As I type this essay on a flight from Dubai to Paris, I can see the hazy curve of our blue planet at the horizon. I've just finished the kickoff meeting of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils, where I served as vice chair of the Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies. I am now headed to the launch of the UNESCO World Library of Science, a set of free science resources for educators and students created by a partnership of UNESCO and Nature Education, with funding support from Roche. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Although they are using different approaches to tackle separate goals, both initiatives share a broader mission: to help improve the state of the world.
I find myself reflecting: Earth is not without its problems, but it's still the most habitable spot in the cosmos. Or is it?
That is the intriguing possibility posed by this issue's cover story, “Better Than Earth,” by René Heller. “Over the past two decades astronomers have found more than 1,800 exoplanets [beyond our solar system], and statistics suggest that our galaxy harbors at least 100 billion more,” Heller writes.
Some of them may be “superhabitable” worlds—with stable biospheres that may be optimal targets in our search for extraterrestrial life in other corners of the galaxy. They may even surpass the ability to nurture life that we see on Earth, with its vast deserts, frigid polar regions and nutrient-poor open oceans. In our planet's past, it was warmer, wetter and more oxygen-rich than today, and the future will be less life-friendly. Heller's feature story looks at how astronomers are searching for such worlds and what they may be like.
Back on Earth, you can expect to see our Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies 2015 list in late January, during the World Economic Forum's meeting in Davos. And you don't have to wait at all to dip into the rich knowledge resources in the UNESCO Library of Science: just point your browser to www.unesco.org/wls. A world of possibility awaits.