New freelance writings: A new space treaty, space radiation risks, and collapsing coastal cliffs

Here’s a few stories I’ve recently written and published in The Guardian, Knowable magazine, and Carnegie 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.

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(Blue Origin flight test. Credit: Blue Origin)

It’s Time for a New International Space Treaty

With satellite traffic increasing and space tourism set to take off, the laws governing space are due for an overhaul.

Space is much busier than it used to be. Rockets are launching more and more satellites into orbit every year. SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk, blasted more than 800 satellites into space in 2020 alone. Extraterrestrial tourism is about to take off, led by space barons Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, two of whom have already taken their first private space outings. The frenetic activity of space agencies and space companies around the world will extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere, too. Within a few years, the moon will see many more landers, rovers, and even boots on the lunar ground. So will Mars and eventually, perhaps even some asteroids…

Things have changed considerably in the more than half century since international space diplomats hammered out the Outer Space Treaty, the agreement that continues to serve as the world’s basic framework on international space law. Before space conflicts erupt or collisions in the atmosphere make space travel unsustainable — and before pollution irreversibly tarnishes our atmosphere or other worlds — we need a new international rulebook. It’s time for the Biden administration to work with other space powers and negotiate an ambitious new space treaty for the new century…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 22 July.]

Predicting When the Next Bluff Will Fall

Researchers in Southern California are using lidar to improve scientists’ understanding of the erosional forces that cause bluffs to collapse.

In August 2019, three women were relaxing on the beach of Encinitas, California, north of San Diego, when the oceanfront bluff unexpectedly crumbled, showering them with tonnes of sandstone. One of the women, who had been celebrating her recovery from breast cancer, was killed instantly, while her sister and niece later died in the hospital.

That tragic event was neither the first nor the last bluff collapse in a scenic and densely populated, yet precarious, coastal region. Just a few kilometers to the south in Del Mar, a bluff collapsed following a rainstorm in 2016, undermining a busy coastal roadway. Sections of beachside cliffs came crashing down in the area in 2018, too, though no injuries were reported. In February this year, another bluff collapsed—along with the aging sea wall intended to hold it back—about 10 meters from the rail line that links San Diego and Los Angeles and serves nearly eight million passengers and numerous freight trains annually.

Collapsing coastal bluffs are a threat wherever waves, earthquakes, and intense rainstorms can destabilize steep seaside terrain, and with sea levels rising, this risk is increasing. It is a pronounced risk throughout many areas along the Pacific coast of North America, especially in Southern California. Considering that many lives, homes, and vital infrastructure are at stake, scientists have been trying to figure out exactly what causes such cliffs to fall…

[Read the entire story in Hakai magazine, published on 9 July. It was also republished in The Atlantic and Smithsonian magazine.]

New Space Radiation Limits Needed for NASA Astronauts, Report Says

Although meant to minimize risks to human health, the proposed new limits would still be exceeded by any conceivable near-future crewed voyage to Mars.

Astronaut Scott Kelly famously spent an entire year residing onboard the International Space Station (ISS), about 400 kilometers above Earth,and his NASA colleague Christina Koch spent nearly that long “on station.” Each returned to Earth with slightly atrophied muscles and other deleterious physiological effects from their extended stay in near-zero gravity. But another, more insidious danger lurks for spacefarers, especially those who venture beyond low-Earth orbit.

Space is filled with invisible yet harmful radiation, most of it sourced from energetic particles ejected by the sun or from cosmic rays created in extreme astrophysical events across the universe. Such radiation can damage an organism’s DNA and other delicate cellular machinery. And the damage increases in proportion to exposure, which is drastically higher beyond the protective cocoon of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field (such as on notional voyages to the moon or Mars). Over time, the accrued cellular damage significantly raises the risk of developing cancer.

To address the situation, at NASA’s request, a team of top scientists organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report in June recommending that the space agency adopt a maximum career-long limit of 600 millisieverts for the space radiation astronauts can receive…

[Read the entire story in Scientific American, published on 14 July.]

New freelance writings: AI in psychiatry, galactic archaeology, and Mars exploration

Here’s a few stories I’ve recently written and published in The Guardian, Knowable magazine, and Carnegie 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.

Stay more up-to-date and sign up for my new and improved newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

The computer will see you now: is your therapy session about to be automated?

Experts say AI is set to grow rapidly in psychiatry and therapy, allowing doctors to spot mental illness earlier and improve care. But are the technologies effective – and ethical?

In just a few years, your visit to the psychiatrist’s office could look very different – at least according to Daniel Barron. Your doctor could benefit by having computers analyze recorded interactions with you, including subtle changes in your behavior and in the way you talk.

“I think, without question, having access to quantitative data about our conversations, about facial expressions and intonations, would provide another dimension to the clinical interaction that’s not detected right now,” said Barron, a psychiatrist based in Seattle and author of the new book Reading Our Minds: The Rise of Big Data Psychiatry.

Barron and other doctors believe that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) will grow rapidly in psychiatry and therapy, including facial recognition and text analysis software, which will supplement clinicians’ efforts to spot mental illnesses earlier and improve treatments for patients. But the technologies first need to be shown to be effective, and some experts are wary of bias and other ethical issues as well.

While telemedicine and digital tools have become increasingly common over the past few years, “I think Covid has certainly super-charged and accelerated interest in it,” said John Torous, director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess medical center in Boston…

[Read the entire story in The Guardian, published on 4 June.]

A galactic archaeologist digs into the Milky Way’s history

Astrophysicists now have the data and models to uncover subtle imprints from our galaxy’s past.

In the night sky, the band of light from the Milky Way makes our galaxy look like a crowded streak of stars and gas clouds. But today, scientists know its shape and structure in detail: the spiral arms wrapping around the galaxy’s center, its central bulge packed with stars and a gargantuan black hole, and its fainter, fluffy halo of stars farther out, as if our galaxy were cocooned within a stellar cotton ball. They also know that an even more diffuse cloud of dark matter extends farther out still, revealed by the motions of the stars.I

How did the Milky Way come to look this way?

Even just a decade ago, scientists knew the motions of, and the distance to, only a small number of stars in our galactic neighborhood, and so had only a partial picture of the Milky Way’s evolving structure. But the latest telescopes, including the European Space Agency’s Gaia that launched in 2013, have dramatically opened up our view to most of the galaxy. Their data reveal faraway clumps and streams of stars that, like fossils, offer hints about the galaxy’s complex history…

[Read the entire story in Knowable magazine, published on 10 June.]

Perseverance and the Ongoing Search for Life on Mars

Astronomers are deploying the plucky rover and its helicopter sidekick to explore new parts of the red planet and learn whether alien organisms once lived there.

On February 18, scientists and space fans alike had their eyes glued to their screens, nervously and excitedly watching a momentous landing. NASA’s Perseverance rover, a science lab the size of a small car, hurtled toward the surface of Mars at 12,500 miles per hour. Even after firing thrusters and parachuting, the rover needed to further slam the brakes, accomplished by a “sky crane” that gently lowered it with a tether. After seven eventful minutes, at 3:55 p.m. Eastern time, a sufficiently slowed-down rover finally set its wheels down on the ruddy Martian soil.

Carnegie Science Center hosted a socially distanced landing party with some 40 visitors, including kids dressed up in flight suits, and hundreds more spectators following along virtually. “I remember the moment that we landed because everyone started jumping up and down and cheering,” says Mike Hennessy, Science Center educator and manager of its Buhl Planetarium.

After the successful landing, Perseverance —or Percy, as it’s sometimes called—sat for a couple of weeks in the middle of Jezero Crater, readying for its missions. It’s thought to be the site of an arid, ancient delta, where liquid water once flowed more than 3 billion years ago. NASA scientists suspect that if fossilized microbes exist on Mars, they could be trapped in clay mineral deposits along the crater’s dried-up lake bottom, shorelines, and river delta…

[Read the entire story in Carnegie magazine, published in June.]

New freelance writings: human-altered nature, and Biden’s space policies

Here’s some of my new writings in Undark magazine and on Substack. 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.

Stay more up-to-date and sign up for my new and improved newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.


Tales of Nature Altered by Human Hands

In “Second Nature,” Nathaniel Rich explores the changing natural world, and our struggle to shape and control it.

Everywhere around us one can witness signs of the natural world’s dramatic changes — often by human hands — that seem to presage an unsettling future. People have already begun to grapple with destructive hurricanes, crumbling coastlines, climate refugees, the genetic engineering of myriad species, and mass extinctions.

While humans have long sought to adapt, exploit, or control nature for their own needs, the changes now happen with new tools and at larger scales than ever before. In his latest book, “Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade,” journalist Nathaniel Rich brings to life the uncanny result: Many people don’t know yet how to respond to widespread environmental and public health crises as well as ethical quandaries that pop up in decisions about where we live, the food we eat, what species’ genes we modify, and what environments we want to conserve. In short, our technologically-driven advances are outpacing our ability to anticipate their impacts.

Rich begins by paraphrasing novelist William Gibson: The future is already here, but our souls haven’t caught up with our rapidly changing natural world. “The trajectory of our era — this age of soul delay — runs from naivety to shock to horror to anger to resolve,” Rich writes…

[Read the entire book review in Undark magazine, published on 7 May.]

Biden’s space policies look a lot like Trump’s so far

While President Biden’s tone and rhetoric certainly sound little like Trump’s, he’s nonetheless continuing some of his predecessor’s questionable policies. A reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday, March 30, about the president’s space policies. She confirmed that, when it comes to space, Biden has agreed quite a bit with Trump.

Biden’s team has made or attempted major shifts in domestic policies, from climate change to racial justice to labor, but there’s actually quite a bit of continuity in space policy. For example, NASA under Biden is continuing Trump’s moon program, called Artemis — so named to hearken back to the glorious days of Apollo and the original moon landing more than a half century ago. But there is no clearly defined mission. It’s more driven by nostalgia and Trump’s attempt to put American boots on the lunar ground by 2024 — a convenient deadline he hoped would occur during his second term in the White House. Furthermore, work on the Artemis rocket and capsule are behind schedule and over budget. Instead, many experts call for more ambitious goals, focusing on the Mars program…

[Read the entire piece on Substack, published on 22 May.]

New freelance writings: climate’s costs, tech vs tourism economies, and coral farming

Here’s a few stories I’ve recently written and published in Undark magazine, Voice of San Diego, and Pomona College 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.

Stay more up-to-date and sign up for my new and improved newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

The Biden administration increases the social cost of carbon

A new policy brings back an old approach to tallying the cost of carbon, but critics say it has limitations.

To turn the tide against climate change, on the day of his inauguration President Joe Biden signed an executive order instituting a raft of policy changes and initiatives. One directed his team to reassess the social cost of carbon. This seemingly obscure concept puts a number on how much damage a metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted today will do in the future, in order to show how much a given climate policy would benefit the economy in the long run. More than in previous assessments, Biden’s team explicitly called for considerations of environmental justice and intergenerational equity, referring to the perils of climate change to future generations.

On Feb. 26, the Biden administration announced an initial estimate of $51 per ton of carbon. But the cost is not a settled matter, and Biden’s advisers are still studying the latest research to make a more comprehensive update. Scientists and economists continue to debate the value of the social cost of carbon — experts have come up with a broad range of numbers, some more than $200 per ton of carbon — as well as its scope and effectiveness at shaping policy at a key climate moment. Their analysis involves making decisions about exactly which climate costs to include and whether government policies should aim to pay now or pay later on the way to the administration’s stated goal of having a carbon-neutral economy by 2050…

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 2 March.]

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New freelance writings: Solar storm preparedness, COVID surveillance

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Science News magazine and on Substack.

Stay more up-to-date and sign up for my new and improved newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

Solar storms can wreak havoc. We need better space weather forecasts

Scientists are expanding efforts to probe outbursts from the sun and understand their occasionally Earthbound paths

Since December 2019, the sun has been moving into a busier part of its cycle, when increasingly intense pulses of energy can shoot out in all directions. Some of these large bursts of charged particles head right toward Earth. Without a good way to anticipate these solar storms, we’re vulnerable. A big one could take out a swath of our communication systems and power grids before we even knew what hit us.

A recent near miss occurred in the summer of 2012. A giant solar storm hurled a radiation-packed blob in Earth’s direction at more than 9 million kilometers per hour. The potentially debilitating burst quickly traversed the nearly 150 million kilometers toward our planet, and would have hit Earth had it come just a week earlier. Scientists learned about it after the fact, only because it struck a NASA satellite designed to watch for this kind of space weather.

That 2012 storm was the most intense researchers have measured since 1859. When a powerful storm hit the Northern Hemisphere in September of that year, people were not so lucky. Many telegraph systems throughout Europe and North America failed, and the electrified lines shocked some telegraph operators. It came to be known as the Carrington Event, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed intensely bright patches of light in the sky and recorded what he saw.

The world has moved way beyond telegraph systems. A Carrington-level impact today would knock out satellites, disrupting GPS, mobile phone networks and internet connections. Banking systems, aviation, trains and traffic signals would take a hit as well. Damaged power grids would take months or more to repair…

[Read the entire cover story in Science News magazine, published on 26 February 2021.]

Let’s rein in the surveillance as we get COVID under control

I’m looking forward to when we have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the United States, which will surely help limit the spread of the disease and its variants. Right now, most states are still struggling in the wake of holiday season get-togethers and the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of this public health crisis, which could last a while. Vaccines probably won’t be widely available until the end of the summer, and we don’t know how long they’ll give people immunity. In other words, COVID isn’t leaving us anytime soon.

To better track the virus’s spread, improve contact tracing and minimize the extent of outbreaks, the US and some other countries have been using the ubiquitous thing most of us have in our pockets: our mobile phones. Tracking apps seem to be one of many useful tools for keeping tabs on where people with the coronavirus have been, who they might have inadvertently infected, and whether you’ve been exposed. Some researchers have also proposed watching for “sick posts” on social media to track new COVID-19 cases, as has been done in China.

But even though we’re an entire year into the pandemic, with more than one in 12 Americans already infected and nearly half a million dead, there has still been little regulation of how these COVID surveillance tools are deployed and what authorities and companies can do with all the data they collect and transmit. Researchers at the RAND think tank point out that any limits on Apple’s and Google’s apps are merely voluntary, and the companies haven’t disclosed how long the apps would be active, how the data would be stored, or whether we can find out exactly what data has been collected about us, according to their recent report

[Read my whole Substack post here, published on 18 February 2021.]

New freelance writings: Blue New Deal, Moon telescopes, and our struggling economy

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Nautilus magazine, Inside Science, and Voice of San Diego. 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!

Making climate change policy more blue

A new push for attention to coastal communities, marine conservation, and ocean infrastructure.

When meteorologists give names to oceanic storms and hurricanes, they customarily do so in alphabetic order: Arthur is followed by Bertha is followed by Cristobal, and so on, until the year ends and the order resets. By September of 2020, the meteorologists responsible for naming storms coming off the Atlantic Ocean ran out of names and switched to their backup, the Greek alphabet. 

It was one of the worst Atlantic hurricane seasons ever recorded, and merely the latest in a rising tide of climate-related coastal catastrophes. In just the last few years, shoreline bluffs collapsed in Southern California; Hurricanes Sandy and Harvey devastated Houston and New York; and acidifying waters corroded the shells of Dungeness crabs on the Pacific coast. The 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to harm both wildlife and people, collateral damage of the demand for fossil fuels. And that’s just in the continental United States.

In response to these crises, a coalition of U.S. environmentalists, conservationists, and economists drafted the Ocean Climate Action Plan, informally known as the Blue New Deal—a riff on the Green New Deal, an ambitious set of proposals that invoke the federal New Deal adopted during the Great Depression, and aim to create green jobs while moving the U.S. economy toward sustainable sources of energy. The Green New Deal, however, has a blind spot: coastal economies and marine ecosystems…

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

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New freelance writings: priority for nukes, science’s demons, and deepfakes

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Undark magazine, Nature magazine, and Engineering News. 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!

For the Next President, Nuclear Weapons Policy Must Be a Priority

President Trump has been inching us toward nuclear catastrophe. A Biden presidency could bring us back from the brink.

It may take days, or even weeks, for disputes over the results of the U.S. presidential election to be resolved. But this much is certain: Whoever takes the helm will be leading the country into a new era of global nuclear weapons policy.

That’s because in January, two days after Inauguration Day, the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will take effect. For the 50 nations who have ratified it, the legally binding agreement will prohibit the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons. Although the U.S. is currently not party to the treaty, our next president — be it Donald J. Trump or Joe Biden — should take note of the historic agreement. And they should also take to heart the international call to reduce the world’s supply of nukes.

Nukes have posed a threat to humanity since the 1940s, and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction still looms behind many conflicts around the world. But nukes have drawn little attention since the fall of the Soviet Union, and they rarely came up as a presidential campaign issue. While policymakers are right to be concerned about the Covid-19 pandemic and worsening climate change, a nuclear disaster could easily arrive at any moment with a president authorizing a launch…

[Read the entire opinion piece in Undark magazine, published on 5 November.]

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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.]

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New freelance writings: space war risks, our climate future, and our universe’s future

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Nature and Undark 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!

NEW DELHI, INDIA – JANUARY 26: Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASAT) from Mission Shakti during Republic Day Parade at Rajpath, on January 26, 2020 in New Delhi, india. (Photo by Ramesh Pathania/Mint via Getty Images)

As Risks of Space Wars Grow, Policies to Curb Them Lag

A pair of recent reports point to growing space threats, but efforts to prevent conflicts are stagnant or out of step.

On April 22, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced a successful launch of what they described as a military reconnaissance satellite, which came after several failed attempts. The satellite joined a growing list of weapons and military systems in orbit, including Russia’s test of a missile system designed to destroy satellites, also in April, and India’s test of an anti-satellite weapon, which the country launched in March 2019.

Experts like Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation (SWF), a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado, worry that these developments — all confirmed by the newly reestablished United States Space Command — threaten to lift earthly conflicts to new heights and put all space activities, peaceful and military alike, at risk. Researchers at SWF and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., both released reports this year on this rapidly evolving state of affairs. The reports suggest that the biggest players in space have advanced their space military abilities, including anti-satellite weapons, which destroy satellites, and technologies that merely disrupt spacecraft, for instance by blocking data collection or transmission.

Many of these technologies, if deployed, could ratchet up an arms race and even spark a war in space, the SWF and CSIS researchers caution. Just blowing up a single satellite scatters debris throughout the atmosphere, said Weeden, co-editor of the SWF report. Such an explosion could hurl projectiles in the paths of other spacecraft and threaten the accessibility of space for everyone…

[Read the entire essay in Undark magazine, published on 6 July.]

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After Hiroshima, nuclear threats still have a long half-life

The massive explosion that rocked Beirut’s port likely killed hundreds, wounded thousands, and rendered 300,000 Lebanese people homeless. But in comparison, the atomic bomb dropped by the United States’s B-29 bombers on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago had 15 times that explosion’s destructive power, killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese people, and sickened many more.

After three quarters of a century, the threat of mutually assured destruction engulfing our planet continues to loom over us. President Trump’s nuclear policies — including tearing up international treaties, deploying so-called “low-yield” warheads on submarines, keeping nukes on “hair-trigger alert” to be launched at a moment’s notice, and refusing to rule out new nuclear testing — have only expanded those threats and encouraged proliferation. Trump’s successor will have a huge responsibility to pull us back from the brink and disperse the calamitous mushroom cloud from our horizon.

While the Hiroshima bomb erupted with the energy of 15,000 tons of TNT, many weapons available for launch in the US’s and other country’s arsenals have the explosive power of megatons of TNT. Even the low-yield nukes promoted by the Trump administration aren’t particularly small, and they arguably encourage an arms race and lower the bar toward somebody once again pressing the big red button and unleashing a weapon of mass destruction. Combined with the lack of US support for at least four nuclear treaties, it’s no wonder that leaders of North Korea, Iran, Saudia Arabia, and Turkey want such weapons for themselves.

As Lesley M. M. Blume writes in her new book, Fallout, if it weren’t for journalist John Hersey’s reporting on the horrific devastation and death toll in Hiroshima, Americans might not be aware of the damage the world’s worst weapons have wrought. Another new book, The Beginning or The End, by Greg Mitchell, also demonstrates the attempt by the federal government and Hollywood to cover up the massive death and destruction let loose by the atom bomb. After the war, such an indisputable attack on civilians and civilian infrastructure came to be viewed as a war crime and a crime against humanity.

With the pandemic and climate change, we already have plenty of threats to humanity. 75 years is already too much time to have such horrific weapons in our midst. Trump’s successor will have their work cut out for them to ensure that our era of toying with nuclear disaster soon comes to an end.