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.
The president’s belief in policies that can benefit all Americans is being repudiated by voters, in favor of a vision of politics as a zero-sum game.
The 2016 presidential race represents a vivid rejection of the Obama style. This is easy to miss: His approval ratings are climbing, and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary by running as his successor. But the two most dramatic and portentous campaigns of the year, Donald Trump’s vertiginous win and Bernie Sanders’s astonishing insurgency, both flew in the face of the Obama era’s premises.
The Obama style had two pillars. He brought to apotheosis the American political tradition of redemptive constitutionalism. This is the creed of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s nationally televised speech on the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, in which he promised, “we shall overcome.” Redemptive constitutionalism holds that democracy and equal freedom really are the nation’s foundations, that slavery and Jim Crow were terrible deviations from these principles, and that, if we manage to take them seriously, to live by them, Americans will finally be free together.
Ask yourself, is all that wasted time really rewarding? And other tips from Charles Duhigg, who wrote the book on productivity.
Why is it that the more work I have to do, the more the Internet beckons me into its endless maw of distraction? Oh Lord, I will say, appealing both to myself and to whatever blog-God might be listening, I have an hour to finish this article.
But first, isn’t this Tasty video fascinating? I’ve never thought about making buffalo-fried cheese nuggets before, but now that I’ve watched a pair of disembodied hands prepare them so expertly, I should definitely head over to Amazon and Prime me some buffalo sauce.
This is how I found myself, exhausted after leaving work at 8 p.m. one day recently, flopping onto my bed, still in my pencil skirt, and clicking open a horrific, traffic-mongering slideshow linked from the bottom of an article I was reading. It was about Stars Without Makeup or What Child Stars Look Like Now or some other rancid meat for my hungry lizard brain.
It’s known as a modern-day hub of progressivism, but its past is one of exclusion.
PORTLAND, Ore.— Victor Pierce has worked on the assembly line of a Daimler Trucks North America plant here since 1994. But he says that in recent years he’s experienced things that seem straight out of another time. White co-workers have challenged him to fights, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, referred to him as “boy” on a daily basis, sabotaged his work station by hiding his tools, carved swastikas in the bathroom, and written the word “nigger” on walls in the factory, according to allegations filed in a complaint to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in February of 2015.
Pierce is one of six African Americans working in the Portland plant whom the lawyer Mark Morrell is representing in a series of lawsuits against Daimler Trucks North America. The cases have been combined and a trial is scheduled for January of 2017.
The discrimination young researchers endure makes America’s need for STEM workers even greater.
When Joan was an undergraduate, in the 1970s, she asked her boyfriend why one of his roommates was finishing up a Ph.D. while another, in the same department, still had several years left.
“Barbara’s rigid,” her boyfriend said. His other roommate, Karen, had slept with her advisor, but Barbara refused to sleep with hers. Chuckling with approval, the boyfriend recounted how Karen had asked to use his waterbed, and left a pair of sexy underwear scrunched in his sheets.
Today, this kind of quid pro quo may be less common, but sexual harassment at universities persists. The spate of lawsuits, investigations, and recent resignations at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Chicago, and UCLA, accompanied by older cases leaked to the press and an increase in women going public about their experiences, have made that clear. Graduate students and postdocs are particularly vulnerable, because their futures depend so completely on good recommendations from professors. And STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students are more dependent than others. Their career progress hinges on invitations to work on professors’ grants or—if students have their own projects—access to big data sets or expensive lab equipment controlled by overwhelmingly male senior faculty.
Research suggests the movement affects voting behavior among African Americans in different ways.
The Democratic National Convention begins this week, with tense race relations as its backdrop. Black Lives Matter, born of police and vigilante violence against black Americans, has shed light on race issues in recent years and is expected to hold demonstrations in Philadelphia where the convention will be held. But while politicians and pundits treat the movement as a proxy issue for the broader problem of racial inequality in the United States to garner electoral support, it may not carry the level of influence over black Americans’ voting behavior that they often credit it with.
Republicans and Democrats remain divided on the acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement, how to address black Americans’ concerns, and the best way to improve race relations. This as the number of Americans who worry “a great deal” about race relations in the United States doubled from 17 percent in 2014 to 35 percent in 2016, after the advent of Black Lives Matter, according to a Gallup poll. A Pew Research Center survey found, however, that only 4 in 10 Americans support Black Lives Matter, with 40 percent of whites backing the movement compared to 65 percent of blacks. When partisanship is added to the mix, the polarization is particularly stark: 64 percent of white Democrats support the movement while 52 percent of white Republicans oppose it.
The State Department is reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, just as she puts a Justice Department investigation behind her.
Hillary Clinton is out of the frying pan and into the fire. On July 6, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department would not pursue criminal charges against the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for her use of a private email server at the State Department. But the following day, with that criminal investigation closed, the State Department reopened its own probe into the emails, the AP reported.
State Department spokesman John Kirby told the AP that it would be looking at potential mishandling of classified information by Hillary Clinton and her top aides. Former officials could face administrative sanctions, including a loss of their security clearances—a step that would be both politically embarrassing for Clinton, and complicate efforts to staff a national-security team should she prevail in November.
Even as long-neglected maintenance threatens to further escalate the price of higher education, universities continue to borrow and spend record amounts on new buildings.
Akerman Hall is a gateway to the complex that houses the University of Minnesota’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. But wandering through it is more like an experience in archeology.
First, there’s the former airplane hangar, built in 1948 and renovated five years ago with alumni contributions into a state-of-the-art student lounge, faculty office, and lab. Then come drab cinderblock corridors and classrooms that also date from the 1940s and don’t look anywhere near as glamorous. Behind them, however, are more than $5 million of unseen upgrades the university was forced to make to elevators, sprinklers, fire alarms, and ventilation systems so old the school was buying replacement parts on eBay.
And of course, there’s Donald Trump, who isn’t exactly a wrestler but has a long history with the WWE and does happen to be the first member of the WWE Hall of Fame to secure a party’s nomination for president. But there’s a caveat—Trump isn’t the first member of any wrestling hall of fame to secure a nomination. That honor belongs to Abraham Lincoln, who happened to be a giant and dominant frontier wrestler before all that politics stuff and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992. The Party of Lincoln seems to have inherited his penchant for the sport, if nothing else.
Why Millennials aren’t buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy
In 2009, Ford brought its new supermini, the Fiesta, over from Europe in a brave attempt to attract the attention of young Americans. It passed out 100 of the cars to influential bloggers for a free six-month test-drive, with just one condition: document your experience online, whether you love the Fiesta or hate it.
Young bloggers loved the car. Young drivers? Not so much. After a brief burst of excitement, in which Ford sold more than 90,000 units over 18 months, Fiesta sales plummeted. As of April 2012, they were down 30 percent from 2011.
Don’t blame Ford. The company is trying to solve a puzzle that’s bewildering every automaker in America: How do you sell cars to Millennials (a k a Generation Y)? The fact is, today’s young people simply don’t drive like their predecessors did. In 2010, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985. Miles driven are down, too. Even the proportion of teenagers with a license fell, by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008.