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One of the most popular internet memes of 2019 is “cats meowing into microphones,” according to the online encyclopedia Know Your Meme, and it’s one of my favorites of the year. The trend refers to videos of pet owners shoving microphones in their cats’ faces, but you never see the people, let alone the grips of their hands. As the pets grow aggravated over these invasions of their privacy, their shrill meows and tense nose-breathing get amplified somewhere off-screen, baked in artificial reverb. The humor lies in how loudly their frustrated reactions emit from their tiny heads, or at least this is why I’ve chuckled over the videos. It’s the latest installment in the internet’s perennial obsession with felines, who were the subject matter of the first ever popular online meme (see 2007 I Can Has Cheezburger? phenomenon).

Over the past few months, this year’s meme has naturally overtaken the most popular results for “cat” and “microphone.” But when I recently Googled those search terms so I could track down the videos, I was instead directed to a more grotesque-seeming object, a furry muffler that goes around microphones to cancel out the sound of wind: it’s called a “dead cat windscreen.” One blog post on an audio gear site I found offers a guide to “dead cats,” shortening the phrase under the presumption that all gearheads have some familiarity with the device, and that there must not be any other “dead cats” out there to confuse with the windscreen. This thought is misguided, though the blog post’s title asks a question much more profound than intended: What are dead cats? More… “On the Line”

Eli Zeger is a writer and musician originally from Montclair, NJ. His byline has recently appeared in The Financial TimesArt in America, and InsideHook.

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For a lot of people, the line between red and blue is a bit fuzzier in real life than it is on Twitter. For me, this is true even though I’m firmly on the side of le resistance. I think it’s because there are some threads woven into my own biography that keep tying the two sides together, in spite of all the enmity. Maybe, I just have an odd intellectual history, but I wonder if others share something like the story I’m about to tell. I hope it’s not a story that ends up in one of those both-sides, can’t-we-get-along, dead-end morality clause cul-de-sacs. I hope my thinking isn’t as lazy as that. But the threads the story traces are definitely the common ones, and I’m going to take the risk of equivocation in order to follow the story to a conclusion that’s a little more complicated (and a lot less satisfying) than “blue is right, red is wrong.” More… “Red Pill, Blue Pill”

Adam Smith is Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy and Director of the Honors Program at the University of Dubuque.

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It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

The tiny dot — a period traversing the face of a solar flare — wasn’t much to behold. If you didn’t know where to look, you would miss it. As small as it appeared, even with the assistance of a telescope, this speck was the planet Venus traveling across the sun.

39 light years away from our solar system, seven new worlds that are part of the constellation Aquarius partake in a dance similar to that of Venus. They cross in front of a star that is 12 times less massive and much cooler than our own. This planetary system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for the telescope in Chile that first discovered three planets in the system. TRAPPIST-1 is so far away that we can’t watch this system’s planets crossing in front of their star, as we were able to when Venus visibly crossed between Earth and the sun. Instead, the sight is only visible to us through the marvels of astronomy research, which transcends borders, languages, passports, and the limitations of human vision in order to transcend the skies. Astronomy researchers rely on global collaborations to characterize planets like TRAPPIST-1 outside of our solar system that radiate the possibility of habitable surfaces and atmospheres. This saga is set against the backdrop of human dysfunction, when instead astronomy research’s ability to let us “see” planets farther away than we could have imagined should, Sagan exhorts, humble us and remind us to deal more kindly with each other.

Infrared (IR) astronomy is the study of the universe using light that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Rather, the light captured by telescopes is “infra” or “below” red light. In the space between galaxies, interstellar dust absorbs visible light and re-emits it as infrared radiation. Looking at infrared light can reveal things that using visible light alone can’t — like the extremely cold material that coalesces to become stars.

Dr. George Helou is executive director of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and deputy director of the Spitzer Space Telescope, a space-based observatory that contributed critical data to the discovery of this new planetary system. “Infrared astronomy opens a unique and rich window onto the universe,” Helou says. “[IR astronomy] uncovers new phenomena that challenge us to rethink the accepted knowledge of the universe.”

On September 19, 2016, the same day the United Nations held its first summit to discuss the movements of refugees and migrants, a team of physicists including Helou launched a three-week campaign to use the Spitzer Space Telescope to measure the amount of infrared light emitted by the TRAPPIST-1 star. A planet crossing between the telescope and the star casts a shadow, reducing the amount of light transmitted back to the telescope by measurable amounts and for specific time periods. This created dips in the amount of light “seen” by the telescope. Researchers studied light levels from the star long enough to determine which repeating light depressions matched particular planets, which totaled seven, and published their results in Nature in February 2017, shortly after US President Trump signed an executive order blocking refugees and citizens of seven countries from entering the U.S. Sagan’s distant image of our own tiny world and “images” of these new earth-like planets juxtaposed against our constant battles over borders vividly demonstrates Sagan’s “folly of human conceits.”

“Spitzer’s ability to observe almost continuously TRAPPIST-1 for 21 days was critical to deciphering the structure of that planetary system,” Helou says. He notes that studying planets beyond our solar system and the study of anything in space as a variable of time requires following the behavior non-stop as much as possible, which sometimes can’t be done from a single observatory. To accomplish this, Helou explained, international collaborations deploy a string of observatories in different time zones around the globe so the “sun never rises” and night-time observation can continue around the clock. The Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen (GROWTH) collaboration is one such example. Led by Caltech, this international collaborative gathers data on cosmic events in the first 24 hours of detection to answer explore how elements formed and what events generate gravitational waves. GROWTH operates 18 observatories in the northern hemisphere including in India, Sweden, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Germany, the UK, and the U.S. When darkness falls on one location, observations continue from other locations that are still in the dark in order to provide nonstop monitoring of an event.

Spitzer’s infrared data combined with observations from ground-based telescopes around the world helped paint a clear picture of the new planetary system. After the initial discovery of the transiting planets, and around the same time that citizens of the United Kingdom seriously contemplated leaving the European Union through the Brexit referendum, researchers launched a global photometric monitoring campaign in May 2016 to learn more about the characteristics of the planets. This involved ground-based observations of the star from TRAPPIST-South telescope in Chile, TRAPPISTNorth in Morocco, the UK InfraRed Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii, the William Herschel and the Liverpool telescopes in Spain, and the South African Astronomical Observatory. Working with data from these telescopes helped determine what data from Spitzer alone could not: at least seven planets with sizes and masses similar to Earth revolve around TRAPPIST-1, and they have temperatures low enough to make the presence of liquid water on their surfaces a possibility.

Even before Helou began working on collaborative astronomy projects like TRAPPIST-1, he was well-versed in the idea that the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries. Entranced by the stars as a child growing up in Lebanon, his passion for astronomy and curiosity about the universe eventually catapulted him across the Atlantic to complete his Ph.D. in astronomy at Cornell University. He has devoted much of his professional career to using infrared technology to explore space, inspired by the 1983 launch of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, which was a joint project of NASA, the Netherlands Agency for Aerospace Programmes and the United Kingdom’s Science and Engineering Research Council to survey the sky and measure the intensities of more than 200,000 infrared objects. Perhaps fittingly, his inspiration to pursue astronomy research was the result of a collaborative effort involving researchers across the world.

“Many research projects require teams, large and small, with diverse skills and interests,” Helou says. “When you are building a dream team for a given project of discovery, the best could be anywhere in the world, could belong to any culture or ethnicity . . . If we are limited to national boundaries, we simply won’t have our dream teams for pursuing the most important fundamental questions.” Scientists that worked on the TRAPPIST-1 discovery were from the U.S., Chile, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and France. In order to make these kinds of phenomenal discoveries, people must move beyond the things that appear to divide them and instead focus on commonalities – in the case of astronomy research, this takes the form of a goal that lies literally beyond the stars and man-made divisions on Earth.

Physics and astronomy research also rises above manmade boundaries because of economics. The tools behind this research require major investments and equipment, like particle accelerators or IR telescopes in space. “International collaborations can mobilize resources not available to the research community within a single country, the U.S. included,” Helou says. In his own field of IR research, Helou describes the forward movement as the result of “an exemplary relay race” between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, with each agency taking the lead on their own missions with contributions by others.

Helou isn’t alone in recognizing that tapping into resources from around the world is critical to advancing the field. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine collaborated with NASA to develop a science strategy for the study and exploration of planets outside our solar system, detailed in a September 2018 report on Exoplanet Science Strategy. Among its recommendations are funding and building large ground-based telescopes, as well as launching an imaging mission to collect data on planets orbiting Sun-like stars. The report also honed in on opportunities for coordination between international partners.

Recognizing that “ground-based instrumentation is a strong point of European astronomy, and exoplanet science in particular,” the authors emphasize that working in tandem with existing large European telescopes will be beneficial to future NASA projects building the same, with open sharing of technology and ideas across borders speeding up technology development. Similarly, a launch mission to collect data on exoplanets involves such significant cost, lead-time, and technical complexity that collaborating with foreign space agencies, scientists and engineers is a logical, perhaps necessary path. Coordinating between international resources and even industries will be key to avoiding unnecessary duplication and consumption of valuable resources –a rather more practical and financial angle to Sagan’s reminder of humankind’s “responsibility to deal more kindly with one another.”

“Physics, like all science, is global in character, belongs to, and is the responsibility of all humanity. It is natural for the species as a whole to collaborate on understanding the fundamentals of the physical universe or the essentials of biology,” Helou says. Peering into the depths of space is a reminder that the differences that sometimes appear to divide us aren’t quite so substantial after all, or are “foolish and pointless,” as Helou says, especially in the face of fundamental questions like: Does life exist on planets orbiting other stars? Are there habitable planets in other solar systems? The remarkable ability of astronomy researchers to pull together to explore worlds outside our own adds perspective to the things that appear to divide us here on our tiny world. •

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.

Bushraa Khatib is a freelance science writer with experience writing about physics and public health research. She earned her master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University, intertwining undergraduate degrees in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and English Literature from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She works in communications for Drexel University’s Autism Institute and hails from outside of Baltimore, Maryland.

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I just came from a performance of Giselle, the classic ballet in which the heroine, a peasant girl, falls in love with a prince and then dies when she discovers that he is betrothed to a noblewoman. I love this ballet and watched it with rapt attention, but I was struck, in the context of our #MeToo moment, of its problematic appeal and that of other ballets that I love like Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake.

Not for the first time, but more strongly, I was brought up short by the contradictions inherent in what I was seeing. One cannot separate a classical ballet of this kind from its reliance on extreme, stereotypical gender representation. The tutu is a frilly exaggeration of a woman’s hips and the longer skirt is its more romanticized extension, not to mention the diaphanous nightgowns that figure in sleep-walking scenes and bedroom encounters. The male dancer is the support, the prop and pander, to this gauzy female caricature. Often the ballerina dies — in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet there is a duet, if it can be called that, with Juliet’s lifeless body. Ballet also demands rigorous physical conformity from the female dancer. She must be of a certain height and weight, must have a certain leg length, and must possess good turn-out and feet. (My teacher informed me that I had none of these at age 12.) The male dancer, by contrast, is mostly defined by his bulging codpiece and delineated buttocks. So long as male dancers can jump and support their partners, they can be more variable in their physique. More… “The Paradox of Pointe”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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Similes are intrusive, they beat you over the head, they’re cold and logical, they create distance. These complaints issue from poets as steadily as a river’s onrush, accompanied by their insistence that metaphors are superior. William Carlos Williams grumbled, “the coining of similes is a pastime of very low order, depending as it does upon a nearly vegetable coincidence.” Babette Deutsch in her Poetry Handbook echoes Aristotle when she suggests that similes are “less evocative” than metaphors. These are more reserved in expression but likely no less reserved in sentiment than the poet Jack Gilbert who said in an interview — and I can almost see him spitting the words — “goddamned similes, the weakest kind of resource there is in poetry. People are so much in love with similes. It’s a pity.” Ironically, it was over one of Gilbert’s own similes that a friend and I briefly debated the virtues and vices of them.

Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
(“Falling and Flying”)

More… “Like a Defense of Simile”

Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was published by Terrapin Books. His other collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Award from the New England Poetry Club. He also received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals including American Book ReviewThe Ashville Poetry ReviewCimarron ReviewPrick of the Spindle, Shrewand Valparaiso Poetry Review.

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Salat al-Maghrib has just begun and the courtyard in front of the mosque is full of men performing their ablutions at the communal fountain. Beneath them, a mottled shadow of wetness gathers on the pavement like a cloud. A curbside censer burning oud on the street corner billows smoke into the faces of passersby. The worst of the day’s heat has finally relented and Bahrain’s Manama souq is filling with throngs of slow-moving people, honking cars, and swerving bicycles. Walking by a coffee shop whose crowded benches overflow onto the sidewalk, I hear conversations in Arabic, Malayalam, and Farsi, the languages blending into an aural fog of lilting consonants and cascading vowels. Advertisements on nearby shop windows join the multilingual chorus, listing wares in Arabic, Urdu, English, and Tagalog. To paraphrase writer Inez Baranay, in a transcultural space like the souq, no one — not even the shop windows — is monolingual.

Bahrain, a tiny archipelago scattered off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, has been an influential entrepôt for millennia. From dhows anchored off shore in the Arabian Gulf, peoples and cultures and languages met and mingled, creating a legacy of diversity still exemplified in the modern souq. This dense urban landscape is a vivid tapestry of transcultural existence, with Iraqi ice cream parlors, Indian restaurants, Bangladeshi spice dealers, Syrian oud sellers, Bahraini antiques merchants, and Pakistani tailors. As a person who has spent my life navigating the nebulous borderlands between cultures, I find myself experiencing a profound sense of respite here and so I’ve been coming to the souq, one of my favorite places since childhood, almost every day, to meet friends, to shop, and to tentatively, falteringly, practice my Arabic. More… “Living on the Margins”

Natasha Burge is a Pushcart Prize and Sundress Best of the Net nominated writer from the Arabian Gulf region, where she is the writer-in-residence at the Qal’at al-Bahrain Museum. Her writing has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and The Establishment, among others. More can be found at www.natashaburge.com.

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Paris was once all it was to be modern, urbane, sophisticated: a gilded temple at once to Enlightenment rationalism and ancien régime splendor. The American in Paris, now a cliché so well-worn that it may actually be coming back around to being counter-hegemonic, became so because it was where the leaders and intellects of that ideal-based nation came to imbibe the ideas that made it possible. Whole generations of American leaders, political, academic and otherwise, regarded the stay in Paris as an essential stepping stone to a well-rounded, mature outlook on the world. This being a time when the other great imperial capital, London, was still stuffy, choked with coal exhaust and deeply provincial despite its centrality to contemporary global order. Perhaps it is that same search for cosmopolitan virtue that still drives the droves of us, the Erasmus kids hastily spending bureaucrat stipends on wine and metro tickets, the Iranian post-docs gazing at stars in newly-built astronomy labs, to here, year after year. In spite of the ever-greater ticking of rent prices and the fact that the Champs-Élysées is now roughly 75% luxury chain stores and two-story McDonald’s franchises, Paris retains a mystique that resists disillusion down to its very essence.

If, indeed, all of Western modernity can be traced to the French Revolution, perhaps it is no coincidence that we who live in its shadow seek to draw something from the paving stones that flew through windows to make it so. Perhaps simply to make sense from gazing at the Nokia-signage-abutted Bastille monument how it could have come to pass, or perhaps more grandly to take on some of that brilliant foresight for ourselves. Those Americans may have felt that their nation was, at the end of the day, the superior one, but they felt a certain tutelage in liberté (if not égalité, nor fraternité) could only be undertaken in the space where it had, in their mind, bloomed the brightest. More… “The Paris Myth”

Carter Vance is a writer and poet originally from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada currently resident in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in such publications as The VehicleContemporary Verse 2, and A Midwestern Review, amongst others. He is a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Ideas Fellow. His debut collection of poems, Songs About Girls, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017.

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“Urge and urge and urge,” Whitman intoned. “Always the procreant urge of the world.” These words signal the life instinct, eros, that innate, libidinal drive for pleasure and survival.

Humans are compelled by life, attracted to it and aroused by it. The procreant urge motivates us to act, stimulates our choices and actions, shapes our personal identity. There’s no subjectivity, no consciousness, absent coital awareness. The properties of life — what it means and how it appears to be alive — are conditions for their own perpetuation: to love life is to make it.

We are drawn to life, that inner bloom within the verdant body. We seek intimacy with the animated, energetic fertile parts, the warm, electric, pulsating body that’s flowing with blood, propelled by agency and personality. The sensual qualities of living flesh stir up an intense and unconscious desire for the continuity of our kind. More… “Sex with the Dead”

Allen Mendenhall is an associate dean at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and executive director of the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty. Visit his website at AllenMendenhall.com

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Sometimes, an idea can be so arresting that, for a time at least, we care more about the fascinating nature of the idea than we do about its feasibility or reality. This was how I felt when I discovered that one man (and a few others before and after him) firmly believed that the Earth is “hollow and habitable within.” The idea of a concave inner world that was as yet unexplored captivated me initially, but in the end, it was the man who believed this theory so doggedly who captured my attention.

John Cleves Symmes Jr. lived 200 years or so ago; I discovered a monument in his honor in a park in Hamilton, Ohio, a small city north of Cincinnati. I first learned of it when I was surfing Atlas Obscura and went to check out the monument.

The monument stands in a really run-down park; the monument itself has been defaced and a forbidding fence has been erected around it to prevent further vandalism. On its top is a bronze model of the “Hollow Earth,” with the openings a little scalloped, like you could easily walk down the slope from the icy areas of Siberia into the lush interior of the Earth. No one in Hamilton really cares about this guy, as far as I can tell; no one really celebrates him, but the monument still hasn’t come down even 150 years later. More… “Hollow Words”

Laura Leavitt is a writer and teacher living in Ohio. She has written a variety of pieces about travel, young adulthood, and food culture, including pieces at The Hairpin and Roads and Kingdoms. She blogs about living a disorganized life at Messy Mapmaker.

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it rained, fell like Jericho
its walls. Water broke

through the roof. All
our pails were full —

Kevin Young, “Flood,” from Dear Darkness

“In the morning,” wrote a wistful Henry David Thoreau, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “the river and adjacent country were covered with a dense fog, through which the smoke of our fire curled up like a still subtler mist.” And so the Merrimack River, which young Henry was surveying with a friend in 1839, emerged in print as an idealized thing, a natural phenomenon of a Massachusetts ecosystem inseparable from human activity — mingling its elegant vapor with the “smoke of our fire” — while being warmly respectful of all surrounding features. Nice. More… “A River Runs Through Lit”

James McWilliams is a writer based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly ReviewThe New Yorkerand The Paris ReviewHe’s currently writing a book on the art and expression of the American South.

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