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.
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.
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
One black woman tries to reconcile her faith with the institution’s history of discrimination.
It’s been six years since I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each year has been a lesson in faith and doubt, stretching and engaging what it means to be black, a woman, and Mormon. The decision to join on my own was not an easy one. As the child of a Protestant mother and a father who converted to Islam in his teens, I was doing something unheard of in my family by becoming a Mormon. And as a black woman, I had a heightened awareness of what it means to potentially be the only black person in any given congregation in the United States.
As a child, I watched as preachers in my congregation espoused their deepest beliefs about God. They spoke to the horrors faced by black people in the United States in their dealings in life and death. There was intense power in their sermons, one that was complemented by the soft presence of a “Black Jesus,” a savior who understood the plight of African Americans in word and form. He represented the long tradition of resistance within the black church to white-supremacist theology: Racialized violence in the United States was often supported by white Christians who recognized whiteness as good and blackness as evil. Within the walls of my congregation, blackness was not discounted, but embraced in all its various forms from the pulpit to the pews. Islam also informed my faith; I witnessed the immense devotion in my father’s prayers and the care with which he kept his Koran. These two traditions of my childhood shared a reverence for and recognition of a version of God who is not racist.
Women engage in indirect aggression and slut-shaming, even in clinical research studies. Why?
One day in Ontario, 86 straight women were paired off into groups of two—either with a friend or a stranger—and taken to a lab at McMaster University. There, a researcher told them they were about to take part in a study about female friendships. But they were soon interrupted by one of two women.
Half the participants were interrupted by a thin, blond, attractive woman with her hair in a bun, dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and khaki pants, whom the researchers called “the conservative confederate."
Every year, hundreds of people attend the Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot, cultivating a love for assault weapons in an era of mass violence.
It was Saturday at the 16th-annual Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot and Trade Show, and I had my thumbs on the trigger of a Browning M1919, prepared to unleash hellacious destruction on an unsuspecting refrigerator.
The Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot is one of several “machine-gun shoots” around the country. For two days in June, hundreds of people traveled to Wyandotte, Oklahoma, for the opportunity to fire nearly every species of automatic weapon from the past century. There were UZIs and M16s, Barrett .50-caliber rifles, WWII-era belt-fed Brownings, and even a Minigun—a giant, chair-mounted cylindrical device powered by a car battery. As of 10 a.m., all 84 firing positions were trained downrange onto a hill stocked with junked cars and dead kitchen appliances, waiting for the starting signal.
A 160,000-mile quest to visit all 59 of the country's natural treasures
Mark Burns spent five years visiting all 59 of the United States' national parks. Captured in stirring black and white images, his landscape photography project was completed just in time for the National Park Service's centennial celebration. “It's a time to reflect on the rich history of our national parks,” Burns said of his 160,000-mile journey, “but it's also a time to plan wisely for the next 100 years.” Glacier Bay's wild coastline, Death Valley's parched terrain, and Yellowstone's surging geysers are all pictured in searing detail. One image from each park is currently being exhibited at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until September 5th. A selection can be found below.
The choice to leave academia does not have to mean life as a barista.
There is a widespread belief that humanities Ph.D.s have limited job prospects. The story goes that since tenure-track professorships are increasingly being replaced by contingent faculty, the vast majority of English and history Ph.D.s now roam the earth as poorly-paid adjuncts or, if they leave academia, as baristas and bookstore cashiers. As English professor William Pannapacker put it in Slate a few years back, “a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma.” His advice to would-be graduate students was simple: Recognize that a humanities Ph.D is now a worthless degree and avoid getting one at all cost.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Officials say they face a public-health emergency, and believe a batch of the opioid may be tainted with an elephant tranquilizer.
NEWS BRIEF Cincinnati is facing a public-health emergency, as an estimated 174 people overdosed on heroin in the last six days.
Police in the Ohio city are trying to find the source of the heroin batch. Tim Ingram, the Hamilton County health commissioner, told reporters Friday the number of hospital visits this week have been “unprecedented.”
Officials are pointing to a potential cause of the overdoses, as the Associated Press reports:
Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black said authorities suspect carfentanil, a drug used to sedate elephants and other large animals, may be mixed in with heroin and causing the overdoses. The drug is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which is suspected in spates of overdoses in several states.
Last month, carfentanil was discovered in the Cincinnati area's heroin stream, but many hospitals don't have the equipment to test blood for the previously uncommon animal opioid.