How to keep peace in outer space? Create commercial development.
“To promote the development of a commercial asteroid resources industry for outer space in the United States and to increase the exploration and utilization of asteroid resources in outer space.”
For most of human history, we’ve had a grand frontier on the horizon, ready to be explored, settled and conquered if need be. We are natural-born explorers. From one perspective, the entirety of human civilization has been a journey westward. From the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia, in China and the Indus Valley where agricultural practices took root, onwards to Egyptian society and beyond to where Phoenicians, inspired by hieroglyphics, set the alphabet in stone, later to be used by Greek and Roman societies, the birthplaces of new empires, art and the foundation of modern Western societies.
Spinning westward like some ephemeral world destiny, technological advances from Gutenberg's printing press to the microchip have taken us full circle around the globe.
Where do we have left to go, but up? Space is the premier frontier—a great challenge for our globalized world.
Our history, laden with nation-states waging threats of total war, now needs to give way to market-based competition and the collaboration and cooperation of international companies and countries alike. As we expand to the stars in the wild upness of space, we can strive for peace by creating stable environments for new space-markets to flourish. This next great human expedition in space doesn’t have to call for war or increased militarization. The grand expanse of space has a lot to offer for us if we approach it with humility and the right intentions. Here’s how we can keep space a peaceful place.
Market-based solutions for peace in outer space
Our intentions to conquer space have changed over the years. What was once a race between two superpowers is now a competition between international companies. Nowadays it’s even evolved into partnerships between nation-states and private companies. Space isn’t just big, it’s big business.
Governments and private entities have their own unique parts to play in space exploration and commercialization. Take for example the prospect of asteroid mining. There are potentially trillions of dollars floating around in space in the form of precious metals. Rather than limit or curb space innovation, the United States Congress in 2014 passed the Asteroid Act. In the bill’s own words:
“To promote the development of a commercial asteroid resources industry for outer space in the United States and to increase the exploration and utilization of asteroid resources in outer space.”
Any company that can successfully mine an asteroid will be able to claim its resources as private property. Entering into space is a lot easier than it once was. Overblown bureaucratic obstacles are coming down and space is more accessible for private companies. Bills like the Asteroid Act might be indicative of a larger trend: that governments can find better ways to utilize their space programs rather than for increased militarization and geopolitical maneuvering that harkens back to the Cold War. Instead, nation-states might be able to provide a fair regulatory framework for private enterprise and help foster their growth, leaving agencies like NASA to focus on long-scale research endeavors. There are just certain things that private industry does better. Take reusable rockets. “We’re starting to see advances made by private entities that are more significant than any advances in the last three years that were made by the government," Chris Lewicki, CEO and President of Planetary Resources—a future hopeful asteroid mining company—tells Futurism. "The government was never able to [build reusable rockets], but now, two private companies within the space of the same year have done that.”
Private industry needs a stable environment in order to flourish and grow. In most cases, a natural side effect of this is peace. The last thing these companies want to contend with in the harsh frontier of space is militarization. Commercial interests are better suited to space for this very reason.
Frontrunners of the new frontier
Two of the big hitters in this new space age are Blue Origin and SpaceX, companies by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. In 2015, both of their companies were the first to ever successfully land a vertical rocket. Private companies aren’t chained to government processes and oversights. They can work faster and more efficiently. There’s a lot of opportunity for partnership between the two sectors. For example, NASA contracting SpaceX to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and future human transport to be contracted by Boeing.
It can’t be stressed enough how important peaceful partnerships are for the future of space. So, what about relations between other nations? How does that stack up on the world stage?
A precedent for peace in space
Sometimes it feels like the Cold War never ended. Surprisingly, one of the greatest areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation has been in space. For nearly 20 years, the ISS has been a shining jewel of human cooperation between the two countries. Two space veterans, American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko, both lived in space for an entire year together. Throughout the years the many American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts had a lot to say about their host country's political struggles and their relations with each other.
Cosmonaut Alexander Samokutyaev on the subject of his life aboard the ISS once said: “We do our work that we love and we respect each other... Whatever the politicians want to get up to, that is their business.”
It’s different out in space; NASA analysts know that the U.S. and Russia need one another. Since the Space Shuttle flights stopped ferrying astronauts to the ISS, the U.S. has been dependent on Soyuz Russian rockets, while the entirety of the space station depends on NASA communication systems.
Russian space expert Vadim Lukashevich says, "Even though we are butting heads on Earth, up on the ISS we can't work without them and they can't work without us... It's impossible to break up this cooperation."
The Outer Space treaty
A patchwork of laws determines how space commerce and national interests function. The seminal law, signed and ratified by the United States and many other nations, is the Outer Space Treaty. Created back in 1967, it laid the groundwork for the future of how we’d interact and conduct ourselves in space.
Henry Hertzfeld, research professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said of the treaty: “There's an obligation to act safely, that space should only be used for peaceful purposes, nobody can launch any weapons of mass destruction, and freedom of access for all."
While this treaty will serve as a great starting point, it is not the final arbiter of how to conduct ourselves in space. We’re going to have to figure that out for ourselves. There are a few steps we can take to get things in motion for our future space explorers.
The first step: Unified global projects
Right now there is a real problem surrounding the globe: space debris. Hundreds of thousands of objects have gathered in our skies. This multitude of debris can affect satellite trajectories, future space flights and orbital stations.
How is the international community dealing with this encroaching global problem? Currently, efforts are strained. In order to avoid collisions with this debris, we’d need a central database tracking where all this detritus is orbiting. That kind of database is difficult to compile because of the disparate nature of tracking that each nation implements. For example, the United States would never reveal if one of their unknown spy satellites was destroyed and created new debris. Basically, each country has their own secrets in the sky they don't want to reveal as well as different methods of tracking their space junk. So that's one problem that we have to overcome to create the central database—international space transparency!
However, some national space programs and private companies are working together to develop advanced tracking systems for the hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris. One such effort is the Space Fence program, developed by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. government, which aims to track a catalog of 200,000 space objects. The need for a proto-space traffic control system is becoming ever more crucial in a developing space environment.
A governing body for space
Our current legal frameworks are insufficient to regulate and deal with a space that includes government and private companies alike. The absence of a governing body is something that will need to be remedied one day.
As outer space is the last bastion of global cooperation, we must work to ensure that it stays apolitical and with humanity's best interests at heart. The international community can take steps to mitigate this one problem and set the stage for further coordination.
In the future, we can avoid taking our terrestrial-bound feuds to the stars. Through encouraging peaceful competitive markets and by shifting governmental forces to roles of regulation and research, we just might be able to create a new frontier of peace and prosperity.
Brain cells snap strands of DNA in many more places and cell types than researchers previously thought.
The urgency to remember a dangerous experience requires the brain to make a series of potentially dangerous moves: Neurons and other brain cells snap open their DNA in numerous locations — more than previously realized, according to a new study — to provide quick access to genetic instructions for the mechanisms of memory storage.
The extent of these DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in multiple key brain regions is surprising and concerning, says study senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, because while the breaks are routinely repaired, that process may become more flawed and fragile with age. Tsai's lab has shown that lingering DSBs are associated with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline and that repair mechanisms can falter.
"We wanted to understand exactly how widespread and extensive this natural activity is in the brain upon memory formation because that can give us insight into how genomic instability could undermine brain health down the road," says Tsai, who is also a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a leader of MIT's Aging Brain Initiative. "Clearly, memory formation is an urgent priority for healthy brain function, but these new results showing that several types of brain cells break their DNA in so many places to quickly express genes is still striking."
In 2015, Tsai's lab provided the first demonstration that neuronal activity caused DSBs and that they induced rapid gene expression. But those findings, mostly made in lab preparations of neurons, did not capture the full extent of the activity in the context of memory formation in a behaving animal, and did not investigate what happened in cells other than neurons.
In the new study published July 1 in PLOS ONE, lead author and former graduate student Ryan Stott and co-author and former research technician Oleg Kritsky sought to investigate the full landscape of DSB activity in learning and memory. To do so, they gave mice little electrical zaps to the feet when they entered a box, to condition a fear memory of that context. They then used several methods to assess DSBs and gene expression in the brains of the mice over the next half-hour, particularly among a variety of cell types in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two regions essential for the formation and storage of conditioned fear memories. They also made measurements in the brains of mice that did not experience the foot shock to establish a baseline of activity for comparison.
The creation of a fear memory doubled the number of DSBs among neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, affecting more than 300 genes in each region. Among 206 affected genes common to both regions, the researchers then looked at what those genes do. Many were associated with the function of the connections neurons make with each other, called synapses. This makes sense because learning arises when neurons change their connections (a phenomenon called "synaptic plasticity") and memories are formed when groups of neurons connect together into ensembles called engrams.
"Many genes essential for neuronal function and memory formation, and significantly more of them than expected based on previous observations in cultured neurons … are potentially hotspots of DSB formation," the authors wrote in the study.
In another analysis, the researchers confirmed through measurements of RNA that the increase in DSBs indeed correlated closely with increased transcription and expression of affected genes, including ones affecting synapse function, as quickly as 10-30 minutes after the foot shock exposure.
"Overall, we find transcriptional changes are more strongly associated with [DSBs] in the brain than anticipated," they wrote. "Previously we observed 20 gene-associated [DSB] loci following stimulation of cultured neurons, while in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex we see more than 100-150 gene associated [DSB] loci that are transcriptionally induced."
Snapping with stress
In the analysis of gene expression, the neuroscientists looked at not only neurons but also non-neuronal brain cells, or glia, and found that they also showed changes in expression of hundreds of genes after fear conditioning. Glia called astrocytes are known to be involved in fear learning, for instance, and they showed significant DSB and gene expression changes after fear conditioning.
Among the most important functions of genes associated with fear conditioning-related DSBs in glia was the response to hormones. The researchers therefore looked to see which hormones might be particularly involved and discovered that it was glutocortocoids, which are secreted in response to stress. Sure enough, the study data showed that in glia, many of the DSBs that occurred following fear conditioning occurred at genomic sites related to glutocortocoid receptors. Further tests revealed that directly stimulating those hormone receptors could trigger the same DSBs that fear conditioning did and that blocking the receptors could prevent transcription of key genes after fear conditioning.
Tsai says the finding that glia are so deeply involved in establishing memories from fear conditioning is an important surprise of the new study.
"The ability of glia to mount a robust transcriptional response to glutocorticoids suggest that glia may have a much larger role to play in the response to stress and its impact on the brain during learning than previously appreciated," she and her co-authors wrote.
Damage and danger?
More research will have to be done to prove that the DSBs required for forming and storing fear memories are a threat to later brain health, but the new study only adds to evidence that it may be the case, the authors say.
"Overall we have identified sites of DSBs at genes important for neuronal and glial functions, suggesting that impaired DNA repair of these recurrent DNA breaks which are generated as part of brain activity could result in genomic instability that contribute to aging and disease in the brain," they wrote.
The National Institutes of Health, The Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, and the JPB Foundation provided funding for the research.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
- A new study proposes the "babble hypothesis" of becoming a group leader.
- Researchers show that intelligence is not the most important factor in leadership.
- Those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
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