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.

New freelance writings: Alternatives to dark matter, alternatives to Planet Nine, and insecticides at sea

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Aeon magazine, Scientific American, and Hakai 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!

Does dark matter exist?

Dark matter is the most ubiquitous thing physicists have never found: it’s time to consider alternative explanations.

In 1969, the American astronomer Vera Rubin puzzled over her observations of the sprawling Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s biggest neighbour. As she mapped out the rotating spiral arms of the stars through spectra that she and colleagues had carefully measured at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Lowell Observatory, both in Arizona, she noticed something strange: the stars in the galaxy’s outskirts seemed to be orbiting far too fast. So fast that she’d expect them to escape Andromeda and fling out into the heavens beyond. Yet the whirling stars stayed in place.

Rubin’s research, which she expanded to dozens of other spiral galaxies, led to a dramatic dilemma: either there was much more matter out there, dark and hidden from sight but holding the galaxies together with its gravitational pull, or gravity somehow works very differently on the vast scale of a galaxy than scientists previously thought…

Over the past half century, no one has ever directly detected a single particle of dark matter. Over and over again, dark matter has resisted being pinned down, like a fleeting shadow in the woods. Every time physicists have searched for dark matter particles with powerful and sensitive experiments in abandoned mines and in Antarctica, and whenever they’ve tried to produce them in particle accelerators, they’ve come back empty-handed. For a while, physicists hoped to find a theoretical type of matter called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), but searches for them have repeatedly turned up nothing.

With the WIMP candidacy all but dead, dark matter is apparently the most ubiquitous thing physicists have never found. And as long as it’s not found, it’s still possible that there is no dark matter at all. An alternative remains: instead of huge amounts of hidden matter, some mysterious aspect of gravity could be warping the cosmos instead…

[Read the entire essay in Aeon magazine, published on 25 June.]

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New freelance writings: universal basic income, satellite constellations, and fluffy planets

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Knowable magazine, Technology Review magazine, and Inside Science. 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!

The complexities of a universal basic income

It’s a hot topic under political debate: providing cash grants as a social safety net. Small programs hint at how it might work — or not — on a national scale.

“Universal basic income” was for a long time an obscure term bandied about in economics circles. That’s no longer the case. The idea, usually involving a monthly cash grant to every person with no strings attached, has entered mainstream discourse.

Former US presidential candidate Andrew Yang made it a main plank of his campaign. Occupy Wall Street activists called for it in their social movement. Some economists and policymakers — amid concerns about job insecurity in an age of rapid automation and the widening income gap between rich and poor — are seeking big solutions. And the idea has reemerged with the current Covid-19 pandemic that has wiped out the income of many workers practically overnight.

Many political leaders support at least expanding current income-assistance programs — a much-talked-about idea in the lead-up to the recent Democratic presidential primaries. These existing programs focus on specific groups: people who are underemployed, disadvantaged or have a low income, including those who are elderly, disabled or have children. But a universal basic income would go further. It would remove all conditions on the payments, giving a measure of security without the stigma sometimes associated with current programs…

[Read the entire interview with economist Hilary Hoynes in Knowable magazine, published on 3 April.]

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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.]

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Iran Could’ve Been Our Ally

As an Iranian-American writer, I just wanted to offer a few brief thoughts on the current simmering conflict, which is threatening to boil over…

Despite claims of a clash of cultures or civilizations, Iran and the United States actually have some common interests in the Middle East. And had history played out differently, the countries might even have become allies, while Iranians and Americans could have been colleagues especially in the arts and sciences. But to forge a new relationship, at least one of mutual respect, it will require coming to terms with America’s oppressive past in the region.

Azadi Tower, Tehran

Britain was once Iran’s biggest nemesis, but the US government took on that mantle in 1953. That was when the CIA played a major role in overthrowing Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s popular elected leader who had the gall to nationalize the oil company later known as BP, which had for decades been extracting Iranian oil to grease the wheels of the British Empire.

US officials re-installed the Shah, a brutally repressive autocrat who was so disliked that Iranians united to overthrow him. Students, activists, trade unionists, poets, and Islamists came together in that revolution, but the latter shunned the others and assumed power when the dust settled. US governments since then have failed to understand Iranians’ anger against them. The US supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, shot down a civilian airplane that killed 290 people, invaded Iran’s two biggest neighbors with more than 100,000 troops, supported Iran’s two biggest rivals with powerful weaponry, installed dozens of military bases that surround the country, insisted Iran’s part of some Axis of Evil, and repeatedly hit Iranians with sanctions, to which they have no recourse. No wonder Iranians feel threatened.

Iran remains a divided country: many Iranians support their government in response to the Trump administration’s crippling economic sanctions and assassination of General Soleimani while others oppose their government’s mishandling of the economy and limitations on their political freedoms. (Some Iranians are in both camps.)

“That’s history” is a dismissive phrase in America, but to Iranians, a proud people whose trials and achievements go back millennia, history matters indeed.

I’ve visited many places throughout Iran to give talks and to see family. Iranians have their own critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning films, but they love American movies, too. They quote their own poets and writers, but they also read American literature. They have plenty of physicists, astronomers and doctors — algebra, optics and pediatrics all arguably began in Persia — and these accomplished scientists would jump at the opportunity to collaborate with their American counterparts.

Relations between the two nations seem to be at their nadir, but both Americans and Iranians don’t want war. If the Trump administration and leading Democrats realize that the days of US empire in the Middle East are over, they can step back from the brink of war, withdraw troops and military bases, and stake out a path toward peace, which would greatly benefit the people of both countries.

New freelance writings: sea level rise, searching for aliens, and the meaning of life

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Undark magazine, Hakai magazine, and Inside Science. 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!

View of Earth by the Cassini spacecraft near Saturn. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Searching for Meaning on Our Pale Blue Dot

In “For Small Creatures Such as We,” Sasha Sagan reflects on her upbringing and the power of secular faith.

Religion, and Christianity in particular, appear to be becoming less important among younger Americans, declining dramatically in the past two decades, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll. So where can people turn to share a common culture and community?

For Sasha Sagan, the author of “For Small Creatures Such as We,” even a dinner party tradition or a shared song can generate the camaraderie people may be missing. Aimed primarily at atheist and agnostic readers, her book is both a memoir of growing up as the daughter of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer Ann Druyan in Ithaca, New York, where her father was a professor at Cornell University, as well as an exploration of connections and universal themes among religions, cultures, and secular communities around the world.

Her parents wrote and produced many acclaimed and popular science books and TV programs, including “Cosmos,’’ “Contact,” “Pale Blue Dot,’’ and “The Demon-Haunted World.’’ The movie version of “Contact,’’ which came only seven months after Sagan’s death in 1996, included the line that inspired his daughter’s title: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Like her parents, Sagan has plenty of gifts as a writer and communicator. It’s her livelihood, in fact: She’s not a scientist but a TV producer, filmmaker, writer, editor, and speaker. In her book, she writes of the “immense brazen beauty of life” and argues that “from the genetic information in our blood to the movement of the Earth around the sun, our vast universe provides us with enough profound and beautiful truths to live a spiritually fulfilling life.”

[Read the entire piece in Undark magazine, published on 15 November.]

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New freelance writings: Surveillance of truckers; clumps of stardust; religion & science

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Inside Science, and 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!


Robot Truckers Are Here — They Just Happen to Be Human

Electronic tracking devices and other surveillance tech monitor just about everything human drivers do, automating what was once an independent job.

Truckers drink coffee and complain about Mondays just like everybody else. Work can be a slog. But unlike what you’re probably used to in your office, many truck drivers now deal with rigorous and near-constant electronic surveillance — a camera pointed at them to closely monitor productivity, for example.

“You feel like you’re being watched all the time,” says John Grosvenor, founder of Truckers United for Freedom, a group that advocates for truckers’ rights. “Some people act out in inappropriate behaviors at times — they stick their finger in their nose or do something crass—as a form of rebellion. All in all, they hate it.”

Devices now track every aspect of a trucker’s job, including their current location, where they’re going, how fast they’re driving, and when they take a break and how long it lasts. Mostly for insurance purposes in the event of an accident, trucks often come equipped with cameras trained on both the driver and the road. They also have a variety of radar, lidar, and ultrasound sensors, as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes. The data feeds into an onboard computer, similar to self-driving vehicles. One firm has even developed a steering wheel with built-in heart monitors to monitor fatigue.

Since companies need truckers to deliver specific things at specific times, truckers don’t have regular routes like other drivers, but instead might be hauling paper towels to New York one day and motoring a haul of bolts down to Pittsburgh the next. Any delay can foul up assembly lines and supply chains. “That’s really the foundation of the day-to-day, routine monitoring of truck drivers since the mid-1990s,” says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “[Trucking] has slowly evolved to look very much like the algorithmic management that everyone thinks is new about platforms like Uber.”

[Read the entire piece in Medium, published on 1 October.]

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New freelance writings: apocalypses in comics, big black holes, fooling facial recognition

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Quanta magazine, Inside Science, and Physics 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!


Apocalypse How-To? Better Science Fiction Stories About Threats to Humanity

While plenty of apocalypses occur in science fiction, the risks could be shown more realistically, experts argue.

Which science fiction movies, TV shows, and comic books give a realistic portrayal of the consequences of “antibiotic resistance”? None, said Jessica Petrillo, a State Department senior health security officer. There’s a dearth of stories exploring how overusing antibiotics is fueling drug-resistant diseases that kill more and more people every year, she said. Her first goal is to try to raise awareness of the global problem, including through “comic book diplomacy.”

That’s an extreme case, but a panel of government agents and scientists at San Diego’s Comic-Con last Friday argued that science fiction writers and artists can craft better stories about disasters that could imperil civilization. The possibility of a coming apocalypse pervades science fiction today, but how likely are those possibilities in the next few decades or the next century? These experts tried to figure out how nuclear proliferation, killer asteroids and pandemics might actually arise.

Take nuclear terrorism. Many movies and TV programs, including “24,” make it appear almost easy to acquire or engineer nuclear devices. But countries typically hold such devices with the highest security measures, such that maybe only a terrorist organization with the capabilities of SPECTRE from the James Bond movies or The Syndicate in the DC Comics universe could get around them, said Gregory Bernard, a Department of Homeland Security officer…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 24 July.]

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New freelance writings: smartphone border searches, new moonshots, AI gone awry

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Inside Science, and 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!


Smartphone Privacy Is Under Threat at the Border

Picture this: You’re driving up from Tijuana to San Diego, and as you cross the U.S. border, agents stop you and demand to see your iPhone. With no explanation, and no warrant, they can thumb through your phone, or simply take it and extract all the data they want — every embarrassing text, private photos, even deleted files. And this happens more often than you think.

Over the past few years, with little fanfare, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have rapidly ramped up the number of digital searches they carry out, using powerful tools to copy personal data from people’s smartphones, tablets, and laptops as they cross the border. More than a million people cross the border or arrive by airport every day in the U.S., with around 100,000 passing daily by foot, car, and bus through the Tijuana-San Diego port of entry alone. A not insignificant number of these people — now thousands annually — are being subjected to invasive searches of their devices.

“The government’s national security powers are strongest at the border,” says Catherine Crump, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school and director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. “But this just gives the government an incredible opportunity, a situation ripe for abuse. The government has untrammeled access to people’s most sensitive information.”…

[Read the entire piece in Medium magazine, published on 7 June.]

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Could universal basic income become a presidential campaign issue?

[Backstory: This is a draft of a story that didn’t work out for the magazine I wrote it for, so I decided to share it here on my website.]

The Universal Basic Income is now a 2020 campaign issue. Longshot candidate Andrew Yang, a New York businessman, is getting increasing press for his platform centered around a universal basic income plan. Senator Bernie Sanders also supports the policy, and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has included a kind of UBI in her proposed Green New Deal.

But UBI isn’t just some abstract, pie-in-the-sky idea; it’s already being tested and implemented in a bunch of places around the country. Small pilot programs and versions of a universal basic income—though not always with that name—have gained steam in a variety of cities and states, from Stockton to Chicago to Hawaii. The policy usually means dishing out cash, no strings attached, to everyone, on a monthly or annual basis, an influx that can keep many families above the poverty line. And while the idea is certainly being pushed mainly by progressives, it’s a rare policy with support among many on the left and right and in financially strapped as well as more well-off places.

“There’s a great deal of momentum in the movement right now,” says Karl Widerquist, a political economist at Georgetown University in Qatar and co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network, which supports UBI. He attributes its increasing popularity over the past decade to factors including Occupy Wall Street, awareness of stagnating wages, growing inequality and increasing concerns about automation.

But even as the idea gains steam, these early programs are running into problems. Many are primarily funded by billionaires, which makes them unsustainable—and they face uncertain futures when only a few policy-makers are ready to put government money behind them.

The most robust cash-distribution program ever attempted in the U.S. comes out of Alaska. In the 1970s, Alaska opened the North Slope to oil drilling, and some of the oil revenue was invested in a fund the state called the Permanent Fund. Since 1982, the Permanent Fund has paid out a dividend between $1,000 and $2,000—depending on oil prices—to every resident every year, regardless of age. (More than 660,000 Alaskans received their 2018 check for $1,600 in October.) While that’s not an enormous sum, it means a lot to someone close to the poverty line, and it adds up in a household with kids.

“By creating a fund, they were able to keep that [oil revenue] money invested and keep it around for a long time,” says Damon Jones, a University of Chicago economist. “They’ve preserved it over time for future generations.”

The Alaska Permanent Fund has been around long enough to provide documented outcomes for those studying the policy. For example, a common political objection to such programs is that “free riders” will quit their jobs or work less once they get that extra paycheck. But a new study shows that the small number of free riders aren’t enough to drag the economy down. Jones and Ioana Marinescu, a University of Pennsylvania economist, find that the policy has had no significant effect on the Alaska job market, as employment levels there match that of other, similar states.

“We explain this by saying that there is a balancing out of people’s lesser desire to work and companies’ desire to hire in order to respond to added demand from Alaskans who are spending their cash,” Marinescu says. In other words, the economy remains pretty stable: If there are any people working less, any impact they might have is offset by people spending their extra money on goods and services, which means local businesses hire more.

Many economists, especially conservative ones like Milton Friedman and his followers, prefer UBI to other wealth redistribution programs because it gives people the freedom to spend their money however they want, and they see it as preferable to expensive social welfare programs, like food stamps and health care.

And the Alaskan experiment has shown that untethered cash grants can improve public health and safety. For one, babies in the state, especially those of less-educated mothers, have had higher birth weights since the policy was implemented in the 1970s.

Another UBI experiment saw a similar effect: About 20 years ago, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina started channeling casino money to all adult tribal members—about 16,000 people. They received two payments per year adding up to $4,000-$6,000 annually, and afterwards poverty and criminal activity went down while children’s health improved dramatically.

Though these experiments arguably accomplished what they were intended to do, whether the policy can be politically and economically sustainable in other places around the country still remains to be seen. Four out of five Alaskans say their program provides an important source of income for people in their community and improves their quality of life. But nationwide polls of eligible voters show that about 48 percent of them support a guaranteed basic income, with higher support from people under 50 and people of color.

And, of course, financing from oil and gas or from casinos isn’t a possibility in most other places, so the Alaskan and Cherokee systems can’t be replicated elsewhere.

Two of the newest pilot programs include Stockton and Oakland, California, whose populations add up to about Alaska’s. Starting later this year, about 100 Stockton volunteers selected by researchers will receive $500 a month for 18 months, and 1,000 Oakland participants will get $1,000 a month for a year. The experiments’ funders include Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and the startup company incubator Y Combinator led by Sam Altman. Other Silicon Valley heavyweights like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have voiced support for a basic income as well, at least in principle, partly because of the fear that artificial intelligence and robots will take over more people’s jobs.

Others look to an even wider scale. Democratic Representative Chris Lee passed legislation last year for Hawaii to form an economic security working group to study how UBI could work throughout the state. And Chicago’s City Council could soon implement a UBI pilot to provide $500 a month to 1,000 families, likely partly funded by philanthropists.

If either ultimately comes to fruition for all their residents, however, it would cost billions of dollars annually. And that likely means raising taxes.

“I think one of the promising avenues for financing basic income is to think about a carbon tax or more broadly a tax on pollution,” Marinescu argues.

But then it really becomes more of a political challenge rather than an economic one. The biggest carbon tax proposal on the 2018 midterm ballot, in Washington state, failed by a wide margin—56 percent to 44 percent. A bill in the House with bipartisan cosponsors (the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act) would create a small carbon tax and the money would be given to taxpayers in a dividend, but its support currently remains small. Until a federal carbon tax becomes a political reality, each city and state will have to come up with their own financing scheme for a basic income, and for many, that won’t be easy to solve.

But a guaranteed income isn’t the only big idea in town, and other similar measures have become part of the national debate. New Jersey Democratic Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, introduced legislation last September to make caregivers and students pursuing higher education eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. And in October, Senator Kamala Harris announced the LIFT (Livable Incomes for Families Today) the Middle Class Act, which would basically expand the EITC. On the other hand, Senators Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand have called for an even more ambitious universal job guarantee instead, which would mean employment as well as a livable income for everyone.

“I think this is a really interesting conversation because it pushes us to think really hard about our social contract,” says Rakeen Mabud, director of the nonprofit Roosevelt Institute’s 21st Century Economy and Economic Inclusion programs. “It forces us to think about those big ideas, push past assumptions we have about the poor and about what our government should be doing and get toward a vision of a good society.”