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 permissiveness of Republican leaders who acquiesce to violence, collusion, and corruption is encouraging more of the same.
In the annals of the Trump era, May 25, 2017, will deserve a special mark. Four remarkable things happened on Thursday, each of which marks a way that this presidency is changing the nation.
The first remarkable thing was President Trump’s speech at the NATO summit in Brussels. Many European governments had hoped—which is a polite way to say that they had suggested and expected—that Trump would reaffirm the American commitment to defend NATO members if attacked. This is the point of the whole enterprise after all! Here’s how it was done by President Obama at the NATO summit after the Russian invasion of Crimea:
First and foremost, we have reaffirmed the central mission of the Alliance. Article 5 enshrines our solemn duty to each other—“an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against them all.” This is a binding, treaty obligation. It is non-negotiable. And here in Wales, we’ve left absolutely no doubt—we will defend every Ally.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
The condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
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At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
A Washington Post report suggests the president's son-in-law and adviser sought to give Moscow information he wanted to conceal from America's own intelligence agencies.
Why did Jared Kushner seemingly trust Russian officials more than he trusted the U.S. government?
Friday evening, The Washington Post broke the story that, according to an intercepted report by the Russian ambassador in Washington to his superiors in Moscow, Kushner sought to use secure communications facilities at the Russian Embassy to correspond directly with Russian officials. The Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, reported that the proposal was made in December, after Trump won the election but before he had taken office. The conversations reportedly involved Michael Flynn, the former Trump national-security adviser who was fired after it was revealed that he lied to administration officials about the content of his conversations with Russian officials.
While he avoided major blunders in the Middle East on his first foreign trip, he may come to regret his failure to affirm U.S. support for the alliance.
Presidential trips are hard to assess. George H.W. Bush threw up on the Japanese prime minister; he was sick. Bill Clinton went to China without going to Japan, a big no-no. Someone threw a shoe at George W Bush; he ducked. President Barack Obama failed to meet with human-rights activists in China. His speech was censored on Chinese television.
These all passed for big problems. Then again, those were different times.
The bar for President Donald Trump on his foreign trips this past week was, by comparison, unusually low. Everyone expected problems. Trump famously knows very little about foreign policy. In his March 17 meeting with Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, he confessed he had never heard of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or the G-20. She made him a colorful map of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, which he apparently liked. So, when Trump embarked on a nine-day trip of five countries, it seemed particularly ambitious. Most new presidents go to Canada or Mexico.
The Washington Post reports that the president’s son-in-law suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities to create a secret channel to Moscow.
Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to President Trump and his son-in-law, suggested to Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that he be allowed to use Russian diplomatic facilities to communicate securely with Moscow, The Washington Postreported on Friday.
The request reportedly came in a meeting in Trump Tower at the beginning of December that included Kushner, Kislyak, and former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn. It came to the attention of American officials through intercepts of Russian communications in which Kislyak relayed the request to his superiors in Moscow; the officials who spoke to the Post specified that they were not monitoring either the meeting or the communications of the Americans who were present.
Should you drink more coffee? Should you take melatonin? Can you train yourself to need less sleep? A physician’s guide to sleep in a stressful age.
During residency, Iworked hospital shifts that could last 36 hours, without sleep, often without breaks of more than a few minutes. Even writing this now, it sounds to me like I’m bragging or laying claim to some fortitude of character. I can’t think of another type of self-injury that might be similarly lauded, except maybe binge drinking. Technically the shifts were 30 hours, the mandatory limit imposed by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, but we stayed longer because people kept getting sick. Being a doctor is supposed to be about putting other people’s needs before your own. Our job was to power through.
The shifts usually felt shorter than they were, because they were so hectic. There was always a new patient in the emergency room who needed to be admitted, or a staff member on the eighth floor (which was full of late-stage terminally ill people) who needed me to fill out a death certificate. Sleep deprivation manifested as bouts of anger and despair mixed in with some euphoria, along with other sensations I’ve not had before or since. I remember once sitting with the family of a patient in critical condition, discussing an advance directive—the terms defining what the patient would want done were his heart to stop, which seemed likely to happen at any minute. Would he want to have chest compressions, electrical shocks, a breathing tube? In the middle of this, I had to look straight down at the chart in my lap, because I was laughing. This was the least funny scenario possible. I was experiencing a physical reaction unrelated to anything I knew to be happening in my mind. There is a type of seizure, called a gelastic seizure, during which the seizing person appears to be laughing—but I don’t think that was it. I think it was plain old delirium. It was mortifying, though no one seemed to notice.
Preston Brooks, Greg Gianforte, and the American tradition of disguising cowardice as bravery
You wouldn’t say that Preston Brooks sucker-punched Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in 1856—but only because he used a cane. Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, began bludgeoning Sumner, the anti-slavery Massachusetts senator, while Sumner wasn’t looking, and beat him unconscious as Sumner was still bent under his desk trying to stand up.
Brooks and his supporters in the South saw the incident as an act of great valor, as the historian Manisha Sinha writes. Brooks bragged that “for the first five or six licks he offered to make fight but I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf.” The pro-slavery Richmond Enquirer wrote that it considered the act “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence.” Other “southern defenders of Brooks,” Sinha writes, praised Brooks for his “manly spirit” and mocked Sumner for his “unmanly submission.” It would have been manlier for the unarmed Sumner not to have been ambushed.
The founding member of the Allman Brothers Band passed away in Savannah, Georgia.
Founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, Gregory LeNoir "Gregg" Allman, who with his Hammond B-3 organ, and soft but growling voice helped create a sound that was simultaneously jazz, rock, blues, and parts San Francisco jam band, and that became the defining tone of Southern Rock music, died on Saturday. He was 69.
His death was announced on his website, and gave no official cause. Allman struggled much his life with health issues and drug addiction, and the statement on his death said, “During that time, Gregg considered being on the road playing music with his brothers and solo band for his beloved fans, essential medicine for his soul. Playing music lifted him up and kept him going during the toughest of times." It added that he “passed away peacefully at his home in Savannah, Georgia."
The president’s business tells lawmakers it is too difficult to track all its foreign revenue in accordance with constitutional requirements, and it hasn’t asked Congress for a permission slip.
Days before taking office, Donald Trump said his company would donate all profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, part of an effort to avoid even the appearance of a conflict with the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Now, however, the Trump Organization is telling Congress that determining exactly how much of its profits come from foreign governments is simply more trouble than it’s worth.
In response to a document request from the House Oversight Committee, Trump’s company sent a copy of an eight-page pamphlet detailing how it plans to track payments it receives from foreign governments at the firm’s many hotels, golf courses, and restaurants across the globe. But while the Trump Organization said it would set aside all money it collects from customers that identify themselves as representing a foreign government, it would not undertake a more intensive effort to determine if a payment would violate the Constitution’s prohibition on public office holders accepting an “emolument” from a foreign state.