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.
“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.
An interview with the Associated Press shows President Trump slowly coming to terms with the size of the government he now runs, and the challenges he must tackle.
Every president faces a steep learning curve when he enters the presidency. There is, as John F. Kennedy, wrote, no school for commanders in chief. Yet even by that standard, recent interviews show a Donald Trump who is genuinely surprised by the size of his duties, the interests he must balance, and the methods required to get that done.
On Sunday, the Associated Press released a transcript of an interview with the president last week. It deserves to be read in full: It captures his constant evasiveness on facts, preferring hyperbole, for example, and his detachment from reality—when asked about a “contract with the American voter” on what he’d achieve in 100 days, Trump dismisses it, saying, “Somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan.”
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.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
The president is making a late push to win funding for his border wall in a must-pass spending bill. But it’s not clear how badly he—or Republicans—want to fight.
If President Trump wants to shut down the federal government over funding for his southern border wall, Democrats seem happy to oblige him.
Four days before a deadline for Congress to pass a spending bill, thebig question is just how much Trump wants to have the fight his administration has begun to wage over the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have been negotiating for weeks on legislation to avert a shutdown on April 29 and fund the government for the remaining five months of the fiscal year. Officials in both parties have characterized the talks positively: Neither side wants a shutdown, and they have largely reached agreement on the critical issues of how much money to appropriate to each department and agency.
With Benoît Hamon’s defeat, his Socialist Party may be obsolete.
In the first round of a French presidential election, there will, naturally, always be more losers than winners. But until Sunday, the Socialist Party had lost in the initial round only once before: In 2002, when incumbent Prime Minister Lionel Jospin unexpectedly finished a close third, behind a surprise surge from the National Front’s leader (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen.
This year, independent-centrist Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, now leader of the FN herself, will move on to the final round on May 7. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished an unprecedented fifth. His loss feels very different from Jospin’s of 15 years ago, and not only because his paltry share of the vote was so much lower—just over 6 percent compared to Jospin’s 16.
Plant proteins called lectins are an emerging source of confusion and fear.
Two weeks ago, a publicist sent me an early copy of a book that claimed it would change everything I thought I knew about food.
That happens a lot. This one caught my eye because it warned of the “hidden dangers lurking in my salad bowl,” and I was eating a salad.
The book, The Plant Paradox, has an image of an artfully smashed tomato on the cover, and it tells readers that eating tomatoes is “inciting a kind of chemical warfare in our bodies, causing inflammatory reactions that can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions.”
Tomatoes and ill-timed references to chemical warfare are, apparently, only a small part of the problem. The Plant Paradox urgently warns against eating wheat, beans, and peanuts, among other plants.
The president has been frustrated on many fronts in his first hundred days, but on his watch, unauthorized border crossings have fallen sharply.
Obamacare remains the law of the land. So does NAFTA. Tax reform exists only as pixels in a tweet. Infrastructure ain’t happening. Five months after the Republicans won united control of Congress and the presidency, it seems uncertain whether one-party Washington can avoid a government shutdown over a budget dispute.
Yet as Day 100 of his presidency nears, President Donald Trump can take credit for one huge accomplishment, an accomplishment more central to his election campaign than any of the unfulfilled pledges above. Illegal immigration into the United States has slowed dramatically. The Department of Homeland Security reports that illegal crossings across the southern border plunged 40 percent in the first month of the Trump presidency, the steepest decline in illegal migration since the recession of 2009. Illegal immigration by family groups with children has dropped by over 90 percent.
A machine mapped the most frequently used emotional trajectories in fiction, and compared them with the ones readers like best.
“My prettiest contribution to my culture,” the writer Kurt Vonnegut mused in his 1981 autobiography Palm Sunday, “was a master’s thesis in anthropology which was rejected by the University of Chicago a long time ago.”
By then, he said, the thesis had long since vanished. (“It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Vonnegut explained.) But he continued to carry the idea with him for many years after that, and spoke publicly about it more than once. It was, essentially, this: “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers. They are beautiful shapes.”
That explanation comes from a lecture he gave, and which you can still watch on YouTube, that involves Vonnegut mapping the narrative arc of popular storylines along a simple graph. The X-axis represents the chronology of the story, from beginning to end, while the Y-axis represents the experience of the protagonist, on a spectrum of ill fortune to good fortune. “This is an exercise in relativity, really,” Vonnegut explains. “The shape of the curve is what matters.”