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 unique approach to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner will surely be missed.
No U.S. President has been a better comedian than Barack Obama. It’s really that simple.
Now that doesn’t mean that some modern-day presidents couldn’t tell a joke. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton excelled at it. But Obama has transformed the way presidents use comedy—not just engaging in self-deprecation or playfully teasing his rivals, but turning his barbed wit on his opponents.
He puts that approach on display every year at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This annual tradition, which began in 1921 when 50 journalists (all men) gathered in Washington D.C., has become a showcase for each president’s comedy chops. Some presidents have been bad, some have been good. Obama has been the best. He’s truly the killer comedian in chief.
Two scholars discuss the ups and downs of life as a right-leaning professor.
“I don’t think I can say it too strongly, but literally it just changed my life,” said a scholar, about reading the work of Ayn Rand. “It was like this awakening for me.”
Different versions of this comment appear throughout Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr.’s book on conservative professors, Passing on the Right, usually about people like Milton Friedman and John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Hayek. The scholars they interviewed speak in a dreamy way about these nerdy celebrities, perhaps imagining an alternate academic universe—one where social scientists can be freely conservative.
The assumption that most college campuses lean left is so widespread in American culture that it has almost become a caricature: intellectuals in thick-rimmed glasses preaching Marxism on idyllic grassy quads; students protesting minor infractions against political correctness; raging professors trying to prove that God is, in fact, dead. Studies about professors’ political beliefs and voting behavior suggest this assumption is at least somewhat correct. But Shields and Dunn set out to investigate a more nuanced question: For the minority of professors who are cultural and political conservatives, what’s life actually like?
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
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.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
A stranger going into one of these agencies during business hours is struck by the stupendous machinery at work before him. Rows of desks, private rooms, particular departments, scores of busy clerks, hundreds of interested searchers, are around and on all sides of him. A constant stream of busy men, young and old, is flowing in and out all day, and every manuscript volume, of which there are hundreds, seems to be the subject of eager examination.
A few lines beneath the enormous all-caps headline (“AGENCIES”), a series of truncated sentences in a large, bold type summarized the article: “Private Detectives Watching Business Men Day and Night—Spies Around the House and in the Kitchen—Questioning a Man’s Tradesmen and Pumping his Domestics—The Family History of Business Men and Their Wives Made a Subject of Daily Record, &c., &c.”
By speaking to the discontents of neglected groups of voters, the two men—who share little else in common—have both found political success.
The most important message from this year’s tumultuous presidential primaries may be that millions of voters in both parties have grown sufficiently disenchanted with conventional political options to vote for candidates who not long ago would have been considered beyond the pale of viable choices.
20 or even 10 years ago, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders might have struggled to advance beyond the margins of their parties. Yet after this week’s five primaries, Trump has drawn just over 10 million votes and Sanders 9.3 million. Both have built followings that are not only large but also more impassioned than those attracted by their more traditional rivals, from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton.