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The trouble with judging historical figures by today’s moral standards
Monuments are under attack in America. How far should we go in re-examining our history?
- Historical American monuments and sculptures are under attack by activists.
- The monuments are accused of celebrating racist history.
- Toppling monuments is a process that often happens in countries but there's a danger of bias.
History is not only the stuffing of Wikipedia articles but a live process involving you right now. As is evidenced bluntly by 2020, history is an undeniable force, here to change our societies and force us to re-examine everything we think and know before you can say "news cycle." So far we've had one of the worst pandemics of the modern era, with thousands dead and economic livelihoods uprooted around the world. We've had the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, spurred on by the murders of African-Americans by the police, unleashing pent-up frustrations at systemic injustice. We also find ourselves in an amazingly divisive election year, probably one of the worst periods of rancor in the life of the country. American "heroes" are getting re-examined left and right and statues are getting torn down.
All the upheaval places focus on the role of history in our society. How much of it do we want to own up to? How much are current American citizens responsible for the sins of their ancestors? Which men (and yes, mostly these are men) are allowed to stay up as bronze reminders of some heroic past, and which ones need to finally go to the far reaches of our collective unconscious? Do Confederate monuments and statues deserve to stay as part of the legacy of the South, or does it make any sense that a period of history that lasted about 5 years and produced attitudes that were actually defeated in a bloody Civil War is allowed to percolate in the minds of the population? It is as if a tacit agreement was kept up all these years where the victors allowed some such traditions to remain in order to foster a spirit of reconciliation.
Mob pulling down the statue of George III at Bowling Green, New York City, 9 July 1776.
Painting by William Walcutt. 1854.
There is a big danger, on the other hand, that as the conversation turns to exorcising ghosts of currently unpopular attitudes, we are doing it through the lens of presentism. It's a bias of judging the behavior of historical people through the standards of today. Oxford helpfully defines it as "uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts." We tend to view our present time as the best, most advanced socially and intellectually. And as such judge all others as inferior. While that may be true (certainly debatable), it's unfair to view how people reacted to situations around them within the constraints and prejudices of the society of their day. It's probably how people of a couple of hundred years from now will judge us, who still eat meat, as some kind of utter barbarians, a lesser humans.
Our present knowledge comes at the heels of wisdom gathered by generations before us. It is accumulated over time and by that standard should be richer, informed by greater experience and examination. Yet, is it fair to say that a person living 150 years ago should not have had the attitude shared by most people of his or her time, who only knew what they could know by that point in history? The intelligence of societies grows not only intellectually, reshaping their governments, but emotionally. It has taken the world a while to grow in that regard, to become mature in empathy and it's obviously nowhere near where it should be in such evolution.
As it is biased to judge a person from a different era for not having the moral foresight to stand up to his or her peers and end the tyranny of injustice, that is also no excuse to celebrate attitudes and statements that go squarely against what we believe in now. A bad idea is like a virus. It can take hold and come back quickly, infecting millions. We have all seen that happen too often recently. If you think it's no big deal to have statues of abolitionists and slave owners around, imagine if you were a Jewish person and had to pass by a statue of Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, every day on the way to work. It would just casually be there, kept up by people who believed that despite the times he subjected people to inhuman treatment and death, Himmler did a lot of other "good things" and represented the heritage of the people of the town. As that scenario would be unacceptable, so are a lot of statues kept up around the United States as vestiges of a past we do not need to remember with veneration. And for those who are wondering – no, Germany does not have any Nazi statues or memorials around.
People in Rome tear down the statues of Mussolini. July 25, 1943.
Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images.
If you think this debate concerns only Southern "heroes," it took until this year to start taking down statues of Juan de Oñate, the Spanish conquistador who rampaged through what is now New Mexico in the late 1500s. In 1599, he ordered a massacre at the Acoma Pueblo, killing about 500 of its men and 300 women and children. Many were thrown off a tall mesa to their deaths while survivors had their legs cut off. And yet, you could find statues of this man all over New Mexico. Only this year, they started to come down.
Ultimately, there's a big lesson here for statue-makers and those prone to worshipping idols. Even the Bible spoke about this. Respecting and learning from historical figures is extremely useful and necessary, but putting anyone up on a pedestal is generally a losing proposition. Eastern Europe saw a whole century of statues being torn down every few years in the 1900s – from monarchic rulers to Communist heroes who would fall in and out of favor, then a whole period of pulling down Lenin and Stalin figures in the 90's. Western Europe had its own idol carousel. Many other countries across the world, who've had tumultuous histories and had to undergo historical reckonings did the same. It's a process that happens in societies that experience change.
Of course, the big question is – how far should this go? How far back do we have to extent the soul-searching to expunge all the wrongs in our country's past? Do the iconic Presidents get a pass? Are they coming for Mount Rushmore, put up on Native land without permission, and the Washington Monument? Besides being one of the country's main Founding Fathers, Washington was a lifelong slave-owner who changed his mind about the practice and freed all his slaves by the end of his life – the only Founding Fathers with slaves to do so.
Statue of Lenin in Berlin, Germany On November 13, 1991.
Photo by Patrick PIEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Removing or altering some of the country's main symbols is probably a nonstarter at this point. But there can be correct acknowledgements and payments made, according to our current laws. It's legitimate to have concerns about dangerous ideas from the past but there have to be boundaries and the right pace. When you you start retooling your whole foundational mythology quickly, you get violence and revolutions. People are not going to give up on what they have been taught for generations easily and what is part of their culture. Still, this doesn't make such conversations not worth having, since what constitutes tribute to Southern heritage and values to some is a continual slap in the face to others, celebrating people who enslaved them and brutalized them for centuries. Status quo is not acceptable in such an equation.
But what about the once-taboo topic of asking national forgiveness with money – paying reparations to people brought to the country as slaves and to Native Americans who were largely exterminated and whose land was taken? In his seminal essay "The Case for Reparations" for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the early American economy was built on slave labor and the wealth that was accumulated on the backs of the enslaved created a tremendous wealth gap that persists today in dramatic fashion, in a ratio of 20 to 1 (of white to black wealth).
"Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country's shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap," he writes. "Reparations would seek to close this chasm. But as surely as the creation of the wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same."
Could we achieve such cooperation now? At the moment, only about 20 percent of the American population would support paying reparations to descendants of slaves.
Statue of Lenin taken down in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. October 2012.
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
As Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it, the notion of reparations is "frightening" to many because it might incur major economic costs and maybe most importantly, it "threatens something much deeper—America's heritage, history, and standing in the world."
While the issue of paying for past sins might further drive a wedge into an already-divided society, Coates believes putting a number on the historical events that led to American prosperity being "ill-gotten and selective in its distribution."
He further proposes that paying reparations would be more than just a payoff but would lead to "a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt," adding "What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal."
The cultural reexamination unleashed by the recent protests linked to widespread police brutality taps into the undercurrents of the American psyche. What's surprising is that so many Confederate statues can still be found around the U.S. – approximately 1,800 such monuments to be exact. Think about that – almost 2,000 signals of past attitudes that were defeated in a war and have been legislated against since. And yet, there they are, like guardians of not-so-secret inclinations America is unwilling to let go.
As many rightfully fear, however, efforts to tear things down based on the emotion of the moment can lead to mob rule and often less-than-nuanced opinions on history. A country deserves its past and whitewashing it doesn't change the facts. But all people living in the country today, which is much more diverse and getting more and more so, according to clear census data, have a right to be part of a society that values their sensibilities and respects them equally. Hanging onto to imperfect idols is understandable on the part of a population that is becoming less and less able to wield its will over minorities but ultimately futile, as the statues will come down as they always tend to do. The question is – will they come down as part of an elevated national consciousness or amidst violence? As coronavirus continues to expand its grip on the country, a more measured approach would serve us well.
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
Laughing gas may be far more effective for some than antidepressants.
The usual antidepressants don't work for everyone. That's what makes a new study of the antidepressant properties of nitrous oxide so intriguing. It looks like just a single low dose of what your dentist may call "laughing gas" can help alleviate symptoms of depression for weeks afterward.
The study, from researchers at University of Chicago and Washington University-St. Louis, is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Resistance to anti-depression medications
Nitrous oxide: two atoms of nitrogen, one of oxygenCredit: Big Think
According to the senior author of the study, Charles Conway, "A significant percentage — we think around 15 percent — of people who suffer from depression don't respond to standard antidepressant treatment."
"These 'treatment-resistant depression' patients," Conway says, "often suffer for years, even decades, with life-debilitating depression. We don't really know why standard treatments don't work for them, though we suspect that they may have different brain network disruptions than non-resistant depressed patients. Identifying novel treatments, such as nitrous oxide, that target alternative pathways is critical to treating these individuals."
"There is a huge unmet need," says lead author Peter Nagele. "There are millions of depressed patients who don't have good treatment options, especially those who are dealing with suicidality."
If ketamine can help, can nitrous oxide?
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
The researchers wondered if some of the anti-depression properties seen in ketamine might also apply to nitrous oxide. Nagele explains, "Like nitrous oxide, ketamine is an anesthetic, and there has been promising work using ketamine at a sub-anesthetic dose for treating depression."
The researchers conducted a one-hour session — they describe it as a "proof-of-principle" trial — in which 20 individuals with depression were administered an air mixture with 50 percent nitrous oxide. Twenty-four hours later, the researchers found a significant reduction in the participants' symptoms of depression versus a control group.
However, the individuals also suffered the unpleasant side effects that laughing gas often causes in dental patients: headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Smaller dose, longer effect
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
"We wondered if our past concentration of 50 percent had been too high," recalls Nagele. "Maybe by lowering the dose, we could find the 'Goldilocks spot' that would maximize clinical benefit and minimize negative side effects."
In a new trial, 20 people with depression were given a lighter nitrous oxide mix, just 25 percent, and the individuals tested reported a 75 percent reduction in side effects compared to the a control group given an air/oxygen placebo. This time, the researchers also tracked the effect of nitrous oxide on symptoms of depression for a far longer period, two weeks instead of just 24 hours.
"The reduction in side effects was unexpected and quite drastic," reports Nagele, "but even more excitingly, the effects after a single administration lasted for a whole two weeks. This has never been shown before. It's a very cool finding."
Nagele also notes that, despite its popular renown as laughing gas, even a light 25 percent mix of nitrous actually causes people to nod off. "They're not getting high or euphoric; they get sedated."
Delivering help to people with depression
Nagele cautions, "These have just been pilot studies. But we need acceptance by the larger medical community for this to become a treatment that's actually available to patients in the real world. Most psychiatrists are not familiar with nitrous oxide or how to administer it, so we'll have to show the community how to deliver this treatment safely and effectively. I think there will be a lot of interest in getting this into clinical practice."
After all, Nagele adds, "If we develop effective, rapid treatments that can really help someone navigate their suicidal thinking and come out on the other side — that's a very gratifying line of research."
How one startup plans to use "death rays" for good instead of evil.
- A new advance in concentrated solar power makes temperatures of 2700° F possible from nothing but sunlight.
- The heat produced can be used to produce electricity, make clean fuels, or power industrial processes.
- Founder Bill Gross sees these plants as part of a grand design to wean the world off oil.
The need for clean, consistent, renewable energy sources has never been more pressing. Rising energy prices threaten to kick-start inflation and slow economic growth. Control of the supply of fossil fuels has caused wars before and may well cause them again. Burning fossil fuels continues to create greenhouse gas emissions, making solving the problem of climate change difficult.
While low-carbon and renewable sources of power are being used more than ever before, none of them are perfect. Solar and wind power are very clean and increasingly inexpensive but have an energy storage problem. The batteries required to store that energy require rare earth metals, which are messy to extract and increasingly in demand. Hydro power is great but can have negative impacts on the river ecosystem. Nuclear is still a tough sell.
If we're going to solve our energy problems, we either need to find a new way to produce a lot of energy or fix the problems with the power sources we have. A renewable energy technology company backed by Bill Gates and founded by serial entrepreneur Bill Gross called Heliogen has a new approach to an existing model that may just accomplish the latter with a giant, extremely precise magnifying glass and some really hot rocks.
Concentrated solar power
The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Las Vegas, Nevada. This project, while not associated with Heliogen is a typical example of concentrated solar power. DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images
In Lancaster, California, a mid-sized city in the Mojave Desert, Heliogen has built a miniature version of their planned solar refinery. While concentrated solar power is nothing new — it has been operating commercially since the 1960s and is said to have been used by Archimedes to build a heat ray to burn the Roman fleet — this plant improves on the concept with stunning results.
Essentially a lot of mirrors arranged in a circle reflecting sunlight at an elevated target, concentrated solar power uses the energy in the sun's light to heat that target, which could be water, molten salt, or even something solid, to very high temperatures. (When this heat is used for something other than producing electricity, it is called concentrated solar thermal energy.)
Heliogen's current test refinery has 400 mirrors, known as heliostats, though it is only a tenth the size of what the company is proposing. Even with this reduced number of mirrors, the refinery has produced eye-popping results. Its operation has produced temperatures as high as 1500° C (2732° F). For comparison, most existing, full-sized concentrated solar power plants are able to produce temperatures in the 400° to 500° C range.
Heliogen's advance is made possible by state of the art software. Using AI and a series of cameras, the heliostats are kept on target as much as possible (currently to a twentieth of a degree) through micro-adjustments to their position throughout the day. By keeping the mirrors on target, the greatest amount of sunlight possible is focused on the target, creating more heat than was previously possible.
Concentrated solar power isn't just for electricity
It's important to remember that this is technically a solar thermal system. Unlike solar panels, this project does not use the photovoltaic effect to turn sunlight directly into electricity. This project is about generating heat. This heat can then be used to produce electricity — and the high temperatures involved mean it can do so very efficiently — but it has applications beyond that as well.
Many industries use intense heat in their manufacturing processes, like smelting or cement making, and they often burn fuels to create those high temperatures. Heliogen's refinery is able to produce similar temperatures without burning fuels and could provide the heat for these industries in the future. Additionally, the heat produced is high enough to make hydrogen fuel via electrolysis.
As Gross explained to CNN, "If you can make hydrogen that's green, that's a game-changer. Long term, we want to be the green hydrogen company."
If not used immediately, the heat energy can also be stored in plain old rocks, which can stay hot for days or even up to a week in a properly insulated storage unit. Their energy can then be called upon when needed or possibly even shipped to a location in need of heat. Compared to the difficulties of storing electricity produced from solar, this is child's play.
How can concentrated solar be applied at scale?
Gross hopes to improve the process by reaching the same results with increasingly smaller heliostats. His are already smaller than usual, which would allow them to be mass produced more cheaply than they are today. The hope is that this, along with other refinements to the system, would help lower the cost of energy produced by concentrated solar until it is cheaper than fossil fuel energy.
Currently, energy from concentrated solar power is more expensive than burning fossil fuels but only slightly. Also, compared to large arrays of solar panels, solar refineries are more expensive to build and operate. But costs are expected to decrease, in part because they are much better at energy storage than traditional solar, as discussed earlier. Furthermore, large scale concentrated solar power operations already exist in Spain, the Middle East, and the Southwestern U.S.
Concentrated solar power could radically change manufacturing
Gross's grand vision is to build many refineries all over the world using their heat to power industrial processes. The electricity produced by other refineries would create vast quantities of cheap "HelioFuels," starting with hydrogen. Since hydrogen fuel cells are extremely efficient and can run everything from submarines to laptops, this would be a huge step toward cleaning up the energy supply.
Similar ideas exist and have been used elsewhere to cleanly produce jet fuel, another industrial process that normally requires burning fossil fuels in order to create high temperatures.
The reduction in carbon emissions due to widespread use of concentrated solar could be substantial. Concrete manufacturing alone is responsible for 8 to 10 percent of all global emissions. Nearly 40 percent of those emissions are caused by burning the fossil fuels needed to create heat for the manufacturing process. Quick mental math suggests that if concentrated solar power replaced fossil fuel burning for heat in concrete production alone, global carbon emissions would fall by as much as four percent. For comparison, that is roughly equal to the share of carbon emissions created by France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Brazil combined.