We Know Nothing of War
If you have to say "never forget," you've probably already forgotten.
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.
Everybody in my country in my generation knows that war is tragic and wrong. But most of us have no idea what war really is. The way we talk about war on Facebook and elsewhere is a bit like the way white people in the suburbs talk about gang violence in the inner cities. Slow, steady shaking of the head from side to side. So sad. Oh, the humanity.
I'm not saying we're wrong. War is terrible and to be avoided at any cost. But I've been thinking a lot lately about World War I — about that generation that found itself suddenly thrust into the worst horror humanity had ever managed to contrive. Millions dead and maimed on the Western front. Years spent living in trenches full of shit, piss, and dead bodies. Staring all that in the face, as much as is possible with the help of Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" podcast, a biography of Winston Churchill, and PJ Harvey's song "All and Everyone," it's hard not to think of us as a generation of children, prancing around and fussing now and then whenever our toys get broken.
Worse, war is still with us — in Africa, in the Middle East — but until it comes and visits your house, it's tough to really hold it fixed in your mind's eye, an ever-present reality. Even 9/11 quickly de-rezzed into clichés. If you have to say "never forget," you've probably already forgotten. Our ignorance of the reality of war affects our policy decisions abroad and the way we talk about things like terrorism.
I'll never forget (really. no reminders necessary) a dinner party I once attended at the home of an Israeli friend, a guy maybe 10 years older than me who had lived most of his life in Jerusalem. The topic turned to the first intifada — a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks (or acts of resistance, depending on whom you talked to) in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, still ongoing at the time.
I don't know what I said — some mitigating and semi-informed comment about how both sides had been locked in this struggle for so long that they couldn't see anything clearly anymore, and that enough was enough, I think.
My friend exploded. What he said isn't so important — he was predictably pro-Israel and anti-terrorist, and deeply invested in the blood that had been spilled and who had "started" it all.
What mattered was the wave of alienation that hit me: the sudden, disorienting sense of having no idea what the hell I was talking about, sitting here, safe, in this Brooklyn brownstone. Not that my friend was clear-headed about the conflict — he was anything but. But he had lived it, whereas to me it was a remote irritation, a stupid, endless spat I'd heard enough of in the news and wanted an end to, already.
PJ Harvey's song randomly came on the car radio this morning. iPhone --> Bluetooth --> automatic iTunes play --> alphabetical order. "A" for "All and Everyone," from her brilliant album Let England Shake. When we think of World War I we think of gray skies and men shuffling stoically to their doom. The song doesn't contradict that image:
Death was everywhere,
In the air
And in the sounds
Coming off the mounds
Of Bolton's Ridge.
When you rolled a smoke
Or told a joke,
It was in the laughter
And drinking water
It approached the beach
As strings of cutters,
Dropped into the sea and lay around us.
But somehow she sings the soul into the scene, the sorrow and the loss at the waste of young life that you can't quite feel when staring at black-and-white photographs.
Death was in the ancient fortress,
Shelled by a million bullets
From gunners, waiting in the copses
With hearts that threatened to pop their boxes,
As we advanced into the sun
Death was all and everyone.
Listening while dropping my 7-year-old off at his school bus (don't call Child Protective Services. He wasn't paying attention to the lyrics), I felt that sickly ache in my gut that men must have felt in those trenches: despair and nausea mixed with some tincture of remote hope that they might eventually get out of this hole in the ground and home to their families.
Dan Carlin's podcast is different. In his series on WWI called "Blueprint for Armageddon," he's aggressively masculine, presenting the horror of war in the form of graphic, grim descriptions of dismemberment and decapitation, and of battle strategies gone horribly wrong, or horribly right. Carlin seems to understand war's full impact well, but he's strident in describing it, raising the sneaking suspicion (in this listener at least) that he relishes putting his listeners through something of the same hell the soldiers suffered.
This is the same thing in a different form: a way of giving you something not totally unlike the experience of war through the snug comfort of your earbuds. Maybe Carlin, like any serious student of history, is irritated, pissed off even, by the ahistoricity of our times. Maybe he's punishing us, just a little, for our own good. "Blueprint for Armageddon" drops you in the middle of the conflict, the most nauseating charnel house in history, providing rich, vivid detail and insightful commentary, but letting you draw your own emotional conclusions.
I know what most of my friends and acquaintances think of Churchill, whether or not they really know anything about him. I won't say I'm a fanboy, exactly. But he was there, on the Western Front, and more than you or I do, he understood what war was and what it cost. In fact, he spent most of the years between WWI and WWII trying in vain to convince people in the British government that Germany was mobilizing again, building planes and warships in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, and that Britain had better do something about it before the imbalance of power resulted in millions more lives lost (in the coming war) than would otherwise have been.
Nobody listened to him. England had been so traumatized by WWI that nobody wanted to hear anything about war at all. Churchill was called a "warmonger" and marginalized politically while Germany rearmed aggressively with the full knowledge of the British government, who assured the British people that Germany was simply stretching its legs a little, and who could blame them for that?
Some will no doubt disagree, but I'd argue that Churchill, having known war intimately, was England's best advocate for peace at a moment in 1933 when the Oxford Union — the nation's most influential organization of young men — passed a formal resolution that "This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country."
I'm not arguing that a strong military is the only deterrent to war. I don't know enough about history or diplomacy to convince myself or anyone else of that. But I do think that those of us who haven't had war come visit us on our doorsteps need to do a lot of work before we're in any position to advocate effectively for peace. Social theorists argue that history, having been written by men and by the victors, is inevitably and overly focused on war. I'd agree that there are many histories to be told, and that we need to tell them. Literature does a better job, often, than historians can of telling the forgotten stories at the center and on the periphery of human events (Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy being one brilliant, recent example).
But war, I think, IS central to human history, hideous though it may be for us to stare it in the face. It reveals so much about what we are at our best and at our worst. And I think we gloss over its gory details at our peril.
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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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