Next stop, Mars

Next stop, Mars
Inside the fierce debate over the fate of NASA’s new rover — and a chance to make history.
By Sarah Kaplan
Nov 16 2018
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/health-science/life-on-mars/

In three years, a new explorer will touch down on the Red Planet. Wheels churning, machinery whirring, the rover will amble across the rusty terrain, looking for rocks to send back to Earth — rocks that could prove there once was life on Mars.

It is the first time in history scientists have had a real shot at addressing one of humanity’s deepest questions: Are we alone?

But first they must decide where to look.

There are three options: a former hot spring NASA has visited once before, a dried-up river delta that fed into a crater lake, and a network of ancient mesas that may have hidden layers of underground water.

In the coming week, after decades of dreaming, years of research and a heated three-day debate at a workshop in Los Angeles last month, NASA’s top science official will choose which spot to explore. The site he selects will set the stage on which generations of scientists probe the mysteries of our existence.

This rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, is just the first phase of a multibillion-dollar, four-step sample return process. To put pieces of Mars in the hands of scientists will require a lander to retrieve the samples; a probe to bring them home; and then an ultra-secure storage facility that will keep Earth life from contaminating the Mars rocks — and vice versa.

Yet the discovery of fossils in those samples could illuminate the origins of life here on Earth. It could hint at whether someone else is still out there, waiting to be found.

“I want to know,” said Matt Golombek, a NASA scientist charged with guiding the search for a landing site. “Don’t you? I want to know what’s there. I want to know how big an accident we are.”

That hunger for knowledge is what drew hundreds of people to the recent workshop — veteran space explorers and aspiring PhDs, an 18-year-old college freshman and an 80-year-old retired accountant — to assess which plan was best. For days they debated, fueled by curiosity and weak coffee, conscious that the outcome of their meeting could influence NASA and shape history, acutely aware of what they still didn’t know.

So much about Mars remains a mystery. The very notion of alien life is barely more than an educated guess buoyed by wild hope.

They are hopeful.

[snip]

A massive change: Nations redefine the kilogram

A massive change: Nations redefine the kilogram
By Sarah Kaplan
Nov 15 2018
https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/a-massive-change-nations-will-vote-to-redefine-the-kilogram/2018/11/15/b5704b0a-e6c7-11e8-b8dc-66cca409c180_story.html

Humanity just made a weighty decision. On Friday, representatives of more than 60 nations, gathered in Versailles, France, approved a new definition for the kilogram.

Since the 19th century, scientists have based their definition of the fundamental unit of mass on a physical object — a shining platinum iridium cylinder stored in a locked vault in the bowels of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Sevres, France. A kilogram was equal to the heft of this aging hunk of metal, and this cylinder, by definition, weighed exactly a kilogram. If the cylinder changed, even a little bit, then the entire global system of measurement had to change, too.

With Friday’s vote, scientists redefined the kilogram for the 21st century by tying it to a fundamental feature of the universe — a small, strange figure from quantum physics known as Planck’s constant, which describes the smallest possible unit of energy.

Thanks to Albert Einstein’s revelation that energy and mass are related, determining exactly how much energy is in that unit can let scientists define mass in terms of Planck’s constant — a value that should hold up across space and time — rather than relying on an inconstant metal cylinder. (Mass determines something’s weight, and for most purposes mass and weight are interchangeable.)

The redefinition is the result of a decades-long, worldwide quest to measure Planck’s constant precisely enough that the number would stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Though the newly defined kilogram won’t affect your bathroom scale, it will have practical applications in research and industries that depend on meticulous measurement.

Friday’s vote is mostly a formality; everyone involved knew the resolution would pass. But to Jon Pratt, one of the leaders of that global effort, the event is about more than symbolism, bigger than business and beyond even physics.

In this era of violence and vitriol, when it seems there’s so little on which people can agree, Pratt said, the redefinition represents something sublime.

It is an acknowledgment of an immutable truth — that nature has laws to which all of us are subject. And it’s one more step toward a lofty dream — that, in understanding nature’s laws, scientists can help build a better world.

The scientist grinned, sheepish. “It’s an emotional moment,” he said. “I’m just really proud of our species.”

Leaving behind ‘Le Grand K’

At the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md., where Pratt works, measurement is often described as the “invisible infrastructure” of the modern world. Everything a person does — whether it’s checking a clock, forecasting the weather, cooking a meal, building a rocket, signing a contract, waging a war — requires measurements of some kind.

The International System of Units, or SI, is what allows us to communicate measurements around the globe. This system, which has its origins in the heady days of the Enlightenment, was meant to end the bickering over the number of Spanish vara in a British furlong and ease the anxieties of a merchant who bought goods in the Netherlands, where the unit of weight was based on the amount of fish that could fit in a ship’s hold, and sold them in France, where weight was tied to the heft of a wheat grain.

[snip]

The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical action to save us

The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical action to save us
Climate breakdown could be rapid and unpredictable. We can no longer tinker around the edges and hope minor changes will avert collapse
By George Monbiot
Nov 14 2018
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/14/earth-death-spiral-radical-action-climate-breakdown

It was a moment of the kind that changes lives. At a press conference held by climate activists Extinction Rebellion last week, two of us journalists pressed the organisers on whether their aims were realistic. They have called, for example, for UK carbon emissions to be reduced to net zero by 2025. Wouldn’t it be better, we asked, to pursue some intermediate aims?

A young woman called Lizia Woolf stepped forward. She hadn’t spoken before, but the passion, grief and fury of her response was utterly compelling. “What is it that you are asking me as a 20-year-old to face and to accept about my future and my life? … This is an emergency. We are facing extinction. When you ask questions like that, what is it you want me to feel?” We had no answer.

Softer aims might be politically realistic, but they are physically unrealistic. Only shifts commensurate with the scale of our existential crises have any prospect of averting them. Hopeless realism, tinkering at the edges of the problem, got us into this mess. It will not get us out.

Public figures talk and act as if environmental change will be linear and gradual. But the Earth’s systems are highly complex, and complex systems do not respond to pressure in linear ways. When these systems interact (because the world’s atmosphere, oceans, land surface and lifeforms do not sit placidly within the boxes that make study more convenient), their reactions to change become highly unpredictable. Small perturbations can ramify wildly. Tipping points are likely to remain invisible until we have passed them. We could see changes of state so abrupt and profound that no continuity can be safely assumed.

Only one of the many life support systems on which we depend – soils, aquifers, rainfall, ice, the pattern of winds and currents, pollinators, biological abundance and diversity – need fail for everything to slide. For example, when Arctic sea ice melts beyond a certain point, the positive feedbacks this triggers (such as darker water absorbing more heat, melting permafrost releasing methane, shifts in the polar vortex) could render runaway climate breakdown unstoppable. When the Younger Dryas period ended 11,600 years ago, temperatures rose 10C within a decade.

I don’t believe such a collapse is yet inevitable, or that a commensurate response is either technically or economically impossible. When the US joined the second world war in 1941, it replaced a civilian economy with a military economy within months. As Jack Doyle records in his book Taken for a Ride, “In one year, General Motors developed, tooled and completely built from scratch 1,000 Avenger and 1,000 Wildcat aircraft … Barely a year after Pontiac received a navy contract to build anti-shipping missiles, the company began delivering the completed product to carrier squadrons around the world.” And this was before advanced information technology made everything faster.

The problem is political. A fascinating analysis by the social science professor Kevin MacKay contends that oligarchy has been a more fundamental cause of the collapse of civilisations than social complexity or energy demand. Control by oligarchs, he argues, thwarts rational decision-making, because the short-term interests of the elite are radically different to the long-term interests of society. This explains why past civilisations have collapsed “despite possessing the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve their crises”. Economic elites, which benefit from social dysfunction, block the necessary solutions.

The oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster. Think of Donald Trump and his cabinet of multi-millionaires; the influence of the Koch brothers in funding rightwing organisations; the Murdoch empire and its massive contribution to climate science denial; or the oil and motor companies whose lobbying prevents a faster shift to new technologies.

It is not just governments that have failed to respond, though they have failed spectacularly. Public sector broadcasters have systematically shut down environmental coverage, while allowing the opaquely funded lobbyists that masquerade as thinktanks to shape public discourse and deny what we face. Academics, afraid to upset their funders and colleagues, have bitten their lips.

Even the bodies that claim to be addressing our predicament remain locked within destructive frameworks. Last Wednesday I attended a meeting about environmental breakdown at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Many people in the room seemed to understand that continued economic growth is incompatible with sustaining the Earth’s systems.

As the author Jason Hickel points out, a decoupling of rising GDP from global resource use has not happened and will not happen. While 50bn tonnes of resources used per year is roughly the limit the Earth’s systems can tolerate, the world is already consuming 70bn tonnes. At current rates of economic growth, this will rise to 180bn tonnes by 2050. Maximum resource efficiency, coupled with massive carbon taxes, would reduce this at best to 95bn tonnes: still way beyond environmental limits. Green growth, as members of the institute appear to accept, is physically impossible.

Yet on the same day, the same institute announced a major new economics prize for “ambitious proposals to achieve a step-change improvement in the growth rate”. It wants ideas that will enable economic growth rates in the UK at least to double. The announcement was accompanied by the usual blah about sustainability, but none of the judges of the prize has a discernible record of environmental interest.

Those to whom we look for solutions trundle on as if nothing has changed. As if the accumulating evidence has no purchase on their minds. Decades of institutional failure ensures that only “unrealistic” proposals – the repurposing of economic life, with immediate effect – now have a realistic chance of stopping the planetary death spiral. And only those who stand outside the failed institutions can lead this effort.

[snip]

Fewer foreign students coming to United States for second year in row: survey

Fewer foreign students coming to United States for second year in row: survey
By Yeganeh Torbati
Nov 13 2018
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-students/fewer-foreign-students-coming-to-united-states-for-second-year-in-row-survey-idUSKCN1NI0EN

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of international students entering U.S. colleges and universities has fallen for the second year in a row, a nonprofit group said on Tuesday, amid efforts by the Trump administration to tighten restrictions on foreigners studying in the United States. 

New enrollments for the 2017-18 school year slumped 6.6 percent compared with the previous year, according to an annual survey released by the Institute of International Education. That follows a 3.3 percent decline in new international students tallied in the 2016-17 academic year. 

Several factors are driving the decrease. Visa and immigration policy changes by the Trump administration have deterred some international students from enrolling, college administrators and immigration analysts said. 

A strong dollar has made U.S. college tuition relatively more expensive, Canadian and European universities are competing fiercely for the same students and headlines about mass shootings also may have deterred some students, said Allan Goodman, president of IIE. 

“Everything matters from safety, to cost, to perhaps perceptions of visa policy,” Goodman said. “We’re not hearing that students feel they can’t come here. We’re hearing that they have choices. We’re hearing that there’s competition from other countries.” 

International students have become an important funding source for American colleges as traditional revenue sources, such as state funding, come under pressure. Most undergraduate foreign students do not qualify for need-based financial aid and must pay close to full tuition and fees to attend U.S. schools. 

Similar to previous years, the largest numbers of students came from China, India and South Korea, which together made up 56.1 percent of all international students. 

IIE did not track new international student numbers before the 2004-05 school year, but Goodman said the recent declines in new enrollments were comparable to the period after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The annual survey of foreign-student enrollment is funded by the U.S. State Department. 

Some immigration policy experts and college administrators attribute the decline to the Trump administration’s drive to restrict immigration and an overall sense of a U.S. political climate that is hostile to immigrants and foreigners. 

“It is not a welcoming environment,” said Doug Rand, a former White House official working on immigration issues during the Obama administration. 

He noted that Trump has moved to restrict the issuance of skilled-worker visas and permanent residency, which many incoming students may apply for in the future. 

“It’s an act of willful ignorance to suggest that our immigration policies aren’t having a direct impact on foreign student enrollment,” Rand said. 

Caroline Casagrande, a State Department official, said the “flattening” in international student enrollments began with the 2015-2016 year, prior to the start of the Trump administration. That year, new enrollments still increased by 2.4 percent compared with the prior year. 

“The U.S. Department of State is committed to facilitating the legitimate travel to the United States of individuals who want to study in U.S. academic institutions,” Casagrande said during a phone call with reporters. “It’s quite frankly unwarranted to say that it is completely the result of a political environment.” 

Cary Jensen, assistant vice provost for international advocacy and engagement at the University of Rochester in New York, said international students had been receiving more scrutiny from the U.S. government since the Sept. 11 attacks, but that “this last year and a half has just taken it to another level.” 

Jensen said a major issue facing American universities was the lack of clarity surrounding the Trump administration’s policies, in part due to lengthy court battles over policies like Trump’s travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries. 

[snip]

This European comedy sketch explains how the world sees America’s gun problem

This European comedy sketch explains how the world sees America’s gun problem
From the outside, it’s just baffling.
By German Lopez
Nov 9 2018
https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/9/16448302/mass-shootings-guns-nra-sunday-lubach

When the rest of the world looks at America’s gun problem, it’s often with bafflement. 

Sunday with Lubach, which is sort of like the Dutch version of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, looked at guns — specifically, the US’s love of firearms. And it’s very telling.

For one, the satirical Dutch video describes America’s love of guns as so bad that it is an illness: Nonsensical Rifle Addiction, or NRA — a reference to the biggest gun lobby group in the country.

“Dear fellow Europeans,” the video’s narrator begins, “a devastating humanitarian crisis is threatening a small country on the coast of North America: the United States of America.”

The video goes on to list some of the statistics related to America’s gun homicides and accidents from Gun Violence Archive: 24,000 injuries and 11,000 deaths so far this year, culminating to roughly 40 deaths a day. The video pins this on “a terrible epidemic.”

“NRA is a constitutional disorder caused by a dysfunction of the prefrontal Second Amendment in the nonsensical cortex, causing patients to shoot people,” the narrator explains. “It starts with an innocent Colt, but soon patients will show signs of shotguns, sniper rifles, and M16s even. Often, patients use silencers to hide their condition.”

The video goes on like this, showing pictures that you’d expect to see in a typical humanitarian crisis PSA about a major disease halfway across the world — black and white images, sad people, children suffering, and so on.

There are things in the video that some Americans, particularly supporters of gun rights, will surely disagree with or even find offensive. 

But that’s kind of the point. To the rest of the world, this problem is straightforward: If you have a problem with guns, then you should deal with the guns directly. That’s what other nations have done, from Canada to the UK to Australia to Japan — and they see dramatically fewer gun deaths. 

The empirical research shows these are related: Where there are fewer guns, there are fewer gun deaths. And gun control measures are truly followed with a reduction in gun deaths, suggesting that they save lives.

[snip]

The growth of yoga and meditation in the US since 2012 is remarkable

The growth of yoga and meditation in the US since 2012 is remarkable
The number of Americans who meditate has tripled. Yoga is up 55 percent.
By Eliza Barclay and Julia Belluz
Nov 11 2018
https://www.vox.com/2018/11/8/18073422/yoga-meditation-apps-health-anxiety-cdc

Yoga and meditation, two ancient practices, are now officially the most popular alternative health approaches in the United States, each used by around 35 million adults.

That’s the word from two reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out Thursday, which looked at the changes in the use of yoga, meditation, and chiropractors between 2012 and 2017. 

In 2017, about 14.3 percent of US adults surveyed by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics said they had done yoga in the past 12 months, while 14.2 percent had meditated, the reports show. That’s up from 2012, when 9 percent were doing yoga and 4 percent meditating.

And it’s not just adults; more kids are doing yoga and meditation too. In 2012, fewer than half a percent of kids had meditated, while now it’s now 5 percent. Yoga for kids grew from 3 percent in 2012 to 8 percent last year. 

The report also showed a smaller increase in Americans’ use of chiropractors: It climbed from 9.1 percent in 2012 to 10.3 percent in 2017.

The big growth in yoga and meditation is clearly linked to better availability, with a boom in studios, classes, and apps, some of them free and online. 

But as more Americans find they are struggling with mental health issues like anxiety, distraction, and physical issues like chronic pain, they’re seeking therapies that don’t involve pharmaceuticals. 

“Many forces in our culture have conspired to elevate anxiety and stress — in part due to a lot of messages related to fear in the media — and this makes people unsettled,” Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin Madison and founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, told Vox. “I think there is an increasing interest in strategies like yoga and meditation that can help people adjust to modern circumstances.”

Scientists like Davidson, meanwhile, are finding that yoga and meditation can be at least somewhat effective for a wide array of health concerns — with few side effects. Here’s a quick summary of what we know about yoga and meditation’s potential health benefits.

Yoga’s promising health benefits 

Researchers who have studied the health effects of yoga say it’s probably just as good for your health as many other forms of exercise. But it seems particularly promising for improving lower back pain and, crucially, reducing inflammation in the body, which can help stave off disease. 

There are also several randomized controlled trials suggesting that yoga may improve quality of life for diabetes patients, reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors, and even help people manage high blood pressure.

How can this be? One possibility has to do with inflammation. 

You can think about inflammation in two ways. There’s helpful inflammation, as when your body’s immune system mounts a response to bacteria in a cut. There’s also harmful inflammation. When you’re stressed, your body’s inflammatory response can go into overdrive, hampering its ability to fight off viruses and disease. People who are inactive or obese or who eat an unhealthy diet have higher levels of harmful inflammation. And researchers have found associations between inflammation and various chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Yoga — like other mind-body exercises such as tai chi and meditation — seems to be particularly helpful in reducing harmful inflammation. A 2014 meta-analysis on the effects of mind-body therapies on the immune system found that yoga reduces inflammation-based blood markers. So did this 2014 randomized controlled trial looking at women with breast cancer and breast cancer survivors.

Michael Irwin at UCLA’s medical school, one of the authors of a 2015 descriptive review on inflammation and mind-body exercises, told Vox, “When you look at the aerobic exercise necessary to decrease inflammation, people have to maintain very vigorous levels.” But not with yoga, he continued. “Even practices with minimum levels of physical activity [like Iyengar stretches] can have large effect sizes.” Researchers don’t yet know why, though they think the meditative components of yoga, tai chi, and meditation may have something to do with it.

[snip]

Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer

[Note:  This item comes from friend Paul Pangaro.  DLH]

Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer
The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so?
By Nellie Bowles
Nov 9 2018
<https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/09/business/yuval-noah-harari-silicon-valley.html>

The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari worries about a lot.

He worries that Silicon Valley is undermining democracy and ushering in a dystopian hellscape in which voting is obsolete.

He worries that by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will.

He worries that because the technological revolution’s work requires so few laborers, Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class and a teeming, furious “useless class.”

But lately, Mr. Harari is anxious about something much more personal. If this is his harrowing warning, then why do Silicon Valley C.E.O.s love him so?

“One possibility is that my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it?” a puzzled Mr. Harari said one afternoon in October. “For me, that’s more worrying. Maybe I’m missing something?”

When Mr. Harari toured the Bay Area this fall to promote his latest book, the reception was incongruously joyful. Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, threw him a dinner party. The leaders of X, Alphabet’s secretive research division, invited Mr. Harari over. Bill Gates reviewed the book (“Fascinating” and “such a stimulating writer”) in The New York Times.

“I’m interested in how Silicon Valley can be so infatuated with Yuval, which they are — it’s insane he’s so popular, they’re all inviting him to campus — yet what Yuval is saying undermines the premise of the advertising- and engagement-based model of their products,” said Tristan Harris, Google’s former in-house design ethicist and the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.

Part of the reason might be that Silicon Valley, at a certain level, is not optimistic on the future of democracy. The more of a mess Washington becomes, the more interested the tech world is in creating something else, and it might not look like elected representation. Rank-and-file coders have long been wary of regulation andcurious about alternative forms of government. A separatist streak runs through the place: Venture capitalists periodically call for California to secede or shatter, or forthe creation of corporate nation-states. And this summer, Mark Zuckerberg, who has recommended Mr. Harari to his book club, acknowledged a fixation with the autocrat Caesar Augustus. “Basically,” Mr. Zuckerberg told The New Yorker, “through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace.”

Mr. Harari, thinking about all this, puts it this way: “Utopia and dystopia depends on your values.”

Mr. Harari, who has a Ph.D. from Oxford, is a 42-year-old Israeli philosopher and a history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The story of his current fame begins in 2011, when he published a book of notable ambition: to survey the whole of human existence. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” first released in Hebrew, did not break new ground in terms of historical research. Nor did its premise — that humans are animals and our dominance is an accident — seem a likely commercial hit. But the casual tone and smooth way Mr. Harari tied together existing knowledge across fields made it a deeply pleasing read, even as the tome ended on the notion that the process of human evolution might be over. Translated into English in 2014, the book went on to sell more than eight million copies and made Mr. Harari a celebrity intellectual.

He followed up with “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” which outlined his vision of what comes after human evolution. In it, he describes Dataism, a new faith based around the power of algorithms. Mr. Harari’s future is one in which big data is worshiped, artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, and some humans develop Godlike abilities.

Now, he has written a book about the present and how it could lead to that future: “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” It is meant to be read as a series of warnings. His recent TED Talk was called “Why fascism is so tempting — and how your data could power it.”

His prophecies might have made him a Cassandra in Silicon Valley, or at the very least an unwelcome presence. Instead, he has had to reconcile himself to the locals’ strange delight. “If you make people start thinking far more deeply and seriously about these issues,” he told me, sounding weary, “some of the things they will think about might not be what you want them to think about.”

[snip]