By Larry Dubinski
Until the Kepler space telescope was launched in 2009, planets beyond our solar system seemed to be few and far between. But since then, Kepler has disproved that belief in spectacular fashion, confirming over a thousand new worlds orbiting other stars in our galaxy - some of which may even be Earth-like planets harboring life.
Much like Apollo 8's famous "Earth rise" photograph, showing a lonely, blue Earth rising above the stark lunar landscape, the Kepler instrument has profoundly changed our perspective of humanity's place in the universe. It has showed us multitudes of new worlds and allowed us to believe we may not be alone.
The Franklin Institute was filled to capacity on Tuesday night with people eager to hear from the mastermind behind Kepler: NASA space scientist William J. Borucki, one of this year's eight Franklin Institute Awards laureates. On Thursday, a similar crowd was on hand to listen to another laureate, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a cancer researcher, surgeon, and driving force behind Vice President Biden's "cancer moonshot" initiative. Today, the world's leading biomedical engineer, Robert Langer, takes the stage in the final event of a series that brings Philadelphians up close to these eight luminaries.
The Franklin Institute's annual awards honor monumental achievements in science, technology, and business leadership, and our celebration of these luminaries coincides with our annual Philadelphia Science Festival, which runs through April 30.
A "wow" moment of the festival is its signature Astronomy Night, when many Philadelphians look through a telescope, perhaps for the first time. When they see the planet Jupiter, they are likely to experience the same thrill experienced by Galileo in 1610, when his startling discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter laid the foundation for today's modern telescopes and space probes.
While Philadelphians may think of Galileo, they should also recognize the extraordinary nature of what Borucki's Kepler instrument accomplishes for us now and how it will completely change our understanding of our galaxy as we discover countless new planets. Thanks to this extraordinary instrument, we now know there are thousands of planets orbiting other stars - at least 5,000. The true magnitude of this instrument's work, and the data it provides, will help us better define who we are.
Galileo, Hubble, Kepler, and others - with the astronomical principles they have recognized, the observations they have made, or the instruments they developed to open the universe for us - are in a revolutionary class of their own, a class in which we should place Bill Borucki.
That so many people would clamor for a chance to see a NASA scientist or a cancer researcher might seem surprising to some. For me, it is not. This interest speaks to a passion among Philadelphians, and all of us, for anything scientific.
The next generation of American scientists and innovators is out there right now - in Philadelphia's schools, in our neighborhoods, even on our playgrounds, though some of them may not know it yet. Perhaps they will be inspired during Astronomy Night, or by meeting and hearing someone like Borucki, Soon-Shiong, and the other laureates discussing their work and journeys of discovery. Just one such experience can be the catalyst that propels a young woman or man to a career in science or engineering.
Of course, such experiences are not limited to the young. They can happen to anyone, expanding our sense of what is possible, enhancing our knowledge of the world and how it works. That awareness is more important than ever now, in a world in which so many important political, social, and even personal issues are based on questions of science, from climate change to Internet privacy to genomics and personalized medicine. To make wise and informed decisions on these and other subjects, we must be familiar with the basic scientific principles on which they are based.
These are the goals of Franklin Institute Awards Week, of the Philadelphia Science Festival, and of the Franklin Institute all year round. The work we do further confirms and enhances Philadelphia's status as a city of science and a center of learning. This work serves the scientific giants of the past and present while helping the next generation stand on their shoulders.
When we are inspired to learn, we can harness the power of science and technology to change lives and expand our world until, like the images taken by Borucki's Kepler telescope, even the stars aren't beyond our reach.