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How an Anti-Intellectual Elite Are Turning the World Upside Down

The controversial author predicted the rise of Trump by placing "a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting makeup and coloured hair" in his new book, written before the election. But can he explain the hate of knowledge that persists in the world today?

Salman Rushdie: Well, I saw a really alarming newspaper article just a week or so ago in which it was—some survey had shown that more than 50 percent of self-identifying Republicans believed that universities were bad for America, really that universities were actually a negative, harmful force in American life.

I mean I had never seen any group of people saying that before, so that was shocking. 

And I do think this is not unique to America, because also in England there is a similar kind of distrust of expertise. 

In the Brexit vote there—one of the things that came up over and over again was a dislike of experts “telling you what to think”. 

And so somehow this mistrust of “people who know things” has become internationalized, it’s not just something about the American Right. 

Obviously to somebody who has seen knowledge as being a great virtue and who has spent his life trying to accumulate little bits of it and somebody who thinks of knowledge as a kind of beauty, it’s very discomforting to say the least to have people who think of it as being suspicious. You know, um...

Because what’s happening it seems to me is a strange distortion of the idea of the elite. 

If you ask me “What’s an elite?” I would think more about the many, many billionaires sitting in the Trump administration. 

Here’s a government with more super-rich people in it than has ever been in any American government, and that government calls college professors and journalists elites. 

We’re not the ones with private planes and golf courses in the Bahamas—relatively few novelists have these things. And the idea that we’re the elites, whereas that group, that kind of 0.1 of the 1 percent that considers itself to be in some way possessing the common touch, that just seems like an absurd comic inversion of reality.

I think one of the things we see at the moment, and I tried to in a way capture in the novel, is this idea of a world turned upside down, in which things that one thought of as being normal—solid, believable descriptions of reality—are being stood on their head everyday. 

The idea of reality itself, the idea of truth is something verifiable and objective, all these things are being inverted and knocked off their pedestals. 

Well, I mean there is a terrible thing which writers sometimes say to each other, which is, “The worse it is the better it is,” because when the world is in a terrible condition there’s a lot to write about. 

I mean one demonstration of this is the literature, very often underground literature—the Samizdat literature of the Soviet Union was of an extraordinary quality when there was this colossal adversary of Soviet authoritarianism. Many writers, both in a fiction and nonfiction, rose to that challenge and created extraordinary work. 

And I think it’s not unfair to say that the literature of the post Soviet Union, the literature of Russia since 1989, that there is a somewhat of a falling off, that it’s not quite as intense and extraordinary as that earlier work because of the lack of the adversity. 

To put it in another way it seems to me that spy fiction was enormously damaged by the loss of the Soviet Union because suddenly, who were the enemy? 

So I do think that in times this, which are very adversarial and in which the question of the truth has become so central, there’s a big place for art, there’s a really big role for art to speak up in such a time. 

And I think more or less every writer I know in America is considering how best to respond to the place we find ourselves, including me. 

Most of this book was written before November the 8th, I mean the vast bulk of it was finished before the election. And I’m sorry to say that I guessed right, that’s to say that I always knew that if things had gone another way that there would’ve had to be some reshaping of a part of the book. (But actually anyway I needed to do a bit of reshaping because things don’t always turn out exactly as you foresee.)

But I wanted to try and capture this strange moment and to tell the truth that part of the novel is very much background rather than foreground, so the actual storyline of the book, what happens to the characters and how they resolve their particular dilemmas, that would not have been altered in any way if the election had gone in another way. I mean the story is the story, but the context of the story, the way in which America developed from the beginning of the Obama administration to the present moment, what happened in that arc of time, that’s the context against which the story takes place. 

And there I had to guess and gamble a little bit and then try and fix things right up till the moment the book went to the presses, so that’s more or less—there’s a moment when they take your fingers off the keyboard and say “we’re printing the book today, so you can’t do anymore!” But until that moment I was trying to fix things.

Well! Salman Rushdie pretty much predicted the future in his new book, The Golden House, wherein the antagonist is "a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting makeup and coloured hair." Read into that what you will, but Rushdie here posits that he's baffled by the sudden worldwide rejection of knowledge and the elites. He says that it's not just an invention of the American right wing — that it's a worldwide problem that's helped in large part by the likes of Fox News et al — and he wonders both what gave rise to that and how it will stop. Perhaps he'll have to write a sequel.

How accountability at work can transform your organization

If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

Videos
  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

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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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."

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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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Future of Learning
  • Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
  • There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like Mastery.com are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
  • One of the crucial steps in changing how things are done is first changing the narratives. Students should be assessed on how they can apply what they've learned, not scored based on what they know.
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