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Big Data, Giant Planets, and Huge Shoes to Fill: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From life on Earth to the final frontier, we learned a lot over the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

Animated gif of the planets in the solar system


Poor Pluto is even left off of this fun and bouncy planetary roll call.

Space is the Place!

Regular Elective readers know I’m a space junkie, having grown up in the heyday of America’s Space Shuttle program when it seemed plausible that we’d be making regular commutes into the cosmos. Maybe that’ll still happen, now that Captain Kirk himself is about to get blasted into the heavens at the tender age of 90. Never occurred to me that I might be too young to be an astronaut... While I wait around for my invitation from Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, I’m enjoying this quirky collection of articles about every planet in the solar system, including— controversially—the non-planet Pluto. Marina Koren delved into that celestial dust-up in a piece for The Atlantic hilariously titled “Schrödinger's Planet.” Noting that astronomers can’t agree on the right classification for Pluto, even after years of debate about what defines a planet, she arrives at some philosophical wisdom about our own world. “We’re a bunch of people on one rock in space trying to figure out what another rock in space means to us. Of course the answers aren’t always going to be neat,” she concludes. “For all their disagreements, everyone I spoke with was on the same page about one thing: that the question of planethood has no bearing on whether Pluto is a fascinating place to study.” There’s even a song about poor demoted Pluto, circa 1997, which is worth hearing just for the technical feat of cramming three government agencies and a host of complex scientific terms into a neat guitar arrangement. 

I also love the Smithsonian story about Saturn rings and the night-owl grad student who accidentally discovered that one of our solar system’s most beautiful, distinctive features may disappear within a 100 millions years or so. “Over the next seven years, the world would learn that this young unknown British astronomer, who’d stumbled into academic science after a despairing childhood, had just made one of the biggest planetary discoveries in recent history,” writes Shaun Raviv, recounting how James O’Donoghue confirmed that Saturn’s rings are raining ice back onto the planet. “When O’Donoghue’s paper was published in Nature, he was astonished by how quickly his life changed. News reporters from around the world bombarded him with interview requests. Prestigious astronomy centers courted him. This was quite a heady change for a guy who, only a few years earlier, had been working in a warehouse hauling crates, not yet sure how to escape the downward gravitational pull of his own bleak upbringing.” That was less than a decade ago, which means there are plenty of big discoveries waiting to be made in the worlds beyond our own, plenty of chances for an unlikely genius to enter the history books alongside Galileo and Copernicus. —Stefanie Sanford

different types of protective face mask against blue background

Kilito Chan/Getty Images

A cheese board for our times. (Read the blurb then it'll make sense.)

Masking for a Friend

Like a few other big cities, Washington D.C. still has an indoor mask mandate. So every day, before I leave my house, I choose which mask I want to bring with me in case I stop in a store or dine inside. Am I in the mood for a fun pattern? Does a color clash with my outfit? These are the hard-hitting questions that have become part of my daily norms. This week, Yasmin Tayag with The Atlantic reminded me that my cloth masks were supposed to be a stop-gap solution. At the start of the pandemic the CDC encouraged their use to free up the more effective N95 surgical masks, which were in short supply, for medical personnel. More than 18 months later, N95s are more readily available. Yet many people, myself included, still primarily use cloth masks. (Tayag compares mask effectiveness to cheese; cloth masks rate as Swiss.) Tayag suggests that there are a few reasons for this, one being that they’re reusable and thus more environmentally friendly. But she believes the primary reason is the rhetoric in the U.S. has been so focused on whether or not to mask in general. The pro/anti binary has made it more difficult to consider the range of effectiveness of different types of masks and other precautions like social distancing and air filtration (not to mention the vaccine). To me, this lack of nuance is another casualty of the politicization of this pandemic. I hope that as we continue to navigate covid-19, the science will become increasingly less a flashpoint of partisan debate and more of an established part of our health norms, similar to the flu.  —Hannah Van Drie

Older white man sitting at a table holding a model of a germ

Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

Dr. Francis Collins holds up a model of covid-19 during a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the plan to research, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed, July 2, 2020.

Diagnosis: Job Well Done

Francis Collins is probably the most important government official you’ve never heard of. “The plainspoken, guitar-playing, motorcycle-riding scientist—who took the helm of [the National Institutes of Health] after 15 years as director of NIH's genome institute—has used charm to rally Congress to restore growth to NIH's budget after more than a decade of stagnation,” the journal Science reported in a 2019 feature story. “Observers say Collins has also been one of the most influential directors ever to shape NIH, which with a budget of $39 billion this year is the world's largest biomedical research agency.” Collins’ influence only deepened over the last two years as he shaped the incredibly effective effort to develop a covid vaccine and mobilize the nation’s scientific infrastructure to find treatments and prevention for coronaviruses.

Collins announced this week that he’ll step down by the end of the year, ending his 11-year run at the helm of the NIH. He’s widely seen as a masterful translator between the scientific world and the broader public, with a particular credibility among religiously observant Americans. “Though I’m awed by Collins’s accomplishments, it is his biblically inspired scientific mission that interests me most,” writes Kathleen Parker in an appreciative send-off in the Washington Post. “There’s no question that Collins has done his homework, scientifically and theologically, and is equally fluent in both realms. His courage and equanimity in the face of criticism or insults—as when the late atheist/provocateur Christopher Hitchens basically called Collins an idiot at a dinner debate I attended—is a testament to a maturity missing in our public square.” I couldn’t agree more, and I hope more people like Collins—thoughtful, patient, genuinely humble—will step forward to guide America’s vast public investment in science. —Eric Johnson

Animated gif of a dog in a burning room saying this is fine


A live look inside Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters.

Moved Fast, Broke Things

Good grief, where do you even begin with the Facebook coverage over the last few weeks? The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster series of articles, based on leaked documents from a now-public whistleblower who worked in Facebook’s civic integrity division, confirmed much of what we already suspected about Facebook’s toxic impact on public life and mental health. “I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” Frances Haugen told Congress this week. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes.” The leaked documents also set off a wave of smart commentary about the social media leviathan’s business strategy, surprising internal weaknesses, and regulatory troubles.

“It is up to the lawmakers to act, and act hard, since there is no countervailing power to Facebook except a government,” wrote the tech critic Kara Swisher in the New York Times, summarizing what has fast become conventional wisdom among both parties in Washington. “Legislators have an opportunity now—and they are increasingly willing to work together—to pass meaningful legislation on data protection, privacy and even on transparency.” I am not optimistic about the near-term prospects of Congress reaching agreement on anything as complex as data privacy, given that a routine increase in the debt ceiling is apparently too hard to sort out. But my big takeaway from all the Facebook drama is that we’re still at the very, very beginning of understanding what happens when you give everyone on Earth access to a megaphone. For the entirety of human existence, reaching a mass audience required passing through some kind of gatekeeper—editors, publishers, broadcast regulators. That changed in 2004, when Facebook reached a tad more than a million users by the end of the year. Now, more than 2.8 billion people can say pretty much whatever they want to an audience as big as Facebook’s algorithm can deliver. On a species/civilization level, this experiment has only just begun. —Eric Johnson

Animated gif from Star Trek first contact of a Borg sphere speeding toward earth

Paramount Pictures/YouTube

A live look from the future as a sentient dataome races its way to assimilate past Earth.

Tired: Biodome — Wired: Borg Sphere

The older I get, the more I cherish the utopianism at the core of Star Trek, whether it’s a space western (the original series) or Robinson Crusoe on a starship (Voyager). Especially now, when so much is dystopian—in fiction and otherwise—Trek’s innate hopefulness and spirit of communal exploration is a precious respite. But as much as I came to the series as a kid for the action, it was the science part of sci-fi that got me hooked. (You can draw a straight line from The Next Generation to my teenage dream of becoming an aerospace engineer.) Which is why I was so happy to recently find—via Dr. Maddie Stone’s excellent newsletter The Science of Fiction—the podcast Strange New Worlds, hosted by planetary scientist Michael Wong, all about the intersection of science and Star Trek. There are 125 episodes of the show, spanning all sorts of topics from artificial intelligence to climate change, but the latest is especially excellent. Wong speaks with Dr. Caleb Scharf, director of astrobiology at Columbia University, and artificial life researcher Dr. Stuart Bartlett about Scharf’s new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Genes, Machines, and Life’s Unending Algorithm (which I now cannot wait to read). The hour-long conversation is expansive and wide-ranging, with plenty of callbacks to Trek, naturally. But its focal point is a concept coined by Scharf in his book: the dataome. It’s like the genome or biome, except rather than dealing with the biological the dataome “is a shorthand for all of the information that we as a species generate, propagate, maintain and utilize and carry through time with us,” Scharf explains. The conversation goes into warp speed from there, ranging from Shakespeare’s datomic legacy to a thought exercise Scharf calls The Metal World to the potential that humanity’s dataome is priming it to become the Borg in real life to repositioning our search for extraterrestrial life to focus on potential alien dataomes. The chat, like the best of Trek, is compelling, expansive, and highly entertaining. And even if you find yourself scoffing at some of its more sci-fi-y notions raised, you’ll absolutely see the world through new (possibly cybernetic) eyes. Resistance, as they say, is futile. —Dante A. Ciampaglia