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.
Hillary Clinton’s realistic attitude is the only thing that can effect change in today’s political climate.
Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have something in common. Both have an electoral strategy predicated on the ability of a purist candidate to revolutionize the electorate—bringing droves of chronic non-voters to the polls because at last they have a choice, not an echo—and along the way transforming the political system. Sanders can point to his large crowds and impressive, even astonishing, success at tapping into a small-donor base that exceeds, in breadth and depth, the remarkable one built in 2008 by Barack Obama. Cruz points to his extraordinarily sophisticated voter-identification operation, one that certainly seemed to do the trick in Iowa.
But is there any real evidence that there is a hidden “sleeper cell” of potential voters who are waiting for the signal to emerge and transform the electorate? No. Small-donor contributions are meaningful and a sign of underlying enthusiasm among a slice of the electorate, but they represent a tiny sliver even of that slice; Ron Paul’s success at fundraising (and his big crowds at rallies) misled many analysts into believing that he would make a strong showing in Republican primaries when he ran for president. He flopped.
Thenew Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, is smooth and charming, but he hasn’t found his edge.
It’s a psychic law of the American workplace: By the time you give your notice, you’ve already left. You’ve checked out, and for the days or weeks that remain, a kind of placeholder-you, a you-cipher, will be doing your job. It’s a law that applies equally to dog walkers, accountants, and spoof TV anchormen. Jon Stewart announced that he was quitting The Daily Show in February 2015, but he stuck around until early August, and those last months had a restless, frazzled, long-lingering feel. A smell of ashes was in the air. The host himself suddenly looked quite old: beaky, pique-y, hollow-cheeky. For 16 years he had shaken his bells, jumped and jangled in his little host’s chair, the only man on TV who could caper while sitting behind a desk. Flash back to his first episode as the Daily Show host, succeeding Craig Kilborn: January 11, 1999, Stewart with floppy, luscious black hair, twitching in a new suit (“I feel like this is my bar mitzvah … I have a rash like you wouldn’t believe.”) while he interviews Michael J. Fox.
The championship game descends on a city failing to deal with questions of affordability and inclusion.
SAN FRANCISCO—The protest kicked off just a few feet from Super Bowl City, the commercial playground behind security fences on the Embarcadero, where football fans were milling about drinking beer, noshing on $18 bacon cheeseburgers, and lining up for a ride on a zip line down Market Street.
The protesters held up big green camping tents painted with slogans such as “End the Class War” and “Stop Stealing Our Homes,” and chanted phrases blaming San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for a whole range of problems, including the catchy “Hey Hey, Mayor Lee, No Penalty for Poverty.” They blocked the sidewalk, battling with tourists, joggers, and city workers, some of whom were trying to wheel their bikes through the crowd to get to the ferries that would take them home.
I coined the term—now I’ve come back to fix what I started.
O reader, hear my plea: I am the victim of semantic drift.
Four months ago, I coined the term “Berniebro” to describe a phenomenon I saw on Facebook: Men, mostly my age, mostly of my background, mostly with my political beliefs, were hectoring their friends about how great Bernie was even when their friends wanted to do something else, like talk about the NBA.
In the post, I tried to gently suggest that maybe there were other ways to advance Sanders’s beliefs, many of which I share. I hinted, too, that I was not talking about every Sanders supporter. I did this subtly, by writing: “The Berniebro is not every Sanders supporter.”
Then, 28,000 people shared the story on Facebook. The Berniebro was alive! Immediately, I started getting emails: Why did I hate progressivism? Why did I joke about politics? And how dare I generalize about every Bernie Sanders supporter?
Bernie Sanders doggedly pursued his one big idea about reforming American politics, while Hillary Clinton detailed her many proposals for change.
With the New Hampshire primaries just days away, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met on a debate stage in Durham on Thursday. In their first one-on-one matchup, the duo seemed determined to illustrate Archilochus’s classic binary between the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing. Sanders knows that what the country needs—the only thing it needs—is a political and economic revolution. Clinton knows the country needs progressive policies on a range of matters and a pragmatic, realistic strategy to implement them.
That divide was clear from their opening statements, with Sanders immediately jumping to his familiar mantra about a rigged economy and a corrupt campaign-finance scheme. Clinton’s answer was not so laser focused, discussing a general need for the nation to “live up to our values in the 21st century,” and checking off not just the economy, but racism, sexism, and more. This split is not new, of course, but with Martin O’Malley off the stage and out of the race, and the Democratic contest tighter than ever, the division has never been so clear. It led to an unusually interesting debate, with the two candidates frequently addressing each other directly and delving into detail.
Overly persistent pursuit is a staple of movie love stories, but a new study shows that it could normalize some troubling behaviors.
Romantic comedies are supposed to be escapist—a jaunt into a better, more colorful world where journalists can afford giant New York apartments and no obstacle to love is too great to overcome.
Except that when you think about it, some of the behavior portrayed as romantic in these movies is, objectively, creepy. The Love Actually sign guy was totally out of line, and honestly, Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything was pushing it with his famous jukebox. Even the supposedly “pure” love of cute baby-faced Joseph Gordon Levitt as Cameron in 10 Things I Hate About You involves teaching himself just enough French that he can pose as a tutor and hang out with his beloved. Oh, and hiring a guy to go out with her sister.
The country has experienced nursing shortages for decades, but an aging population means the problem is about to get much worse.
Five years ago, my mother was rushed to the hospital for an aneurysm. For the next two weeks, my family and I sat huddled around her bed in the intensive-care unit, oscillating between panic, fear, uncertainty, and exhaustion.
It was nurses that got us through that time with our sanity intact. Nurses checked on my mother—and us—multiple times an hour. They ran tests, updated charts, and changed IVs; they made us laugh, allayed our concerns, and thought about our comfort. The doctors came in every now and then, but the calm dedication of the nurses was what kept us together. Without them, we would have fallen apart.
Which is just one reason why the prospect of a national nursing shortage is so alarming. The U.S. has been dealing with a nursing deficit of varying degrees for decades, but today—due to an aging population, the rising incidence of chronic disease, an aging nursing workforce, and the limited capacity of nursing schools—this shortage is on the cusp of becoming a crisis, one with worrying implications for patients and health-care providers alike.
What happened when 11 exiles armed themselves for a violent night in the Gambia
In the dark hours of the morning on December 30, 2014, eight men gathered in a graveyard a mile down the road from the official residence of Yahya Jammeh, the president of the Gambia. The State House overlooks the Atlantic Ocean from the capital city of Banjul, on an island at the mouth of the Gambia River. It was built in the 1820s and served as the governor’s mansion through the end of British colonialism, in 1965. Trees and high walls separate the house from the road, obscuring any light inside.
The men were dressed in boots and dark pants, and as two of them stood guard, the rest donned Kevlar helmets and leather gloves, strapped on body armor and CamelBaks, and loaded their guns. Their plan was to storm the presidential compound, win over the military, and install their own civilian leader. They hoped to gain control of the country by New Year’s Day.
U.S. presidential candidates are steering the country toward a terror trap.
For close to a decade, the trauma of the Iraq War left Americans wary of launching new wars in the Middle East. That caution is largely gone. Most of the leading presidential candidates demand that the United States escalate its air war in Iraq and Syria, send additional Special Forces, or enforce a buffer zone, which the head of Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, has said would require deploying U.S. ground troops. Most Americans now favor doing just that.
The primary justification for this new hawkishness is stopping the Islamic State, or isis, from striking the United States. Which is ironic, because at least in the short term, America’s intervention will likely spark more terrorism against the United States, thus fueling demands for yet greater military action. After a period of relative restraint, the United States is heading back into the terror trap.
I agree with David Graham’s summing up of the “hedgehog-vs.-fox” nature of the Democratic debate last night, and with nearly all of the Atlantic liveblogging that is now collected below David’s piece. (I missed the liveblogging boat because I hadn’t thought I’d see the debate. When I did, I sent out penséeson Twitter.)
Three points about the debate:
1) As an exchange of ideas—and as a display of contrasting outlooks, casts of mind, temperament, goals, frames of reference, theories of politics, etc — these two hours were more valuable than all the previous stretches of “debate” put together.
More simply, this one actually was a debate, in contrast to the previous Survivor-style contests for attention or Wrestlemania-style displays of posturing. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the video of Donald Trump shaving Vince McMahon’s head in a wrestling ring, watch it soon.) The others have been side-by-side displays of putdowns, talking points, and pleas for attention. This one was two people arguing about policies, past records, and future plans.