See the First Interactive Picture from the Lunar North Pole

The first American spacecraft to photograph the moon up close did its work in the last 15 minutes of its life. On the morning of July 31, 1964, the Ranger 7 spacecraft was falling toward the lunar surface at the end of a three-day trip that was always intended to culminate in a suicide plunge. At precisely 6:25 AM, when the ship was at an altitude of 1,500 miles (2,400 km), its six on-board cameras flicked on and it began beaming pictures back to Earth. In that quarter hour—before Ranger 7 annihilated itself in the moon’s Sea of Clouds—it sent home 4,316 pictures that flashed on black and white TV screens at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. In front of each screen was a 35-mm film camera. A moon portrait would appear, the cameras would snap, and the film would automatically advance—a triumph of mid-century optics and machining.

It needn’t be said that things are more sophisticated now. When the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived at the moon in June 2009, it also carried along a battery of cameras, but ones that capture images with a granularity and spectral sweep that were unimaginable 45 years ago, as this stunning, interactive image of the north lunar pole shows. The picture covers an area equal to about 25% of the surface of the continental U.S.—and that’s the very least of its impressive metrics. It required 867 billion pixels to assemble the entire panorama, each pixel representing about 6.5 ft (2 m) of lunar real estate. A 300 dot-per-inch printout would call for a piece of paper larger than a football field; the digital file consumes 3.3 terabytes of memory.

But never mind that. The greatness of the picture is in the seeing of it—not just the detail it provides of the face of the moon, but the freedom it allows to sweep and pan and dive, exploring that tortured landscape from so many different altitudes. Ranger 7 once took a dive there too. The difference is, we’ll all live to tell the tale.

TIME The Universe

You Should Care Big Time About the Big Bang News

Big Bang News: Why You Should Care
In the instant after the Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light Getty Images

Science doesn't have to be practical—or even entirely fathomable—to be breathtaking

Exactly why do you have to give a hoot about Monday’s landmark announcement that, in a single observation, physicists have given a big boost to the Big Bang? You don’t, actually. It will not change a single thing about your life, the life of anyone you care about or the state of the world. So in some respects, we’re done here.

But in other respects there’s a lot to love.

Science has, in some ways, always been measured by its payoff. Polio vaccine? Hundreds of thousands of children per year spared paralysis or death. Eradication of smallpox? Hundreds of millions of lives saved over the arc of time. The invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, the personal computer? World-changers.

But what about the invention of the telescope? It landed Galileo—he of the heliocentric heresy—in a world of hurt, as well it would have by the thinking of the time. Yes, he found the moons of Jupiter and rings of Saturn, but by showing other worlds in all their non-Earthly complexity, he also blew up the notion of cosmic specialness that had been at the center of our species’ overweening ego for so long. Later generations of telescopes gave us more information we could make no practical use of and that only served to shrink us further, revealing that we are crazily small organisms on a crazily small world and that, on a cosmic scale, our species’ entire time on the stage amounts to little more than the trillionths of a second it took the Higgs Boson to flash out of existence after its celebrated creation in 2012.

And what about that Boson? A couple of years ago we were all aflutter about it, so quick, what did we learn from it? Um, something about mass and particles and energy and blah, blah, blah Einstein (half of these discoveries end up with blah, blah Einstein).

But there was something about the boson that got to us, too. Even if you didn’t pay much attention, you knew that it involved a huge machine creating an unfathomably tiny particle, one that somehow reached all the way back to the Big Bang and helped explain something deeply fundamental. That something had to do with why there is matter in the universe at all. But even if you never got that far, you sensed—just sensed—that this was something that made us, the whole species, better, smarter, just faintly immortal, if only by having transcended our multiple limitations to figure out something very hard.

And so it is with Monday’s announcement, that gravitational waves which, yes, Einstein again, first posited 99 years ago, actually exist—and that they send ripples out across all of spacetime. That, in turn, confirmed that in the first billionth of a trillionth of a quadrillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe briefly expanded faster than the speed of light—a speed that’s supposed to be impossible, but in this exceptional case wasn’t. And while it would be nice to understand even more, even that little bit has to leave you feeling gobsmacked.

It’s that way with all thrilling things that make no sense: scaling Mount Everest, breaking the four-minute mile, landing the first man on the moon. Hell, back in 1962, we fiercely defended the greatness of the failed Ranger 4 mission after it crash-landed on the lunar surface but was unable to take even a single picture. Why? Because we had finally put metal on the moon—dead metal to be sure—but we had gotten there and that was enough for the moment.

It’s fine—and vital—to do science that changes lives. But it’s great to also do science that just gets you drunk on the idea that you’re doing it at all, that refracts the universe in a different way, that shows you yourself from the other side of the mirror. You are precisely the same person you were before you had that perspective—and you’re entirely different too.

TIME Science

So What Exactly Is Cosmic Inflation Anyway?

The barred spiral galaxy M83 is seen in a NASA Hubble Space Telescope mosaic
NASA / Reuters

In a discovery physicists are calling "extraordinary" and "spectacular," observers at the South Pole have found the first direct evidence that gravitational waves caused by the Big Bang and theorized by Einstein actually exist, fundamentally changing our view of the universe

The universe literally shook today. That’s nothing new though, since as we now know it’s been shaking for 13.8 billion years. A single observation by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has just confirmed two of science’s most tantalizing theories: the existence of gravitational waves and the long ago, high-speed inflation of the universe.

So what exactly is cosmic inflation, and why does it matter?

Ninety-nine years ago, Einstein first explained that gravity wasn’t exactly a force, as much as it was a warping of “spacetime” which, as the name suggests, is kind of space plus time multiplied by, well, everything. Picture spacetime as a trampoline: drop a bowling ball on it and the entire mat will warp and jiggle. Those jiggles are gravitational waves.

In the 1980s, other theorists posited the inflationary universe, the idea that in the first .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds after the Big Bang (and before you ask, yes, that’s a real number) the universe briefly expanded faster than the speed of light—which should be impossible but isn’t, provided it’s spacetime itself doing the expanding.

What the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists did was observe a sort of distortion in the microwave energy left over from the Big Bang. That distortion could only have come from gravitational waves, and it could only have been an event as violent as a light-speed-plus expansion that set everything jiggling. Two theories confirmed with one nifty observation.

Why should you care—apart from the fact that it’s all just deeply cool?

The same reason you may have cared about the Higgs Boson: because this stuff is head-crackingly complex, because we live in an era in which there are people around who can actually figure it out—and oh yeah, because it explains how you, the planet, and everything else that’s ever been since the dawn of measurable time came into existence. So, not bad for a day’s work at the lab.

TIME space

Shhhh! Don’t Disturb the Baby Stars

An infrared image of a small portion of the Monkey Head Nebula (also known as NGC 2174 and Sharpless Sh2-252) captured by the Hubble telescope, released on March 17, 2014.
An infrared image of a small portion of the Monkey Head Nebula (also known as NGC 2174 and Sharpless Sh2-252) captured by the Hubble telescope, released on March 17, 2014. The nebula is a star-forming region that hosts dusky dust clouds silhouetted against glowing gas. NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The Hubble Space Telescope has given us a gift on the occasion of its own 24th birthday. Like nearly all of the riches Hubble has showered down on us over nearly a quarter of a century, the newest one is a picture—this time of the wonderfully named Monkey Head Nebula, 6,400 light years from Earth. The region of the nebula that’s shown is a stellar nursery, a place new stars churn into existence. As they release energy, the infant suns blow off cosmic dust (at the right of the image); the ultraviolet light they generate sculpts the remaining dust into pillars. Space, as Hubble has revealed again and again, is a place of sublime violence—and sublime beauty too.

TIME Appreciation

Farewell to a Cosmic Mr. Fix-It

Skylab, with its gold colored sun shield covering its crew module
Skylab over Earth Getty Images

Never mind the folks who design the space hardware that works, it's the ones who step in when everything breaks down who are the real heroes — folks like Jack Kinzler, who has died at the age of 94

I spoke to Ed Smylie only once—about 20 years ago, when I was writing the book Apollo 13—and I counted it as one of life’s great privileges. Smylie was the improvisational genius who devised the on-the-fly fix that allowed the astronauts in the crippled spacecraft to use the air scrubber designed for their command module in their lifeboat lunar module instead. In one of the signature scenes from the later Apollo 13 movie, he dumps out a load of duct tape, plastic bags and other items the crew had on board, then holds up the command module’s square canister and the lunar module’s round one.

“We’ve got to make this fit into the hole made for this,” he says, then gestures toward the junk on the table, “using nothing but this.” And they did.

I was put in mind of Smylie today when I read that one of NASA’s other great Mr. Fix-Its, Jack Kinzler, had died at the age of 94. Kinzler was the man who invented, among other things, the collapsible staffs that were used on the moon to make the flags the astronauts planted in the airless environment appear to be flapping. But it was in 1973, when the Skylab space station went into orbit and disastrously shed its external shielding on the way up, that Kinzler really saved NASA’s hash. Without the shielding, the temperature inside the station rose to a broiling 130°F (55°C ), utterly uninhabitable for the three-man crew waiting to blast off and join the orbiting ship.

So Kinzler invented a huge, parasol-like heat shield that the astronauts—protected by their spacesuits from the heat inside Skylab—could carry into the sweatbox station when they arrived, poke through a porthole-like airlock and then unfurl. The crew brought the ungainly thing to orbit with them, deployed it as Kinzler instructed, and then went about their 28-day mission in a shirt-sleeve environment—marking America’s first long-term stay in space.

Space travel has always been exceedingly intolerant of surprises. It’s an enterprise in which hardware is designed down to multiple decimal points of reliability, in which almost no system is flown without one or more back-up systems, in which the “single-point failure”—the one-off breakdown that by itself could wreck a mission—is scrubbed out of the equation almost completely. It’s thus something of an engineering irony that what we remember the most, what we celebrate the most, are the imaginative, in-the-moment fixes that no mission planner would ever abide until they run out of options.

And so we had the unmanned Galileo mission to Jupiter, which was launched in 1989 and almost immediately came to ruin when one rib on its umbrella-like high-gain antenna failed to open, essentially rendering the spacecraft mute. Engineers thus reprogrammed the ship from the ground so that the torrent of pictures and data it would collect at Jupiter could be stored on magnetic tape—reel-to-reel, thank you very much—and then trickled back to Earth via the functioning low-gain antenna. This was worse than going from broadband down dial-up; it was more like broadband to Morse code. And yet it worked.

And so we had William Pickering, the great mid-century rocketeer, watching in dismay as the Vanguard booster—which he hadn’t built and didn’t much care for—failed in its attempt to put America’s first satellite in orbit in 1957, blowing up just six inches above the pad. “Kaputnik!” hooted the headlines, in a jab at the fact that the Russian’s celebrated Sputnik had launched just months earlier. So Pickering recruited Wernher von Braun and James Van Allen, stacked his own second-stage rocket atop Von Braun’s first stage, and crowned them both with Van Allen’s Explorer 1 third stage satellite. Less than two months later, America was in space.

When things are going well, that’s no way to do business. But things fall apart, stuff breaks down, even the most meticulously planned projects can become—as the engineers like to say—suboptimal. So props to the people who step in then. It ain’t just the duct tape—though that’s part of it—and it ain’t just the imagination. It’s the speed and the cool and the presence of mind that allows people under pressure to invent on order, and make the stuff work. Suboptimal is bad, but the people it produces can be legends. Kinzler was one of them.


Top Ten Insanely Great Science Terms

Getty Images

Scientists can be awfully dry, at least until you get them playing with language

I don’t appreciate being judged by a galaxy, to say nothing of a whole group of them. But apparently they’re out there, gazing balefully down at me—and you too for that matter. That’s the implication of a study by a team of astronomers at York University in Toronto, who this week report that the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy are surrounded by 12 large galaxies 24 million light years across, forming what’s known as a “Council of Giants” that “stands in gravitational judgment” of the “Local Group” of galaxies by restricting their movement. That’s some kind of nomenclature, star boys!

Scientists, it seems, can’t help themselves. You try sitting in the same lab, staring into the same instruments, counting stars or virus particles or bits of subatomic debris all day and see if you don’t try to have a little fun when you get to play with language. In honor of the Council of Giants—and in the hope that they find me worthy—here are science’s 10 most wonderfully, outrageously, absurdly cool terms:

Noble Gasses: Think gas can’t be noble? Then recall the last time you encountered the ignoble kind. Can we move on? The noble gases come by their name rightly since they are the six gaseous members of the periodic table of the elements that have a very low reactivity (you’re excused, hydrogen) and are also colorless and, more relevantly, odorless. Thank you helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon—and take a bow.

Quarks: OK, you’ve heard the term and may not find it all that special anymore. But you haven’t gotten to know the actual members of the quark family. So meet: up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top. These aren’t just types of quarks, by the way; they’re flavors. Why? Who cares? Particle physics is a beggar’s banquet of cool terms—gluon, muon, boson, lepton—so quarks have some stiff competition. But for variety and, well, irresistible flavor, they top the group.

Enema Pan Beetle: Because it’s there, because it’s ugly and because it deserves it. The Enema Pan beetle is huge and black and has horns and hair, takes 18.1 minutes to mate (sit with that image) and can fly—sometimes. You don’t call something like that a flamingo. The beetle was named by 18th century Danish entomologist Johan Christian Fabricius, who studied under Carl Linnaeus, considered by many to be the greatest taxonomist of all time. See what happens when you let the intern run the lab for a day?

Iron Catastrophe: No, it has nothing to do with that time you wrecked your shirt. It happened a bit earlier, four billion years ago to be specific, when much of the iron in the still gooey Earth descended to the center, concentrating in the core. To be honest, that doesn’t sound like much of a catastrophe, unless you fancy using a blowtorch to cut through your topsoil before you plant your gardenias.

Hinny: Suppose your father was a stallion; suppose your mother was an ass—the donkey kind. Life is going to be hard enough, but then they go and call you a hinny and you’ve got that “Boy Named Sue” thing going too. In fairness, there’s some logic to the choice. A female donkey is called a jenny, so combine it with a horse and you kind of get a hinny. Still, the kid deserves a break.

Daughter: Plenty of scientists have the real kind, but that doesn’t stop them from applying the daughter label to the atom that’s left after an existing, radioactive atom decays. Presumably, it doesn’t stop the atomic offspring from asking for a teeny-tiny iPad when she turns 13 either.

Gondwanaland: What’s it mean? Land of the Gonds. Duh. OK, it’s one of the two ancient continents that existed on Earth 180 million years ago and it’s named after the modern-day Gond people of central Asia, so there’s some science to it. But for straightforwardness—and fantastic spelling—it makes the list.

Thorium: You thought you were excused from the periodic table, didn’t you? Well, come back and meet thorium. It’s a radioactive element with an atomic number of 90—which makes it an elemental heavyweight—and in its most common form has a half-life of 14 billion years. But the best thing about thorium? It’s named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. That easily makes it the scariest-sounding element ever—handily defeating uranium, which led the balloting until word got out that it’s named after Uranus and all the other elements started laughing at it.

Dip slip fault: An inclined plane along which subsurface plates move. Different from slip fault dip, which is what slip faults eat with their crudité.

Punnet Square: Named after British geneticist Reginald Punnett, it’s that four-square grid you used to draw in ninth grade when you were learning about dominant and recessive genes. There was a lot of competition in this category—Kreb’s cycle, Higgs boson, Venn diagram, Van Allen belts—but for sounding like a cube of pudding nobody ever eats that’s served with beef Wellington, Punnett square wins.

TIME Romance

Enough With the Happy Couples Already

Simon Katzer & Getty Images

Madison Avenue loves romantic ads, but loses 103 million singles in the process

Let’s say you’re single. Let’s say you’re not happy about that fact. And let’s say you’re watching TV and you see a dreamy commercial of a happy couple hawking a happy product that seems to make them, you know, happy. Feel like buying? No, you don’t. Feel like throwing your shoe at the screen since it’s maybe the 15th ad like that you’ve seen tonight, and it’s interrupting a rom-com you’re watching that you’re kind of enjoying, but kind of resenting, too?

You’re not alone. Humans have always believed in the romantic ideal. We like our love stories clean and pretty and soft-focus and slo-mo. It’s the reason lovers die beautiful but tragic deaths in movies (Jessica Brown Findlay in Winter’s Tale, say) and on TV (um, Jessica Brown Findlay in Downton Abbey). It’s the reason Jane Austen movies end with the wedding, and not with the later, messier business of trying to get by in an era in which couples rarely bathed, lost their teeth by age 40 and were dead from typhus by 50.

In recent years, we’ve doubled down on our love of love—and that’s a very good thing. We’ve more fully embraced both interracial marriages (thank you, Cheerios) and same-sex ones (thank you, 59 percent of Americans who no longer take to the fainting couch at the sight of a wedding cake with two brides and two grooms). But that everyone-into-the couples-pool ethos has come at a funny time, too, and leaves a great many people out.

New marriages are at a record low—6.8 per 1,000 people—while the population of singles is at a record high: 103 million people over 18, or 44.1% of that group. For advertisers, that presents a problem. In a newly released study, consumer psychologist Lisa Cavanaugh of the University of Southern California administered seven different types of experiments to seven different groups of volunteers. All of the tests involved exposing the subjects to various kinds of so-called “relationship reminders,” such as greeting cards, advertisements and magazine stories. The ads portrayed multiple kinds of relationships—familial, romantic, platonic and more. The subjects were then shown different kinds of products and asked which ones interested them most.

Across the board, volunteers who were single and saw romantic relationship reminders were less inclined to buy luxury products and other high-end indulgences—just the kinds of goods advertisers most like to sell. People who were in relationships were at least marginally more inclined to go for the big-ticket goodies.

That is actually the opposite of what advertising theory says should happen. Romantic ads, Cavanaugh says, are supposed to be aspirational—buy the product and you get this guy or this girl. One would think that should be even more effective with singles; they’re still shopping for a mate, after all, while couples have made their partner purchase already. But singles go cool to the romantic come-on—and for a poignant reason.

“Relationship reminders often cause consumers to feel undeserving,” Cavanaugh said in a statement accompanying the release of the study. “By reminding people of relationships they don’t have, marketers inadvertently make consumers feel… less worthy of treating and rewarding themselves. Singles need to get some love from marketers too.”

This kind of self-denial is actually consistent with the experiences of most people who are—or at least recall being—single: You’ll take the cruise, buy the new furniture, get a bigger, better, more grown-up-feeling apartment when you have someone to share it all with. Until then, you’ll get by.

For both advertisers and consumers, that represents a strange blind spot. Do any self-respecting singles with a little disposable scratch really believe they’re not worthy—all by their solitary, unpaired, dinner-for-one selves—of buying whatever they bloody well want and can afford? Would any sane marketer give the brush-off to a 103 million-strong demographic? Yes and yes—and that ought to change. We may not all wind up single, but we all start out that way. Advertisers who ignore that truth leave money on the table. Singles who make the same mistake sacrifice a whole lot more.

TIME Space Exploration

BFFs in Space: Why the U.S. and Russia Will Stay Cosmic Buddies

TIME's July 21, 1975 cover celebrated the Apollo-Soyuz space mission
TIME's July 21, 1975 cover celebrated the Apollo-Soyuz space mission Birney Lettick for TIME

Even with all the smack talk between Moscow and Washington, space makes good bedfellows

Want to know the three people in the world who were the least interested this morning in the doings in Crimea? Try Michael Hopkins, Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy. If that group sounds like a decidedly American and Russian mix, that’s because it is, and the trio had much more immediate things to do today than argue over a bit of land by the Black Sea. What they were doing specifically was plunging into the atmosphere at a speed of just under 17,500 mph (28,100 k/h) from an altitude of 230 mi. (370 km), tucked shoulder to shoulder inside a metal sphere with just 88 cubic feet of habitable space—which sounds like a lot until you consider that it’s just 2.5 cubic meters.

The crew thumped down safely in Kazakhstan at 9:24 AM EDT on March 11, after 166 days in space together aboard the International Space Station, and by all accounts they got along splendidly. Space will do that to people. The stakes are so high, the margin for error so microscopic and the precise nature of the death that awaits you if you screw things up—spinning off into the void, burning up in the atmosphere—so terrible that you learn to prioritize quickly.

Even in the days of the real Cold War, the one with all of the ICBMs poised and armed and ready to launch, the U.S. and the Soviet Union quietly had each other’s backs in space. On January 27, 1967, Lyndon Johnson, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, a gaggle of dignitaries from 60 countries and a delegation of American astronauts gathered in the Green Room of the White House for the formal signing of the clumsily named “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space.” The agreement committed all signatories to keeping space forever non-militarized, to making no land claims on the moon or any other cosmic body and to offering all assistance to any astronauts in distress from any nation.

It is a matter of historical record that at 6:32 PM that night, even as the White House reception was still underway, a fire was breaking out in the Apollo 1 spacecraft on its launchpad at Cape Canaveral, where astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were rehearsing liftoff procedures. It is a matter of historical record too that by 6:34 all three were dead. Many of the same dignitaries from the same 60 countries who had planned to travel home the next day instead stayed around to attend the funeral of three men who would never fly again.

So the stakes have always been high.

Over the years, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cooperation endured. The Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 saw spacecraft from the U.S. and U.S.S.R. meet and dock in orbit for the first time, just months after U.S. embassy personnel had made their ignominious withdrawal from a rooftop in Saigon and the USSR collected one more domino. In the 1990s, American astronauts regularly flew aboard Russia’s Mir spacecraft, and in the 2000s, multi-national crews, particularly those from the U.S. and Russia, have spent extended periods aboard the International Space Station.

Yes, national self-interest endures. For years, Russian Soyuz rockets helped ferry NASA astronauts up to the ISS, and our crews weren’t paying for their tickets in miles. The price per seat was $22 million in 2006, jumped to $43 million in 2011, as the shuttle program was winding down, and is now $71 million—a price we have no choice but to pay if we want to get Americans into space at all. Hey, back in the bad old days we argued that Russia would do better under capitalism; well, this is how capitalist countries behave.

It’s true too that while the world applauded the U.S. moon landings, there wasn’t a Frenchman or Russian or Turk alive who wouldn’t have preferred seeing a lunar astronaut saluting the tricolor or the hammer and sickle or the star and crescent instead of the stars and stripes. And if China beats us back to the moon or even on to Mars, we’ll gnash our teeth too.

But space travel is inherently an enterprise that knows no national identities. It is an old but no less apt observation that astronauts can’t see borders from space. That doesn’t stop the rest of us from drawing them—in Crimea and Kurdistan and the West Bank and anywhere else we decide to fight with the folks next door. If we ever stop doing that—grow out of our stay-on-your-side-of-the-line! impulses—the experience will be a novel one for the species, or at least most of the species. Spacemen and spacewomen and the folks who send them aloft have already had a taste of it. By all accounts, they like it just fine.

TIME Creativity

Cheating is a Good Thing (Sometimes)

Troels Graugaard—Getty Images/Vetta

A liberated mind is a creative mind, and nothing frees you up like breaking the rules

Want to compose a great symphony, write a classic novel, come up with a brilliant new app? Cheat on your taxes first—or on your spouse, or on your poker buddies. It’s easy—and fun, too.

That’s the unsettling implication of a new study released by the Association for Psychological Science and conducted by business professors at Harvard University and the University of Southern California. The investigators recruited a sample group of volunteers and had them complete a math puzzle in which multiple columns of figures were added in multiple ways. The subjects were told they would be paid for each correct answer and, incidentally, that they’d be grading themselves. Nobody would check their work before they got their cash prize. So: free money, right?

That’s how it seemed. A dispiriting 59% of the subjects lied about how well they did and took the ill-gotten payoff. All of the subjects were then given what’s known as a remote association test in which they were asked to come up with one word that connects a group of three other words (“sore,” “shoulder” and “sweat” can all be connected by “cold,” for example). The two exercises ought to have been unconnected, but there was this revelation: The people who cheated on the math test did significantly better on the word test. The implication: Breaking the rules frees up the mind and makes it easier to be creative.

In some ways, that’s no surprise. Jazz is all about rule-breaking, tossing out the conventional structure of music and replacing it with something closer to improvisational anarchy. Picasso blew up traditional ideas of shape, perspective and proportion. And there’s not a successful novelist alive who would sell so much as a single book without making use of the artful sentence fragment, the well-deployed redundancy, even the wholly invented word.

There’s actually hard brain science supporting the proposition that the best ideas can come from breaking laws of reason. Paul McCartney, Mary Shelley and Jack Nicklaus came up with “Yesterday,” Frankenstein and the perfect golf swing—respectively, of course—in a dream. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that this is because the occipital lobe, where visual and auditory processing live, powers up when we’re asleep at the same time the prefrontal cortex—the cognitive traffic cop that keeps us thinking in an orderly way—goes off duty. When the lawman’s not looking, we can get away with all kinds of creative mayhem.

But not every dishonest person uses the spark of rule-breaking inventiveness to write a song or win the Masters. The wiseguys who dreamed up bundled mortgages or credit default swaps probably felt a delicious frisson of freedom too when they were inventing their toxic pile of economy-tanking instruments. The same is surely true of the smug political operatives who decide it’s “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” or who burgle offices or political headquarters to dig up dirt on their enemies. The more rules you break, the more imaginative you become the next time you do it.

Sometimes, the bad guys are being goaded in their creative misbehavior. “We’ve got a counter-government here and we’ve got to fight it,” Richard Nixon told Charles Colson in the run-up to the Watergate crimes. “Do whatever has to be done. … I don’t want to be told why it can’t be done.” And so he wasn’t—and so they did it.

But most of the time, the Nixon mob came up with their exceedingly unethical antics on their own—as long ago as college political campaigns, when they called their dirty tricks “rat-f–king.” And want to bet each time a rat got, well, effed, the dirty tricksters got better and better at what they were doing?

In the exquisite play Sideman, the lead character describes the way his father, a jazz trumpeter, could make things up as he went along, reacting in real time to what his bandmates were doing:

When he’s up there blowing, he’s totally in touch with everything that’s going on around him. Ziggy bends a note, he echoes it instantly. A car horn sounds outside, he puts it into his or harmonizes under it a second later.

Jazz is wondrous lawlessness; so is cubism. Credit default swaps and political break-ins are nothing of the kind. But broken rules are broken rules. What we do with the freedom that results is up to us.


10 Science Myths That Won’t Go Away

These are cannoli, they are not astronauts
These are cannoli, they are not astronauts Getty Images

They're everywhere, they're maddening—and they just ain't so. Here, in no particular order, is the incomplete, and by no means definitive, often painful list of the most common scientific misconceptions out there

I was walking around midtown Manhattan this week when I noticed a news organization with its zipper open. The zipper in question was the headline ticker around a media building on Sixth Avenue, and the news it was announcing was that a group of amateur astronomers in Sicily had just launched a cannoli into space, sending it into the stratosphere attached to a balloon. According to the zipper, the cannoli achieved “low orbit.”

OK, leave aside for the moment that the Sicilian Major Tom made it no higher than 18 miles (30 km), which looks a little like space, but isn’t. Going into orbit, even a “low” one, requires not only much more altitude—on the order of 100 miles (160 km)—but much more speed, at least 17,500 miles per hour in the flat (28,100 km/h). The balloon, you might expect, didn’t quite achieve that.

In fairness, science errors are everywhere and if-it’s-high-up-it-must-be-in-orbit is a comparatively mild one. In no particular order, here is the incomplete, by no means definitive, often painful list of the ten most common scientific misconceptions.

You can kill a virus: No you can’t. You can deactivate it, destroy it, but you can’t kill it. The reason: it wasn’t alive to begin with. One of the requirements for life is the ability to reproduce and the virus is out of luck on that score. It survives only by carjacking a cell first.

Jonas Salk discovered the cure for polio: Discovered? You mean like the last guy who used his desk left the recipe in a drawer? It took eight years of work in a basement lab at the University of Pittsburgh to do what he did. And it wasn’t a cure—there’s never been a cure. Salk created a vaccine, which means, even now, that if you don’t get it and you contract the disease, there’s no help for you. Listen up, anti-vaxxers.

The dark side of the moon: Pink Floyd, I blame you. For the last time: the moon has no dark side. It does have a far side—which has just the same waxing and waning light the near side does. Album titles ain’t science.

Asteroid, meteor, meteorite, what’s the diff? Location, location, location. An asteroid is a big rock that’s out there. A meteor is a big rock that hits our atmosphere. A meteorite is any chunk that hits the ground—or your house or your head.

It’s hot outside: Depends. The temperature at the center of the sun is 27 million °F (15 million °C). The hottest temperature ever achieved in a particle accelerator was 7.2 trillion °F (4 trillion °C). By contrast, the coldest temperature possible, known as absolute zero, is -460 °F (270 °C). In other words, we live only about 500 degrees from the rock bottom of the temperature scale and trillions of degrees from the top. Bundle up.

If it’s called a theory, it’s the same as a hunch: That’s true sometimes, when you’re just beginning to look into a phenomenon. But after a while, the word merely means that you didn’t actually see the event play out—even if all the evidence tells you what happened. The theory of evolution? A fact. The Big Bang theory? A fact. But unless you’re 13.8 billion years old, you weren’t here to witness it all.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place: Lightning actually doesn’t care. Tall buildings get zapped a lot. Park ranger Roy Sullivan was lit up seven times in his career—before committing suicide in 1983. Can you blame him?

The seasons are caused by distance from the sun: Seems to make sense. When the northern hemisphere leans toward the sun it’s closer and so it’s warmer; when it leans away, its further so it’s colder. But that’s not it. The Earth is 93 million miles away from the solar fires, so a little tilt this way or that doesn’t really matter. It’s the angle at which the sunlight hits—low and oblique versus straight on and hot—that makes the difference.

Primitive humans and dinosaurs crossed paths: Yes, there are people who continue to believe that. No, it’s not true. We were separated by a good 65 million years. Indeed, it’s the extinction of the dinosaurs that made room for little rodent-like mammals (read: your ancestors) to venture out of the shadows and take over the world in the first place. Wilma, we’re home!

One false move and a particle accelerator will kill us all: There was a lot of hand-wringing about this back in 2008 when the Large Hadron Collider was about to be switched on and doomsayers predicted it would create an artificial black hole that would eat Europe. It’s true that some of the most powerful and violent events in the universe are recreated in colliders, but in miniature—a few harmless particles at a time. Relax and enjoy the bosons.

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