by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s long reads, guaranteed to be election-free, include a look at the growth plans for the Puget Sound Regional Council; how different age groups are (or are not) trying to stop the spread of COVID-19; and progress in understanding whether we are alone in the universe.
How will Puget Sound Grow?
The Puget Sound Regional Council is a local government authority that you’ve probably never heard of. It is tasked with regional planning around growth, transportation, and economic development and is populated by representatives from over 80 jurisdictions spread across King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties — including Native tribes and port authorities.
Last week the Council approved its regional growth plan for the next thirty years, titled Vision 2050. It sets out detailed expectations for growth in each part of the region and discusses the implications of that growth on housing, transportation, the environment and climate change, the economy, and public services.
By 2050, the Puget Sound region is expected to grow from about 4 million people to 5.8 million and from 2.2 million jobs to 3.4 million. Of course, growth won’t be uniform: much more will be in the urban areas and near transit hubs than in the rural areas. In fact, one of the (many) goals of the Vision 2050 exercise is to preserve both open space and rural lands.
At 188 pages, this isn’t a document you’re expected to read end-to-end, but it is interesting to browse it for a picture of where the future growth is likely to be and the issues, challenges, and opportunities that growth will bring with it.
How do different age groups protect themselves from COVID?
It’s not just about the masks: the CDC recommends six different actions we should be taking to stop the spread of COVID-19, including maintaining at least six feet of distance; washing hands often with soap and water or using hand sanitizer; avoiding crowded public places; cancelling or postponing social or recreational activities; and avoiding some or all restaurants.
A group of the CDC’s researchers looked at how many of these practices people of different ages were likely to follow and how that changed from April to June of this year. Not surprisingly given the general belief that COVID is more deadly for older people, they found that the older you are, the more of the practices you are likely to adopt. But they also found that, in a way, it is about the masks after all: those who were already wearing a mask in April have stayed consistent with their other practices, while those who didn’t wear a mask have maintained fewer of the other practices over time.
Are we alone in the universe?
In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake scribbled out an equation for calculating the likelihood that we will one day detect alien life on another planet. Little did he know at the time that the Drake Equation would become the central organizing principle for decades to come in the search for extraterrestrial life.
The Drake Equation is brilliant in its simplicity, starting with an estimate of the number of sun-like stars in the Milky Way galaxy, then progressively narrowing that down: how many of those stars have planets; how many of those planets could support life; on how many of those does life actually evolve; how many of those evolve intelligent life; how many of those intelligent life-forms generate detectable technologies; and the average amount of time that those technologies are detectable.
In 1961, science didn’t have answers to any of those questions. But the brilliance of the Drake Equation was that it broke the problem down into understandable component parts and in so, doing created a research agenda (well, several of them) for scientists to focus on. Keep in mind that in 1961, while astronomers believed that planets were likely very common in the galaxy, we had no empirical evidence that they existed anywhere outside our solar system. The first “exoplanet” was found in 1992. But now, a few decades into the era of space telescopes, we have a catalog of hundreds of millions of stars and a dedicated space telescope (Kepler) that has documented thousands of planets around those stars. And now we have records of enough of both to start making some statistical estimates, based upon hard data, of the first three components of the Drake Equation.
The big news this week is that a group of over 70 scientists used Kepler data to estimate that about half of the sun-like planets in the galaxy have a rocky (not gaseous) planet, generally the same size as Earth, in the “habitable zone” — the not-too-close, not-too-far-away range of distance from the star where water can exist as a liquid. Scientists believe that the existence of liquid water is a key requirement for life to evolve.
Putting that together with what we know about the number and distribution of sun-like stars in our galaxy, the researchers conclude that there are probably about four “habitable zone” planets within 33 light-years of Earth, and the closest one is likely within 20 light-years.
The bad news: don’t start packing your bags. Light travels at 670 million miles per hour, so twenty light-years is an impossible distance for humans to cover, even at a significant fraction of light-speed. The good news: we could still communicate with another species at that distance, though it would be inter-generational communication since a round-trip for a radio or TV broadcast would take 40 years.
There are still many parts of the Drake Equation that are entirely speculative at this point, but it’s exciting to see real scientific progress in figuring out whether we share our galaxy with other intelligent life.
The researchers’ published paper is very technical (scientists would joke that it has a “high squiggly line factor”), so don’t go in expecting to understand everything in it. But National Geographic has a great article on the findings — written by Drake’s daughter — in English.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
Before getting into journalism Kevin worked at Microsoft for twenty six years, including seventeen in the company’s research division. He has twin daughters, loves to cook, and is trying hard to learn Spanish and the guitar.
The featured image is attributed to Mark Smith under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs 2.0 license.