Why all politicians should travel to space (and some should come back)
Here's how looking down at 4 billion years of Earth's history changes you.
“Good morning, Earth." That is how Colonel Chris Hadfield—writing on Twitter—woke up the world every day while living aboard the International Space Station for over five months. Since blasting off from Kazakhstan in December 2012, Hadfield has become a worldwide sensation, harnessing the power of social media to make outer space accessible to millions and infusing a sense of wonder into the collective consciousness not felt since man first walked on the moon. Called “the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong" by the BBC, Hadfield, now safely back on Earth, continues to bring the glory of science and space travel to everyone he encounters.
Hadfield is the pioneer of many firsts. In 1992, he was selected by the Canadian Space Agency as a NASA Mission Specialist – Canada's first fully-qualified Space Shuttle crewmember. Three years later, he was the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in space, and the first Canadian to board a Russian spacecraft as he helped build the Russian space station 'Mir'. In 2001, he performed two spacewalks - the first Canadian to do so - and in 2010 the CSA and NASA announced Hadfield's third mission: commanding the International Space Station (ISS)—again a first for a Canadian.
Hadfield launched into space on December 19, 2012 and took command of the ISS in March. His multiple daily Tweets and photographs from space made people see the world differently. His accessibility, whether answering questions such as, “How do you wring out a washcloth in space," via Skype or collaborating with The Barenaked Ladies for a song sung by nearly a million people simultaneously, endeared him to all while he orbited Earth.
A heavily decorated astronaut, engineer, and pilot, Hadfield's many awards include receiving the Order of Ontario, the Meritorious Service Cross, and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He was named the top Test Pilot in both the US Air Force and the US Navy, and has been inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame. He is also commemorated on Canadian postage stamps, Royal Canadian Mint silver and gold coins, and on Canada's new 5 dollar bill.
Chris Hadfield: When we are born we have a very small view of the world: our mother’s womb and the delivery room. And, as you’re raised, your parents are probably trying to control the environment that you’re in and so you end up with a very centralized, tiny little view of the world—naturally. As you get older, as you travel more, as you read more, you start to understand a little more of the world around you; and all of those influences affect your choices in life.
What are you going to imagine that you could be? If you’ve never left Main Street, small town, Ohio, then you’re probably not going to visualize yourself doing something that is wildly different than that. You’re never going to be the head of a religious sect in Pakistan; it’s not inside your worldview. You can only draw your own aspirations and hopes and decisions based on the things that you even know exist.
It’s easier now to understand and see the world than ever in history. Our ability to communicate and our ability to travel has greatly improved. But space travel is sort of like the wildly exaggerated version of that, where you can go around the whole world in the time it takes to eat supper, and see everywhere, see the whole world 16 times a day. That widens and deepens your worldview like nothing we’ve ever seen before in history.
And it’s very difficult to maintain artificially drawn biases like nationalistic borders and “my little tribe”, “my little street”, “my little gang”, “my little town”, my little whatever when, 15 minutes later, you’re over at the exact same-looking sort of town—but it’s in Africa, and 40 minutes later the exact same-looking sort of town and it’s in Australia—and then you come up to Indonesia—and you go, “Man, it’s all the same. They build their towns just like we build our towns, and how are they “They” then? It’s just sort of all “Us”. We’re all doing this thing together, and everyone has got the same sort of hopes and dreams amongst themselves.
And that pervasive sense of the shared collective experience of being a human being, that seeps into you onboard a spaceship. Not the first time around. The first time is overwhelming, but somewhere, you know, a hundred times around, 500 times around, suddenly the world becomes one place in your mind. It’s not very big, and that I think is a really important worldview to have.
Life can be full of magnificent experiences. Being at the wedding of a loved one in a beautiful, big house of worship somewhere where there’s the sound and the beauty and the structure—it affects how you feel that day, and you act a little bit differently. Or walking into a gigantic ancient redwood forest, your head is naturally drawn upwards and you think a little different. It’s not the same as just walking down your street.
Imagine what it’s like on a spaceship, where you’re floating weightless at a window, where you see an entire continent in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, where you go from L.A. to New York in nine minutes and you see all of that history and culture and climate and geography and geology, and it’s all right there underneath you. And you see a sunrise or a sunset every 45 minutes; you see the world for what it actually is. It has that same sort of personal effect on you, of a feeling of privilege and sort of a reverence, an awe that is pervasive.
When we’re floating in the bulging window, the Cupola of the space station—normally it’s just one person because everybody is busy, but if there is two of you in there—you talk in hushed tones to each other just because you feel like you’re just wildly lucky to even be there to see this happening.
And that sense of wonder and privilege and clarity of the world slowly shifts your view, of course. Your understanding of what is “us” and what is “them”; what is old and what is new; what does four billion years actually mean? You can see where the ice ages were, you can see where the volcanoes were and the huge asteroid impacts and such, and it all starts to shift in your head.
There was a fellow in the late-'60s, early-'70s who wrote a book trying to capture that. He called it 'the overview effect'. You can call it whatever you like. It doesn’t have to be involved with spaceflight. It’s more when you sense that there is something so much bigger than you, so much more deep than you are, ancient, has sort of a natural importance that dwarfs your own—but you’re a person seeing it, you’re a person that’s interpreting it, you’re understanding it in your own way, and you’d have to be a stone to not have that effect you. It changes how you think about things. But it’s not the same for everybody, and it’s not instantaneous, it’s not like, “Hey I’ve gone over 60 miles an hour now, I’ve done this thing.” it’s very much a gradual, creeping improvement in perception of the world around us. I think that’s what the author was trying to talk about when he wrote about the overview effect.
And some people are much more emotive and it affects them very deeply; some people, they just have a better understanding of the world itself. Either way, it’s healthy. It’s a perspective of the world that allows us, hopefully, to make better collective, global decisions about what’s happening—less jealous, narrow, local decisions. And we need that type of thinking if we’re truly going to have this many people and this standard of living for the foreseeable future. We just need to see the world as one place, the fact that we’re all in this together, and that we are in the position to actually understand it and appreciate it and therefore make different decisions about it.
What is it like to see humanity from space? Imagine being able to tour our 4 billion-year-old planet 16 times a day, and see a sunset every 45 minutes. Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, has done just that—and it has opened his eyes and his mind to the idea that, from above, we're not so different at all. "It’s a perspective of the world that allows us, hopefully, to make better collective, global decisions about what’s happening—less jealous, narrow, local decisions. And we need that type of thinking if we’re truly going to have this many people and this standard of living for the foreseeable future," says Hadfield. Chris Hadfield is the author of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything and features in the new docuseries One Strange Rock
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
Debating is cognitively taxing but also important for the health of a democracy—provided it's face-to-face.
- New research at Yale identifies the brain regions that are affected when you're in disagreeable conversations.
- Talking with someone you agree with harmonizes brain regions and is less energetically taxing.
- The research involves face-to-face dialogues, not conversations on social media.
There are two kinds of identity politics. One is good. The other, very bad. | Jonathan Haidt<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6f0e52833af5d35adab591bb92d79f8e"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/l-_yIhW9Ias?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Unsurprisingly, harmonious synchronization of brain states occurred when volunteers agreed, similar to <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322764116_Creativity_and_Flow_in_Surgery_Music_and_Cooking_An_Interview_with_Neuroscientist_Charles_Limb" target="_blank">group flow</a>—the coordination of brain waves that hip-hop and jazz musicians (among others) experience when performing together. Coordination exceeds the social, into the neurological. As the team writes, "talking during agreement was characterized by increased activity in a social and attention network including right supramarginal gyrus, bilateral frontal eye-fields, and left frontopolar regions."</p><p>This contrasts with argumentative behavior, in which "the frontoparietal system including bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus showed increased activity while talking during disagreement."</p><p>Senior author Joy Hirsch notes that our brain is essentially a social processing network. The evolutionary success of humans is thanks to our ability to coordinate. Dissonance is exhausting. Overall, <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210113090938.htm" target="_blank">she says</a>, "it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree," comparing arguments to a symphony orchestra playing different music. </p><p>As the team notes, language, visual, and social systems are all dynamically intertwined inside of our brain. For most of history, yelling at one another in comment sections was impossible. Arguments had to occur the old-fashioned way: while staring at the source of your discontent. </p>
People of the "left-wing" side yell at a Trump supporter during a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images<p>Leading us to an interesting question: do the same brain regions fire when you're screaming with your fingers on your Facebook feed? Given the lack of visual feedback from the person on the other side of the argument, likely not—as it is unlikely that many people would argue in the same manner when face-to-face with a person on the other side of a debate. We are generally more civil in real life than on a screen.</p><p>The researchers point out that seeing faces causes complex neurological reactions that must be interpreted in real-time. For example, gazing into someone's eyes requires higher-order processing that must be dealt with during the moment. Your brain coordinates to make sense of the words being spoken <em>and</em> pantomimes being witnessed. This combination of verbal and visual processes are "generally associated with high-level cognitive and linguistic functions."</p><p>While arguing is more exhausting, it also sharpens your senses—when a person is present, at least. Debating is a healthy function of society. Arguments force you to consider other viewpoints and potentially come to different conclusions. As with physical exercise, which makes you stronger even though it's energetically taxing, disagreement propels societies forward.</p>In this study, every participant was forced to <em>listen</em> to the other person. As this research was focused on live interactions, it adds to the literature of cognitive processing during live interactions and offers insights into the cognitive tax of anger. Even anger is a net positive when it forces both sides to think through their thoughts and feelings on a matter. As social animals, we need that tension in our lives in order to grow. Yelling into the void of a comments section? Not so helpful. <p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>