A Potential Nominee Speaks Out about the Vacancy on the Supreme Court

Named by The New York Times as a potential nominee to the Supreme Court, Cory Booker points out that strict constitutionalists should want a new appointee put forward before too long.

Cory Booker: I believe I’d have this opinion whether it was Barack Obama or George Bush or whomever that presidents are elected for four-year terms. Here’s a president with about a quarter of his presidency left and the Constitution and the framers made it very clear what presidents should do when Supreme Court justices happen and what the Senate should do. And so I believe that this is something that should be acted on right now and that leaving a Supreme Court justice seat vacant for more than a year is unacceptable. And I’m hoping, and I know this hope might be in vain, that the Republican-controlled Senate allows this president to nominate a justice, holds hearings and votes on that justice and provides their consent as they see fit. You know people ask me to speculate about what the president is going to do, who he might nominate and I usually don’t indulge in speculation. He is the president of the United States. I am a United States senator from New Jersey. I think that this is going to be a time where he’s going to bring to this decision Solomonic wisdom because I think President Obama is good at evidencing that in trying times. We could have a bit of a constitutional crisis here. We could have a bit of a public fight along jagged, partisan political lines. So I think he’s going to evidence leadership and that’s what I would expect from any person who is the president of the United States of America. And I’m hopeful that we can find a way through this so that we get someone on the Supreme Court as soon as possible because there are some really serious consequential issues before the court. Well, if we waited a year, number one I think that that again is violative of the constitution and the intent of this process and how it was framed. And those people who are strict constitutionalists and I hear people on both sides of the aisle quoting the framers and what their intentions were often; it is wrong to wait more than a year with that vacancy. And it does have a real impact. The court has real cases, tough cases before them right now. Everything from affecting to how people organize unions all the way to issues facing campaign finance to voting rights. So I just think that we need to get the full complement of nine there as quickly as possible so that we can deal with the business of our democracy.

Named by The New York Times as a potential nominee to the Supreme Court, Cory Booker's bona fides are impressive. He was a Rhodes Scholar, received his J.D. at Yale, and has committed to a life of public service: first as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and currently as the state's junior senator. Booker tells Big Think that the U.S. Constitution is very clear on what should happen procedurally when a seat is vacated on the Supreme Court, as it was recently with the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. And, says Booker, those politicians who, under different circumstances, would call themselves strict constitutionalists should now stand up for their beliefs and allow the Senate to review whichever nominee is put forward by the president. His book, United, gives an account of his own political education that have shaped his particular civic vision for America.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

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Image: NASA
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The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."