Vail Valley Voices: Rocket science thinking | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley Voices: Rocket science thinking

Phil Brodsky
Vail, CO, Colorado

Imagine that you are a rocket scientist responsible for outfitting a ship embarking on a centuries-long journey of space exploration. Your job is to see that the craft has enough provisions to sustain not only the original travelers but also future generations who will spend their entire lives on the ship. You will need to design efficient, nonhazardous products and processes and continually reuse everything on board. The word “waste” will not be part of the travelers’ vocabulary.

Now imagine that instead of a rocket ship, the craft is a planet. Although much larger than a spaceship, the planet too has fixed materials on board, and other than incoming radiation from its nearby star, it cannot acquire any new raw materials during its voyage.

If that planet were Earth, you would find that your challenge would be a difficult one indeed. It would be immediately evident that voyagers on planet Earth have already developed many products and processes with little regard for future generations.

For example, you would discover that the plastics industry on Earth often employs processes that use hazardous raw materials and operate at high pressure and temperature. Billions of pounds of products of that industry, such as bottles, carpets and packaging materials, end up in landfills and undergo no meaningful degradation in the lifetimes of the voyagers. Clearly, you would need to come up with alternative processes and products to help fix the problem.

Fortunately, nature has been experimenting with sustainable technologies for millions of years and has developed amazing processes to produce food and materials. Most of these processes use nonhazardous raw materials and operate at ambient conditions.

Structural materials like those produced by trees and animals (wood and bone), waterproof adhesives like those produced by barnacles, ultrastrong fibers like those produced by spiders and silkworms, medicines like those produced by mold (penicillin) and pesticides like those created by soil bacteria (Bt insecticide) are all examples of biodegradable high-performance products made with safe raw materials at local temperature and pressure.

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Nature also has developed processes to convert nitrogen in the air into compounds used to form proteins and fertilizers (nitrogen fixation); to utilize sunlight to convert carbon dioxide in the air into sugars, fuels and other useful organic compounds (photosynthesis); and to enable plants to grow in saltwater.

To benefit from nature’s examples, we need a better understanding of natural processes. Scientists have come a long way in understanding the chemistry, biochemistry and physics involved, but we are just beginning our journey of discovery.

Many of the scientists who will make those discoveries, and many of the people who will support the research and take advantage of the results, are currently in elementary, middle or high school.

The more we enlighten those students and nurture their innate curiosity about the natural world, the more likely we are to achieve the sustainable planet we are aiming for.

We are fortunate to have in Eagle County a resource designed to do just that. Walking Mountains (formerly the Gore Range Natural Science School) strives to awaken in children and adults a sense of wonder about the natural world and to encourage them to pursue further learning.

The school is now in its 12th year and is building an exciting new campus in Avon.

Working with public and private schools, its goal is to provide all Eagle County students and the county’s adult residents and visitors with stimulating natural science educational programs and a world-class experiential learning center.

The campus buildings will be built to the highest environmental standards and will be part of the learning experience. Walking Mountains hopes to create a generation of informed citizens and scientists who will not only understand our natural world but also use that understanding to create a sustainable community and world.

If we all start thinking of our planet as a rocket with limited resources on a timeless journey through space, we all start thinking like rocket scientists.

The importance of developing a sustainable planet seems so obvious that, like the old phrase says, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to get it.”

But then again, maybe you do.

Phil Brodsky, Walking Mountains board chair, was corporate vice president of research and environmental technology at Monsanto Co. before moving to Avon.