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.
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a primetime interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how it shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his true gender identity.
The show went to impressive lengths to explain unfamiliar concepts of gender and sexuality to its audience, although it didn't always go smoothly. Sawyer’s questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf, mirroring a broader lack of understanding by many Americans about the difficulties that trans people face. But Sawyer’s empathy also shone when explaining concepts like gender identity and transitioning to her audience—a rare experience on primetime American television. It was a powerful signal of how much progress the LGBT movement has made over the past twenty years, even though the T in that acronym still lags behind the other three letters in both social acceptance and legal protections, and in how much progress remains to be made.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
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.
Leon Trotsky is not often invoked as a management guru, but a line frequently attributed to him would surely resonate with many business leaders today. “You may not be interested in war,” the Bolshevik revolutionary is said to have warned, “but war is interested in you.” War, or at least geopolitics, is figuring more and more prominently in the thinking and fortunes of large businesses.
Of course, multinational companies such as Shell and GE have long cultivated an expertise in geopolitics. But the intensity of concern over global instability is much higher now than in any recent period. In 2013, the private-equity colossus KKR named the retired general and CIA director David Petraeus as the chairman of its global institute, which informs the firm’s investment decisions. Earlier this year, Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, Britain’s CIA, became the chairman of Macro Advisory Partners, a firm that advises businesses and governments on geopolitics. Both appointments are high-profile examples of a much wider trend: an increasing number of corporations are hiring political scientists, starting their board meetings with geopolitical briefings, and seeking the advice of former diplomats, spymasters, and military leaders.“The last three years have definitely been a wake-up call for business on geopolitics,” Dominic Barton, the managing director of McKinsey, told me. “I’ve not seen anything like it. Since the Second World War, I don’t think you’ve seen such volatility.” Most businesses haven’t pulled back meaningfully from globalized operation, Barton said. “But they are thinking, Gosh, what’s next?”
The editors of Smithsonian magazine have announced the winners of their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. The winning photographs from from the competition's six categories are published below: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Also, a few finalists have been included as well. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at Smithsonian.com to see all the winners and finalists.
In India’s state of Uttar Pradesh, the village of Kannauj lies a dusty four-hour drive east of the Taj Mahal, the white-marbled wonder built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third and favorite wife. Empress Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631 giving birth to their 13th child. The Taj is Jahan’s grand paean to lost love. But he also mourned his queen in much more personal ways. For one thing, Jahan never again wore perfume. Fragrant oils—known in India as attars—had been one of the couple’s great shared passions.
Then and now, Kannauj was the place to fetch the fine scents—jasmine oils, rose waters, the roots of grasses called vetiver, with a bouquet cooling to the nose. Exactly when attar-making began there, no one is certain; archaeologists have unearthed clay distillation pots dating back thousands of years to the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. But today, Kannauj is a hub of a historic perfumery that draws much of the town to the same pursuit. Most of the villagers there are connected to fragrance in one way or another—from sinewy craftsmen who steam petals over wood fires in hulking copper pots to mothers who roll incense sticks in the shade while their toddlers nap on colorful mats nearby.
One of the most shocking parts of watching Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is finding out that the god of grunge was once a really cute kid. Director Brett Morgen peppers his documentary with Super 8 clips in which the future Nirvana singer can be seen as an infant, toddler, and grade-schooler, blowing out birthday candles, carrying around a stuffed panda, and sending kisses to the camera. Towheaded and cheery-eyed, wearing tiny suit jackets and cardigans, lil Cobain could have been in a Normal Rockwell painting. That he was the iconic all-America boy helps explain his later rebellion, making him an avatar for how traditional domestic life begat counterculture, and …
... oh, wait. I’m mythologizing, aren’t I? Assuming causes and effects that can’t ever be known, turning a human being into an abstraction:Montage of Heck, in some theaters now and airing on HBO on May 4, was created specifically to ward against this sort of thing. In 2007, Courtney Love gave Morgen access to a trove of previously unexamined recordings, notes, and artwork relating to her late husband, with one bit of instruction that would take the director eight years to carry out. “It was time to examine this person and humanize him and decanonize these values that he allegedly stood for—the lack of ambition and these ridiculous myths that had been built up around him,” Love told The New York Times.
This month, many of the nation's best and brightest high school seniors will receive thick envelopes in the mail announcing their admission to the college of their dreams. According to a 2011 survey, about 60 percent of them will go to their first-choice schools. For many of them, going away to college will be like crossing the Rubicon. They will leave their families -- their homes -- and probably not return for many years, if at all.
That was journalist Rod Dreher's path. Dreher grew up in the small southern community of Starhill, Louisiana, 35 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. His family goes back five generations there. His father was a part-time farmer and sanitarian; his mother drove a school bus. His younger sister Ruthie loved hunting and fishing, even as a little girl.
In 1996, Chuck Palahniuk spun a seven-page short story into his first full-length novel. Three years later, the director David Fincher immortalized Fight Club’s manic protagonists on film with the help of Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter. Surpassing cult status with its anti-consumerism message, the story captured the frustrations of the worker bees getting through the day's soulless pursuits. And it struck a chord: Real fight clubs sprung up around the world. “Tyler Durden Lives” became familiar graffiti. A new, widely quoted lexicon was born. Today, everyone knows the first rule of fight club.
At turns deeply poignant and very funny, Palahniuk’s freakish fables capture a twisted zeitgeist and add an oddly inspirational and subversive voice to the contemporary canon. For those shackled to tired routines and coping mechanisms, his Fight Club characters offer the DIY rules for rebirth. This month, the story gets its own resurrection in the form of a 10-issue comic-book series titled Fight Club 2, out May 27. Penned by Palahniuk and illustrated by Cameron Stewart (Catwoman, The Other Side) the first installment picks up the narrative 10 years later, on the ninth wedding anniversary of the narrator and his partner Marla. In the post-9/11 present, a hyperactive, Internet-obsessed, war- and recession-weary America apparently needs Tyler again.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.