story, reading, work, likely

Galia Oz's demagogic and narcissistic book proves she's her father's true literary heiress   30%

The book Amos Oz’s daughter wrote about his abuse of her as a child is causing shock waves, with many relating to it as the truth, not a literary work. It is a deceptive and unbalanced effort by an entitled person


Karen Martinis blood orange and fennel salad   50%

This salad is lovely with so many things, but try it with grilled fish, lamb chops or braised beef.


Patrick Mahomes rookie card sells for record-breaking $4.3 million  


Patrick Mahomes is not letting this year be all about Tom Brady.


Opinion: The Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony the wrong pictures, the wrong message   38%

The Olympics have started one year after their original date. But the opening ceremony shows the IOC has learned nothing from the pandemic and missed the opportunity to set an important sign, writes DW's Sarah Wiertz.


Russia sends long-delayed module to space station  

The 13m-long, 20-tonne Nauka laboratory is finally going into orbit after a delay of 14 years.


The cheek of it: artists celebrate the bottom in pictures   16%


After they both fell in love with a painting of a man’s bum by Celia Hempton, the British artist-curators Lee Baker and Catherine Borowski realised that the gluteus maximus doesn’t receive enough respect in cultural circles. As founders of Skip Gallery, an installation concept bringing art to unusual places, they decided to right this wrong. The resultant group show, Bums , featuring David Shrigley and Xu Yang among others, is now at Dio Horia gallery, Mykonos, Greece, and in London later this year.

“These are the largest muscles in the body, responsible for posture and weight-bearing,” says Borowski. ‘This is often overlooked because of our obsession with the sexual and silly side of the bottom. Our exhibition is a celebration of the many facets of bums.’

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5 Classical Albums to Hear Right Now  

Dance music for piano, works inspired by California and a 17th-century Italian composer are among the highlights.


Its quite English, this romantic, gothic aesthetic: inside a fashion familys pink Suffolk home   -10%


Country charm gets a modern makeover in this thatched seaside house transformed by the couple behind the Preen label

The rose-pink thatched cottage in the seaside village of Walberswick, Suffolk – home to designers Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi – isn’t as ancient, or incongruous, as you might think. Built in the 1940s “to look old”, its colour isn’t some fashionable flight of fancy; rather, it’s quite common in this part of the world, Thornton says. “Pink houses are traditional in Suffolk. People would mix natural pigments such as elderberry or ox blood with limewash.” The pair, who run the British fashion label Preen, used Nancy’s Blushes from Farrow & Ball to similar effect.

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Why Do We Look Down On Lonely People?   20%


Excerpted from Seek You, by Kristen Radtke. Copyright © 2021 by Kristen Radtke. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon. All rights reserved.

Last month at a bar, a man called me a bitch. I had let him sit with me at my table and he was peppering me with questions. I was working on a deadline and snapped at him, uncharacteristically. He seemed genuinely hurt. Women, he said, always gave him an opening and then backtracked, laughing at him or shutting him down or calling him a creep. “Why do you go out if you can’t be open to meeting people?”

Sexism aside, I happen to agree with him, and I usually do try to be open to meeting people when I go out. He had attempted to make conversation, with varying degrees of vulnerability. He boasted about his company and how much he paid in rent, but also taught me how to wish someone well in Hebrew. He mentioned how hard he’d tried to meet someone in New York. “People are mean,” he said. I felt helpless. People are mean. I wanted to care, but did not. I regretted my curtness, but the damage was done; all I’d managed was to prove him right to himself.

Kristen Radtke’s new graphic novel, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, explores the biological and cultural contexts for loneliness; in doing so, it argues that loneliness affects not just lonely people but also those around them, those who move past them. As Radtke shows, scientists have been tracking increasing isolation for decades (one recent preliminary study conducted during the coronavirus pandemic estimated that more than a third of Americans, including more than half of young adults, experienced “serious loneliness”). The novel’s title is a play on the “CQ call,” the name given to the series of beeps amateur radio operators sometimes send out across the airwaves to invite listeners to respond. A CQ call is an active reach toward a stranger—the opposite of society’s growing tendency to push people away.

[Read: How loneliness begets loneliness]

The book combines documentary, memoir, reporting, and stunning art: low, dark colors with the occasional neon, making the reader feel like she’s floating on a reflective surface, a reflection with no original. Grays and blues and sea greens recall rain highlighted by streetlights, televisions talking to empty rooms. Through vivid images of people fumbling with house keys late at night, falling asleep on the subway, leaving a liquor store, Radtke shows how recognizable and universal loneliness is—but also how easy it is to remove ourselves from others’ loneliness, to turn theirs into an experience incompatible with our own. We can romanticize loneliness, applying what Radtke calls “an Edward Hopper glaze over the crystalline banality of a stranger’s routine”; we can pathologize it, especially when it shows up in our lives in extreme ways, as with “incels” who become mass shooters.

One prominent theory posits that, biologically, loneliness has an essential function: to stimulate an itch that needs to be scratched, to make sure we “feel deeply troubled when we observe minor social shuns so we can correct our behavior” and revert to not-loneliness, our ideal state for survival. But in an epidemic of loneliness, a chronic and overactive immune response to loneliness can lead to high levels of inflammation, which is in turn linked to feeling even lonelier. “Hypervigilance” experienced by lonely people can lead to them perceiving snubs and exclusion where none exist. Loneliness foments more loneliness.

[Read: To prevent loneliness, start in the classroom]

Narratives of mass shootings tend to highlight social isolation as a cause. “This explanation offers some relief: if the shooter is a loner, he is not one of us,” Radtke writes. It’s easier than contemplating the alternative: that all our loneliness may be connected, that the depression of one person has real significance for everyone around them. Radtke is interested in challenging these distinctions.

Her investigation recalls Tony Tulathimutte’s viral short story “The Feminist,” whose protagonist steadily becomes unhinged as his attempts at intimacy are repeatedly rejected, despite his desperate efforts to be good. The people around him find him gross and want to avoid him; after slowly being forced into invisibility, he finally shoots up a restaurant. This protagonist is the picture of loneliness, and, perhaps like many of the men who have talked to me at bars, he becomes worse at not being alone the more he is alone. He becomes worse at appropriate conversation the more people refuse real conversation with him. “There are so many ways to bear arms, and we do, all of us, all the time, whether we are the shooter or the mourner,” Radtke writes. “To arm ourselves is the most extreme form of separation I can imagine.” There are many ways to be a victim, too; I may have been the target of sexist language at the bar, but I’m not the one who went home to an empty apartment.


One of Radtke’s most striking readings of loneliness concerns the story of Harry Harlow, who studied the effects of isolation on rhesus monkeys in order to better understand social deprivation and early-childhood development. Some of the baby monkeys that he raised in cages, deprived of any maternal or other physical contact, starved themselves and cowered in a corner when finally placed in a group. Some of those who had been raised in isolation, when they became mothers, killed their newborns.

While Harlow was studying social deprivation in monkeys, his first wife, a graduate student who gave up a promising career to marry him, filed for divorce, citing his neglect. His second wife, a colleague, was similarly forced to step down from her research position after she married Harlow; she became terminally ill, and within a year of her death, Harlow, having undergone treatment for depression and become obsessed with his research, remarried his first wife. “For someone who spent much of his career studying isolation, he exhibited an almost pathological inability to be single or alone,” Radtke writes.

Harlow’s cruelty toward his subjects and his mistreatment of his family register as significant because of his obsession with neglect. “What if, instead of ambition or sadism or his teenage hope for fame, I imagine that his work was born out of love?” Radtke asks. “In every monstrous act, there was also a person so desperate to understand the circumstances of this sadness that he spent decades creating it … until he was himself reflected back.” Love and loneliness may seem like opposites, “but the drive of each is similar. They’re both designed to keep us together.”

This type of generous reading of other people and their loneliness is what Radtke’s book seems to call for—a willingness to read loneliness where we might otherwise see monstrosity, to read love where we see loneliness. Widespread loneliness is not a problem just for the chronically lonely; it says something ugly and true about all of us. Reading Seek You forced me to rethink my own various brief interactions that left a lonely person feeling lonelier.

Radtke doesn’t offer solutions; as she admits, she herself is never free of loneliness. But passing interactions and relationships might still be meaningful: touching a friend’s elbow and making eye contact when talking with them, dedicating a song to someone on the radio, playing with a loved one’s hair. “I want us to use loneliness—yours, and mine—to find our way back to one another,” she writes. What if, just as she chooses to read Harlow’s work and life as motivated by love rather than cruelty, we choose to collapse our distinct experiences of isolation into a shared loneliness, so that even though we are alone, there’s still hope of reaching toward one another, and being lonely together? “To move through a life without weapons,” she writes—weapons of any kind—is “to remain open to the world, and at its mercy.”


Former NASA scientist couldn't resist art's call. His business now is booming  


Albert Scaglione opened Park West Gallery in Southfield more than 50 years ago and during the pandemic, he opened 2 more venues.

      


From her self-quarantine in London, Claudia Roden shares beloved Passover recipes   11%

For the first time in her life, the famed food researcher and cookbook writer will be celebrating Passover alone. Roden talks about preserving the routine during an epidemic and offers simple home recipes for the seder


Detroit area couple skipped wedding, bought a huge boat. Now they're living the dream  


A couple with Michigan roots sold everything they own to sail around the world for two years. This is a bucket list story.

      


Zoomtown-on-Sea? The lure of a new life on the coast   1%

Remote working meant the Lancaster family could live anywhere - they found their sea view in Scarborough.


Chronology: How COVID has spread in Germany   10%

In January 2020 the coronavirus reached Germany. Since then, nothing is as it was before. Here is the story so far.


How to Write a Kaleidoscopic Character  


Editor’s Note: Read Robert McGill’s new short story, “Something Something Alice Munro.”


Something Something Alice Munro” is a new short story by Robert McGill. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, McGill and Oliver Munday, the design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.


Oliver Munday: Your story “Something Something Alice Munro” brings a Harold Bloom quote to mind: “Influence is influenza.” It’s clear from the opening sentences that the famed author Alice Munro will be a prominent influence on the text, but by the end you manage to take this conceit to unexpected places. The story is a witty look at the anxiety of literary influence, to cite Bloom once more. Did the story always follow from a conceptual premise, or did the characters emerge first?

Robert McGill: I started out wanting to write about Alice Munro: in particular, about the one time I met her, 15 years ago at a literary festival. I’d grown up in a town close to hers, and I’d read all her stories. At the festival, we shared a few minutes of small talk, and I was completely tongue-tied.

Once I started writing the story, I realized that it was going to be less about meeting Munro than about having been a young person in her part of the world and wanting to tell stories of a sort that she hasn’t. From that point, I developed the story’s peculiar sentence-by-sentence constraints (each sentence begins or ends with either Alice Munro or you), which channel a certain contradictory, Bloomian impulse in me: to make the story all about Munro and, at the same time, totally not something she would write.

Munday: In Canada, where you’re from, Alice Munro, the Nobel laureate, presides as one of the country’s foremost literary celebrities. It’s interesting for an American reader to consider this type of fame, because we lack such a singular prose star in our national imagination. How much has Munro shaped Canada’s literature as a result of her status?

McGill: I think of Munro and Margaret Atwood as the big, bright binary system in the Canadian literary firmament. (Together, their initials are “AMMA.” What would Freud say?) Atwood has established one way to gain global fame and influence as a Canadian author: travel the world regularly to speak, tweet prolifically, and appear in hit TV shows based on your novels. Then there’s Munro, just writing story after story while living quietly in the backwoods. It has been good for Canadian writers to have them both as models and know both paths are viable.

There’s also the fact that neither Munro nor Atwood has shied from writing undisguisedly about Canada. That’s still a big deal in a country where generations of writers felt they had to set their stories elsewhere if they wanted to make it.

Munday: Nessa and Hadi, the two characters at the center of “Something Something Alice Munro,” are both writers. Nessa is pursuing a Ph.D. and writing a dissertation on the work of Munro, and Hadi is a poet. You describe them as best friends who sleep together. Would romantic love somehow threaten their respective intellectual pursuits, or are they simply hedging and afraid of commitment?

McGill: I don’t know if they’re afraid of commitment per se. They might just be wary of each other. They’re both still working out some fundamental things—for instance, in their relations to their parents. Maybe it’s an act of care for each other and themselves not to complicate things with one another.

I’m hedging here, aren’t I? They’re my characters, so I should know them inside out. But I sometimes feel that I’ve gotten characters down to the best of my abilities when I’ve brought them to the point where they’re intriguing puzzles to me as well as to others.

Munday: The title of the story, along with the regular invocations of Munro, act as a kind of comic diversion from the drama. The characters use Munro as a distraction from life, but also as a lens through which to interpret it. Fiction writ large functions similarly, inflecting on events, suffusing our perceptions of the world, and often providing a form of escape. In what other ways are the characters, and you as their author, using Alice Munro?

McGill: There’s a quotation from Edward Said that might apply to Nessa: “It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.” For all that fiction helps you to see the world in new ways, it risks constraining how you see things too. If Nessa’s outlook begins and ends with Munro’s writing, she’s hamstrung herself. One wonders: What’s she really committing herself to when she commits herself to Munro?

For Hadi, the picture of small-town Canada associated with Munro’s fiction—stultifyingly homogenous, astringently Protestant—carries its own limitations. You can see why he might chafe against requests to discuss his writing alongside hers. But then, her picture isn’t quite so reductive as I’ve just suggested. So writers like Hadi—or me—who use Munro as a foil might be not using so much as misusing her. Failing to see her work clearly.

Munday: You begin “Something Something Alice Munro” in third person, remaining close to Nessa, only to switch to the second person to inhabit Hadi’s voice and limn the emotional core of the story—Hadi’s relationship with his father. How did this form of shifting perspectives develop?

McGill: In some vital ways, I identify with Hadi and Nessa. In other ways, the two of them are much more like people of my acquaintance than like me. So writing the story, I experienced this kaleidoscopic effect: the aspects of the characters emerging from what I know of myself kept blurring into what I know and imagine of others. Shifting the perspective between Nessa and Hadi, between third person and second, was a way of acknowledging this unique experience that fiction produces, in which the writer and readers all end up asking of each other and the characters, “Where, in this story, do you end and I begin?” If you come away from a work of fiction not having been unsettled from the point of view you had going in, then somebody hasn’t done their job.

Munday: There’s a sly, meta aspect to the story, an ambiguity around the narration that causes us to wonder who’s actually writing it. The question of authorial authority arises—whether writers should draw from only their lived experience as opposed to imagining the experiences of others. How do you feel about these demarcations, which seem to be hardening in fiction?

McGill: I back the idea that the label “fiction” should never be taken as a license to write without an obligation to the real-life cultures and identities affected by your writing. I think of fiction as a unique space where authors and readers, however partially and provisionally, shed their skins to imaginatively inhabit the lives of others; to learn about the enormous diversity of life. So as a reader, if I discover that an author’s trading in caricatures and stereotypes, I feel they’ve let down the side.

One of the things I like about Alice Munro’s writing in this regard is that she isn’t precious about the status of fiction. Writers in her work are always being told that they’ve gotten things wrong or that they’re trading in cheap tricks. But she still implicitly recognizes that fiction has a unique role in our lives. Nonfiction alone isn’t enough. Maybe it would be if being a good person required only listening to what other people say publicly about their lives. But all the time, we’re called on to imagine how others are feeling and thinking, to infer what they can’t or won’t say out loud. That’s where fiction gains one of its key roles: as a comparatively safe—because veiled—space of self-articulation and as a model for carefully, sensitively imagining how it is to be someone else.


EU adopts framework for sanctions on Lebanon to aid formation of a government   5%

The European Union said on Friday it had adopted a legal framework for a sanctions regime targeting Lebanese individuals and entities after a year of crisis that has left Lebanon facing financial collapse, hyperinflation and food and fuel shortages.


The EU declares war on money laundering   -6%

Huge sums of money of illegal origin are channeled into the regular economy every year. The EU has now prepared a comprehensive reform in order to crack down on money laundering. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.


Should we schedule time during work to just do nothing?   28%


Remote office hours are becoming a permanent fixture in many of our lives, and experts think flexibility should be here to stay too, writes Taylor Trudon


Column: Dubious property tax appeals are costing L.A. County millions   -31%


L.A. County Assessor Jeff Prang says bulk appeals by tax agents cost his office $2.2 million a year and may mean $15 million lost in annual revenue.


Are Wind Turbines a Danger to Wildlife? Ask the Dogs.  


Kayla Fratt began preparing for her summer job in March, when a package of frozen bat carcasses arrived for her in the mail. Well, actually, the bats were for her border collies, Barley and Niffler, and it is really their summer job too. They needed to learn the scent of a dead bat, because they would be spending three months on wind farms, looking for bats killed by spinning turbines.

To teach them, Fratt, who worked as a dog trainer before getting into the bat-detection business, began by hiding the carcasses around her living room (in Tupperware, lest their smell linger on the furniture). The dogs soon graduated to hunting for dead bats in the yard, then in parks. Fratt took to carrying bat carcasses around when she left the house with Barley or Niffler, just in case they found themselves with free time to practice in a new location. All three of them reported for duty at a midwestern wind farm earlier this month. When we spoke last week, Fratt told me their orientation was starting the next day. Then, she said, “we hit the ground running.”

Barley and Niffler are just two of the many conservation-detection dogs now employed by the growing wind industry. As turbines proliferate across the country, understanding their effect on wildlife is more important than ever. In the early days of turbines, scientists had focused on the danger they posed to eagles and other raptors—but it turns out those big bird carcasses were simply the easiest for humans to spot.

[Read: The dubious science of wind-turbine syndrome]

“Truth was, people are terrible at finding bats and small birds,” says K. Shawn Smallwood, a biologist who has worked on wind farms in California. Smallwood told me he was initially skeptical of using dogs to monitor turbine fatalities, but the data simply blew him away. In one study he conducted, dogs found 96 percent of dead bats, whereas humans found just 6 percent. The canine searchers managed to find baby bats as small as one gram. Other dog handlers sent me photos of bats—or really, bat fragments—that their dogs had managed to sniff out: a shard of a wing, a jawbone the size of a dime. Biologists have long worked with scent-detection dogs to track animals including turtles, black-footed ferrets, and grizzly bears. Now wind farms provide the dogs and their handlers with steady and more predictable work.

Tiny bat bones found by Amanda Janicki’s scent-detection dog, Caffrey (Amanda Janicki)

On wind farms, a patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations might govern how companies have to monitor wildlife deaths, but reporting requirements vary widely. This means that reliable data on deaths are hard to come by. Estimates suggest that turbines in North America kill 600,000 to 949,000 bats and 140,000 to 679,000 birds a year. Dogs are, by far, the quickest and most effective way to find them.

The best dogs for this work are misfits of the pet world. They have to be utterly obsessed with play—to a point that most humans would find exhausting. “All the dogs that we have in our program, they're either rescues … or they’re an owner surrender, where they just say they’re out of options and even a shelter won’t take them,” says Heath Smith, the director of Rogue Detection Teams, a conservation-detection-dog company. The dogs have too much energy and an “insatiable drive to play fetch,” which is not great for a family pet but very useful for motivating a dog to find birds or bats so they can get their favorite toy as a reward. (Barley, Fratt says, was “a pain in the butt” when he was younger. The work gives him an outlet for all that energy.) Some dogs love their ball, others a rope or squishy toy; one of Smith’s dogs has taken to an empty food bowl that he likes to scoot around.

[Photos: Therapy dogs at work]

Still, searching below wind turbines can be hard physical work. A typical day includes 10 miles of walking, says Sarah Jackson, who works with Rogue Detection Teams on a wind farm in Palm Springs, California, where it’s gotten so hot that she’s now searching in the middle of night. Jackson and the three dogs she works with—Lady, Ptero, and Indy—scan two wind turbines a night, walking back and forth over an area equivalent to several football fields. (The dogs get to switch off every hour. She doesn’t.) Others told me of working in the rain and mud. Still, when I spoke with Jackson at 6 a.m. after a long night of searching, she sounded remarkably upbeat. Her hours are odd, and the work is exhausting, but she gets to be around dogs who are so happy to be on the job. “Imagine you have three co-workers in your car and everybody is throwing a party,” she said. That’s what driving to work every day is like.

The dogs make the searching more interesting for humans too. Before she started working with dogs, Wynter Skye Standish, who is currently working on another wind farm in California, had been a human searcher monitoring wildlife on wind farms. That work is monotonous; it’s easy to zone out. Now she’s constantly attuned to her dog—the wag of her tail, the angle of her nose. This partnership taps into the strength of both species: the dogs’ incredible sense of smell, their keen awareness of human social cues, and our own keen awareness of theirs. Standish doesn’t think of herself as a handler with an obedient dog; they are equals on a team.

[Read: How domestication ruined dogs’ pack instincts]

The people who work with dogs on wind farms tend to be lovers of all animals, so the discovery of a dead bird or bat is bittersweet. The dogs are overjoyed, anticipating a reward for a job well done. On days when there are simply no dead animals, humans might feel relieved for the birds and bats, but the dogs can get really frustrated, says Amanda Janicki, who has worked on Iowa wind farms with her dog, Caffrey. Janicki marvels at his ability to sniff out the tiniest, most hidden bat bones. But she also laments what they mean: The turbines have killed another bat.

Caffrey on a wind farm, wearing dog goggles to protect his eyes (Amanda Janicki)
Caffrey looking for bats in the fields of soybeans surrounding the wind turbines (Amanda Janicki)

The specific problem of bat deaths at wind turbines first came to biologists’ attention in 2003, when 2,000 bats turned up dead on a West Virginia wind farm. Most bat deaths occur during fall migrations, and they are concentrated among three species: eastern red bats, silver-haired bats, and hoary bats. These bats all roost in trees, and they seem attracted to wind turbines, possibly because the structures look like “the biggest, tallest trees in the landscape,” says Erin Baerwald, a bat scientist at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Scientists have since found that idling turbines under specific conditions—at night, during the bats’ fall migration, and when the wind speed is below 6.5 meters per second (about 14.5 mph)—can sharply curb bat deaths; a promising set of studies also suggests that ultrasonic white noise can keep bats away. But idling the turbines means generating less energy and less revenue; installing sound equipment costs money too. In 2015, the wind industry endorsed, to much fanfare, voluntary guidelines to idle turbines when the wind speed is below a certain cutoff, usually about three meters per second. But Baerwald says this cutoff is too low; besides, it’s entirely voluntary. Government authorities often lack the power to force wind farms to spend money to prevent bat deaths, especially because the three species killed most frequently are not currently endangered.

Wind energy, of course, has clear advantages. It is vital to the U.S.’s ongoing shift to renewable energy, and the resulting decrease in carbon emissions will benefit every creature on the planet, including untold billions of bats. But the specific bats that happen to fly through specific wind farms bear the cost of this energy transition. “It comes down to this existential question: How much is a bat worth?” Baerwald says. And how much money will wind companies give up to save a few hundred thousand bats a year?

[Read: How the U.S. made progress on climate change without ever passing a bill]

When the bat-detection dogs roam around turbines, they are wandering straight into this thicket of questions. In some cases, wind farms—or their regulators—have decided that calculating the loss of life among these wild animals is at least worth the cost of hiring a dog team, which is more expensive than humans alone. The dogs are more thorough, and though they’re not directly saving any bats, they are giving us the most comprehensive picture yet of the problem. Even if they are just in it to play fetch.


Lakers likely to draft a guard with coveted big men gone  


The Lakers have 22nd pick in the draft Thursday and are said to like F/C Isaiah Jackson of Kentucky. He'll likely be gone, so they'll select a guard.


The doctor who treated Hitler's hysterical blindness  

Hitler’s affliction after World War I and the doctor who treated him star in a 1939 novel by Ernst Weiss, a Jewish physician and writer whose works – praised by the likes of Kafka – only recently got their due in Israel


Food and death: A look at the tasty and tearful tradition of Jewish mourning  

Eggs, lentils and bagels are just some of the ways Jewish communities mark periods of mourning like Tisha B’Av


Editorial: They started a deadly fire, but prison isn't the right answer   -1%


Prison time is the wrong response to the recklessness of a couple whose selfish gender-reveal antics caused the deadly El Dorado fire last year. But what kind of sanction is appropriate?


Editorial: From one lawless president to another  


I wrote editorials for 50 years, spanning Nixon through Trump. I'm worried about the future of my craft.


This Picture Has Major Moon Potential   -3%


The cosmos has a knack for making something out of very little. It molds stars from clouds of dust and gas, planets from the residue left over from the creation of stars, and moons from the scattered fragments around newly glazed planets. The universe spins cosmic matter around, guided by the forces of gravity, shaping the celestial figures that fill the expanse.

Astronomers, with the help of telescopes, have captured glimpses of some of the raw materials before they become something whole—a diffuse glow about to coil into a star, a swirl of particles that could clump into planets. And the silt from which moons could form? That has been the trickiest to detect, but at last some has been found, whirling around a planet many light-years away.

It’s in the picture above. Not the big, glowing ring; that is the material orbiting the star at its center, named PDS 70, some of which has coalesced into planets. The potentially moon-forming stuff is the faint glow around that gleaming speck of a planet. Astronomers call this material a circumplanetary disk, and although it looks like little more than some pixels, this is the first time they’ve detected one with such clarity. Here’s a closer look:

ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / Benisty et al.

The disk surrounds an exoplanet called PDS 70c, one of two gas giants orbiting a star nearly 400 light-years from Earth. Astronomers can’t see any new moons in this swirling disk of matter, nor can they say with certainty whether any have taken shape, or will. But the materials are there. “The brighter the disk is, the more mass there exists in the disk,” Jaehan Bae, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and one of the authors on the new discovery, told me. And his team’s measurements suggest that there’s enough mass in this glowing disk to produce three moons the size of our own. The moons would form as planets do, through a series of collisions of fast-moving particles. The bits and pieces would stick, and gravity, over time, would smooth the misshapen clumps into spheres.

[Read: A stunning discovery in the search for moons beyond the solar system]

Based on this image, PDS 70c and its sibling planet, the very creatively named PDS 70b, are young planets, fresh out of their own cosmic kiln. Their detection a few years ago wasn’t so shattering, because astronomers have discovered more than 4,400 exoplanets to date and are working to acquire more data for another 7,600 potential planets. Exomoons, on the other hand, have been far more elusive. Small exoplanets are more challenging to find than bigger ones, which means that spotting small moons is even more difficult. One team announced in 2018 that they had discovered what could be the first known exomoon, an unusual one about the size of Neptune, located in a star system about 8,000 light-years away. But other researchers haven’t yet managed to replicate the original team’s analysis, and the existence of this potential exomoon remains uncertain.

Astronomers know that exomoons are certainly out there, guided by the same logic that indicated exoplanets must have existed before anyone had ever discovered one: Our planetary system and the sun at its center are not special but, judging by all those stars in the sky, one of many in the Milky Way. More than 200 moons reside in our own solar system, mostly around Jupiter and Saturn, its biggest planets. Some are tiny bits of rock, while others are worlds unto themselves, studded with rumbling volcanoes and flowing with subsurface oceans. Moons, I’d argue, are more interesting than planets in at least one sense—maybe the most important sense. Icy moons such as Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, for example, might be the best places to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life beyond Earth.

Not every moon comes into existence in the same way. Some are caught by a planet’s gravity as they pass by, becoming part of the permanent collection. According to one popular theory, our moon was likely forged from the rocky pieces that splattered into space after a mysterious Mars-size object smashed into Earth. Jupiter’s biggest moons may have coalesced from a ring of material that surrounded the gas planet in the early solar system—a circumplanetary disk, like the one astronomers detected around PDS 70c.

The discovery of a potential moon-forming disk is a piece of one of these origin stories. “Just like the moons in our solar system, exomoons have a lot to tell us about the formation and evolution of planetary systems, and it all starts with these circumplanetary disks,” Alex Teachey, an astronomer at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and one of the discoverers of the maybe-exomoon, told me.

[Read: The moon that got away]

But for astronomers, it’s also just exciting to finally detect one of these circumplanetary disks, rather than approximate it in a computer simulation. “To actually be able to see an image—not a model, not an interpretation, but an image—with high-enough resolution that you can point at this one spot … is really exciting,” Kamber Schwarz, an astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory who studies planet formation, told me.

Of course, the image of the PDS 70c’s maybe-moon-forming disk is just a snapshot, a zoomed-out view of some place we’ll never actually be able to visit. Perhaps, in the 400 years that it has taken for the light of this star system to reach Earth, Schwarz said, the disk around PDS 70c has dissipated. The disk may have left nothing behind at all, but it is far more fun to consider what this otherworldly region could produce. Because PDS 70c is a giant planet, Bae explained, the environment “would look more like Jupiter and its satellite system instead of the Earth-moon system.” Perhaps this circumplanetary disk, and others like it, could make its own Europa, a marble of ice with water sloshing under its shell. Or Io, with its molten lakes of lava and a surface reminiscent of moldy cheese. Or Ganymede and Callisto, their dark, rocky surfaces speckled with bright craters.

Exomoons are interesting astronomical targets for researchers on Earth. But, if you join me in a hint of dreamy speculation, they might be something else to the planets they orbit. Consider the ways our moon has influenced Earth—not only in the push and pull of the planet’s tides, but in the imagination of its inhabitants. This month marks the anniversary of the first moon landing, the moment a few members of humankind leapt away from the gravity of their own world and fell into that of another. How tantalizing to imagine that perhaps some other civilizations have visited their own moons too.


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