The Groundbreaking But Largely Forgotten Apollo 8 Mission

On this day in 1969, the U.S. launched Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the Apollo space program and the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see all of Earth, orbit another celestial body, see the far side of the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” (first photo), escape the gravity of another celestial body (the Moon), and reenter Earth’s gravitational well. Apollo 8 was also the first human spaceflight from the Kennedy Space Center, located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Originally planned as a test of the Apollo Lunar Module, since the module was not yet ready for its first flight, the mission profile was abruptly changed in August 1968 to a more ambitious flight to be flown in December. Thus, the crew led by Jim McDivitt crew, who were training Apollo Lunar Module, instead became the crew for Apollo 9, while Borman and his men were moved to the Apollo 8 mission. This meant the new Apollo 8 crew had two to three months’ less training and preparation than originally planned, not to mention having to take up translunar navigation training. The crew themselves believed there was only a 50% chance of the mission succeeding.

Fortunately, things went off without a hitch: after almost three days, Apollo 8 reached the Moon. The crew orbited the Moon ten times in 20 hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis—at the time the most watched TV program ever. (In fact, it is estimated that one out of four people alive at the time saw it either live or shortly after.) Even the Chairman of the Soviet Interkosmos program was quoted describing the flight as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology”.

Although largely forgotten today, Apollo 8 was seen as the joyful culmination of a tumultuous year, rife with political assassinations, instability, and other tragedies worldwide. For a moment, humanity received a well needed morale boost. the success of the mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill America’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. They were later named TIME’s “Men of the Year” for 1968.

The iconic Earthrise photo has been credited as one of the inspirations of the first Earth Day in 1970; it was selected as the first of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

Ancient Links Between Rome and Sri Lanka

It never ceases to amaze me how well connected and globalized the ancients were. We think of globalization as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, yet the seeds of it were planted centuries or even millennia ago, where global connections would have seemed impossible. 

As Science reports:

Visit Mantai, nestled into a bay in northwestern Sri Lanka, and today you’ll see nothing but a solitary Hindu temple overlooking the sea. But 1500 years ago, Mantai was a bustling port where merchants traded their era’s most valuable commodities. Now, a study of ancient plant remains reveals traders from all corners of the world—including the Roman Empire—may have visited or even lived there.

Mantai was a hub on the ancient trade networks that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and connected the distant corners of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The port town flourished between 200 B.C.E. and 850 C.E. During that time, it would have been a nexus for the spice trade, which ferried Indonesian cloves and Indian peppercorns to Middle Eastern and Roman kitchens.

[…]

The team also found remains that could link the port city to the ancient Mediterranean world—processed wheat grains dated to 100 to 200 C.E. and grape seeds dated to 650 to 800 C.E. Neither crop can grow in Sri Lanka’s wet, tropical climate, so they had to be imported, possibly from as far as Arabia or the Roman world. Kingwell-Banham says her team is studying the chemical isotopes absorbed by the plants to determine where they were grown.

But no matter their precise origin, the coexistence of rice and wheat is evidence of Mantai’s “cosmopolitan cuisine,” in which both local and foreign foods were eaten, she says. The discovery of wheat and grapes in Mantai “is entirely new,” and shifts the focus on goods transported from South Asia to the Roman world, to goods that went in the other direction,” Coningham says.


While there is no evidence that Roman merchants or other travelers lived in what is today Sri Lanka, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility: just a few years ago, remains were unearthed in London that appear to be of Chinese origin — and date back to between the third and fifth centuries C.E., when it was the Roman city of Londonium. 

China’s CRISPR Babies

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
The clinical trial documents describe a study to employ CRISPR to modify human embryos, then to transfer them into the uterus of mothers and deliver healthy children.

It is unclear if any children have been born. The scientist behind the effort, Jiankui He, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone he declined to comment. However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and for China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine to eliminate genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics. 

Source: MIT Technology Review

Happy Birthday to Charles Darwin’s Seminal Work

On this day 1859, “On the Origin of Species” by British naturalist Charles Darwin was first published, selling out by the end of the day. It introduced the scientific theory that populations evolve over generations through a process of natural selection. It presented a body of evidence — gathered from Darwin’s nearly five-year journey around the world on the HMS Beagle — that the diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution.

While various evolutionary ideas had been proposed since ancient times, there was renewed interest into the 19th century as scientific knowledge increased. (In fact, fellow British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace had independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, publishing his paper on the subject jointly with Darwin in 1858.)

However, Darwin’s book was brilliant in that it was written for lay readers who were not specialists in the subject. Moreover, because he was already a famed scientist, his findings were taken seriously, with the evidence he presented generating intense scientific, philosophical, and religious discussion. Within two decades, there was widespread scientific belief in evolution with a branching pattern of common descent, although people were slow to give much credit to Darwin’s specific finding of natural selection as the primary mechanism.

Indeed, from the 1880s to the 1930s there occurred an “eclipse of Darwinism” , wherein various other mechanisms of evolution were given more credit and Darwin’s fell to the wayside. Only in the 1940s, with the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis — a set of theoretical concepts that tried to harmonize and integrate different factors in evolution — did Darwin’s concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection become central to modern evolutionary theory, now becoming the unifying concept of the life sciences (botany, zoology, biology, etc.)

A word about the term theory as used in science: Contrary to popular belief, a theory in science is not the same as how theory is used in everyday language. 

A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with the scientific method (rigorous observation, measurement, evaluation of results, etc.) Theories are tested under controlled conditions and/or through abductive reasoning (logical inference from a set of observations). Scientific theories are established following repeated tests and scrutiny. 

By contrast, outside the scientific context, a theory usually defines explanation that is unsubstantiated or speculative–hence why so many people wrongfully believe that evolutionary is “just a theory” in the vernacular sense, rather than the more rigorously proven scientific kind of theory.

The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties. Continue reading

One Death v. One Million

Any reporter who has covered a humanitarian disaster should understand what Stalin is once reported to have said to a fellow Soviet official: The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic. [Note this account is most likely apocryphal.]

This is why news coverage of a famine or a flood will often highlight the story of one victim.

Or why, say, Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, galvanized global attention to the larger refugee crisis.

It is not easy to wrap one’s mind around thousands of deaths. It becomes an abstraction of geopolitics, economics, conflict dynamics — of statistics.

But a single death can be understood in the more relatable terms of, say, a grieving father or a desperate spouse. Or a murdered journalist, like Mr. Khashoggi.

Psychologists have repeatedly found that people experience a greater emotional reaction to one death than to many, even if the circumstances are identical. Perversely, the more victims, the less sympathy that people feel.

The effect even has a name: collapse of compassion. It’s not that we can’t care about a million deaths, psychologists believe. Rather, we fear being overwhelmed and switch off our own emotions in preemptive self-defense.”

— Max Fisher, “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not“, New York Times

Mayan Civilization Continues to Amaze

I have been listening to this lecture series about the colonization of the Americas, and how the Mayans were unprecedented for being able to carve out an advanced civilization in an inhospitable, under-resourced jungle without the benefit of the wheel, plow, and draft animals (the lack of the latter is why the wheel never came to use as a tool to begin with).

Now, scientists using advance laser technology have revealed the incredible extent of the Mayans’ achievements: sophisticated urban complexes spanning tens of thousands of structures deep in the jungle. As IFLS reports:

Archaeologists first discovered the vast metropolis in February, National Geographic reported, led by Guatemalan science nonprofit group the PACUNAM Foundation. Publishing their work in Science over six months later, the team confirms the presence of more than 61,000 ancient structures, including houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, and pyramids.

LiDAR pierces through the thick forest canopy to reveal changes in elevation, allowing the researchers to identify these topographical features as manmade walls, roads, and buildings without ever having to set foot on the ground. With this information, they are able to create three-dimensional maps in a matter of minutes, avoiding years of arduous fieldwork.

Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” explained team member Francisco Estrada-Belli in a statement.

In all, more than 61,000 ancient structures have been accounted for in the surveyed region, indicating that up to 7 to 11 million people were present at the height of the Late Classic period, 650-800 CE. For scale, New York City has about 8.5 million people. These populations were unevenly distributed with different levels of urbanization and were spread out over more than 1,200 square kilometers (810 square miles). This land was modified in some way for the intensive agricultural production needed to support the massive population for hundreds of years.

“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Maya archaeologist Marcello A. Canuto. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”

Whether or not these structures existed at the same time, or represents different periods of development, it is still amazing that such large and well organized societies could have sustained themselves in environments that even today are challenging to settle and develop.

The Benefits of Indoor Plants

Though I cannot confirm the efficacy of the many studies cited in the following
Vice article, I can speak from experience that gardening and caring for indoor plants has always been therapeutic for me; in fact, I attribute it to helping me cope with many a stressful or melancholic episode.

What’s good for the body is good for the brain, and the toxin-absorbing, air-purifying abilities of plants like pothos, aloe vera, and ivy are worth considering on your next trip to the nursery. Scented plants have health benefits, too: the smell of flowers like jasmine and lavender have been shown to lower anxiety and stress, and promote a good night’s sleep.

Researchers have been promoting the mental health benefits of horticulture for decades, and for good reason. Studies have repeatedly shown that the act of tending to plants can take our minds off the bad stuff, relieve stress, and have an overall calming effect. Gardening is so good for your brain that it’s even thought to lower the risk of dementia.

[…]

One recent study was able to demonstrate that a group of people in their early twenties experienced a massive decrease in blood pressure and other physical stress symptoms when they followed a computer-related task with an indoor gardening session; the results suggested that tending to indoor plants “reduced physiological and psychological stress, especially in comparison to mental tasks performed using technology.

[…]

The science is pretty clear on all this: humans are happier when they’re close to aesthetically-pleasing living things. Office workers have been found to be more productive and happy when surrounded by indoor plants, and having plants in hospital rooms helps surgical patients recover faster by lowering blood pressure, pain, and fatigue levels. Studies have found that even the literal act of looking out the window at a tiny strip of sad urban park can have restorative mental health properties—which means by investing in a couple of hanging baskets, you’ll actually be ahead of the game. Eyeballing the colour green has been found to promote emotional stability, whereas the presence of bright-coloured flowers can provide an instant mood booster.

Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, given that we did evolve and live in nature across millennia, after all.

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

khaled_al-asaad_2012

Wikimedia Commons

 

Schola Medica Salernitana

Founded in the ninth century in Salerno, Italy, the Schola Medica Salernitana was the first medical school of its kind, aimed at expanding medical knowledge and professionalizing the practice of medicine. It rose to prominence as one of the most important sources of medical knowledge in the world, due largely to Salerno’s cosmopolitan outlook – like most Italian city-states, it had diplomatic and commercial relations beyond Europe, particularly with the Muslims and Byzantines, who had a wealth of medical knowledge, both preserved and of their own making.

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A depiction of the medical school in one of Avicenna’s medical works, The Canon of Medicine (Wikimedia Commons)

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