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.
With a penstroke, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from Trans-Pacific Partnership, imposed a federal hiring freeze, and reinstated the ‘Mexico City policy’ on defunding international abortion-related services.
President Trump marked his first full business day in office with three major executive orders, each one aimed at fulfilling campaign promises he made last year.
His most significant order immediately withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free-trade agreement between the U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim countries. The pact, aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing economic clout in east Asia, was among the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievements and a cornerstone of the pivot to Asia.
But the agreement also drew its share of domestic criticism on both sides of the campaign aisle. Both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who initially supported it, and her primary rival Bernie Sanders criticized the pact for not doing enough to support American workers. Trump was among its most vociferous critics, at one point calling it “a continuing rape of our country.”
Saturday’s unprecedented show of opposition punctured a core myth of the Trump presidency. Will it change his behavior? And can it be sustained?
George W. Bush campaigned as a uniter, not a divider, then presided for eight polarizing years, provoking protests like the one against the Iraq War on February 15, 2003, that sent hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets of major cities. Those protests stopped neither the Iraq War nor the reelection of the president.
Months after Barack Obama was sworn in, on April 15, 2009, protesters associated with the Tea Party held rallies in 350 cities, attracting more than 300,000 Americans. They were angry about the financial crisis, the Bush administration’s response to it, and the progressive agenda of the polarizing new president and Congress. The following year, 84 Republican freshmen joined the House during the 2010 midterms. By 2012, the Tea Party had fueled victories for politicians including Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Brown, and Nikki Haley. President Obama’s ability to advance a domestic agenda was all but finished, though he retained enough popularity to be reelected easily in the 2012 campaign.
Billy Barr moved to the Rocky Mountains four decades ago, got bored one winter, and decided to keep a notebook that has become the stuff of legend.
It was a year into his life alone in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains when Billy Barr began his recordings. It started as a curiosity, a task to busy his mind during the winter. By no means, Barr told me, having skied down from his cabin to use the nearest phone, did he set out to make a vital database for climate change scientists. “Hell no!” he said. “I didn’t know anything about climate change at the time.”
In 1973 Barr had dropped out of college and made his home an abandoned mining shack at the base of Gothic Mountain, a 12,600-foot stone buttress. The cold winds blew through the shack’s wood slat walls as if they didn’t exist; he shared the bare dirt floor with a skunk and pine marten, his only regular company for much of the year. Barr had moved from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains precisely because of the solitude, but he couldn’t escape boredom. Especially that first winter. So he measured snow levels, animal tracks, and in spring the first jubilant calls of birds returning. He filled a notebook with these observations; then another notebook. This has continued now for 44 years.
The president has reinstated a contentious policy that blocks funding to international family-planning organizations unless they agree not to promote abortion.
On Monday, just days after hundreds of thousands of women marched on Washington, as well as in hundreds of cities around the nation and the world, to call for, among other issues, the protection of women’s reproductive rights, President Donald Trump signed offon the first anti-abortion policy of his term.
It was expected: Almost immediately upon entering office, every new administration since 1984 has repealed or reinstated, according to its party’s position on abortion rights, a rule that prohibits foreign organizations that receive U.S. family-planning funds “from providing counseling or referrals for abortion or advocating for access to abortion services in their country.”
This rule, known as the Mexico City policy, blocks U.S. family-planning assistance to these groups, even if their abortion-related activities—including information, referrals, or services—are conducted with non-U.S. funds. Opponents to the restriction have dubbed it the “Global Gag Rule” because it hinders communication between health-care providers and patients.
If the president and his aides will tell easily disproven falsehoods about crowd sizes and speeches, what else will they be willing to dissemble about?
One of the many things that is remarkable about the Trump administration is its devotion, even in its first days, to a particular variety of pointless falsehood.
Mendacity among politicians and the spokespeople hired to spin for them runs across eras and aisles, though it is true that some are more honest than others, and Donald Trump was a historically dishonest presidential candidate. But the Trump administration has displayed a commitment to needlessly lying that is confounding to even the most cynical observers of American politics.
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.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
M. Night Shyamalan’s new film ends on a typically surprising note—and there’s a lot to unpack about its wider implications.
This article spoils the entire plot, and twist ending, of Split.
M. Night Shyamalan is a writer and director who is legendarily fond of the surprise twist ending. It was a stunt that made his career with his third film, The Sixth Sense, in 1999, turning a small-scale ghost story into a word-of-mouth smash hit that dominated the box office for an entire summer. He’s deployed it over and over throughout his career, to arguably diminishing returns, before dropping it entirely. But recently, as he’s dipped back into the horror genre that put his name on the map, he’s brought back his favorite gimmick, and his new film Split has a final reveal that is too bonkers not to discuss—one that redefines the overall thrust of the film, and that ends up referring back to his larger oeuvre in an unconventional way.
The controversial trade deal put together by President Obama and supported by many Republicans falls under the weight of the new president’s populism.
Updated January 23 at 3:40 p.m.
On Monday, President Trump followed through on his campaign promise to immediately pull the United States out of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The mammoth trade deal between the United States and 11 Pacific countries was the centerpiece of former President Obama’s trade policy. With the TPP, Obama attempted to create an economic pivot toward Asia while also using the ties forged by the pact as a counterweight to China’s rising economic growth and influence in Asia.
Though it enjoyed some popularity, particularly among the Republican party leadership, the TPP—along with NAFTA—was frequently derided by President Trump on the campaign trail. The deal, which had yet to be approved by Congress and would have slashed tariffs among the 12 nations, brought with it fears that it also would harm American workers and lead to the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs. “Not only will the TPP undermine our economy,” Trump said in June, “but it will undermine our independence.”