A casual perusal of the newspaper, or fifteen minutes watching cable news, could cause even the most relaxed person to reach for the Xanax and a bottle of whiskey. But it’s not all bad news out there. Here are 11 places where wonderful things are happening.
Two hundred fifty miles up, two astronauts went on a space walk to prepare the International Space Station for a new Russian repair module. That’s a lot of mind-blowing stuff for one sentence. Humanity crawled from the oceans and found a way to space. The U.S. and Russia managed not only to survive the Cold War without using the nuclear launch codes, but also to then team up and build an orbiting space laboratory. That laboratory is so awesome that we can plug in Lego-like compartments and expand its capabilities, and thus expand human knowledge and understanding. One of the astronauts, Luca Parmitano, is now the first Italian to walk in space. They had tiramisu to mark the occasion. Humans are eating tiramisu in space! And, oh yeah, astronauts. That’s a job that people have.
Scientists believe they have discovered “a complex web of organisms, zones and habitats that have developed over the tens of millions of years” in a lake four kilometers below Antarctica. That area has been sealed off from the atmosphere fifty times longer than anatomically modern humans have existed, so there’s a lot to be learned about the Earth of the past. And here’s the crazy thing—we’re learning it! Want to get even crazier? The conditions of Lake Vostok, where ancient fish might be swimming around, are a lot like the conditions on moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. Space fish? Coming soon.
3. The Arctic Circle
Meanwhile, engineering students who visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have managed to build an autonomous robot tank with ground penetrating radar that’s able to operate in harshest terrain of the Arctic Circle. This is really great news because humans don’t do so well at 50-below-zero-Celsius. Sending in robots will open vast new areas to constant research. Also, we’re living in an age where I can write “sending in robots” outside of science fiction. (Here’s a blog from NASA Earth Observatory describing life at Summit Camp, Greenland, where the robot is operating.)
Thirty years ago, there were only three bald eagle nesting pairs left in Pennsylvania. Today there are 252. Pollution and poaching nearly annihilated the raptors, but conservation efforts have been so successful that after a two-century absence, a nesting pair has even returned to Philadelphia.
After six months of exploring Yellowknife Bay on Mars, the rover Curiosity has set a course for Aeolis Mons in the Gale Crater. The peak, informally called Mount Sharp, developed over a period of two billion years and stands 18,000 over the crater floor. From base to peak, that’s about the height of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. (Mount Sharp is nicknamed after geologist Robert Sharp. Geologists do some surprisingly thrilling work.) During the yearlong trek to the peak, Curiosity and NASA will continue analyzing Martian soil for biosignatures, minerals, and surface radiation.
Ann Makosinski of British Columbia, Canada, has created a “hollow flashlight” powered only by the heat of one’s hand. The energy is harvested using something called Peltier tiles. As she explains, the tiles “take the temperature difference between your hand and the ambient air, and they produce power.” Oh yeah, Makosinski is only 15, and the flashlight is her entry in the Google Science Fair. She cobbled together the necessary parts from eBay. Said the young researcher of science fairs, “You learn so much about the topic you are studying—I learned so much from it. It’s a really good experience for people, too. So often we don’t do anything with our hands but text, so here’s a chance to do something.”
7. New Jersey
In New Jersey, another teenager is getting attention for his inventiveness. Justin Beckerman, a high school junior, has built a fully functional, homemade submarine capable of reaching depths of 30 feet. The project isn’t his first submarine, but it’s his most ambitious. It took five months to build and cost $2000. The restless inventor is also working on a jet engine.
Over a three-year period, the City of Sydney upgraded its lighting, air conditioning, and power management systems, reducing energy consumption by 20 percent. It’s not stopping there. The government is now working on an efficiency plan for the entirety of Sydney, with a 2030 goal of reducing the city’s carbon emissions by 70 percent. By that year, government buildings will be entirely powered by renewable energy.
9. California and Scotland
Steve Bate of Moray, Scotland has become the first blind person to climb El Capitan in Yosemite. The vertical granite formation is 3000 feet high. He climbed it over a period of six days, while carrying 220 pounds of gear. "I fell twice on the climb,” he said, “and it was so hot out there, I became tired a lot quicker than I had accounted for... It was really tough and when I finished I couldn't really understand where all my strength had come from.” He says of the pretty-much-impossible achievement, "I just hope it helps to inspire people, especially with disabilities, to believe that anything is possible if they set their minds to it. If I can do it, anyone can." He even did it without Spock’s help.
10. New York
Physicists at Cornell University have managed to directly measure the torque of DNA coils. To achieve this, they built something called an angular optical trap. Their measurements are accurate to the piconewton-nanometer. (Pretty accurate, in other words.) According to physicist Michelle Wang, whose lab spent ten years developing the necessary technology, “To measure very, very small twists and torques on biomolecules is very challenging. It’s easier to twist something than to measure how much twist you’re exerting. Our instrument lets us do both.” According to “Transcription Under Torsion,” the paper she coauthored for Nature with physicists Jie Ma and Lu Bai, the research helps us better understand how DNA supercoiling regulates gene transcription.
This list of good news could have consisted entirely of ambitious teenagers ready to change the world and working to make it happen. Elif Bilgin, a sixteen-year-old from Istanbul, is just such a person. She recognized an ongoing environmental crisis in plastics, and spent two years working on her own bio-plastic—a kind of plastic derived from a renewable source as opposed to the traditional petroleum base. She chose banana peels as her source, and set a goal of devising a bio-plastic production method so safe and elegant than anyone could manufacture it in his or her own home. (Banana peels were chosen because they are “a material which is thrown away every day,” according to her proposal.)
After two years of work and ten failed trials, she finally succeeded. She then went on to find the best applications for her new kind of plastic. Her findings suggested cosmetic prostheses and cable insulation, for starters. Her banana-based bio-plastic won the 2013 Science in Action Award, and has earned her a place as a finalist in the Google Science Fair. Asked about her success and the science fair to come, she replied, “For me, this means that my project actually has a potential to be a solution to the increasing pollution problem caused by petroleum-based plastic. It also means that I have started the process of changing the world, which makes me feel like a winner already.”