100 Mentes

De todo el mundo

Shirley Ann Jackson

President,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Troy, United States

In the future, there will be virtual spaces for the most energetic and imaginative people to come together and change the world.

More with Less

Despite real limits to resources, people in the year 2112 will have the opportunity to lead rich, full lives. The wealth of that generation will be based largely on new materials, smart systems, and wise choices that will allow them to get more from less.

Nature points the way for creating materials that have function and elegance from the macro scale to the nanoscale. At the extremes, a human hand has the conformation, delicacy and flexibility to play a sonata on a piano. The tissues that make up the hand depend on blood cells that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide, protection by antibodies that lock onto invaders, and chains of protein that provide structure and strength. We are already well along in discovering why spider webs are stronger than steel, the mechanisms desert plants use to manage water, and how soap bubbles self-assemble and proteins fold in just the right way.

As we delve more deeply, learning nature’s tricks, we also use ever more powerful computers to analyze and simulate – developing the capabilities to build materials that match or excel those we find in nature, materials that can purify our water, convert sunlight to energy, and shelter us from the elements, materials that will recast the 2112 environment.

We must aim for each generation of materials to be gentler on the planet, more sustainable, and more easily recycled. As we move forward, we must pursue materials that give us what we need and desire without harming our environment.

Knowledge will be built into the new materials, but it also will be alive and active in the environment. Communications, decision support, data processing and storage, and analysis will help us to optimize transportation, education, exchange of goods, sharing of ideas, and coordination of teams. Sensors will detect changes, and actuators will allow the artificial world to adapt to changes in real-time. Because of these new tools and materials, people in 2112 will have the opportunity to participate, to share, to anticipate dangers and opportunities, and to reinterpret the world in ways not yet imagined.

History has taught us that genius is a collaborative activity, with breakthroughs coming through the competition of Renaissance artists, the conversations of writers in Paris of the 30s, and the intense exchanges of scientists and philosophers of the Lunar Society in the 18th Century. Those and other bands of thinkers needed to assemble in one place and secure resources. In the future, there will be virtual spaces for the most energetic and imaginative people to come together and change the world.

With all of these possibilities, the generation of 2112 will gain the most by making wise choices – choices to live gently by residing and working in clusters that pollute less and conserve energy. They will need to value materials that do less harm. They will need to share information without destroying privacy and dignity.

Their future, of course, depends on our wisdom. We need to make choices as well – to invest in education and research, to bequeath to them a planet that is on the way to sustainability, and to ensure that our powerful new information technologies expand and share freedom, respect, and opportunity.

Our tomorrows offer more than today, with abundant possibilities. The choices we make and the actions we take will determine if the people of 2112 will be able to say the same.

Shirley Ann Jackson Bio:

The Honorable Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.

President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York and Hartford, Connecticut, she has held senior leadership positions in government, industry, research, and academe. A theoretical physicist, she was chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (1995-1999). She serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the International Security Advisory Board to the United States Department of State.

Her research and policy focus includes energy security and the national capacity for innovation, including addressing the “Quiet Crisis” of looming gaps in the science, technology, and engineering workforce and reduced support for basic research.

She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Philosophical Society; a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, on the Board of the Council on Foreign Relations; and other prestigious organizations. She is on the Board of Directors of global companies including IBM and FedEx.

Calling her a “national treasure,” the National Science Board selected her as its 2007 Vannevar Bush Award recipient for “a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy.”

She holds a S.B. in physics and a Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics, from M.I.T. (as of August 2011).