By Ailish E. Bateman In September of 1913, the first coast-to-coast highway opened in America. Soon, the countryside was an immense network of seemingly endless roads stretching out to distant horizons. Like the early pioneers who eagerly chugged along unpaved roads in search of far-flung adventure, today's motorists chase similar dreams -- just faster, speeding atop slabs of tarmac.
O.K., so that's a rather romantic notion of America's love affair with the automobile. Yet few would deny that the image of a never-ending ribbon of highway under the wide-open sky is an enduring symbol of American freedom. Roads expanded the range over which individuals can roam -- and shrunk the world for the collective us.
Then we took to the skies, and the world grew even smaller. Now, the Information Highway has shriveled the globe further: We can leap oceans and continents in seconds to visit libraries and museums in Moscow or Surat. And we don't need a car or a plane.
LENGTHENING SHADOW. Just as well. The days of gushing oil wells and cheap gasoline are going, going, almost gone. Many of us have not entirely forgotten the times before speed limits were lowered to conserve oil. But the irritation we felt then may be nothing compared to the pain that's coming if we don't shake off our fond attachments to memories of bygone days.
Energy is fast becoming probably the most precious commodity affecting national economies. Striving to maintain yesterday's status quo will only tilt world politics more steeply and cast a lengthening shadow on our future. Even the rumor of an oil cutback is enough to send stocks tumbling. The doom-and-gloom forecasts vary: Oil will run out tomorrow, next decade, next century. Could everything that we have accomplished in the last 100 years fall away as oil production slips? Today, the answer is uncertain.
Science must rise to the challenge. We brought forth the spark of modern living with combustion engines, and we can restoke the fire with new fuels. Hydrogen, renewable energy sources, clean nuclear energy, or perhaps fusion energy -- the answer is there somewhere. My generation of thinkers must sweep away political cobwebs and find it. Bateman was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search