Olympic Adrenaline, Parental Exhaustion, and Fusion Reactions: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From aerodynamics to starstuff, 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.
Kelly Curtis, the first Black skeleton athlete to compete for Team USA at the Winter Olympics, prepares for a run at the 2022 Beijing Games.
My favorite part about the Winter Olympics is watching sports I've otherwise never heard of and at times even feel made up (looking at you, monobob). Still, I get a vicarious thrill watching incredible athletes plummet down an icy track at mind-boggling speeds in the athletic cousins of sledding: bobsled, luge, and particularly skeleton, which has always impressed the adrenaline junkie in me. After all, the athletes go headfirst down the track at 80 m.p.h. But it wasn't until this Olympics that I considered the history and science behind the sport. Unlike its ancient counterparts, skeleton was added to the Games in 2002 (though it appeared twice at previous Olympics in the 1900s). The sled has no brakes, and athletes steer with small shoulder and foot movements, and sometimes even their eyes. While scientists have researched the initial running phase of the sport—learning things like the ideal number of steps—it's been much harder to research the actual descent. Because of the strenuous physical conditions, athletes can only do a couple runs a day. There are also only 17 tracks in the world, all in the northern hemisphere, so scientists have to get creative. Dr. Timothy Wei, a mechanical engineer with expertise in fluid dynamics at Northwestern University, created a wind tunnel that simulates a track and allows researchers to see how small bodily adjustments change their speed and reduce drag. Ultimately though, Dr. Wei explains that athletes have very little control of their steering, which, paradoxically, makes it safer. In other similar sports, crashes often come from over steering and over correcting. I still am not quite sure if I’m convinced—is it really possible that going headfirst down a track can be safe?—but maybe one day I'll get to try it and find out. —Hannah Van Drie
But wait, hear me out: Pets.com but as an NFT that's *also* a cryptocurrency. That only buys kibble. Boom.
I love football; always have. I grew up with pictures of Cowboys stars Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, and Calvin Hill on the wall in my first grade room when I was growing up in Dallas, a city where football is a civic religion. Despite all that, most Super Bowl ads leave me cold. I’m not the target market for beer, pickup trucks, online gambling, or jumbo-sized bags of nacho chips. [What about crypto? -Ed.] But as someone who works in the communications world, trying to persuade people with succinct arguments and memorable stories, I’m fascinated by how different brands choose to spend their enormously expensive 30 seconds of airtime during the big game. I’m not the only one—this is a country where there aren’t just game highlights on Monday morning, but YouTube collections of the best, funniest, or crytpo-iest ads. My favorite of all time would have to be this spot from 2000, a subtle bit of feminist brilliance promoting the now-nearly-defunct Oxygen Network. It’s got babies, inspiring music, an uplifting message, and a great closing image—the polar opposite of today’s loud, garish, borderline NSFW ads. The 2000 ad didn’t launch Oxygen into the ratings stratosphere, but there’s something to be said for a 30-second story that sticks with you after two decades —Stefanie Sanford
I really wish Getty would stop mining all the data from the smart devices in my house to create stock images of "parents trying to work from home."
There has been an enormous amount of commentary about parenthood during the pandemic, much of it falling into the category I think of as “despairing howl.” Parenting has reached so many tipping points/crises/burnouts that I’ve started dreading any headline that mentions kids and careers, despite having both kids and careers as the predominant interests in my own life. But this piece from the New York Times Magazine broke through the clutter by taking a different approach: blunt, almost charming photos of what it looks like when you’re trying to be a professional grownup with a tiny human in your lap. My personal favorite is the young lady trying to eat a fistful of her mom's hair in the middle of a Zoom call.
These are not happy images, in the sense that the parents are trying to do something kind of sad and impossible: ignore an attention-seeking little person so that they can focus on a work meeting happening on a laptop screen. Nothing about that is joyful. What I like about the photos, though, is that they capture the elemental flip side of all the frustration and scorching anger you read in so much parenting commentary right now. They remind you that there are kids—adorable, needy, indifferent-to-your-professional-status children—making their way through this strange, suspended reality, too. For all the moments I’ve wanted to tear my hair out over the past two years, there are so many more when my daughter has started the day with a ninja sword fight in her pajamas, my son has tried to feed me bites of his sprinkle-covered yogurt, and both kids have piled onto the sofa at 5:50 a.m. to knock my laptop out of the way and insist that I read a Paw Patrol book for the 17th time in two days. I am tired, not an especially good employee, and very often pining for some quiet hours in a real office. But I have not lacked for human contact—so much human contact!—or reminders that the world is a lot bigger than a screen. —Eric Johnson
The inside of the JET Fusion reactor—or the Webb Space Telescope's first view of the inside of our sun? Who can know!
The Fus(ion) is Lit
There used to be a time when I’d look up at a starry night sky and have to remind myself that many of those pinpoints of light above me are stars like our own sun powering their own solar systems. These days I have to remind myself that a growing number of those lights are also SpaceX Starlink satellites—the ones that solar storms don’t send burning into Earth’s atmosphere, that is—courtesy of Elon Musk. (His WiFi-delivering satellites have company in the "Starman"-driven Tesla Roadster that’s currently cruising more than 234,000,000 miles from Earth.) To escape all the satellite congestion, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is orbiting out beyond the moon at 1 million miles from Earth; it recently began sending back images of both stars and selfies. Keeping that safe distance seems like a smart move, seeing as a suspected Chinese lunar mission rocket stage is set to collide with the far side of the moon on March 4.
But who needs stars up there when we can make our own—or, at least, replicate their internal processes—down here? Earth-bound humans are closer than ever to recreating stars’ nuclear fusion power processes as an alternative to our current reliance on man-made nuclear fission plants. The JET fusion plant in Oxfordshire, England, recently utilized a heat of more than 150 million degrees centigrade (10 times that of the sun’s core) to produce a power-generating reaction that lasted... five seconds. Still, it's an important proof-of-concept step toward a commercial fusion power industry, as JET's Head of Operations, Joe Milnes told the BBC. "What we've managed to demonstrate inside JET is that we can create a mini-sun, the right kind of mini-sun, hold it there for a sustained period, and get really good performance levels, which is a major step forward in terms of our quest to get to fusion power plants." Until then, keep watching the night skies for nature's stars—but keep an eye on England, too. —Christian Niedan
Orson Welles prepares to host an episode of the 1972 TV show "KopyKats." Because why shouldn't the guy who created a panic with "War of the Worlds" and reinvented filmmaking with "Citizen Kane" host a show called... "KopyKats."
As a cinephile, I’m legally obligated to have thoughts about Orson Welles, the film artist responsible for enduring works of high culture (Citizen Kane) and low (Pail Masson wine commercials). I’m firmly in the pro-Welles camp (see: Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, and his performance in The Third Man) and consider him a genius of 20th century art and culture. But his career is as littered with half-realized projects and scraps of ideas as it is with animosity and bad blood. There’s a reason why it took until 2018 to see a finished version of The Other Side of the Wind, which Welles abandoned in 1976. And while the film might be the last major Welles discovery, I was reminded this week that someone so prolific—and who was so given to magic and sleight of hand—always has a surprise in store. As reported by Wellesnet, the Welles estate recently purchased two shorts he made in 1970—Two Wise Old Men: Socrates and Noah and American Heritage Vol. 2: Clarence Darrow—little more than spoken-word experiments that have sat on a shelf ever since. But the more interesting bit—at least to this film and media nerd—is that Welles made the things for Avco Broadcasting Corp’s Cartrivision product, which was a precursor to both VHS and Betamax tapes and sold in Sears stores in 1972. Weird! I love this kind of arcane trivia about failed formats and imagining how different our visual culture would have been if it connected with consumers. (I can still remember feeling my mind being blown seeing a stack of Capacitance Electronic Discs, a pre-laserdisc format released in 1981, in a Goodwill in the early-2000s. Who knew!) I also love learning that artists I admire truly went into experimental directions. As late as 2007, there were still people who scoffed at filmmakers shooting on digital video; I can only imagine the guff Welles would’ve gotten, had he been more respected, for making stuff on a nascent videotape format. (Of course, the perpetually cash-strapped Welles probably just did it for the money. But let’s not quibble.) Most people won’t care about some rando Orson Welles project turning up or a blink-and-you-missed-it proto-VHS, and that’s cool. But this is one of those stories that just made me really happy—and smarter about people and things I thought I was already plenty smart on. —Dante A. Ciampaglia