Podcast: Updated weekly in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. Subscribe on Stitcher, Spreaker, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or iHeartRadio
It's so cold out tonight (2 degrees below zero as of showtime) that you can actually conduct one of my favorite science experiments: Take a bubble wand outside and blow some bubbles. They'll freeze before they reach the ground, causing them to shatter like glass. It's a perfectly innocent way to burn out that destructive streak so many of us like to keep buried below the surface.
Tonight we explored another updated version of the Future Scale. Now that it's 2010, we're just a little bit closer to a few big predictions -- like China's completion of 42 high-speed rail lines (2012) or the UK's installation of a 250-mph rail link between London and the western part of the country (2025). Will that help us get high-speed rail here in the United States? Maybe. But we can hope that it'll only happen through private investment. Our population here in the US is so much more spread out than in most other wealthy countries that it's really hard to get enough population density to make high-speed rail service a reality. But if other countries make enough progress with the technology to lower the investment costs for us, it might happen sooner than if we had to rely on our own innovations.
The idea of rail service probably gets to a deeper issue within our national psyche: Driving feels like a representation of freedom, and air travel feels like the pinnacle of speed. But as air travel becomes slower (thanks to longer security lines) and more unpleasant (thanks to the problem of "security theater"), maybe something like high-speed rail could work. A 250-mph train could get you from Des Moines to Denver in about 4 hours; that could turn a Broncos game into a day trip, which is a far cry from the Archway Monument in Kearney, Nebraska, which also happens to be home of The Buckle).
This, of course, begs another question: Where would you put the trains? Would you have to elevate the railways? Japan's Shinkansen bullet train service seems to serve much of that densely-populated country without much in the way of elevated rail, but it might be exceedingly difficult to negotiate enough right-of-way to establish a modern high-speed rail service in the US without going right down the medians of most Interstate highways.
Yet very little should seem impossible when we're living in an era when commercial space travel is supposed to start next year. And just as we're learning more about space, we're discovering what's within ourselves at an astonishing rate, too. The genomes for many cancers should be documented within 5 years. Could that research make cancer like HIV/AIDS -- a chronic, but manageable, condition, at least for those who can afford the drugs? It's an amazing possibility.
And a "Yay Capitalism" cheer for the extraordinary rise of the text message, which has gone from virtual non-existence at the turn of the millennium to ubiquity today: We're now sending an average of 440 text messages per American per month, and there's no sign it's going to slow down.