TIME space station

Join Us for a Conversation Between TIME and the Space Station

The space station as photographed by the shuttle Endeavour
NASA; Getty Images The space station as photographed by the shuttle Endeavour

Astronauts flying a million-pound machine 230 miles overhead don't have a lot of time to chat, but Time snagged them for a few minutes. Join us for some live air-to-ground chatter.

Everything about the International Space Station (ISS) is built to wow. It’s almost exactly the size of a football field, has as much habitable space as a six-bedroom house, orbits 230 miles overhead, required 115 space flights to build and carries a solar panel array with a surface area of one acre. The offices of TIME magazine—located on the slightly less glamorous Avenue of the Americas and 51st St. in New York City, and with about as much habitable space as, um, an office— can hardly compete. But on July 9, the two worlds will briefly collide, as TIME chats via video downlink with the ISS.

There are currently six crewmen aboard the station, and we’ll be talking to three of them: commander Steve Swanson and flight engineer Reid Wiseman, both of NASA, as well as flight engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency. Like all space station crews, this one has been tending both to matters celestial (conducting biomedical, engineering and materials science experiments, as well as maintaining the station itself) and matters terrestrial, most recently their eye-in-the-sky observations of Hurricane Arthur.

Other matters down on Earth concern the crew too. It may have been fun and games when Gerst’s native Germany bested the U.S. in the first round of the World Cup, but the dust-up between Russia and the U.S. over Ukraine is awfully hard to ignore when the other three members of the crew are Russian cosmonauts. TIME will be chatting with the crew about these and other matters—and would like to hear your suggestions.

Consider what you’d like to ask three men in a million-pound machine flying over head at 17,500 mph if you had the chance—because now you do.

TIME animals

DNA Study Proves Bigfoot Never Existed

Juuuuust in case...
Lynn Janes, Photonica; Getty Juuuuust in case...

Curse you, reliable DNA studies! Must you spoil all the fun?

In a stunning finding that set off shock waves of grieving through much of the world, University of Oxford researchers announced that the beloved bipedal cryptid known globally as Bigfoot is dead—or, more specifically, that he never existed.

Mr. Foot, who also went by the name Sasquatch, or Sásq’ets in the original Halkomelem, was 4,000 years old. Or maybe not.

The Oxford finding was the result of a three-year study that began in 2012 when researchers issued an open call for hair samples held in museums and private collections that were said to come from “an anomalous primate,” which is the kind of term scientists from a place like Oxford University often use when they’re publishing a peer-reviewed paper on, you know, Bigfoot, and don’t want to be snickered at by other Oxford University scientists in the faculty lounge. Thirty-six samples from the U.S., Russia, Indonesia, India, Bhutan and Nepal were ultimately submitted, a geographical range that suggested a) there was more than one “anomalous primate” out there, b) there is only one, but he is really, really well-traveled, c) there’s a teensy-weensy chance the hairs came from something else.

To find out, the investigators conducted DNA analyses on the samples and compared their findings to those of known species of animals. As it turned out they got some hits—a lot of them actually. The samples, the investigators found, came from animals as diverse as bears, wolves, raccoons, porcupine, deer, sheep, at least one human, and a cow. Again, that’s a cow.

The news was met with something less than universal acceptance that the long-rumored 10-ft. tall, 500-lb. creature with a two-ft. footprint, a coat of reddish brown hair, the sagittal crest of a gorilla and an unpleasant smell just might not exist. “The fact that none of these samples turned out to be [Bigfoot] doesn’t mean the next one won’t,” said no less a person than Bryan Sykes, the Oxford researcher who led the study, according to the Associated Press.

The Guardian headlined its story on the announcement “DNA analysis indicates Bigfoot may be a big fake,” begging the question of what it might take to warrant a headline that Bigfoot is a big fake.

None of that will do much to relieve the grief in the parts of Bigfoot-loving community that do, reluctantly, accept the Oxford team’s findings. As yet, Bigfoot intimates Kraken, Wendigo, Yeti and The Loch Ness Monster have issued no statement and have not returned calls or e-mails requesting comments. That could, scientific literalists suggest, indicate that they don’t exist either. But really, they’ve probably just gone into seclusion.

TIME the brain

Noninvasive Brain Control Is Real — and That’s Good

Give in, give in, give in to the light...
tunart; Getty Images Give in, give in, give in to the light...

A diabolical-sounding breakthrough may actually be able to treat a range of disabling diseases

You might think you don’t want anyone controlling your brain. You might think that anyone who did want to control your brain was behaving, you know, invasively. But you’d be wrong — and that’s actually very good news.

Most of the reactions in your brain are mediated either electrically or neurochemically — or, really, a combination of the two. But given the right manipulation, light can do it too.

Nature is awash in light-sensitive proteins known as opsins, which microbes and other simple organisms use to detect different levels and wavelengths of light in their environment and react to them. For more than a decade, scientists have been experimenting with a technique known as optogenetics, which involves introducing opsins into the brain and then using light to switch certain neurons on and off, effectively controlling the behavior of a local region of the brain. (In one dramatic study last year, researchers found they could use the technique to implant false memories in mice, leading them to think they had experienced an electrical shock in a particular part of their cage, which they then avoided.)

The problem was that stimulating the opsins so that they would switch the neurons on and off as desired required threading a fiber-optic cable into the brain and sending pulses of light through it — something even a mouse would rather not sit still for. If there was ever going to be a way to use optogenetics in humans, a more benign method had to be developed.

Enter Ed Boyden, associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. Boyden knew that one of the limitations of most opsins is that they respond only to green or blue wavelengths, which are pretty much stopped cold by solid objects like the bone and soft tissue that makes up the head. But red light can penetrate scalp and skull — at least a little bit. Boyden’s team thus went scouring through light-sensitive bacteria and found two that produce red-sensitive opsins. Those proteins, however, produce only a very weak photocurrent — not nearly enough to affect brain function.

So Boyden’s team — especially grad student Amy Chuong — began tinkering with the proteins, genetically engineering mutants that produced a bigger kick when hit with red light. When these engineered opsins were introduced into the brains of laboratory mice, they were able to shut down or turn on local neural activity with nothing more than a well-aimed beam of red light on the skull.

Fantastic — but why exactly would a human being want to go within 10 feet of the technology? A lot of reasons. Epilepsy, for example, is little more than an out-of-control electrical storm in the brain, and optogenetics might offer a quick and painless way to regulate it. Other neurological disorders could similarly be treated in much the way researchers are using transcranial magnetic stimulation as a means to control Parkinson’s disease, depression, migraine headaches and other conditions. The MIT team is also working with investigators at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Switzerland to use the same protein to resensitize cone cells in the retina. If the technique proves successful in mice, in could be used to treat retinitis pigmentosa, which causes blindness by destroying the cones.

So, as with so many other scary-sounding advances in medical history, brain control is very bad — but only until it’s very good.

TIME Opinion

Why Russia Won’t Catch Up in the Space Race

Goin' nowhere: Smiles take you farther than frowns
Bill Ingalls/NASA; Getty Images Goin' nowhere: Smiles take you farther than frowns

It takes a lot of things to run a successful space program, but petulance, anger and impulsiveness are not among them. That's a lesson Vladimir Putin has to learn.

It’s a hard fact of exploratory history that angry people don’t achieve much in space. You have to be patient when you design your rockets, steely-eyed when you launch them and utterly unflappable when you actually get where you’re going.

That stay-poised doctrine was conspicuously at work in the past few days, as two different space projects played out in two different parts of the world with two very different results. On Friday, Russia scrapped the launch of its new Angara rocket—a booster that has been in development since 1994 and has gone pretty much nowhere. Vladimir Putin was personally involved both in overseeing the launch and in authorizing the stand-down—a line of command that would seem awfully strange if it were President Obama on the horn with Cape Canaveral telling the pad engineers what they can launch and when they can launch it.

On Saturday, meantime, NASA successfully tested its Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, a nifty piece of engineering that the space agency admittedly overhyped as a “flying saucer,” but that does kind of look like one and is actually a prototype of a new landing system for spacecraft going to Mars—a place NASA has been visiting with greater and greater frequency of late.

The U.S. and Russia were once the Castor and Pollux of space travel, cosmic twins that dazzled the world with their serial triumphs in the 1960s and ’70s, but they’ve gone in different directions since. America’s manned space program has been frustratingly adrift since the end of the Apollo era, but the shuttles did fly successfully 133 times (and failed disastrously twice) and new crewed spacecraft are in development. The unmanned program, meantime, has been a glorious success, with robot craft ranging across the solar system, to planets, moons, comets and asteroids—and one ship even exiting the solar system altogether.

And Russia? Not so much. The collapse of communism, the loss of Kazakhstan—which put the Baikonaur Cosmodrome, Russia’s Cape Canaveral, in an entirely different country—and hard economic times made space an unaffordable luxury. But now Russia is grimly trying to claw its way back—and the grimness is a problem.

The Angara launch was supposed to take place from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia, a new installation intended to re-centralize the space program, getting it out of Kazakhstan and back on home soil. It’s of a piece with a range of Russia’s actions lately, which have, much like the Angara, been more fizzle than flight.

Putin’s Crimean land grab seemed bold if larcenous for a moment, but the blowback has been severe and he’s already backing down from further actions, with his ambitions for a renewed Russian empire limited—for the moment at least—to a single Black Sea island with less square mileage than Massachusetts. His long dreamed-of economic union—announced with enormous fanfare in early June and intended to serve as a counterweight to the 28-member EU—turned out to be nothing more than a table for three, shared with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine initially RSVP’ed yes, but that was one revolution and one Russian invasion ago, and the new government is once again tilting west.

And so it will probably go with Russia in space. The original space race was no less political than anything Russia is doing today, but both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were operating from positions of strength, projecting their competing power over a sprawling region of client states and taking the duel to the cosmic high ground. Russia today—with Putin calling the shots on when a booster should be launched and the government issuing petulant threats to quit flying American astronauts to the International Space Station—is acting neither strong nor confident.

It is, instead, joining the long list of states that have dreamed of space but sought to power themselves more with rage than rocket fuel. And consider how far they’ve gotten. North Korea? Pathetic. Iran? Please. China? They’re doing great things now, but that only started when they climbed down from their revolutionary zeal and started focusing on the engineering and physics instead of the ideology and slogans.

Russia may once again become the cosmic pioneer it was—and space fans of good will are rooting for that. With the Cold War over, it matters less whether the first flag on Mars or the next one on the moon is the stars and stripes or the Russian tri-color or even the Chinese stars. As long as a human being is planting it, that will be good enough. So the door is always open, Russia. But please, leave the nasty outside before you come in.

TIME Food

Eat More Gluten: The Diet Fad Must Die

Yum, right? Well, eat up!
Getty Images Yum, right? Well, eat up!

For more than 93% of the world, gluten is perfectly fine. But marketers don't mind a bit if we all think otherwise

If you’ve got a hankering to make some money, now might be a good time to trademark a brand name for gluten-free salt. If they’re all taken, try gluten-free sugar or gluten-free water. And if they’re gone too, well, there’s still gluten-free shoes.

What’s that? None of those things had gluten to begin with? Well neither did Chobani yogurt or Green Giant vegetables or a whole lot of other foods that have nothing at all to do with wheat or rye or barley—where gluten lives—yet shout about that fact all the same in order to catch a ride on the no-gluten train before the latest nonsensical health fad pulls completely out of the station.

Gluten is to this decade what carbohydrates were to the last one and fat was to the ’80s and ’90s: the bête noir, the bad boy, the cause of all that ails you—and the elimination of which can heal you. As has been clear for a long time, and as the Wall Street Journal reports today in a splendid and about-time piece, a whole lot of that is flat-out hooey, a result of trendiness, smart marketing, Internet gossip and too many people who know too little about nutrition saying too many silly things.

Gluten is not entirely without blame in this, and for some people it comes by its nasty rep rightly. Celiac disease—an immune reaction to gluten that damages the small intestine—is a very real thing, affecting between two and three million Americans. Gluten ataxia is a scarier condition that attacks the brain, leading to problems in gait and muscular control. I’ve seen that up close, in a now-8-year-old nephew who exhibited terrifying symptoms at age 2 and today must avoid foods that contain wheat, barley and rye, as well as any pots or utensils that have come in contact with them, at least until he is done growing and his brain is through developing. Another 18 million Americans may have some lesser forms of gluten sensitivity that cause intestinal discomfort but no damage.

So, crunch the numbers and what do we get? Perhaps 1% of Americans definitely need to be gluten-free and another 5.7% ought to be careful. As for the other 93.3% of us. Break out the Parker House rolls.

But that’s not how things are working out. It’s not clear just when talking heads and bloggers caught the gluten fever, but once they started buzzing about how avoiding the stuff can help you lose weight, fight infertility, overcome fatigue, treat diabetes and—again and always—reduce the symptoms of autism, there was no going back. The website Glutenfree.com offers tips on “Preparing Your Gluten-Free Kitchen,” “Going Gluten-Free For the New Year” and, for nutritionists, “Empowering Clients in Their Gluten-Free Lifestyles.” There’s also “The Gluten-Free Guide for Guys,” because…well, who knows why.

But here’s one reason, at least for marketers: gluten-free is big money. As the Journal reports, U.S. sales of products carrying the gluten free label jumped from $11.5 billion to $23 billion in just the past four years. General Mills alone has added 600 such products to its inventory since 2008, when it first marketed its gluten-free line of Chex cereals. But while the manufacturers are getting rich on the craze, consumers might be getting sick. Not only will gluten-free products do you no good if you’re not gluten-sensitive, taking out the offending ingredient requires replacing it with something else for texture or taste. A whole range of products, including spaghetti, pancake mix and potato chips, therefore have less fiber and protein and more sugar and sodium in their gluten-free formulation than in their supposedly less healthy one.

As a representative of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the Journal: “The gluten-free fad has actually undermined people’s health because now there are gluten-free varieties of all that junk food. Whether your doughnut is gluten-free or not, it’s still a doughnut.”

The anti-gluties will surely tell you they feel better, fitter, more energetic, that their withdrawn child has suddenly blossomed and that their man—following the Guide For Guys—is healthier and happier. But the placebo effect—even the placebo effect by proxy, seeming to see better health in someone else—is a very real thing. Most of the time, however, it has nothing to do with the perceived cause.

Food fads are nothing new, and they do run their course. Eventually, the gluten-free cookbooks will wind up in the same river of pop detritus as the no-carb wines and the fat-free cookies and the crock pots and fondue sets and woks everyone in America seemed to buy at once in 1988 and stopped using sometime around 1989. When that happens, the people with celiac or gluten ataxia or genuine gluten sensitivity will still have to wrestle with their illnesses, while everyone else returns happily to their baguettes—searching for the next big thing to exorcise.

TIME space

Here’s the ‘Magic Island’ That Appeared in Space

coverimg3
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/University of Arizona/Cornell Titan's methane cycle is strikingly similar to Earth’s hydrologic cycle and the only other one known to include stable bodies of surface liquids, such as this north polar sea Ligeia Mare. The Cassini mission has characterized Titan’s surface liquid inventory and Ligeia Mare is now known to have a mixed composition of methane, ethane, and dissolved nitrogen. The sea appeared quiescent throughout the 90 Kelvin north polar winter, but on July 10th, 2013 transient features were discovered, shown in the red circle. Dynamic phenomena are expected to occur with increased frequency and intensity as the 2017 northern summer solstice approaches and will afford Cassini the opportunity to begin characterizing the nature of energetic processes in these alien seas. The July 10th, 2013 image is overlaid on the April 26th, 2007 image to fill a gap in the upper left corner. All of the images have been modified for aesthetic appeal and are shown in false colour.

Saturn's moon Titan is now known to be dotted with oceans and seas

So China thinks it’s something special for building new islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea? Well back off, Beijing, because Titan’s got you beat. (And relax, we’re not talking about the ICBM that used to go by that name.) We’re talking about the second largest moon in the solar system and one of the niftiest places humans have never been—but our machines have.

Titan belongs to Saturn’s family of moons, and before the arrival of the Cassini spacecraft in the Saturnian system in 2004, scientists had long suspected that like Earth, Titan might be dotted with oceans and seas. Unlike Earth’s oceans, they wouldn’t be filled with liquid water—which would be awfully hard to manage with a surface temperature of -290°F (-180° C)—but liquid methane and ethane. Cassini’s radar mapping has proven that the oceans indeed exist, and they’re every bit as dynamic as the ones on Earth, as confirmed by a new study, just published in Nature Geoscience, announcing the discovery of a new island in Ligeia Mare, Titan’s northern sea. The astronomers describe their discovery drily as a “transient feature,” which is in the nature of scientists. The Internet has dubbed it a “magic island,” which is in the nature of the Internet.

Whatever you call the island, it is thought to be the result of Titan’s approaching summer solstice. The resulting increase in solar heating can lead to waves, bubbling and other kinds of churn that expose previously immersed land masses. Nobody pretends the island is much to see, but the fact that it’s there at all is undeniably cool—and the fact that NASA has a machine on-site to document it is immeasurably cooler.

TIME Design

WATCH: The Science Behind the World’s Biggest Wooden Roller Coaster

Whether you can't get enough of them or can't go near them, roller coasters rely on some pretty nifty tricks of physics and design.

Your brain wants nothing to do with roller coasters—and for a wonderfully simple reason: your brain would very much like you to stay alive. So anything that’s designed to haul you up to the top of a very steep incline, drop you straight down, very fast, and repeat that process over and over again for a minute or two is something that elicits a simple, highly adaptive response in you—which pretty much involves running away.

That, at least, is how it’s supposed to work, but your entire brain isn’t in on the game. There are also thrill-seeking parts, adventurous parts, parts that like the adrenaline and serotonin and endorphin kicks that come from roller coasters. So while millions of people avoid the things, at least as many millions swarm to them, looking for ever bigger, scarier rides and ever bigger, better thrills. This summer they’ll get their wish, thanks to the opening of the appropriately named Goliath roller coaster, the biggest and fastest wooden coaster ever built, which just took its inaugural runs at the Six Flags Great America amusement park in Gurnee, Ill., about 50 miles north of Chicago.

Goliath is destined to be a tourist magnet, a cultural icon—at least until another, even bigger one comes along—and a lot of fun for a lot of people. But it’s also a feat of engineering and basic physics. And if you’re the kind of person who enjoys that sort of thing while hating the idea of actually ever riding on roller coasters—the kind of person I’ll describe as “me,” for example—there’s a lot to like about Goliath.

Modern roller coasters typically come in two varieties, wooden ones and steel ones—known unimaginatively if unavoidably as “woodies” and “steelies”—and coaster lovers debate their merits the way fans of the National and American Leagues debate the designated hitter rule.

Steelie partisans like the corkscrews and loop-the-loops made possible by the coasters’ bent-pipe architecture. Woodie fans prefer the old school clack-clack and the aesthetics of the entire structure. What’s more, plunging into and soaring through all the wooden bracing and strutwork necessary to keep the thing standing increases the sensation of speed because stationary objects that are close to you when you’re moving at high speed seem to whiz past so fast they blur. Steelies leave you more or less moving through open space, and that eliminates the illusion.

Goliath moves at a top speed of 72 mph, achieving that prodigious feat with the aid of a very simple fuel: gravity. As in all roller coasters, its biggest, steepest drop is the first one, because that’s the only way to generate enough energy to propel you through the rest of the ride—which is made up of steadily shallower hills. In the case of Goliath, that first hill is 180′ tall (55m), or about the equivalent of an 18-story building. The drop is an almost-vertical 85 degrees.

As test pilots and astronauts could tell you, such rising, falling, corkscrewing movement creates all manner of g-force effects. Most of the time we live in a familiar one-g environment. Climb to 2 g’s in a moving vehicle of some kind and you feel a force equivalent to twice your body weight. The maximum g’s Goliath achieves is 3.5. Get on the ride weighing 150 lbs., and for at least a few seconds, you’ll experience what it’s like to weigh 525 lbs.

But g forces can go in the other direction, too. With many roller coasters, the forces bottom out at about 0.2 g’s during downward plunges, meaning your 150 lb. one-g weight plummets to 30 lbs. That can give you a feeling of near-weightlessness. It’s also possible to achieve 0 g in a dive, which is how NASA’s famed “vomit comet” aircraft allow astronauts to practice weightlessness. On the Goliath, things go even further, with riders experiencing a force of minus 1 g.

“That means you’d be coming out of your seat,” says Jake Kilcup, a roller coaster designer and the chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Construction, which designed and built Goliath. To ensure that that doesn’t happen, the Goliath cars are equipped with both lap bars and seat belts.

Though Goliath is made of wood, it does feature two so-called inversions—or half loops that take you to the top of a climb, then deliberately stall and plunge back down the same way. One includes a “raven turn,” or a twist in the track that turns the cars briefly upside down.

Even this much wouldn’t be possible on a wooden coaster if not for what Rocky Mountain calls its “Topper” track technology—a sort of hybrid of wood and metal. Most of the beams in the Goliath superstructure are made of nine laminated layers of southern yellow pine, steam-bent in stretches that call for curves and then kiln-dried. But the track itself also includes hollow metal rails running the entire 3,100 feet (or nearly a full kilometer) of the ride. The cars all have main wheels that sit on the rails as well smaller upstop and guide wheels that lock the cars to the tracks and keep them going where they’re supposed to.

“The Topper track gives a smoother ride than you get on an all-metal track,” says Kilcip, “and makes the overall roller coaster stronger than an all-wooden one.”

All that technology provides a relatively brief ride—just 87 seconds long, which is not atypical for roller coasters. For plenty of people, that’s way too short—which is what Six Flags is banking on to keep the turnstiles spinning. For plenty of other people, it’s precisely 87 seconds too long. And you know what? I’m not—um, I mean, those people aren’t—the slightest bit ashamed to admit that.

TIME Opinion

Jenny McCarthy Doubles Down on Deadly

McCarthy's ad may have been pulled but the images have gone viral
McCarthy's ad may have been pulled but the images have gone viral

The legendary anti-vaxxer becomes an e-cig peddler, once more endangering children

Jenny McCarthy is apparently determined to be present at the birth of every possible bad idea. Let’s pretend–pretend—for a moment that there was anything at all to the dangerous junk McCarthy has been peddling in falsely linking vaccines to autism and a host of other ills. Presumably her goal would be to protect children, to keep them safe and well.

And so what does McCarthy now propose to do with that generation of kids whose welfare she’s ensured? Why, hand them over to the tobacco companies, of course.

In a jaw-dropping bit of make-a-bad-thing-worse reputation management, McCarthy appeared in a cringe-inducing commercial for blu eCigs—which has since been pulled from the company’s website—peddling the increasingly popular product. Shot in what is meant to be a club, McCarthy appears in a skimpy dress with a silent piece of beef-cake by her side, going on about the virtues of e-cigs, including the fact that “I can whip out my blu without scaring that special someone away—know what I’m sayin’?”

But here’s the thing McCarthy isn’t sayin': e-cigs are way, way too young a product for anyone to be able to say with certainty how safe or how dangerous they are. They may well be a gateway out of smoking for some people, a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes. But they may certainly be a gateway in too—particularly for kids.

A study of electronic cigarette advertising from June through November of 2013 by the American Legacy Foundation found that Lorillard Tobacco Company’s blu brand spent more on marketing than “all other brands combined,” and that blu’s advertising was the most commonly viewed by teenagers, “with 73% of 12- to 17-year-olds exposed to blu’s print and TV ads.”

Worse, as my colleague Eliza Gray reported, advertising for e-cigs jumped 256% from 2011 to 2013, and more than 1.78 million middle school kids have tried them. No surprise since “last year 14 million kids saw ads for electronic cigarettes on TV [and] 9.5 million saw them in print.” And with e-cig brands sold in sweet tooth flavors like cherry and vanilla, it’s hard to pretend they’re not being marketed directly to consumers with immature palates—otherwise known as, you know, children.

At this week’s hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, e-cig makers got blowtorched by lawmakers who had already been through the lies and obfuscations from tobacco executives denying their deadly products were addictive, and are now hearing the same dissembling from the new generation of nicotine peddlers. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) was the most blistering, saying, “I’m ashamed of you. I don’t know how you go to sleep at night.”

It’s impossible to say how they do, but Jenny McCarthy, if her own words are an indicator, sleeps like a baby. “Now that I’ve switched to blu I feel better about myself,” she said. As the legendary U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch might have put it, at long last, Jenny, have you left no sense of decency?

TIME Parenting

Breaking News: Having a Father Is a Good Thing

Hey dads, they like you, they really like you!
Jekaterina Nikitina; Getty Images Hey dads, they like you, they really like you!

A new book 'discovers' the obvious—and the headlines follow. Enough already with the wonder of the dad

Science has a deliciously entertaining habit of stating the obvious. For every ingenious, truly groundbreaking insight that has a researcher sitting bolt upright at 3:00 a.m. entertaining dizzy visions of an inevitable Nobel, there other insights—researched, peer reviewed and published—that you don’t exactly need a double Ph.D to figure out. And so you get studies showing that “Moderate Doses of Alcohol Increase Social Bonding in Groups” or “Dogs Learn to Associate Words With Objects Differently Than Humans Do” or the breaking story that opened with the tantalizing headline, “Causes of Death in Very Old People.” Um, old age?

But the thing about these studies is this: somebody had to do them. Science is nothing if not persnickety about proof, and if you don’t have the data, you can’t officially establish the case. So the work gets done and the box gets checked and progress marches on. It was with that in mind that I tried to read with equanimity a Father’s Day gift from The Washington Post, which led its review of Paul Raeburn’s book Do Fathers Matter? with the headline, “Yes Dads, You Do Matter.”

And so, too, I tried to embrace the idea that Raeburn’s book needs to exist at all.

It’s not that the book isn’t a good, solid piece of science journalism. It is. And it’s not that Raeburn isn’t a good, solid science reporter. He’s been in the game a long time and is the media critic for MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

The deeper question is: are we not yet past this? It’s a question Raeburn himself raises but seems to answer with an emphatic no simply by having written his book. There seems to be no killing the idea of dad the extraneous; dad the superfluous; dad, who’s nice to have around the house but only in the way that air conditioning is nice to have in the car — it makes things more comfortable, but you’ll still get where you’re going without it.

It’s as if the steady shrinking of the Y chromosome over the ages is somehow being mirrored by the dwindling relevance of the parent who carries this dying scrap of DNA. That vanishing Y, as recent studies have established, has been both arrested and overstated, but not before giving rise to headlines like “As Y Chromosome Shrinks, End of Men Pondered.” And that bit of silliness came from NPR, not, say, TMZ.

The idea of the father’s expendability has been exacerbated by the persistence of the doofus dad stereotype, something else Raeburn addresses: the well-intentioned bumbler who is still a staple of kid-targeted TV (thank you, Disney Channel). He’s the guy who can’t quite boil an egg and can’t be trusted to go shopping, but is eventually bailed out by mom or one of the kids, who set things right. Eyes roll, dad looks abashed and hilarity ensues. Except it’s not really funny—though not because it’s profoundly offensive or causes deep wounds to the sensitivities of a newly defined oppressed group. There’s enough elective umbrage at large already without adding one more voice of grievance to one more cable news show.

It’s just … off, somehow—like Jay Leno’s cringe-worthy performance at the 2010 White House Correspondent’s dinner, during which he made jokes about President Obama’s courage because (wait for it!) he invited his mother-in-law to live in the White House. There was a time, maybe, when the mother-in-law as harridan image was an apt—or at least fresh—source of humor, but that time is long past. Ditto dad as dunce.

Raeburn’s book is guilty of none of this. It’s stuffed with studies showing the vital role fathers play in their children’s lives from the moment of conception, through the mother’s pregnancy and onward. But there’s still a sense of wonder that comes with it. “The discovery of the father is one of the most important developments in the study of children and families,” is a nice line. But is it true? Is this really something that needs “discovering?” And do fathers really need a new book and a major newspaper reminding them that “You Do Matter?” Not on Father’s Day at least. And certainly not on one in the 21st century.

TIME Children

Why Polio is Doomed and Gun Violence Isn’t

It's hard to spot the heroism—but it's there
Randy Plett; Getty Images It's hard to spot the heroism—but it's there

It shouldn't take too much courage to stop a scourge that is killing children. Washington's gun cowards could take a lesson from the heroes battling polio

A century ago, the quickest way to diagnose polio was with the belly button test. A doctor would ask a suddenly feverish, bedridden child to lift her head from her pillow and look at her belly button. If she couldn’t do it—if the muscles in her neck and stomach and pretty much anywhere else could no longer contract and lift the way they should—the odds were that the news was bad. Within the day, the child would be paralyzed.

There has always been a particular ugliness to polio—a virus that robs a child of the simple ability to move at what should be the most restless, kinetic, exploratory stage of life. Mercifully, in most of the world that ugliness is gone—though not everywhere.

Meantime, in the U.S., a new kind of horror has taken polio’s place: the school shooting. This one also strikes at children and defies what should be one of childhood’s givens: that school is a place for learning, a place for play, a place that counts as a so-called safe space, even before we became a nation that required such formally designated asylum zones.

Both polio and school shootings are acts of violence—one viral, one human. But only one, polio, is doomed to lose, as I realized yesterday when I attended a briefing by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at U.N. Foundation headquarters in New York, just a day after the latest school school shooting, this one at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore.

The big players at the polio conference were familiar names: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the international consulting group Global Health Strategies. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the progress that is being made to eradicate the last case of polio anywhere on the planet—making the disease only the second one, after smallpox, to have been vaccinated into well-deserved extinction.

The polio hunters are tantalizingly close to their goal: In 1988, polio was endemic to 120 countries and claimed 350,000 people—overwhelmingly children—each year. In 2013, there were only 416 cases worldwide and the disease was endemic to just three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the year-to-date-numbers are higher in 2014 than they were last year, thanks mostly to attacks on polio workers by extremists in Pakistan and unrest in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, which is allowing the virus to slip across borders.

That’s part of the reason the group assembled yesterday—to review their plan to push back against the resurgence, a plan that is breathtaking in its scope: there are the 105 million doses of oral polio vaccine that have been administered in and around Syria; the 3,176 hard-to-reach communities in Nigeria that are now being reached by health care workers bringing oral vaccine; the 2,000 health camps that have been held to educate and vaccinate in the ground zero state of Kano in northern Nigeria and the 10,000 more that are planned; the millions upon millions of children in 126 countries who will be receiving at least one dose of the injectable form of polio vaccine, which uses a killed virus and thus eliminates even the small risk of the weakened virus used in the oral version escaping into the wild.

And then, of course, there is the sheer, literally death-defying brass of the vaccine workers who regularly trudge into the Pakistani tribal areas, knowing that some of the workers who have come before them have been gunned down in drive-by shootings, and that every day they go out with their vials of drops there is a risk they won’t come home. But they go all the same.

Eradicating a viral disease is nothing less than an act of hunting molecules—protein particles so simple they don’t even qualify as technically alive—and destroying them anywhere they are hiding in the world. That’s an almost surreally difficult thing to accomplish, yet that’s what the Gateses and Rotary and WHO and others have decided must be done. And so they’re doing it.

And then, on the other side of the decency and courage arc, are the gun cowards. They are the American legislators who dare not cast a vote that will anger the National Rifle Association; the governors who walk away from the problem even as the children in their states—whose welfare they have sworn to ensure—are being murdered; the political parties that, if they acknowledge the problem at all, consider it too radioactive to take up this year, this session, this electoral cycle.

“‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says the Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” wrote The Onion, in a brilliant riff on the what-can-we-do faux-helplessness of the political class. But in case they’re really wondering, here’s what they can do: they can think less about locking down their base, expanding their majority, dodging the 30-second attack ad and more about the simple safety of children. Because here is a hard fact: there are babies and young people alive today who will be dead soon because of the choices now being made. If that isn’t enough to turn an election night victory into ash, America’s politicians are beyond help.

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