New freelance writings: climate & babies, psych challenges of space, and a quantum mystery

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Aeon magazine, Undark magazine, and Smithsonian magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

Astronaut Karen Nyberg in the International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

How to optimize your headspace on a mission to Mars

Imagine being confined to a metal cell with a couple of other people and few amenities for months or even years. Maybe after that, you’ll be moved to a new compound, but you still have no privacy and extremely limited communication with your family and anyone else in the outside world. You feel both crowded and lonely at the same time, and yet no one comes to treat your emerging mental-health problems.

While this might sound like life in prison, it could just as easily be life as a deep-space explorer, in a sardine can of a rocket hurtling to Mars or a more distant world. Despite years of research by NASA and others, scientists have little insight into the psychological, neurological and sociological problems that will inevitably afflict space travellers battling depression, loneliness, anxiety, stress and personality clashes many millions of miles away from home. Sure, a growing body of research now documents the impact of microgravity on one’s brain and body, along with the exercises and medical attention needed to mitigate the effects. But social isolation, limited privacy, interpersonal issues, along with vast separation from loved ones, remain relatively unexplored.

Even massive Star Trek spaceships – with plenty of space per person – come with counsellors on board, but what if the crew member with counselling training gets injured or falls ill during a critical moment? If morale plummets and rapport among the team disappears, an emergency situation could spell the end of both the astronauts and the mission…

[Read the entire essay in Aeon magazine, published on 12 February.]


Climate Change Is a Political Crisis, Not a Reproductive One

Asking millennials to forego children in the name of climate change only lets the fossil fuel industry off the hook.

The climate strikes led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and youth groups around the world have achieved great strides, growing rapidly and drawing attention to the dire climate dilemma we face today. A majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and want people to address it right now, according to a recent CBS poll.

But one popular proposal to emerge, that people should have fewer kids, probably isn’t the climate panacea that would-be parents would like to believe. Going childless will do little to derail the main drivers of climate change, and asking millennials to take on that burden — as if the problem’s their responsibility — only lets the fossil fuel industry’s juggernaut off the hook.

The idea of foregoing children to mitigate climate change is essentially an extension of arguments that call for individuals to help save the climate by changing their consumer behavior — say, by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, installing solar panels, eating less meat, or buying fuel-efficient cars. But it would surely take decades to substantially reduce the world’s population by going childless, if that is even an achievable and desirable societal goal, and we’re already set to overshoot the world’s carbon budget — the level of cumulative carbon emissions that would result in reaching the critical threshold of 2 degrees Celsius of warming — in the 2030s. Climate change is a structural problem involving politics and economics, not personal choices, and solving it will require huge political and economic changes…

[Read the entire opinion piece in Undark magazine, published on 23 January.]


A New Experiment Hopes to Solve Quantum Mechanics’ Biggest Mystery

Physicists will try to observe quantum properties of superposition—existing in two states at once—on a larger object than ever before.

The quantum revolution never truly ended. Beneath the world of classical physics, at the smallest scales, tiny particles don’t follow the usual rules. Particles sometimes act like waves, and vice versa. Sometimes they seem to exist in two places at once. And sometimes you can’t even know where they are.

For some physicists, like Niels Bohr and his followers, the debates surrounding quantum mechanics were more or less settled by the 1930s. They believed the quantum world could be understood according to probabilities—when you examine a particle, there’s a chance it does one thing and a chance it does another. But other factions, led by Albert Einstein, were never fully satisfied by the explanations of the quantum world, and new theories to explain the atomic realm began to crop up.

Now, nearly a century later, a growing number of physicists are no longer content with the textbook version of quantum physics, which originated from Bohr’s and others’ interpretation of quantum theory, often referred to as the Copenhagen interpretation. The idea is similar to flipping a coin, but before you look at the result, the coin can be thought of as both heads and tails—the act of looking, or measuring, forces the coin to “collapse” into one state or the other. But a new generation of researchers are rethinking why measurements would cause a collapse in the first place…

[Read the entire piece in Smithsonian magazine, published on 5 February.]

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