Category: Newsletter

By Sarah Kaplan

Last fall, as NASA’s celebrated Cassini spacecraft spiraled toward its final, fatal descent into Saturn’s clouds, astrochemist Morgan Cable couldn’t help but shed a tear for the school-bus-size orbiter, which became a victim of its own success.

Early in its mission, while flying past Saturn’s ice-covered moon Enceladus, Cassini discovered jets of ice and saltwater gushing from cracks in the south pole — a sign that the body contained a subsurface ocean that could harbor life. When the orbiter began to run low on fuel, it smashed itself into Saturn rather than risk a wayward plunge that would contaminate the potentially habitable world.

Now, from beyond the grave, the spacecraft has offered yet another prize for scientists. New analysis of Cassini data suggests those icy plumes shooting into space contain complex organic compounds — the essential building blocks of living beings.

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By Dylan Matthews

Anthony Kennedy, the longest-serving member of the Supreme Court, is retiring.

Kennedy has, since at least 2005, been the swing vote on many of the Court’s most ideologically charged decisions, responsible for 5-4 rulings that legalized same-sex marriagepreserved Roe v. Wadeupheld warrantless wiretappingblew up campaign finance restrictionsoverturned DC’s handgun ban, and weakened the Voting Rights Act. That position has made him one of the most powerful people in America for well over a decade now, not even counting the 18 years he shared his position as the Court’s swing voter with Sandra Day O’Connor.

But Kennedy, who turns 82 this July, is already the 14th longest-serving justice (out of 113) in the Court’s history. President Donald Trump reportedly nominated Neil Gorsuch, a former Kennedy clerk, to the Court in part to reassure Kennedy that he could trust Trump with picking his replacement. It’s not surprising he decided it was ultimately time to go.

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In this episode of Talk Nerdy, Cara speaks with Bertha Vazquez, the Director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, a division of the Center for Inquiry. They discuss her incredible work providing the tools and training necessary to effectively teach the science of evolution throughout middle schools in the United States. Follow TIES: @rdfrsTIES.

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By Mike Hibbard

He has been called the most remarkable American most people have never heard of.

His name is Robert Green Ingersoll, and his birthplace in this tiny Yates County village has reached a milestone anniversary.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum opened for its 25th consecutive season. Officials said for a quarter century, the museum has restored the incomparable orator and champion of reason to his rightful place in American history and serves as the anchor of the historic Freethought Trail.

“There has never been a better time for Americans to rediscover the words and ideas of Robert Ingersoll,” said Tom Flynn, museum director and editor of Free Inquiry magazine. “As science and reason are under assault, and as the country is awakening to entrenched inequality, Ingersoll’s wit, eloquence and sense of justice are more relevant than ever.”

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By Julia Jacobs

Humans, it turns out, can annoy more than just one another. In fact, some animal populations are escaping their Homo sapiens cohabitants by sleeping more during the day, a new study finds.

Mammals across the globe are becoming increasingly nocturnal to avoid humans’ expanding presence, according to the study, published Thursday in Science magazine. The findings show that humans’ presence alone can cause animals across continents — including coyotes, elephants and tigers — to alter their sleep schedules.

“We’re just beginning to scratch the surface on how these behavioral changes are affecting entire ecosystems,” said Kaitlyn Gaynor, an ecologist and graduate student in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study.

Previous research has found that mammals went from being noctural to being active during both day and night about 65.8 million years ago, roughly 200,000 years after most dinosaurs went extinct. “Species for millions of years have been adapting to diurnal activity, but now we’re driving them back into the night and may be driving natural selection,” Ms. Gaynor said in an interview.

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By Julia Jacobs

Attorney General Jeff Sessions turned to the Bible this week to defend the Trump administration’s immigration policy. His use of religious text to justify a federal policy drew some fire; the text itself drew more.

Many were concerned that Mr. Sessions’s chosen chapter, Romans 13, had been commonly used to defend slavery and oppose the American Revolution.

Speaking to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind., Mr. Sessions used a passage on Thursday to defend the right of the federal government to enforce a directive to prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally. The directive has led to the fracturing of hundreds of migrant families, funneling children into shelters and foster homes.

Mr. Sessions said, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

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We know that if you’re looking for a book to base a society upon, the Bible (which is full of violence and death and floods and plagues and whales swallowing people) is not a great choice. Plus, most of it is made up. But what if we had to choose one book of fiction upon which to found a new and prosperous human society? Could we flourish within a moral society if our civilization was founded upon something like Harry Potter, Great Expectations, or The Cat in the Hat?

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.)

By Alessandra Potenza

As Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano keeps regurgitating molten rock, the US Geological Service continues to post amazingly terrifying photos and videos of lava spewing up in the air and taking over land. The lava is scorching hot, it glows bright orange, and it has the power to gobble up anything that crosses its path. So, what would happen if you touched it?

The lava coming out of Kīlauea is over 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,170 degrees Celsius). “It’s much hotter than anything you’d get in your stove at home,” says Erik Klemetti, assistant professor of geosciences at Denison University. Dipping your hand into molten rock won’t kill you instantly, but it will give you severe, painful burns — “the kind that destroy nerve endings and boil subcutaneous fat,” says David Damby, a research chemist at the USGS Volcano Science Center, in an email to The Verge.

Now, falling into lava is another story. The extreme heat would probably burn your lungs and cause your organs to fail. “The water in the body would probably boil to steam, all while the lava is melting the body from the outside in,” Damby says. (No worries, though, the volcanic gases would probably knock you unconscious.) But unlike one of the characters in the 1997 film Volcano or Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, you wouldn’t sink into the lava and liquefy like the Wicked Witch of the West, says Klemetti, who wrote about those scenes in a 2011 Wired article. Lava may look like a liquid, but it’s not like water: it’s too sticky and viscous. “So you’d be sitting on top of the lava flow,” says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University.

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By Alan Burdick

On the last Sunday afternoon in March, Mike Hughes, a sixty-two-year-old limousine driver from Apple Valley, California, successfully launched himself above the Mojave Desert in a homemade steam-powered rocket. He’d been trying for years, in one way or another. In 2002, Hughes set a Guinness World Record for the longest ramp jump—a hundred and three feet—in a limo, a stretch Lincoln Town Car. In 2014, he allegedly flew thirteen hundred and seventy-four feet in a garage-built rocket and was injured when it crashed. He planned to try again in 2016, but his Kickstarter campaign, which aimed to raise a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, netted just two supporters and three hundred and ten dollars. Further attempts were scrubbed—mechanical problems, logistical hurdles, hassles from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Finally, a couple of months ago, he made good. Stuff was leaking, bolts needed tightening, but at around three o’clock, and with no countdown, Hughes blasted off from a portable ramp—attached to a motorhome he’d bought through Craigslist—soared to nearly nineteen hundred feet, and, after a minute or so, parachuted less than gently back to Earth.

For all of that, Hughes might have attracted little media attention were it not for his outspoken belief that the world is flat. “Do I believe the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee? I believe it is,” he told the Associated Press. “Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.”

Hughes converted fairly recently. In 2017, he called in to the Infinite Plane Society, a live-stream YouTube channel that discusses Earth’s flatness and other matters, to announce his beliefs and ambitions and ask for the community’s endorsement. Soon afterward, The Daily Plane, a flat-Earth information site (“News, Media and Science in a post-Globe Reality”), sponsored a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than seventy-five hundred dollars on Hughes’s behalf, enabling him to make the Mojave jump with the words “Research Flat Earth” emblazoned on his rocket.

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By Sigal Samuel

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception. Western Europeans are deeply secular people—and Christians are no exception.

These twin statements are generalizations, but they capture the essence of a fascinating finding in a new study about Christian identity in Western Europe. By surveying almost 25,000 people in 15 countries in the region, and comparing the results with data previously gathered in the U.S., the Pew Research Center discovered three things.

First, researchers confirmed the widely known fact that, overall, Americans are much more religious than Western Europeans. They gauged religious commitment using standard questions, including “Do you believe in God with absolute certainty?” and “Do you pray daily?”

Second, the researchers found that American “nones”—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are more religious than European nones. The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer.

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