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A Graphic Memoir of Psychological Abuse

Question: How does it feel to be up for a National Book Award as a graphic novelist? 

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David Small: It's thrilling. I'm overwhelmed. But I also—I won a big award and a couple of minor things, and I'm trying to just keep in mind that this is just a blip, you know, in my life. I mean, if I get it, that'll be very nice, and probably lead to a flurry of e-mails and phone calls and who knows? Maybe some trips, and then it'll all be over, and the big spotlight will move on to somebody else, and my studio will become very quiet again. And that's just the way it goes, and that's a good thing.

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Question: Was your book miscategorized as “Young People’s Literature”?

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David Small: I do not believe that it was miscategorized. I think it was categorized exactly where it should be. I didn't think of categories when I was writing the book. I knew that I was stepping out of the children's world, but I never thought that I was stepping completely into the adult world, because the book is about a teenager, for example. It really—the principal ages are six and 14—of the main character. And when the controversy started, I began having second thoughts and wondering, hmm, did I put some things in there that, you know, teenagers couldn't handle? I didn't think so. I mean, they see so much now, and things are talked about so openly in young adult literature. I actually thought that I was being rather modest in my book with the things that I left out. And also by not taking, by not adopting a totally sarcastic viewpoint. That—I questioned myself about that too, because it almost seemed totally uncool to not be, you know, absolutely ironic about everything. I'm not really ironic about anything in this book; it's pretty sincere, without, I hope, ever falling into sentimentality, which I despise. But I—you know, I was questioning it until yesterday at the New York Public Library, where the five of us finalists spoke to a room of, I don't know, it looked like hundreds of teenagers. And they all came up to the mikes afterwards with questions. And I could see that these young people were so touched by Stitches; it was just unbelievable. The questions that they asked were—they were the equal of the very best questions that I have been asked by bloggers in the whole—you know, you can read 53 pages of blogs and reviews of my book on Google—and these kids were just as intelligent and just as—they were giving my book just as sensitive a read as any adult who's talked to me. And I was really touched by that. And as one of the teachers said to me who came up to the table afterwards, you know, everybody feels—especially at this age—they feel the kind of isolation that's talked about in Stitches. They feel that kind of loneliness. And I—you know, the book is really—it's not about being an abused child in the sense of the kind of abuse that attracts our attention in newspapers all the time—you know, kids getting their limbs broken and being thrown downstairs or out of second-floor windows. None of that happened to me.

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I was abused, but it was all psychological; it was much subtler. And I think everyone to some extent can relate to that. And I think above all why this is a book for teenagers is that teenagers—part of the teenage angst, part of the angstiness of being a teenager, and part of the rebellion, is this sense that they're not being told everything about the adult world, that there's a deep hypocrisy out there that they are desperate to know about. And, you know, teenagers are always sneaking around in drawers where they shouldn't go and reading things they shouldn't be reading. And that's an attempt to try, I think, to penetrate—and that actually happens in my book—there's—that's how I found out as a teenager what was going on, was by sneaking into drawers and reading letters that I had no business reading. This is how I found out that I had had cancer, that everybody—my whole family—thought that I was going to die, and nobody had told me about it. And my reaction at the time was the reaction that I had been taught by my own family to give, which was to clam up, to not respond, to hold it inside. And then when I started, like a teenager will, to act out, and in pretty bad ways—running away from school and threatening suicide and needing to see a shrink and so on—that's when the truth began to come out. And of course, what I discovered on my own was that, you know, that I'd had cancer, but then I found out later that it was my dad who had given it to me in his practice as a radiologist, and that was just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of—mixed metaphors—family skeletons, you know. I was the least of the ones that came tumbling out of the closet one after another at that point. So I think this is something that kids really, really can relate to, and I don't see it miscategorized at all, and I'm very happy to be in that category.

Recorded on November 18, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

"Stitches" is only the second graphic novel ever to be nominated for a National Book Award. The author discusses what the honor meant to him and why his dark memoir was not miscategorized as "Young People’s Literature."

How accountability at work can transform your organization

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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
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  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Future of Learning
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  • There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like Mastery.com are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
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