Category: Newsletter

NASA fires Voyager 1’s engines for the first time in 37 years

By Leah Crane

It’s alive! By firing a set of thrusters that have been gathering dust for more than 3 decades, NASA has extended the lifetime of the Voyager 1 mission by a few years.

The interstellar probe is 13 billion miles away, moving at a speed of over 17 kilometres per second, but it still manages to send messages back to Earth. In order to do that, it needs to keep its antenna pointed towards us.

After 40 years in space, the thrusters that orient the spacecraft and keep its antenna aiming in the right direction have started to break down.

NASA engineers decided to try firing the craft’s backup thrusters, which have been dormant for 37 years. Then, they had to wait 19 hours and 35 minutes to get a signal from Voyager 1 at the edge of our solar system. The long shot worked, and NASA scientists plan to fully switch over to the backup thrusters in 2020.

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Question of the Week 12/6/2017

It’s so easy for us all to get stuck in our social media filter bubbles, only hearing from people and sources that agree with us. Do you try to expand your horizons to encompass other perspectives, online or offline? How do you do it?

The person with our favorite answer will receive 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.)

After 25 years on the culture war’s front lines, this prominent pastor-activist thinks liberals are winning.

By Michelle Boorstein

Between the American president endorsing Christian nationalist Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate and next week’s Supreme Court hearing of a baker refusing on religious grounds to serve a gay couple, this might seem like a discouraging month for Rev. Barry Lynn to retire.

For the last quarter-century, the lanky pastor-lawyer has been one of the most omni-present faces of secularism, leading the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. In thousands of appearances on national TV and radio, Lynn was paired with his culture warrior-counterparts on the right, once-towering figures like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson – making the case that the mixing of religion and government is toxic and unconstitutional.

But Lynn, who retires Monday, said in an interview reflecting on his career, and on church-state issues in general, that he believes data and his experience paint an America becoming less tolerant of government-backed expressions of religion. “I think the courts are out of step. I think the president is out of step.” He has also been critical of President Obama for not doing more to further church-state separation.

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If the World Was Ending, What Would Your Last Message Be?

By the New York Times

This is an article from Turning Points, a magazine that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.

If the world was coming to an end and we were to send one last message out into the cosmos that summed up the beauty of life on Earth, what would it be? Jane Goodall, Mohsin Hamid, Oscar Murillo, James Dyson, Richard Dawkins, Kyung-sook Shin and Daniel Humm tell us.

Tell us how you would sum up the beauty of life on Earth on the Times Opinion Facebook page. We may highlight your response in a follow-up to this piece.

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Diary of a Pakistani Atheist

By the BBC

In March 2017, a High Court Judge in Pakistan made the dramatic declaration that “blasphemers are terrorists.” The declaration is just one part of a growing national campaign to make disbelief socially, publicly and morally not just unacceptable, but one that allows Pakistani people the right to attack those who doubt the importance of Islam.

Websites offer a satirical take on Islam and challenge the notion that Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, but the government replied with adverts in national newspapers and text messages to all Pakistanis, urging them to report those who express their online disbelief in God

Mobeen Azhar listens to the intimate, anonymous diary entries of those who call themselves atheists, but daren’t say so publicly.

He also ventures inside the secret meetings and parties safe havens for atheists to come together to hear how it is to live the life of a non-believer, in a country where religion is playing a bigger role in all areas of life.

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Views of transgender issues divide along religious lines

By Gregory A. Smith

The American public is sharply divided along religious lines over whether it is possible for someone to be a gender different from their sex at birth, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.

Most Christians in the United States (63%) say that whether someone is a man or a woman is determined by their sex at birth. Among religious “nones” – those who identify religiously as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – about six-in-ten (62%) say they think a person’s gender is not necessarily determined by the sex they are assigned at birth.

The new analysis is drawn from a recent survey that showed the American public was also deeply divided along partisan lines on the question.

Among Christians, white evangelical Protestants (84%) are most likely to say that gender is determined by sex at birth. Many black Protestants (59%) and white mainline Protestants (55%) also feel this way. Catholics are divided on the question, with 51% saying gender is a function of one’s birth sex, while 46% say it is possible for someone to be of a gender different from their sex at birth.

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Life Driven Purpose, pg 118

“I think “religious morality” is an oxymoron. Morality is morality, and qualifying it with the word “religious” does no strengthen it. It weakens it. (The same is true with the phrase “alternative medicine.” Medicine is medicine. Sometimes “alternative medicine” actually works, and when it does we call it “medicine.”) As I mentioned in the previous chapter, “religious morality” reduces human behavior to a monochromatic one-size-fits-all orthodoxy that is actually more dangerous than the broader humanistic principle of reducing harm. I think religion actually compromises moral judgment.”

–Dan Barker, Life Driven Purpose, pg 118


Before He Was Tapped By Donald Trump, Controversial Judicial Nominee Brett J. Talley Investigated Paranormal Activity

By Gideon Resnick and Sam Stein

Brett J. Talley, nominated by President Donald Trump to the Federal District Court in Montgomery, Alabama, has never tried a case, is married to a White House lawyer, and has been dubbed as unqualified by the American Bar Association.

He also has a fervent interest in investigating and writing about paranormal activities.

On his questionnaire for the Senate Judiciary Committee, a copy of which was provided to The Daily Beast, Talley says that he was part of The Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group from 2009-2010. The group, according to its website, searches for the truth “of the paranormal existence” in addition to helping “those who may be living with paranormal activity that can be disruptive and/or traumatic.”

David Higdon, the group’s founder and later a co-author with Talley told The Daily Beast that he couldn’t remember specific cases they may have worked on together.

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Where Is The Next Carl Sagan?

By Erin Biba

In 1954, a study published by Princeton and Dartmouth researchers asked their students to watch a recording of a football game between the two schools and count infractions. The Princeton students reported twice as many violations against Princeton as Dartmouth students did. In a 2003 study, Yale researchers asked people to evaluate proposed (fictional) policies about welfare reform, with political parties’ endorsements clearly stated. They found that their subjects sided with their political parties regardless of their personal ideologies or the policies’ content. A study by a different group in 2011 asked people to identify whether certain scientists (highly trained and at well-respected institutions) were credible experts on global warming, disposal of nuclear waste, and gun control. Subjects largely favored the scientists whose conclusions matched their own values; the facts were irrelevant.

People distort facts by putting them through a personal lens.This behavior is called “selective perception”—the way that otherwise rational people distort facts by putting them through a personal lens of social influence and wind up with a worldview that often alters reality. Selective perception affects all our beliefs, and it’s a major stumbling block for science communication.

What divides us, it turns out, isn’t the issues. It’s the social and political contexts that color how we see the issues. Take nuclear power, for example. In the U.S., we argue about it; in France, the public couldn’t care less. (The U.S.’s power is about 20 percent nuclear; France’s is 78 percent.) Look at nearly any science issue and nations hold different opinions. We fight about gun control, climate change, and HPV vaccination. In Europe, these controversies don’t hold a candle to debates about GMO foods and mad cow disease. Scientific subjects become politically polarized because the public interprets even the most rigorously assembled facts based on the beliefs of their social groups, says Dan Kahan, a Yale professor of law and psychology who ran the 2011 science-expert study.

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Roy Moore allegations prompt reflections on fundamentalist culture in which some Christian men date teens

By Julie Zauzmer

When Roy Moore, then 34 years old, asked 17-year-old Debbie Wesson Gibson whether she would date him, Gibson asked her mother what she would think.

According to The Washington Post’s investigation into Moore’s alleged pursuit of teenage girls, which was published Thursday, Gibson’s mother replied, “I’d say you were the luckiest girl in the world.”

That attitude of encouraging teenage girls to date older men, rather than shielding girls from men’s advances, sounded familiar to some people who read the Post story that has shaken Moore’s bid for the U.S. Senate.

“It’s not so uncommon that people would necessarily look at it askance,” said Nicholas Syrett, a University of Kansas professor who recently published a book on child marriage in America. “The South has a much longer history of allowing minors to marry, and obviously there’s some courtship or dating — whatever you want to call it — leading up to that.”

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