It's not easy being a NASA researcher. You can spend years of your professional career working on a particular project, only to have it abruptly cancelled because a new Administration takes office or ... well, the country just shifts its sights and priorities. And your particular project no longer fits on the list. It's happened so many times over the agency's 50-year history that it's almost predictable. And the reasons for those shifts are numerous, and sometimes complex.
But as a piece in this week's Science Times noted, NASA is coming to yet another research fork in the road. I saw this one coming back in January 2004, when President George W. Bush announced we were going to go back to the Moon, and on to Mars ... and then didn't actually allocate any extra money for the effort. NASA slashed other research budgets and drastically shifted program priorities to comply with the new directive, and began developing the basic technology the first steps of the effort would require.
It was clear to me, even at the beginning, that the program was more of a nice PR moment than any real commitment or serious priority. Money talks, and the money wasn't allocated. What's more, a new President is now in power, and he's indicating that more budget cuts in the program may be in the offing. So after decimating science and aeronautical programs to fund Moon and Mars-oriented technology development, the agency finds itself, once again, facing the possibility of having to tell its researchers, "never mind." It's "a hell of a way to run an airline," as the saying goes.
But in the article's discussion of possible funding and program options, one particular comment caught my attention. One cost-saving option on the table would be to bypass a Moon landing, and concentrate research efforts on a series of long-duration space flights (the type that a Mars mission would require). But Gabrielle Giffords, chairwoman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, reportedly commented that she didn't find that option particularly exciting, and didn't imagine her constituents would, either.
My first thought was, "why does space research have to be exciting?" Do we require cancer research to be dramatic material for prime-time viewing? Of course not. All we care about is results. But the human space flight program, some argue, exists primarily not for its scientific value, but for its inspirational value. In which case, I guess its "excitement" factor becomes more relevant.
On the other hand, it's not entirely clear what Giffords meant by her comments. Perhaps she wasn't arguing that the space program ought to be a lightweight version of "exciting," as in "ready-for-prime-time photo ops," but exciting in the sense of its potential impact. And if that's the case, then I agree with her. Research, in cancer, technology, or space, should hold exciting potential for advancement or discovery. Even if the "big bang" advancement lies some distance in the future.
But what constitutes exciting? To some people, developing the technology to allow humans to live for extended periods of time on another planetary body is incredibly exciting. "So far, we haven't been space explorers. We've been space backpackers, taking everything we need to survive with us," says K.R. Sridhar, a scientist and engineer who developed oxygen generators for NASA's Mars research program, only to have the project cancelled just before launch. Maybe living on Mars doesn't sound like a particularly fun or worthwhile experience. But developing the technology to allow humans to live beyond planet Earth ... that's kind of exciting. And perhaps even important, if we want our species to have the ability to survive cosmic disasters.
On the other hand, there are lots of other exciting research possibilities in space that don't involve the cost of a human space flight effort. The Kepler telescope, launched in March, is designed to search out planetary bodies orbiting distant suns at the right distance (ergo temperature) to allow water, and life as we know it, to exist. The telescope uses a sophisticated photometer to measure dips in brightness in the suns, indicating the passage of planetary bodies in front of them. By the size and frequency of the shadows, scientists will be able to determine the planets' orbital distance from the suns.
What does that do for us? As they've gained knowledge about just how massive the universe and numerous its galaxies are, scientists have become more confident that there must be life elsewhere. If Kepler can narrow the search down to some candidates with at least the first prerequisite for life (distance from a medium-sized sun), they might be able to do further scans, with other instruments and telescopes, to determine if elements like ozone, CO2, or oxygen exist in those distant atmospheres. What then? Kepler's principal investigator, a scientist named Bill Borucki, who championed the idea for decades before finally convincing his peers to support the research, said in a recent interview with Newsweek that eventually, we might launch "a probe that can travel near the speed of light and gets there, shows us pictures, listen to their radio stations and television stations, and gives us a much better understanding of this new planet."
If that's not exciting, I don't know what is.
NASA's researchers have struggled for years with how to keep the public interested in what they do, because doing anything in space is expensive. NASA, and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were formed to tackle problems and explorations that don't have a clear commercial benefit, and so aren't likely to be pursued by commercial companies, or are too risky to be pursued by commercial companies. And even with the advent of more commercial space companies, that difference in goals and risk-tolerance still exists. But since the public is footing NASA's bill, there's additional pressure for its work to appeal to a voting public with many more near-term concerns than how to save the species if an asteroid threatens or the sun explodes.
So although there's worth in any new knowledge or technology ... with limited resources, choices have to be made. Some already question the value of the International Space Station which, in the Moon/Mars plan currently on the books, would be dismantled only five years after its completion to free up funds for the next effort. A lot of other research was sacrificed to fund the Space Station. We surely don't want to keep doing that, if we aren't really excited about the results we get in the end.
We have a lot invested in the human space flight program, and the impact of dismantling it would be huge. Jobs, infrastructure, and knowledge now in place to pick up any new project would disappear--or at least scatter. Which means rebuilding it later, if we wanted to do that, would be an onerous task.(Dismantling it would also be politically tough, because of the jobs and local economic impact involved.) But maybe, radical as it might seem, "in the neighborhood" human space flight is something NASA can now turn over to the commercial sector. And maybe, especially in a time of tight budgets, NASA's money would be better used funding many smaller but very exciting projects like Kepler, and doing the risky work of figuring out how to explore the universe beyond our eight small planets. Rockets, after all, don't need humans on them to test new technology in ion or other propulsion systems, and even habitat technology like oxygen generators.
Then, if Kepler's descendants one day find a planet that looks suspiciously like a big blue marble, and has some interesting sounds bouncing across its ionosphere, we might have a reason to put humans back on the top of research rockets. A really, really, exciting one.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Some conservatives are defying expectation and backing the Vermont senator.
When Tarie MacMillan switched on her television in August to watch the first Republican presidential debate, she expected to decide which candidate to support.
But MacMillan, a 65-year-old Florida resident, was disappointed. “I looked at the stage and there was nobody out there who I really liked. It just seemed like a showcase for Trump and his ridiculous comments,” she recalled. “It was laughable, and scary, and a real turning point.”
So she decided to back Bernie Sanders, the self-described “Democratic socialist” challenging Hillary Clinton. MacMillan was a lifelong Republican voter until a few weeks ago when she switched her party affiliation to support the Vermont senator in the primary. It will be the first time she’s ever voted for a Democrat.
If you want to annoy a scientist, say that science isn’t so different from religion. When Ben Carson was challenged about his claim that Darwin was encouraged by the devil, he replied, “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.” When the literary theorist Stanley Fish chastised atheists such as Richard Dawkins, he wrote, “Science requires faith too before it can have reasons,” and described those who don't accept evolution as belonging to “a different faith community.”
Scientists are annoyed by these statements because they suggest that science and religion share a certain epistemological status. And, indeed, many humanists and theologians insist that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that religious narratives exist alongside scientific ones, and can even supersede them.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
Prosecutors indict a Chicago police officer for first-degree murder and release a “deeply disturbing” video of the shooting.
Updated at 1:25 a.m on November 25.
The city of Chicago released the dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald's final moments Tuesday evening, one day earlier than they had originally announced. City officials gave journalists a link to a third-party site where they would have a one-hour window to download the six-minute and fifty-three-second video clip. (City officials bizarrely cited “limited bandwidth” as the reason for for the time limit.) The website crashed almost immediately, but DNAinfo Chicago uploaded the entire video to YouTube.
The clip begins with a 45-second disclaimer then shows the police vehicle on which the dashboard camera was mounted travel to the scene. Five minutes and fifteen seconds pass before McDonald first appears, walking in the middle of a mostly empty city street near two other police vehicles. McDonald is walking at a brisk pace while carrying something in his left hand. (Police reports say it was a knife.)
Nobody’s focused on winning the peace. That’s a big problem.
In August 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met off the coast of Newfoundland to outline a shared vision for the post-World War II era. The British prime minister was so thrilled to see the American president that, in the words of one official, “You’d have thought he was being carried up into the heavens to meet God.” The two countries issued the Atlantic Charter, which sought “a better future for the world” through the principles of self-determination, collective security, and free trade. The United States hadn’t even entered the war yet, but it was already focused on winning the peace. The endgame was not just the defeat of the Axis powers, but also the creation of a stable global order, in which World War II would be the last world war.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The Speaker’s reformist ambitions fall victim to his need to manage the media cycle.
Before taking the speakership last month, Paul Ryan made a promise to fix a “broken” House of Representatives and return the chamber to “regular order.” Eschewing the centralized authority of his predecessor, John Boehner, Ryan promised to put legislative power back in the hands of rank-and-file members—something key House constituencies had been clamoring for.
Under regular order, House bills go through an often-lengthy process from subcommittee to the floor; they are vetted, debated, and amended before receiving a final up-or-down vote. A return to regular order is one of the few areas with serioussupport from both ultraconservative Freedom Caucus members and progressive reformers in the House. After all, legislators on both sides of the aisle want a chance to be heard, offer amendments, and share expertise. Ryan concurred: “The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. When we rush to pass bills, a lot of us do not understand, we are not doing our job.”
Just in time for this month’s climate-change talks in Paris
Where were you on November 11, 2015?
It was only a couple weeks ago, but already you may not remember. It was a humming but unexceptional news day. In the United States, protestors at the University of Missouri had just successfully ousted their president. Marco Rubio had done fine at the fourth Republican presidential debate, held the night before. And much of Europe and the English-speaking world were honoring Armistice Day.
In two or 10 years’ time, we might recognize that Wednesday as world-historic. On November 11, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii—which produces some of the most accurate and longest-running measurements of atmospheric carbon in the world—recorded that, of every million molecules in the atmosphere, 399.68 were carbon dioxide. On the following day, November 12, it measured 401.64 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Since then, its measurement of the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has waxed and waned, but always stayed above 400 ppm. (On Monday, they read 400.15 ppm.)
The seventh Rocky movie combines the best elements of the classic underdog franchise with a dynamic new star.
Anyone who’s ever seen a Rocky movie will know what to expect from Creed, the seventh entry in the “underdog boxing hero makes good” series. Coming 39 years after the original film starring Sylvester Stallone, the movie certainly has its share of training montages and struggles against adversity, as well as an endearing romance between a young fighter and a woman from the neighborhood. But Creed is also necessarily fresh, giving beneficial tweaks to an old formula. Audiences will still likely see every punch coming from a mile away, but what’s remarkable is how the movie lands them all: It’s an invigorating piece of nostalgia that fuels a bigger adrenaline rush with its climax than any big-budget blockbuster could provide.