Category: Newsletter

These plants are napping their way through climate change

By Marlene Cimons

Some plant species have found a novel way to cope with environmental dangers like a prolonged climate change-induced drought: They sleep through it.

An international research team has discovered at least 114 species capable of living dormant under the soil for up to two decades. Dubbed “Rip Van Winkle plants” by scientists, they are still alive — they just don’t poke their heads out every spring. This extended snoozing underground enables them to survive tough times in a wide variety of ecosystems.

The adaptation has evolved over many decades and may well become more common as plants change in response to climate change, according to the researchers. “The condition has evolved many, many times, and I see no reason to believe that it cannot evolve quickly in other species,” said Richard Shefferson, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Tokyo and lead author of the recent study, published in the journal Ecology Letters. “I don’t think it can be ‘learned,’ but perhaps if environmental conditions were right, then many species that we do not think go dormant might actually do so.”

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Egypt authorities arrest atheist blogger

[Webmaster’s note: Sherif Gaber announced on Twitter yesterday that he is now free, but “details will follow.”]


CAIRO — Egyptian police have arrested an atheist blogger who was previously detained for promoting his views, a rights lawyer said on Saturday.

Sherif Gaber was in police custody on Saturday and set to be questioned by the prosecution on Sunday, Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told AFP.

“He has been arrested and should be questioned tomorrow,” Eid said.

It was not immediately clear when Gaber was arrested.

In late March, Gaber tweeted that “some Muslim lawyers” filed a complaint against him with the attorney general.

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The latest faith group to launch a congressional caucus? The nonreligious.

By Tara Isabella Burton

A new religious group in the US House of Representatives is advocating for more representation and influence. Those members? The nonreligious.

This week, Democratic Reps. Jared Huffman (CA), Jamie Raskin (MD), Jerry McNerney (CA), and Dan Kildee (MI) announced the formation of a new caucus, known as the Congressional Freethought Caucus, to safeguard the interests of nontheists in government, and to promote policies based, in their view, on reason and science.

A press statement emailed to journalists said, “The mission of the caucus is to promote public policy based on reason and science, to protect the secular character of our government, and to champion the value of freedom of thought worldwide.”

According to the statement, the caucus will actively work to “protect the secular character of our government”; promote science-bred public policy; counter discrimination against atheists, agnostics, and humanists; and provide a “forum for Members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys.”

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Trump signs executive order giving more freedom to federally funded religious groups

By Gregory Korte

WASHINGTON — President Trump signed an executive order revamping the White House office on faith issues on Thursday, restoring a Bush-era initiative to get religious groups more involved in providing federally funded social services.

The executive order repeals Obama administration rules limiting the ability of groups getting federal funds to preach to those they serve. Under the Trump order, faith-based groups will no longer have to refer beneficiaries to alternative programs if they object to the religious teachings.

“As president, I will always protect religious liberty,” Trump said.

Trump signed the order in a Rose Garden ceremony for the National Day of Prayer, where he declared, “Faith is more powerful than government, and nothing is more powerful than God.”

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Question of the Week – 4/25/18

This past Sunday was Earth Day. (Maybe there is also a Proxima b Day?) If you did anything to mark the occasion, what was it? What do you think is the best way for all of us to celebrate Earth Day?

Our favorite answer will win a copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins.

Want to suggest a Question of the Week? E-mail submissions to us at (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

Escape from Proxima b

By Abraham Loeb

Almost all space missions launched so far by our civilization have been based on chemical propulsion. The fundamental limitation here is easy to understand: a rocket is pushed forward by ejecting burnt fuel gases backwards through its exhaust. The characteristic composition and temperature of the burnt fuel set the exhaust speed to a typical value of a few kilometers per second. Momentum conservation implies that the terminal speed of the rocket is given by this exhaust speed times the natural logarithm of the ratio between the initial and final mass of the rocket.

To exceed the exhaust speed by some large factor requires an initial fuel mass that exceeds the final payload mass by the exponential of this factor. Since the required fuel mass grows exponentially with terminal speed, it is not practical for chemical rockets to exceed a terminal speed that is more than an order of magnitude larger than the exhaust speed, namely a few tens of kilometers per second. Indeed, this has been the speed limit of all spacecraft launched so far by NASA or other space agencies.

By a fortunate coincidence, the escape speed from the surface of the Earth, 11 kilometers per second, and the escape speed from the location of the Earth around the sun, 42 kilometers per second, are close to the speed limit attainable by chemical propulsion. This miracle allowed our civilization to design missions, such as Voyager 1 and 2 or New Horizons, that could escape from the solar system into interstellar space. But is this fortune shared by other civilizations on habitable planets outside the solar system?

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In Closed-Door UN Meetings, Trump Administration Officials Pushed Abstinence For International Women’s Health Programs

By Ema O’Connor

In closed-door meetings at the United Nations in March, Trump administration officials pushed socially conservative views on women’s rights issues — including abstinence-based policies over information about contraception — that were further to the right than those expressed by most other countries present, including Russia and the representative for the Arab states, UN officials who attended the meetings told BuzzFeed News.

The Trump officials’ approach at the UN meeting makes it clear that the administration intends to extend its views on abortion, contraception, and sexual education beyond US borders to an extent that is unusual even for Republican administrations.

The comments came during the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women, a two-week session described by a spokesperson for the US Mission to the United Nations as the UN’s “most important meeting on women’s empowerment.” The main event is a closed-door negotiation on language to include in an annual UN document that sets global standards and outlines potential policies pertaining to gender equality efforts in all member countries.

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A Life of Pretending: Being Egyptian and Atheist

By Anthon Jackson

Note: All the names in this story have been changed, aside from those of public personalities.

The sun was almost directly overhead as I slipped out from the rambling alleys of the Khan al- Khalili into the open square. Al-Hussein Mosque towered ahead to the north. The call to prayer blasted from its pencil minaret, its solemn strains echoed by a cacophony of loudspeakers across the city. Exhausted and craving coffee, I headed for the strip of tourist-trap cafés lining the square’s western edge, and was barely seated when a young Egyptian couple motioned for me to join them for a game of backgammon.

As I’d come to expect after nearly a dozen visits to Egypt over the years, the question of religious identity came up within a minute, and I answered honestly. Just as often I’d opted to lie, claiming to be Christian for civility’s sake, but I told this stylish young couple the truth: I’m not religious. A host of experiences answering the same question across Egypt had me braced for a look of pained disappointment. But ‘Amr’s eyes lit up with a smile as he leaned into the table: “I’m an atheist too.”

Rather than going our separate ways, ‘Amr, Sara, and I walked together towards Bab Zuweila, climbing to the spacious roof of the Mosque of Sultan al-Mu‘ayyad for panoramic views of Old Cairo and, even more precious for ‘Amr, for solitude. With no one around, he unloaded his journey towards nonbelief, from teenage skepticism to angry backlashes from friends in whom he had dared confide. Among the latter group he couldn’t recall a single non-hostile reaction.

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Government vs. God? People are less religious when government is bigger, research says

By Jared Gilmour

Researchers call it an exchange model of religion: If people can get what they need from the government (be it health care, education or welfare) they’re less likely to turn to a divine power for help, according to the theory.

But are people actually more likely to drop religion in places where governments provide more services and stability? In a new paper, psychology researchers crunched the numbers — and found that better government services were in fact linked to lower levels of strong religious beliefs.

Those findings held true in states across the U.S. and in countries around the world, researchers said.

The article, “Religion as an Exchange System: The Interchangeability of God and Government in a Provider Role,” was published April 12 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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Question of the Week – 04/10/2018

What’s one of the most egregious examples of the false equivalency of science and misinformation in the media that you’ve seen? It might be about climate change or evolution or something else entirely. Have you seen meaningful examples of pushback against this phenomenon?

Our favorite answer will win a copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins.

Want to suggest a Question of the Week? E-mail submissions to us at (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)