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.
What would the American culture wars look like if they were less about “values” and more about Jesus?
Evangelical Christianity has long had a stranglehold on how Americans imagine public faith. Vague invocations of “religion”—whether it’s “religion vs. science” or “religious freedom”—usually really mean “conservative, Protestant, evangelical Christianity,” and this assumption inevitably frames debates about American belief. For the other three-quarters of the population—Catholics, Jews, other Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, secular Americans, Buddhists, Wiccans, etc.—this can be infuriating. For some evangelicals, it’s a sign of success, a linguistic triumph of the culture wars.
But not for Russell Moore. In 2013, the 43-year-old theologian became the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the political nerve center of the Southern Baptist Convention. His predecessor, Richard Land, prayed with George W. Bush, played hardball with Democrats, and helped make evangelicals a quintessentially Republican voting bloc.
Many psychiatrists believe that a new approach to diagnosing and treating depression—linking individual symptoms to their underlying mechanisms—is needed for research to move forward.
In his Aphorisms, Hippocrates defined melancholia, an early understanding of depression, as a state of “fears and despondencies, if they last a long time.” It was caused, he believed, by an excess of bile in the body (the word “melancholia” is ancient Greek for “black bile”).
Ever since then, doctors have struggled to create a more precise and accurate definition of the illness that still isn’t well understood. In the 1920s, the German psychiatrist Kurt Schneider argued that depression could be divided into two separate conditions, each requiring a different form of treatment: depression that resulted from changes in mood, which he called “endogenous depression,” and depression resulting from reactions to outside events, or “reactive depression.” His theory was challenged in 1926, when the British psychologist Edward Mapother argued in the British Medical Journal that there was no evidence for two distinct types of depression, and that the apparent differences between depression patients were just differences in the severity of the condition.
Paul faced danger, Ani and Ray faced each other, and Frank faced some career decisions.
This is what happens when you devote two-thirds of a season to scene after scene after scene of Frank and Jordan’s Baby Problems, and Frank Shaking Guys Down, and Look How Fucked Up Ray and Ani Are, and Melancholy Singer in the Dive Bar Yet Again—and then you suddenly realize that with only a couple episodes left you haven’t offered even a rudimentary outline of the central plot.
The winners of the 27th annual National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest have just been announced.
The winners of the 27th annual National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest have just been announced. Winning first prize, Anuar Patjane Floriuk of Tehuacán, Mexico, will receive an eight-day photo expedition for two to Costa Rica and the Panama Canal for a photograph of divers swimming near a humpback whale off the western coast of Mexico. Here, National Geographic has shared all of this year’s winners, gathered from four categories: Travel Portraits, Outdoor Scenes, Sense of Place, and Spontaneous Moments. Captions by the photographers.
Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. A therapist and mother reports.
If there’s one thing I learned in graduate school, it’s that the poet Philip Larkin was right. (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad, / They may not mean to, but they do.”) At the time, I was a new mom with an infant son, and I’d decided to go back to school for a degree in clinical psychology. With baby on the brain and term papers to write, I couldn’t ignore the barrage of research showing how easy it is to screw up your kids. Of course, everyone knows that growing up with “Mommy Dearest” produces a very different child from one raised by, say, a loving PTA president who has milk and homemade cookies waiting after school. But in that space between Joan Crawford and June Cleaver, where most of us fall, it seemed like a lot could go wrong in the kid-raising department.
What if Joe Biden is going to run for the Democratic nomination after all?
Most Democrats seem ready for Hillary Clinton—or at least appear content with her candidacy. But what about the ones who who were bidin’ for Biden? There are new signs the vice president might consider running for president after all.
Biden has given little indication he was exploring a run: There’s no super PAC, no cultivation of a network of fundraisers or grassroots organizers, few visits to early-primary states. While his boss hasn’t endorsed Clinton—and says he won’t endorse in the primary—many members of the Obama administration have gone to work for Clinton, including some close to Biden.
But Biden also hasn’t given any clear indication that he isn’t running, and a column by Maureen Dowd in Saturday’s New York Times has set off new speculation. One reason Biden didn’t get into the race was that his son Beau was dying of cancer, and the vice president was focused on being with his son. But before he died in May, Dowd reported, Beau Biden tried to get his father to promise to run. Now Joe Biden is considering the idea.
The jobs that are least vulnerable to automation tend to be held by women.
Many economists and technologists believe the world is on the brink of a new industrial revolution, in which advances in the field of artificial intelligence will obsolete human labor at an unforgiving pace. Two Oxford researchers recently analyzed the skills required for more than 700 different occupations to determine how many of them would be susceptible to automation in the near future, and the news was not good: They concluded that machines are likely to take over 47 percent of today’s jobs within a few decades.
This is a dire prediction, but one whose consequences will not fall upon society evenly. A close look at the data reveals a surprising pattern: The jobs performed primarily by women are relatively safe, while those typically performed by men are at risk.
Exceptional nonfiction stories from 2014 that are still worth encountering today
Each year, I keep a running list of exceptional nonfiction that I encounter as I publish The Best ofJournalism, an email newsletter that I send out once or twice a week. This is my annual attempt to bring some of those stories to a wider audience. I could not read or note every worthy article that was published last calendar year and I haven't included any paywalled articles or anything published at The Atlantic. But everything that follows is worthy of wider attention and engagement.
In the footage, secretly recorded by an anti-abortion-rights group, an official from the organization discusses the procurement and cost of intact fetuses.
Updated on August 4, 2015, at 5:54 p.m. ET
Planned Parenthood’s handling of fetal tissue for research is the subject of a fresh video released Tuesday by an anti-abortion group.
In the latest video, the fifth released by Irvine, California-based Center for Medical Progress, an official from Planned Parenthood discusses the procurement and cost of intact fetuses. The video, we should warn you, is graphic.
Planned Parenthood calls the videos a “smear campaign.” It says the footage is highly edited, misleading, and takes discussions out of context.
The Center for Medical Progress has faced two court orders that block the release of future videos, but those orders are limited to footage recorded at meetings of the National Abortion Federation and those dealing with a tissue procurement company. Fox News adds: “Tuesday’s release, purely reliant on video taken inside a Planned Parenthood clinic, would not seem to violate either order.”
An activist group is trying to discredit Planned Parenthood with covertly recorded videos even as contraception advocates are touting a method that sharply reduces unwanted pregnancies.
Abortion is back at the fore of U.S. politics due to an activist group’s attempt to discredit Planned Parenthood, one of the most polarizing organizations in the country. Supporters laud its substantial efforts to provide healthcare for women and children. For critics, nothing that the organization does excuses its role in performing millions of abortions––a procedure that they regard as literal murder––and its monstrous character is only confirmed, in their view, by covertly recorded video footage of staffers cavalierly discussing what to do with fetal body parts.
If nothing else, that recently released footage has galvanized Americans who oppose abortion, media outlets that share their views, and politicians who seek their votes. “Defunding Planned Parenthood is now a centerpiece of the Republican agenda going into the summer congressional recess,” TheWashington Postreports, “and some hard-liners have said they are willing to force a government shutdown in October if federal support to the group is not curtailed.”