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Mar 16, 2021

Big Think Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more! This March, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, such as, "How big is the universe?" or "Am I really made of stardust?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?" All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers! Loading... Here's a question Michelle answered from a Big Thinker! <span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9b5187305f90895a792581e3ad0e0fa1"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span> Here are more great questions submitted by you, our awesome audience! <span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d3a659175dd4095d686143769b83e93d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span> Ask a NASA astronomer! Would scientists tell us about a looming apocalypse? <span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e890342aea725cc63c2bd056e535833"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span> There is no "center" to the universe, and the Big Bang wasn't an explosion. Michelle explains all. <span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="18dfa5173a0c4c50d4ff20d4d31c1175"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span> How futuristic ion rockets might supercharge space exploration <span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="372c56f8e66e3044114be87dc1d99170"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span> How self-healing DNA may protect astronauts from killer radiation <span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9da3c377464c38910517300082a17ae7"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span> Art vs. science? The battle that never was <span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4dab3ada92bdab77108753882d417f5f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span> Keep readingShow less 11 October, 2020 The body's features are outlined with the sketch drawn at the time of the discovery (1961). The posterior part of the skull (the occipital bone and part of the parietals) had completely exploded, leaving the inner part visible. A. Vitrified brain fragment collected from the inner part of the skull; B. Vitrified spinal cord fragment from the spine (SEM, scale bars in mm). A team of researchers in Italy discovered the intact brain cells of a young man who died in the Mount Vesuvius eruption in A.D. 79. The brain's cell structure was visible to researchers (who used an electron microscope) in a glassy, black material found inside the man's skull. The material was likely the victim's brain preserved through the process of vitrification in which the intense heat followed by rapid cooling turned the organ to glass. <p>Almost 2,000 years ago, Mount Vesuvius — located on the gulf of what is today Naples in Campania, Italy — erupted, <a href="" target="_blank">burying the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii</a> beneath hot ash.</p><p>Recently, a team of researchers in Italy discovered the intact brain cells of a young man who died in the disaster in A.D. 79. The team studied remains that were first unearthed in the 1960s from Herculaneum, a city once nestled into the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The man was around 25 years old when he perished and was discovered lying face-down on a wooden bed in Herculaneum's Collegium Augustalium (the College of the Augustales), located near the city's main street. The building was the headquarters of the cult of Emperor Augustus who was worshipped as a deity, <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a common Roman tradition</a> at the time. </p> Discovery of cells <img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="" id="ba6e0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02a2ffa0cadf9403401396e2dcc7816a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" /> Electron microscope image of brain axons. Credit: PLOS ONE <p>Now, subsequent research has described how the researchers, using an electron microscope, discovered cells in the vitrified brain. According to Petrone they were "incredibly well preserved with a resolution that is impossible to find anywhere else." Additionally, the team used another method called energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy to determine the chemical compounds of the glassy material. The sample was rich in carbon and oxygen, which indicates that it was organic. The researchers compared those ancient proteins to a database of proteins found in the human brain, and found that all of the discovered proteins are indeed present in human brain tissue.</p><p>Additionally, Petrone and his team suspect they also discovered vitrified nerve cells in the ancient victim's spinal cord and cerebellum based on the position of the sample in the mind of the skull and the concentration of the proteins. </p> Future research <p>These impeccable preservations of brain tissue are unprecedented and will undoubtedly open the door to new and exciting research opportunities on these ancient people and civilizations that weren't possible until now.</p><p>The Italian research team will continue to study the remains to learn more about the vitrification process, including the precise temperatures the victims were exposed to and the cooling rate of the ash. They also, according to Petrone, want to analyze proteins from the remains and their related genes. </p> Keep readingShow less It is not often that a neighbourhood squabble is remembered as a world-historical event. In the summer of 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a single night in jail in Concord, Massachusetts after refusing to submit his poll tax to the local constable. <p> This minor act of defiance would later be immortalised in Thoreau's essay 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience' (1849). There, he explains that he had been unwilling to provide material support to a federal government that perpetuated mass injustice – in particular, slavery and the Mexican-American war. While the essay went largely unread in his own lifetime, Thoreau's theory of civil disobedience would later inspire many of the world's greatest political thinkers, from Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi to Martin Luther King.</p><p>Yet his theory of dissent would have its dissenters, too. The political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote an essay on 'Civil Disobedience', published in <em>The New Yorker</em> magazine in September 1970. Thoreau, she argued, was no civil disobedient. In fact, she insisted that his whole moral philosophy was anathema to the collective spirit that ought to guide acts of public refusal. How could the great luminary of civil disobedience be charged with misunderstanding it so profoundly?</p> <p>Thoreau's essay offers a forceful critique of state authority and an uncompromising defence of the individual conscience. In <em>Walden</em> (1854)<em>,</em> he argued that each man should follow his own individual 'genius' rather than social convention, and in 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience' he insists that we should follow our own moral convictions rather than the laws of the land. The citizen, he suggests, must never 'for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation'. For Thoreau, this prescription holds even when the laws are produced through democratic elections and referenda. Indeed, for him, democratic participation only degrades our moral character. When we cast a ballot, he explains, we vote for a principle that we believe is right, but at the same time, assert our willingness to recognise whatever principle – be it right or wrong – the majority favours. In this way, we elevate popular opinion over moral rectitude. Because he places so much stock in his own conscience, and so little in either state authority or democratic opinion, Thoreau believed that he was bound to disobey any law that ran counter to his own convictions. His theory of civil disobedience is grounded in that belief.</p><p>Thoreau's decision to withhold his financial support for the federal government of 1846 was, no doubt, a righteous one. And the theory that inspired that action would go on to inspire many more righteous acts of disobedience. Yet despite these remarkable successes, Arendt argues that Thoreau's theory was misguided. In particular, she insists that he was wrong to ground civil disobedience in the individual conscience. First, and most simply, she points out that conscience is too subjective a category to justify political action. Leftists who protest the treatment of refugees at the hands of US immigration officers are motivated by conscience, but so was Kim Davis – the conservative county clerk in Kentucky who in 2015 denied marriage licences to same-sex couples. Conscience alone can be used to justify all types of political beliefs and so provides no guarantee of moral action.</p><p>Second, Arendt makes the more complex argument that, even when it is morally unimpeachable, conscience is 'unpolitical'; that is, it encourages us to focus on our own moral purity rather than the collective actions that might bring about real change. Crucially, in calling conscience 'unpolitical', Arendt does not mean that it is useless. In fact, she believed that the voice of conscience was often vitally important. In her book <em>Eichmann in Jerusalem</em> (1963)<em>,</em> for example, she argues that it was the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann's lack of ethical introspection that enabled his participation in the unimaginable evils of the Holocaust. Arendt knew from the experience of Fascism that conscience could prevent subjects from actively advancing profound injustice, but she saw that as a kind of moral bare minimum. The rules of conscience, she argues, 'do not say what to do; they say what not to do'. In other words: personal conscience can sometimes prevent us from aiding and abetting evil but it does not require us to undertake positive political action to bring about justice.</p> <p>Thoreau would likely accept the charge that his theory of civil disobedience told men only 'what not to do', as he did not believe it was the responsibility of individuals to actively <em>improve</em> the world. 'It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course,' he writes, 'to devote himself to the eradication of any, even to the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it…' Arendt would agree that it is better to abstain from injustice than to participate in it, but she worries that Thoreau's philosophy might make us complacent about any evil that we aren't personally complicit in. Because Thoreauvian civil disobedience is so focused on the personal conscience and not, as Arendt puts it, on 'the world where the wrong is committed', it risks prioritising individual moral purity over the creation of a more just society.</p><p>Perhaps the most striking difference between Thoreau and Arendt is that, while he sees disobedience as necessarily individual, she sees it as, <em>by definition</em>, collective.</p><p>Arendt argues that for an act of law-breaking to count as civil disobedience it must be performed openly and publicly (put simply: if you break the law in private, you're committing a crime, but if you break the law at a protest, you're making a point). Thoreau's dramatic refusal to pay his poll tax would meet this definition, but Arendt makes one further distinction: anyone who breaks the law publicly but <em>individually</em> is a mere conscientious objector; those who break the law publicly and <em>collectively</em> are civil disobedients. It is only this latter group – from which she would exclude Thoreau – that is capable of producing real change, she implies. Mass civil disobedience movements generate momentum, apply pressure, and shift political discourse. For Arendt, the greatest civil disobedience movements – Indian independence, civil rights, and the anti-war movement – took inspiration from Thoreau but added a vital commitment to mass, public action. In sharp contrast, Thoreau believed that 'there is but little virtue in the action of masses of men'.</p><p>'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience' is an essay of rare moral vision. In it, Thoreau expresses uncompromising critiques of the government of his era, while also capturing the powerful feelings of moral conviction that often undergird acts of civil disobedience. Nevertheless, it is Arendt's account of the practice that is ultimately more promising. Arendt insists that we focus not on our own conscience but on the injustice committed, and the concrete means of redressing it. This does not mean that civil disobedience has to aim for something moderate or even achievable but that it should be calibrated toward the world – which it has the power to change – and not toward the self – which it can only purify.<img src="" alt="Aeon counter – do not remove"></p><p>This article was originally published at <a href="" target="_blank">Aeon</a> and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the <a href="" target="_blank">original article</a>.</p> Keep readingShow less <p>Fortunately, the intersection of topology and cartography involves a lot less rocket science. Simply put, a topological map is a diagram from which unnecessary detail has been removed so that only the relationship between the various points is shown. </p><p>Perhaps the most famous example is the schematic map of the London Underground, which represents the network of Tube stations with the simplicity of an electrical grid, ignoring actual distance and routes between the stations, showing only how they interconnect. (See also #<a href="" target="_blank">119</a>). That representation has now become global standard for metro maps. </p><p>Peter Staub is a spatial data engineer and map geek who has taken topology above ground. He recently produced this Topologist's Map of Europe, and it's a delight.</p> Spatial relationships <img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="" id="0b4ed" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4af3b6dac04cce0b4d042b51115a47d8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1217" data-height="1010" /> The outline of Europe is still vaguely recognisable, but most of the the countries are bent and twisted right out of shape. Credit: © Peter Staub, Mollis GL/Switzerland – CC BY SA <p>As per the definition above, this topological map is a diagram from which all details have been removed, except the spatial relationship between the various countries. So we see exactly which other countries they border. To show those relationships, the countries' actual shapes and sizes have been totally sacrificed. </p><p>Take Italy, for example: boot-shaped on any normal map, here the country looks like the figure 8, to accommodate the two countries enclaved inside of it: the Vatican and San Marino. </p><p>Poland still borders Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, as it does in real life; but to do so, the country has had to change from a block into a squiggle. </p><p>France now looks like a long-bottomed chair with Andorra and Monaco between its legs, and Belgium for a headrest.</p><p>Countries are denoted by their internet TLDs (Top-Level Domain names). Some of the less familiar ones are Isle of Man (IM), Jersey (JE), and Guernsey (GG) – all dependencies of the British Crown. </p><p>The map also painstakingly reflects Europe's most controversial territorial disputes, hence the dotted lines across Cyprus (for the almost universally unrecognised breakaway republic of Northern Cyprus) and in Ukraine (supposedly for Russia's unilateral annexation of Crimea – or are these the breakaway areas in the east controlled by pro-Russian rebels? )</p> Europe without borders <img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="" id="738f6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="767206d68b8c1fdbcc0fe273895c3206" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1000" data-height="804" /> The weirdness that is Lake Constance – topologically speaking. Credit: © Peter Staub, Mollis GL/Switzerland – CC BY SA <p>Small dotted areas indicate disputes between Slovenia and Croatia, and between France and Italy (about whether the border between them crosses the summit of Mont Blanc or not). </p><p>Kosovo is recognised by many countries, but not yet by Serbia, from which it broke away. It doesn't get its own block, but its TLD (XK) is mentioned below the dotted line. </p><p>And what about that little area in between Germany (DE), Switzerland (CH), and Austria (AT) that looks like there's something wrong with your television? That's Lake Constance, on the border between Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. According to Switzerland, the border runs right down the middle of the lake. Austria claims the entire lake is a condominium between the three countries, and Germany's position is ambiguous. </p><p>As such, Lake Constance is the only area in Europe where neighboring states have never managed to agree on a border. Now, that's something you wouldn't have learned if this wasn't a topological map.</p><p><em><br></em></p><p><em>Map found <a href="" target="_blank">here</a> on <a href="" target="_blank">Peter Staub's Twitter</a>, which also contains topology maps of Germany, Switzerland and the Americas.</em></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1073</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href=""></a><em>.</em><br></p><p><em>Follow Strange Maps on <a href="" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and on <a href="" target="_blank">Facebook</a>.</em></p> Keep readingShow less

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