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.
Hillary Clinton’s realistic attitude is the only thing that can effect change in today’s political climate.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have something in common. Both have an electoral strategy predicated on the ability of a purist candidate to revolutionize the electorate—bringing droves of chronic non-voters to the polls because at last they have a choice, not an echo—and along the way transforming the political system. Sanders can point to his large crowds and impressive, even astonishing, success at tapping into a small-donor base that exceeds, in breadth and depth, the remarkable one built in 2008 by Barack Obama. Cruz points to his extraordinarily sophisticated voter-identification operation, one that certainly seemed to do the trick in Iowa.
But is there any real evidence that there is a hidden “sleeper cell” of potential voters who are waiting for the signal to emerge and transform the electorate? No. Small-donor contributions are meaningful and a sign of underlying enthusiasm among a slice of the electorate, but they represent a tiny sliver even of that slice; Ron Paul’s success at fundraising (and his big crowds at rallies) misled many analysts into believing that he would make a strong showing in Republican primaries when he ran for president. He flopped.
If passion is a job requirement, says the writer Miya Tokumitsu, employees have little room to complain about mistreatment at work.
It’s been said in many places and by many luminaries: Do what you love.
But what does this phrase actually mean?
Miya Tokumitsu, a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine and author of the new book Do What You Love And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, criticizes the pervasiveness of this idea in American work culture. She argues that “doing what you love” has been co-opted by corporate interests, giving employers more power to exploit their workers.
I recently spoke with Tokumitsu about work myths and why we should pay attention to them. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Bourree Lam: Your book started as an essay, “In the Name of Love,” (which was later republished by Slate) that really touched a nerve with people. What were you talking about in that essay and why are people so drawn to it?
Thenew Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, is smooth and charming, but he hasn’t found his edge.
It’s a psychic law of the American workplace: By the time you give your notice, you’ve already left. You’ve checked out, and for the days or weeks that remain, a kind of placeholder-you, a you-cipher, will be doing your job. It’s a law that applies equally to dog walkers, accountants, and spoof TV anchormen. Jon Stewart announced that he was quitting The Daily Show in February 2015, but he stuck around until early August, and those last months had a restless, frazzled, long-lingering feel. A smell of ashes was in the air. The host himself suddenly looked quite old: beaky, pique-y, hollow-cheeky. For 16 years he had shaken his bells, jumped and jangled in his little host’s chair, the only man on TV who could caper while sitting behind a desk. Flash back to his first episode as the Daily Show host, succeeding Craig Kilborn: January 11, 1999, Stewart with floppy, luscious black hair, twitching in a new suit (“I feel like this is my bar mitzvah … I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”) while he interviews Michael J. Fox.
The championship game descends on a city failing to deal with questions of affordability and inclusion.
SAN FRANCISCO—The protest kicked off just a few feet from Super Bowl City, the commercial playground behind security fences on the Embarcadero, where football fans were milling about drinking beer, noshing on $18 bacon cheeseburgers, and lining up for a ride on a zip line down Market Street.
The protesters held up big green camping tents painted with slogans such as “End the Class War” and “Stop Stealing Our Homes,” and chanted phrases blaming San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for a whole range of problems, including the catchy “Hey Hey, Mayor Lee, No Penalty for Poverty.” They blocked the sidewalk, battling with tourists, joggers, and city workers, some of whom were trying to wheel their bikes through the crowd to get to the ferries that would take them home.
A growing field of research is examining how life satisfaction may affect cellular functioning and DNA.
“What is the truest form of human happiness?” Steven Cole asks.
It’s a question he’s been considering for most of his career—but Cole is a genomics researcher, not a philosopher. To him, this question isn’t rhetoric or a thought experiment. It’s science—measureable and finite.
Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, has spent several decades investigating the connection between our emotional and biological selves. “The old thinking was that our bodies were stable biological entities, fundamentally separate from the external world,” he writes in an email. “But at the molecular level, our bodies turn out to be much more fluid and permeable to external influence than we realize.”*
I coined the term—now I’ve come back to fix what I started.
O reader, hear my plea: I am the victim of semantic drift.
Four months ago, I coined the term “Berniebro” to describe a phenomenon I saw on Facebook: Men, mostly my age, mostly of my background, mostly with my political beliefs, were hectoring their friends about how great Bernie was even when their friends wanted to do something else, like talk about the NBA.
In the post, I tried to gently suggest that maybe there were other ways to advance Sanders’s beliefs, many of which I share. I hinted, too, that I was not talking about every Sanders supporter. I did this subtly, by writing: “The Berniebro is not every Sanders supporter.”
Then, 28,000 people shared the story on Facebook. The Berniebro was alive! Immediately, I started getting emails: Why did I hate progressivism? Why did I joke about politics? And how dare I generalize about every Bernie Sanders supporter?
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.
The story behind "the most legendary act of SEO trolling ever"
Perusing the metaphorical tomes of modern civilization, we can already speak to some of the Great Questions—the ones that might define our era. “How do we balance security and liberty?” captivates our public discussions. Scientists struggle to resolve “Is light a wave or a particle?”
Yet one question mesmerizes us above all the rest. It can never truly be solved, we must admit. Our best epistemological hope is to resolve it from year-to-year. It is, of course:
What time is the Super Bowl?
But how did this enigma come to dominate our era? The history—only now becoming visible—is as follows.
On February 5, 2011—Super Bowl Saturday—Craig Kanalley noticed that a set of queries were peaking on Google Trends. They were all along the same lines: “what time is the super bowl 2011,” “superbowl time” and “superbowl kickoff time 2011.”
A new brain-scanning technique could change the way scientists think about human focus.
Human attention isn’t stable, ever, and it costs us: lives lost when drivers space out, billions of dollars wasted on inefficient work, and mental disorders that hijack focus. Much of the time, people don’t realize they’ve stopped paying attention until it’s too late. This “flight of the mind,” as Virginia Woolf called it, is often beyond conscious control.
So researchers at Princeton set out to build a tool that could show people what their brains are doing in real time, and signal the moments when their minds begin to wander. And they've largely succeeded, a paper published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience reports. The scientists who invented this attention machine, led by professor Nick Turk-Browne, are calling it a “mind booster.” It could, they say, change the way we think about paying attention—and even introduce new ways of treating illnesses like depression.
At a policy summit in Washington, Paul Ryan tried to smooth out wrinkles in the Republican Party, and steer House members toward leadership.
What do Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, and Bernie Sanders have in common? (Besides disliking Ted Cruz, of course.) All were among the top villains invoked—repeatedly—at this week’s annual Conservative Policy Summit, hosted by Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation. For seven-plus hours Wednesday (followed by cocktails and dinner schmoozing), die-hard conservatives gathered in Heritage’s stately Capitol Hill digs to hear Republican lawmakers hold forth on topics ranging from “the three-legged stool” of conservatism (defense, economy, and social issues), to the state of the movement, to the pros and cons of killing the filibuster. (At least, that was supposed to be the closing panel until anti-filibuster Representative Bob Goodlatte bailed at the last minute, leaving filibuster defender Senator Mike Lee with a half-hour to fill and no one to debate—his own mini-filibuster of sorts.)