It was one of the more unusual public relations nightmares to envelop NASA in the final rocky decade of its shuttle program. Four years ago this month Orlando police arrested astronaut Lisa Nowak after she assaulted (and, police believed, attempted to kidnap or murder) her rival for the affections of fellow astronaut William Oefelein (aka "Billy O").
As NASA launches its final three space shuttle missions, one of which the certifiably heroic Captain Mark Kelly is helming (Gabrielle Giffords's husband was Nowak's shipmate in 2006 and offered her moral support during the media frenzy that followed), 20/20 is giving over a solid chunk of its prime time Friday night to the story of Colleen Shipman, the woman Nowak attacked and the world forgot.
I viewed a complete pre-air of 20/20's story yesterday courtesy of ABC. Colleen proves to be one of Chris Cuomo's better interview subjects. She's clearly been waiting to tell her side, and it's time we give her a listen. Here's a clip.
When Nowak, disguised in an oversized trench coat, wig, and red glasses, chased down and pepper sprayed Shipman early February 5, 2007, Shipman believed Nowak intended to kill her. It's a reasonable assumption. Yet the court never considered it.
Nowak's first-rate lawyer succeeded in barring the cache of incriminating evidence police collected from any potential trial. That evidence included the steel mallet, knife, air pistol, gloves, and plastic tubing Lisa had ready in her car, all part of a mission she meticulously planned over three weeks, all the way down to her supply of high-absorbency space diapers (Nowak's 900-mile car trip from Houston to Orlando only required two).
In the end Nowak got off with a plea bargain of two days of time served and a year's probation. Shipman got post traumatic stress disorder. Like Nowak, NASA booted Billy O.
Her lawyer's skill meant Nowak never had to use the insanity defense he had ready and waiting for her, preemptively filed in the Florida court system like an insurance policy. Nowak's insanity filing included an assessment by psychiatrist Richard Pesikoff, who offered up diagnoses including bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, Asperger's syndrome and insomnia as factors diminishing her culpability for her actions.
Paul Siegel, an assistant professor of psychology at Purchase College, isn't buying any of it. 20/20's piece features Dr. Siegel's opinion on the case, and I interviewed him this week.
"If [Dr. Pesikoff] was paid by her defense lawyer, he needs to come up with some sort of diagnosis to support her defense," Siegel tells me. "I'm not getting paid anything."
Asperger's would leave a wake dating back to Lisa's childhood, and made it more unusual to see her marry and have children, or start that affair with Billy O in the first place. Bipolar disorder does not mesh well with the Navy flight schools where Lisa excelled and surely would have been apparent in her work at NASA.
Moreover, if Dr. Pesikoff planned to place this all on a psychotic episode, bipolar mania does not last for the weeks on end Lisa used to prepare her quest.
It may seem like anybody could disintegrate under the pressure cooker intensity that was Lisa Nowak's career. Her spaceflight seven months before attacking Colleen Shipman was only the second manned mission after the 2003 Columbia disaster. That event that shook NASA to its core.
For Nowak the explosion also meant losing her close friend, Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark. Nowak stepped up her game accordingly in the ratcheted-up flight training that followed in the heavily scrutinized post-Columbia era, all while stepping in to care for Clark's family in addition to her own. It would not be long before her marriage fell apart and she would begin her infamous affair with Billy O.
So why doesn't temporary insanity explain what the high-flying Lisa Nowak tried to do that night to Colleen Shipman? As her lawyer said, clearly the whole episode was out of character.
Not at all. Her character actually is the problem, says Dr. Siegel.
"Typical mental disorders, like bipolar disorder or depression, are characterized by a pattern of sickness," Dr. Siegel says. "You can't concentrate, you're not eating and sleeping, etcetera."
A personality disorder is not something you have, Dr. Siegel tells me. "It's something you are."
Nowak doesn't have symptoms of illness. Rather, she has personality traits. Specifically, in the way she behaved toward Colleen Shipman, as you'll see on 20/20, Siegel identifies elements of antisocial personality disorder on display (she's not a perfect fit -- individual categories -- there are currently ten of them, don't describe most cases).
Personality disorders are disturbed patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that come to the surface especially in relationships. In day-to-day life, in settings such as work, many people with personality disorders will behave normally. In Nowak's case, that meant grace under fire in 70-hour work weeks.
But jealousy is a primeval emotion, a twisted concoction of anger and insecurity, that easily unboxes the beast waiting to get out.
It's a cardinal feature of all personality disorders -- an unstable grasp of one's own identity. Who you are, how you act, can shift markedly with your surroundings.
"The Lisa Nowak who terrorized Colleen in the airport that night was not the astronaut and suburban supermom raising three kids who likes to grow African violets in her garden," Siegel assures me. "An entirely different side of her emerged, a much darker side."
It's easy to see why NASA didn't see it coming. NASA is more concerned with seeing astronauts manage the stress that comes with flying rickety old rockets than in whether they can move on in the midst of unrequited love. To identify Lisa's problem would require putting her under extreme emotional stress in a test specifically designed to pick up on signs of personality disorders. And no test is perfect.
Dr. Siegel trained at Weil Cornell under Paulina Kernberg who along with her husband Otto are central figures in the history of personality disorders.
The collection of personality disorders, once termed "psychopathies," are among the more uncomfortable diagnoses in abnormal psychology. They're laden with the ethically fraught implication that a person with a personality disorder isn't so much "mad" as he is simply "bad."
Most mental health professionals hold little hope for identifying an effective treatment in any particular case (dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are attempted). And that slim chance only happens if patients seek treatment -- most people with personality disorders don't see a problem. Lack of self awareness is part of their disorder.
Without truly objective assessments or lab tests, personality disorders are always ripe for scientific critique. They're currently the subject of one of the major revisions in the DSM-V, due out in 2013. Some suggest chucking the personality disorder rubric in favor of "adaptation disorder" to emphasize an ongoing struggle rather than a fixed facet of one's character.
Whatever we call it, mental health professionals know personality disorders when they see them. Unfortunately they're quite common -- 9.1% of Americans in any given year, according to NIH statistics. Dr. Siegel is sticking his neck out somewhat in offering us his diagnosis on the basis of publicly available information. He hasn't examined Lisa. He isn't privy to events in the rest of her private life.
But between the court records, Lisa's videotaped police interview, disclosed emails, and media interviews with just about everybody concerned but Lisa herself, Dr. Siegel has far more information about Nowak's case than some others.
"I see a lot of personality disorders whenever I go to the post office," he admits.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
The hit new indie release is the opposite of action-packed, yet it’s compelling in its simplicity.
Solitude, it turns out, can be addictive. So I learned playing the new hit indie game Firewatch, where all the action amounts to you, the player, being alone in the woods. You’re a lookout assigned to a summer posting in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming in 1989, meaning your job consists of nothing more than wandering around, clearing brush, and calling in any fires you might spot. Most video games equip you with tools and weapons, complex missions, and action sequences. All Firewatch gives you is a map, a compass, and a walkie-talkie—but it’s still one of the most compelling video games I’ve ever played.
It’s the latest in a quiet movement of video games, more psychological products that tap into the atmosphere and wonder of loneliness rather than looking for the simpler thrills the medium usually provides. It’s tempting to trace this trend’s origins back to Minecraft, which launched in 2009 and became a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its extraordinary simplicity. But in Minecraft, you start armed only with your bare hands in a world of monsters, and can eventually upgrade into a city-builder armed with powerful tools. Firewatch is a more intimate affair: a short story, playable over a few hours, that succeeds first and foremost as an emotional experience.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.