By: Steve Lohr, INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
Published: June 27, 2008

NEW YORK: Bill Gates is retiring, sort of. He is still only 52, and he is going off to spend more time guiding the world’s richest philanthropy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He will still be Microsoft’s chairman and largest shareholder, but Friday is his last day as a full-time worker at the software giant, marking the unofficial end of his career as a business leader.

Sure, there are the blockbuster Microsoft products, like Windows and Office, used in offices and homes, everywhere, every day. But beyond that, Gates, and his company, founded 33 years ago, have fundamentally shaped how people think about competition in many industries where technology plays a central role, the behavior of modern markets, and even antitrust.

In a sense, Bill Gates can be seen as the foremost applied economist of the second half of the 20th century.

Yet the old rules of competition, so lucratively mastered by Microsoft, are being altered by the current wave of Internet computing – and Google is the company at the forefront. So far, Microsoft is struggling to adjust, and it will be up to Gates’s successors to overcome the challenge or watch Microsoft’s wealth and leadership in the industry steadily erode.

Whatever the future for Microsoft, the Gates legacy is impressive. The main reason that there are more than a billion copies of the Windows operating system on personal computers around the world, according to industry experts and economists, is that Gates grasped and deployed two related concepts on a scale no one ever did in the past – “network effects” and the creation of a technology “platform.”

Put simply, a network effect is that the value of a product goes up as more people use it. A technology platform is a set of tools or services that others can use to build their own products or services. So building the workbench-like platform encourages more people to join the network, which attracts more interest in the platform, enlarging the network and so on.

For Gates, the strategy started with its first product, Microsoft Basic, a programming language, but really took off with its operating systems, first Microsoft DOS and then the many versions of Windows. Today, there are many thousands of software applications that run on the Windows platform, not just word processing and spreadsheets but the specialized programs in doctors’ offices, factory floors and retail stores mainly run on Windows – a very broad network, on a technology platform.

“Gates saw software as a separate market from hardware before anyone else, but his great insight was recognizing the power of the network effects surrounding the software,” said Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That, Cusumano added, was the essential difference in the paths of Microsoft and Apple, the early leader in personal computing. Apple, he said, focused on making outstanding products alone, while Microsoft nurtured a growing business ecosystem of outside software developers who use, and are dependent up, Microsoft’s technology.

“Apple has always been a product company, and Microsoft is a platform company,” Cusumano said.

The result, he adds, is that Apple today does make outstanding products, though its market share is small, while more than 90 percent of personal computers run Microsoft software.

Hindsight tends to bring clarity. In the early years, it is unclear how much Gates was pursuing each opportunity as it came as opposed to a grand strategy. He had large ambitions. When he was a Harvard undergraduate, Gates lamented that so many of his fellow students pursued a “narrow track for success,” diligent strivers in safe professions, instead of being willing to “take big risks to do big things,” recalled Michael Katz, who was a Harvard student at the time.

While Gates dropped out of college to found Microsoft, with Paul Allen, Katz went on to become an economist. In fact, he was the co-author of a seminal paper in 1985 on network effects and the use of technology standards as weapons of competition, a paper that would eventually be cited prominently in the landmark U.S. government antitrust suit against Microsoft.

In the early 1980s, when Katz a and a fellow economist, Carl Shapiro, were doing the research for the paper, they looked at technology standards like the rivals in videocassette recording, Sony’s Betamax versus VHS, backed by other Japanese companies. They looked at personal computers, mainly in terms of the competition between Apple and IBM-compatible personal computers. They were aware of Microsoft’s role, as an operating system supplier, Katz said, but had no inkling how things would play out.

“At the time, we weren’t thinking that Microsoft would rise to dominate the computer world,” said Katz, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

By the early 1990s, Gates spoke fluently in the economic language of network effects, network externalities, increasing returns and technology standards. In a Harvard business school case study, Gates explained, “We look for opportunities with network externalities – where there are advantages to the vast majority of consumers to share a common standard. We look for businesses where we can garner large market shares, not just 30 or 35 percent.”

Microsoft’s market share in Internet search in the United States is less than 10 percent, while Google holds more than 60 percent and Yahoo has about 20 percent. And the rise of Internet services and social networks, like Facebook and MySpace, but also Web-based alternatives to traditional desktop software including e-mail, word processors and spreadsheets poses a fresh challenge to Microsoft.

Traditional desktop software – and the technology standards Microsoft controls there – matter far less when more software is accessed with a Web browser and delivered over the Internet from vast data centers run by Google and others. The new technology is widely known as “cloud computing” and the business model behind it is typically to sell online advertising.

“The threat to any technology company is to miss one of the big shifts in technology, and Microsoft missed the transition to cloud computing and advertising as the revenue source for the Internet,” said David Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard business school.

“The Web is now the platform,” Yoffie added. “People are writing Web applications for everything from Facebook to business programs inside corporations. The business ecosystem is migrating to the Web and way from Microsoft.”

At Microsoft, there is scant sign of panic, despite its trailing position and its failed bid to buy Yahoo as a catch-up strategy. Microsoft sees an evolution in computing instead of any disruptive revolution that would imperil the company, said Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer.

Microsoft, Mundie said, is preparing for a widening world of both cloud computing and “client” machines, not only PCs but also cellphones, cars, game consoles and televisions, all running Microsoft software.

“Our conclusion is no, you’re not really looking at some tectonic shift,” Mundie said. “The next big platform is the union of the clients and the cloud.”

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P. Krugman: Oil blame game

六月 27, 2008

From: INTERNATIONL HERALD TRIBUNE
Published: June 27, 2008

The U.S. Congress has always had a soft spot for “experts” who tell members what they want to hear, whether it’s supply-side economists declaring that tax cuts increase revenue or climate-change skeptics insisting that global warming is a myth.

Right now, the welcome mat is out for analysts who claim that out-of-control speculators are responsible for $4-a-gallon gas.

Back in May, Michael Masters, a hedge fund manager, made a big splash when he told a Senate committee that speculation is the main cause of rising prices for oil and other raw materials. He presented charts showing the growth of the oil futures market, in which investors buy and sell promises to deliver oil at a later date, and claimed that “the increase in demand from index speculators” – his term for institutional investors who buy commodity futures – “is almost equal to the increase in demand from China.”

Many economists scoffed: Masters was making the bizarre claim that betting on a higher price of oil – for that is what it means to buy a futures contract – is equivalent to actually burning the stuff.

But members of Congress liked what they heard, and since that testimony much of Capitol Hill has jumped on the blame-the-speculators bandwagon.

Somewhat surprisingly, Republicans have been at least as willing as Democrats to denounce evil speculators. But it turns out that conservative faith in free markets somehow evaporates when it comes to oil. For example, National Review has been publishing articles blaming speculators for high oil prices for years, ever since the price passed $50 a barrel.

And it was John McCain, not Barack Obama, who recently said this: “While a few reckless speculators are counting their paper profits, most Americans are coming up on the short end – using more and more of their hard-earned paychecks to buy gas.”

Why are politicians so eager to pin the blame for oil prices on speculators? Because it lets them believe that we don’t have to adapt to a world of expensive gas.

Indeed, this past Monday, Masters assured a House subcommittee that a return to the days of cheap oil is more or less there for the asking. If Congress passed legislation restricting speculation, he said, gasoline prices would fall almost 50 percent in a matter of weeks.

O.K., let’s talk about the reality.

Is speculation playing a role in high oil prices? It’s not out of the question. Economists were right to scoff at Masters – buying a futures contract doesn’t directly reduce the supply of oil to consumers – but under some circumstances, speculation in the oil futures market can indirectly raise prices, encouraging producers and other players to hoard oil rather than making it available for use.

Whether that’s happening now is a subject of highly technical dispute. (Readers who want to wonk themselves out can go to my blog, krugman.blogs.nytimes.com, and follow the links.) Suffice it to say that some economists, myself included, make much of the fact that the usual telltale signs of a speculative price boom are missing. But other economists argue, in effect, that absence of evidence isn’t solid evidence of absence.

What about those who argue that speculative excess is the only way to explain the speed with which oil prices have risen? Well, I have two words for them: iron ore.

You see, iron ore isn’t traded on a global exchange; its price is set in direct deals between producers and consumers. So there’s no easy way to speculate on ore prices. Yet the price of iron ore, like that of oil, has surged over the past year. In particular, the price that Chinese steel makers pay to Australian mines has just jumped 96 percent.

This suggests that growing demand from emerging economies, not speculation, is the real story behind rising prices of raw materials, oil included.

In any case, one thing is clear: The hyperventilation over oil-market speculation is distracting us from the real issues.

Regulating futures markets more tightly isn’t a bad idea, but it won’t bring back the days of cheap oil. Nothing will. Oil prices will fluctuate in the coming years – I wouldn’t be surprised if they slip for a while as consumers drive less, switch to more fuel-efficient cars, and so on – but the long-term trend is surely up.

Most of the adjustment to higher oil prices will take place through private initiative, but the government can help the private sector in a variety of ways, such as helping develop alternative-energy technologies and new methods of conservation and expanding the availability of public transit.

But we won’t have even the beginnings of a rational energy policy if we listen to people who assure us that we can just wish high oil prices away.

By: James Kanter, INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
Published: June 26, 2008

BRUSSELS: The European Union reached a landmark agreement Thursday to cap emissions from aircraft, raising the stakes in an increasingly ferocious battle with the United States over how to regulate global greenhouse gases.

In the first requirement of its kind, all airlines arriving or leaving from airports located in the EU would be obliged to buy some pollution credits beginning in 2012, joining other industrial polluters that trade in the European emissions market. That includes non-European carriers like American Airlines and Singapore Airlines.

Including airlines in that system is the boldest move yet by the EU to stamp its environmental policies on the rest of the world.

For consumers, such rules could mean further fare increases in the wake of a steady rise in fuel surcharges imposed by airlines – a trend that looks set to continue. On Thursday the president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries warned that oil prices could reach levels of up to $170 a barrel this summer.

“At the end of the day it’s the people who fly” who will pay more under the new system, warned Anthony Concil, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, the industry’s biggest lobbying group.

U.S. officials immediately warned that the requirements probably would be illegal under the convention governing international civil aviation.

“The mandatory application of the European Emissions Trading System to U.S. airlines and airlines of other non-European countries is, we think, both contrary to international law and ultimately unworkable,” said Robert Gianfranceschi, a spokesman at the U.S. Mission to the EU in Brussels.

The compromise was reached Thursday by representatives of the European Parliament and by EU governments represented by Slovenia, which currently holds the revolving presidency of the EU. It states that the EU “should continue to seek an agreement on global measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation,” according to a copy of the text seen by the International Herald Tribune.

But EU plan “may serve as a model for the use of emissions trading worldwide,” the draft law states.

The proposal still needs the assent of the full European Parliament and individual EU governments. But people involved in the negotiations said those steps were likely to be a formality, given the political agreement.

Including airlines also is a victory for European regulators, who are seeking to include more polluters in the system. That could help blunt criticism of the EU by those who see it as unfairly targeting heavy industry. The carbon trading market, which was started in 2005, caps the overall amount of pollution emitted by industries like electric utilities and steel makers in the EU.

Concil, the IATA spokesman, said the costs to the airline industry of buying permits to comply with European emissions regulations would be more than $4 billion. Imposing new, costly rules on airlines was “incredible” at a time when the industry is expected to lose more than $6.1 billion this year, he said.

Opponents of the plan argue that it will be an ineffective regional attempt to tackle a problem that requires a global solution. European airlines and charter companies also have said they would be at disadvantage to overseas competitors that operate fewer European routes.

Giovanni Bisignani, the director general of IATA, took out full-page advertisements in newspapers this week calling the plans “crazy” and saying that support for the proposals by European governments meant that they had “lost the plot.”

Bisignani said that the aviation industry already was doing enough to reduce its carbon footprint by investing in new technology and using less fuel. He said negotiations on the creation of an emissions trading program for the world’s airlines should be conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, a United Nations body.

Including airlines in the current European system “will only invite international legal battles,” he warned.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, which first proposed the rules, has said a global deal would take too long for Europe. EU officials were determined to put forward their own plans, which would cover the emissions from aircraft flying both legs of journeys to and from major destinations like London, Paris and Frankfurt.

Even so, the agreement reached Thursday reduced the chances of international disagreement, said one person closely involved in the negotiations. He would not be identified in order to allow EU governments to make an official announcement about the accord in the coming days.

He said that if other countries introduced approximately similar measures, the EU would drop its jurisdiction covering emissions on flights leaving non-EU countries like the United States, to avoid double regulation.

Most of the initial permits would be allocated to airlines by the European authorities, but airlines would be obliged to buy 15 percent in auctions. A decision on whether airlines would be obliged to buy more permits in later years could be made in coming months depending on negotiations on overhauling the European trading system and the price of oil, he said.

The aviation industry in general has long sought to play down its impact on the environment, saying it accounts for just 2 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Environmentalists say that measure underestimates the true impact of flying.

Aircraft release other gases and vapor trails at high altitudes, meaning the CO2 impact from aviation should be multiplied up to four times and could equal up to 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, James Leape, the director general for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said at a conference on aviation in April.

Concerns also surround aviation because the industry is growing so rapidly – driven in large part by the expansion of low-cost carriers.

By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: June 27, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe — As Zimbabwe’s neighbors urged it to postpone this week’s presidential runoff, hundreds of beaten, newly homeless Zimbabweans gathered Wednesday outside the South African Embassy here in a desperate bid for help during the electoral crisis.

By 8:30 p.m., around 400 people, mainly men displaced by the recent political violence, were pulling down their woolen caps and hunching into thin jackets to sit out one of the coldest nights this winter. Few of them had eaten in the last several days; they began converging outside the embassy in hopes of finding food, water and medical attention.

“The situation is absolutely desperate,” said an opposition official trying to find shelter for 80 women and children at the site.

The scene unfolded amid a scramble of regional and international diplomacy, with many African and Western nations saying the vote set for Friday would be neither free nor fair.

On Wednesday, officials from Swaziland, Angola and Tanzania — the so-called troika empowered to speak for the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc of 14 nations — called on Zimbabwe to put off the voting because the current crisis would undermine its legitimacy.

Among the most damning voices raised in criticism was that of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, who, at a dinner in London, condemned a “tragic failure of leadership in Zimbabwe.” He did not identify the object of his criticism by name.

Taking a different tack, Queen Elizabeth II stripped Robert Mugabe, the country’s president for nearly 30 years, of his honorary knighthood as a “mark of revulsion” at the human rights abuses and “abject disregard” for democracy over which he is presiding, the British Foreign Office said Wednesday.

The rebukes reflected the mounting international frustration over Mr. Mugabe’s insistence in going ahead with the runoff on Friday, even though his sole opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, pulled out of the race on Sunday. Mr. Tsvangirai cited the persistent violence and intimidation against him, his party and their supporters.

Mr. Mugabe’s government has had a long history of human rights abuses, but he was granted the honorary knighthood during an official visit to Britain in 1994 when, the Foreign Office said, “the conditions in Zimbabwe were very different.”

With the widespread attacks on the opposition, the Foreign Office said the honor could no longer be justified. Stripping away the title is exceedingly rare. A Foreign Office spokesman could think of only one other time it had been done: in 1989 with the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Mr. Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, was quoted on Wednesday as calling on the United Nations to send peacekeepers to bring calm and help pave the way for new elections in which he could participate as a “legitimate candidate.”

“Zimbabwe will break if the world does not come to our aid,” he said in an op-ed article whose authorship was attributed to him in The Guardian newspaper in London. On Thursday, however, Mr. Tsvangirai distanced himself from the article, saying it “does not reflect my positions or opinions regarding solutions to the Zimbabwean crisis.”

“I am not advocating for military intervention in Zimbabwe by the United Nations or any other organization,” his statement said.

Mr. Tsvangirai took refuge in the Dutch Embassy here on Sunday. He emerged briefly on Wednesday to hold a news conference in which he proposed negotiations, but only if Mr. Mugabe canceled the runoff first.

“We have said we are prepared to negotiate on this side of the 27th, not the other side of the 27th,” Mr. Tsvangirai said, according to Reuters.

In an interview in The Times of London Thursday, Mr. Tsvangirai was quoted as reiterating his demand for negotiations instead of elections. “Negotiations will be over if Mr. Mugabe declares himself the winner and considers himself the president. How can we negotiate?” he was quoted as saying.

The U.S. ambassador in Harare, James D. McGee, said that Mr. Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, were determined to hold the runoff “at all costs,” according to the State Department.

“We’ve received reports that ZANU-PF will force people to vote on Friday and also take action against those who refuse to vote,” Mr. McGee said in a conference call described by the State Department.

All over the country, destitute people have fled the violence, and are now looking for food, shelter, protection and medical care.

One woman at a church in Harare held her 11-month-old baby, who had casts on his tiny legs. She said that after her husband, an opposition organizer, went into hiding she had gotten word that ZANU-PF supporters were looking for her, too. She fled with the boy.

She returned home the next day, though, and that is when “the youth,” as foot soldiers of the ruling party are often called, came looking for her, she said. They snatched her son from the bed and hurled him onto the concrete floor, shattering his legs, she said.

Afterward, she was too terrified to move. But that night, when all was quiet, she set out for the opposition headquarters, Harvest House, to seek help there. She was able to carry only her distraught child, and the 12-mile walk took most of the night.

Harvest House was bursting with refugees, but she was able to get care at a hospital. Now her son’s legs stick out at an odd angle below his blue romper suit, encased in plaster casts.

The woman’s blanket was stolen, and because she has been surviving on one meal a day, her thin skirt and jacket hang on her. Her thin legs look as if they, too, might snap.

But when she looks at her baby, her strained face softens and becomes beautiful again. For three days the boy has had only water, she said, because her breast milk has dried up.

“I hate Zimbabwe,” she said. “I want to leave.”

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris and Graham Bowley from New York.

年轻人与老人

有位风华正茂的年轻人, 时常轻视饱经风霜的老人。

一天,这个年轻人和他的父亲同游公园,顺手摘下一朵鲜花,说道:

“爸爸,我们年轻人就像这朵鲜花一样,洋溢着生命的活力。你们老年人,怎么能和青年人相比呢?”

父亲听罢, 在经过商店的时候,买了一包核桃,取出一颗, 托在掌心里,说:

“孩子,你比喻得不错,如果你是鲜花,我就是这干皱的果实, 不过,事实告诉人们:

“鲜花, 喜欢让生命显露在炫目的花瓣上;而果实,却把生命凝结在深藏的种子里!”

年轻人仍不服气;

“要是没有鲜花,哪儿来的果实?”

父亲哈哈大笑:

“是啊,所有的果实,,都曾经是鲜花,然而却不是所有的鲜花都能够成为果实!”

…………………………………………………………………

装配生活

一个人以合理的价格向邮购公司买了一辆自行车给儿子。

但车子寄到以后, 这人却望而却步, 因为他收到的是一盒需要组装的零件。

他小心地将零件一一从纸箱里拿出来,放在车库的地上,接着一遍又一遍的读了说明书,但最终还是不知道怎么才能将自行车组装起来。

就在这时,他发现隔壁的邻居正在车库里叮叮当当地修理车子, 于是决定去请邻居帮忙。

他知道这个邻居有一双巧手。

邻居从地上拿起自行车各个零件, 花几分钟逐个打量了一番,然后开始组装自行车,不一会儿自行车就组装好了。

这人对他的邻居说:“不看说明书就把自行车组装起来了,你实在太厉害了!”

邻居回答说:

“其实我不识字。当一个人不识字的时候,他就必须思考。”

…………………………………………………………………….

更多的谷子在屋后

兄弟俩大了,到了该结婚的时候,但是父亲并不感到欣慰, 因为家庭不那么富裕,兄弟俩时常为一些小利益龃龉,一旦到分家那天,还真不知道会发生怎样的争执。

有一天,父亲病了,躺在床上发呆,这时老大过来问安,父亲说:“把你弟弟叫过来,我有话说。”

老二被叫来了。

父亲挣扎着坐起身来,说:“我生这病,难受得很,但我能对付。让我不放心的事,

如果你们兄弟俩将来反目,那就是我们家庭的‘病’了,到那时候怎么办?”

兄弟俩面面相觑,一时无语。

父亲又挣扎着下了床,走到院子里,指着那里的几只鸡说:“看它们, 蹲在那里相安无事,这不是很好吗?”然后他抓了一把谷子,将大部分撒在屋后的地上,只留了几粒, 回到前院扔给那几只鸡。 几只鸡看见谷子,一起上前争夺, 挥舞翅膀, 咯咯乱叫, 原本清静的院子因为这几粒谷子而顿时“硝烟弥漫”。兄弟俩互相对了一眼,明白了父亲撒谷子的意思。

父亲又说:“你们都看见了,更多的谷子在屋后…….”

其实,人生中的许多麻烦,又何尝不是因为上帝在我们眼前撒了几粒谷子呢?

By NATALIE ANGIER
Published: June 24, 2008

Twinkle, twinkle, all you stars

With your Earths, Neptunes and Mars.

I sing hello across the void

To your Pluto, O.K., plutoid.

Whatever the name, the laws

demand it

You’re a star. Show me your planet.

For those of us who still mourn the demise of the “Star Trek” franchise and its vision of the cosmos as a thrillingly multicultural if occasionally lethal nightclub, the announcement last week that many Sun-size stars in our galaxy are girdled with Earth-size planets was, frankly, transporting.

The newly detected worlds are far too close to their stellar parents to have much chance of harboring even microbial life, let alone anybody capable of looking boss in spandex. Nevertheless, the discovery gave astronomers and alien life-seekers heart. For one thing, the planets are encouragingly compact. In the past decade, astronomers have found some 250 extrasolar planets, but most have been forbiddingly Jovian: celestial gas bags presumed to have no solid surface and hundreds of times the mass of Earth. In the new report, Michel Mayor of the Geneva Observatory and his colleagues said they had found 45 planets that were only a few times as massive as our beloved blue base, which means that they, like Earth, are probably built of rock.

The tally is proportionally impressive as well: roughly one in three stars surveyed showed signs of harboring stony planets, and other researchers performing similar studies said the figure might be more like one in two. And though the 45 planets on the Geneva list are all “star-huggers,” as one astronomer put it, with orbital periods of 2 to 50 days — even Mercury needs nearly three months to circumnavigate the Sun — researchers are confident that other rocky planets remain to be found at Earthier distances from their suns.

Sara Seager, a planetary theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said astronomers hunt for planets by detecting telltale wobbles they induce in their host stars, a method that selectively nets the too big or too near. Nevertheless, she said, “the fact is, as soon as astronomers started looking for low-mass planets, they found a whole bunch, and that’s a real breakthrough.” Just imagine the orgy of moderation that a more inclusive scan would reveal.

To some theorists, the new results virtually guarantee the existence of other Earthlike worlds.

“Suppose you have a tribe, and the most noticeable members are the warriors, because they’re adventuresome, they roam around, they’re the first to be spotted,” said Douglas N. C. Lin, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “But you know that for every warrior, there’s a family behind the warrior.”

Dr. Lin continued, “Just as you can extrapolate from the warriors you see what the size of the larger population deep in the woods may be, so the presence of these short-period, super Earths implies that there are clusters of other planets farther out.” Potentially pleasant planets at that. “I would imagine that a significant fraction of ordinary Sunlike stars, maybe more than 10 percent, have habitable planets around them,” Dr. Lin said.

Whether habitable or abominable, planets are inescapable. “You make a star, you’re probably going to get planets,” said Seth Shostak, a senior scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “They’re like those knives that get thrown in for free when you order a Veg-o-matic.”

When a cloud of dust and gas collapses to make a new star, spinning faster and faster as it shrinks, competing forces of gravity, pressure and rotation cause some of its midriff to flatten into a disk, rather as the skirt of a skater flies into a circle as she pulls in her arms for a twirl. The planets in turn condense from the dust, gas and ice of that central disk, in sequences that researchers have just begun to model. In Dr. Lin’s view, planetary evolution is a kind of Darwinian affair, as embryonic planets compete to enlarge themselves with heavy metal “food” from the disk, while struggling not to be consumed by a sibling or pulled into the mother star.

If planets abound, scientists suspect that life abounds, too, at least of the microbial kind. After all, they said, life arose here relatively quickly, maybe 800 million years after Earth’s condensational birth — and then stayed unicellular for the next three billion-plus years.

Eager to identify other candidate Gaias, astronomers have high hopes for the Kepler spacecraft to be launched in February. Kepler will take a different approach in its planetary scan, Dr. Seager said, searching not for stellar wobbles but for “tiny drops in brightness,” possible signs of a planet transiting across the distant Sun’s face. Kepler will track 100,000 stars for four years, enough to detect the occasional crossing of any planets with leisurely orbits like ours. “It will be akin to the great age of exploration, the explorers of the 16th century,” Dr. Shostak said. “We will nail down what fraction of stars have planets,” and more important, “what fraction of those planets are small, terrestrial planets.” .

With that comprehensive planetary atlas in hand, we can pick out the places most worthy of follow-up probes: planets that are relatively close, and closest in kind to the one we know best. We can look for rocky planets that follow stable paths, and are laced with clouds of water vapor that hint at liquid oceans below, and, can it be, atmospheric oxygen, the voice of a biosphere. “Oxygen is so reactive that it shouldn’t be in the atmosphere unless it’s being produced by something like photosynthesis,” Dr. Seager said. “It’s a huge indicator of life.”

We may never visit these worlds bodily, but who knows what we may manage by proxy. “We could send something the size of a golf ball,” Dr. Shostak said. “We could send something with robotic eyeballs, noses, ears, fingertips, all the senses that make things interesting, obviate the need to get into a rocket but have the adventure just the same.” May we live long and prosper, with our secondhand heads in the stars, but our mortal feet safe on the ground.