A Fragile Earth and Points Beyond
It’s hard to imagine any man-made product more versatile than fossil-fuel-based plastic. Initially favored to encase telephones and radios, it is now used in a myriad of consumer goods and in packaging. It’s cheap to produce, heat and water resistant, available in any color you want, protective of fragile objects, and above all, durable. Yet that last quality is what makes plastic such a danger to the environment, particularly oceans and waterways. In our cover story, Jennifer Pocock reports on the notorious Pacific Garbage Patch, and why an ambitious cleanup effort is unlikely to succeed completely. Plastic doesn’t degrade, yet over time it breaks down into ever smaller pieces. These pieces are so tiny they can’t be captured in nets. Still, they’re consumed by sea creatures large and small. Jenni Brandon, a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Institution for Oceanography, tells Pocock the solution to eradicating plastic may ultimately lie in bioengineering. She cites a mealworm that can break Styrofoam down into usable monomers. Meanwhile, engineers are developing high-performance plastic substitutes that won’t permanently spoil land and waterways.
No one could have fully anticipated plastic’s long-term impact. But in our Last Word this month, Marielza Oliveira, director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Beijing office, says engineers need to be prepared to examine the potential consequences of technological decisions. Too often, she writes, their choices are made “beyond the scrutiny or even the understanding of ordinary people.”
In another feature, Alice Daniel examines Ghana’s effort to train engineers who meet the needs of its rapidly growing economy. In a complaint sometimes heard in this country as well, the article describes a huge gap between what engineers are taught and the skills needed by industry.
Moving farther afield, Tom Grose reports on NASA’s plans for a return to the moon, which the space agency sees as a test bed for trips to Mars. Space exploration is also the chosen topic of our newest columnist, Deborah Jackson, who revisits her experience as the Cognizant Engineer for the Radio Science Subsystem on the 1997 Cassini mission.
We hope you find worthwhile reading in this latest issue of Prism.