Ramin's Space: Preparing for solar storms

Hi everyone! This edition of Ramin's Space includes my new cover story for Science Magazine, which was just published online today, and you can grab a copy from your local newsstand too. I’ve also highlighted a bunch of other stories and pieces by other writers involving science, space and society. Happy reading! As always, feel free to send me any thoughts or tips.

Preparing for solar storms

Our sun intermittently flings out giant blobs of charged particles, and sometimes the Earth lies in their path. An impact from a small one can spark dazzling at the poles, while an intense solar storm has the potential put satellites on the fritz or out of commission — including those that give us GPS, phone and internet connections — and they can shut down electricity grids, too. Here’s my new feature story in Science News magazine, where I highlight the work by researchers figuring out how to better anticipate these potentially dangerous kinds of space weather.

In other writing...

Inevitable planetary doom has been exaggerated

Environmental writers continually debate the most helpful ways to cover climate change risks, but a “doom and gloom” approach can be misleading and counterproductive. As Emma Marris writes in the Atlantic, when people feel overwhelmed or fatalistic, they won’t make demands for climate action. And it’s never too late to take action.

Another successful mission to Mars!

NASA scientists have successfully landed a new rover, Perseverance, and a helicopter too, on the Red Planet! Nadia Drake’s excellent National Geographic feature story provides all the details of the new mission while putting it in context of humanity’s longtime fascination with our closest planetary neighbor. And to those unsure about why we should be sending missions to Mars during a pandemic crisis, I recommend checking out Shannon Stirone’s Substack post and Emily Calandrelli’s tweet.

A failure to vaccinate the world will put us all at risk

I can’t wait until it’s my turn to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and I look forward to when my friends and family have one too — a time that might come by this fall. But as Katharine Gammon writes in Tech Review, this situation’s partly due to rich countries hoarding vaccines and thereby depriving poorer countries, many of which haven’t received a single vaccine dose and likely won’t be fully vaccinated until 2023. Considering how infectious COVID is and that variants keep popping up, that’s a danger to us all. More importantly, striving for vaccine equity is the right thing to do. Vaccine-developing companies should waive intellectual property rights on COVID-related technologies, rather than prioritizing profits, Jane Hu writes in Slate.

The power of catastrophic thinking

This piece by Jim Holt in the New York Review of Books tackles a massive and thorny question: How much should we be willing to pay or sacrifice to ensure humanity’s future?

Kids of the COVID generation: the road ahead

This COVID year has been a tough time for children, with no or limited school and childcare. And the situation might not improve much until later this year. As Amber Dance writes in Knowable magazine, it’s understandable to have concerns about kids’ mental health and the development of their social, emotional and learning skills. But there’s reason for optimism too: kids are resilient and we can help them recover once things eventually return to “normal.”

Why is America getting a new $100 billion nuclear weapon?

America is building a new weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile the length of a bowling lane. It’s currently known by its clunky bureaucratic name, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, and it would be launched from missile silos (as opposed to from mobile launchers or subs). In this well-researched piece in the Bureau of the Atomic Scientists, Elisabeth Eaves shows how it’s costly, strategically dubious and unpopular. But considering that at least two members of Biden’s Defense Department come from think tanks principally funded by Northrop Grumman, the contractor tapped to design the GBSD, it’s hard to imagine the administration abandoning it. It’s part of the nuclear “modernization” program, which began under President Obama and has expanded since then, eventually costing some $1.7 *trillion*. There’s a lot of jobs involved, but wouldn’t you rather have a Green New Deal?

Have aliens visited our solar system?

Harvard professor Avi Loeb claims that ‘Oumuamua, that interstellar object that visited (and which I wrote about here), exhibits evidence of alien technology. He’s in the minority though, as pretty much no other scientist would say that. Loeb is a talented astrophysicist whom I’ve met at a workshop in Israel and whom I interviewed a couple times for news stories, and he has sparked discussions with his provocative statements. But as Lee Billings points out, he could also be seen as a distracting influence and as spreading misinformation. He has also unfortunately downplayed the important work by others, like Jill Tarter, one of the leaders of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

What I'm reading: Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami, about the rights, liberties and experiences of immigrants in the United States, including the author’s own story. I’m also reading Jillian York’s new book, Silicon Values, about how Google, Facebook, Amazon and other companies conduct surveillance and affect our free speech and access to information.

Looking back: Some day we’ll send humans to Mars, and one of their most difficult challenges will be psychological. One year ago, I wrote this essay for Aeon magazine about these oft-overlooked issues.

More about me: I'm an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist based in San Diego. You can find me at my website, raminskibba.net and on Twitter @raminskibba. I'm also former president of the San Diego Science Writers Association (SANDSWA) and on the board of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), though the opinions I express are mine alone. If someone has forwarded this email to you, you're welcome to subscribe too.