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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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“The medium is the message.”
—Marshall McLuhan

1. Nimoy (5:50 a.m.)

It’s a cloudy August morning just after sunrise, and my family and I are speeding about a hundred miles west of London in our rental car, bisecting the Salisbury Plain on the A303. Giant figures the color and heft of elephants appear on a treeless green hill, and an instant snaps before I recognize what they are. “Stonehenge! Hey, is that Stonehenge?” my son asks, my partner swerves as he takes a look, and I answer with a choked up, “Yes!” Latent emotions flood my system with embarrassing force, like I’ve run into a love-defining first crush.

The big stones are gathered in a circle as if around a watering hole, a campfire, some leaning into each other, others toppled over like they’ve had a few too many. I’m seeing them for the first time in person, and their jagged outline seems both familiar as my own hands and mildly hallucinated, as if the site had appeared from a distant universe made suddenly material — a fragment of a 5,000-year-old world.

Who built Stonehenge, how did they do it, and why? As a kid, I’d adored Stonehenge for these unsolved mysteries that had cleverly perplexed adults for so long, as if it were a benevolent entity visiting us continuously from the deep human past, wishing we could understand its heavyweight, three-dimensional language. I’d absorbed as revolutionary fact the beloved shlock 1970s TV documentary show, In Search of . . . the Mystery of Stonehenge, in which host Leonard Nimoy reported that the site was built as a mystical astronomical clock, whose time we could now tell using the most cutting-edge, van-sized computers (the results, I’m sorry to note, were a little off — but more on that later). More… “Setting Stonehenge”

Megan Harlan is an essayist whose work has appeared in AGNI, Colorado Review, Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Common, among other journals, and won the 2018 Arts & Letters Prize for Creative Nonfiction (judged by Joni Tevis). She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), awarded the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her travel writing and book reviews have regularly appeared in The New York Times, and her poems have been published by Crazyhorse, TriQuarterly, American Poetry Review, Hotel Amerika, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Daily, and PBS Newshour. She holds an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program and worked as a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Oron Catts’s most recent exhibition, Biomess, features a unique work of art. It’s a deconstructed incubator, inside of which live hybridoma cells — cells from distinct organisms that have been fused together by Catts and his longtime collaborator Ionat Zurr. The cells come from two different mice and, once fused, can only exist within the confines of the incubator. Outside, they will die. If Catts’s exhibit is reminiscent of Frankenstein, it’s no accident: Biomess was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel. It is also only the latest instance in which Catts, an artist and researcher who works predominantly with tissue engineering as his medium, has forced uncomfortable questions about biology, technology, and the intersection of the two. I spoke with Catts about the challenges of tissue engineering, the false promises of ventures looking to commercialize lab-grown meat and leather, and how so much of this has to do with Silicon Valley’s unwillingness to come to terms with mortality. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

More… “In Vitro Impossible”

Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in NewsweekThe GuardianVice, and elsewhere

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green space in city
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Welcome to Anywhere, America. The houses are identical, two-story buildings covered in clapboard and pinched in by two swathes of tightly mown lawn. The streets are wide and well-maintained. The sidewalks are after-thoughts, stopping and starting at seemingly random intervals. It doesn’t matter where they go or how wide they are because their use is intrinsically marginal. Suburbs were not designed with the pedestrian in mind.

Despite their seeming ubiquity, suburbs are an experiment, just one answer to the question of how to house and organize humanity. It’s easy to forget how quickly we’ve come to this stage. Three centuries ago, the most common profession by far was sustenance farming. Most people were illiterate village dwellers. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities while more than 90% of the world’s young adults are literate. In the past 200 years the global population has septupled. More… “Urbanism in Three Books and Three Cities”

Talon Abernathy is a Seoul based educator and free-lance writer. His writing has been featured in The Urbanist365 Tomorrows, and Medium.

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dark forest with mysterious eyes
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As the first asteroid confirmed to have originated outside the Solar System whizzed by at roughly 85,000 mph, scientists scrambled unsuccessfully to figure out some way to catch up to it. Was it different from the asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter? Was it even an asteroid? What if it was some kind of technology designed by an alien race?

The Breakthrough Initiatives program observed and gathered data from the asteroid, but found no evidence of life or signals indicative of technology. For all we’ve learned about space, the more we realize we don’t know, especially when it comes to aliens. More… “Should We Stop Looking for Intelligent Life?”

Joelle Renstrom‘s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015. She’s the robot columnist for the Daily Beast and a staff writer for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Her essays have appeared in SlateAeonThe Guardian, and others. She teaches writing and research at Boston University with a focus on space exploration and artificial intelligence.

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Computer code
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Place a horse head from the Paleolithic paintings of Chauvet Cave beside footage from a Netflix show and compare them. Both are art, in the broadest sense, and both are (primarily) visual, but the similarities end there. In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin already anticipated most of the differences that you’d be able to find between the two: that the cave paintings were likely made for sacred ceremonial purposes and that the show is an economic product. That each of the cave’s images are fixed in both time and place while the television show’s come to us whenever we want, no pilgrimage required. And most importantly, that while the Netflix show is a counterfeit replicated endlessly in the form of code, the images in the cave are each authentic in their uniqueness. This presence of the singular in art, Benjamin called its “aura,” and the annihilation of aura by technology is the foundation of contemporary art.

It might seem counterintuitive to think so, but the popular dissemination of technology is necessary for the electronic image to function as conceptual art. This isn’t necessarily true with any other medium and has much to do with the value that we as postmodern consumers of images and memes place on a removed and ironic perspective. For example, conceptual video art didn’t reach its proper golden age until the 1960s, with the advent of relatively cheap portable recording equipment. There were, of course, films made before the middle of last century that were art, but it was mostly high art — The Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, etc. — which still retained the heavy grandeur of Benjamin’s aura. The films themselves might have been mechanically reproduced and distributed, but they were experienced as singular events which communicated their own significance as too dense, too substantial, to be seriously considered as simply products for consumption. More… “Conspiracy Theory As Art”

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in the Dublin Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, and the Paris Review Daily. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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I sat on my tall stool behind the counter in my parents’ music store, looking past my open history textbook to the dirty snow and paper trash blowing down the street in the darkening afternoon. A lone figure shuffled down the opposite sidewalk, past the jewelry store, and stopped on the corner in front of the drug store at the stoplight, his helmeted head cast down, waiting for the traffic light to turn. I scanned a few more paragraphs in my textbook until he entered, heralded by a chorus of automated door chimes and blown in by a gust of frozen air.

“Hi, Louis,” I said. More… “The Ultimate Currency”

CJ Bartunek lives in Athens, Georgia. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, The Big Roundtable, and other publications.

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Lately, I’ve been waxing romantic about traffic accidents. It has something to do with all the news about driverless cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, or AVs. Since 2015, when Tesla released its Model S, which could park on its own and drive solo on highways, car and tech companies have been hotly competing to achieve the next breakthrough. Now I hear that, by 2020, Google will release a car that has no steering wheel or pedals for accelerating and braking. This prospect sounds terrifying — until you consider that 90 percent of traffic blunders are attributed to human error. With AVs, the techies proclaim, such error will go the way of the Dodo. We are entering an era of Utopian travel, “the accident-free society.” More… “The Accident Free Society”

Jen DeGregorio’s writing has appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Collagist, PANK, Perigee (Apogee online), The Rumpus, Third Coast, Spoon River Poetry Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Yes Poetry and elsewhere. She has taught writing to undergraduates at colleges in New Jersey and New York and is currently a PhD student in English at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

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The future isn’t what it used to be. We need new futures.

Science fiction traditionally has had the task of providing us with alternative visions of the future. For the most part, it has done a terrible job. The main reason for its failure is that it assumes global uniformity.

In optimistic visions of the future, there is a liberal and democratic world government, or perhaps an interplanetary federation. In dystopias, there is a single global tyranny. In post-apocalyptic novels and movies set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, nuclear bombs seem to off gone off everywhere in the world, even in places remote from the homelands and allies of the major combatants. More… “The Future of the Future”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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Hello, everyone. My presentation today is about the harm that PowerPoint presentations are doing to the way we think and speak. To illustrate the danger, this warning is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

Next slide, please.

For nearly two millennia, from Isocrates and Cicero to the 19th century, the art of rhetoric was at the center of the Western tradition of liberal education. The liberally educated citizen was taught to reason logically and to express thoughts in a way calculated to inform and, when necessary, to motivate an audience. More… “PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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