The world examined

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This series scans the latest research and developments in the realms of science, academia, technology and geopolitics, providing a glance at the ever changing world

GEOPOLITICS

Hypersonic arms race

Though the nuclear threat is still humanity’s darkest nightmare, the arms race continues between the superpowers. Recently, China claimed to test its new hypersonic rocket, Xingkong-2 that reached up to Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound). The new rocket can “break through any current generation anti-missile defence system.” These new missiles can, unlike previous US ballistic missiles, “Dodge defences and keep an adversary guessing about the target” due to its ability to maneuver aerodynamically.

Meanwhile, Russia recently showcased its Kinzhal weapon, claiming that it could reach Mach 10 and another weapon that could travel as fast as Mach 27. The US Department of Defence (DOD) on the other hand is “pouring more than $1 billion annually into hypersonic research. Competition from ambitious programs in China and Russia is a key motivator.” Having the ability to overcome hypersonic missiles or defence systems would be a prowess of military advantage for any of the three superpowers, hence the constant injection of funding.

“It’s a race to the Moon sort of thing,” says Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “National pride is at stake.” (sciencemag.org, 10 January 2020)

The-need-for-speed arms race is yet another worry to add to the collection of world problems. Our political situation begs for such arms races to take place, drawing us further away from international peace. Until the world does not practice “absolute justice” and sways away from “vested interests”, no improvement will be witnessed. The arms race will continue, until one day, God forbid, it is forced to express its “might” and flex its muscles in a world war. We can only pray that the world refrains from such a state.

WHAT TO WATCH

“Lost and Found”

A National Geographic documentary following Kamal Hussein, a Rohingya refugee who dedicates “his life to finding to reuniting children with their parents in the world’s largest refugee camp.” (Available free on National Geographic YouTube channel)

HEALTH

Alcohol deaths rise, especially amongst women

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (in the US) analysed nationwide deaths each year from 1999 through 2017 that were reported as being caused at least partly by alcohol. “Most noteworthy to researchers was that the rate of deaths among women rose much more sharply, up 85 percent.” The results showed that 18,072 women died from alcohol in 2017 compared with 7,662 in 1999 in the US. “More women are drinking and they are drinking more,” said Patricia Powell, deputy director of the alcohol institute, which is a division of the National Institutes of Health. Nevertheless, comparatively, far more men are dying than women due to alcohol-related illnesses according to the study. (nytimes.com, 10 January 2020)

SCIENCE

Interstellar origins of Phosphorous

“Life appeared on Earth about 4 billion years ago, but we still do not know the processes that made it possible,” said Víctor Rivilla, who conducted a new study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. A key component of early life was phosphorus, one of life’s essential building blocks found in DNA. However, how phosphorus appeared on earth has remained a puzzle. Recently, astronomers, using ALMA and the European Space Agency’s Rosetta have traced the origins of phosphorus from “star-forming regions”. “The ALMA observations showed that phosphorus-bearing molecules are created as massive stars are formed. Flows of gas from young massive stars open up cavities in interstellar clouds. Molecules containing phosphorus form on the cavity walls…” The comets that hit earth most likely transported large amounts of phosphorous along with other organic compounds. (phys.org, 15 January 2020)

Oldest material on earth discovered

A meteorite that hit Australia 50 years ago contained the oldest solid material found on earth. Ancient stardust that formed over 5-7 billion years ago was found within the meteorite. The extremely rare stardust is known as pre-solar grains-minerals, made before the Sun was created.

“They’re solid samples of stars, real stardust,” said Heck, associate professor at the University of Chicago, and lead author of a paper describing the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The professor said that “These bits of stardust became trapped in meteorites where they remained unchanged for billions of years, making them time capsules of the time before the solar system.” The findings will enable scientists to better understand how stars are formed in our galaxy. (sciencedaily.com, 13 January 2020)

PSYCHOLOGY

Human success rests on imitation

A recent article on phys.org panned out research supporting the idea that human success is not necessarily only due to our large brains and raw intelligence. Rather, “A growing number of cognitive scientists and anthropologists are rejecting that explanation. These researchers think that, rather than making our living as innovators, human beings survive and thrive precisely because we don’t think for ourselves. Instead, people cope with challenging climates and ecological contexts by carefully copying others – especially those we respect. Instead of Homo sapiens, or “Man the knower,” we’re really Homo imitans: “Man the imitator.”

GOOD TO KNOW

The Feynman learning technique

The physicist Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman used a relentless technique to ensure he deeply learnt key concepts and ideas. In a nut shell, the technique rested on the pillars that the definitive test of one’s knowledge lies in their capacity to explain it to another. If someone cannot explain a concept in simple terms, they do not have an understanding themselves. The Feynman Technique incorporates the following four key steps to learning: 1. Choose a concept 2. Pretend you are teaching it to a student 3. Review and observe gaps in your understanding. Relearn it and then re-teach it 4. Simplify what you have learnt further if too complicated.

LISTEN IN

Iran: What Next?

A panel discussion of reporters and editors detailing what the latest developments mean for Iran and the US and current tensions. What does the future hold for the two countries? Listen free at https://theintercept.com/2020/01/14/iran-what-next/

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