Big Think Interview with Maurice Ashley
In 1999 Maurice Ashley became the first African-American to achieve the exalted chess rank of international grandmaster. He has been a chess commentator on ESPN and is the author of the book "Chess for Success: Using an Old Game to Build New Strengths in Children and Teens."
Question: When did you leave Jamaica?
Maurice Ashley: I came when I was 12 years-old and came with my brother and sister. My mother actually left us in the care of our grandmother and she came to America and worked 10 years and was finally able to afford to bring us to join her, so we lived away from her for all that time, but finally we reunited. This was 1978 and yeah, I’ve been back a few times. You know it’s Jamaica. There is not much excuse needed to go back to Jamaica.
Question: When did you take up chess?
Maurice Ashley: I did it in high school. A friend of mine was playing chess and I had already actually known the rules. My brother played the game with his friends, so I thought I was a pretty smart kid and I played this friend of mine and he just crushed me and this was Brooklyn Tech High School in Brooklyn where I still live, in Brooklyn, New York and this guy beat me so bad it wasn’t even funny. I couldn’t understand why he beat me. Well I just so happened to bump into a chess book in the library at school and I didn’t know that there were books on chess and so I take this book out and I’m like this is going to be cool, I’m going to whoop on this guy now, so I studied the book and I go back and the guy crushes me again and it turns out he had read that book and about nine other books, so that is the first time I really understood that there were books in chess and that studying mattered and it would be effective and I just played. His name is Clotaire Colas. I played Clotaire just about every day after school after that and I was just obsessed like most people get obsessed when they play chess.
Question: What drew you to the game?
Maurice Ashley: I think just everything about chess. I mean well first of all, I wanted to beat him, so the competition was a big side. I love to win. I’m very competitive in most games, but I think also the beauty of the game. There was something about it, the pieces, the shapes, something about them coordinating together and trying to get the other guy. I think most people are fascinated by chess for that reason. It’s just these mystical shapes. It’s almost like Harry Potteresque, like wizard’s chess in a way. The pieces come alive and you’re the sorcerer. You’re the magician and you get to do what you want with them and hopefully you don’t screw it up.
Question: You come from a competitive family?
Maurice Ashley: Oh yeah, I have some pretty hardcore brothers and sisters. My brother, oldest brother Devon, he is a kickboxing champion. He has been three time world champion in his weight class and my sister Alicia, she is a three time world champion boxer as well, so we stay away from our own sports when we get together. We play like cards and dominoes, traditional Jamaican games. I’m from Jamaica originally, things that are not our specialty, but even when we play those games we’re super competitive. It’s like it’s trash talking and trying to win and that is like family time in the Ashley household.
Question: But you found a way to channel your aggression into chess?
Maurice Ashley: Yeah, I don’t like getting hit for one, although you know I did take Aikido for many years, but Aikido is a different kind of martial art, maybe even a more cerebral art because it’s all about redirecting the energies of your opponent instead of trying to bash your opponent’s head in effectively, so it’s a much more loving art, so I guess I tend that way normally anyway.
Question: What does it take to play top-level chess?
Maurice Ashley: I think that chess grandmasters come in all shapes and sizes, stripes, different personalities. You have your types that are hyper aggressive killers, I mean gangsters really, guy who just don’t care. They want to rip your heart out, cook it, and eat it later. You know you have those types in the chess world where they just go straight for the throat and that is their natural personality and you have other types that are more like boa constrictors, the quiet types. They got you. You’re going to die. It’s okay, relax. This won’t be… It will be slow and maybe it will be painful, but you know it’s over, so just enjoy the death. So you don’t see the same types in the chess world, but I think that competitiveness is one quality though, definitely people who want to win, people who are about victory and if you’re not truly determined, if you’re not the kind of person who sees a goal and goes right after it and will work any amount of time, any amount of hours just to make sure that happens you can’t be a chess grandmaster. I think that is first, determination and competitiveness.
Question: Are you a boa constrictor or an aggressive killer?
Maurice Ashley: Well I’m from Jamaica and I’m from Brooklyn and so that… You know in my earlier days I was much more a shoot them, kill them type definitely. I had a lot of creativity. I calculated really well and so I just thought go for the throat. That is the only way to do it you know. You got to kill them. Don’t let them blink. First chance you get attack. When I started going out into the chess world and playing against better players, particularly those Russians who somehow knew how to defend really, really well and they just sat there and it was like Napoleon trying to come into Moscow or into… like right into the heart of it and then Siberia… the Siberian winter shuts you down. That’s what happened on a chess board and I realized this style just didn’t work at least at that level, so I had to pair it back a little bit and start to understand a more nuanced style, so now my style is a lot more family man if you will, a lot more delicate, a lot more nuanced as to how I execute, but don’t make a mistake because Brooklyn comes right back.
Question: At what age did you become a grandmaster?
Maurice Ashley: I was pretty old actually. I was 33 years-old when I became a grandmaster, which in chess now I might as well be geriatric. I mean chess grandmasters are springing up now at 15, 16, 17. The youngest is like 12, which is insane. In this new computer age though it’s more normal, but it took me quite awhile. I started chess very late. I started at 14, so you can imagine that is over the hill in chess now, but it took me awhile before I became a grandmaster.
I think that the older generation gets a knock or the older you get the less your brain works and your neurons don’t develop as well or don’t connect as well and all that. Of course there is a lot of things happening in neuroscience now, a lot of exciting developments that show that you can make connections at a later age and learn anything you want, so yeah, I remember actually I had a trainer, Gregory Kaidanov who helped me to become a grandmaster, who helped me in the final stage of becoming a grandmaster and when I finally did it… We worked together for about a year and I finally became a grandmaster and he said to me, “You didn’t really start chess at 14, right?” And I said, "Yeah, yeah, I didn’t play my first tournament until I was like 15 or 16 years-old" And he said, “Are you sure?” And I was like "Yeah," and he said, “You know it’s incredible because I tell people when they come to me with their kids and say they want to start and if they tell me they’re 14 or 15, I tell them forget it. It’s not going to happen.” And here was this guy who was training me all this time and didn’t tell me what he actually believed. I was like Gregory that sucks. He should have at least revealed it to me earlier, but I’m glad he didn’t because I wanted to become a grandmaster so passionately that I was going to pursue it no matter what, but it’s funny that here he was training me and with like disbelief that I could become a grandmaster at such a late age.
Question: What did it mean to you to become the first African-American grandmaster?
Maurice Ashley: That was pretty special. Probably less to me than to people who were following my story. I wanted to become a grandmaster. I happened to be African-American, so you know no way to escape that from birth, but to me it’s just like a thing that you’re born with blue eyes and dark hair and we all look different. It’s just the human family, but I know the history of what African-Americans have gone through in this country in particular in the United States and around the world what people of color have gone through, so I knew that this had some really profound symbolic significance and that I would inspire a lot of young people in particular who may have hoped to do something like what I’m doing whether it’s chess or anything, intellectual science, anything that required some serious brain power, but that who have been told that that’s not what we’re really good at, that we’re really more like basketball players and football, more athletic types or entertainers, so I knew that there was a significant achievement that I would be accomplishing here from that perspective and I mean don’t get me wrong. I’m aware of all of that, so I was really proud to do that and happy for a lot of other folk. For me I just really wanted to become a grandmaster though. That was first and foremost.
Question: Describe the chess game that earned you the grandmaster title
Maurice Ashley: Well thankfully there have been a few games. There have been a few games. I remember the game when I became a grandmaster. That was pretty special and that was the day was pretty cool because in order to become a grandmaster you have to get what are called norms. Norms are basically like a final exam and you have to take three final exams except this final exam involves opponents who are actually changing the questions as you play the game, right, so it’s not like you get like the test and you have to solve these combinations and now you’re a grandmaster. It’s you have to go in battle and defeat opponents who do not want you to win obviously, so I had to play all these top players and travel all around the world to the kind of tournaments that would give these norms, these sort of final exams and play some of the top Russians in the world. I remember playing former world champion Alexander Khalifman, a big game and these great candidates, great chess players, but I passed two of these final exams, these norms and I had a third one in front of me and I had beaten a lot of players and I now was facing a Romanian international master, Adrian Negulescu, and I knew that I was going to play him that day and I knew if I won that game I’d be a grandmaster and I was a basket case before the game.
I remember getting ready to play the game. I was ironing a shirt and thoughts were just racing through my head and I was trying to relax and I reflected on my grandmother who was passed away and something she used to say to me a lot, which was jack of all trades, master of none and I never understood why this lady was talking to me about it. You know she just kept saying jack of all trades, master of none. I thought it was like a curse. You know I was never going to be good at anything and believe it or not I didn’t understand what she meant or didn’t feel what she meant until that moment with that iron in my hand. I almost dropped the iron when I realized that she wasn’t saying it out of malice or trying to curse me in any way and really that is how I thought about it, but that she was saying it out of love and she was saying just pursue your dream. You’ll be great at that one thing. I know you’re good at a lot of things, because I was good at a lot of things, but just pursue your dream and work hard. You’ll be good at that one thing. I realized in that moment. I almost started crying. I just choked up. The iron fell out of my hand and I was broken up for a moment and that just changed me in a second and I went to the game and I had this incredible calmness in the game, just like it’s cool, particularly it was like around move 14 I just realized everything is going to be fine and I just played like let’s go, let’s go and when the critical moment came it was still easy and then the winning move was this really simple move that a beginner would find and I relished that moment. I looked at it and I said wait a second. I’ve been traveling this long road, 19 years in chess and the winning move is a beginner’s move. This is what is going to make me a grandmaster, so it was like full circle back to what the game was about and I just made the move and my opponent resigned and I just… It was just this joyous moment in my life.
Question: What about the stereotype that the chess world is filled with nerds and crazies?
Maurice Ashley: Yeah, I think there is truth to that stereotype actually. I mean I’m a proud nerd. I love studying languages. I love reading books. Anything scientific is cool. I’m a Star Trek nut job, maybe not so much a Trekkie. I’m not going to wear the ears and stuff like that, but you know I love science fiction and I love chess and I love anything intellectual. I don’t think I’m crazy. That I wouldn’t say and I don’t think most chess players are crazy frankly, but I think that there is an element, after all it’s an intellectual game, so there is an element of folks who go that way, who are really intellectual and also who may be shy, who might get their pleasure from a world, sort of the fantasy world of the chessboard, so you’re going to attract certain types to chess and the media loves those types. If you’re going to pick like the normal average Joe playing chess or the guy over there who is kind of looking off into space or looking down at his shoes when you talk to him that is usually where the camera will go and he’ll be the one people notice more and you get a few of those types in the chess world and unfortunately they skew it for the rest of us, so yeah, you do have to be intellectual I think to be a grandmaster for sure, but you don’t have to be crazy, no.
Question: What does chess do for your mind?
Maurice Ashley: Chess is intellectual karate. It’s a discipline that you practice and you can’t help but develop your mental powers. If you’re practicing martial arts or basketball or soccer your body is going to develop. Chess is the same way. You’re mind…but in having your mind develop that way, so the focus, the concentration, problem solving, goal setting, all these things are things you have to do at the chess board. You have to practice and it just hones those qualities. Also there is that self esteem. There is nothing like saying checkmate. I mean that is a magical sound wherever you are. Boom, mate fool, you know that is just a good feeling and when kids do that they feel empowered. It’s like let’s play again. I love that. I want to do that again and once you get hooked and you start to see yourself getting better. I remember coaching kids and a kid would take a checkmate that I showed him or a tactical idea, a double attack, especially those because it’s so frequent where you attack two pieces at the same time and you go and you play a game and suddenly you do it and bam, you’re hitting two pieces and only one can move and so you’re going to get the other one and they come back and their eyes are lit up, like wow, I just used what you showed me and won the game, show me something else and that is irreplaceable. I mean that is what you want for kids for them to be excited about learning and chess does that constantly. It’s I love the main point of chess that it’s applied knowledge. It’s not just you’re learning something and maybe sometime 10 years from now it’s going to be good for your character and you better learn these declensions in Latin. You know it’s chess. It’s like I get it and then I use it and that is very powerful about the game.
Question: How do you keep your cool at the chessboard when you’ve blundered away an advantage?
Maurice Ashley: I don’t know. No, I’m kidding. Yeah, you do beat yourself up pretty bad. There are a lot of mood swings in chess. It’s very difficult. It’s that anguish. You’ve as you said massaged. You’ve probed. You’ve calculated. You’ve sweated all this time trying to figure out what to do to beat this guy and then boom, one move you blow it and now you’re realizing that you are no longer hunting, but you are the hunted. That is a strange place for a chess player, but thankfully it happens so often. It happens often enough in a game that you learn how to deal with it. You realize it’s part of the game. It’s just momentum swings happen. It’s not science. It’s two human sitting across in battle and whenever you have that you’re going to have imperfection, so there is a lot post game analysis in chess. One of the great things about chess is you can look at your game afterward, but you can also look at yourself afterward and you can say, “Well how did I react?” “What did I do?” “How do I do it different next time?” It’s not about playing perfect moves because it’s never going to happen. It’s about training yourself and that is part of the discipline that I talked about with chess. You get that. You just get that discipline. You just learn that from experience, the school of hard knocks. There is no other way. It’s just you do it. You fail. Get up. Do it again, but make sure you learn from that failure so that you can be ready the next time.
Question: How have computers changed the way top chess players prepare for tournaments?
Maurice Ashley: Well when I was growing up you wanted to get… and you wanted to get the latest games you had to wait three months for a magazine, Chess Life Magazine or any. If you could somehow smuggle Shakhmatny Bulletin out of Russia or something you had to wait to see the great games getting played and that is important because it’s knowledge. It’s ideas you can use, so that is something that you just had… there was no choice. Now if one of the top players, if it’s Anand, if it’s Magnus Carlson plays a great game I’ll know in five minutes. I mean I come home. I just download it. Bam, there is the game. I can look at it, so the proliferation of knowledge based on the internet probably even more important than computers themselves. I mean computers, but the ability to go and get those games, get that knowledge, feed your mind that has transformed the sport of chess dramatically and on top of that the databases that you can study where all these games are collected, put in one database and you can sort and search based on opening lines, based on piece configuration. You can do any… with a player you’re playing against, what they like to do with black, what they like to do with white. You know you get an immediate psychological profile of some of the best players in the world just at a click of a mouse, so computers have dramatically transformed the landscape. Just that… You can see it in kids now becoming grandmasters at 12 and 13. Kids just sit home and they just push buttons, feed me, feed me and the knowledge just goes right in. Well we had to read books and do that slow turning on the pages and painfully digest the knowledge. They just get it in streaming color right into their eyeballs at a computer screen and that has totally changed the sport and if you don’t study using a computer you might as well be a dinosaur.
Question: Are there lessons from chess that can be applied to the business world?
Maurice Ashley: There are tons of lesson in chess. I mean chess is almost tailor made for business in terms of the mental aspect, the intuitive changes in direction that you might have to have if you’re in the stock market or figuring out the numbers, which way to go, reading an opponent, negotiating skills. I mean chess is nothing if not knowing where the other… what the other guy is thinking and getting deep into that thought process. I think that is a huge one as a matter of fact, knowing your opponent. In chess we do that all the time. We study all the games, the databases that have thousands of games of your opponents or actually the databases are filled with millions of games. A single opponent might have played 2 to 3,000 games that you can parse and probe and analyze and knowing the opponent really well before you go into a contest, knowing the situation, knowing what their preferences are, knowing which direction they like to go in before you go into that negotiating table, which is the chessboard, so that you can know and feel which way to go when the contest starts. So yeah, I think… and there are books on that too, about chess and business. I know Garry Kasparov wrote a pretty decent one and a friend of mine, Bob Rice wrote one, maybe the best one called Three Moves Ahead and it’s just anything mental in something like business really works. Anything that requires that kind of concentration, knowledge intensive thinking and knowing the opponent that is going to be chess.
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Like autism, ADHD lies on a spectrum, and some children should not be treated.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has long been a controversial topic. While the term "mental restlessness" dates back to 1798, English pediatrician George Still described the disorder in front of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1902. The condition is attributed to both nature and nurture, with a recent study suggesting the disorder is 75 percent genetic.
According to DSM-IV criteria, ADHD affects five to seven percent of children; but according to ICD-10, only between one and two percent are afflicted. Global estimates state that nearly 85 million people suffer from ADHD, which, like autism, exists on a spectrum.
Treatment is perhaps the most contentious issue. While a holistic approach includes counseling, lifestyle changes, and medication, due to insurance requirements and other factors, many children only receive the latter. And now a new systematic scoping review published in the journal JAMA Network Open that investigated 334 studies conducted between 1979 and 2020 found that ADHD is being both overdiagnosed and overtreated in children and adolescents.
ADHD: An epidemic of overdiagnosis
Researchers from the University of Sydney and the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare in Australia initially retrieved 12,267 relevant studies before using a set of criteria that whittled the list down to 334. Only five studies critically investigated the costs and benefits of treating milder cases of ADHD, prompting the team to focus on knowledge gaps in side effects.
The team writes that public scrutiny has increased along with the increase in diagnoses. The numbers are startling: between 1997 and 2016, the number of children reported to be suffering from ADHD doubled. While the symptoms of ADHD include fidgeting, inattention, and impulsivity, Dr. Stephen Hinshaw compared this disorder to depression, as neither condition has "unequivocal biological markers." He continues, "It's probably not a true epidemic of ADHD. It might be an epidemic of diagnosing it."
The Australian researchers write that ambiguous or mild symptoms might contribute to diagnostic inflation and the subsequent rise in the prevalence of ADHD. They compare this to cancer, a field that has established protocols for overdiagnosis. ADHD is still understudied in this regard.
Photo: fizkes / Adobe Stock
Overdiagnosis is harmful
This has contributed to an increase in potential harm, not just to children's health (such as the long-term pharmacological impact on developing brains) but to parents' finances. As of 2018, ADHD is a $16.4 billion global industry, with continued revenue growth predicted — ensured by future ADHD diagnoses.
The costs and benefits of ADHD treatment are mixed. The authors write:
"We found evidence of benefits for academic outcomes, injuries, hospital admissions, criminal behavior, and quality of life. In addition, harmful outcomes were evident for heart rate and cardiovascular events, growth and weight, risk for psychosis and tics, and stimulant misuse or poisoning."
For most of these studies, the benefits outweighed the risks in children suffering from more severe ADHD. But this is not true for children with milder symptoms.
Across the studies, the team noticed that four themes emerged. The first two were positive, and the second two were negative:
- For some people, an ADHD diagnosis was shown to create a sense of empowerment because a biological explanation provided a sense of legitimacy.
- Feelings of empowerment enabled help-seeking behavior.
- For others, a biomedical explanation led to disempowerment because it served as an excuse and provided a way to shirk responsibility.
- An ADHD diagnosis was linked to stigmatization and social isolation.
The unfortunate reality is that ADHD is a real condition that should be treated in some children. But for many, the harm of treatment outweighs the benefits.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Since 1957, the world's space agencies have been polluting the space above us with countless pieces of junk, threatening our technological infrastructure and ability to venture deeper into space.
- Space debris is any human-made object that's currently orbiting Earth.
- When space debris collides with other space debris, it can create thousands more pieces of junk, a dangerous phenomenon known as the Kessler syndrome.
- Radical solutions are being proposed to fix the problem, some of which just might work. (See the video embedded toward the end of the article.)
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a human-made object into orbit for the first time. It marked the dawn of the Space Age. But when Sputnik 1's batteries died and the aluminum satellite began lifelessly orbiting the planet, it marked the end of another era: the billions of years during which space was pristine.
Today, the space above Earth is the world's "largest garbage dump," according to NASA. It's littered with 8,000 tons of human-made junk, called space debris, left by space agencies over the past six decades.
The U.S. now tracks more than 25,000 pieces of space junk. And that's only the debris that ground-based radar technologies can track. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network estimates there could be more than 170 million pieces of space debris currently orbiting Earth, with the majority being tiny fragments smaller than 1 mm.
Space debris: Trashing a planet
Space debris includes all human-made objects, big and small, that are orbiting Earth but no longer serve a useful function. A brief inventory of known space junk includes: a spatula, a glove, a mirror, a bag filled with astronaut tools, spent rocket stages, stray bolts, paint chips, defunct spacecraft, and about 3,000 dead satellites — all of which are orbiting Earth at speeds of roughly 18,000 m.p.h.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
Most space junk is floating in low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within an altitude of about 100 to 1,200 miles. LEO is also where most of the world's 3,000 satellites operate, powering our telecommunications, GPS technologies, and military operations.
"Millions of pieces of orbital debris exist in low Earth orbit (LEO) — at least 26,000 the size of a softball or larger that could destroy a satellite on impact; over 500,000 the size of a marble big enough to cause damage to spacecraft or satellites; and over 100 million the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit," wrote NASA's Office of Inspector General Office of Audits.
If LEO becomes polluted with too much space junk, it could become treacherous for spacecraft, threatening not only our modern technological infrastructure, but also humanity's ability to venture into space at all.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
An outsized problem
Space debris of any size poses grave threats to spacecraft. But tiny, untrackable micro-debris presents an especially dreadful problem: A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
Impacts with space debris are common. During the Space Shuttle era, NASA replaced an average of one to two shuttle windows per mission "due to hypervelocity impacts (HVIs) from space debris." To be sure, some space debris are natural micrometeoroids. But much of it is human-made, like the fragment that struck the starboard payload bay radiator of the STS-115 flight in 2006.
"The debris penetrated both walls of the honeycomb structure, and the shock wave from the penetration created a crack in the rear surface of the radiator 6.8 mm long," NASA wrote. "Scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray detection analysis of residual material around the hole and in the interior of the radiator shows that the impactor was a small fragment of circuit board material."
The European Space Agency notes that any fragment of space debris larger than a centimeter could shatter a spacecraft into pieces.
Impact chip on the ISSESA
To dodge space junk, the International Space Station (ISS) has to conduct "avoidance maneuvers" a couple times every year. In 2014, for example, flight controllers decided to raise the ISS's altitude by half a mile to avoid collision with part of an old European rocket in its orbital path.
NASA has strict guidelines for how it decides to perform these maneuvers.
"Debris avoidance maneuvers are planned when the probability of collision from a conjunction reaches limits set in the space shuttle and space station flight rules," NASA wrote. "If the probability of collision is greater than 1 in 100,000, a maneuver will be conducted if it will not result in significant impact to mission objectives. If it is greater than 1 in 10,000, a maneuver will be conducted unless it will result in additional risk to the crew."
These precautionary measures are becoming increasingly necessary. In 2020, the ISS had to move three times to avoid potential collisions. One of the latest close-calls came with such little warning that astronauts were instructed to take shelter in the Russian segment of the space station, in order to be closer to their Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft, which serves as an escape pod in case of an emergency.
The Kessler syndrome
The hazards of space debris grow exponentially over time. That's because of a problem that NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler outlined in 1978. The so-called Kessler syndrome states that as space becomes increasingly packed with spacecraft and debris, collisions become more likely. And because each collision would create more debris, it could trigger a chain reaction of collisions — potentially to the point where near-Earth space becomes a shrapnel field through which safe travel is impossible.
A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
The Kessler syndrome may already be playing out. Perhaps it began with the first known case of a spacecraft being severely damaged by artificial space debris, which occurred in 1996 when the French spy satellite Cerise was struck by a piece of an old European Ariane rocket. The collision tore off a 13-foot segment of the satellite.
The next major space debris incident occurred in 2007 when China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in which the nation destroyed one of its own weather satellites, triggering international criticism and creating more than 3,000 pieces of trackable space debris, most of which was still in orbit ten years after the explosion.
Then, in 2009, an unexpected collision between communications satellites — the active Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian Cosmos-2251 — produced at least 2,000 large fragments of space debris and as many as 200,000 smaller pieces, according to NASA. About half of all space debris currently orbiting Earth came from the Iridium-Cosmos collision and China's missile test.
There's more. Russia's BLITS satellite was spun out of its orbital path in 2013 after being struck by a piece of space debris suspected to have come from China's 2007 missile test; the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was struck by a tiny particle in 2016; and a window of the ISS was hit by a small fragment that same year.
As nations and private companies plan to send more satellites into orbit, collisions and impacts could soon become more common.
The promise and peril of satellite mega-constellations
Space organizations have recently begun launching satellites into low Earth orbit at an unprecedented pace. The goal is to create "mega-constellations" of satellites that provide high-quality internet access to virtually all parts of the planet.
Internet-providing satellites have existed for years, but they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. That's mainly because it can take a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the user due to the high altitudes at which many of these satellites float above us in geostationary orbit.
China and companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon aim to solve this problem by launching thousands of satellites into lower orbits in order to reduce signal latency, or the time it takes for the signal to travel to and from the satellite. But some space experts worry satellite mega-constellations could create more space debris.
"We face entirely new challenges as hundreds of satellites are launched every month now — more than we used to launch in a year," Thomas Schildknecht of the International Astronomical Union said at a European Space Agency conference in April. "The mega-constellations are producing huge risks of collisions. We need more stringent rules for traffic management in space and international mechanisms to ensure enforcement of the rules."
A 2017 study funded by the European Space Agency found that the deployment of satellite mega-constellations into low Earth orbit could increase the number of catastrophic collisions by 50 percent. Still, it remains unclear whether sending more satellites into space will necessarily cause more collisions.
SpaceX, for example, claims that Starlink satellites aren't at significant risk of collision because they're equipped with automated collision-avoidance propulsion systems. However, this system seemed to fail in 2019 when a Starlink satellite had a close call with a European science satellite named Aeolus. The company later said it had fixed the bug.
A batch of 60 Starlink test satellites stacked atop a Falcon 9 rocket.SpaceX
Currently, there are no strict international rules governing the deployment and management of satellite mega-constellations. But there are some international efforts to curb space debris risks.
The most concerted effort is the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), a forum that comprises 13 of the world's space agencies, including those of the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan. The committee aims "to exchange information on space debris research activities between member space agencies, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities, and to identify debris mitigation options."
The IADC's Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines list three broad goals:
1. Preventing on-orbit break-ups
2. Removing spacecraft from the densely populated orbit regions when they reach the end of their mission
3. Limiting the objects released during normal operations
But even though the world's space agencies recognize the gravity of the space debris problem, they're reluctant to act because of an incentives-based dilemma.
Space debris: A classic tragedy of the commons
Space debris is everyone's problem, but no one entity is obligated to solve it. It's a tragedy of the commons — an economic scenario in which individuals with access to a shared and scarce resource (space) act in their own best interest (spend the least amount of money). Left unchecked, the shared resource is vulnerable to depletion or corruption.
For example, the U.S. by itself could develop a novel method for removing space debris, which, if successful, would benefit all organizations with assets in space. But the odds of this happening are slim because of a game-theoretical dilemma.
"[In space debris removal] each stakeholder has an incentive to delay its actions and wait for others to respond. This makes the space debris removal setting an interesting strategic dilemma. As all actors share the same environment, actions by one have a potential immediate and future impact on all others. This gives rise to a social dilemma in which the benefits of individual investment are shared by all while the costs are not. This encourages free-riders, who reap the benefits without paying the costs. However, if all involved parties reason this way, the resulting inaction may prove to be far worse for all involved. This is known in the game theory literature as the tragedy of the commons."
Similar to trying to curb climate change, there's no clear answer on how to best incentivize nations to mitigate space debris. (For what it's worth, the game theoretical model in the 2018 study found that a centralized solution — e.g., one where a single actor makes decisions on mitigating space debris, perhaps on behalf of a multinational coalition — is less costly than a decentralized solution.)
Although space organizations have been slow to act, many have been exploring ways to remove space junk from orbit and prevent new debris from forming.
Cleaning up space debris
Space organizations have proposed and experimented with many ways to remove debris from space. Although the techniques vary, most agree on strategy: get rid of the big stuff first.
That's because collisions involving large objects would create lots of new debris. So, removing big debris first would simultaneously clean up low Earth orbit and slow down the phenomenon of cascading collisions described by the Kessler syndrome.
To clean up low Earth orbit, space organizations have proposed using:
- Electrodynamic tethers: In 2017, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency attempted to remove space debris by outfitting a cargo ship with an electrodynamic tether — essentially a fishing net made of stainless steel and aluminium. The craft then tried to "catch" space debris with the aim of dragging it into lower orbit, where it would eventually crash to Earth. The experiment failed.
- Ultra-thin nets: NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program has funded research for a project that would deploy extremely thin nets designed to wrap around space debris and drag them down to Earth's atmosphere.
- "Laser brooms": Since the 1990s, space researchers have proposed using ground-based lasers to strategically heat one side of a piece of space debris, which would change its orbit so that it re-enters Earth's atmosphere sooner. Because the laser systems would be based on Earth, this strategy could prove to be relatively affordable.
- Drag sails: As a relatively passive way to accelerate the de-orbit of space junk, NASA and other space organizations have been exploring the viability of attaching sails to space junk that would help guide debris back to Earth. These sails could either be packed within new satellites, to be deployed once the satellites are no longer useful, or attached to existing space junk.
Illustration of Brane Craft Phase II, which would use thin nets to capture space debris.Siegfried Janson via NASA
But perhaps one of the most promising solutions for space debris is the ESA-funded ClearSpace-1 mission. Set to launch in 2025, ClearSpace-1 intends to be the first mission that successfully removes space debris from orbit. The goal is to launch a satellite into orbit and rendezvous with the upper stage of Europe's Vega launcher, which was left in space after a 2013 flight.
ClearSpace-1 satellite using its robotic arm to capture space debrisClearSpace-1
Once the satellite meets up with the debris, it will try to capture the junk with a robotic arm and then perform a controlled atmospheric reentry. The task will be challenging, in part because space junk tumbles as it flies above Earth, meaning the satellite will have to match its movements in order to safely capture it.
Freethink recently spoke to the ClearSpace-1 team to get a better understanding of the mission and its challenges.
Catching the Most Dangerous Thing in Space Freethink via youtube.com
But not all space debris removal strategies center on technology. A 2020 paper published in PNAS argued that imposing taxes on each satellite in orbit would be the most effective way to clean up space. Called "orbital use fees," the plan would charge space organizations an annual fee of roughly $235,000 per each satellite that's in orbit. The fee would, in theory, incentivize nations and companies to declutter space over time.
The main hurdle of orbital-use fees is getting all of the world's space organizations to agree to such a plan. If they do, it could help eliminate the tragedy of the commons aspect of space debris and potentially quadruple the value of the space industry by 2040.
"The costly buildup of debris and satellites in low-Earth orbit is fundamentally a problem of incentives — satellite operators currently lack the incentives to factor into their launch decisions the collision risks their satellites impose on other operators," the researchers wrote. "Our analysis suggests that correcting these incentives, via an OUF, could have substantial economic benefits to the satellite industry, and failing to do so could have substantial and escalating economic costs."
No matter the solution, cleaning up space debris will be a complex and expensive challenge that requires a coordinated, international effort. If the global community wants to maintain modern technological infrastructure and venture deeper into space, conducting business as usual isn't an option.
"Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water," Jan Wörner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, said in a statement. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue."
We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.
- Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
- Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
- It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
Golden blood sounds like the latest in medical quackery. As in, get a golden blood transfusion to balance your tantric midichlorians and receive a free charcoal ice cream cleanse. Don't let the New-Agey moniker throw you. Golden blood is actually the nickname for Rh-null, the world's rarest blood type.
As Mosaic reports, the type is so rare that only about 43 people have been reported to have it worldwide, and until 1961, when it was first identified in an Aboriginal Australian woman, doctors assumed embryos with Rh-null blood would simply die in utero.
But what makes Rh-null so rare, and why is it so dangerous to live with? To answer that, we'll first have to explore why hematologists classify blood types the way they do.
A (brief) bloody history
Our ancestors understood little about blood. Even the most basic of blood knowledge — blood inside the body is good, blood outside is not ideal, too much blood outside is cause for concern — escaped humanity's grasp for an embarrassing number of centuries.
Absence this knowledge, our ancestors devised less-than-scientific theories as to what blood was, theories that varied wildly across time and culture. To pick just one, the physicians of Shakespeare's day believed blood to be one of four bodily fluids or "humors" (the others being black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm).
Handed down from ancient Greek physicians, humorism stated that these bodily fluids determined someone's personality. Blood was considered hot and moist, resulting in a sanguine temperament. The more blood people had in their systems, the more passionate, charismatic, and impulsive they would be. Teenagers were considered to have a natural abundance of blood, and men had more than women.
Humorism lead to all sorts of poor medical advice. Most famously, Galen of Pergamum used it as the basis for his prescription of bloodletting. Sporting a "when in doubt, let it out" mentality, Galen declared blood the dominant humor, and bloodletting an excellent way to balance the body. Blood's relation to heat also made it a go-to for fever reduction.
While bloodletting remained common until well into the 19th century, William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of blood in 1628 would put medicine on its path to modern hematology.
Soon after Harvey's discovery, the earliest blood transfusions were attempted, but it wasn't until 1665 that first successful transfusion was performed by British physician Richard Lower. Lower's operation was between dogs, and his success prompted physicians like Jean-Baptiste Denis to try to transfuse blood from animals to humans, a process called xenotransfusion. The death of human patients ultimately led to the practice being outlawed.4
The first successful human-to-human transfusion wouldn't be performed until 1818, when British obstetrician James Blundell managed it to treat postpartum hemorrhage. But even with a proven technique in place, in the following decades many blood-transfusion patients continued to die mysteriously.
Enter Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner. In 1901 he began his work to classify blood groups. Exploring the work of Leonard Landois — the physiologist who showed that when the red blood cells of one animal are introduced to a different animal's, they clump together — Landsteiner thought a similar reaction may occur in intra-human transfusions, which would explain why transfusion success was so spotty. In 1909, he classified the A, B, AB, and O blood groups, and for his work he received the 1930 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
What causes blood types?
It took us a while to grasp the intricacies of blood, but today, we know that this life-sustaining substance consists of:
- Red blood cells — cells that carry oxygen and remove carbon dioxide throughout the body;
- White blood cells — immune cells that protect the body against infection and foreign agents;
- Platelets — cells that help blood clot; and
- Plasma — a liquid that carries salts and enzymes.6,7
Each component has a part to play in blood's function, but the red blood cells are responsible for our differing blood types. These cells have proteins* covering their surface called antigens, and the presence or absence of particular antigens determines blood type — type A blood has only A antigens, type B only B, type AB both, and type O neither. Red blood cells sport another antigen called the RhD protein. When it is present, a blood type is said to be positive; when it is absent, it is said to be negative. The typical combinations of A, B, and RhD antigens give us the eight common blood types (A+, A-, B+, B-, AB+, AB-, O+, and O-).
Blood antigen proteins play a variety of cellular roles, but recognizing foreign cells in the blood is the most important for this discussion.
Think of antigens as backstage passes to the bloodstream, while our immune system is the doorman. If the immune system recognizes an antigen, it lets the cell pass. If it does not recognize an antigen, it initiates the body's defense systems and destroys the invader. So, a very aggressive doorman.
While our immune systems are thorough, they are not too bright. If a person with type A blood receives a transfusion of type B blood, the immune system won't recognize the new substance as a life-saving necessity. Instead, it will consider the red blood cells invaders and attack. This is why so many people either grew ill or died during transfusions before Landsteiner's brilliant discovery.
This is also why people with O negative blood are considered "universal donors." Since their red blood cells lack A, B, and RhD antigens, immune systems don't have a way to recognize these cells as foreign and so leaves them well enough alone.
How is Rh-null the rarest blood type?
Let's return to golden blood. In truth, the eight common blood types are an oversimplification of how blood types actually work. As Smithsonian.com points out, "[e]ach of these eight types can be subdivided into many distinct varieties," resulting in millions of different blood types, each classified on a multitude of antigens combinations.
Here is where things get tricky. The RhD protein previously mentioned only refers to one of 61 potential proteins in the Rh system. Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system. This not only makes it rare, but this also means it can be accepted by anyone with a rare blood type within the Rh system.
This is why it is considered "golden blood." It is worth its weight in gold.
As Mosaic reports, golden blood is incredibly important to medicine, but also very dangerous to live with. If a Rh-null carrier needs a blood transfusion, they can find it difficult to locate a donor, and blood is notoriously difficult to transport internationally. Rh-null carriers are encouraged to donate blood as insurance for themselves, but with so few donors spread out over the world and limits on how often they can donate, this can also put an altruistic burden on those select few who agree to donate for others.
Some bloody good questions about blood types
A nurse takes blood samples from a pregnant woman at the North Hospital (Hopital Nord) in Marseille, southern France.
Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP
There remain many mysteries regarding blood types. For example, we still don't know why humans evolved the A and B antigens. Some theories point to these antigens as a byproduct of the diseases various populations contacted throughout history. But we can't say for sure.
In this absence of knowledge, various myths and questions have grown around the concept of blood types in the popular consciousness. Here are some of the most common and their answers.
Do blood types affect personality?
Japan's blood type personality theory is a contemporary resurrection of humorism. The idea states that your blood type directly affects your personality, so type A blood carriers are kind and fastidious, while type B carriers are optimistic and do their own thing. However, a 2003 study sampling 180 men and 180 women found no relationship between blood type and personality.
The theory makes for a fun question on a Cosmopolitan quiz, but that's as accurate as it gets.
Should you alter your diet based on your blood type?
Remember Galen of Pergamon? In addition to bloodletting, he also prescribed his patients to eat certain foods depending on which humors needed to be balanced. Wine, for example, was considered a hot and dry drink, so it would be prescribed to treat a cold. In other words, belief that your diet should complement your blood type is yet another holdover of humorism theory.
Created by Peter J. D'Adamo, the Blood Type Diet argues that one's diet should match one's blood type. Type A carriers should eat a meat-free diet of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables; type B carriers should eat green vegetables, certain meats, and low-fat dairy; and so on.
However, a study from the University of Toronto analyzed the data from 1,455 participants and found no evidence to support the theory. While people can lose weight and become healthier on the diet, it probably has more to do with eating all those leafy greens than blood type.
Are there links between blood types and certain diseases?
There is evidence to suggest that different blood types may increase the risk of certain diseases. One analysis suggested that type O blood decreases the risk of having a stroke or heart attack, while AB blood appears to increase it. With that said, type O carriers have a greater chance of developing peptic ulcers and skin cancer.
None of this is to say that your blood type will foredoom your medical future. Many factors, such as diet and exercise, hold influence over your health and likely to a greater extent than blood type.
What is the most common blood type?
In the United States, the most common blood type is O+. Roughly one in three people sports this type of blood. Of the eight well-known blood types, the least common is AB-. Only one in 167 people in the U.S. have it.
Do animals have blood types?
They most certainly do, but they are not the same as ours. This difference is why those 17th-century patients who thought, "Animal blood, now that's the ticket!" ultimately had their tickets punched. In fact, blood types are distinct between species. Unhelpfully, scientists sometimes use the same nomenclature to describe these different types. Cats, for example, have A and B antigens, but these are not the same A and B antigens found in humans.
Interestingly, xenotransfusion is making a comeback. Scientists are working to genetically engineer the blood of pigs to potentially produce human compatible blood.
Scientists are also looking into creating synthetic blood. If they succeed, they may be able to ease the current blood shortage, while also devising a way to create blood for rare blood type carriers. While this may make golden blood less golden, it would certainly make it easier to live with.* While antigens are typically proteins, they can be other molecules as well, such as polysaccharides.
It uses radio waves to pinpoint items, even when they're hidden from view.
"Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception," says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib's team is pushing the technology a step further. "We're trying to give robots superhuman perception," he says.
The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view. The advance could one day streamline e-commerce fulfillment in warehouses or help a machine pluck a screwdriver from a jumbled toolkit.
The research will be presented in May at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The paper's lead author is Tara Boroushaki, a research assistant in the Signal Kinetics Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her MIT co-authors include Adib, who is the director of the Signal Kinetics Group; and Alberto Rodriguez, the Class of 1957 Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Other co-authors include Junshan Leng, a research engineer at Harvard University, and Ian Clester, a PhD student at Georgia Tech.Play video
As e-commerce continues to grow, warehouse work is still usually the domain of humans, not robots, despite sometimes-dangerous working conditions. That's in part because robots struggle to locate and grasp objects in such a crowded environment. "Perception and picking are two roadblocks in the industry today," says Rodriguez. Using optical vision alone, robots can't perceive the presence of an item packed away in a box or hidden behind another object on the shelf — visible light waves, of course, don't pass through walls.
But radio waves can.
For decades, radio frequency (RF) identification has been used to track everything from library books to pets. RF identification systems have two main components: a reader and a tag. The tag is a tiny computer chip that gets attached to — or, in the case of pets, implanted in — the item to be tracked. The reader then emits an RF signal, which gets modulated by the tag and reflected back to the reader.
The reflected signal provides information about the location and identity of the tagged item. The technology has gained popularity in retail supply chains — Japan aims to use RF tracking for nearly all retail purchases in a matter of years. The researchers realized this profusion of RF could be a boon for robots, giving them another mode of perception.
"RF is such a different sensing modality than vision," says Rodriguez. "It would be a mistake not to explore what RF can do."
RF Grasp uses both a camera and an RF reader to find and grab tagged objects, even when they're fully blocked from the camera's view. It consists of a robotic arm attached to a grasping hand. The camera sits on the robot's wrist. The RF reader stands independent of the robot and relays tracking information to the robot's control algorithm. So, the robot is constantly collecting both RF tracking data and a visual picture of its surroundings. Integrating these two data streams into the robot's decision making was one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced.
"The robot has to decide, at each point in time, which of these streams is more important to think about," says Boroushaki. "It's not just eye-hand coordination, it's RF-eye-hand coordination. So, the problem gets very complicated."
The robot initiates the seek-and-pluck process by pinging the target object's RF tag for a sense of its whereabouts. "It starts by using RF to focus the attention of vision," says Adib. "Then you use vision to navigate fine maneuvers." The sequence is akin to hearing a siren from behind, then turning to look and get a clearer picture of the siren's source.
With its two complementary senses, RF Grasp zeroes in on the target object. As it gets closer and even starts manipulating the item, vision, which provides much finer detail than RF, dominates the robot's decision making.
RF Grasp proved its efficiency in a battery of tests. Compared to a similar robot equipped with only a camera, RF Grasp was able to pinpoint and grab its target object with about half as much total movement. Plus, RF Grasp displayed the unique ability to "declutter" its environment — removing packing materials and other obstacles in its way in order to access the target. Rodriguez says this demonstrates RF Grasp's "unfair advantage" over robots without penetrative RF sensing. "It has this guidance that other systems simply don't have."
RF Grasp could one day perform fulfilment in packed e-commerce warehouses. Its RF sensing could even instantly verify an item's identity without the need to manipulate the item, expose its barcode, then scan it. "RF has the potential to improve some of those limitations in industry, especially in perception and localization," says Rodriguez.
Adib also envisions potential home applications for the robot, like locating the right Allen wrench to assemble your Ikea chair. "Or you could imagine the robot finding lost items. It's like a super-Roomba that goes and retrieves my keys, wherever the heck I put them."
The research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NTT DATA, Toppan, Toppan Forms, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).