Sleep, Work, War, and Other Things We Can't Agree On
There is no sense whatsoever that we are on the same page here, working toward some roughly agreed upon vision of a better future.
Jason Gots is a New York-based writer, editor, and podcast producer. For Big Think, he writes (and sometimes illustrates) the blog "Overthinking Everything with Jason Gots" and is the creator and host of the "Think Again" podcast. In previous lives, Jason worked at Random House Children's Books, taught reading and writing to middle schoolers and community college students, co-founded a theatre company (Rorschach, in Washington, D.C.), and wrote roughly two dozen picture books for kids learning English in Seoul, South Korea. He is also the proud father of an incredibly talkative and crafty little kid.
For better and worse, I’m an American. There are many far more difficult places on the planet to live. Syria right about now, for example. I feel lucky to have been born in a country where the vast majority of people take surviving to old age for granted, and where same-sex marriage and marijuana are both fast becoming legal nationwide.
But something is rotten in the land of the free. A few things actually. America: I can’t quite love you, and I can’t quite leave you.
There’s the fact that we can’t seem to agree on a unified vision of what the country’s about. Blame the media. Blame Congress. Blame whoever or whatever you like, but we seem to be shouting our opinions into hermetically sealed bubbles filled with people who think exactly like we do. To our “tribe,” as I once heard Glenn Beck nauseatingly call his fan base. There is no sense whatsoever that we are on the same page here, working toward some roughly agreed upon vision of a better future.
For example: Do we want to turn our children into sleepless, stressed-out, ridiculously overscheduled robots desperately competing with Chinese kids they’ve never met because of the disparity in global test scores and the rapid changes in the global economy? South Korea provides a cautionary tale here: While growing its economy at an extraordinary rate over the past decades it has also managed to create a system in which 75 percent of its children spend five hours a day in private after-school academies and are perpetually sleep-deprived. At 33 per 100,000 people*, the nation has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
And how about the adults? Americans don’t sleep anymore. We don’t take vacations. These are not just economic indicators––they’re cultural indicators. They indicate something fundamental about our changing values. (It seems clear enough to me that the change is bad news, but I guarantee you there will be comments on this post defending our workaholism as the right response to today’s competitive world, and the alternative as some kind of “socialist” laziness.)
But what has all this “human progress” been for, all the automation and “scaling up” and so on if not to free us from the yoke of agricultural and early industrial slavery so that we can spend our time doing something more worthy of and interesting to our big brains than pushing an oxcart or affixing dashboard knobs to Fords? But as with so many things, we’re not in agreement about this either, and in the meantime, what remains of the middle and upper-middle class are spending their lives yoked to emails and iPhones while the growing lower classes suffer as they always have, but with more tech to anesthetize them.
Now let’s talk about race, another glaring American issue that has recently been getting a lot of press; not because more police are shooting black people than ever before, but because for some reason many of us are suddenly more outraged about it (pretty late in the game, but undeniably a good thing). I do not, personally, have a single close friend of color, unless you count my good friend Ed, who is half Puerto-Rican, half Chinese and grew up feeling accepted by neither community. Why is that? Am I a racist? Aside from the racism inherent in being a beneficiary of white privilege and a member of a racially divided society, I don’t think so. I believe fiercely in equal opportunity and don’t want to see anyone separated or marginalized (except for groups like the KKK that want to marginalize others). But there’s a cultural backstory here. I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, a mostly white suburb of Washington, DC. My high school, a fancy boys’ private school in DC, had 60 kids in a class, maybe three or four of whom were black or Latino. There were very few people of color in my undergraduate acting program at NYU or in my graduate school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but even if there had been, chances are we wouldn’t have hung out much because growing up in America we’d have been separately acculturated by that time to the point where we just naturally gravitated to people of similar skin color. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking, this is true, whether or not you went to a fancy private school. And it’s terribly, terribly sad.
Our public schools (one of which my seven year old attends) are a perfect diorama of the partisan muddleheadedness of America as a whole. In my son’s school, lip service is paid to creative thinking and problem solving. He does a bit of coding here, a bit of art there, and “science experiments” like floating different kinds of wood in water. But the majority of his hours are spent hunched over a desk finding textual evidence for his response to some passage or other, or filling out worksheets geared not quite toward the Common Core as it’s written, but toward the denatured, formulaic version of it that’s reflected in the statewide tests, by which his school and his teachers are measured. This is a “gifted and talented” school for whose 50 kindergarten spots 20,000 kids in New York competed. It has other good qualities — loving teachers, sweet kids, incredible cultural and economic diversity — or we’d yank him out of there in a second. But what exactly is it teaching my son besides the granular skills of math and literacy he could learn in any halfway decent school? Endurance?
If I could afford to send him to private school ($40K/year on average in New York City), I could tribalize, cherry-picking the cultural values I wanted instilled in him (honesty, curiosity, creativity, compassion, pursuit of self-knowledge). I could find a school to fit my niche. But that’s not the point. The point is that America, at least the breathless, soaring sense that that word stirs in anyone who has any love for what this country was allegedly, originally meant to stand for, ought to be able to do better.
Historically speaking, nothing clarifies a nation’s values like a war. I am not so naive as to think that humanity has yet evolved beyond violence as a solution to our problems (although Steven Pinker makes a pretty persuasive case in this book that we’re headed in that direction). But I’d like to think that we can reach the point as a species where it doesn’t take the stark contrasts of war to help us arrive at some guiding principles. As Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom points out in his recent book Superintelligence, our efforts at creating artificial intelligence may soon provide a startling test case for how willing we are to think through the consequences of our actions before it’s too late.
If things continue on their present course the question of how we want to live will expand beyond national borders to encompass the whole species. Then things will become really interesting. If China and America become significantly more interdependent than they are now, for example, how will we resolve rising tensions between individualism and collectivism? Creativity and conformity?
I don’t know. But you can’t have it both ways. Either you sleep enough and take vacations or you don’t. Either you care about the suffering of fellow humans who aren’t your close friends and family or you don’t. Either you march inexorably, driven by market forces and short-term self-interest toward an increasingly hypercompetitive, soulless future or you decide to go in a different direction. Ultimately, tribalism is unsustainable, even for the mega-rich. One culture or the other will win. And at the moment, from where I’m standing in America at least, I’m not really liking the odds.
come talk to @jgots on Twitter
AND: The witty and wise Baratunde Thurston is this week's guest on Think Again - A Big Think Podcast, LIVE on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher! Jason Gots hosts. Interview clips from Rick Smolan, Lawrence Krauss, and Guy Kawasaki launch a discussion of human potential, social status, identity, and how Kim Kardashian's butt didn't actually "break the internet."
*CORRECTION: The original version of this article erroneously reported South Korea's suicide rate as 33.3%, which, as a helpful reader pointed out, was clearly way too high.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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