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Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness to War

Question:  Why did you go to Iraq?

Evan Wright:  Well, I had been to Afghanistan previously. That was my first covering of a war but I had written for Rolling Stone for a few years and the short answer is I would always write about youth subcultures like skate boarders, criminals, radical environmentalists, and I pitched to my editor the idea that hey, I’ll cover the military. It’s another youth subculture. But I think the other reason I wanted to go to Iraq was I studied history in school, I was fascinated by war actually, and I had also previously worked at Hustler magazine as an editor there. And I always felt that when I worked at Hustler we were beneficiaries of the First Amendment and I thought now here is another way to live the First Amendment. The military is giving me the opportunity to cover the war from the front and I feel that I ought to.

Question:  How did you gain the trust of the men you were working with?

Evan Wright: When I first covered troops it was in Afghanistan and I was a little... I spent a month with a heavy weapons platoon in Kandahar and with those guys I was always sort of like should I let them know that I worked for Hustler ‘cause I thought maybe they’ll be angry or some... it’ll offend some born-again Christian or something. And it got out and it really increased my respect and acceptance in that platoon so by the time I got to Iraq or to the marine corps prior to the invasion of Iraq I kind of knew in a manipulative journalistic way that Hustler was a good card to play, but it’s more of a humorous thing like they... I knew that they would laugh about it. What really I think made them accept me as much as they did, and not everyone accepted me, was just the fact that I stayed with them. And I believe in journalism nothing beats time and persistence, Just follow people around and you... they kind of... it breaks down the barriers. The fact that I followed them around after we were getting shot at and ambushed of course also helped.

Question:  What was it like the first time you witnessed combat or were involved in a fire fight?

Evan Wright:  In Afghanistan we had some rocket attacks and there were big issues with land mines that were blowing people up. That was a different sort of tension. The first time...In fact, it was a worse... Just the fear of land mines that we had in Afghanistan was worse than actually being shot at, and the first time I was really shot at was at the bridge at Nasiriyah which will be depicted in episode two of the mini series and it was strangely enough very exciting and it was strangely enough I...and this voiced by marines that were by my side. It was like wow, this is just like a movie, and it’s weird to me that my reference point and their reference point was movies but that’s the case. It was.. To see... And for some reason to have a mortar blow up sort of near you and you feel the over-pressure and to see machine gun fire tearing in to trees over your head even though it’s scary it’s very exciting.

Question : What was the most dangerous situation you found yourself in while in Iraq?

Evan Wright:  Well, I think that they were all dangerous. Once you start getting shot at, who knows, but...who knows what’s going to happen?  But for me this happened time and time again. We were in a convoy moving forward so at times a unit would have moved ahead of us and they would say, “Okay. You’re going to have enemy contact in five minutes when you reach this turn in the road.”  So then you’re in the Humvee and you know hey, the last guys that drove up here they took RPG and machine gun fire and it’s going to happen to you next. It was the anticipation that was always the scariest.

Question: Did being an eyewitness of war change your perceptions of it?

Evan Wright:  When I came back from Iraq a lot of my friends were like oh, wow, you were in combat. It must be you saw something that no one else could ever understand unless they’ve been there, and actually I disagreed with that. The weirdest thing is there was an element of being in combat that confirmed to me what I’d read about it and I’d read... studied history so I’d read a lot about it and it was weird. As a writer and a person who’s sort of lived the life of the imagination, I was like wow, it’s really cool that my imagination did actually prepare me for what combat would be like. So there was an element of it that was very familiar based on my intense reading as a history student but the one thing that I really saw in Iraq graphically and I’d never quite understood was how attractive war is for the combatants, that basically in Iraq you had these young marines who had prepared for war and it was pretty exciting for them to finally get a chance to be in it. And on the other side many of the people that were attacking us were professional Iraqi soldiers. Now many of them were actually working as insurgents because the... Saddam’s military had prepared for an insurgency as we invaded, but they were professional combatants. So you had these young men on both sides that were sort of fulfilling their dreams. They... It was very self-actualizing for the marines as I’m sure it was for the Iraqis and it was- war is attractive to those guys but in between is this mass of civilians who are being slaughtered, who are suffering, and I’d never quite realized A: that for combatants war is kind of attractive and B: that truly what happens in war is just civilians just get fucked. There’s no... There is no glory. There’s nothing for them except for pain, misery, death, suffering, and you really see it in Iraq. I really saw it there.

Recorded on: 7/17/08

Evan Wright reveals his motivation to travel to the Middle East and describes his experiences and feelings as an eyewitness to combat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, em...

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

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

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

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

Celestial sleuthing

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

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

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

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

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

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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