The Surprise in Tonight’s State of the Union Address

On Tuesday night at 9:00 EST, President Obama will deliver his fifth State of the Union address, the first of his second term. Coming just a few weeks on the heels of his soaring Second Inaugural, the speech will likely dial down the rhetoric a notch as Obama outlines his legislative priorities for 2013. Expect less “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall” and more substantive policy suggestions.  

There has been a lot of speculation about the proposals the president will announce. The New York Times reported with unusual confidence on Sunday that Obama will call for a sharp reduction in nuclear arms; on Monday, the White House spokesman denied any such proposal would be announced in the speech. Most pundits expect to see Obama emphasize ideas for boosting the economy and creating more jobs and commentary seems to be coming on climate change and immigration reform. By all accounts, foreign policy will get less air time.

The most drama and tension in the House chamber will come when President Obama broaches the divisive issue of the moment: gun control. Gabrielle Giffords, the former representative who was shot in Tucson in 2011 and has now become an advocate for weapons restrictions, will be present, along with the mother of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who was shot in Chicago days after returning from Washington, D.C., where she had performed in the marching band at the Inauguration. Friends and relatives of dozens of mass shooting victims from recent massacres will be there as well. On the other side of the debate, the irrepressible musician, Obama hater and NRA board member Ted Nugent will be in the audience, guest of Rep. Steve Stockman. The cameramen will have a lot to handle panning around the chamber to catch reactions from all of these faces.

After the main event ends around 10 pm, viewers will be treated to not one but two responses, as they have in the last two cycles: one from the Republican Party (delivered by GOP darling and likely 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio), another from the Tea Party (presented by libertarian Sen. Rand Paul). Only the president’s message is required by the Constitution, of course: the tradition of rebutting the president’s vision while his words still linger in the air is a modern invention.

I will be live-blogging the address with my colleagues at the Economist; Praxis readers are invited to follow the conversation here. (I'll be the avocado-tinted avatar with the initials S.M.)

In the 2012 address, Obama strung us along for 767 words before declaring "the state of our union is getting stronger." Let the first annual Praxis SOTU contest commence: how will the President fill in the blank this year? Record your guess for tonight's surprise below. Points will be awarded for creativity and wit as well as prescience.

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

Harvard scientists suggest 'Oumuamua is an alien device

It's an asteroid, it's a comet, it's actually a spacecraft?

(ESO/M. Kornmesser)
Surprising Science
  • 'Oumuamua is an oddly shaped, puzzling celestial object because it doesn't act like anything naturally occurring.
  • The issue? The unexpected way it accelerated near the Sun. Is this our first sign of extraterrestrials?
  • It's pronounced: oh MOO-uh MOO-uh.
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Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
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