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How I realized America values guns more than the lives of kids

The former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explains what it will take to reduce gun violence against kids.

Arne Duncan: The reality of gun violence that we face in places like Chicago—and unfortunately it’s not unique—in many places around the country is staggering.

And above my desk in Chicago I kept a picture that a young man 12 or 13, a middle school student had drawn for me. It was a picture of him, he’s a fireman, he was climbing up a ladder outside a building to go rescue somebody. And the caption of his illustration was if “I grow up I want to be a fireman.” And that for me was devastating, because for me it was never “if I grow up,” it’s “when I grow up.” And there are far too many young people in Chicago and across the country who ask or think, “if I grow up.”

Everything I’ve done all my life is to try and have young kids think long-term and to defer gratification and think about graduating from high school and think about going to college, but if you’re just trying to survive day-to-day, if you’re just trying to make it, I’m taking a foreign language, I’m speaking Greek.

And so the psychological damage, the fear, the short-term thinking that it forces you to have does so much to take away kids’ dreams. The biggest problem for me is we’ve taken away kids’ childhood. We have entire communities in Chicago where kids can’t go outside and play; there are no playgrounds.

This Friday we’re going to actually go build a playground in one of those neighborhoods and do our best to try and keep it safe so kids could literally play. And so all we want to do is give children their childhood back, and we’ve robbed them of that, and it’s absolutely immoral.

When I went onto run with the Chicago public schools for seven and a half years, obviously some of the issues you’re working on—improving academic achievement and labor management negotiations and budget issues and capital—I don’t want to say any of those were easy, but they were all a heck of a lot easier than dealing with the issue of gun violence.

And the horrible truth is, during my seven and a half years on my watch on average we had a student killed every two weeks, and none of those, thank God, were in schools, but they were in community, they were on the bus going home, this was Starkesia Reed who was shot at 7:30 AM on a school morning in her living room by an AK-47 from a hundred yards away; bullet flew through the window and hit her in the head and she died instantly.

And going to those funerals, going to classrooms where there was an empty desk and trying to make sense of the senseless—that was by far the hardest thing that I ever dealt with.

This is a tough thing to say, but I always try and be honest—what I really thought, because the vast majority of my students in Chicago were students of color or poor students—what I really thought is that the nation didn’t care about black and brown students, and that it would take white kids being killed for anything to change.

And then in DC we had the Sandy Hook Massacre in Newtown Connecticut, and that was obviously my worst day in DC.

President Obama, who by definition dealt with the toughest issues on the planet, that was his worst day.

He went down the next day to meet with families, and Vice President Biden and I went down a couple days later, and none of us ever imagined 20 babies, five teachers, and a principal being killed.

And then after that we got nothing done in terms of gun control legislation. By far our biggest failure.

And when you talk about lies in education and lies in America, what I came to understand in that aftermath wasn't just that we don't care about black and brown kids—that we don’t care about any kids. We don’t value their lives.

We value our guns more than we do their lives.

And so after that Sandy Hook Massacre seeing our inability to get anything done in terms of gun legislation for several years I was honestly very, very pessimistic, and that’s not really who I am, I’m an optimistic person by nature, but I didn’t see much help.

Then tragically we had the massacre in Parkland and what those young people in Florida have done to sort of awaken the nation’s consciousness has been extraordinary, and we’ve matched them with young people I’m working with now in Chicago from the south and west sides who deal with this on a daily basis. They’re working with young people around the country, they had the March for Our Lives in DC, I took my family, my wife and our two kids too and it was extraordinary to see.

And what I actually believe now is that the young people are going to win and they’re going to lead the country where we as adults have failed to take them. They’re going to lead the country to a place that’s freer of fear and trauma. Is a nation we have raised a generation of teenagers on mass shootings, on gun violence. It doesn’t happen in other countries.

And when I meet with young people I apologize all the time, that we have failed to keep them safe. It doesn’t happen in other countries.

But these young people are leading a movement, and as you study our history you think about the civil rights movement, you think about the protest against the Vietnam War, those weren’t led by people my age or with my color hair, those were led by young people who were willing to put their very lives on the line to try and change America. And so I’m actually more hopeful, more inspired than I’ve ever been as a nation: we’re going to break through and our young people are going to lead us where we need to go.

When he ran schools in Chicago, there was a student killed by gun violence every two weeks, says the former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He thought there would be changes to our laws after Sandy Hook, Parkland, and other massacres, but the adults failed in protecting the kids. Now it's up to the young people who are mobilizing themselves and Duncan is hopeful they will finally bring real change.

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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