As much as we play up the importance of scientific research, President Obama's NASA budget shows that it's the risky human side of the space program that draws attention and funding for the nation's space program.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's Friendship 7 space flight--the third in NASA's Mercury space program and the first of those flights to successfully orbit the Earth. Coming as it does, only a week after President Obama released his 2013 budget priorities for NASA, the milestone anniversary, with all its triumphant photos and memories, provides a reminder of why the new NASA budget is skewed the way it is. It also says something, for better or for worse, about what most of us prefer, when it comes to great undertakings.
Since its inception in 1958, the space side of NASA has had a dual personality, in more ways than one. The biggest duality has been the obvious split between "manned" and "unmanned" missions, which paralleled to a large degree a second split between science and engineering.
Even scientific satellites require engineering know-how to actually reach space or perform experiments there. But the "manned" efforts (or "human spaceflight" missions, as they are now generally called) have always been primarily engineering challenges. My uncle's former father-in-law worked for the rocket manufacturer Rocketdyne during NASA's glory days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. And one of his favorite phrases, in fact, was, "there is no such thing as a rocket scientist."
Aside from the obvious human element, the difference between scientific and "manned" missions, is the end result. Successful scientific missions bring back, or enable, discoveries: greater knowledge about science, the universe, and the planet we call home. In contrast, the success of human spaceflight missions has been counted primarily in humanachievements: the first man off the planet, to orbit the Earth, to orbit the moon, or to land on the moon and return safely to Earth. We proved we could build and successfully operate (with a couple of glaring exceptions) reusable spacecraft that landed on a runway. We set endurance records for humans living in space. We proved we could build something in space.
Scientific satellites are also engineering achievements, of course. But we don't sell planetary probes as a way of proving our human greatness. We sell them as a way to discover more about Mars, or Jupiter's moons, and about whether life ever existed there. The emphasis of the scientific missions, in other words, is on the intrinsic value of knowledge they produce, which is to say, on something other than us.
And therein lies the crux of the problem with scientific missions. Or, at least, the problem when it comes to getting public funding and support.
President Obama's proposed 2013 budget trims NASA's overall budget, but only by a small amount. The noticeable shift is that it reduces funding for scientific planetary missions by 20 percent, while almost doubling the budget for continued work on future human spaceflight missions. Almost $3 billion is being allocated to further development of a heavy-lift booster rocket and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Another $3 billion is slated for continued support of the space station, even though that project has received enormous criticism for how little return on investment it has produced, overall. Story Musgrave, one of NASA's most experienced veteran astronauts, even called it little more than a "jobs program" and a "$100 billion mistake."
Planetary science missions, done remotely with spacecraft and robots, are far less costly. Yet, at the same time as the budget for human spaceflight is increasing, the 2013 budget calls for a reduction in planetary science mission funding from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion. Why?
One could argue, of course, that discovering water, or traces of microscopic life, on Jupiter's moon, Europa, will not transform our understanding of life or the universe. And that might very well be true. But if the standard for funding was missions that they offer transformative knowledge of life or the universe, flying astronauts back to the Moon or to Mars (as opposed to highly capable robots) wouldn't pass the bar, either. What those human missions do provide are athlete-heroes to cheer.
Looking at the news photos of John Glenn, riding in a ticker-tape parade with President Kennedy after his successful orbital flight, it's easy to see why human spaceflight gets so much more funding and support. "In the winter of 1962," the opening line in a New York Times article about the anniversary began, "the nation needed a hero."
For as much as we try to play up the science fair whiz kids who create robots and technology, we're still very attached to the explorer/athlete/star champion model of hero. Designing a robot to explore Mars is a kind of "team personality" achievement: an effort by a team player and builder who works in concert with others to put something or someone else forward (in this case, a robot or satellite) to get the glory. And we still get much more satisfaction in cheering on the star who actually does the glorious deed themselves. Especially if the deed involves physical feats or physical risks to self. We idolize the quarterback, not the lineman who makes it possible for the quarterback to make that play. The race driver, not the crew. The player who scores the basket, not the guard who makes the assist. The brave astronaut who repairs the Hubble Space Telescope in space, rather than the guy who designed the fix in the first place.
In the case of robotic or satellite missions in space, the human achievement is primarily mental, and takes place on the ground, in a lab, with lots of career and project risk, but little physical danger. And the big end prize that comes out of the process is the esoteric reward of knowledge. That doesn't quite match the thrill of our hero winning an Olympic Gold Medal or our team winning the Super Bowl or the World Series.
In the 1980s, the television show Cheers, which revolved around a neighborhood bar in Boston, opened with a series of vintage photos from real local watering holes. The image I remember best shows a beaming bartender holding up a newspaper with a 4-inch banner headline across the top proclaiming, "WE WIN!!!!!" Imagine a similar headline proclaiming,instead, "WE LEARN!!!!!!" Right. You can't. And that's the point.
Discovery is about expanding our understanding of something else. Achievement is a much more satisfying ego stroke about ourselves. Our heroes are the stand-ins for ourselves; for what we get to see we are capable of doing. And physical achievements--for whatever reasons we still prize the physical so highly--get us more excited than academic ones. Perhaps physical achievements are easier to get our hands and minds around. Or perhaps it's the competitive element that many of those physical achievements contain. We beat the Russians, or we bested Nature, or we bested ... well, something. Whatever the reason, the truth remains ...we may give academic achievers prizes for enabling discoveries, but we don't give them 4-inch banner headlines or ticker-tape parades.
Keeping a human alive in space is far more costly and complex than sending a robot on the same mission. There is, to be sure, an argument that in the process of designing the life systems to sustain a human crew all the way to Mars and back, for example, we will further technology to a point where we can then figure out how to make a more distant step possible. On the other hand, there's a pretty strong argument to be made for pushing the boundaries first robotically--both to develop the physics, propulsion and materials technology to make deep space travel possible at a much more reasonable cost, and also to explore what parts or objects in space might be worth following up on with a human mission.
There are other factors in the decision, of course. The human spaceflight side of NASA creates a lot of jobs, in a lot of states. So shelving it for the foreseeable future would have serious political and economic ramifications, which no politician wants to face. But it would also require us to readjust our notions of what's worth a 4-inch headline. And I'm not sure we're there, yet.
Could we change that? Maybe. But it's not simply a rational issue of the best investment of funds for NASA. It goes much deeper than that. The fact that we get more excited about competitive endeavors that have a human at the center of them, and entail real, physical risks and consequences, might make us slightly egotistic, or self-centered, or even primitive in some way. But it is also an inclination that is, for better or worse, very human--and goes back in history a very long time.
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.
This morning I went on Democracy Now to discuss my critique of “class-first” policy as a way of ameliorating the effects of racism. In the midst of that discussion I made the point that one can maintain a critique of a candidate—in this case Bernie Sanders—and still feel that that candidate is deserving of your vote. Amy Goodman, being an excellent journalist, did exactly what she should have done—she asked if I were going to vote for Senator Sanders.
I, with some trepidation, answered in the affirmative. I did so because I’ve spent my career trying to get people to answer uncomfortable questions. Indeed, the entire reason I was on the show was to try to push liberals into directly addressing an uncomfortable issue that threatens their coalition. It seemed wrong, somehow, to ask others to step into their uncomfortable space and not do so myself. So I answered.
After a pair of poor showings in New Hampshire, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina drop out of the race.
The Republican race is headed to South Carolina with two fewer candidates. The day after finishing sixth and seventh in the New Hampshire primaries, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced on Wednesday that they were suspending their campaigns.
Fiorina was always a long shot—she was practically a political newcomer, having only run one unsuccessful Senate campaign. And while her record at HP was vulnerable to attack, Republican figures saw in her both private-sector experience and a woman who could counter Hillary Clinton’s monopoly on a “historic” woman’s candidacy. While many political professionals sniffed at Fiorina’s candidacy, remembering that 2010 Senate race, she broke out after a commanding performance in the undercard to the first Republican debate. That earned her a promotion to the main stage at the next debate, where she scored another victory. But it was all downhill from there. Dogged by questions of honesty and unable to earn media attention, her campaign faded quickly.
Issued last summer, the rules are the centerpiece of the White House’s climate-change-fighting agenda, and they play a big part in the recent, tepid optimism about global warming. Without the proposal of the plan, the United States couldn’t have secured the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, last December. And without the adoption of the plan, the United States almost certainly won’t be able to comply with that document. If the world were to lose the Paris Agreement—which was not a total solution to the climate crisis, but meant to be a first, provisional step—years could be lost in the diplomatic fight to reduce climate-change’s dangers.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
For decades, some psychologists have claimed that bilinguals have better mental control. Their work is now being called into question.
In one of his sketches, comedian Eddie Izzard talks about how English speakers see bilingualism: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed! Good lord, man. You’re asking the impossible,” he says. This satirical view used to be a serious one. People believed that if children grew up with two languages rattling around their heads, they would become so confused that their “intellectual and spiritual growth would not thereby be doubled, but halved,” wrote one professor in 1890. “The use of a foreign language in the home is one of the chief factors in producing mental retardation,” said another in 1926.
A century on, things are very different. Since the 1960s, several studies have shown that bilingualism leads to many advantages, beyond the obvious social benefits of being able to speak to more people. It also supposedly improves executive function—a catch-all term for advanced mental abilities that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, such as focusing on a goal, ignoring distractions, switching attention, and planning for the future.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
Everything that was supposed to be silenced is suddenly being said.
The tight grip of oligarchy upon the American political system slipped a little last night in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, voters cast their ballots for one of the most implausible candidates in modern presidential history—less because his rhetoric was so mesmerizing or his program so inspiring than as a protest against an expected winner perceived as a lavishly compensated servitor of organized wealth.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton boasted of her small donors. More than 70 percent had given less than $100, she claimed: “I know that doesn’t fit with the narrative.” As Ken Vogel of Politico immediately tweeted, the claim also distorts the facts. Clinton may have a lot of donors, but the bulk of the value of her donations—85 percent—has come from the biggest givers. And her family’s personal wealth, and its foundation’s assets, can also be seen as built on the largesse of banks, corporations, and foreign governments.
The ancient civilization may have tracked Jupiter using sophisticated methods, but their reasons for stargazing were very different than ours.
We’ve never escaped the influence of the Babylonians. That there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a full circle, are all echoes of the Babylonian preference for counting in base 60. An affinity for base 12 (inches in a foot, pence in an old British shilling) is also an offshoot, 12 being a factor of 60.
All this suggests that the Babylonians had a mathematics worth copying, which was why the Greeks did copy it and thereby rooted these number systems in Western tradition. The latest indication of Babylonian mathematical sophistication is the discovery that their astronomers knew that, in effect, the distance traveled by a moving object is equal to the area under the graph of velocity plotted against time. Previously it had been thought that this relationship wasn’t recognized until the fourteenth century in Europe. But since historian Mathieu Ossendrijver of the Humboldt University in Berlin found the calculation described in a series of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing in Babylonia during the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E., where it was used to figure out the distance traveled across the sky by the planet Jupiter.
The Warriors star is the embodiment of basketball’s analytics revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are now some 15 months in to their turn as one of the best teams in basketball history. Last season, they won 67 games, the most in the NBA in eight years, and secured a championship in June against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This season’s Warriors make last season’s Warriors look like a team that hadn’t yet gotten loose. They started the year winning their first 24 games in a row, a record opening, and as of now have won 46 of 50.
Golden State’s brilliance is more than just statistical. The Warriors are a basketball idyll, a paradise of skill and collaboration. Their offense runs on nifty ballhandling, willing passing, and sublime shooting, with their point guard and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player acting as ringleader. A slim 6’3” and 185 pounds, with a bouncy jog and a barely post-pubescent tuft of beard at his chin, Stephen Curry dribbles with the intentional abandon of a card hustler, flings one-handed passes to all sectors of the court, and shoots better than anyone ever has.