Re: What needs to change in academia?

     I won’t bore you with a history of our educational system (I’m also not the most qualified to subject you to that specific flavor of boredom), it should be suffice to point out that our education system was born of enlightenment era values, and is now also informed by industry to produce students with marketable skills.  In this way our colleges have, to no small degree, become the gatekeepers for many of the more desirable (and highly paid) opportunities our economic system provides.  As such opportunities become more scarce, relative to population, and the disparity between the compensations of those with these coveted positions verses those without becomes more pronounced, the role of gatekeeper becomes more influential.  This is not necessarily a fault of the universities; it is simply a reality that provides universities a significant place in the functioning of our economy.  In some ways this is good since it provides educational institutions improved funding.  It is, however, socially quite unjust.  Rising tuitions means that more and more of the best opportunities in our economy will only be attainable by those that can afford them, not those that, by their own merit, have earned them.  This is not the first time that honorable institutions have been warped, over time, by power and influence (plenary indulgences anyone?), but, at the pace of the modern world, it will likely be short lived.

     Historically speaking, our universities have provided general and trade specific education to individuals under the understanding that, once prepared, the individual will, hence forth, have whatever knowledge is needed to compete in the market.  For some fields this is the case and for others it has not been the case for some time.  Today’s trends point to an accelerating change towards the latter.  The rate of change of information technologies and the rippling of these changes into every aspect of production and business is creating an environment where professionals must constantly learn and adapt to new ways of performing their jobs and in many cases transitioning to different jobs entirely, as their old function is optimized out of existence.  Terms like ‘lifelong learning’ or ‘continuing education’ have been used in relation to these changes but the change is far more fundamental.  The idea of taking 3-5 years to learn a trade in today’s market is nearly alien.  For many occupations, if it takes more than a few months to learn the fundamentals or more than a few days to adjust to changing details of your job, you’re hosed.  Fewer things can take 3-5 years to learn because fewer things will be around long enough for such an investment of time.

     To better serve the needs of a more dynamic world, universities will need to move away from the existing model of education or be replaced by newer forms of education.  For social justice, they should relinquish their monopoly as gatekeepers while doing so.  I submit that Universities should decouple their role as educators from their role as gatekeeper.  The gatekeeper role is one of certification.  When a student receives a degree from Harvard the university asserts that the student has learned a level of knowledge that meets Harvard’s standards.  There is no reason to believe that an individual could not achieve that level of knowledge at another university or on ones own so why must a student attend Harvard to get a degree from Harvard.  Similarly if an individual wishes to learn but is not interested in a degree (A lawyer with and interest in roman history for instance) there is no reason for this person to go threw all the red tape and admission overhead to become enrolled in a university when all that is desired is access to the information and someone knowledgeable in the field.  By decoupling the acquisition of knowledge and education from the certification of obtained knowledge, the university systems can provide more dynamic and more socially just education to a wider audience.

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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