New freelance writings: Black Lives Matter impacts, body language experts, and ocean worlds

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Knowable, Undark and Nautilus magazines. 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 free newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

What legacy lies ahead for Black Lives Matter?

Historically, the road to reform has often begun with protesters taking to the streets. A sociologist and a political scientist take stock of whether today’s activism will lead to actual change.

In the months since widespread protests erupted around the United States after the killing of George Floyd, some things have already changed. Police officers involved in the Minneapolis man’s death were charged in the murder case. Many police agencies have moved to ban or restrict the kind of neck hold used on Floyd. Statues of Confederate soldiers and others associated with racist pasts have been toppled or removed in many cities.

A raft of police reform policy measures have been proposed in most states, and activists have pushed city councils to reduce police departments’ budgets and shift resources toward other programs. The protesters, led by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other national and local groups in reaction to Floyd’s death and those of other Black Americans, have achieved some initial reforms and successes.

Will there be deeper, lasting change? The BLM protests have seen tens of millions of Americans taking to the streets to protest the deaths, dwarfing the size of earlier waves of protest in the US. Americans’ support for BLM grew by at least 24 percent immediately after Floyd’s death in May, according to a June survey by the Pew Research Center…

[Read the entire essay in Knowable magazine, published on 16 October.]

What Can Body Language Analysis Really Tell Us?

Some analysts say that nonverbal cues reveal important truths about people in high-stakes situations. Are they right?

Last week, tens of millions of people tuned into the first debate between President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Similar viewership is expected for the next two contests — assuming they go ahead following Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis last week — as well as for Wednesday’s vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City. Along with listening to the candidates’ words, many viewers of the closely watched political spectacles will also pay attention to the debaters’ demeanor, posture, tics, and gestures.

Body language can exude confidence or awkwardness, charisma or anxiety. In recent years, it has also become the subject of a small cottage industry premised on the idea that nonverbal cues can reveal important truths about people in high-stakes situations. News outlets like The Washington Post and Politico interview consultants and bring them on as columnists to analyze speakers’ body language after debates and diplomatic meetings between world leaders. On YouTube, self-appointed experts claiming to read public figures’ expressions sometimes garner millions of views.

Some of this analysis explores how body language can influence audiences. Other times, pundits try to explain what public figures are thinking or feeling based on subtle cues. After Trump and Biden’s first debate, for example, one analyst told The Independent, a British newspaper, that when Biden looked down at his lectern as Trump spoke, it “could be interpreted as submission to the attack” or a sign of self-control…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 7 October.]

Move Over, Mars: The Search for Life on Saturn’s Largest Moon

Alien microbes could be flourishing in the underground seas of Titan and the solar system’s other ocean worlds.

In the mid-2020’s, NASA will launch a helicopter-like lander the size of a small car toward Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Nearly a decade later, after crossing about a billion miles of empty darkness, this spacecraft, dubbed Dragonfly, will gently settle onto Titan’s sand dunes. There the sun will merely appear as a very bright star in the heavens and the Earth will barely be visible, like a floating mote of dust. The frigid temperatures will be colder than anywhere on Earth. But scientists believe this enigmatic world might harbor alien life.

Of all the planets, moons and asteroids in our solar system, Titan is a rarity. Along with Enceladus, another of Saturn’s moons, and Europa, which orbits Jupiter, it is an ocean world, possessing flowing water and other liquids, organic materials, and an energy source that could provide just the right conditions for microbes to arise. Mars might be synonymous with pop-culture conceptions of aliens, but the Red Planet likely lacks those features and has been bone-dry and mostly atmosphere-less for some three billion years. These ocean worlds could be inhabited right now. 

The discovery of any kind of alien microbes on any of these worlds would be transformative, changing our prevailing views of life, its origins, and ultimately, ourselves. But if searches for life continue to turn up nothing, it may turn out that Earthlings have to explore much, much further to find fellow organisms in our galaxy…

[Read the entire piece in Nautilus magazine, published in October.]

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