The hearts and minds of Olympic athletes function differently than most people's. I try to imagine what would have made me willing give up my teenage years, or even my 20s, to put my body through painful workouts six or more hours a day, year after year, just for the chance of winning a single competition. Without even a major sponsor, most likely. I may say, lightly, that I "love" running, hiking, kayaking and scuba diving. But the love of a sport, and the desire to win--and win BIG--burns far brighter and more intensely in Olympic athletes than I can even really imagine.
So part of the fascination of the games is watching these alien creatures perform feats above and beyond what normal people would even attempt, and watching them triumph or fail in glorious or horrific technicolor. They are our avatars, playing out a battle among the gods for the inspiration and entertainment of the mortals watching from the sidelines.
But within that select group, there are those who comprise an even more rarefied and fascinating sub-set: those who take on sports that are dangerous as well as difficult. Nobody worried that Michael Phelps was going to kill himself while swimming the 100 meter freestyle. But no matter what the final ruling is on the safety of the luge track at the Vancouver Olympic games, last Friday's fatal accident there was hardly the first serious or even fatal accident in the sports that make up the Winter Olympics.
Nobody who grew up before the 1980s could forget the opening sequence of ABC's Wide World of Sports, with the ski jumper spinning and careening crazily off the side of the jump in the "agony of defeat." More recently, in the 2006 Turino Olympics, there were no fewer than 14 crashes in luge competition, with five significant injuries, including two head injuries that required hospitalization. And that pales next to the number of the top alpine ski racers who have struggled to come back from life-threatening crashes and injuries. Not all have made it.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's serious risk involved in sports that propel unprotected humans down unforgiving slopes and ice tubes at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour. And the athletes know the risks as well as anyone. It's what they do with that knowledge that makes them different.
Recent research has explored a number of physiological factors that might explain why some people are drawn to sports like BASE jumping, cliff diving ... or luge, ski jumping, or downhill ski racing, while the rest of us are not. Those extreme athletes may have lower levels of something called monoamine oxidase B, meaning that it takes a bigger thrill ride for them to get the same rush most of us get in tamer situations. Or, their brains may release different levels of dopamine, making them more sensitive (in a good way) to thrills. Or they may possess higher levels of neuropeptide Y, which allows them be less afraid in high-risk situations.
But when it comes to Olympic competitors, a significant factor is also the intensity with which they want to win. A goal that, at least on some level, they have to want more than they want to survive. Because in order to win in a risky sport when the difference between victory and defeat can be a few hundredths of a second, athletes have to suppress their natural self-preservation instincts and throw themselves, fearlessly and aggressively, onto a razor-thin and murky edge outside of control, but just this side of disaster.
Being fearless is a lot easier, of course, when you're young or haven't ever discovered where all that fearless aggression can land you. Which is why, despite all the fuss made over American Bode Miller's Bronze Medal and the unlikely Swiss champion, Didier Defago, in yesterday's men's downhill race, the most astounding accomplishment actually may have been the Silver Medal finish by Norwegian skier Aksel Lund Svindal. Because two years ago, Svindal fractured bones in his face and had to undergo abdominal surgery to make sure his internal organs were intact after his ski sliced through his backside in a horrific downhill crash.
Normally, after an outcome like that, the human brain registers a distinctly negative association with the events that caused it to prevent the event from happening again--a reaction we generally recognize as "fear." In most people, that's a good thing. Helps the species survive, and all that. But you can't feel fear and be an Olympic or World Cup Champion. Feel fear, and your muscles tense, your technique tightens, and you can't take the risks necessary for victory. So for athletes who've sustained serious injuries--and there are a quite a few, in the Winter Olympic sports--and still want to win, the battle to overcome that natural survival instinct becomes a lot harder.
Some, like Antoine Deneriaz, who won the Gold Medal in the men's downhill at the 2006 Olympic games in Turino, only to suffer a spectacular crash three weeks later, decide their instincts were right, after all. Deneriaz struggled to come back, but right after the race in which Svindal was so badly injured, Deneriaz announced his retirement. The New York Times quoted him as saying, "I'm no longer able to assemble all the ingredients. Not only am I not going fast, but I'm no longer having fun. The mornings, when I grab my downhill skis, had become days of worry and doubt."
Downhill racer Scott Macartney, who suffered such serious head injuries in a race accident two years ago that he had seizures on the slope before being airlifted to a hospital, struggled to get his old speed and form back, but didn't quite make the Olympic team this year. An article about Macartney in Outside magazine last fall quoted another skier, also struggling to come back from a violent crash and injury, as saying, "you watch the guys on that pitch and you can tell who's been injured. You can see it."
It's understandable. It's reasonable, even. The astounding exception, then, is the athlete who wants to win so badly that even if they have a visceral, hard-wired memory of disaster, they manage to push past it to reclaim their old form and win. Which is what's so remarkable about Svindal's Silver Medal finish. Beating Bode Miller was the easy part. Whatever threat Miller and the others posed, it had to be nothing compared to the challenge of beating back his own fears and heightened, primal instincts for survival in order to go screaming down that mountain at 73 mph--on the ragged edge, and fast enough to win.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
Is oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere a sign of living beings, or something more mundane?
Huddled in a coffee shop one drizzly Seattle morning six years ago, the astrobiologist Shawn Domagal-Goldman stared blankly at his laptop screen, paralyzed. He had been running a simulation of an evolving planet, when suddenly oxygen started accumulating in the virtual planet’s atmosphere. Up the concentration ticked, from 0 to 5 to 10 percent.
“Is something wrong?” his wife asked.
The rise of oxygen was bad news for the search for extraterrestrial life.
After millennia of wondering whether we’re alone in the universe—one of “mankind’s most profound and probably earliest questions beyond, ‘What are you going to have for dinner?’” as the NASA astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild put it—the hunt for life on other planets is now ramping up in a serious way. Thousands of exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars other than the sun, have been discovered in the past decade. Among them are potential super-Earths, sub-Neptunes, hot Jupiters, and worlds such as Kepler-452b, a possibly rocky, watery “Earth cousin” located 1,400 light-years from here. Starting in 2018 with the expected launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers will be able to peer across the light-years and scope out the atmospheres of the most promising exoplanets. They will look for the presence of “biosignature gases,” vapors that could only be produced by alien life.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.