“By now, I’ve lost any hope of educating my senior colleagues,” I joked after a lengthy debate about the educational implications of COVID-19 at a recent online faculty meeting. “Oh, stop it,” others protested. And in fact, the truth is that I do have hope. It rests squarely on the shoulders of the younger generation, which lacks a baggage of prejudice, scars from past battles or an entrenched agenda. Our junior colleagues are unbiased enough to carry the torch of innovation, they are energetic and fearless enough to shape reality as if it was clay, and they are innocent enough to believe that the future can be better than the past.
Hiring freezes in universities, triggered by COVID-19 budget squeezes, endanger this future. The reduction in job opportunities threatens the careers of postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty. Some faculty searches that were supposed to conclude in March 2020 were cancelled without offers, and new searches have not been scheduled as of yet.
If the current financial austerity persists for a few more years, it may force a cohort of early-career scientists to leave academia. This would inflict an irreversible blow to science. The lesson learned after many scientists left the Soviet Union during glasnost was that it is difficult to resurrect an academic system following an abrupt dilution of its talent pool.
In the coming year, funding agencies like NSF, NASA, DOE or private foundations must extend emergency support to junior researchers who are in need of another year or two of bridge funding. This will constitute a “bridge over troubled water” to our future in science and technology.
But the challenge to academia extends beyond postgraduate jobs to pregraduate education. Will the education system bounce back to in-person classes after a hoped-for vaccine suppresses the pandemic, or will students prefer to attend online classes from a location of their choice at a lower cost? The answer will depend on the supply-and-demand economics of online education in the coming years.
Fundamentally, the underlying question is whether learning is mostly about a transfer of information or about personal and social interactions as well. One could argue both ways, and a compromise might emerge in which the social interactions take place at a different location than the source of the online classes. Already now, many students have rented shared apartments in their favorite location, be it on the beaches of Hawaii or the suburbs of their favorite city, while attending college online. Beyond this academic year, online teaching will advance partnerships between universities and internet companies to expand enrollment dramatically by offering a more affordable hybrid of online and offline degrees.
COVID-19 forced a transition to enhanced household duties, including childcare and eldercare, which took an inescapable toll on the research productivity of many scientists. The impact was particularly acute for laboratory research in which physical presence is essential. To some, the confinement at home increased mental health needs. To many others, the pandemic enhanced financial inequalities and threatened gender equity with women bearing a greater burden of the extra workload in many homes. All of these factors must be addressed by academic planning committees that will adjust the promotion and tenure policies of colleges in order to ensure that diversity and equity will endure.
But the past months have also offered a menu of minor benefits from online communications. For example, online conferences save on travel time and expenses. To engage the audience, the format of online conferences is shifting to debates and dialogues, with recorded lecture videos serving the supporting role of background materials. Long before Zoom, question and answer sessions were advocated by the wise philosopher Socrates as the best method for learning and for stimulating critical thinking.
In addition to the benefits for conferences, boring administrative meetings are no longer a waste of time, since passive participants can quietly pursue other activities on their computers while staying in listening mode. More generally, the lack of interruptions by unanticipated visitors to my work space has allowed me, for the first time, to reach a state of internal tranquility, ataraxia, recommended more than two millennia ago by the ancient Greek philosophers Pyrrho and Epicurus. With this aim in mind, I advocated social distancing long before it became trendy.
One way or another, academic life is likely to be forever changed. The damage caused by COVID-19 can be viewed optimistically as a fertile ground for establishing a better reality. A seismic change of this magnitude offers an opportunity to reboot the education system, aligning it better with our guiding principles and discarding its administrative inefficiencies. Doing so will require the drive and ideas of our younger colleagues, who will also be the primary bearers of the implications. Let’s make sure that they survive the current financial storm and construct a better version of academia, following the fine tradition of improvements since the initial version of the Platonic Academy.
The confidence people place in science is frequently based not on what it really is, but on what people would like it to be. When I asked students at the beginning of the year how they would define science, many of them replied that it is an objective way of discovering certainties about the world. But science cannot provide certainties. For example, a majority of Americans trust science as long as it does not challenge their existing beliefs. To the question “When science disagrees with the teachings of your religion, which one do you believe?,” 58 percent of North Americans favor religion; 33 percent science; and 6 percent say “it depends.”
But doubt in science is a feature, not a bug. Indeed, the paradox is that science, when properly functioning, questions accepted facts and yields both new knowledge and new questions—not certainty. Doubt does not create trust, nor does it help public understanding. So why should people trust a process that seems to require a troublesome state of uncertainty without always providing solid solutions?
As a historian of science, I would argue that it’s the responsibility of scientists and historians of science to show that the real power of science lies precisely in what is often perceived as its weakness: its drive to question and challenge a hypothesis. Indeed, the scientific approach requires changing our understanding of the natural world whenever new evidence emerges from either experimentation or observation. Scientific findings are hypotheses that encompass the state of knowledge at a given moment. In the long run, many of are challenged and even overturned. Doubt might be troubling, but it impels us towards a better understanding; certainties, as reassuring as they may seem, in fact undermine the scientific process.
Scientists understand this, but in the dynamic between the public and science, there are two significant pitfalls.
The first is a form of blind scientism—that is, a belief in the capacity of science to solve all problems. The popular narrative of science is linear, embodied by heroic researchers who work selflessly for the good of humanity. Indeed, some scientists promote this attractive public image of their work. But this narrative ignores the ubiquity of controversy, conflict and error at the very heart of the scientific world. Such an idealized representation tends to turn science into an unquestionable set of beliefs. In fact, however, the power of science lies precisely in its capacity to generate discussion and even discord.
The second pitfall is a form of relativism borne out of a lack of confidence in the very existence of truth. It develops when science is divorced from method and viewed as just another claim in the marketplace of ideas. A Pew Research study shows that 35 percent of Americans think the scientific method can be used to produce “any result a researcher wants.” Once the scientific approach has been delegitimized, then all hypotheses, including the most outlandish and irrational ones, can be taken as credible. So, hidden in this conceit of a democratic “marketplace of ideas” is a particularly virulent form of relativism that approaches nihilism.
Such examples of relativism about issues including climate change and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic—have significantly contributed to the proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories. The diffusion of fake news is facilitated by the difficulty of a large majority of Americans in distinguishing between fact and opinion. Factual news can be proved or disproved by objective evidence, while opinion is an expression of the beliefs and values of the speaker.
In an effort to combat misinformation, scientists may overcompensate by accelerating their research, or publicizing their findings prematurely. This can spur dialogue about science but, with serious side effects. Some scientists have yielded to public pressure by rushing to provide theories about and potential cures for COVID-19. In an August article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, Doroshow, et al. observe that “Although this boom has already begun to transform our response to the pandemic for the better, medical and scientific responses to past crises suggest that urgency may also result in compromised research quality and ethics, which may in turn jeopardize public faith in government and science, waste precious resources, and lead to the loss of human life.”
The scientific process itself has been called into question during the pandemic in cases where the very institutions and peer review process that were supposed to check scientific results failed to detect scams. In the words of editor Richard Horton, a study on hydroxychloroquine first published by The Lancet and then retracted within weeks, was a “monumental fraud”.
So how to regain public trust in science when the public is looking for certainties and when those who are supposed to impersonate doubt seem to be fickle or dogmatic?
A more realistic understanding of how science works can contribute to a better comprehension of the decisive role of doubt and skepticism in the scientific process. Indeed, science is not a linear path leading from one success to another, but rather a constant reevaluation of hypotheses. Failures are part of the scientific process and should be taught along with successes.
It is, therefore, not so much the content of scientific discoveries that should be highlighted, but the understanding of the scientific process itself that must be enhanced. No one expects the public at large to fully understand all discoveries or to be able to arbitrate between possible treatments. But what must be reaffirmed is that in science, doubt is not a vulnerability but a strength. The scientific approach often leads to dead ends, but sometimes it leads to fundamental discoveries that no other approach has ever achieved.
Author’s note: I wish to thank Janet Browne, André Grjebine, Rebecca Lemov for their constant support and critique, Michael Connolly, Thomas Grjebine, David Jones, Juan Palacios, Sara Press, Yvan Prkachin and Sylvia Ullmo for their insightful comments and suggestions.
Physicists are hatching a plan to give a popular but elusive dark-matter candidate a last chance to reveal itself. For decades, physicists have hypothesized that weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) are the strongest candidate for dark matter — the mysterious substance that makes up 85% of the Universe’s mass. But several experiments have failed to find evidence for WIMPs, meaning that, if they exist, their properties are unlike those originally predicted. Now, researchers are pushing to build a final generation of supersensitive detectors — or one ‘ultimate’ detector — that will leave the particles no place to hide.
“The WIMP hypothesis will face its real reckoning after these next-generation detectors run,” says Mariangela Lisanti, a physicist at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Physicists have long predicted that an invisible substance, which has mass but doesn’t interact with light, permeates the Universe. The gravitational effects of dark matter would explain why rotating galaxies don’t tear themselves apart, and the uneven pattern seen in the microwave ‘afterglow’ of the early Universe. WIMPs became a favourite candidate for the dark matter in the 1980s. They are typically predicted to be 1–1,000 times heavier than protons and to interact with matter only feebly — through the weak nuclear force, which is responsible for radioactive decay, or something even weaker.
Over the coming months, operations will begin at three existing underground detectors — in the United States, Italy and China — that search for dark-matter particles by looking for interactions in supercooled vats of xenon. Using a method honed over more than a decade, these detectors will watch for telltale flashes of light when the nuclei recoil from their interaction with dark-matter particles.
Physicists hope that these experiments — or rival WIMP detectors that use materials such as germanium and argon — will make the first direct detection of dark matter. But if this doesn’t happen, xenon researchers are already designing their ultimate WIMP detectors. These experiments would probably be the last generation of their kind because they would be so sensitive that they would reach the ‘neutrino floor’ — a natural limit beyond which dark matter would interact so little with xenon nuclei that its detection would be clouded by neutrinos, which barely interact with matter but rain down on Earth in their trillions every second. “It would be sort of crazy not to cover this gap,” says Laura Baudis, a physicist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “Future generations may ask us, why didn’t you do this?”
The most advanced of these efforts is a planned experiment called DARWIN. The detector, estimated to cost between €100-million (US$116-million) and €150 million, is being developed by the international XENON collaboration, which runs one of the 3 experiments starting up this year — a 6-tonne detector called XENONnT at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory near Rome. DARWIN would contain almost ten times this volume of xenon. Members of the collaboration have grants from several funding agencies to develop detector technology, including precise detection techniques that will work over DARWIN’s much larger scales, says Baudis, a leading member of XENON and co-spokesperson for DARWIN.
The project is also on Switzerland’s national road map for future scientific infrastructure, and Germany’s research ministry has issued funding calls specifically for DARWIN-related research; these steps suggest that the nations are likely to contribute further cash in the future. And although DARWIN does not yet formally have a home, it could end up at Gran Sasso. In April, the laboratory formally invited the collaboration to submit a conceptual design report by the end of 2021. “It tells us very clearly that the lab is very interested in hosting such an experiment,” says co-spokesperson Marc Schumann, a physicist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. The team hopes to be taking data by 2026.
Although DARWIN is currently led by the XENON collaboration, Baudis is hopeful that Chinese colleagues, who this year are starting up an experiment called PandaX-4t, or the team involved in the US-based xenon experiment called Lux-Zeppelin, might join them in building a single ‘ultimate’ detector. These teams have also considered building experiments that would take them to the neutrino floor, but “the goal is, of course, to have one large global xenon-based dark-matter experiment”, says Baudis.
Physicists might have no choice but to club together because of the sheer quantity of xenon needed. The noble gas is difficult to obtain in large quantities owing to the energy-intensive process needed to extract it from the air and because of competing demand from electronics, lighting and space industries. One kilogram can cost more than US$2,500. Darwin’s 50 tonnes would be close to the world’s annual production of around 70 tonnes, meaning that — even if all 3 existing detectors combine their 25 tonnes — a future experiment would need to buy the rest in batches over several years. “We have to plan very carefully for it already now,” says Baudis.
Researchers behind similar experiments that use argon to look for dark matter also hope to build a detector to reach the neutrino floor. A 300-tonne experiment known as ARGO would likely begin operations around 2029 and could confirm any signal seen by DARWIN.
WIMPS have been the focus of dozens of experiments because there is a strong theoretical case for their existence. They not only explain why galaxies seem to move as they do, but their existence also fits with theories in particle physics. A group of theories known as supersymmetry, devised in the 1970s to fill holes in physicists’ standard model of fundamental particles and their interactions, predict a WIMP-like particle. And when particle physicists model the early Universe, they find that particles with WIMP-like properties would survive the hot soup of interactions in just enough numbers to match the dark-matter abundance observed today.
But null results — from direct dark-matter detectors and from particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider — mean that, if WIMPs exist, either the likelihood that they interact with matter or their mass must be at the lowest end of initial predictions. The failure to detect WIMPs has caused the physics community to “pause and reflect” on their status, says Tien-Tien Yu, a physicist at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Many in the physics community, including Yu, are now searching for other dark-matter candidates, including through smaller, cheaper experiments.
Still, WIMPs remain theoretically attractive enough to continue the decades-long hunt, says Yu. And the DARWIN team emphasizes that its supersensitive detector would have myriad uses — including addressing the pressing questions in neutrino physics, says Baudis. One mystery that DARWIN could help to solve is whether neutrinos are also their own antiparticle.
Whether a single experiment or many, “I would bet quite some money that a DARWIN-like detector gets built,” says Schumann.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on October 2 2020.
Standing in my office 25 years ago was an unknown, newly minted astronomer with a half-smile on her face. She had come with an outrageous request—really a demand—that my team modify our exhaustively tested software to make one of our most important and in-demand scientific instruments do something it had never been designed for, and risk breaking it. All to carry out an experiment that was basically a waste of time and couldn’t be done—to prove that a massive black hole lurked at the center of our Milky Way.
My initial “no way” (perhaps I used a stronger expression) gradually gave way in the face of her cheerful but unwavering determination. It was my first encounter with a force of nature, Andrea Ghez, one of three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, for her work on providing the conclusive experimental evidence of a supermassive black hole with the mass of four million suns residing at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
That determination and the willingness to take calculated risks has always characterized Andrea. For 25 years she has focused almost exclusively on Sagittarius A*—the name of our own local supermassive black hole. It is remarkable that an entire field of study has grown up in the intervening quarter century, of searching for and finding evidence of these monsters thought to lie at the heart of every large galaxy. And Andrea is without question one of the great pioneers in this search.
Andrea’s co-prizewinner Reinhard Genzel has been involved in the same research from the outset—and it is the work of these two teams, each led by a formidable intellect and using two different observatories in two different hemispheres that has brought astronomy to this remarkable result—the confirmation of another of the predictions of Einstein’s more than century-old theory of general relativity.
As in so many fields of science, the competition has been intense, sometimes brutal, but out of this has been forged an unshakable result that has been tested and retested over a quarter century. And at the heart of the competition, two colleagues, great astronomers each, whose work has been as much defined by the science as by the availability of telescopes and instrumentation almost perfectly suited to this exact scientific endeavor.
Andrea did her work at the W.M. Keck Observatory’s twin telescopes on Maunakea, Hawai’i, in the calm and clear air almost 14,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. She started using the very first instrument commissioned on Keck Observatory’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRC), now gracing the lobby at our headquarters. NIRC was never designed to do what Andrea needed—an ultrafast readout of images and then a restacking of the result to remove the effects of the atmosphere’s turbulence. But she was not to be denied—and we made the changes. And it worked! It was supremely hard and time-consuming to make sense of the data, but Andrea persisted.
Out of that effort came the first evidence—not just hints—of stars orbiting the black hole. It was a fantastic result, but a long way from full confirmation. At around that time, a new technology, adaptive optics (AO), was being installed on telescopes worldwide. Keck Observatory was the first of the most powerful observatories to be so equipped—and the results were electrifying. No surprise: Andrea immediately switched to using AO for her work. She always pushed for more performance and more capability—and the scientists and engineers at Keck Observatory and in our community of instrument builders responded. This push for more and more, and the scientific rewards that followed, is what helped make AO the immensely powerful tool it is today.
Andrea is fond of pointing out that one of the reasons for her success has been this tight and rapid loop between the needs of the astronomers and the engineers who respond to the challenge. In a way reminiscent of the tight synergy between mathematics and physics, science questions beget new technology and new technology begets new science. Andrea has always been in the forefront of this virtuous cycle, an enthusiastic proponent of “we can do more.”
Andrea is a great scientist; not only does she do the science, she molds events to make it possible. In addition to doing research, she has created the UCLA Galactic Center Group to coordinate research and technical developments. And she imbued a cohort of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with her passion and thrill of the chase. It is no exaggeration to say that Andrea has personally inspired aspiring scientists everywhere, and she serves as a role model for what ability, grit and commitment can accomplish.
Today, Andrea sits at the pinnacle of scientific recognition for her achievements. But as she would be the very first to acknowledge, this triumph represents the combined efforts of so many. From the theoretical predictions of the peerless Albert Einstein, through those who had the vision to build the amazingly complex machines we call simply “telescopes,” to the siting at the best locations on Earth for this research, to those who conceive of and build the instrumentation and run the operations, to the science teams that do the research—all of it essential, the product of the work of thousands.
But in the end, one person had the idea for the research. One person had the chutzpah to propose it and one person had the determination, tenacity and focus to make it happen, undeterred by all who said it was a waste of time. That person is my friend and longtime colleague, the one who refused to take “no” for an answer, and who probably doesn’t even have it in her vocabulary: Andrea Ghez, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics.
As the carnage of the Eastern Front raged around him, a German lieutenant in World War I digested Albert Einstein’s new theory. Less than two months after Einstein published his general theory of relativity, Karl Schwarzschild, who had enlisted despite being older than 40 and a physicist, found a way to use it to describe the spacetime of a spherical, nonrotating mass such as a stationary star or planet. Hidden inside Schwarzschild’s work was an implication that hinted at the ultimate warpers of spacetime: black holes. He was just 42 when he died months later, in May 1916. But the quest Schwarzchild started has continued for a century, eventually leading to this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.
The 2020 prize was awarded to mathematical physicist Roger Penrose for his “discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity” and to astrophysicists Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy.” It is the first Nobel given specifically for black holes—an acknowledgement of their unmistakable existence (notwithstanding the hedging in the language of the second half of the award). “Nowadays we take these things for granted,” says Leo Stein, a physicist at the University of Mississippi. “We’ve come so far that, at least within our astrophysical community, we think, ‘Of course there are black holes.’”
But it was not always so. For decades the concept of black holes was no more than a mathematical aberration. In the years following 1916, Schwarzschild’s solution caused interest and some consternation among mathematicians and physicists. His work predicted a “Schwarzschild radius”—a radius that denotes how compact an object would need to be to prevent light from escaping its gravitational pull. The sun, for example, has a real radius of nearly 700,000 kilometers, but its Schwarzschild radius is only three kilometers.
Spacetime curves by an amount relative to an object’s Schwarzschild radius divided by its actual radius. The closer the two values are, the more spacetime bends. So what happens when the object’s radius is equal to its Schwarzschild radius? And what happens if an object’s radius is zero? The answers to those questions were known as singularities—undefined solutions equivalent to dividing by zero on a calculator. At a singularity, spacetime seems to bend to a breaking point.
In the next few decades, physicists made some progress, but the search was mostly a mathematical diversion with no ties to the real world. The exotic—and, at the time, entirely theoretical—objects suggested by Schwarzschild’s work could be as heavy as the sun but smaller than Central Park or, stranger yet, contain a star’s mass within a radius of zero. “People thought, ‘Okay, this is just fanciful. We’re completely outside of the realm of where our physical theory should apply,’” says Frans Pretorius, a physicist at Princeton University.
In the 1960s Schwarzschild’s solutions started to seem more relevant. Astronomers began to observe extreme phenomena, such as distant galaxies spewing jets of particles at energies and amounts impossible for a normal star (dubbed “quasars”—short for “quasi-stellar objects”—these energetic eruptions were eventually traced to feasting supermassive black holes). At the same time, theorists began to model the dynamics of ultracompact cosmic bodies, finding clever ways to avoid the pitfalls associated with singularities. Penrose, then a young mathematician with a keen interest in astrophysics, was in an optimal position to help scientists stymied by the math.
“[Physicists] would argue. They would get answers that didn’t agree with each other,” says Daniel Kennefick, an astrophysicist and historian of science at the University of Arkansas. “It turned out the reason was that they didn’t really understand the structure of infinity, and Penrose solved that problem.”
To deal with the complexities of general relativity where spacetime curved in the extreme, as with objects the same size as their Schwarzschild radius, Penrose came up with a set of mathematical tools. In particular, he introduced the mathematical notion of “trapped surfaces” that allowed physicists to confidently pinpoint an event horizon—the point at which even light can never escape the inexorable tug of gravity. (The event horizon of a nonrotating black hole is located at its Schwarzschild radius.) Event horizons helped deal with the trickiness of singularities by putting an inescapable barrier around them. “We really don’t like having singularities,” Stein says. “In fact, we could cut out the inside of the black hole spacetime and replace it with … pink elephants or what have you. And from the outside, you would never be able to tell the difference, because it’s all hidden behind the horizon.” Penrose’s idea of “cosmic censorship” was that there could be no “naked” singularities: all of them would have to be “clothed” by an event horizon. Even when black holes crashed together and merged, the singularities—or pink elephants—would remain hidden by their event horizons, preventing their existence from throwing the outer cosmos into chaos.
A fascination with geometry and artists such as M. C. Escher also led Penrose to develop powerful, intuitive diagrams that captured dynamics of spacetime that were previously out of reach. His diagrams compacted space and time, placing infinities on the page instead of having them stretch off into the distance. “Once it’s on the page, you can study it,” Kennefick says. “Penrose was a tool maker par excellence. He invented many of the tools that were used in that period to understand black holes and that we still use today.” By the end of the 1960s, the term “black hole” had become the accepted nomenclature to describe these hypothetical—but now much less improbable—consequences of general relativity.
Astrophysical Jump Scare
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when a majority of physicists became believers, but by the mid 1990s, black holes were taken for granted even without direct observations of them. Some of the most concrete evidence would come from Ghez’s and Genzel’s separate work on Sagittarius A*, the then suspected supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. “Often, when we’re interpreting astronomical observations, there’s some wiggle room for some other possibilities,” says Suvi Gezari, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, College Park. “What’s so beautiful about our galactic center is that the measurements don’t allow for any other possibility than a four-million-solar-mass black hole.”
To arrive at that level of precision, Ghez and Genzel each independently led teams that spent more than a decade following the path of S02, a star with a short elliptical orbit around Sagittarius A*. In the 16 years it took for S02 to orbit the galactic center, the researchers dramatically improved their telescopes’ measurements with a technology called adaptive optics, which uses lasers to correct for blurriness caused when light travels through Earth’s atmosphere.
By the time S02 made a complete orbit around a dark patch of nothing, the existence of black holes could not have been clearer. Since then, astronomers have made other direct observations of black holes.
In 2012 Gezari led a team that observed, with unprecedented detail, a tidal disruption event—a tame name for a black hole ripping apart the entrails of a star that got too close. A stellar homicide in another galaxy looks a bit like a brighter, longer supernova, thanks to the rest of the star being flung apart. “I used to call it the ‘fingerprints’ of the victim—which, in this case, is the star,” Gezari says.
More events, such as the merger of two black holes and the ensuing gravitational waves captured by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo experiment, have given further proof that these objects exist. But perhaps the most stunning evidence thus far is the Event Horizon Telescope’s (EHT’s) image of a supermassive black hole with billions of solar masses at the center of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87). The now iconic image of a black circle ringed with the intense light of an accretion disk the size of our solar system has eliminated any room for doubt.
These observations of black holes and their shadows are more than just confirmations of Einstein’s theory. As the EHT’s resolution increases, it will test the very theories that first predicted their existence. “Black hole shadows are a good test in that alternative theories predict something different than what general relativity predicts,” says Feryal Özel, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and the EHT.
Earlier this month, by carefully scrutinizing the shape of the shadow seen by the EHT, Özel and her colleagues made some of the most precise measurements of general relativity. So far those measurements agree with predictions, but it is possible that with more precision, deviations from general relativity that hint at a deeper underlying theory will show up.
For astronomers, astrophysicists and mathematicians, black holes are, by turns, monstrous and beautiful; they are extraordinary in their physics but ordinary in their ubiquity. They continue to attract researchers hoping to unlock new secrets of the universe. For a watching public, there is some appeal, too. Evolutionary biologist “Stephen Jay Gould famously wondered, ‘Why have dinosaurs become so popular?’ and argued that it isn’t obvious that they should be,” Kennefick says. Black holes, he suggests, have some of the same features as dinosaurs: they seem big, they eat things, and they’re a little terrifying—but comfortably far away.
“Science isn’t political.”
If you’re in STEM, you’ve likely heard this refrain before; its sentiment might even resonate with you. It may not surprise you that only 43.6 percent of STEM students voted in the last presidential election, compared to 49.2 and 53.2 percent of students in the humanities and social sciences, respectively.
Science, however, has always been political; the events of 2020 have only made the relationship between science and society more explicit. We are in the midst of a pandemic and a climate crisis, both solvable by centering scientific expertise. When our government ignores scientists, the consequences can be fatal, disproportionately so for Black, brown and Indigenous communities. Americans are suffering from wildfire-induced poor air quality. More than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Yet, as our nation grapples with the pandemic, our current administration believes that “science shouldn’t stand in the way” of business as usual.
We cannot accept this. Now is the time for science, not silence. In November, we scientists must vote for an administration that allows science to lead the way in the formation of policy.
As scientists, we’re trained to think of the broader impacts of our research; as citizens, we should make those thoughts concrete with our votes. We have been trained think critically, analyze large amounts of data and come up with potential solutions to the problems we discover. We can use these same skills to analyze policy, and we must, because doing so promotes an informed citizenry. Various examples of scientists who did just this exist in our history. Albert Einstein was an outspoken antiwar activist. Andrei Sakharov fought against nuclear proliferation.
Women, in particular, have long been leaders in the environmental movement; Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, sparking the contemporary environmental movement in the United States. Wangari Maathai worked tirelessly throughout her life in many humanitarian efforts, including founding the Green Belt Movement. These scientists made a societal impact by bringing their knowledge and expertise outside of the lab. And today, scientist-activists including Dior Vargas, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Geoffrey Supran have continued this legacy, advocating for science and science-based policies.
The classroom can be a starting point to encourage STEM students and scientists to become more civically engaged. Just as we discuss problem sets, we should discuss how scientific advancements affect society, such as the potential benefits and dangers of unregulated facial recognition software and using CRISPR gene editing technology for therapeutic purposes. Lessons should be taught on how science can be grounded in justice, such as in agroecology, which is used for both sustainable farming and to promote a more just food system. Likewise, science classes should highlight current events in politics that influence scientific data production and usage. The current administration has censored climate scientists. Until recently, scientists could not use federal funding to study gun violence, which is widely recognized as a public health crisis. And of course, policies have real impact on our lives: immigration bans jeopardize the collaborative nature of scientific research and instead foster fear and uncertainty in researchers. If you can vote, use your voice to support candidates and policies that prioritize using science for our common good.
Below we have compiled suggestions that universities, educators and students can use to increase STEM voter turnout this fall and beyond.
For university administrators:
Make election days a university holiday so that all students, faculty, and staff have the opportunity to vote in person. Use classrooms and auditorium spaces for polling, which will increase the accessibility of voting to students.
Include information about voter registration on your syllabus. Remind students of voter registration deadlines. Whether you have five minutes or a full class period, the Union of Concerned Scientists has shared resources on how to bring democracy into the classroom. Structure the course schedule with election days in mind: don’t plan exams, project due dates or mandatory participation activities for election week, to allow students ample time to vote in potentially long lines and not sacrifice important study time. Incorporate discussions tying science to society. March for Science NYC curated a panel series connecting science to voter issues. Discuss the work that scientists have done as activists in your field.
Organize your friends, classmates and STEM co-workers: register to vote and make a voting plan together. Hold a voter registration drive targeting STEM communities on campus. Join or start an organization that focuses on science community building. Examples include 500 Women Scientists, Black in the Ivory and 500 Queer Scientists. Attend or host a science and society lecture and discussion event to highlight how science can be used in policy. Volunteer in your community with local citizen science groups, your local government, or advocacy organizations. Whatever cause you are already passionate about—animal rights, the environment, world hunger, patient advocacy—learn how science relates and how policies can use this science to create effective solutions.
In short, as Rosalind Franklin, whom many think deserved to share the Nobel Prize for her role in elucidating the structure of DNA, said, “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” For us scientists and citizens, we must advocate for science. Our world is facing a life-threatening climate crisis and a neglected pandemic, and is reckoning with centuries of unjust systems. We need to organize and vote like it.
Magma—the molten rock that nourishes volcanoes—can lurk in underground pockets surprisingly far from where it emerges, new research shows. This means the instruments placed on a volcano’s flanks might fail to pick up signs of moving magma that can signal an impending eruption.
University of Oregon volcanologist Allan Lerner and his colleagues focused on 56 volcanoes in subduction zones (geologically active areas where one tectonic plate is diving under another) on five continents for a new paper, published in July in Geophysical Research Letters. Compiling volcano data from other studies, the team estimated the center of each volcano’s magma reservoir and compared it with the estimated center of the volcano’s aboveground portion. The reservoirs had been found through processes such as measuring the earth’s surface moving up or down and tracing how the planet’s crust conducts electricity.
The researchers calculated that roughly one third of volcanoes were more than four kilometers away from their magma reservoirs. Five volcanoes, including two in Japan, two in Indonesia and one in Mexico, had offsets of more than 10 kilometers. “It was a surprise,” Lerner says, because a long-standing tenet of volcanology is that magma reservoirs are located directly underneath volcanoes.
Offset magma reservoirs have been reported before, but the researchers say their investigation is the first to focus on an ensemble of volcanoes. Thanks to their large sample size, Lerner and his collaborators were also able to demonstrate correlations. They showed that smaller volcanoes tended to be farther from their magma reservoirs than larger volcanoes. This makes sense, the team suggests, because geologic structures such as fault lines essentially create an underground obstacle course for magma. The large quantities of magma that feed big volcanoes carry enough heat to blow straight through such natural boundaries, but the smaller reservoirs associated with smaller volcanoes must forge convoluted paths to the surface. “In small volcanoes, the magma that ascends is kind of at the mercy of preexisting crustal structures,” Lerner says.
These results have implications for how volcanoes are monitored. Researchers usually aim to place ground-based instruments on or near a volcano, says Diana Roman, a volcanologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, who was not involved in the research. But this new study indicates that such a strategy might not be best. “This tells us we should be looking farther afield, especially for volcanoes with relatively small edifices,” Roman says.
Studying more volcanoes, including those not in subduction zones, would be valuable to see if these same trends persist, Lerner says: “A very clear next direction would be to expand this study to look at volcanoes in other tectonic settings.”
This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system, which has enabled scientists—for the first time—to make precise changes in the long stretches of DNA that make up the code of life for many organisms, including people. The prize was shared by Emmanuelle Charpentier, director of the Berlin-based Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, and Jennifer A. Doudna, a professor and biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley. The scientists will split the prize money of 10 million Swedish kornor, or just over $1.1 million dollars.
This CRISPR tool, often described as precise genetic scissors, has been used by plant researchers to develop crops that withstand pests and drought. In medicine, the method is involved in clinical trials of new cancer therapies, and researchers are trying to use it to cure certain inherited diseases. “It is being used all over science,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
This is the first time the chemistry Nobel has gone to two women. Charpentier, reached by phone this morning, said, “I’m very happy this prize goes to two women. I hope it provides a positive message for young girls, young women, who wish to follow the path of science.”