Good morning, Quartz readers!
Scientists have discovered nearly 3,500 planets that circle a star other than our sun. And, yet, something about the announcement ofseven new exoplanets this week seemed to have struck a chord with millions of people in ways the previous thousands did not. Even my colleague’s six-year-old daughter Elizabeth caught the buzz, “going nuts over Trappist-1,” the star at the center of these new exoplanets.
Elizabeth has good reason for her excitement. Trappist-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star, one of the most common types of star in our galaxy. Finding Earth-like planets around one of these stars means we likely have billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. And with every exoplanet we discover, the probability that we’re alone in the universe goes down.
But to many detractors, this sort of space research is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Knowing there are Earth-like planets some 39 light years away, a distance we’re unlikely to cross any time soon, does not in any way alleviate the many terrestrial problems we face today. That argument gets even stronger when serious money is spent on space by a country like India, which launched a successful mission to Mars, but still has hundreds of millions suffering in poverty.
It’s hard to put a number on the return on investment in space research, but experts agree that benefits far outweigh costs. If that’s not convincing, consider the immeasurable impact space discoveries have on humanity. Helen Maynard-Casely, an astrophysicist in Australia, became the first person in her family to go to university, because as a seven year old she was inspired by Helen Sharman, the first Briton to go to space. For all we know, Trappist-1 might similarly inspire Elizabeth and others like her.
In times when science is under attack from some of the most powerful people on Earth, it’s doubly important to tell the stories of what scientists have done and can do for the benefit of humankind. If nothing else, even simply sparking imagination that takes us away, albeit briefly, from our terrestrial worries is surely worth a tiny fraction of public money.—Akshat Rathi
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SOME THINGS ON QUARTZ WE ESPECIALLY LIKED
A dentist in Oregon keeps an office full of real human heads.Former dentist, that is. These days, he spends his days testing out various DIY cryopreservation techniques on human brains. Corinne Purtill travelled to Salem, Oregon to investigate the legal but ethically ambiguous world of for-profit body donation that enables these sorts of mad scientists do to their work.
Women have been made into servants once again. Quartz sexually harassed bots to test their response to abuse, and the results were bleak: Alexa cracks jokes at sexual insults, Siri literally flirts with abuse, and poor Google Home doesn’t understand what’s going on. But, as Leah Fessler points out, if the bots have been partially programmed to respond to abuse, that means Silicon Valley can do more. It just has to step up.
Trump doesn’t get the real reason NAFTA is bad for America.Donald Trump’s promise to tear-up NAFTA and bring jobs back to the US won him the support of working class voters in the 2016 presidential election. The real problem with NAFTA is not that it outsourced US work to low-wage countries, Jeff Faux argues, but that it has shifted the benefits of expanding trade to investors and the costs to workers.
Japan’s globally influential Harajuku fashion is dead. For 20 years, the magazine FRUiTS has documented the wild creativity of fashionable kids in the Harajuku section of Tokyo. Now, the magazine can’t find enough stylish people to fill its pages and so is ceasing publication. Marc Bain takes us through the fascinating rise of Harajuku style, and what appears to be its demise.
Kenya’s youth are challenging the old guard. Kenya is a country with a dynamic private sector and a growing economy. But six months before a general election, Abdi Latif Dahir finds mounting frustration over endemic corruption and the failure of social services driving a new generation of young activists to run for office.
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FIVE THINGS ELSEWHERE THAT MADE US SMARTER
An abridged history of race in America. Ibram X. Kendi, writing in The New York Times Book Review (paywall) summarizes the ideas put forth by the most influential books on race and the black experience published in America during each decade since the nation’s birth, from Thomas Jefferson’s notes on the state of Virginia in 1785 to Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple.
What Putinology tells us about ourselves. It’s the perfect article for our times: a study of both Vladimir Putin and the cottage industry of analysis that has sprouted up to explain him to non-Russian audiences. Writing for The Guardian, Keith Gessen unpacks the seven highly entertaining, and often contradictory, hypotheses of Putinology—theories that say more about Putin’s interlocutors than about the man himself.
There will never be a perfect sweetener. Food companies are desperate to find a low- (or no-) calorie alternative to sugar to meet consumer demand. The trouble is, the only artificial sweeteners we have so far either taste terrible or are prohibitively costly. At this point,writes Beth Kowitt for Fortune, companies may just have to cut back on added sugar and hope customers don’t run to competitors for their fix.
Decoding North Korea’s nuclear propaganda. Secrecy is the watchword in Pyongyang, but a single propaganda image can reveal plenty under the microscope. After quizzing media analysts and nonproliferation experts on this state photo (paywall) of the Hermit Kingdom’s “disco ball” warhead, Max Fisher and Jugal K. Patel find clues to the country’s nuclear ambitions, its political positioning, and even leader Kim Jong-Un’s precise location.
How to get someone to change their mind. Daryl Davis, an African-American musician, has made it his life’s work to befriend white racists. In a two-part series for Love+Radio, Davis tells the story of his unusual hobby and what so many years of arguing has taught him about making people change the way they think.
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