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David Goggins
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Bryan Cranston
Actor
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Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Why Breaking My Neck Was the Best Thing to Happen All Year

The worst year of former tennis pro James Blake's life was tragic—professionally and personally. Here's how he got back on his feet after multiple setbacks.

James Blake: So, back in 2004 I had pretty much a trifecta of setbacks. I first broke my neck, which was the best thing that happened to me that year, and I'll explain that in a minute. I was on a practice court in Rome and pretty much slid headfirst into a net post and fractured C7 in my spine and got to the hospital and eventually got home. When I got home to Connecticut it was the last six weeks of my father's life. He had been suffering from stomach cancer and ended up passing away. So that's why I say breaking my neck was the best thing that happened to me, because I got to be home with my dad and spend that time with him and say all the things that needed to be said to him. And he wouldn't have let me come home otherwise I don't think, because I would've still been on the road and playing and competing. So that was the best thing that happened to me. And after that—stress has an amazing way of bearing itself physically on me and it created a zoster, which is shingles, and it attacked my facial nerves so the left side of my face was paralyzed and I lost my balance and part of my hearing and part of my eyesight, so I was pretty much struggling and didn't know if I would ever play tennis again, and the doctors weren't sure if I would ever play, so that's where setting goals day by day was so important to me. Because if I thought about any sort of playing in the US Open or getting back and being top ten in the world, top 20 in the world, anything like that, it would've seemed so far away. And I think I would've gotten a little depressed. I would've been upset about the fact that I was so far away from that.

So all I did was every day think about what I can do a little better. I would try to move my eye a little bit more or try to be able to smile a little bit more and go out on the court. The first times I went out on the court it was really just being able to see the ball when I tossed it up to serve, it was just spending five minutes on the court with my coach and just seeing if I could actually make contact with the ball.

Then the next day it could be ten minutes, and then, “Okay now I need to take a couple days off because it's disheartening. Now I need to get back to it and try it.” Everyday was getting a little bit better and I still remember a friend of mine joking that, “You know what, next year it's all right, you're going to win the US Open.” And I thought, “You're absolutely crazy, that's not even in my mindset.” And before I knew it, the next year I was in the quarterfinals of the US Open against Andre Agassi and I thought, “Man, I wonder if he was right. Maybe I will actually win the US Open this year.”

And I didn't unfortunately, but the setback was such that I needed to focus on such small goals every single day, that if I had thought that the next year would have been one of the best years of my life and 2006—just two years later—would've been the best year in my career by a long shot and finish at number four in the world, if I had thought of that two years prior when I was laid up and my face wasn't working, I don't think I would've ever gotten there. I needed to just take small steps every single day to reach that goal. And before I knew it when I was reaching that goal I wasn't even thinking back to all the hard work I was doing, and I was like, “This is just the progression, this is where I belong, this is where I should be.” And I think that played a huge part and it was just the process I was taking to get there.

When breaking the bone that binds your body together is described as a "good thing", you're undeniably having the worst year of your life. For former tennis pro James Blake, that was 2004, the year he broke his neck, lost his father to cancer, and came down with a stress-related virus that paralyzed his face and affected his balance, hearing, and eyesight. So how, two years later, did Blake manage to recover medically, and be ranked the #4 tennis player in the world? At a time when he couldn't even make contact with the ball on a serve, it didn't occur to Blake that he would ever play a tournament like the US Open again. The dream seemed too big, and so he focused on micro goals: trying to move his eye fast enough to follow the ball; exercising the muscles in his face to regain the ability to smile; spending five minutes on the court, then two days off recovering. For Blake, the key to bouncing back after a tragic series of setbacks was to not look further than his feet, working at small goals rather faraway wishes—and when he was on the court facing Andre Agassi in the men's quarter finals of the US Open in 2006, it just felt like the next step in a progression of manageable victories. James Blake is the author of Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together.

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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