Last summer some people posted a listing for a fake Asian restaurant near my university on Google Maps and Instagram, with a name insulting to Asians and a menu that included horrible-sounding items such as “mouse tail salad” and “marinated ostrich foreheads.” The fake name, menu and reviews—even if they were intended as a joke—were all despicable examples of anti-Asian racism that has always been present in the U.S. and has been brought to the forefront amid the COVID outbreak.
Such behavior creates a hostile environment for researchers of Asian ancestry such as myself. It turned out that the Instagram account was linked to students who are predominantly from my college. Knowing that my fellow students have such offensive views has heightened my anxiety, which surfaced early in the pandemic.
Because the disease was first reported in China, I have had to struggle with growing bigotry toward Asians in addition to avoiding the virus itself. There have been many reports about Asians facing verbal and physical attacks, fueled by disturbingly common terms like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” hate-inspiring language frequently used by Donald Trump and others. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Asian-Americans report a higher level of negative experiences, including racist jokes and slurs or feeling fear of threats or physical attacks, than Black, Hispanic or white respondents in a survey conducted after the pandemic began. Moreover, a recent Stop Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate National Report by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council found more than 2,500 reports of anti-Asian incidents across 47 states in a five-month period (from March to August 2020). Of these, 70 percent involved verbal harassment, and 9 percent of them were physical assaults. More undoubtedly go unreported.
When news of these attacks became public, my family and friends warned me to be alert and careful when I was anywhere outside my home. At the beginning of the pandemic, mask wearing was not required, but to protect people and myself against the spread of the coronavirus, it was something I wanted to do in our laboratory and around campus. But I didn’t, because I was told that co-workers and colleagues might avoid or harass me. My family and friends cautioned me not to stay out late and to avoid sparsely populated areas on campus; they and I worried other people might hurt me because I was Asian. I ended up going home early most days, shortening my time for experiments and work.
I endured these limitations because of the xenophobia toward Asians worldwide, but the heightened anxiety became burdensome and made research (as well as nonresearch and leisure activities) more difficult. And I kept quiet about my concerns around the lab because I thought that speaking up could make me a target of jokes among colleagues and lead to alienation and loss of collaboration.
These concerns were magnified because I had faced frequent microaggressions even before the outbreak, such as being asked about where I am “originally from,” although I am from the U.S., or if I was related to someone because we shared a common name. Non-Asians too often presume—and say—that my Asian peers and I are pursuing STEM careers because we were forced to by our families. Asians are also often (inaccurately) viewed as the model minority and falsely thought not to suffer from discrimination.
I am thankful that my institution and college have condemned racist behavior. They have contacted Google and Instagram to remove the fake restaurant listing; have expressed concern and willingness to take action against racism; and are holding journal club discussions and diversity symposiums about race. I deeply appreciate these efforts and the care taken to create a more inclusive and safe space. Institutions in general should require bias training and should develop spaces such as “life issues” groups (my department has one), journal clubs and symposia designed to educate the community about racism. Faculty and administration should welcome discussions about race issues and be more transparent in addressing them. I also think that social media campaigns by institutions have the potential to raise awareness and educate others.
We have a lot of work ahead of us, but inclusion and positive change within our institutions and in STEM are achievable if we unite against racism. Greater inclusion will lead to more sharing of ideas that will help science, technology and medicine flourish, at a time when we dearly need them.
For the first time ever, astronomers may have glimpsed light from a world in a life-friendly orbit around another star.
The planet candidate remains unverified and formally unnamed, little more than a small clump of pixels on a computer screen, a potential signal surfacing from a sea of background noise. If proved genuine, the newly reported find would in most respects not be particularly remarkable: a “warm Neptune” estimated to be five to seven times larger than Earth, the sort of world that galactic census-takers such as NASA’s Kepler and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite missions have revealed to be common throughout the Milky Way. But even though it would be shrouded in gas and essentially bereft of any surface to stand on, its distance from its star would place it in the so-called “habitable zone” where liquid water could exist. No other planet has been directly seen in this starlight-drenched region around any other star, because of the associated glare. And this world’s celestial coordinates would be straight out of astronomers’ wildest dreams—it would orbit a near-twin of the sun called Alpha Centauri A, which also happens to be a member of a triple-star system that, at just shy of 4.5 light-years away, is the closest one to our own.
Because of its proximity, the system’s other members—a slightly smaller sunlike star called Alpha Centauri B, and the diminutive red dwarf star Proxima Centauri—are also high-priority targets for astronomers, who have already indirectly detected the presence of two worlds around Proxima (including one that is likely rocky and within that star’s habitable zone). Whether looking for real estate across town or around another star, location really is everything. The Centauri system is so close that it offers a unique front-row seat for scientists seeking to study the atmospheres and surfaces of any worlds that exist there, especially to seek out possible signs of life. And astronomers long ago learned that planets are, in some respects, like household pests: where one is seen, others are likely to be found. Which is why, as tentative as they may be, the burgeoning crop of Centauri worlds hints at untold discoveries that are yet to be made and could profoundly transform views of our place in the universe.
The new findings were reported Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications. They come from an international consortium of planet hunters called Breakthrough Watch, via the inaugural science run of a one-of-a-kind “direct imaging” instrument called NEAR (New Earths in the AlphaCen Region), which operates on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. The effort is named for its chief funding organization, Breakthrough Initiatives—the brainchild of the Silicon Valley billionaire Yuri Milner, who also sponsors related projects to search the heavens for signs of alien civilizations and to send pint-sized interstellar probes to the Alpha Centauri system.
“Alpha Centauri presents us with a magical opportunity, because there is no better place in the sky to try to directly image small, potentially habitable planets,” says Pete Klupar, Breakthrough Initiatives’ chief engineer. “This was in some sense low-hanging fruit—for just $3 million, we were with our international partners able to build an instrument to take advantage of ESO’s billions of dollars invested in its telescopes. But it’s also like going after a needle in a haystack, which is why no one has ever done this before. Governments tend to build survey instruments, to look at large numbers of stars and guarantee a return on investment, whereas NEAR was purpose-built to just do this one, risky thing.”
“When we collaborate on a global scale, we discover new worlds, and we keep advancing,” Milner says. “The identification of a candidate habitable-zone planet in our celestial backyard will continue to power our curiosity.”
The candidate’s tantalizing signal emerged from 100 hours of observations on the VLT, stretched across a total of 10 nights in the spring of 2019. By June of that year, as the Breakthrough Watch team members sifted through their observations, they began to realize they might have found something. Kevin Wagner, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona, first saw the telltale evidence of a planet-like blip cresting far above NEAR’s instrumental noise. It happened while he was remotely processing a batch of data during a family vacation in Lake Jocassee, S.C. Measuring its brightness and sandwiching it between limits on planet masses and sizes calculated in previous studies by other groups, the Breakthrough Watch team estimated that—if the blip were indeed a planet—it would most likely be somewhere between Neptune and Saturn in size. By November, he and his colleagues were certain the find was worth publishing, even if it proved not to be a world at all. (It would not be the first time our neighboring star system has fooled astronomers. Peer-reviewed claims of a small planet around Alpha Centauri B in 2012 evaporated a few years later, found to be products of stellar noise.)
“In a way, I hope we haven’t detected anything this time, too,” Wagner says. “Because what I’m most excited to find is an Earthlike planet in the habitable zone. The presence of a Neptune in the habitable zone of Alpha Centauri A would not rule out something smaller nearby, but it would limit some of the area in which we could hope for rocky worlds to exist there in the first place.”
There is no shortage of other possible explanations for the weak signal, which is essentially a thermal wisp of infrared photons—that is, of heat—that seems to originate from a source at the outer edge of Alpha Centauri A’s habitable zone. In visible light, a sunlike star outshines a small, rocky planet by a factor of billions. But in infrared the star is dimmer and the planet is at its brightest, so this contrast ratio is “only” measured in millions. For decades, the difficulty of achieving even this more modest measurement limited direct imaging to hot giant planets orbiting far from their stars. That is, until NEAR was built. It is a mid-infrared coronagraph, a specialized instrument designed to blot out the bulk of a star’s thermal glow at a tight wavelength of 10 microns. Augmented by adaptive optics to compensate for the blurring turbulence of Earth’s atmosphere, in operation it switches its focus between Alpha Centauri A and B every tenth of a second, using observations of each star to help calibrate those of the other. It progressively winnows out starlight, and stacks frame after frame to allow any faint planetary light to accumulate and eventually be seen. But rather than betraying the presence of a planet, any resulting blip could instead be a far-distant background object, a clump of starlight-warmed dust or an asteroid belt circling around a star, or even the errant play of stray photons leaking from beamlines and spraying across sensitive optics inside the instrument. Wagner and his co-authors have already ruled out the first possibility (no known background star or galaxy can account for the blip), but the others remain in play to various degrees.
Confirmation of the blip’s planetary status should have been relatively straightforward: simply attempt to observe it again after sufficient time has passed; if it is in fact a planet, its orbital motion will have swept it to a new and very different position around its star. Subsequent, more time-intensive studies with NEAR could then crudely measure the blip’s colors to help eliminate the “dust cloud” hypothesis. But this was not to be—not yet, anyway—as the ensuing COVID pandemic shut down astronomical observatories and most everything else around the globe. Wagner says the team has applied for additional time to use NEAR on the VLT, but the proposal has yet to be approved.
“The timing is such a shame,” says Debra Fischer, a veteran planet hunter at Yale University. She is unaffiliated with the study, but her work with her student Lily Zhao has placed the best-yet constraints on the planets that may or may not exist in the Alpha Centauri system. “If it’s in the habitable zone around Alpha Centauri A, that’s an Earthlike orbit, so observing six months later would probably have nailed it,” Fischer says. “Without that, this isn’t a planet detection paper, it’s a demonstration of NEAR’s capability to monitor Alpha Centauri in the mid-infrared. But if this turns out to be right—oh my God, it’s huge.”
Brave New Worlds
For now, NEAR is the only coronagraph on Earth with a realistic chance of imaging Alpha Centauri’s hidden worlds. But other instruments and facilities are already waiting in the wings to apply their own scrutiny to the system. Fischer’s high-precision EXPRES radial velocity spectrograph—and an even more advanced European counterpart, ESPRESSO—are both already operational. They could help indirectly confirm the planet candidate and others, and could estimate their masses, by watching for periodic wobbles each world’s orbital tugging induces upon its host star. A related technique, astrometry, could do much the same thing, pinpointing planetary masses by measuring how each world’s gravitational influence slightly shifts its star’s position in the plane of the sky. Such observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile, or even a modest, Breakthrough-funded dedicated space mission, could occur later this decade.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch in late October, would also be capable of directly imaging the candidate planet given one full day of observing time, according to a recent study led by one of Webb’s foremost scientists, Charles Beichman of the California Institute of Technology. “Because Alpha Centauri A is a twin of our own sun and less than five light-years away, it really is our closest solar neighbor,” Beichman says. “That makes it first among equals, of all the stars in the sky. No other system will lend itself to more detailed possible studies over the next several decades.”
The space agency’s follow-up mission to Webb, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, will also carry a coronagraph as a technology demonstration that could (with certain tweaks now being actively considered) potentially snap pictures of the candidate.
And, around the same time Roman may launch, a new generation of sophisticated coronagraphs mated to gargantuan ground-based observatories should begin operations that could in mere minutes produce images of Centauri planets that would currently require hours upon hours of NEAR’s time on the VLT. Armed with starlight-gathering mirrors 30 meters or more across, ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope and its American counterpart, the Giant Magellan Telescope, could both in theory gather enough light from a habitable-zone Neptune around Alpha Centauri A to study its atmosphere, sniffing out what familiar or alien chemistry occurs there. (A third behemoth, the U.S.’s Thirty Meter Telescope, is presently planned for a site in the Northern Hemisphere from which Alpha Centauri would not be visible.) Finally, NASA and other space agencies are now studying concepts for multibillion-dollar space telescopes for the 2030s and beyond. Some of these could image and search for signs of life on small rocky planets around Alpha Centauri as well as many other nearby stars.
All of which means that, even if this latest candidate from Alpha Centauri proves spurious, it still signals something quite real: a looming sea change, in which planet-hunting astronomers shift from safe, statistical surveys to the more daring in-depth study of individual worlds, some of which might harbor life.
“Whether this thing is real is, to me, almost secondary,” says study co-author Olivier Guyon, an innovator in direct imaging and chair of Breakthrough Watch. “Because either way it shows we’re clearly opening a new area in the history of astronomy where, finally, after more than 20 years of hard work, we can at last perform direct imaging of another star’s habitable zone. This is the ‘game on’ moment for the field.”
After a nail-biting 27 minutes, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first-ever interplanetary mission has successfully reached orbit around Mars.
The spacecraft, dubbed Hope, launched July 19, 2020, atop a Japanese H-IIA rocket, then spent seven months trekking to the Red Planet. Today (Feb. 9), Hope needed to fire its thrusters for nearly half an hour straight to slow down enough to slip into orbit around the Red Planet, from 75,000 mph to 11,000 mph (121,000 kph to 18,000 kph). Mission personnel on the ground could only watch what happened and hope for the best.
“This has been a remarkable journey of humanity,” UAE Space Agency chairperson Sarah Al Amiri said during preparations for the orbital insertion maneuver.
With the successful Mars orbit insertion, the UAE becomes the fifth entity to reach the Red Planet, joining NASA, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and India. Today’s success also puts the $200 million Hope spacecraft on the bright side of grim Mars mission statistics: About half of flights to the Red Planet fail.
Mars orbit insertion was a critical step that, for Hope, required a 27-minute burn of its six thrusters that the mission team could not precisely practice in advance. Hope is now in a temporary orbit that it will retain for a few months as it powers on its instruments and settles into its new home.
Mission personnel plan to relocate the spacecraft to its science orbit in May. That science orbit will see the spacecraft circling high over the planet’s equator every 55 hours, a new orbit for a Mars spacecraft that will give Hope a unique opportunity to study large-scale atmospheric phenomena on Mars. The Hope mission is scheduled to last for a full Martian year (687 Earth days).
The Hope spacecraft carries three instruments that will allow scientists to study the weather near the surface of Mars, the connections between different layers of the atmosphere, and how Mars loses atmosphere to space. Scientists leading the mission hope that this data will help them understand, for example, how dust storms at the surface of Mars affect atmospheric loss and how weather systems around the globe relate to each other.
The UAE has sped into the space sector: Hope launched a little more than a decade after the nation’s first Earth-orbiting satellite, DubaiSat 1, did so. The nation has pushed space exploration as a way to develop its science and technology know-how and to buffer its economy, which is largely built on oil.
In addition to the Hope mission, the UAE is recruiting new astronauts in the wake, plans to launch a technology lander to the moon in 2024, and has a century-long Red Planet strategy dubbed Mars 2117, which incorporates both terrestrial priorities and long-term exploration goals.
Hope’s Mars orbit insertion was the first of three Red Planet arrivals this month. Tomorrow (Feb. 10), China’s Tianwen-1 mission will conduct the same maneuver; the mission’s rover will attempt to land on Mars in May. Then, NASA’s Perseverance rover will attempt to land near Jezero Crater on Feb. 18.
The three arrivals bookend a rush to Mars that began in July, when all three spacecraft launched to take advantage of the alignment of Mars and Earth that made the journey most feasible. Visit Space.com for continuing updates about the trio of missions.
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One evening nine years ago 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking through a Florida neighborhood with candy and iced tea when a vigilante pursued him and ultimately shot him dead. The killing shocked me back to the summer of 1955, when as a six-year-old boy I heard that a teenager named Emmett Till had been lynched at Money, Miss., less than 30 miles from where I lived with my grandparents. I remember the nightmares, the trying to imagine how it might feel to be battered beyond recognition and dropped into a river.
The similarities in the two assaults, almost six decades apart, were uncanny. Both youths were Black, both were visiting the communities where they were slain, and in both cases their killers were acquitted of murder. And in both cases, the anguish and outrage that Black people experienced on learning of the exonerations sparked immense and significant social movements. In December 1955, days after a meeting in her hometown of Montgomery, Ala., about the failed effort to get justice for Till, Rosa Parks refused to submit to racially segregated seating rules on a bus—igniting the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). And in July 2013, on learning about the acquittal of Martin’s killer, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi invented the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, a rallying cry for numerous local struggles for racial justice that sprang up across the U.S.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is still unfolding, and it is not yet clear what social and political transformations it will engender. But within a decade after Till’s murder, the social movement it detonated overthrew the brutal “Jim Crow” order in the Southern states of the U.S. Despite such spectacular achievements, contemporary scholars such as those of the Chicago School of Sociology continued to view social movements through the lens of “collective behavior theory.” Originally formulated in the late 19th century by sociologist Gabriel Tarde and psychologist Gustave Le Bon, the theory disdained social movements as crowd phenomena: ominous entities featuring rudderless mobs driven hither and thither by primitive and irrational urges.
As a member of what sociologist and activist Joyce Ladner calls the Emmett Till generation, I identify viscerally with struggles for justice and have devoted my life to studying their origins, nature, patterns and outcomes. Around the world, such movements have played pivotal roles in overthrowing slavery, colonialism, and other forms of oppression and injustice. And although the core methods by which they overcome seemingly impossible odds are now more or less understood, these struggles necessarily (and excitingly) continue to evolve faster than social scientists can comprehend them. A post-CRM generation of scholars was nonetheless able to shift the study of movements from a psychosocial approach that asked “What is wrong with the participants? Why are they acting irrationally?” to a methodological one that sought answers to questions such as “How do you launch a movement? How do you sustain it despite repression? What strategies are most likely to succeed, and why?”
Social movements have likely existed for as long as oppressive human societies have, but only in the past few centuries has their praxis—meaning, the melding of theory and practice that they involve—developed into a craft, to be learned and honed. The praxis has always been and is still being developed by the marginalized and has of necessity to be nimbler than the scholarship, which all too often serves the powerful. Key tactics have been applied, refined and shared across continents, including the boycott, which comes from the Irish struggle against British colonialism; the hunger strike, which has deep historical roots in India and Ireland and was widely used by women suffragettes in the U.K.; and nonviolent direct action, devised by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and India. They led to the overthrow of many unjust systems, including the global colonial order, even as collective behavior theorists continued to see social movements as irrational, spontaneous and undemocratic.
The CRM challenged these orthodoxies. To understand how extraordinary its achievements were, it is necessary to step into the past and understand how overwhelming the Jim Crow system of racial domination seemed even as late as the 1950s, when I was born. Encompassing the economic, political, legal and social spheres, it loomed over Black communities in the Southern U.S. as an unshakable edifice of white supremacy.
Jim Crow laws, named after an offensive minstrel caricature, were a collection of 19th-century state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation and relegated Black people to the bottom of the economic order. They had inherited almost nothing from the slavery era, and although they were now paid for their work, their job opportunities were largely confined to menial and manual labor. In consequence, nonwhite families earned 54 percent of the median income of white families in 1950. Black people had the formal right to vote, but the vast majority, especially in the South, were prevented from voting through various legal maneuvers and threats of violent retaliation. Blacks’ lack of political power enabled their constitutional rights to be ignored—a violation codified in the 1857 “Dred Scott” decision of the Supreme Court asserting that Black people had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Racial segregation, which set Black people apart from the rest of humanity and labeled them as inferiors, was the linchpin of this society. Humiliation was built into our daily lives. As a child, I drank from “colored” water fountains, went around to the back of the store to buy ice cream, attended schools segregated by skin color and was handed textbooks ragged from prior use by white students. A week after classes started in the fall, almost all my classmates would vanish to pick cotton in the fields so that their families could survive. My grandparents were relatively poor, too, but after a lifetime of sharecropping they purchased a plot of land that we farmed; as a proud, independent couple, they were determined that my siblings and I study. Even they could not protect us from the fear, however: I overheard whispered conversations about Black bodies hanging from trees. Between the early 1880s and 1968 more than 3,000 Black people were lynched—hung from branches of trees; tarred, feathered and beaten by mobs; or doused with gasoline before being set ablaze. This routine terror reinforced white domination.
But by 1962, when I moved to Chicago to live with my mother, protests against Jim Crow were raging on the streets, and they thrilled me. The drama being beamed into American living rooms—I remember being glued to the television when Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963—earned the movement tens of thousands of recruits, including me. And although my attending college was something of an accident, my choice of subject in graduate school, sociology, was not. Naively believing that there were fundamental laws of social movements, I intended to master them and apply them to Black liberation movements as a participant and, I fantasized, as a leader.
As I studied collective behavior theory, however, I became outraged by its denigration of participants in social movements as fickle and unstable, bereft of legitimate grievances and under the spell of agitators. Nor did the syllabus include the pioneering works of W.E.B. Du Bois, a brilliant scholar who introduced empirical methods into sociology, produced landmark studies of inequality and Black emancipation, and co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) in 1909. I was not alone in my indignation; many other social science students of my generation, who had participated in the movements of the era, did not see their experiences reflected in the scholarship. Rejecting past orthodoxies, we began to formulate an understanding of social movements based on our lived experiences, as well as on immersive studies in the field.
In conducting my doctoral research, I followed Du Bois’s lead in trying to understand the lived experiences of the oppressed. I interviewed more than 50 architects of the CRM, including many of my childhood heroes. I found that the movement arose organically from within the Black community, which also organized, designed, funded and implemented it. It continued a centuries-long tradition of resistance to oppression that had begun on slave ships and contributed to the abolition of slavery. And it worked in tandem with more conventional approaches, such as appeals to the conscience of white elites or to the Constitution, which guaranteed equality under the law. The NAACP mounted persistent legal challenges to Jim Crow, resulting in the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools. But little changed on the ground.
How could Black people, with their meager economic and material resources, hope to confront such an intransigent system? A long line of Black thinkers, including Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Du Bois, believed that the answer could be found in social protest. Boycotts, civil disobedience (refusal to obey unjust laws) and other direct actions, if conducted in a disciplined and nonviolent manner and on a massive scale, could effectively disrupt the society and economy, earning leverage that could be used to bargain for change. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored,” King would explain in an open letter from the Birmingham jail.
The reliance on nonviolence was both spiritual and strategic. It resonated with the traditions of Black churches, where the CRM was largely organized. And the spectacle of nonviolent suffering in a just cause had the potential to discomfit witnesses and render violent and intimidating reprisals less effective. In combination with disruptive protest, the sympathy and support of allies from outside the movement could cause the edifice of power to crumble.
The Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, which inaugurated the CRM, applied these tactics with flair and originality. It was far from spontaneous and unstructured. Parks and other Black commuters had been challenging bus segregation for years. After she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat, members of the Women’s Political Council, including Jo Ann Robinson, worked all night to print thousands of leaflets explaining what had happened and calling for a mass boycott of buses. They distributed the leaflets door to door, and to further spread the word, they approached local Black churches. A young minister named King, new to Montgomery, had impressed the congregation with his eloquence; labor leader E. D. Nixon and others asked him to speak for the movement. The CRM, which had begun decades earlier, flared into a full-blown struggle.
The Montgomery Improvement Association, formed by Ralph Abernathy, Nixon, Robinson, King and others, organized the movement through a multitude of churches and associations. Workshops trained volunteers to endure insults and assaults; strategy sessions planned future rallies and programs; community leaders organized car rides to make sure some 50,000 people could get to work; and the transportation committee raised money to repair cars and buy gas. The leaders of the movement also collected funds to post bail for those arrested and assist participants who were being fired from their jobs. Music, prayers and testimonies of the personal injustices that people had experienced provided moral support and engendered solidarity, enabling the movement to withstand repression and maintain discipline.
Despite reprisals such as the bombing of King’s home, almost the entire Black community of Montgomery boycotted buses for more than a year, devastating the profits of the transport company. In 1956 the Supreme Court ruled that state bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. Although the conventional approach—a legal challenge by the NAACP—officially ended the boycott, the massive economic and social disruption it caused was decisive. Media coverage—in particular of the charismatic King—had revealed to the nation the cruelty of Jim Crow. The day after the ruling went into effect, large numbers of Black people boarded buses in Montgomery to enforce it.
This pioneering movement inspired many others across the South. In Little Rock, Ark., nine schoolchildren, acting with the support and guidance of journalist Daisy Bates, faced down threatening mobs to integrate a high school in 1957. A few years later Black college students, among them Diane Nash and John Lewis of Nashville, Tenn., began a series of sit-ins at “whites only” lunch counters. Recognizing the key role that students, with their idealism and their discretionary time, could play in the movement, visionary organizer Ella Baker encouraged them to form their own committee, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which started to plan and execute actions independently. Escalating the challenge to Jim Crow, Black and white activists began boarding buses in the North, riding them to the South to defy bus segregation. When white mobs attacked the buses in Birmingham and the local CRM leadership, fearing casualties, sought to call off the “Freedom Rides,” Nash ensured that they continued. “We cannot let violence overcome nonviolence,” she declared.
The sophisticated new tactics had caught segregationists by surprise. For example, when the police jailed King in Albany, Ga., in 1961 in the hope of defeating the movement, it escalated instead: outraged by his arrest, more people joined in. To this day, no one knows who posted bail for King; many of us believe that the authorities let him go rather than deal with more protesters. The movement continually refined its tactics. In 1963 hundreds of people were being arrested in Birmingham, Ala., so CRM leaders decided to fill the jails, leaving the authorities with no means to arrest more people. In 1965 hundreds of volunteers, among them John Lewis, marched from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama to protest the suppression of Black voters and were brutally attacked by the police.
The turmoil in the U.S. was being broadcast around the world at the height of the cold war, making a mockery of the nation’s claim to representing the pinnacle of democracy. When President Lyndon B. Johnson formally ended the Jim Crow era by signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he did so because massive protests raging in the streets had forced it. The creation of crisis-packed disruption by means of deep organization, mass mobilization, a rich church culture, and thousands of rational and emotionally energized protesters delivered the death blow to one of the world’s brutal regimes of oppression.
As I conducted my doctoral research, the first theories specific to modern social movements were beginning to emerge. In 1977 John McCarthy and Mayer Zald developed the highly influential resource mobilization theory. It argued that the mobilization of money, organization and leadership were more important than the existence of grievances in launching and sustaining movements—and marginalized peoples depended on the largesse of more affluent groups to provide these resources. In this view, the CRM was led by movement “entrepreneurs” and funded by Northern white liberals and sympathizers.
At roughly the same time, William Gamson, Charles Tilly and my graduate school classmate Doug McAdam developed political process theory. It argues that social movements are struggles for power—the power to change oppressive social conditions. Because marginalized groups cannot effectively access normal political processes such as elections, lobbying or courts, they must employ “unruly” tactics to realize their interests. As such, movements are insurgencies that engage in conflict with the authorities to pursue social change; effective organization and innovative strategy to outmaneuver repression are key to success. The theory also argues that external windows of opportunity, such as the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools, must open for movements to succeed because they are too weak on their own.
Thus, both theories see external factors, such as well-heeled sympathizers and political opportunities, as crucial to the success of movements. My immersive interviews with CRM leaders brought me to a different view, which I conceptualized as the indigenous perspective theory. It argues that the agency of movements emanates from within oppressed communities—from their institutions, culture and creativity. Outside factors such as court rulings are important, but they are usually set in motion and implemented by the community’s actions. Movements are generated by grassroots organizers and leaders—the CRM had thousands of them in multiple centers dispersed across the South—and are products of meticulous planning and strategizing. Those who participate in them are not isolated individuals; they are embedded in social networks such as church, student or friendship circles.
Resources matter, but they come largely from within the community, at least in the early stages of a movement. Money sustains activities and protesters through prolonged repression. Secure spaces are needed where they can meet and strategize; also essential are cultural resources that can inspire heroic self-sacrifice. When facing police armed with batons and attack dogs, for example, the protesters would utter prayers or sing songs that had emerged from the struggle against slavery, bolstering courage and maintaining discipline.
The indigenous perspective theory also frames social movements as struggles for power, which movements gain by preventing power holders from conducting economic, political and social business as usual. Tactics of disruption may range from nonviolent measures such as strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, marches and courting mass arrest to more destructive ones, including looting, urban rebellions and violence. Whichever tactics are employed, the ultimate goal is to disrupt the society sufficiently that power holders capitulate to the movement’s demands in exchange for restoration of social order.
Decades later cultural sociologists, including Jeff Goodwin, James Jasper and Francesca Polletta, challenged the earlier theories of resource mobilization and political process for ignoring culture and emotions. They pointed out that for movements to develop, a people must first see themselves as being oppressed. This awareness is far from automatic: many of those subjected to perpetual subordination come to believe their situation is natural and inevitable. This mindset precludes protest. “Too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands,” King remarked. “They end up sleeping through a revolution.” But such outlooks can be changed by organizers who make the people aware of their oppression (by informing them of their legal rights, for example, or reminding them of a time when their ancestors were free) and help them develop cultures of resistance.
Collective behavior theorists were right that emotions matter—but they had the wrong end of the stick. Injustice generates anger and righteous indignation, which organizers can summon in strategizing to address the pains of oppression. Love and empathy can be evoked to build solidarity and trust among protesters. Far from being irrational distractions, emotions, along with transformed mental attitudes, are critical to achieving social change.
On April 4, 1968, I was having “lunch” at 7 P.M. at a Chicago tavern with my colleagues—we worked the night shift at a factory that manufactured farming equipment—when the coverage was interrupted to announce that King had been assassinated. At the time, I was attracted by the Black Panthers and often discussed with friends about whether King’s nonviolent methods were still relevant. But we revered him nonetheless, and the murder shocked us. When we returned to the factory, our white foremen sensed our anger and said we could go home. Riots and looting were already spreading across the U.S.
The assassination dealt a powerful blow to the CRM. It revived a longstanding debate within the Black community about the efficacy of nonviolence. If the apostle of peace could so easily be felled, how could nonviolence work? But it was just as easy to murder the advocates of self-defense and revolution. A year later the police entered a Chicago apartment at 4:30 A.M. and assassinated two leaders of the Black Panther party.
A more pertinent lesson was that overreliance on one or more charismatic leaders made a movement vulnerable to decapitation. Similar assaults on leaders of social movements and centralized command structures around the world have convinced the organizers of more recent movements, such as the Occupy movement against economic inequality and BLM, to eschew centralized governance structures for loose, decentralized ones.
The triggers for both the CRM and BLM were the murders of Black people, but the rage that burst forth in sustained protest stemmed from far deeper, systemic injuries. For the CRM, the wound was racial oppression based on Jim Crow; for BLM, it is the devaluation of Black lives in all domains of American life. As scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and others point out, when BLM was emerging, over a million Black people were behind bars, being incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. Black people have died at nearly three times the rate of whites during the COVID-19 pandemic, laying bare glaring disparities in health and other circumstances. And decades of austerity politics have exacerbated the already enormous wealth gap: the current net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times that of a Black family. For such reasons, BLM demands go far beyond the proximate one that the murders stop.
The first uprisings to invoke the BLM slogan arose in the summer of 2014, following the suffocation death of Eric Garner in July—held in a police chokehold in New York City as he gasped, “I can’t breathe”—and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August. Tens of thousands of people protested on the streets for weeks, meeting with a militarized response that included tanks, rubber bullets and tear gas. But the killings of Black adults and children continued unabated—and with each atrocity the movement swelled. The last straw was the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minn., which provoked mass demonstrations in every U.S. state and in scores of countries. Millions of Americans had lost their jobs during the pandemic; they had not only the rage but also the time to express it.
By fomenting disruptions across the globe, BLM has turned racial injustice into an issue that can no longer be ignored. Modern technology facilitated its reach and speed. Gone are the days of mimeographs, which Robinson and her colleagues used to spread news of Parks’s arrest. Bystanders now document assaults on cell phones and share news and outrage worldwide almost instantaneously. Social media helps movements to mobilize people and produce international surges of protests at lighting speed.
The participants in BLM are also wonderfully diverse. Most of the local CRM centers were headed by Black men. But Bayard Rustin, the movement’s most brilliant tactician, was kept in the background for fear that his homosexuality would be used to discredit its efforts. In contrast, Garza, Cullors and Tometi are all Black women, and two are queer. “Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements,” the mission statement of their organization, the Black Lives Matter Global Network, announces. Many white people and members of other minority groups have joined the movement, augmenting its strength.
Another key difference is centralization. Whereas the CRM was deeply embedded in Black communities and equipped with strong leaders, BLM is a loose collection of far-flung organizations. The most influential of these is the BLM network itself, with more than 30 chapters spread across the U.S., each of which organizes its own actions. The movement is thus decentralized, democratic and apparently leaderless. It is a virtual “collective of liberators” who build local movements while simultaneously being part of a worldwide force that seeks to overthrow race-based police brutality and hierarchies of racial inequality and to achieve the total liberation of Black people.
What the Future Holds
Because societies are dynamic, no theory developed to explain a movement in a certain era can fully describe another one. The frameworks developed in the late 20th century remain relevant for the 21st, however. Modern movements are also struggles for power. They, too, must tackle the challenges of mobilizing resources, organizing mass participation, raising consciousness, dealing with repression and perfecting strategies of social disruption.
BLM faces many questions and obstacles. The CRM depended on tight-knit local communities with strong leaders, meeting in churches and other safe spaces to organize and strategize and to build solidarity and discipline. Can a decentralized movement produce the necessary solidarity as protesters face brutal repression? Will their porous Internet-based organizational structures provide secure spaces where tactics and strategies can be debated and selected? Can they maintain discipline? If protesters are not executing a planned tactic in a coordinated and disciplined manner, can they succeed? How can a movement correct a course of action that proves faulty?
Meanwhile the forces of repression are advancing. Technology benefits not only the campaigners but also their adversaries. Means of surveillance are now far more sophisticated than the wiretaps the FBI used to spy on King. Agents provocateur can turn peaceful protests into violent ones, providing the authorities with an excuse for even greater repression. How can a decentralized movement that welcomes strangers guard against such subversions?
Wherever injustice exists, struggles will arise to abolish it. Communities will continue to organize these weapons of the oppressed and will become more effective freedom fighters through trial and error. Scholars face the challenge of keeping pace with these movements as they develop. But they must do more: they need to run faster, to illuminate the paths that movements should traverse in their journeys to liberate humanity.
Tomorrow, history and the hopes of the Arab world will hang on the endurance and independence of six engines charged with steering an SUV-sized spacecraft into orbit around Mars.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched that spacecraft, dubbed Hope, in July 2020, lofting its first interplanetary mission a little more than a decade after becoming a spacefaring nation at all. Now, after a smooth seven-month cruise, the UAE is preparing for Hope’s arrival at the Red Planet on Feb. 9. It’s a complex maneuver that requires the spacecraft to complete an intense engine burn with no support from the mission’s engineers, who are left anxiously awaiting bulletins that the solar system’s geometry delays by 10 minutes.
“What that means is 27 minutes of burning fuel, of using our thrusters, of the spacecraft undergoing one of the toughest challenges that it’s been designed for,” Sarah Al Amiri, chairperson of the UAE Space Agency, said during a virtual event hosted on Feb. 1 by the U.S.-UAE Business Council, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.
Formally called Mars Orbit Insertion, tomorrow’s milestone will allow the Hope team to turn its focus to science while making the UAE the fifth entity to orbit the Red Planet. (NASA, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and India have preceded it; China will attempt to join the exclusive club just a day later with its Tianwen-1 mission.)
“The UAE has led the Arab world to new frontiers in deep space for the first time in history,” Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, said in a statement. “Our space mission carries a message of hope and confidence in Arab youth.”
Hope is a mission for those youth, who demographically dominate in the UAE and the Middle East, Al Amiri has emphasized throughout the spacecraft’s journey. “Youth were being used and radicalized within the region,” she said. “People just wanted opportunities and wanted to be able to apply themselves positively for growth.”
Space exploration made an appealing rallying cry. “This is what space is all about; it takes out of it the context of nationality background,” Al Amiri said. “You become a species more than anything else.”
And although Hope is a science mission, the data it will gather has never been the UAE’s top priority. The country, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, built its economy on oil. But oil won’t last, and the longer it does, the more havoc the climate crisis will wreak on the hot and arid UAE.
The nation’s leaders did the math, eyed its then-skimpy science and technology sectors, and looked to the heavens. Mars sparkled: At the Red Planet, UAE leaders saw an opportunity to inspire its citizens and invest in technical skills that would stretch far beyond oil.
Mars also has special relevance in an era of climate change, Al Amiri noted at the virtual event. “Mars makes more sense to explore and to understand, especially the more we want to understand climate change, the more we want to understand how other planets in our solar system evolve, especially those that look like us,” she said. “The only place that we’re able to look at [as], perhaps, in some form, a future of Earth, is our next-door neighbor.”
Although coronavirus case counts in the UAE have only risen since Hope’s launch, the pandemic is no argument to back away from space exploration, Al Amiri said. Mission personnel who designed the spacecraft with international collaborators in part over Zoom long before the pandemic began were ready for some of the challenges of remote work.
“2020 has given us a heightened, even, sense of awareness of what needs to happen,” she said. “As much as the time has been challenging … it has taught us as a nation how to be more resilient.”
Alas, resilience alone won’t see Hope through its crucial maneuver tomorrow; the mission will need some good fortune as well. Hope’s engineers have practiced the maneuver as much as they can, on Earth and during the spacecraft’s cruise, Al Amiri said, but nothing can match the reality of Mars orbit insertion.
Half of Mars missions fail, after all, many of them here. “We knew the stakes entering into this; we knew it from the very first day we started working on this program,” Al Amiri said at a separate preview event hosted on Jan. 28 by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, a leading partner on the mission. “It’s not something that we’ve shied away from.”
To succeed, Hope’s six engines must burn half the spacecraft’s fuel in 27 minutes to slow the probe from 75,000 mph to 11,000 mph (121,000 kph to 18,000 kph). Mission personnel can’t do anything during the maneuver but watch.
If something goes wrong, at best, Hope will stumble onto a new and fruitless path around the sun. And back on Earth? “We continue on,” Al Amiri said of the UAE’s space agency, which is already planning a technology mission to the moon and putting a century-long Mars strategy in place.
“It’s not a one-off program; it is not something that you quit after,” she said. “We’ve had a taste of planetary exploration, and I think we will continue delving in for more.”
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In February 2016 Dutee Chand became the best woman sprinter in India. The record she set on an indoor track in Qatar during a qualifying heat stands as the fastest time an Indian woman has ever achieved in the 60-meter race, and she soon became the first Indian woman in decades to race the 100 meters at the Olympics. Just a year earlier, however, Chand had faced the possibility of never again running competitively.
Locking eyes with a bee is an opportunity offered only by photography. And while this close-up is strangely humanizing (who knew tilted antennae could look like a raised eyebrow?), it has a purpose, too. Scientists can determine whether a bee sees well in the dark by examining the insect’s portrait.
Last year a team of Adelaide, Australia–based researchers identified the first known Australian bees that collect nectar and pollen at twilight. The scientists witnessed the species pictured here and three others foraging after sunset. When this species and two of the same genus were seen, the light was so low, “the host plant could only be perceived as a silhouette,” they wrote in a paper about their finding.
When the team captured the bees and brought them back to the lab, it found that photography could identify eye characteristics that were crucial for night vision. For example, the researchers examined the insects’ eye-to-head size ratios and found they had more face space dedicated to sight, which seemed likely to make them see better in low-light conditions. Similar photo shoots with other Australian bees could identify more yet unknown nighttime gatherers—information that could be important for protecting ecosystems as they operate through the night.
p style=”text-align: center”>Science in Images
It may seem extraordinary that one person’s life, and, as a consequence, so many other peoples’ lives, can be so radically reshaped by a moment’s irritation. But, with Paul Crutzen, one of the greatest scientists of his time—of all time—who passed away on the 28th of January after long illness, the extraordinary had come to be habitual. Already famous for revealing the likely outcome of a nuclear winter, and a Nobel laureate for his part in deciphering the mechanisms of atmospheric ozone loss, his sudden realization that humanity had very recently stumbled into a new geological epoch of its own making, the Anthropocene, created reverberations that continue to shake not only the world of science but that of all of scholarship, now spilling into political and economic discourse worldwide.
This starburst of a scientific career could not have been predicted. As a child in wartime Holland, Crutzen survived the infamous “Hunger Winter,” in which thousands died, including some of his school friends. After the war, he continued his studies, briefly became a civil engineer, underwent military service, and met and married a Finnish girl, Terttu—a happy choice, for she was to be a mainstay thoughout his life. The chance for the academic career that he had always longed for came via a job as a computer programmer at Stockholm University’s Meteorology Institute, and that led eventually to a Ph.D., for which he chose the then-obscure topic of stratospheric ozone and had to reinvent himself as a chemist.
Ozone was soon to be a hot topic, as threats to the Earth’s protective ozone layer became apparent, Firstly, concerns about the effects of atmospheric nitrogen oxides (NOx) on ozone (which he initially studied as a postdoctoral fellow at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University) through supersonic stratospheric flights crystallized an understanding that anthropogenic activities could seriously effect natural processes, the hallmark of his future career.
Following a move to Boulder, Colo., to work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Center for Atmospheric Research (at which he would eventually become a director) his attention turned to the supposedly “‘inert” chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as refrigerants and in insulation. Crutzen, soon to be based mainly at the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, Germany, as director of the Atmospheric Chemistry Department, was in the thick of the work, both in deciphering the chemical processes of ozone destruction, for which he shared a Nobel Prize in 1995 with Mario Molina and F. Sherry Rowland, and in the (largely successful) global efforts via the Montreal Protocol to ban CFC use.
His readiness to face large, difficult issues head-on were also evident when, in the 1980s, with John Birks, he theorized the effects of a nuclear war, suggesting that soot and smoke injected into the stratosphere would result in winterlike conditions, with catastrophic impacts on agriculture and loss of life.
The beginning of his foray into redefining Earth’s geological history is already legendary. At a meeting in 2000 of the Scientific Committee of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) in Cuernevaca, Mexico, at which one of us (WS) was present, Crutzen was listening, with increasing exasperation, to evidence of how global environmental parameters were dramatically changing in recent decades, in what was repeatedly referred to as the late Holocene Epoch (this being in formal geology the 11,700 years since the end of the last Ice Age). His exasperation spilled over into an interjection that we were no longer in the Holocene but in … (pausing to try to think of the appropriate word) … the Anthropocene.
The on-the-spot improvisation caught the attention of the audience, crystallizing the growing realization that the Earth system had recently begun to change at a much more dramatic rate and scale than through many previous millennia of slowly growing human occupation of the planet. Crutzen, characteristically, developed his idea both energetically and generously. He discovered that the word “Anthropocene” had been independently invented a few years previously by Eugene Stoermer, a U.S.-based freshwater ecologist, who used it in discussions with his students and colleagues but not in the sense that Crutzen proposed. Nevertheless, Crutzen invited Stoermer to co-publish the term and concept, which they did the same year (although they never met).
From this beginning, the Anthropocene rapidly evolved. The IGBP/Earth system science community quickly adopted it as a central framing concept for much of their work, using the term as a de facto geological epoch succeeding the Holocene, with little understanding of the lengthy and elaborate protocols needed to formally change any part of the geologic time scale. A few years later, geologists (including two of us, JZ and CW), becoming aware of the expanding use of the term, began formally analyzing the term to see whether it really could satisfy all the geological protocols.
The process continues, with the formal outcome uncertain (the geologic time scale is designed to resist change) but it is already clear that Crutzen’s intuition was correct. The Anthropocene is real.
Over the last century, the Earth has acquired a striking and indelible geological record of human-driven perturbation, and been sharply set on a new trajectory, towards a warmer, more biologically impoverished and polluted state—one that will be more difficult for humanity to thrive in. This sobering realization quickly spread from the sciences to the humanities, provoking reimagination of their disciplines to incorporate the Earth no longer as a passive and stable backcloth for the human adventure, but as an active, hyperresponsive and dangerous actor.
Crutzen was indispensable to this scientific revolution (for such it is). The concept of a planet that is human-dominated on a geological scale had intermittently been mooted for decades, even centuries, but never been taken seriously, and certainly not by the geologists. He was, simply, the right person (of immense and deserved authority) making a conceptual leap at the right time (when sufficient evidence had built up) and in the right company (as a central figure in the highly active and international community studying contemporary global change). Moreover, this community had come to consider our planet holistically, as an integrated Earth system. His concerns over the growing realities of global warming led to a controversial foray into theoretical geoengineering, proposing injection of sulfur gases into the atmosphere to reduce insolation.
Crutzen continued to take a close interest in the Anthropocene over the following years, even as his health declined. For his 80th birthday celebratory symposium at the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, it was the Anthropocene he proposed as the theme. When Anthropocene Working Group members came for a meeting to Mainz in 2018, Crutzen, by now faring very poorly and frail, had not been to the office for three weeks—yet he turned up for two long days of detailed evidence and disputation.
He seemed not in the least possessive about his brainchild, but was unfailingly supportive and encouraging about the work being done, even when the procedural nitpicking of geological timescale work went against the grain of his own quickness and clarity. Not all great scientists are likable and good company—Crutzen was. He will be terribly missed as a person and a profoundly important presence in science, even as the revolution that he started continues.
In this tribute, we represent the Anthropocene Working Group, of which Paul Crutzen was also a member.