It's not easy being a NASA researcher. You can spend years of your professional career working on a particular project, only to have it abruptly cancelled because a new Administration takes office or ... well, the country just shifts its sights and priorities. And your particular project no longer fits on the list. It's happened so many times over the agency's 50-year history that it's almost predictable. And the reasons for those shifts are numerous, and sometimes complex.
But as a piece in this week's Science Times noted, NASA is coming to yet another research fork in the road. I saw this one coming back in January 2004, when President George W. Bush announced we were going to go back to the Moon, and on to Mars ... and then didn't actually allocate any extra money for the effort. NASA slashed other research budgets and drastically shifted program priorities to comply with the new directive, and began developing the basic technology the first steps of the effort would require.
It was clear to me, even at the beginning, that the program was more of a nice PR moment than any real commitment or serious priority. Money talks, and the money wasn't allocated. What's more, a new President is now in power, and he's indicating that more budget cuts in the program may be in the offing. So after decimating science and aeronautical programs to fund Moon and Mars-oriented technology development, the agency finds itself, once again, facing the possibility of having to tell its researchers, "never mind." It's "a hell of a way to run an airline," as the saying goes.
But in the article's discussion of possible funding and program options, one particular comment caught my attention. One cost-saving option on the table would be to bypass a Moon landing, and concentrate research efforts on a series of long-duration space flights (the type that a Mars mission would require). But Gabrielle Giffords, chairwoman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, reportedly commented that she didn't find that option particularly exciting, and didn't imagine her constituents would, either.
My first thought was, "why does space research have to be exciting?" Do we require cancer research to be dramatic material for prime-time viewing? Of course not. All we care about is results. But the human space flight program, some argue, exists primarily not for its scientific value, but for its inspirational value. In which case, I guess its "excitement" factor becomes more relevant.
On the other hand, it's not entirely clear what Giffords meant by her comments. Perhaps she wasn't arguing that the space program ought to be a lightweight version of "exciting," as in "ready-for-prime-time photo ops," but exciting in the sense of its potential impact. And if that's the case, then I agree with her. Research, in cancer, technology, or space, should hold exciting potential for advancement or discovery. Even if the "big bang" advancement lies some distance in the future.
But what constitutes exciting? To some people, developing the technology to allow humans to live for extended periods of time on another planetary body is incredibly exciting. "So far, we haven't been space explorers. We've been space backpackers, taking everything we need to survive with us," says K.R. Sridhar, a scientist and engineer who developed oxygen generators for NASA's Mars research program, only to have the project cancelled just before launch. Maybe living on Mars doesn't sound like a particularly fun or worthwhile experience. But developing the technology to allow humans to live beyond planet Earth ... that's kind of exciting. And perhaps even important, if we want our species to have the ability to survive cosmic disasters.
On the other hand, there are lots of other exciting research possibilities in space that don't involve the cost of a human space flight effort. The Kepler telescope, launched in March, is designed to search out planetary bodies orbiting distant suns at the right distance (ergo temperature) to allow water, and life as we know it, to exist. The telescope uses a sophisticated photometer to measure dips in brightness in the suns, indicating the passage of planetary bodies in front of them. By the size and frequency of the shadows, scientists will be able to determine the planets' orbital distance from the suns.
What does that do for us? As they've gained knowledge about just how massive the universe and numerous its galaxies are, scientists have become more confident that there must be life elsewhere. If Kepler can narrow the search down to some candidates with at least the first prerequisite for life (distance from a medium-sized sun), they might be able to do further scans, with other instruments and telescopes, to determine if elements like ozone, CO2, or oxygen exist in those distant atmospheres. What then? Kepler's principal investigator, a scientist named Bill Borucki, who championed the idea for decades before finally convincing his peers to support the research, said in a recent interview with Newsweek that eventually, we might launch "a probe that can travel near the speed of light and gets there, shows us pictures, listen to their radio stations and television stations, and gives us a much better understanding of this new planet."
If that's not exciting, I don't know what is.
NASA's researchers have struggled for years with how to keep the public interested in what they do, because doing anything in space is expensive. NASA, and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were formed to tackle problems and explorations that don't have a clear commercial benefit, and so aren't likely to be pursued by commercial companies, or are too risky to be pursued by commercial companies. And even with the advent of more commercial space companies, that difference in goals and risk-tolerance still exists. But since the public is footing NASA's bill, there's additional pressure for its work to appeal to a voting public with many more near-term concerns than how to save the species if an asteroid threatens or the sun explodes.
So although there's worth in any new knowledge or technology ... with limited resources, choices have to be made. Some already question the value of the International Space Station which, in the Moon/Mars plan currently on the books, would be dismantled only five years after its completion to free up funds for the next effort. A lot of other research was sacrificed to fund the Space Station. We surely don't want to keep doing that, if we aren't really excited about the results we get in the end.
We have a lot invested in the human space flight program, and the impact of dismantling it would be huge. Jobs, infrastructure, and knowledge now in place to pick up any new project would disappear--or at least scatter. Which means rebuilding it later, if we wanted to do that, would be an onerous task.(Dismantling it would also be politically tough, because of the jobs and local economic impact involved.) But maybe, radical as it might seem, "in the neighborhood" human space flight is something NASA can now turn over to the commercial sector. And maybe, especially in a time of tight budgets, NASA's money would be better used funding many smaller but very exciting projects like Kepler, and doing the risky work of figuring out how to explore the universe beyond our eight small planets. Rockets, after all, don't need humans on them to test new technology in ion or other propulsion systems, and even habitat technology like oxygen generators.
Then, if Kepler's descendants one day find a planet that looks suspiciously like a big blue marble, and has some interesting sounds bouncing across its ionosphere, we might have a reason to put humans back on the top of research rockets. A really, really, exciting one.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
A lab has successfully gestated premature lambs in artificial wombs. Are humans next?
When babies are born at 24 weeks’ gestation, “it is very clear they are not ready to be here,” says Emily Partridge, a research fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Doctors dress the hand-sized beings in miniature diapers and cradle them in plastic incubators, where they are fed through tubes. In many cases, IV lines deliver sedatives to help them cope with the ventilators strapped to their faces.
Each year, about 30,000 American babies are born this early—considered “critically preterm,” or younger than 26 weeks. Before 24 weeks, only about half survive, and those who live are likely to endure long-term medical complications. “Among those that survive, the challenges are things we all take for granted, like walking, talking, seeing, hearing,” says Kevin Dysart, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital.
They’re stuck between corporations trying to extract maximum profits from each flight and passengers who can broadcast their frustration on social media.
Two weeks ago, a man was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after being told it was overbooked. And late last week, American Airlines suspended a flight attendant after a fight nearly broke out between a passenger and the crew, over a stroller. What did the two incidents have in common? Both stories went viral after passengers’ videos showcased the rotten conditions of flying in coach today. But also, in both cases, it’s not particularly clear that the airline employees caught on camera had many better options.
On the infamous United flight, employees, following protocol, had to call security agents to remove a passenger in Chicago, due to a last-minute need to transport crew to fly out of Louisville the following day. United’s contract of carriage gives employees broad latitude to deny boarding to passengers. On the other hand, it is terrible to force a sitting passenger to get up and de-board a plane. So, the attendants were stuck: Either four people already seated had to leave the plane, or a flight scheduled the next day would have been grounded due to the lack of crew—which would have punished even more paying customers.
President Trump's plan will likely advocate for the repeal of a tax that only the ultra-wealthy pay.
I am not the first person President Trump or his economic team looks to for advice on tax reform. But if they wanted some, this is the free advice I’d give them: Don’t cut or eliminate the estate tax—raise it.
Repealing the estate tax—a tax on assets transferred from a deceased individual to their heirs—has become a staple cause among conservative Republicans. Eleven Republican candidates explicitly called for its elimination during the 2016 election. By calling it a “death tax,” and implying that it would hurt tens of millions of ordinary families, and force the sale of long-held family farms and family businesses, Republicans have successfully cast the estate tax as a ubiquitous and pernicious burden. That’s helped them win the public-relations battle over it so far.
The Hulu show has created a world that’s visually and psychologically unlike anything in film or television.
Call it luck, call it fate, call it the world’s most ridiculous viral marketing campaign, but the first television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is debuting on Wednesday to audiences who are hyper-ready for it. The 1985 speculative fiction work by Margaret Atwood has featured on library waitlists and Amazon’s top 20 for months now—partly in anticipation of the new Hulu show, and partly in response to the strange new landscape that emerged after November 9, wherein women in the millions felt compelled to take to the streets to assert their attachment to reproductive freedom. (When the release date for The Handmaid’s Tale was announced in December, people joked that it would likely be a documentary by the time it arrived on TV screens.)
An exploration of syndromes that are unique to particular cultures.
You can’t get your genitals stolen in America.
At least, not while they’re attached to your body. But people can in Nigeria, Benin, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In all of these places, there have been cases of koro (also called suo yang in some places), “a cultural syndrome where people feel like their genitals are being sucked into their body,” says Frank Bures. “And there’s a fear of death.” It’s often thought to be caused by some kind of curse, or spell, or spirit—something otherworldly.
This is the condition that sparked Bures’s interest and led to his new book The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes.In it, he investigates mostly penis theft, but also other examples of what are called “cultural syndromes” or “culture-bound syndromes”—conditions that only exist in, and seem to stem from, particular cultures. Other examples include “frigophobia” in China, “a fear of cold which has its roots in traditional Chinese cosmology of balancing between hot and cold”; running “amok” in Malaysia, when people go on a killing spree they can’t remember later; and “hikikomori,” in Japan, when people socially withdraw to the point where they never leave home.
A new paper examines the ways “whiteness” reproduces racial advantages and disadvantages.
Kassie Benjamin-Ficken, a teacher in Minneapolis, discovered her love of math in elementary school. One of her earliest memories is begging her mother to come to school so her teachers could share how she excelled in math class. While earning average scores in reading, she was consistently above average for math—which instilled her with a sense of accomplishment. That continued into middle school, where she recalls asking her math teachers to move her into a higher grade for more advanced content. But she remained in the same middle-school class.
Then in high school, her excitement for math slowly turned to disappointment. Benjamin-Ficken, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (a tribal nation in Minnesota), was one of two students of color in her 11th-grade pre-calculus class. When her study partner was absent for a series of days, Benjamin-Ficken began to struggle with the material and barely passed the class with a D-minus. Her senior year in AP Calculus repeated the pattern—lacking support and feeling ignored in the class, she passed with a D.