Sometimes, when you’re teaching simple Mendelian genetics you have to make up fictitious scenarios, because real genetics is significantly more complicated than introductory students can handle. It’s an approach with pitfalls, though, because you don’t want students to think they can use your toy examples to model reality. There’s also a history of bad genetics misapplied to imply that genetics is reducible to pairs of alleles with only dominant and recessive relationships. I’ve invented simple Mendelian models for my classes, but I usually do something like make a story problem with Martians to avoid any confusion with reality.

But then, some genetics teachers, like Alex Nguyen of Luther Burbank High School invent story problems with a) imaginary human traits, b) traits that correspond to racist stereotypes, and c) assign them to specific, named students in the school. That’s not only misleading, it’s unethical. It’s shamefully bad pedagogy.

Here are some sample questions he actually used in a genetics test. These questions were so bad that a student quickly reported it to the school administration, and within ten minutes the principal showed up to confiscate the exam. And Nguyen tried to continue the test by projecting the questions on an overhead projector! I guess he didn’t get the message.

In high school, there are individuals who are cross-eyed like (the name of a student) and (another name of a student), which is a dominant trait. We call those individuals ‘weirdoes.’ So, if you crossed two weirdoes (the two students named again), that are heterozygous for being cross-eyed, what is the offspring that would result?

Crossed eyes are not a strongly heritable trait, and calling students “weirdos”?

For some reason, the African American culture has influenced most of the student body. How? In African Americans, they have a gene for the pimp walk, which is dominant. What is the result if you cross (student name) homozygous dominant Latina with a homozygous recessive Hmong like (student name)?

“Pimp walk” is not a heritable trait, the Hmong don’t have an unusual walk, and why is he tying this to a Latina student?

Here at the wonderful school of LBHS, we have certain students who love to sleep in class,” the question said. “I even see students fall asleep during exams! Can you believe that?! I don’t like it when students sleep in class… it’s rude! So, WAKE THE #$%K UP! Well, through much study, I have concluded that the gene for falling asleep is dominant. Not only that some students sleep, they snore in class. This too is a dominant trait. What are the possible offspring if you cross a homozygous sleeping, heterozygous snoring student (student name) with a homozygous attentive, non-snoring (student name) student?

Oh god. Do I need to say it? These are not heritable traits.

Human heredity can be very complicated when dealing with SO many traits. Luckily for you, the most that we have dealt with are two trait combinations. Every person on earth has certain body and shapes and this includes their facial structure. Some people have an oval facial structure like (student name) and other people can have a round face like (student name) while others may exhibit a square facial structure like (student name). That is why we make so many different shapes and sizes of glasses. While focusing on facial struct, we also have to consider people’s heights. There are tall people like (student name), mediaum and short people. Determine all possible offspring when (student name) RrTt person is crossed with an (student name) rrTT person.

Well, good for him for introducing dihybrid traits, but things like the shape of the face are polygenic, and not reducible to a simple Mendelian allele, and height has a huge environmental component.

Alex Nguyen was swiftly placed on administrative leave, and replaced with a substitute the next day. The “investigation” continues, but I don’t see why — they’ve caught him red-handed, they’ve got the exam he distributed, they should just fire him for racism and incompetence. And he’s been teaching for over a decade? That tells me there is something deeply wrong about the teaching of genetics in public schools.

I’m still waiting for my black widow egg sacs to hatch out, and I’m getting a little concerned. My lab is still a frigid cold victim of bad environmental controls in my building — 17°C (62°F) — and although I’ve got the little guys packed up in incubators, I also have to worry about very low humidity, under 30%. I’ve been shopping for incubators with both thermal and humidity control, but it’s a terrible mistake to try looking in scientific supply catalogs. $1500? For a little 0.2L box? That’s not going to do.

So I resorted to Amazon, and searched for egg hatching stuff. Here we go — there’s a mass market demand for incubators for chicken eggs, so that’s what I got.

There we go, Egg Incubator, Intelligent Incubator for Chicken Eggs with Automatic Humidity Control and Egg Turning, Temperature control, 15 Eggs Incubator for Hatching Eggs&Quail egg with Egg Candler. $40. I just calibrated it, and am waiting for it to stabilize at 30°C and 75% humidity. I disabled the egg turning, and don’t have much use for an egg candler. I think they need to adjust their ad copy to mention Spider Eggs.

I’m still keeping my eyes open for a used scientific-grade incubator, but this will do. I also think the physical plant people need to get on the ball and get the environmental controls properly balanced — my lab is a refrigerator all summer long, while some of the offices are saunas, I hear. I complain every year, but nothing is ever done.

The official reminders are rolling in : my mother’s obituary. I never wanted to see that.

I haven’t read this new book by Jack Posobiec, so I don’t know how it ends. Can you guess? While you’re at it, maybe you can identify who the Unhumans are.

If you don’t understand communist revolutions, you aren’t ready for what’s coming.

The old rules are over. The old order is over. Accusations are evidence. Activism means bigotry and hate. Criminals are allowed to roam free. Citizens are locked up. An appetite for vengeance is unleashed—to deplatform, debank, destroy. This is the daily news, yet none of it’s new. Patterns from the past make sense of our present. They also foretell a terrifying future we might be condemned to endure.

For nearly 250 years, far-left uprisings have followed the same battle plans—from the first call for change to last innocent executed, from denial a revolution is even happening to declaration of the new order. Unhumans takes readers on a shocking, sweeping, and succinct journey through history to share the untold stories of radical takeovers that textbooks don’t teach.

And there is one conclusion: We’re in a new revolution right now.

But this is not a book about ideology or politics. Unhumans reveals that communism, socialism, Marxism, and all other radical-isms are not philosophies but tactics—tactics that are specifically designed to unleash terror on everyday people and revoke their human rights to life, liberty, and property. These are the forces of unhumanity. This is what they do. Every. Single. Time. Unhumans steals their playbook, breaks apart their strategies piece by piece, and lays out the tactics of what it takes to fight back—and win, using real-world examples.

Unhumans is the essential read for every concerned citizen both of the US and worldwide. We must stop what is coming.

I have a sneaking suspicion that he might be talking about us.

Maybe the reviews will give us a hint.

“In the past, communists marched in the streets waving red flags. Today, they march through HR, college campuses, and courtrooms to wage lawfare against good, honest people. In Unhumans, Jack Posobiec and Joshua Lisec reveal their plans and show us what to do to fight back.”
—J. D. Vance, Senator (R-OH)

“Jack Posobiec sees the big picture and isn’t afraid to describe it. He’s been punished for that, but it makes him one of the rare people worth listening to.”
—Tucker Carlson

“The far Left murdered 100 million people in the twentieth century and have repeatedly shown that they will stop at nothing to achieve their totalitarian goals. They have torn down countless societies using a sophisticated playbook of propaganda. The only way to stop them in the future is to use their own subversive playbook against them. Unhumans reveals that playbook and teaches us how to deploy it immediately to save the West.”
—Donald Trump, Jr.

“We are now living through an era of irregular warfare. This is a gray-zone communist revolution by new means. Unhumans exposes their battle plans and offers a fifth-generation warfare system to fight back and win.”
—Lt. Gen., USA (Ret.) Michael T. Flynn

“Jack Posobiec and Joshua Lisec have written one of the most important books of the year—or any year, for that matter. Unhumans teaches that the events Americans are living through now are not without precedent. There is a pattern to these events—a ‘gray-zone communist revolution’—and if we do not wish to repeat the pattern, we must act intelligently to stop the destructive plans of the ‘unhumans.’ This is truly a must-read book for every patriotic American.”
—Robert Stacy McCain, The American Spectator

“With beauty, rhythm, and prose more often seen in fiction, Unhumans is a breakneck adventure through millennia of human history. Posobiec and Lisec guide the reader through Ancient Rome, Maoist China, Franco’s Spain, and more as they chronicle the awesome and ancient battle between civilization and uncivilization, humans and unhumans. Placing the current culture war in historical perspective, Unhumans teaches readers to combat the tyrannical forces that have crumbled empires—and that have come for our own.”
—Dr. Peter Boghossian

I appreciate that those fascist scumbags are willing to put their names on their odious ideas, at least.

Sinks are dangerous places for small creatures — they stumble in and then they can’t climb up and out over the smooth vertical walls. This little guy was fortunate that I found them and scooped them up.

Later I’ll set them free outside.

Chris Packham stands in the woods wearing a fleece jacket and scarf

Chris Packham is holding a page of A4 paper up to the camera. It’s covered in handwriting, detailing 38 tasks. As we speak online on a Monday morning, he tells me, “I’m recovering from this, which was my weekend to-do list.” Most things seem to be ticked off. He’s ferociously productive. He says he doesn’t need much sleep, makes notes on his phone when he goes to bed (“apparently that’s bad for me”) and wakes up thinking about the tasks for the day. Right now, he needs to fix his electric car because the handbrake is jammed. I’m sure he’ll be driving again soon. It’s hard to imagine Packham at a standstill for long.

Near the top of the TV presenter, naturalist and campaigner’s agenda this year is taking Rishi Sunak’s government to court. He’s been granted a judicial review by the High Court to challenge the government’s decision to row back on key environmental policies that were designed to help the UK reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Packham and his legal team will argue that it isn’t lawful to remove or delay these plans – such as the transition to zero emission vehicles, gas boiler replacements and improved home insulation – without having others in place to ensure the targets within the Climate Change Act are met.

Packham feels a growing weight of responsibility for the state of the planet. In his Channel 4 documentary last year, Is It Time to Break the Law?, he said, “I carry an enormous burden of guilt, particularly when it comes to biodiversity loss ... I got my first pair of binoculars in 1970 and since then we’ve lost 69 per cent of the world’s wildlife ... Of course it’s my fault. I’ve been part of a generation of conservationists who have completely failed to protect the thing that they are meant to love more than anything else.”

He’s alarmed by last year’s State of Nature report, which evidences the loss of biodiversity in the UK. We’re one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and our wildlife continues to decline, with nearly one in six species in Great Britain at risk of extinction. He tells me, “We’ve got the finest bunch of naturalist recorders and scientists anywhere in the world. That data is pretty infallible ... What it tells us is that we’re in a terrible mess and we need to act very quickly. Well, at the age of 63, that’s what I’m still trying to do. Act quickly. So obviously those who are not even putting their trainers on are not my favourite people.”

Just Stop Oil testimony

Packham has already stood in a courtroom this year, appearing at Isleworth Crown Court as a witness for a young music student, Cressie Gethin, on trial for causing a “public nuisance”. In the summer of 2022 Gethin climbed a motorway gantry as part of a Just Stop Oil protest. Packham was directly affected, as he ended up stuck in traffic on the M25 and arrived four or five hours late for work.

Although Packham was inconvenienced by the protest, he told the court he used the opportunity to consider the motivations of the activists. They held their action two days after the government’s net zero strategy was declared unlawful, for being too weak to meet legally-binding targets, and one day after the UK recorded its highest ever temperature at 40.3⁰C.

The court treated Gethin’s motivation as irrelevant to the crime. She wasn’t allowed to call expert witnesses who could explain the threat of climate breakdown that she was trying to avert. Packham was only allowed to give evidence as a witness because he was directly affected by her protest. I asked him how he felt about his day in court. “Well, I have enormous sympathy for a 22-year-old music student who is terrified of her potential future. And since no one is listening to her, she seeks to climb onto a gantry imperilling her life to try and communicate her important message. I understand her motives. I empathise and sympathise with those motives. Anyone who doesn’t would have to be pretty inhuman.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders, Michel Forst, released a statement earlier this year expressing his grave concerns about the UK’s regressive treatment of climate activists. Packham references it and tells me, “I think that day I was exposed to that firsthand. I mean, it’s one thing reading about it on social media or talking to other people who are involved in trying to secure our right to justice and protest and whatever. But when you go and experience it and you stand in court and you look at a young 22-year-old woman who essentially has acted on her conscience, but she’s not allowed to say that, and she faces a potential sentence of 10 years ... I was really disturbed by the whole thing. I came home and I was in a really strange mood. I felt very, very sad. I felt incredibly angry that we’ve allowed this to happen.” He points out that these laws could be used to suppress any type of protest and says he finds that “absolutely terrifying”. Gethin was found guilty and handed a suspended 12-month prison sentence.

An eco-zealot?

Packham knows that certain sections of the media regularly brand him an “eco-loon or eco-zealot”. He characterises himself differently, “I’m a conservationist and environmentalist. I care passionately about protecting all life on this planet, and I don’t want it on my conscience, nor our species’ conscience, that we were responsible for a mass extermination event. I don’t think that’s a great legacy for a species which is so intelligent, creative, adaptable, resourceful.”

Does he ever feel upset or anxious about things written about him? “No, it makes me feel like I’ve got to try harder.” He looks outside to his garden, where his gates were burned down in an arson attack in 2021 when two masked men set fire to a Land Rover outside his property. He suspects he was targeted for campaigning against certain hunting and shooting activities, but he doesn’t know because the men were never caught. He tells me the burnt gates were made of oak and “the wood looked beautiful. It was all iridescent, like fish scales, like mackerel. So my friend and I took the gates down and we cut them up very carefully and we made them into three tables and then I had them set in resin. I gave one to a friend, I’ve got one myself, and the other one I’m going to auction for charity.”

He also turned one of the burnt gateposts into a bench and had fox heads carved into either end, “so I now go and sit on that and look at the birds and the bees and the butterflies. The mission is simple: take their violent, aggressive, disruptive energy and turn it into something positive.”

He tells me that the arson attack only served to fuel his determination, making him want to “get up earlier” and “add more things to my list”. In the years since, he has certainly ramped up his campaigning. Packham is a founder of Wild Justice, patron of multiple wildlife charities, president of the RSPCA, vice-president of the RSPB and an ambassador for Veganuary. He’s also battling against fox hunting, salmon farming, badger culls and raptor persecution (the illegal killing of birds of prey, such as eagles or hawks). It’s a lot to keep track of and he publishes his own newsletter, “Love and Rage”, to share updates on his activism with his followers.

The spirit of punk

The punk movement, he reminds me, used to say that “anger is an energy”. Punk has been a huge influence on his life. I knew he was a fan of the music but didn’t realise that he sang too, I say. He interjects, amused, “‘ ‘Singing’ ... may not be exactly how it would be defined by any of those people who had to listen to it, but yeah, I did play in a punk rock band and I was a massive follower of the movement. And of course the movement was not actually so much about music or fashion. It was about attitude. And that attitude was very much about: do it yourself, not taking no for an answer, questioning authority.” He says for all its talk of anarchy and destruction, it was “an enormously creative movement” which generated a legacy for people like him who “have carried that attitude through their lives”.

When he first appeared as a presenter on the BBC’s Really Wild Show in 1986, he looked definitely punk, with bleached blonde hair in a mohawk. He’s always been interested in aesthetics, and his sister is the fashion designer Jenny Packham, known for her gowns and wedding dresses often favoured by movie stars. Art competes with nature as a core passion of his life. His mum used to take him to galleries as a child and he tells me he recently took the train to Vienna and “spent seven days from opening to closing time in art museums” studying various works.

At home, he has a studio where he makes paper cuts and sculptures. He’s printing some of his paper-cut designs onto T-shirts for sale, but tells me his sculptures are purely a personal passion. “I don’t like anything I’ve ever made or painted or sculpted, obviously, and I haven’t shown them to anyone. They’re in my garden. People can peer over the fence and have a look, I suppose, if they want, but that’s it,” he says.

“Forgive me, I don’t mean to be rude, I’m not making them for you, I’m making them for me. Because I have a need to do that for myself. And therefore, they kind of die at the point of near completion because I’m never going to be satisfied with them and I don’t need anyone else to look at them and say they’re shit or they’re brilliant.”

The idea of being impossible to satisfy recurs later in our conversation when we talk about his parents. He says that they found him “quirky, obsessive and troublesome” as a child. Were they amazed by what he went on to achieve? He replies, “Not really. My parents were very critical of both myself and my sister. If I’m ruthlessly honest, one of the reasons why we both have perceived success – and I would call it perceived success because it’s not the way I would measure success necessarily – is that we can’t satisfy ourselves ... I’ve never been a Chris Packham fan. I see all the flaws. I see all the inadequacies. I see all of the things that I could do better. Ruthlessly self-critical. And that’s actually a very powerful driving force.

“If you’re initially trying to satisfy your parents and they can never be satisfied, you just work harder and harder and harder. And then of course, you’re less interested in your parents because you become an independent person yourself. And you’re in a position where you’ve got to satisfy yourself, but they’ve set very high standards. So you set even higher standards and you never meet them. Maybe that’s a cruel gift. But without it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Autism diagnosis

Packham was diagnosed with a form of autism when he was in his forties and has made powerful programmes about neurodiversity, including Asperger’s and Me and
Inside Our Autistic Minds. This year he’s filming a new series of Inside Our Minds, which will focus on ADHD and dyslexia. I’m curious to know whether having a diagnosis, a label, made any difference to him. He says that because the diagnosis came so late in his life, he’d already developed coping strategies, so “for a long time, when people asked me that question I’d say it had no impact.” But he says a couple of people who knew him before his diagnosis say that he’s “changed quite considerably” since. They’ve told him that he was “crap at hiding” his behaviour and “trashed relationships” trying to conceal it.

He reckons it’s hard to disentangle how much he’s changed as a result of better understanding his own behaviour, and how much is “in the context of a changing world”. He’s more confident talking about it, he says, including to people he doesn’t know. For example, he’ll now explain to work colleagues how it will benefit him, and therefore the team, if things are done a certain way. He shows me that he’s currently wearing his indoor shirt and trousers, “and every time I come indoors, I put the same clothes on.”

In the past, his family have become so fed up with him wearing exactly the same outfit indoors everyday that they’ve burned these clothes. It happened when he was a child, and his previous partner and step-daughter have done the same thing. Packham breaks into peals of laughter at these memories and is quick to reassure me that it wasn’t done with malice. He understands their frustration, but he also feels better understood now.

Similarly, if left to himself, he’ll choose to eat the same food. He tells me that when his partner Charlotte was away last week, “I had pizza and chips every night. Same pizza, same chips, same time.” He says Charlotte accepts that and he doesn’t feel any need to justify it. “I just say that’s who I am. That’s what makes me comfortable and I need to be comfortable here because when I’m [outside], I’m not always comfortable.” He concludes that the diagnosis has made a difference, “but not instantaneously. I grew into the benefits of having that tag.”

Packham does things that would make most people deeply uncomfortable. He’s admirably open about his struggles and doesn’t shy away from telling the truth, as he sees it. He’s confronted powerful people and groups in his defence of the natural world, and made himself a target for abuse and attack. I marvel at how he has the stamina and stomach for it all. “I’m just a bit of a belligerent fighter, to be quite honest with you,” he says. “George Monbiot [the journalist and environmental activist] and I joke that it’s a last-stand situation. And I always say to him, ‘I’ll see you on the hill, make sure you bring your wellies, it’s bound to be raining.’ And that’s it. I’m just in it to the end and there’s no option. I’ve nailed my colours to the mast. My heart is on my sleeve. I’m going to be on the hill fighting to the last and I won’t be alone. I think a growing number of people are beginning to wake up to the fact that we are in a fight to save life on Earth.”

This article is from New Humanist's summer 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

A Fox News presenter covers the 2016 presidential election in New Hampshire

24/7 Politics: Cable Television & the Fragmenting of America from Watergate to Fox News (Princeton University Press) by Kathryn Cramer Brownell

In 1945, journalist H. L. Mencken despaired of American broadcasting. “The radio continues day and night,” he sighed, “the great moral business of making the ignorant more ignorant, and the crazy crazier.” Mencken had heard – and seen – nothing yet.

24/7 Politics diligently chronicles the history of what seems like a colossally counter-intuitive proposition. Americans are, by and large, a patriotic bunch, and understandably so: they are the most economically, militarily, scientifically and culturally powerful nation ever gathered beneath one flag. Yet cable TV news in particular has prospered by telling Americans that their country is so frail as to be existentially menaced by (take your pick) communists, Black people, gay people, Muslims, immigrants and liberals. And if that wasn’t bad enough, that their own federal government is engaged in conspiracy against it.

In many respects, the trajectory of cable TV news that Kathryn Brownell sketches seems like a prequel to the internet. In the early stages, there is much excitable talk about the arrival of this utopian new medium that will make politics more transparent, democracy more accessible. General realisation then descends that when a field becomes crowded, you need to stand out – and that the easiest way to do that is to adopt extreme positions. Early hopes that a channel like C-SPAN, launched in 1979, would invite millions of conscientious citizens to tune in to earnest, nuanced policy debates were dashed against the reality that there were millions more seething malcontents who would prefer to be wound up by a circus of paranoia, division and rage.

24/7 Politics is not – at least, not primarily – an indictment of Fox News or the still weirder networks that have flourished in recent years, catering to the cohort for whom Fox News is somehow not feral enough. In fact, despite the subtitle, Fox News barely gets a mention before the book’s conclusion. The author, a history professor at Purdue University, is more interested in how the US got here.

Brownell’s narrative reaches back to the post-Second World War years in which television properly boomed, along with hopes and fears about what it might do for and to democracy and politics. In 1948, barely one American home in a hundred had a TV set; by the end of the 1950s almost every home did. Though public broadcasting is not unheard of in the US, the notion of an institution akin to the BBC seems to have been disregarded as fundamentally un-American. For better and for worse, TV news in the US has always been a commercial product.

Attempts have been made to bring some sort of order to bear. There is a Federal Communications Commission, which issued a treatise on broadcasting standards in 1946. But as Brownell notes, even early on these rules were rarely enforced. There was a “fairness doctrine”, which compelled broadcasters to give time to contrasting views on matters of public interest. The FCC abolished it in 1987; Congress attempted to legislate something similar into existence, but this was vetoed by then-president Ronald Reagan.

There is no shortage of blame to distribute, but if one key villain does emerge from a hefty pack, it is arguably Newt Gingrich, the Republican congressman from Georgia. At a formative stage of the modern cable news ecosystem, Gingrich was alive to its possibilities as a tool for the politically profitable rousing of rabble. Brownell lists some of Gingrich’s handwritten memos-to-self circa the mid-1980s: they include “attack opponent”, “generate disorder” and “have no shame”.

This trio of edicts in particular demonstrates the degree to which American cable news also established the conventions by which one could succeed on social media – and by which one adherent to all three commandments succeeded all the way to the White House, and may soon do so again. 24/7 Politics is a sober (and sobering) analysis of how cable TV news has not so much reported modern America as created it.

This article is from New Humanist's summer 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

The observatory at Herstmonceux

A black hole is a bottomless pit in the fabric of space-time into which stuff, including light, plummets, never to be seen again. The term paints so vivid an image that it has entered everyday language, and we commonly talk of losing this or that “down a black hole”. Ironically, such a metaphorical black hole has swallowed up the name of the woman who co-discovered these celestial objects: Louise Webster.

I write about Webster in my new book, A Crack in Everything. An Australian who grew up in Brisbane, she was the only woman in her physics class at the University of Adelaide in the early 1960s. Her appointment with destiny (and what should have been celebrity) occurred after a stint at the University of Wisconsin, when she landed a job at the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

At the time, the observatory was situated at Herstmonceux, a 16th-century moated castle in East Sussex, due to the poor visibility over London. Webster found herself sharing an octagonal turret room with Paul Murdin, who, like her, had recently returned from the US. With a wife, two small children and no permanent job, Murdin needed to make a name for himself, and he bet everything on X-rays. Emitted by matter at millions of degrees Celsius, any celestial object shining with them must be extraordinary, Murdin reasoned.

In the early 1960s, X-ray telescopes were boosted above the obscuring atmosphere on “sounding rockets”. In the brief time before the rockets fell back to Earth, a number of perplexing X-ray sources were glimpsed. Their precise locations were unknown because the telescopes were crude. But everything changed in 1970 with the launch of Nasa’s Uhuru, the first X-ray satellite.

Murdin noticed in the Uhuru catalogue that one mysterious X-ray source in the constellation Cygnus, dubbed Cygnus X-1, seemed to be associated with a very massive, very luminous blue “supergiant”. The star was not hot enough to generate its own X-rays but what if it had a companion? A nearby celestial body might be sucking matter from the supergiant, in which case the friction would heat the matter to millions of degrees as it swirled, like water down a plug hole, into the companion.

To discover whether the blue supergiant had such a companion, Murdin turned to Webster. Together with the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s director Richard Woolley, she was measuring the speed of stars in our Milky Way. This involved using the 100-inch Isaac Newton Telescope at Herstmonceux to record the “spectra” of stars. Their velocities towards or away from us could be deduced from the shift in frequency of the light, like the shift in pitch of the sound of an approaching or receding police siren.

Webster took several spectra of the blue supergiant and found it was indeed orbiting a companion, once every 5.6 days. But nothing was visible. The two astronomers sat down at a desk in the octagonal tower room. To be whirling the blue supergiant star around so fast, they deduced that the invisible companion must be at least four – and possibly as much as six – times the mass of the Sun. Only one candidate could be that heavy and that dark. They had discovered a new celestial body: a black hole.

Murdin and Webster published their discovery in the journal Nature on 7 January 1972. Murdin gained a permanent job. Webster returned to Australia, married an English radio astronomer called Tony Turtle and ended up at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Her role in the discovery of the first black hole was largely forgotten. There were numerous systemic barriers for women in science at the time, along with the more general gender inequalities and expectations. According to her University of Adelaide friend, astronomer Ron Ekers: “She always downplayed her achievements.”

It did not help that Webster was unlucky with her health. She was diagnosed with liver disease and, in 1986, had one of the first successful liver transplants in Australia. For a while she was well. But then she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1990 at the age of 49.

The two relics of the explosion of stars are black holes and neutron stars. Both were discovered by women. Jocelyn Bell discovered neutron stars, in the guise of “pulsars”, in 1967. Since then, three Nobel prizes have gone to male scientists for their work on pulsars, but none to Bell. Louise Webster, the co-discoverer of black holes, has been largely forgotten.

Unless, of course, you remember her name.

This article is from New Humanist's summer 2024 issue. Subscribe now.

Star trails from the Earth’s rotation, captured using long exposure, appear as a series of tightly-spun glowing circles above a cattle truck in the Western Australian Wheatbelt

The sky and the land were once connected, far more than they are today, according to the Gamilaroi people of Eastern Australia. In their creation stories, a traumatic event occurred aeons ago, which ripped humanity apart from the skies above. Other indigenous groups across the country teach similar stories, and many perform ceremonies to rebuild their bonds with Sky Country.

As humans become an increasingly space-faring species, we might feel we’re getting closer to our Sun, the planets and stars. But our off-world activities have deposited thousands of man-made objects in our planet’s orbit. Congestion in the cosmos causes difficulties for scientists seeking to unlock the secrets of our universe, and obscures our view upwards from the surface of the planet. It also risks weakening our connection with the skies, threatening to cut humanity off from important aspects of our history, culture and way of life.

We often view space as an infinite resource – a great empty canvas on which we envision endless exploration. But lower Earth orbit, the band of space relatively close to the planet, is anything but. Since the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 fired the starting pistol for the space race, states and private companies have sent thousands of objects into orbit around our planet, and it’s getting a little crowded. The number of satellites had been edging upwards on a fairly steady trajectory, until 2019, when it accelerated. That year, SpaceX launched Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites intended to cover the globe, providing worldwide broadband internet access. There were 2,460 satellites orbiting the Earth in 2019, according to the Satellite Industry Association annual report. At the time of writing, astronomer Jonathan McDowell’s database of satellite launches records that there are 9,321 active satellites above our heads. Starlink alone accounts for 5,422.

The success of the Starlink constellation has prompted envious glances from governments and rival corporations. In 2022, Ukrainian forces used Starlink internet services to coordinate military actions, replacing networks that had been degraded or destroyed. This generated headlines worldwide and gave SpaceX a say in global military affairs. Many governments have already started work on their own versions. This year China began launching satellites into space with the goal of rolling out another mega-constellation that would cover the globe, providing secure communications to its military. Reports also suggest the Chinese government is seeking to launch a separate, civilian constellation to provide connectivity to a gigantic fleet of automated cars. The US Government Accountability Office projected in 2022 that 58,000 satellites would be launched by 2030.

As more satellites are launched into space, the risk of collision increases. This is particularly worrying, given that the only governance in place is outdated. The Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967 by almost every nation in the world, including the US and the USSR at the height of the Cold War. The document lays out guidelines for what you can and cannot do in space, but failed to predict the number of private companies now operating off-world. Industry experts worry the treaty is not fit for purpose, and there have been calls to rewrite it. Satellites are also governed by a UN agency, the International Telecommunications Union, but laws have proven hard to enforce.

The dangers of debris

The danger posed by collisions appears to be snowballing. While we haven’t yet seen two functional satellites crash into each other, active satellites have collided with the defunct ones ghosting around the planet. There is also an enormous amount of debris hurtling around at extraordinary speeds. This debris comes from rockets, space stations, and mostly from collisions in space. According to the European Space Agency, there are now approximately 670,000 pieces of debris in the Earth’s orbit larger than 1 cm. A 1-cm-sized object is thought to be big enough to disable a spacecraft and pierce the shields of the International Space Station. Each new collision adds to the debris, and with the rapidly increasing number of satellites circling the globe, collisions are likely to become harder to avoid.

The worst-case scenario is a cascading effect called Kessler Syndrome, where debris causes collisions exponentially until only a cloud of junk is left. Given our reliance on satellites, the result would be chaos. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) would cease to operate, causing bedlam in the air, seas and roads. The global economy would face collapse as we’d be unable to use credit cards and digital payments, and manufacturing would suddenly halt due to the timing technology used by most factories and plants.

Experts have proposed various methods to dispose of existing orbital debris, such as using nets to capture junk, or harpoons and other satellites to help de-orbit dead satellites, but nothing has been implemented on the scale that would be needed were Kessler Syndrome to become a reality. “Nobody really that I’ve seen has any plans for what to do if that scenario develops, in terms of rapidly getting that debris out of orbit,” says John Barentine, principal consultant at Dark Sky Consulting. “It’s scary stuff but it’s not science fiction.”

The current level of crowding already causes concern for astronomers, as space clutter obscures observations of the cosmos from Earth. The first Starlink satellites were launched on 23 May 2019. The very next evening, amateur astronomers spotted them with the naked eye. They became more distant as they reached a higher orbit and spread out, but as more were launched, incidents of satellites photobombing astronomers’ work began to occur more regularly. Starlink satellites, and all mega-constellations aiming to provide internet access, are usually held in a relatively low orbit. They’re also fairly large – around four metres in length – and could get bulkier in the future as more components are added. This makes them visible in space because, like all metallic objects, they reflect light.

These reflections contribute to what’s often called skyglow, the cumulative effect of the brightening of the night sky. This increased brightness seriously affects the work of astronomers, who are unable to make observations in certain areas at times because the sky is simply too luminous. If skyglow were to continuously increase, it would reach the point where stars began to disappear in the skies, even in rural areas where earth-based light pollution is low. Some satellite companies have responded to the concerns of astronomers and have attempted to find ways to reduce the glare. In September 2023, SpaceX’s latest batch of Starlink satellites were equipped with a coating that aimed to bounce light back into space, rather than towards Earth. Astronomers have not yet gauged the effectiveness of this strategy. Also last year, European astronomers released a study finding that space debris contributed to skyglow even more than active satellites.

'We store information in the sky'

We often see space as empty and lifeless, and thus unworthy of our protection. But many indigenous groups don’t share that view. “One of the areas that we really focus on is the interconnectedness of all things. In other words the sky and Mother Earth are no different, because what is above is below and what is below is above,” says Juan-Carlos Chavez, an indigenous scholar whose traditions are from the Yaqui Peoples on the Mexico/US border. Among the potential casualties of polluting the skies are the cultural practices of indigenous people. “Imagine that we are offering good words to Grandmother Moon or Mount Tacoma, and suddenly we’re looking at the night sky and there’s a blinking light that goes across,” Chavez says. It disrupts the connection to the spirit world.

Karlie Noon is a Gamilaroi astronomer based in Canberra, Australia. She was the first indigenous woman to obtain a double degree in maths and physics and divides her time between exploring the evolution of the Milky Way and sharing indigenous science related to space. In Australia, many indigenous groups use “songlines” to record pathways across time, land and sky. Through song and storytelling, songlines work as an oral map, but also as a cultural passport, offering validation to anyone who can recite them. Noon says satellites and space junk are now putting this knowledge in jeopardy. “That’s what oral cultures do, they store the information in places so you then can go and access it when you need to,” she says. “And that’s what we do in the sky, we store information in the sky. We store knowledge, culture, language. And so if we can no longer access these places, it also threatens that knowledge.”

The Torres Strait Islanders in Australia are one of many indigenous groups who use the stars and skies to navigate on land and at sea, and to predict the weather. Some islanders are able to survey the appearance of the stars to determine turbulence in the atmosphere, humidity and pressure changes. This helps them forecast seasonal and weather changes on a very local level.

Despite their connection with the stars, indigenous voices are often overlooked when it comes to the activities of humanity in space. These activities are not only scientific, but also cultural. On 8 January this year, the private space company Astrobotic launched a moon lander loaded with instruments built by Nasa. It also carried the cremated remains of at least 70 humans and one dog. The ashes were booked aboard the lander by two companies, Celestis and Elysium Space, which offer people (and their pets) the chance to have their remains interred on the Moon. When the president of the Navajo Nation, Buu Nygren, learned of these plans shortly before the launch, he asked Nasa and the US Department of Transportation to intervene in the mission and consult with Indigenous Nations. But despite the objection of the Navajo Nation, which sees the Moon as a sacred cultural place in the sky, the launch went ahead. (As it turned out, the lander burned up over the Pacific Ocean, an accident caused by a technical fault.)

This lack of representation is part of a broader problem, as indigenous people are also underrepresented in academia and science. As an astronomer, Noon has to confront falsehoods denigrating indigenous knowledge systems in Australia. “One of those myths is the idea that indigenous people [have] no mathematical systems,” says Noon. “It’s simply not true.”

Jessica Heim, a cultural astronomer at the University of Queensland, is one of the rare academics advocating for a more collaborative approach that includes indigenous groups and draws on their expertise – although, she notes, these groups are fiercely diverse and some may not want to share knowledge.

Heim and others work with the International Astronomical Union to try to amplify voices that are often overlooked in space matters. However, despite the importance of the issue to their histories and cultures, some indigenous groups struggle to prioritise it given the many other challenges they face. Internet satellites provided by companies like SpaceX can also be extremely useful to some indigenous communities, especially when they’re located in remote areas.

Conservation is a complex field of study, often having to confront unintended consequences. When it comes to space, it is relatively new. One man has become the face of the movement to make space more sustainable. Moriba Jah is a space environmentalist and associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2021, he co-founded Privateer, a company that monitors congestion in space orbit and promotes sustainability. When asked if he thinks there are enough indigenous voices in the industry, his answer was unequivocal. “Hell no, man. Because the big voices in the space industry are governments, billionaires and the big companies, and none of those are indigenous.” He adds that in the US, Native American tribes should be consulted on matters of space because they are constitutionally recognised as distinct governments, like states.

Is there another way?

Privateer, which Jah co-founded alongside Apple founder Steve Wozniak, has sought to establish more sustainable practices in the space economy. The company’s Wayfinder tool tracks orbital clutter. It recently launched Pono, a service dubbed the rideshare for satellites, aiming to limit single-use satellites and reduce the number of unnecessary launches.

To further his ideas, Jah recently published a charter demanding that the space industry adopt a “circular space economy”. This would introduce “traditional ecological knowledge” practices, a catch-all term used to describe the teachings of indigenous groups. It would require initiatives like recyclable satellites and effective debris removal techniques. “In general, traditional ecological knowledge is founded on the premise of the interconnectedness of all things,” Jah says. “Be very observational and understand your relationship in and with the environment, and give the environment time to provide feedback on unintended consequences.”

These are exciting ideas, but they are being floated in an industry that has traditionally had very little interest in conservation. While Privateer has given hope of a more environmentally friendly space industry, the chances of reversing existing clutter are slim. Efforts to remove debris from lower Earth orbit have failed to gather momentum, partially because there’s no money to be made from removing space junk and the costs can be prohibitively high.

The new space race raises concerns that humanity is on course to make the same mistakes of imperialism, only off-world. For indigenous voices, this fear is particularly acute given the past violence against their communities. “The night sky is a place to colonise – those are the words that are used,” says Chavez. “It’s a virgin, as I’ve heard some people say, an area where we can go and extract [materials] ... We’re basically replicating the disastrous behaviours we’ve had here [on Earth] but now we’re going to Father Sky.”

While the space industry brings many benefits to humanity, the emphasis has shifted over time towards purely commercial exploits. The private companies that now dominate space largely do so with profit in mind, rather than a shared mission to learn more about our universe. Our history is full of cautionary tales of unregulated industries racing to capture new markets – only asking if we can, rather than if we should. If we lose our access to the skies, we could reverse decades of technological progress, limit our exploration of the cosmos and cut ourselves off from vital parts of our history and culture. We would do well to listen to indigenous peoples, who hold some of the most ancient knowledge we as a species possess.

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The cover of Cahill's book shows a woman surrounded by microphones

Rough Beast: My Story and the Reality of Sinn Féin (Bloomsbury) by Máiría Cahill

Máiría Cahill began her political life as a teenager. She belonged to one of west Belfast’s most venerable republican families, and so was considered Irish republican royalty. The events described in her book Rough Beast – but most of all her personal courage and unwillingness to be silenced – have since turned her into Sinn Féin’s most effective and feared modern-day critic. The book’s title harks back to Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming”, conjuring the collapse of civilisation, where the “rough beast” in those chilling last lines “slouches towards Bethlehem”. It is also, more specifically, both Cahill’s IRA alleged abuser and the movement that closed ranks around him.

Cahill was born in 1981. Her great-uncle, Joe Cahill, was chief of staff of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s. By the late 1990s Máiría was national secretary of Sinn Féin’s youth wing, working closely with republican leaders. Given her lineage and obvious capabilities, it is entirely plausible that – but for the horrific events described here – she could have been Sinn Féin’s leader by now. What changed her life trajectory was her experience of, she alleges, being sexually abused as a teenager by a prominent member of the IRA in the 1990s; being subjected to an internal IRA investigation that forced her to confront her accused abuser; and ultimately her extraordinarily brave decision to break republican omertà and speak out publicly.

Although two other women also say they were sexually assaulted by the same IRA member, the complication of proving IRA membership was one factor that sabotaged a successful criminal prosecution of the alleged perpetrator, who denies the claims. A report in 2015 concluded that the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland had failed all three victims. This gained Cahill a public apology from the Director of Public Prosecutions, but no real justice. Meanwhile Sinn Féin’s response to the Cahill case has been to disparage her privately whilst eventually, under huge public pressure, issuing half-hearted and heavily caveated apologies. But its behaviour in this case is all of a piece with its wider attitude to past wrongs: those such as Bloody Sunday involving British state culpability should be investigated and exposed, but its own past actions, and those of the IRA, should be shielded from scrutiny.

As well as a brave and penetrating critic of Irish republican politics, Cahill is a brilliant and powerful writer, and I hope this book will not be her last. Her account sheds an unforgiving light on the internal culture of Sinn Féin and the IRA. We tend to think of Irish republicanism as a political and paramilitary movement, but it is also a dense network of interconnected families whose loyalties are not simply to a cause but to each other. Anyone who confronts this closed and secret world needs moral courage and determination, and physical courage, too: Cahill was, after all, dealing with a group of professional killers. The outside view of the Northern Ireland Troubles sees the Good Friday Agreement as a watershed with paramilitary disarmament following shortly after – but this book shows how paramilitary power persisted in west Belfast long after the peace process was supposedly well advanced.

As well as being an outstanding memoir of Cahill’s personal story, this book also has contemporary importance. Already in power in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin seems increasingly likely to enter government in the Republic, probably as the largest party (see page 30); its anti-austerity messaging understandably resonates well with younger voters. Cahill’s book raises profound questions about how safely Irish democracy can be entrusted to Sinn Féin, however. A few decades ago, part of the Irish left disavowed republican sectarianism and mafioso politics, but with Sinn Féin these strains are never far below the surface. Can they be trusted to lead a democracy? In my view this is the fundamental question posed by this impressive book, and on the evidence here it has to be answered in the negative.

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From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! The UK’s National Health Service recently released The Cass Review, an independent report intended “to make recommendations on how to improve NHS gender identity services, and ensure that children and young people who are questioning their gender identity or experiencing gender dysphoria receive a high standard of …
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Two quick bits of news from me.

blogcoverFirst, my new book on how learning magic promotes wellbeing is out very soon. It’s called Magic Your Mind Happy, and I am very excited because it provides a new perspective on magic. I will be doing lots of events to promote the book and it’s available to pre-order here.

Second, I have invented a new optical illusion! Well, to be more accurate, a new variant on a known illusion. The Beuchet Chair is one of my favourite illusions and involves a person appearing to be much smaller than they are. Invented by Jean Beuchet in the 1960s, it relies upon forced perspective created by chair legs that are close to the observer, and a large chair seat further away.

IMG_5468I have come up with a variant. This one centres around a plinth rather than a chair. The legs of the original chair are replaced by two pieces of hinged cardboard (these can easily be cut from foamboard and hinged with tape), and the large seat and back of the chair are replaced with a piece of cloth.

The hinged screen forms the base of the plinth and is positioned in front of the photographer, and the cloth appears to form the top of the plinth and is placed on the floor behind the screen. To help to create a sense of continuity between the large cloth and the plinth, two small pieces of matching cloth are draped along the top of the screens. The front and side panels of the screen help to conceal the front and left edge of the cloth, and make lining up the photograph much easier than in the original illusion.

IMG_5515This entire set up can be constructed in a short space of time, is quick to set up, and folds flat after use. Because of this, it’s ideal for those wanting to create a convincing version of this classic illusion that is easy and cost effective to build, assemble, move, and store. I hope that you like it.

UPDATE: So, it turns out that illusion creator Olivier Redon had exactly the same idea  a few years ago. You can see his great version here and watch his other illusion videos here.

Hi there,

I am delighted to say that I am back performing at the Edinburgh Magic Festival this year.

First, on the 28th December I will be exploring the strange world of illusion, mystery and magic in a show called MIND MAGIC. This will involve showing some of the best optical illusions in the world, revealing whether paranormal phenomena really exist, showing how we can all achieve the impossible, explaining how to transform a tea towel into a chicken, and much more. All the info is here.

Then, on the 28th and 29th December, I am presenting a new and experimental show about the invention of magic. This will be an intimate affair for a small number of people. It will examine how magicians create magic, and explore the mind and work of a magical genius who created the world’s greatest card trick. Info here.

So, if you are around, please come along, and fun will be had!

Some exciting news from me! I have just written my first book for children.

It uses magic to teach youngsters a range of essential life skills, including social skills, confidence, creativity, lateral thinking and much much more. Readers will learn how to perform lots of seemingly impossible feats, including how to defy gravity, read minds, pluck coins from thin air, and predict the future. Most important of all, these tricks have been carefully chosen to help boost mental wellbeing and resilience. It’s fun, it’s easy, it’s magic!

I am delighted to say that Magic Your Mind Happy will be published by Wren and Rook in May 2024, and is available to preorder now here.


check, 1, 2…is this thing on? hi everyone! it’s been a while.

CoverHigh

Two quick bits of news.

First, The Royal Society have kindly given me the prestigious David Attenborough Award. This is a lifetime achievement award for my work promoting psychology and critical thinking, and focuses on my research combatting pseudo-science and examining the psychology of magic. Previous recipients include Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Professor Alice Roberts, and I will give an award lecture about my work in August 2024.

Second, I have a new academic magic book out! It is part of the well-known Arts For Health series and reviews work examining how watching and learning magic is good for your wellbeing, including how it boosts confidence, social skills, dexterity, curiosity and much more. It was lots of fun to write and also includes interviews key practitioners, including Richard McDougall (Breathe Magic), Julie Eng (Magicana), Mario the Maker Magician (USA), David Brookhouse (UK), David Gore and Marian Williamson (College of Magic), and Tom Verner (Magicians Without Borders).  More details here.

Richard-Wisemans-On-Your-Mind-1080x1080

I am delighted to say that the second series of our On Your Mind podcast has launched today!!

Each week, science journalist Marnie Chesterton and I will explore aspects of the human psyche, including astrology, how the clothes we wear influence our thoughts, attraction, friendship, dreaming, mind control and much much more.  We will also be joined by some special guests as we attempt to answer all of your questions about psychology. The first series reached No.1 in Apple Podcast’s Science charts, and so we hope that you can join us. 

Our first episode looks at creativity and explores how to have good ideas and whether children are more creative than adults. You can listen here.

Someone contacted me hoping to find young atheists who might be interested in being part of a new series. I’m not particularly interested in having my mug on TV, but I would love to have some great personalities represent atheism on the show, so I offered to repost his email on my blog: My name […]
All throughout my youth, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wrote all the time, about everything. I watched TV shows and ranted along with the curmudgeons on Television Without Pity about what each show did wrong, convincing myself that I could do a better job. I flew to America with a dream in my […]
A friend linked me to this. I was a sobbing mess within the first minute. I sometimes wonder why I feel such a strong kinship to the LGBT community, and I think it’s because I’ve been through the same thing that many of them have. So I watched this video and I cried, because, as […]
UPDATE #1: I got my domain back! Many thanks to Kurtis for the pleasant surprise: So I stumbled upon your blog, really liked what I saw, read that you had drama with the domain name owner, bought it, and forwarded it here. It should work again in a matter of seconds. I am an atheist […]
@davorg / Saturday 13 July 2024 12:07 UTC