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Congressional Politics Threaten NASA's Mission
A recent spat between Sen. Ted Cruz and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden represents the always-sticky relationship between Congress and the U.S. space agency.
It's sort of generally understood that the U.S. Congress is a lousy, no-good, undependable, unpopular, incoherent mess of a legislative body full of charlatans, extortionists, and other purveyors of relative tomfoolery. That 20 percent of the country reportedly approves of its performance is shocking only because that figure seems about 20 points too high. Really, the only saving grace for the institution is that it spends a large chunk of time off in Washington rather than bothering people elsewhere.
The problem, as astronomer Phil Plait writes over at Slate, is that Congress is perfectly capable of meddling, grandstanding, and mucking up peoples' livelihoods from its perch on Capitol Hill. Plait, who writes a blog called Bad Astronomy, places focus in his piece on Congress' inharmonious relationship with NASA. You may have heard the recent news that Sen. Ted Cruz, chairman of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness telling NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that the agency should focus less on Earth Science (read: climate change) and more on space exploration.
Plait explains the two main issues with this stance. First: While Cruz should be lauded for supporting efforts to boost America's reach in the galaxy, action speaks louder than words in this regard. The truth is that Congress has repeatedly acted contrary to NASA's mission by refusing to provide adequate funding for the very things it claims to support:
"Over the years, the president’s NASA budget request for commercial flight has been slashed by Congress over and again (in FY 2012 it was cut by more than 50 percent). If that money had instead gotten to NASA, we might very well already be celebrating the launch of Americans into space by an American rocket. Instead, here we are, dependent on the Russians.
Watching Congress grill NASA over what is Congress’ fault is frustrating to say the least."
Plait's second point is that, although NASA is most popular for putting men on the moon, its mission encompasses so much more than space travel. NASA's directive is to explore space and also learn more about Earth. Remember: NASA launched our first weather satellites. The agency's observations have resulted in exponential growth in our overall understanding of how this planet works. It's also vitally important in further efforts to measure and combat the effects of climate change.
Plait accuses Cruz of downplaying Earth science for partisan reasons. That's neither here nor there -- this isn't an inherently Republican or Democrat issue. The main problem at hand here is that politicians on both sides of the aisle threaten NASA by meddling in its affairs. If Congress is that awful, argumentative couple everyone knows should just get divorced, NASA is the poor child in the middle suffering the relationship.
Plait concludes that the politics behind government funding, coupled with a general misunderstanding of NASA's mission, poisons the agency's ability to get stuff done. This isn't anything new. It's like a disability NASA has had to learn to live with. But Plait argues that things are getting worse and that the agency is far too important as a source of both inspiration and accomplishment for the recent trends to continue on its current trajectory.
Read more at Slate.
Photo credit: Edwin Verin / Shutterstock
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.