Tucked into the news of the day, yesterday, was this small item about two MIT students who managed to get photos--surprisingly good photos-- of the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space for a whopping total of $148. The high-tech equipment involved in this research project included a small digital camera, a cell phone (with GPS), a styrofoam cooler, standard-issue athletic hand-warmers, a home-made parachute, and a mail-order weather balloon.
To accomplish this bit of amateur astronomy--or at least atmospheric research--the students, Oliver Yeh and Justin Lee, taped the camera inside the cooler (with a lens-sized cut-out in its side), along with the cell phone so they could locate the cooler after the fact. They taped the hand-warmers to the phone and camera batteries to keep them from freezing in the minus-40 degree temperatures they expected to find at altitude, programmed the camera to take images every five seconds using open-source Canon software, and then attached both a helium weather balloon and a small parachute to the top of the cooler. When the balloon reached a high enough altitude, they calculated, it would burst, allowing the package to descend under the parachute. Yeh and Lee also launched their experiment far west of Boston to try to insure that it landed before winds carried it over the Atlantic Ocean.
Roughly five hours after launch, the package descended into a construction site outside of Worcester, Massachusetts. (You can see some of the photos from their experiment here.)
Personally, I like the caper on a whole lot of levels. For one thing, it offers a powerful counter-argument to anyone who says today's computer-game-raised generation has lost the hands-on, tinkering sense of building and inventing things that allowed previous generations to achieve breakthroughs like the electric light bulb, the Wright Whirlwind engine, transistor radios and space travel. Taping a camera inside a styrofoam cooler under a balloon is such a quintessentially backyard creative scheme that I can easily imagine Calvin (of Hobbes fame) coming up with it, although his version probably wouldn't have worked out half as well. The inventive future of the world is clearly still in good hands, as long as there are students taping cameras inside of styrofoam coolers and sending them into the stratosphere.
The experiment also was a refreshing exhibit of open-ended curiosity, a quality sorely lacking in many overly goal-oriented students, as well as in many adults. Many of the NASA researchers I've interviewed over the years have said that the biggest breakthroughs tended to come not from carefully planned, narrow investigations, but from a scientist or engineer cocking their head one day and saying, "I wonder what would happen if ..."
Indeed, as a recent article in The Economist pointed out, one of the most famous and significant photos ever taken from the Hubble Space Telescope was the result of just such a moment. In 1995, Robert Williams, who was the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute at the time, was allocated 10 whole days of research time on the Hubble. Scientists wait years for a slot on the Hubble. So the gift of a research window is not to be squandered lightly. But instead of a series of narrow investigations, testing various hypotheses he might have had, Williams chose instead to pursue a single, open-ended question. "I wonder what would happen if ..." he asked, "we turned the telescope for 10 whole days on a typical area of space." Nothing outstanding, you understand. Just an average neighborhood in Ursa Major. Without any preconceived ideas, Williams gave his entire window over to collecting light from of an area so small that only about 20 stars from the Milky Way were visible in it.
Ten days later, the results of Williams' curiosity rocked the astronomy world. The "Hubble Deep Field" image that emerged changed many scientists' view of the universe. In that tiny area, astronomers counted not just hundreds or thousands of stars, but thousands of galaxies, showing the cosmos to be fare more uniform, and far more populated, than they had previously imagined.
"I wonder what would happen if..." is a risky research line to pursue, of course, because the answer might be, "nothing." And both focused research and "big science" projects have their place, as well. After all, it might be possible to get a Canon SureShot into space for $148, but you can't get an observatory like the Hubble launched for that amount.
(A side note on observatories, here--one of the most amusing parts of the Economist article was its listing, totally deadpan, of two other land-based telescope projects currently under consideration. The European Southern Observatory, it reported, was considering a proposal for the European "Extremely Large Telescope," after rejecting a bigger and more expensive model called the "Overwhelmingly Large Telescope." The old Monty Python gang could have had a field day with that, without fictionalizing anything.)
But regardless of the platform, that willingness to take a flyer on a nagging, curious thought or idea, whether it's about what might emerge with 10 days of telescope exposure, or whether it's possible to get images of Earth with a helium balloon and a styrofoam cooler, is part of what's separated every great inventor and entrepreneur from the rest of the pack. Having the courage to take a professional risk is important, even in science. It's also hard to do, and sometimes hard to get funding for--an issue the Astronomical Union also addressed at a recent meeting. "High-risk, high-reward projects require hard decisions that are best made by individuals, not committees," The Economist quoted Williams as arguing, in a debate over changing the current research approval and funding processes at large observatories.
But in an era where research funding can tend to favor limited and safe investigations over daring ideas (as this New York Times article on cancer research also argued), innovative, energetic, insatiably curious researchers like the young Oliver Yeh--whose friends say he's constantly coming up with seemingly outlandish "what if..." ideas to test--are all the more valuable.
The International Astronomical Union is currently celebrating the International Year of Astronomy, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Galileo Gallilei's telescope and Joseph Kepler's orbital discoveries. At recent international meeting highlighting that celebration, The Economist reported that Simon White, of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, expressed his concern about the current focus on large-scale research projects. In previous years, White said, scientific progress usually came from brilliant individuals formulating and testing hypotheses using data accumulated by relatively modest means.
I don't think a few photos from the edge of space qualify as great scientific progress, but you never know where ideas lead. And you can't argue the "relatively modest means" quality of a styrofoam cooler. So in some ways, Oliver Yeh and Justin Lee's experiment is a perfect mascot for this quadricennial Year of Astronomy. Small science and modest means, mixed with a driving curiosity and courage to explore "what if" ... even if it meant failure, in the end. Galileo himself might have been proud.
His paranoid style paved the road for Trumpism. Now he fears what’s been unleashed.
Glenn Beck looks like the dad in a Disney movie. He’s earnest, geeky, pink, and slightly bulbous. His idea of salty language is bullcrap.
The atmosphere at Beck’s Mercury Studios, outside Dallas, is similarly soothing, provided you ignore the references to genocide and civilizational collapse. In October, when most commentators considered a Donald Trump presidency a remote possibility, I followed audience members onto the set of The Glenn Beck Program, which airs on Beck’s website, theblaze.com. On the way, we passed through a life-size replica of the Oval Office as it might look if inhabited by a President Beck, complete with a portrait of Ronald Reagan and a large Norman Rockwell print of a Boy Scout.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
“All the world has failed us,” a resident of the Syrian city of Aleppo told the BBC this week, via a WhatsApp audio message. “The city is dying. Rapidly by bombardment, and slowly by hunger and fear of the advance of the Assad regime.”
In recent weeks, the Syrian military, backed by Russian air power and Iran-affiliated militias, has swiftly retaken most of eastern Aleppo, the last major urban stronghold of rebel forces in Syria. Tens of thousands of besieged civilians are struggling to survive and escape the fighting, amid talk of a rebel retreat. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, the city of the Silk Road and the Great Mosque, of muwashshah and kibbeh with quince, of the White Helmets and Omran Daqneesh, is poised to fall to Bashar al-Assad and his benefactors in Moscow and Tehran, after a savage four-year stalemate. Syria’s president, who has overseen a war that has left hundreds of thousands of his compatriots dead, will inherit a city robbed of its human potential and reduced to rubble.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Trinidad has the highest rate of Islamic State recruitment in the Western hemisphere. How did this happen?
This summer, the so-called Islamic State published issue 15 of its online magazine Dabiq. In what has become a standard feature, it ran an interview with an ISIS foreign fighter. “When I was around twenty years old I would come to accept the religion of truth, Islam,” said Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi, recalling how he had turned away from the Christian faith he was born into.
At-Trinidadi, as his nom de guerre suggests, is from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a country more readily associated with calypso and carnival than the “caliphate.” Asked if he had a message for “the Muslims of Trinidad,” he condemned his co-religionists at home for remaining in “a place where you have no honor and are forced to live in humiliation, subjugated by the disbelievers.” More chillingly, he urged Muslims in T&T to wage jihad against their fellow citizens: “Terrify the disbelievers in their own homes and make their streets run with their blood.”
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
Why has Trump shown such eagerness to select former military brass for his Cabinet? The reasons may be both pragmatic and political.
Donald Trump didn’t always speak highly of military brass. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” he said in fall 2016. “Believe me.” In September, he added, “I think under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble. They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country…. And I can just see the great—as an example—General George Patton spinning in his grave as ISIS we can’t beat.”
But Trump’s disdain had a caveat: “I have great faith in the military. I have great faith in certain of the commanders, certainly.”
These days, he’s leaning toward the second pole. Already, Trump has selected three retired generals for Cabinet-level jobs. On Tuesday, he formally announced that he’s nominating retired Marine General James Mattis as defense secretary. On Wednesday, multiple outlets reported that he has selected John Kelly, another retired Marine general, as secretary of homeland security. Former Lieutenant General Michael Flynn got the nod as national security adviser on November 17.
His promise to repeal the 1954 Johnson Amendment isn’t about free speech—it’s about cash.
Why have some religious conservatives decided to support Donald Trump for United States president? Leaders have named their reasons: He’s promised to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices; he’s allegedly good at business. But they have also consistently cited something else, perhaps more unexpected: the tax code.
Trump has promised to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from participating in political activities. Proposed by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and later revised by Congress, it keeps churches and other non-profits from lobbying for specific causes, campaigning on behalf of politicians, and supporting or opposing candidates for office.
To many white Trump voters, the problem wasn’t her economic stance, but the larger vision—a multi-ethnic social democracy—that it was a part of.
Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the November election for many liberals is that Hillary Clinton lost because she ignored the working class.
In the days after her shocking loss, Democrats complained that Clinton had no jobs agenda. A widely shared essay in The Nationblamed Clinton's "neoliberalism" for abandoning the voters who swung the election. “I come from the white working class,” Bernie Sanders said on CBS This Morning, “and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”
But here is the troubling reality for civically minded liberals looking to justify their preferred strategies: Hillary Clinton talked about the working class, middle class jobs, and the dignity of work constantly. And she still lost.
The tallest animal in the world is surprisingly inconspicuous. I remember stumbling across one for the first time, as our safari jeep skirted around a random Kenyan bush. There it was. A giraffe. Instantly recognizable, and utterly incongruous in the flesh.
There’s the face—like a camel’s, but more pensive and streamlined. There are the comical tufty horns, the long eyelashes, and the dextrous, purple tongue. There’s that extreme neck, which multi-tasks as a ladder for reaching lofty shoots, a sledgehammer for brutalizing rivals, and a source of dispute for both evolutionary biologists and Fashion Twitter. And there’s the absurd, baffling verticality of the entire creature. J. M. Ledgard put it best in his novel Giraffe: “I am a giraffe, I am about that space a little above the blade, and my bodily intent is to be elevated above all other living things, in defiance of gravity.”