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.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?
On both sides of the Atlantic—in the United Kingdom and the United States—political parties are realigning and voters’ allegiances are shifting.
When United Kingdom voters last week narrowly approved a referendum to leave the European Union, they underscored again how an era of unrelenting economic and demographic change is shifting the axis of politics across much of the industrialized world from class to culture.
Contrary to much initial speculation, the victory for the U.K. leave campaign didn’t point toward victory in the U.S. presidential election for Donald Trump, who is voicing very similar arguments against globalization and immigration; The British results, in fact, underscored the obstacles facing his agenda of defensive nationalism in the vastly more diverse U.S. electorate.
But the Brexit referendum did crystallize deepening cultural fault lines in U.K. politics that are also likely to shape the contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton. In that way, the results prefigure both a continuing long-term realignment in the electoral base of each American party—and a possible near-term reshuffle of the tipping-point states in presidential politics.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
They say religious discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against other groups.
Many, many Christians believe they are subject to religious discrimination in the United States. A new report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings offers evidence: Almost half of Americans say discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including blacks and minorities. Three-quarters of Republicans and Trump supporters said this, and so did nearly eight out of 10 white evangelical Protestants. Of the latter group, six in 10 believe that although America once was a Christian nation, it is no longer—a huge jump from 2012.
Polling data can be split up in a million different ways. It’s possible to sort by ethnicity, age, political party, and more. The benefit of sorting by religion, though, is that it highlights people’s beliefs: the way their ideological and spiritual convictions shape their self-understanding. This survey suggests that race is not enough to explain the sense of loss some white Americans seem to feel about their country, although it’s part of the story; the same is true of age, education level, and political affiliation. People’s beliefs seem to have a distinctive bearing on how they view changes in American culture, politics, and law—and whether they feel threatened. No group is more likely to express this fear than conservative Christians.
University leaders and observers discuss the intersection of student protests, free speech and academic freedom.
In a Thursday debate titled “Academic Freedom, Safe Spaces, Dissent, and Dignity,” faculty or administrators from Yale, Wesleyan, Mizzou, and the University of Chicago discussed last semester’s student protests and their intersection with free speech. They shared the stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, with Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League; Kirsten Powers, author of The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech; and Greg Lukianoff, who leads the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg was the moderator.
The most interesting exchange involved Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, and Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University.
As it’s moved beyond the George R.R. Martin novels, the series has evolved both for better and for worse.
Well, that was more like it. Sunday night’s Game of Thrones finale, “The Winds of Winter,” was the best episode of the season—the best, perhaps, in a few seasons. It was packed full of major developments—bye, bye, Baelor; hello, Dany’s fleet—but still found the time for some quieter moments, such as Tyrion’s touching acceptance of the role of Hand of the Queen. I was out of town last week and thus unable to take my usual seat at our Game of Thrones roundtable. But I did have some closing thoughts about what the episode—and season six in general—told us about how the show has evolved.
Last season, viewers got a limited taste—principally in the storylines in the North—of how the show would be different once showrunners Benioff and Weiss ran out of material from George R.R. Martin’s novels and had to set out on their own. But it was this season in which that exception truly became the norm. Though Martin long ago supplied Benioff and Weiss with a general narrative blueprint of the major arcs of the story, they can no longer rely on the books scene by scene. Game of Thrones is truly their show now. And thanks to changes in pacing, character development, and plot streamlining, it’s also a markedly different show from the one we watched in seasons one through four—for the worse and, to some degree, for the better.
In an era fixated with science, technology, and data, the humanities are in decline. They’re more vital than ever.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post journalist Jeff Guo wrote a detailed account of how he’d managed to maximize the efficiency of his cultural consumption. “I have a habit that horrifies most people,” he wrote. “I watch television and films in fast forward … the time savings are enormous. Four episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fit into an hour. An entire season of Game of Thrones goes down on the bus ride from D.C. to New York.”
Guo’s method, which he admits has ruined his ability to watch TV and movies in real time, encapsulates how technology has allowed many people to accelerate the pace of their daily routines. But is faster always better when it comes to art? In a conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, and the cultural critic Leon Wieseltier agreed that true study and appreciation of the humanities is rooted in slowness—in the kind of deliberate education that can be accrued over a lifetime. While this can seem almost antithetical at times to the pace of modern life, and as subjects like art, philosophy, and literature face steep declines in enrollment at academic institutions in the U.S., both argued that studying the humanities is vital for the ways in which it teaches us how to be human.
American-Indian cooking has all the makings of a culinary trend, but it’s been limited by many diners’ unfamiliarity with its dishes and its loaded history.
DENVER—In 2010, the restaurateur Matt Chandra told The Atlantic that the Native American restaurant he and business partner Ben Jacobs had just opened would have 13 locations “in the near future.” But six years later, just one other outpost of their fast-casual restaurant, Tocabe, is up and running.
In the last decade, at least a handful of articles predicted that Native American food would soon see wider reach and recognition. “From the acclaimed Kai restaurant in Phoenix to Fernando and Marlene Divina's James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Foods of the Americas, to the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which sells traditional foods like wild rice and hominy, this long-overlooked cuisine is slowly gaining traction in the broader culinary landscape,” wrote Katie Robbins in her Atlantic piece. “[T]he indigenous food movement is rapidly gaining momentum in the restaurant world,” proclaimed Mic in the fall of 2014. This optimism sounds reasonable enough: The shift in the restaurant world toward more locally sourced ingredients and foraging dovetails nicely with the hallmarks of Native cuisine, which is often focused on using local crops or herds. Yet while there are a few Native American restaurants in the U.S. (there’s no exact count), the predicted rise hasn’t really happened, at least not to the point where most Americans are familiar with Native American foods or restaurants.
The release of the Benghazi report should have made this a great week for Hillary Clinton, but questions about her email—and a questionable social call by Bill Clinton—have cast clouds over it.
This should have been a great week for Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, the special House committee appointed to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, released its long-awaited report. (Well, the majority report. Democrats on the committee released their own polemic the day before.)
The report turned out about as well for Clinton as she could have hoped. While the panel found fault with the way the Obama administration, and Clinton’s State Department, ran security for embassies and other U.S. stations around the world, it did not find any new bombshells about the night of the attacks, no details that would suggest Clinton could have acted differently that evening and saved the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. That outcome largely vindicates Clinton’s claims all along, and it mostly puts the question of the attacks to rest after a long and extremely detailed investigation (though not, as Democrats like to claim, the longest). Clinton’s political opponents are unlikely to quit talking about it, but the threat of a new, damaging disclosure now seems remote.