from the world's big
Big Think Interview With Barry Scheck
Barry Scheck is the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, a national organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted people and implements policy reforms to prevent future injustice. Founded in 1988 under the auspices of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Innocence Project has exonerated hundreds through post-conviction DNA testing. Scheck is also famous for having defended notable clients like O.J. Simpson, Hedda Nussbaum, Louise Woodward, and Abner Louima.
Scheck is currently a professor of law at Cardozo and a commissioner on New York's Forensic Science Review Board, a body that regulates all of the state's crime and forensic DNA laboratories. He is first vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and serves on the board of the National Institute of Justice's Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. In 2001, along with Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld, Scheck co-authored the book "Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted."
Question: What inspired you to start challenging wrongful convictions?
Barry Scheck: I’ve been a law professor for 31 years at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law here in New York City, and when DNA testing began to get transferred from medial and research uses to the forensic arena, my colleague Peter Neufeld and I became very conversant with it in 1988, 1989. In fact, we tried to get somebody out of prison who’d been convicted in the Bronx represented by the Public Defender’s Office where we used to work, and we tried to do DNA testing before it was even in the courts to prove that he was innocent. He had been convicted of a rape and there were 17 alibi witnesses that he had at a prayer meeting. But there were three eye witnesses, so he was convicted notwithstanding what appeared to be strong proof of his innocence. And we tried to do DNA testing with a new private company named, Life Codes, but we couldn’t get any results and instead we were able to prove him innocent with other kinds of evidence.
But at that time, everybody recognized that DNA was going to be very important, and Governor Mario Cuomo, in his last – one of his last acts in his administration, set up a commission to look at DNA testing and how it might effect the criminal justice system. Now, we’re talking 1988, 1989. And Peter and I were on that commission and we met a number of scientists, particular Dr. Yon Winkowski from Cold Spring Harbor, and he in turn introduced us to a number of scientists, in particular, Dr. Erick Lander, who was then part of the Whitehead Institute, MIT and Harvard and now is one of President Obama’s science advisors one of two or three science advisors. And he is at the Broad Institute. He was both a geneticist and a mathematician and a very brilliant guy. And so he taught us a lot, not just about molecular biology, but also about how science works, technology transfers, and the interplay between scientific institutions – science and governmental institutions. And it was sort of left to us to figure how this was to work in the court system.
So, from the very beginning of learning about this technology, the truth is, we knew it would be transformative, we knew that it would have an enormous impact, not just in exonerating people who were wrongfully convicted, but apprehending people who had really committed the crimes, and just a learning moment so that we could figure out what causes wrongful convictions and how to prevent them.
Question: How does the Innocence Project decide which cases to take up?
Barry Scheck: we do get hundreds of letters per week. And we have still a cue – a waiting list of a few thousand people. But our criteria is very simple. For our project, the point is, if a DNA test could in and of itself prove you innocent. And the way things work now, more than one DNA test. Because when this technology was first transferred to the forensic arena, we were doing what they were known as Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism tests. People would know those as “The Bands,” right. And that was looking at nuclear DNA. That would be a cell that has a nucleus and you would extract the DNA from the nucleus of the cell.
Now, we have techniques using what’s known as **** Chain Reaction and this is – or PCR, and the best way to think about this, it’s molecular Xeroxing. You can take a very, very small amount of starting material and amplify it up and you can look not just a nuclear DNA and the technique that’s now known is Short Tandem Repeat. So there is using these so-called STRs or Tandem repeats, there is now a set of markers that are used for the database here in the United States, and they are also used in the United Kingdom and all over the world, frankly. So we have one – developing one huge DNA database just based on this one particular Short Tandem Repeat system.
But now we can also do what’s known as “Y” DNA testing, which is just looking at DNA from the Y chromosome, and you can amplify that up with a PCR. And then there’s another technique called Mitochondrial DNA testing.
Mitochondrial DNA is a DNA test that literally looks at the mitochondrial within a cell. It’s sort of the powerhouse of the cell. And that’s maternally inherited. So your mitochondrial DNA is the same as your mom’s and your brothers and sisters, unless something really weird is going on in your family.
So, many, many different kinds of DNA tests have developed since we first came into business about 15 years ago, and that has enhanced our capability of answering the simple question that you asked me is, how do we decide to take a case? And the simple answer is, well if DNA can prove you innocent. But now we can do lots of different DNA tests and the methods of extraction have gotten much better, so it’s a misnomer. People talk about touch DNA. That’s really not helpful, but what is really meant there is that you can extract DNA from epithelial or skins cells, for example, that might be found on a piece of clothing or if the assailant left a sneaker or any kind of – a woolen hat or something where you might find saliva or skin cells or any piece of clothing, you can now take cuttings from various different parts of that clothing and develop a DNA profile of the “usual wearer.”
So all of these different techniques, when combined together, I mean you get redundancy of results, can greatly assist in demonstrating that somebody didn’t commit the crime even when you’re looking at cases that are 10, 15, 20 or 30 years old.
Question: How many wrongful convictions have been overturned as a result of the Innocence Project's work?
Barry Scheck: That’s 258 cases I believe as we are sitting here today of post-conviction DNA exonerations. But there are many other cases involving people who were actually sentenced to death in this country, and you can find those on the Death Penalty Information Center website, where there’s substantial proof that innocent people were convicted, but they’ve been exonerated with evidence other than DNA. So, what happened since the Innocence Project really went into business in 1992 is really a movement, a civil rights movement, an innocence movement that is really transformed the way that the criminal justice system looks at error and looks at the interrelationship of science and results. And the one thing we know, because of post-conviction DNA tests is that there are far more innocent people than anybody ever really believed.
Question: What percentage of the cases that you take turn out to have been wrongful convictions?
Barry Scheck: Well, we can give you – and we have posted a pretty precise set of statistics on the number of cases that we take where DNA could prove that somebody’s innocent. It varies because, you know, in most cases – well in many cases, we can’t find the evidence, it’s been lost or destroyed. Remember, we are looking at cases that are 20 or 30 years old. It goes in cycles. In the last few years, about half the time, when somebody writes to us and says, DNA is going to prove me innocent, then we get the case to the lab, meaning we find the evidence, and then we get the test results, about half the time, you know, we can demonstrate their innocence with the DNA test. Sometimes we get no results and sometimes, they’re guilty.
Question: Are some kinds of cases or defendants more likely to result in wrongful convictions?
Barry Scheck: Well, this is a very good question because when Peter Neufeld and I started in this business, you know, we’d been criminal defense lawyers and worked on all kinds of criminal cases. I’ve been a professor, you know, I’ve been doing this for 31 years and training a lot of prosecuters and stayed in the Federal Courts, so I thought I was pretty experienced when it came to looking at cases. And you know, very often I will look at one and I’ll say, “Ah, based on what we know about the **** of wrongful conviction, this sure looks like a bad eye witness identification case.” Or there’s all kinds of evidence here that indicates to me that – I’ll bet this one is going to come out innocent. Right? Did an exculpatory DNA result. And then there’s other ones where I’ll say, “Well, you know, we’re taking this case because in theory, the DNA could prove this individual innocent, but boy they look really guilty to me. I mean, look at all this other corroborating evidence and there’s fingerprint here and there’s all kinds of other evidence.” And were wrong. And that’s the most important thing to know.
We who work within the criminal justice system where the life and liberty of the people are at stake have to have some humility. That’s really what these DNA exonerations are teaching us.
My prosecutor friends and judges will tell you that there are a whole host of cases among these 258 where nobody ever believed that the individual was innocent. But then after the DNA exonerates them and we go back and we deconstruct the case, we find there were all kinds of people who were lying or it turns out that certain forensic techniques that we thought were highly reliable, are not. And things weren’t what they appeared to be.
So I think it’s a really important take home lesson that you have to be humble about these things and that, you know, we really don’t know as much as we think we do about results in the criminal justice system for sure.
Question: Why would anyone—even prosecutors—object to the widespread use of DNA evidence in all cases?
Barry Scheck: Well this has changed over time. At first when we began our work at the Innocence Project, and there’s a problem within the system generally, there were all kinds of what we call “procedural bars.” To getting a post-conviction DNA test, much less being able to offer the results in court. In fact, there were no states that permitted post-conviction DNA testing and there were only nine states that said that you could raise a claim of newly discovered evidence to show that you were innocent at any time. So many states had time limits, statutes of limitations.
In Virginia, there was an infamous 21-day rule. Twenty-one days after the trial, even if you’d found new evidence of innocence you could put it into court as newly discovered. In other states is was one year or two years or three years or six months. I mean, there were all kinds of problems like this. So we were able to get passed now in 48 states, statutes that allow for post-conviction DNA testing. And Massachusetts is one of the states that doesn’t have a statute, but you can, based on what they call common law, you can usually get a test result, but they should pass the statute.
So the point here is that from the very beginning, there were all kinds of impediments to even getting this evidence into court. And at first when we went into court and we said to the prosecutors, “Oh, well look at this case. There’s an obvious basis to doing a DNA test and it could prove somebody innocent and maybe identify the real perpetrator, why don’t you consent to it?” And in many instances they would. In many instances they did not. Not for particularly rational reasons, I must tell you. Which is really, I guess the subject of your question, why would anybody resist this? Right? And then even after the DNA proof came in, why would prosecutors still say, “Oh no, no, we’re going to uphold the conviction.” And that is a question for cognitive psychology. And a lot of people thought about it. I think there are a number of factors. The first is very simply, it’s human nature. People don’t like to admit they’re wrong. We’re all like that. Number two, and maybe well I don’t want to give Primacy to any of these, they’re all worked together. There’s the problem that when somebody’s convicted, there’s a victim, or a victim’s family in the case of a homicide. And the prosecutor has said, “Well, this defendant is a horrible person, a beast, an animal in some instances they would say, “kill this person, committed this most heinous of crimes.” And now you have to go back to the victim’s family and say, “Guess what. We were wrong.”
Well that’s very difficult for a victim or a family and we see it so often in the sexual assault cases. In particular, there was an eye witness misidentification so hard for somebody that’s been subject to such a brutal crime to now – who made an honest mistake in making a misidentification to now say, “Oh my God, I was wrong.” I mean you feel doubly, triply violated. It’s a horrible burden to carry.
So there’s a lot of reluctance to upset victims within a community. So that’s a second factor that inhibits prosecutors sometimes and police from acknowledging a wrongful conviction or even opposing an effort to get a DNA test.
And then finally, and this may be more subtle, but I think it’s a very, very important factor because in a lot of cases we would find the prosecutor, who was standing in the way of the DNA testing and refusing to acknowledge the obvious implications of the new evidence, wasn’t even in office when the crime was committed. And the reason, I think, that some of these prosecutors were so reluctant to go along with what was I think a clearly just outcome or even to find out the truth or get better scientific evidence that would shed light on the truth, is that they’re afraid of the next case.
So if we have an exoneration in an eye witness identification case and now I’m trying a new case in front of the jury, the jury had just heard about this big exoneration and they’re always big news. They should be too. And they’re going to be thinking; maybe I shouldn’t trust this eye witness. Or maybe that case involved police misconduct, maybe I shouldn’t trust the police. Or it was a false confession; maybe I shouldn’t be so sure that a confession means that somebody is really guilty. And on it goes. So I think that they’re worried about the next case.
The truth is that if you are a prosecutor that has the reputation for going back and looking back at old cases and correcting errors, I think that you’re reputation for reliability goes up.
Question: Are there factors that make a jurisdiction more likely to wrongfully convict someone?
Barry Scheck: Any jurisdiction where there is not adequate funding for criminal defense lawyers is a jurisdiction at risk, and that is so many in this country. It’s a longstanding and continuing crisis that we do not adequately fund public defenders or court appointed lawyers because nothing guarantees the conviction of an innocent person more than a lawyer that is not adequately funded or not competent to do the job. You know it is an adversary system and we really do depend upon a vigorous criminal defense function in order to make sure that everything is being done right within the system because if police or prosecutors cross the line in their prosecution of somebody even that is guilty or if the forensic laboratories for example are not examined in every case so that we make sure that they’re doing their jobs correctly you know the whole system will implode on itself and we’re seeing that everywhere. I can rip any headline, so take a look at North Carolina. North Carolina recently there was an exoneration where it was demonstrated that one of the people within the state crime lab had done a presumptive test for the existence of blood. It came out positive and then there is a follow up test you’re supposed to do to see if that really is blood and the follow up test was negative, but the lab only reported the first presumptive test that was positive and that was a regular procedure, so now they have just finished an audit of old cases where that was going on at the SBI and it has created a huge crisis within the North Carolina Criminal Justice System and there is yet more to do looking at other disciplines within the crime lab to see whether we were just getting a reliable result.
The Houston Police Department Crime Lab had an extremely famous scandal where Mike Bromwich who actually had done an analysis of the FBI lab when he was the inspector general in the Reno Justice Department, he did a huge reexamination of the Houston Police Department Crime Lab and literally found that they were not doing a proper job in their serology section in virtually all the cases and this led to not just wrongful convictions, but real assailants getting away with it. I mean they weren’t even… They would find stains, semen, saliva and blood stains that were probative and they wouldn’t even do the tests. It was a gigantic scandal and the same thing has happened in West Virginia years ago with a fellow named Fred Zane where they demonstrated that he was quote, unquote dry-labbing. That is he wasn’t even doing the tests, but he would come in and give results you know so you ask yourself well obviously that is a bad forensic laboratory, but where were the criminal defense lawyers? Why weren’t they challenging any of this and finding out that they weren’t even doing the tests? Same thing happened in Montana. Same thing happened in Oklahoma City with a woman named Joyce Skillkristen [ph]. These all led to wrongful convictions, some in capital cases. A huge problem and so what we’ve found now is that the forensic science community has recognized that this is a very serious issue and we have to have real quality assurance there and there are other problems that I’m sure we’ll talk about concerning the reliability of these forensic tests, but your question you know to me is well what jurisdictions have more wrongful convictions than others. It’s really hard to know. You know tell me about the quality of their criminal defense bar. Tell me the quality of their crime laboratories. Tell me about the quality of their police forces and prosecutors and you know then we have an answer, so the truth is it can happen anywhere and anybody who thinks otherwise is only kidding themselves.
Question: How reliable is eyewitness testimony?
Barry Scheck: Eyewitness testimony of course is the single greatest cause of the conviction of the innocent and what is fascinating about that is that we have now 30 years, more than 30 years of fantastic research from experimental psychologists who have you know recreated crime scene… recreated events and played around with which different way we do a photo array or a lineup and different techniques that are used correlate more with accurate and reliable identifications in which techniques lead to errors and a number of reforms have been adopted by federal commissions and the American Bar Association, the International Association of Police, lots of policing entities based on really good scientific research. I mean a lot of this research is meta analysis. That is where you pull together lots of different studies and you have a lot of confidence that certain things are real affects and I’ll give you some examples that may surprise people.
For example, before you show somebody a photo array or a live lineup you should tell the witness, “We’re now going to show you some pictures or people.” “Please keep in mind that the real perpetrator may or may not be in this photo array or lineup and if you don’t make an identification don’t worry, the investigation will continue.” Just giving that warning dramatically reduces incorrect identifications without really reducing correct identifications and that is of extraordinary importance obviously in terms of being able to go out, find the real perpetrator and not arrest the wrong person. There is lots of reasons we think that this warning will reduce error. Certainly it inhibits people from guessing and there kind of a natural inclination to do that. Another reform that is of really critical importance is that the person that administers the lineup or the photo array should be double blinded. That is to say that the person should not know who the suspect is and that is important for many reasons, not the least of which is the possibility of feedback, confirming feedback.
What again meta analysis have shown is that if you say to somebody, “You picked out number two, good.” Or give some kind of confirming feedback whether you’re a law enforcement person or somebody else frankly what this does is it can falsely inflate the person’s certainty that they made the correct identification, the witnesses’ belief that they had a good opportunity to observe, the witnesses’ belief that they were paying attention when the crime was committed. All of these factors by the way, certainty, opportunity to observe, paying attention are all factors that the courts used to be using or use frankly in trying to weigh the reliability of identification when we know that let’s say some suggestive procedure has been used, so confirming feedback or even just the use of an unduly suggestive procedure can falsely inflate these so called reliability factors, certain, opportunity to observe, attention paid and the legal tests are out of whack with what the scientific evidence shows.
Question: How accurate are forensic tests that do not use DNA?
Barry Scheck: More than a year ago now the National Academy of Science came out with a report about forensic science generally, an extremely important report, a landmark report that anybody really interested in this field should look at and this report basically said look, DNA testing is the only validated forensic discipline we have and in particular when you look at pattern evidence and by this they were talking about fingerprints and tire tracks and looking at striations on bullets and trying to determine whether they came from a gun, particular gun or not, all these pattern disciplines had not be adequately validated because you would have experts coming into court and they’d say, “I’m looking at the striations of this bullet that we recovered from the crime scene and now I found this defendant’s gun and I fired a bullet from that and I’m looking at the two of them under a microscope and I see all these lines and I think there is quote, unquote, sufficient agreement.” And by that and if I’m really a big quality assurance lab I’ll bring my buddy in and he’ll look at the microscope and he’ll say, “I think there is also agreement here and from this I can now tell you that this bullet came from that gun to the exclusion of all other guns in the universe.” Well think about it. Scientifically on what basis? Do you have a database? Can you tell us anything about the frequency of finding similar patterns if indeed you have similar patterns? Do you have measurement area here? Can you give us a number? You know with DNA testing we can give you a number. We can give you the frequency of a particular DNA profile in various different populations. Can you give us a statistic? And the answer if no, they weren’t giving statistics and as a matter of fact they were just saying it’s unique. This bullet comes from that gun to the exclusion of all guns in the universe. This is nonsense and the National Academy of Science said so and said you guys have really got to go back to the drawing board and do some basic research to find out what the answers are to that question. Even fingerprints, which we know if you take all 10 prints and you scan it in and you put it into the database of known fingerprints you can do a pretty good job of identifying somebody, but that is not the question when you’re talking about a small latent print at a crime scene. You get a partial thumbprint let’s say and every time you lay down a print it’s always a little bit uneven and then you compare it to somebody else’s thumbprint. Can you say that this small latent uniquely comes from that individual? Well that is the way the testimony was going in for years and it was without scientific basis to say that it uniquely was this person’s print. You can’t say that.
Question: What do you think are the biggest flaws in the American judicial system?
Barry Scheck: Well there are a lot of flaws in the judicial system. I think we could probably do without elections of judges. That creates problems. I think that we could do a lot more to educate the judiciary in terms of scientific evidence. We have a real problem there. It’s increasingly you know scientific evidence is becoming important in a whole host of cases, not just criminal cases and it’s important that we have a certain level of scientific literacy in the judiciary, much less among lawyers. So I think those are two problems. You know it’s like in all of our politics money can make a real difference in corrupting the process of judicial elections. We’ve… John Grisham has written a wonderful book about this called The Appeal. It’s very quick reading, but it’s very troubling. There have been a number of judicial elections for highest appellate courts in this country where moneyed interests have been able to basically go after certain judges. They’re really interested in their you know corporate cases or maybe some tort reform case, but they’re able to make some kind of ruling in a criminal case or something else, look very scary to the electorate and they all of the sudden outside money comes into a state in an enormous amount and some campaign is run and judges are defeated. It happened to a fabulous judge in Wisconsin. It’s happened all across the country and the most famous instance is one that the United States Supreme Court looked into in West Virginia involving the Massey Coal Company and that was the coal company where we had that terrible accident in the mines recently where the head of that coal company put an enormous amount of money into the judicial election for the West Virginia Supreme Court and then the judge who was the beneficiary of this you know sat on the case and the United States Supreme Court that actually ruled in this case that had an appearance of impropriety. We know it when we see it and reversed the decision in that case, so that’s a… They remanded it for reconsideration. That’s a very, very, extreme example, but unfortunately I think a lot of that is going around the country and that… I know that Sandra Day O’Connor for example feels very, very strongly about judicial elections being a real problem and there is probably a lot of different kinds of merit systems that should be considered across the country.
A conversation with the attorney and founder of the Innocence Project.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- 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.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. 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. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.
- 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.
Mental decolonisation<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM0OS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDU4Mjg3N30.pKS1PLxKYeJ6WDPAcleg7NCxzDn7Pddcg9rSJaul6no/img.png?width=980" id="56ee5" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1d2ba98946accd12f7e0070c8d10154d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Menu page for Arda.ir, the website of the Persian Tolkien Society." />
Menu page for Arda.ir, the website of the Persian Tolkien Society.
Image: Arda.ir<p>Where on earth was Middle-earth? Based on a few hints by Tolkien himself, we've always sort-of assumed that his stories of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were centered on Europe, but so long ago that the shape of the coasts and the land has changed. </p><p>But perhaps that's too easy and too Eurocentric an assumption; perhaps, like so many other things these days, Tolkien's fantasy realm too is in dire need of mental decolonisation.</p><p>And here's an excellent occasion: an Iranian Tolkienologist has found intriguing hints that the writer based some of Middle-earth's topography on mountains, rivers, and islands located in and near present-day Pakistan. </p><p>As mentioned in a previous article – recently reposted on the <a href="https://www.facebook.com/VeryStrangeMaps" target="_blank">Strange Maps Facebook page</a> on the occasion of the death of Ian Holm – Tolkien admitted that "The Shire is based on rural England, and not on any other country in the world," and that "the action of the story takes place in the North-West of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean."<br></p>
Non-European topography<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1MC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ4MzcyMX0.891LPW42L78fdrwUhXdgOab7cbhs3YOqZK4ukIQx-Rw/img.png?width=980" id="6741c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2b50c57cb3b8a3a1cc8a4696c89ad954" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Map of Tian-shan, the Himalayas, and the Pamirs" />
If you look at it like that, yes: that does resemble Mordor...
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission<p>Extrapolating from the location of the Shire in Middle-earth and from other clues dropped by Tolkien, geophysics and geology professor Peter Bird matched the geography of Middle-earth with that of Europe (more about that in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/121-where-on-earth-was-middle-earth?utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR0ZFYK1EXrf4J3B3X5_U4hSAgidgBs24ZNTYV9QEFbz2qI34OA_DpZsn70#Echobox=1592583835" target="_blank">aforementioned article</a>).</p><p>However, seeing Middle-earth as a mere palimpsest for present-day Europe is to place an undue limit on the imagination of its creator. As Tolkien also said about the shape of his world: "[It] was devised 'dramatically' rather than geologically or paleontologically."</p><p>In other words, certain parts of Middle-earth may very well have been inspired by other places than European ones. It is telling that it took a non-European connoisseur of Tolkien's topography to find some examples. <br></p>
"Seen that map before"<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1MS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTQ3Njc3NH0.azDO1_NWm9q9FwMpmqBOV2troOX0ajAXS4lP2bLstJI/img.png?width=980" id="1b193" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21c3d38b14503ba8edac18c0ef1cceb0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Map of Indus river" />
The Indus river is a prominent geographical feature of Pakistan. Its course is similar to that of the Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth.
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission<p>In an article published on <a href="https://arda.ir/" target="_blank">Arda.ir</a>, the web page for the Persian Tolkien Society, Mohammad Reza Kamali writes that during several years of cartographic study, "I found that maybe there are real lands [that] could have inspired Professor Tolkien, and some of them are not in Europe."</p><p>Around 2012, Kamali's eye stopped when it came across a Google Map of Central Asia that showed the mountain chain of the Himalayas, the peaks of the Pamirs bunched together in an almost circular area, and the huge, flat oval of the Takla Makan desert, bounded to the north by the Tian-Shan mountains. </p><p>"I had seen that map before," he writes. "This is of course Mordor, the land of Sauron and the dark powers of Middle-earth, where Frodo and Sam destroy the One Ring." </p><p>In <a href="http://lotrproject.com/map" target="_blank">Tolkien's world</a>, the Himalayas transform into Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow; and the Tian Shan into Ered Lithui, the Ash Mountains. And the circle-shaped Pamirs "are the same shape and in exactly the same corner as the Udûn of Mordor, where Frodo and Sam originally tried getting into Mordor, via the Black Gate."<br></p>
Similar shapes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDQyODMzNX0.KHrY7rDCNNaKKJQz-xn431APM2TqxGPCaMsqNvBe1xA/img.jpg?width=980" id="7a9fa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e87f1af97902201abc042640255606b2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Marine Corps helicopter flying over Tarbela Dam" />
A US Marine Corps helicopter flying over the Tarbela Dam on the Indus river in Pakistan. At its center: a former river island which may have been the inspiration for Cair Andros, a ship-shaped island in Middle-earth's Anduin river.
Image: Paul Duncan (USMC), public domain<p>Mulling over these similarities, Kamali became convinced that Tolkien's map work was heavily inspired by Asia. Looking further, he found more evidence. Consider Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth, in whose waters the One Ring was lost for more than two thousand years. </p><p>On Tolkien's map, the Anduin bends toward the sea in a shape similar to that of another great river: the Indus, which runs the length of Pakistan. Like the Anduin, it flows to the west of a major mountain chain. A prominent feature of the Anduin is the river island of Cair Andros, just north of Osgiliath. Its name means 'Ship of Long Foam', a reference to its long and narrow shape, and the sharpness of its rocks, which split the waters of the Anduin like a prow. <br></p><p>Kamali is not entirely sure, but proposes that Tolkien may have been inspired by a similar-shaped island in the Indus. Now integrated into the Tarbela Dam, which was inaugurated in 1976, it would still have been a separate island in the 1930s and '40s, when Tolkien dreamed up his map.</p>
Kutch as Tolfalas Island<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1NC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTU5NjcyNn0.869W8iiowQb9_T3laFKOUe5o5UMXuMlSITb1VxRlC2g/img.png?width=980" id="9c49e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="548bafc6042cc7515e07f77657aa161c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Map of Kutch" />
During the rainy season, the coastal region of Kutch, near the mouth of the Indus, turns into an island that resembles Tolfalas Island, near the mouth of the Anduin.
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission<p>Turning our eyes to the mouth of the Anduin and Indus, we see another pair of islands, and Kamali is more certain about the real one having inspired the fictional one. The fictional one is Tolfalas Island, the largest island in Belfalas Bay. <br></p><p>At first glance, it doesn't seem to have a real-life counterpart near where the Indus joins the Arabian Sea. But take a look at the coastal part of the Indian state of Gujarat. It is known as <em>Kutch</em>, a name which apparently refers to its alternately wet and dry states. In the rainy season, the shallow wetlands flood and Kutch becomes an island – the biggest island in the Gulf of Kutch, and not too dissimilar to Tolfalas Island. </p>
General knowledge<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDIwODkyOH0.aInJedv3tiQo1LmW-M6D5LV699oeWNltxeYcVKWwtF0/img.jpg?width=980" id="9bc6e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="01d97d3941f9ba732b4df35c3aedd977" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="British Indian Empire 1909 Imperial Gazetteer of India" />
1909 map showing British India in pink (direct British control) and yellow (princely states). Circled: Kutch, clearly recognisable as an island.
Image: Edinburgh Geographical Institute; J. G. Bartholomew and Sons, public domain<p>But are these similarities really more than coincidences? Why would Tolkien, who was based in Cambridge and steeped in English lore and Germanic mythology, turn to the Indian subcontinent for topographical inspiration? Perhaps because cartographic knowledge of that part of the world was far more general in Britain then than it is now. Until the late 1940s, the countries we know today as India and Pakistan were part of the British Empire. Detailed maps of the region would have been standard fare for British atlases. </p><p>Kamali is convinced that the topographical features on Tolkien's map of Middle-earth are not mere fantasy, but derive from actual places in our world, and were 'riddled' onto the map. In that case, we may look forward to more discoveries of Tolkien's real-world inspiration. <br></p>
From Frodingham to Frodo<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQzMDM1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5NzgzMzE2OH0.uMd43VxS9WQSWr1Z0IQ-UxIhBYkERhxTU7hoPvNachk/img.jpg?width=980" id="05037" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff9aace7fc7c111df3639a276cedf63c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Photograph of J. R. R. Tolkien in army uniform" />
J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he was 24. Around that time, he was stationed near the village of Frodingham, which may have given him the inspiration for the name of the main protagonist in Lord of the Rings.
Image: public domain<p>Here's one example of Tolkienography—if that's what we can call the effect of actual geography on this particular writer's imagination—which I gleaned myself, some years ago in East Yorkshire. A local historian told me that Tolkien had been stationed in the area during the First World War, and had apparently stored away some local place names for later use. The name Frodo, he said, derived from a town where he had attended a few dances – Frodingham, a village across the Humber in northern Lincolnshire, not far from Scunthorpe (<em>Scunto</em>? We dodged a bullet there). </p><p>Whether that story is entirely true or not is beside the point. As fantasy fans know, any grail quest is ultimately about the quest, not the grail. In fact, to quote Mr Kamali, the treasure is important only because it's well hidden, "by a clever professor who enjoys riddles."</p><p><em>Unless otherwise indicated, illustrations are from Mr Kamali's <a href="https://arda.ir/the-tale-of-the-annotated-map-and-tolkien-hidden-riddles/?fbclid=IwAR3RmtU0ZdyzQGlK-iCsUjho4LA2W279fwO9dt8vv90FX2IeO3zrfMuMToU" target="_blank">article</a> on <a href="https://arda.ir/" target="_blank">Arda.ir</a>, reproduced with kind permission. </em><br></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1036</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a><em>.</em></p>
The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.
- 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.
A. Anterior view of the whale shark, showing the locations of the eye (arrows). Note that whale shark eye is well projected from the orbit. Photo was taken in the sea near Saint Helena Island. B. Close-up view of the left eye of a captive whale shark (Specimen A).<p>Considering their dietary habits, vision was not thought be that important for whale sharks. This species is unique for not having any sort of eyelid or protective mechanism—until now, that is. Not only do dermal denticles protect their vision, the team, led by Taketeru Tomita, discovered that whale sharks have another trick:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We also demonstrate that the whale shark has a strong ability to retract the eyeball into the eye socket."</p><p>The researchers studied these massive sharks in an aquarium, offering them a rare look at one of the ocean's largest fish (They also studied deceased sharks). The eye denticle is different from the rest of the scales covering their body: they are designed for abrasion resistance, not ocean stealth. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The covering of the eye surface with denticles in the whale shark is probably useful in reducing the risk of mechanical damage to the eye surface." </p><p>Despite their massive size, whale sharks have relatively small eyes, measuring less than 1 percent of their total length. Their brain's visual center is also relatively small. With this discovery, the researchers realized vision plays a more important role than previously assumed. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The highly protected features of the whale shark eye, in contrast to the traditional view, seems to suggest the importance of vision in this species. Interestingly, Martin showed that whale shark eyes actively track divers swimming 3–5 m away from the animal, suggesting that vision of the whale shark plays an important role in short-range perception." </p><p>While you likely won't bump into a whale shark while swimming just off the coast, this is yet another reminder of how species adapt to their environment. </p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.
- 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.
Listening for sounds on Mars<p>It's not the first time NASA has tried to capture audio on the Martian surface. The agency's Mars Polar Lander was outfitted with a microphone, but that craft ultimately crashed into the planet in 1999 after shutting its engines off too early. The Phoenix Lander managed to stick its landing in 2008, but NASA chose not to engage the craft's camera or microphone after a mission malfunction.</p><p>NASA plans to capture more audio from the red planet on its Mars 2020 mission. That lander will be equipped with two microphones that will, among other things, listen to what happens when the craft fires a laser at rocks on the surface. When that happens, parts of the rock will vaporize, causing a shockwave that makes a popping sound. The noises captured from interactions like these can <a href="https://www.space.com/32696-microphone-on-nasa-mars-rover-2020.html" target="_blank">help tell scientists about the mass and makeup of the rocks</a>.</p><p>In other words, microphones give scientists another "sense" to use during experiments on the Martian surface.</p>
A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.
- 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.
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.
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."
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."