UFOs, Solar Sails, and Pioneering Coders: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From building connections to traveling the cosmos, 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.
A 1907 depiction of President Abraham Lincoln in the War Department Telegraph Office writing the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
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As the war in Ukraine unfolds live on social media, with an overwhelming stream of information (and sometimes misinformation) flowing across our screens in real time, it’s easy to forget there was a time when battlefield updates took hours or sometimes days to reach the wider world. For almost all of human history, information traveled only as fast as we did. You could send it by runner, on horseback, and eventually by railway, but you had to send it at the speed of people. That changed during the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln became the first wartime president to get electronic news of the battlefield. “The 16th president may be remembered for his soaring oratory that stirred the Union, but the nearly 1,000 bite-sized telegrams that he wrote during his presidency helped win the Civil War by projecting presidential power in unprecedented fashion,” writes Christopher Klein for the History Channel’s website. “After the war’s outbreak, the newly created U.S. Military Telegraph Corps undertook the dangerous work of laying more than 15,000 miles of telegraph wire across battlefields that transmitted news nearly instantaneously from the front lines.”
And just as in our day, those quick bits of news from far away—the 19th century version of Twitter, delivered (like the modern equivalent) in short bursts of energy—proved so compelling that it was hard to step away. Lincoln kept a cot in the telegraph office, where he often slept during important campaigns of the war. “Lincoln, who had a keen interest in technology and remains the only American president with a patent, spent more of his presidency in the War Department’s telegraph office than anywhere else outside of the White House,” Klein recounts. “As a president who craved knowledge, he trod a well-worn path across the executive mansion’s lawn to the War Department to monitor the latest intelligence arriving in dots and dashes.” He also had to learn how to wield this new technology effectively, using it to push and prod his generals into action. Today, we’re watching as Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky becomes the first wartime president to try social media as a more direct way to motivate his people, inspire his troops, and galvanize the wider world. The technology might have changed—Twitter shares bite-sized news much more vividly, more widely, and faster than Lincoln could have imagined—but the riddle of how to translate information into battlefield advantage remains the same. —Stefanie Sanford
The Truth Is (Not So) Out There
As a sci-fi lover, May 2022 has been my month. The latest Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds, has been some of the best Trek I've seen in years, and I'm counting down the days until the Star Wars show about Obi-Wan Kenobi premieres. Science fiction has even become science "fact" as Congress recently met to discuss UFOs for the first time in 50 years, with the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism questioning the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, along with the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence, on mysterious flying objects. These officials are part of a military task force investigating more than 400 reports of UFO sightings. Unfortunately, the government witnesses said that American military officials have found no proof of aliens. [That’s what they would say. —Ed.]
In an attempt to distance themselves from the alien connotations of UFOs, the military has started referring to the sightings as UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). The Atlantic writer Marina Koren provides some additional context for these unexplainable sightings, and disappointingly—but perhaps unsurprisingly—UFOs have always been more mundane than we imagine. Often, UFO sightings have common explanations like drones, birds, balloons, and even the camera equipment capturing footage of the night sky. The military cares about UFOs, though, because they could be new technology not from aliens but adversarial nations. Koren interviews Sarah Scoles, author of They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers, who says that many media outlets, including reputable ones, often take sources at their word about UFO sightings, without corroborating data, "indulging in what-if-ing." Personally, I've always enjoyed a little "what-if-ing" about aliens and their spaceships. But instead of turning to conspiracy theories, I will just rewatch Stargate: SG-1, a great show about a secret military program that discovers alien life (and hides it from the public). —Hannah Van Drie
Diffractive solar sails, depicted in this conceptual illustration, could enable missions to hard-to-reach places, like orbits over the Sun’s poles.
Sail Me to the Moon
I’m a big fan of Daft Punk’s critically-acclaimed score to the 2010 film Tron: Legacy (about a son trying to rescue his father from inside a computer program). Beyond its propulsive synth tracks—Daft Punk’s trademark sound—are a few slower moments that evoke composer Wendy Carlos’ electronic score for the groundbreaking 1982 film Tron. The best example is the atmospheric synth/strings minimalism of “Solar Sailer,” a cue for the boat-like vehicle that transports the protagonists across the “game sea,” propelled by a beam of light. It’s an evocative cinematic image, playing off a real-world aspiration to move people through outer space on solar-wind-powered sailers. And, sooner rather than later, this sci-fi concept could become sci-fact.
This week, NASA announced that the “Diffractive Solar Sailing project was selected for Phase III study under the NASA innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.” This gives the project’s research team $2 million for two years of development on a literal “solar sailer.” In its announcement, NASA described what makes this design worth investing in: “Existing reflective solar sail designs are typically very large and very thin, and they are limited by the direction of the sunlight, forcing tradeoffs between power and navigation. Diffractive lightsails would use small gratings embedded in thin films to take advantage of a property of light called diffraction, which causes light to spread out when it passes through a narrow opening. This would allow the spacecraft to make more efficient use of sunlight without sacrificing maneuverability.” I can’t think of a better soundtrack for humanity’s first solar sailors, cruising the stars, than Daft Punk on a loop. —Christian Niedan
You could look at your friends' pizza photos or—OR—you can eat pizza with your friends. Your call.
IRL Social Networking
Education is about much more than what you learn. It’s also who you meet and how they can help guide you. “The power of who you know goes a long way,” write Richard Reeves and Beyond Deng in a new report for the Brookings Institution. “Scholars often refer to these networks and relationships as social capital.” It seems obvious that building connections with friends, mentors, and role models would be important for keeping students on track and helping them graduate into promising careers. But schools haven’t done nearly enough to cultivate those relationships and stress their importance to students. Most colleges and universities haven’t developed a solid definition of social capital or taken steps to measure it. “There is a dearth of high-quality evaluation of programs deploying social capital-based programs to improve college enrollment and success,” Reeves and Deng find. “But many of them show considerable promise and are worthy of further examination and possibly replication. Improving the quality of data available on social capital, for example by including more questions on repeated surveys would provide a stronger foundation of information upon which to build programs.”
In a discussion accompanying the report, education advocates who run mentoring and support programs emphasized that a sense of belonging is vital for students if they’re going to build strong relationships on campus. “That kind of social capital—that kind of bonding, bridging, and linking—really opens up people’s worlds,” said Michael DeVaul, national executive director with YMCA of the USA. “Belonging is the currency that drives social capital.” DeVaul said that having plausible role models, successful people who share a student’s background and life experience, is a huge motivator in moments of uncertainty. Relationship skills can matter just as much for college success as academic talent, so schools should put more effort into teaching them. “One study finds, for example, that the single best predictor of college enrollment among low-income urban minority students is whether their friends have college plans, even controlling for a wide range of variables likely to affect college going,” write Reeves and Deng. So if you don’t want to study, at least go socialize. —Eric Johnson
It might not seem like much to our 2022 eyes, but this is what pioneering game design and computer coding looked like 40 years ago.
I love learning about the hidden/forgotten/overlooked/ignored people who helped shape our cultural experience. (Sometimes I get a little obsessed.) So of course I eagerly clicked “Pioneer Rediscovered: The Woman who Brought Female Representation to Games.” It took a year for the Video Game History Foundation to get the story of Van Mai (née Tran), who designed and coded the Atari 2600 game Wabbit, which, when it was released in 1982, became “the first console game to star a human girl.” The VGHF first tried telling Mai’s story in 2021, but couldn’t track her down—because memories fragmented by decades created the kind of clerical error that feels very on-brand for this sort of thing: everyone had her name wrong. They were searching for “Ban Tran.” It took sifting through the bankruptcy records of her former company, Apollo, to learn the truth. Once they did, the VGHF found and interviewed her about her life, in and out of computers: from her childhood in Vietnam to coming to America as a refugee of the Vietnam War to getting into computers through night classes (and punch cards) to programming lessons in BASIC at Dallas schools.
But it was her work on Wabbit that earned Mai a place in gaming history. The premise is simple: a young girl slings eggs at rabbits trying to steal carrots from a garden. If the rabbits snatch 100 carrots, game over. (You can play it online, thanks to the Internet Archive.) At the time, Atari games, which had extraordinarily limited memory capacity, typically had nondescript, monochromatic characters as player avatars. (Only 4KB of memory!) But Mai coded Billie Sue, Wabbit’s hero, to render in multiple colors so there was no mistaking that she was a girl. (It’s a technique that allowed Nintendo to create later characters like Mario and Link.) “I don’t think my teammates or my boss said anything about [the theme],” Mai told Kevin Bunch and Kate Willaert. “Everything was up to me, I designed it – all the animation and all that. They seemed to like it a lot.” When the game was completed, Bunch and Willaert write, it “was showcased at the Texas State Fair in October before reaching stores shortly afterwards. Mai had no insight into how successful the game was from her end, but she remembers her nieces tried to buy a copy at a nearby mall only to be told that it was sold out.” What Mai did know, though, was that Wabbit made her a better programmer by forcing her to write compact codes. “I think I’m a pretty good coder because of that, because in the beginning, there wasn’t much room to write your logic, and you have to write good logic because of space,” she said. She wrote one more game, Solar Fox, which wasn’t released owing to the company’s bankruptcy in late 1982. She eventually moved to California, earned a computer science degree, and left video games behind. She’s now in the banking industry. (Definitely check out the whole article for the rest of her story—it’s a good read.) But Mai’s contributions to gaming—and computer science—are lasting. It’s great the VGHF (and the gaming community) didn’t let this story drop and Van Mai can take her rightful place in video game history. —Dante A. Ciampaglia