A new false color image of Pluto designed to show the subtle variations of its surface. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Thursday night Smithsonian Magazine gave out its American Ingenuity Awards, and among the nine winners [correction: 12 winners in 9 categories] was Alan Stern, the human engine of the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Before the ceremony I remarked to Stern that the Pluto encounter was the biggest science story of the year. He upped the ante: The biggest of the decade, he said.

[Ancient volcanic rocks suggest that Earth’s water arrived surprisingly early]

Is that true? There have been bigger, more compelling stories in this decade that deal with science and technology: The oil spill of 2010 (if you count that as this decade), and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. But the first was an engineering and environment story, the second a public health crisis.

[The heroes and the secrets of the Pluto mission]

In any case, Stern was referring to space stories, and Pluto looms large there. What else are we forgetting here among space stories? Rosetta. Curiosity.

NASA’s attempt to find a path forward in the post-shuttle era has been a slow-moving and awkward (some would pick harsher adjectives) spectacle. The emergence of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other “New Space” ventures looks historic in my eyes, but that’s been spread out over many years and thus lacks the Holy Cow nature of the Pluto encounter of July 14.

When he took the stage to accept the award, Stern alluded to the fact that Pluto had been demoted by an international astronomical organization to "dwarf planet" status.

[New images of Pluto show a surface ‘every bit as complex as that of Mars’]

"All I can say to that now is, have you seen Pluto? Does it look like a planet to you or not?" Stern asked.

And he came back to that theme: "Have you seen Pluto? Have you seen the thousand-mile heart on its surface?"

Yes, Pluto didn't disappoint.


New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern and other team members hold their suggested revision of a U.S. postage stamp. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

Here's the Smithsonian press release on all the winners. I was particularly intrigued by the first honoree, Rana el Kaliouby, who works on "affective computing," and specifically on computer technologies that can be used to decode facial expressions, gauge your true feelings, and add non-verbal signals to human-machine interactions. She said we don’t ask a doctor’s opinion about our blood pressure, we actually have it precisely measured, and now this can be done with our emotions as well.

"The problem is emotions are missing from our increasingly digital world," she said on stage.

In the future, perhaps, the refrigerator will sense when we are stressed out and will lock itself so that we can't get to the ice cream and binge-eat, she said.

Not to get all paranoid here, but one does wonder if such technology could be used for creepy purposes. Do I want the refrigerator to know what I'm feeling? El Kaliouby acknowledged in her speech that this kind of thing could be “abused,” but said that, as is common with many new technologies, the potential benefit is greater than the downside. (But I'm now thinking of going the expressionless route from here on.)

Read More:

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There’s a new Earth-size planet in the neighborhood (galactically speaking)

Why NASA’s top scientist is sure that we’ll find signs of alien life in the next decade