When Science Offers No Escape

What went unsaid in last night’s debate.

Jim Young / Reuters

Yesterday, there was a debate. But also, some other stuff happened. Yesterday, we learned that our immune system can be tricked into making rabid attacks on cancers. Earlier this week, we learned that horses can read the emotions that ripple across our faces. We learned that it’s possible to map hundreds of whales  across vast stretches of ocean, simply by listening to the sound of their singing. We laid eyes on the most distant galaxy ever glimpsed. We welcomed an astronaut home.

For more than fifteen years, we have known that a mysterious force is ripping the observable universe apart. We call this force “dark energy,” and this week, we learned that its strength is pitched just right for life. If it were stronger, after the Big Bang, everything would have flown apart from everything else, and matter-rich galaxies would have never formed. If it were weaker, the cosmos would be denser, and stars would be huddled too close together. Complex life would never get a foothold.

Luckily, we live in a charmed universe. Or maybe a charmed region of a multiverse. Either way, good news for us.

I wish I could say that science offers a pure escape from the despair that many of us feel watching this election unfold. But, not all news from the sciences was good this week.

Just yesterday, global temperature data from February was released. Last month was a scorcher, like January before it. In the Northern Hemisphere, it was the hottest February on record. The warming of our planet appears to be accelerating, especially in the Arctic, where we can least afford it.

There is more carbon frozen into the Arctic soil than exists in all of Earth’s atmosphere. The name of this soil—permafrost—is a wishful misnomer. There is nothing permanent about its current state. Already, you can see it thawing on the tundra’s exposed cliffsides. It’s a terrifying sight.

But perhaps not as terrifying as watching a two-hour debate among four men, each hoping to lead the world’s most powerful country, and none so much as mentioning the words “climate change.”