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Why ISIS Is Still Going Viral, with General Stanley McChrystal

When we think about ISIS it's important to try to understand what they are and why they're as effective as they are.

When we think about ISIS now, I think it's important to try to understand what they are and why they're being as effective as they are. First, they shouldn't be as effective as they are. They've got a doctrine that most people, particularly in the Muslim world, don't buy into; their behavior is absolutely abhorrent; and they don't offer a clear road to a better future; it is a road in the minds of many people back into the seventh century and that's not somewhere a lot of people want to go.

So why are they effective? The first is to understand they're effective in a very unique environment right now. The Middle East and North Africa are in disarray. Many of the traditional structures that have held things together there have collapsed. They're in an environment that I liken to a patient that has HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS does not kill a patient; what it does is it weakens the immune system until a very weak disease that normally would be pushed off easily becomes potentially life threatening. And that's that region right now and so a disease like ISIS, which otherwise would be laughable in certain times, is not.

The second reason ISIS is effective as if they were a traditional terrorist organization or a traditional insurgent movement, they would have certain strengths and weaknesses, but they would be largely geographically contained by the fact that you'd be affected by what they see and do sort of as far as you can see or as close as your cousin is and he drove over and told you about it. And that would be, for most of history, that's how these kinds of organizations were largely contained in certain areas. If they did spread, they spread very slowly because they spread by word-of-mouth or mailing or newspapers and whatnot. ISIS however has hit the intersection of modern technology, information technology. So now we get up in the morning and we think ISIS is in Texas. We think ISIS is in Nigeria. We think ISIS is under our bed. We think that they are constantly killing people and that they have created this sense that they are this growing movement that is about to take over, not just their part of the Middle East, but in the world.

Also it creates this sense among many, particularly frustrated young people around the world: Okay here's the new, new thing. They're a little bit disgusting in the way they act, but they're pretty strict. They are sort of Peck's Bad Boy, and while you don't like them, there's something seductive about the idea of tough guys who are willing to do anything and stick it to the man. We got to understand that an awful lot of people ran off and joined the circus in one age or they ran off and joined gangs or they ran off and did things that later in life didn't seem very smart, but there wasn't this seductive idea of adventure.

And so those things wrapped together suddenly give it this power it should not have. I think what we need to understand is because it's this loose set of franchises and it's not an organization that just is headquartered in Iraq and Syria and therefore limited by the things they can see and touch. In fact they've created the idea that it's an idea and it's an idea that is customized in each area. People take the — they used to take Al Qaeda and now they take ISIS and Boko Haram stamps themselves: “We're ISIS now.” And they may not do anything directly with anyone in Syria or any of the former Al Qaeda leadership, but now they've adopted the T-shirt and the brand and it gives this sense that they have a new level of credibility.

And so it becomes very, very important that we understand that aspect of it. ISIS is a military problem only in its smallest sense. It's a geographic, diplomatic, and social problem in its broadest sense and then it is a communication problem at its very core.

When we think about ISIS, it's important to try to understand what they are and why they're as effective as they are. According to retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, ISIS benefits from the fact that the Middle East and North Africa are so fractured at the moment. Just as a weak disease can prove deadly to someone with a weakened immune system, ISIS takes advantage of the context and situation. They also benefit from a savvy grasp of modern technology, social media, and — believe it or not — effective branding.

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

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

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

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

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


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."