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Why American history lives between the cracks

The stories we tell define history. So who gets the mic in America?

Elizabeth Alexander: America is a diasporic country. America is a country, you know, we start with native people in this land and then people were brought here sometimes involuntarily, sometimes voluntarily but in diaspora from other parts of the globe. So, of course, there's the African diaspora largely brought here involuntary. There are people who come in diasporas from Europe under different sets of circumstances, from Asia and different sets of circumstances in continuing waves throughout American history, uniquely American. So I think that what is amazing about this place is that it has always received people who are scattered from other places and then made a mix that is uniquely its own.

I think that in thinking about the commonalities of let's call them immigrant or transplanted or the people who in various waves come from elsewhere to make America. What's really important is while we can sometimes see renewal and rebuilding I think that those stories have very, very distinct particularities and it's important for us not to flatten them. The slave experience, the experience of coming north in the great migration is very different from coming here from the Holocaust, coming here from the potato famine, coming here from other kinds of international either crises or seeing the United States as many have as a land of opportunity. These are very, very distinct stories. So I don't mean to say that I don't think they have any common denominator but I think that they are more richly understood in their particularity.

Well I think that what is important about memory shaping our sense of a legacy is that how memories are transmitted, how stories are told has everything to do with what we remember. So that's why I think the work is really so important of which books are taught, which projects are funded, who gets the mic, how do we even have a chance to record and then evaluate what a wide range of American stories are so we can understand who we really are. I'm a part of a school of thought in African American studies and sort of revisionist histories that sort of say okay, well here's one timeline but actually look at all of these other stories that were not included on this timeline. You know the wonderful saying the lions are the victors in history because the lions write history. And when the lions no longer write history we'll have a different history. So if you think about how much history has been told by people with power and cultural resources, more male than not, more white than not, more monied than not, more elite institution affiliated than not. How can we understand that that's not all the human beings, right. That's not all the human beings. So I've always been a professor who goes back at one timeline and says but look at this and this and this and this. All of these conversations that were happening simultaneously.

And by the way when you do that with culture very often these poets, for example, who were not placed on a narrow conical timeline together in their time were actually very much in interaction with each other. So I think that we actually need to do the restorative work to remember that human begins living in proximity to each other are not always unaware of each other in the way that history sometimes has written it.

Throughout my career I have been working to expand notions of where value, cultural value, artistic value resides. When I was more engrossed in literary study and particularly African American literary study and women's studies, gender studies what we were always trying to do was recenter the canon to say here are all of these voices, all of this brilliance that either hasn't been taught or hasn't been taught anywhere other than on the margins. So if you think about works that are now thought of as being quite canonical like Zora Neale Hurston's great novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, when I started out in graduate school was not even in print. It was something that people handed tattered copies from hand to hand. And now it is something that people are reading in high schools in large part because of the sort of feminist literary study and African American literary study that said this is neglected excellence. This is excellence that should be read by everyone and this is excellence that is at the center of what is great in American literature. And that argument was one that could be made using basic tools of close reading but also learning about how other traditions in addition to the English literary tradition and in addition to what sort of elite institutions had put forth in English departments how other traditions had values that helped shape what made a great work of art. So that's sort of a long story to say that I believe in a very interdisciplinary way of understanding and shaping what excellence is. I think there is not only one way that a work of art can achieve greatness and I think that it's our responsibility as smart funders just as it is the responsibility of smart educators to be able to understand works of art and their achievement or failure on their own terms. And that's kind of the complex way that we try to thin about what we fund.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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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
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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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.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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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."

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