a period of more than 4 billion years. This evolutionary history is evident in the abundances and distributions of extant and extinct organisms, in the climate, in the composition of the atmosphere, and in the sizes, shapes, and positions of continents.
The process of discovery and syntheses of data tell us even more about the nature of our planet and the universe. Astronomy, physics, mathematics, linguistics, neuroscience ... indeed every discipline can demonstrate its own unique evolutionary path and speculate on where it may lead. The telescope was invented in the Netherlands in 1608. Soon thereafter, Galileo constructed his own more powerful telescope, made his first celestial discoveries in 1609, and provided the first evidence that Earth is only one element of a sun-centered solar system. Galileo thus launched the age of modern observational astronomy.
The reference to "our" planet in the theme is intentionally presumptive. In a single human generation our species' effect on Earth's climate has been revealed. The warming of our planet is unequivocal, and human activities are a primary cause. Change in climate is now evident at regional scales in precipitation patterns, in storms, in diminished land and ocean ice, and in rising sea level. Coincidently, 2009 is also the 150th anniversary of the Drake oil well in Pennsylvania, which was the first commercial oil well, and also the discovery by Sir John Tyndall that carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation.
Within the next few human generations, the effect of these climate changes could put the survival of many species at risk. The natural processes so astutely intuited by Darwin can now be swamped by the actions of a single species.
But we need not let this be the future that is realized. Just as advances in technology and advances in science have led both to our current condition and our understanding of its implications, the wise use of technology and scientific understanding can allow us to select a different future.
While the science that underpins this understanding has become increasingly robust, the communication of this science to the public and its use in the formulation of wise policy at all levels of societal governance have lagged behind.
A decade before Darwin published his seminal work on evolution, a new scientific organization came into being—the AAAS, and its mission as formulated by its founders to "advance science and serve society" is as relevant today as it was in Darwin's time.