TIME global health

What the Gates Foundation Has Achieved, 15 Years On

Sunny days: Melinda and Bill Gates in 2014, one year before their self-imposed deadline arrived
Scott Olson; Getty Images Sunny days: Melinda and Bill Gates in 2014, one year before their self-imposed deadline arrived

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Much has been done over the foundation's first decade and a half — with more still to do

There are a whole lot of things you may or may not get to do in the next 15 years, but a few of them you can take for granted: eating, for one. Having access to a bank, for another. And then there’s the simple business of not dying of a preventable or treatable disease. Good for you—and good for most of us in the developed world. But the developed world isn’t the whole story.

The bad—and familiar—news is that developing nations lag far behind in income, public health, food production, education and more. The much, much better news is that all of that is changing—and fast. The just-released Annual Letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation makes a good case for hoping there is still more to come.

The 2015 letter represents something of a threshold moment for the Foundation. It was in 2000 that the Gateses began their work and set themselves a very public 15-year deadline: show meaningful progress in narrowing the health, income and resource gap between the world’s privileged and underprivileged people, or be prepared to explain why not. So far, nobody—neither the Gates Foundation nor the numerous other global health groups like the World Health Organization and UNICEF—have much explaining to do.

The number of children under five who die each year worldwide has been nearly cut in half, from a high of nearly 13 million to 6.5 million today. Polio has been chased to the very brink of extinction, and elephantiasis, river blindness and Guinea worm are close behind. Drought-tolerant seeds are dramatically increasing agricultural yields; economies in the once-desperate countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now matching the developed world in rate of annual growth. Up to 70% of people across the developing world now have access to wireless service, making mobile banking possible—a luxury in the West but a necessity in places there is no other banking infrastructure.

The trick of course is that progress isn’t the same as success. The 13 million babies who were dying a year in the years before the Foundation began, for example, factored out to a horrific 35,000 every single day. Slashing that in half leaves you with 17,500—still an intolerable figure. For that reason and others, the Gateses are turning the 15-year chronometer back to zero, setting targets—and framing ways to achieve them—for 2030.

The most pressing concern involves those 17,500 kids. The overwhelming share of the recent reduction in mortality is due to better delivery of vaccines and treatments for diseases that are vastly less common or even nonexistent in much of the developed world—measles, pneumonia, malaria, cholera and other diarrheal ills. Those are still the cause of 60% of the remaining deaths. But the other 40%—or 2.6 million children—involve neonates, babies who die in the first 30 days of life and often on the very first day. The interventions in these cases can be remarkably simple.

“The baby must be kept warm immediately after birth, which too often doesn’t happen,” Melinda Gates told TIME. “This is basic skin-to-skin contact. Breast-feeding exclusively is the next big thing, as is basic cord care. The umbilical cord must be cut cleanly and kept clean to prevent infections.”

HIV may similarly be brought to heel, if not as easily as neonate mortality. A vaccine or a complete cure—one that would simply eliminate the virus from the body the way an antibiotic can eliminate a bacterium—remain the gold standards. But in much of the world, anti-retrovirals (ARVs) have served as what is known as a functional cure, allowing an infected person to live healthily and indefinitely while always carrying a bit of the pathogen. Gates looks forward to making ARVs more widely available, as well as to the development of other treatment protocols that we may not even be considering now.

“We’re already moving toward an HIV tipping point,” she says, “when the number of HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa who are in treatment will exceed the number of people becoming newly infected.”

Food security is another achievable goal. Even as Africa remains heavily agrarian—70% of people in the sub-Saharan region are farmers compared to 2% in the U.S.—yields remain low. An acre of farmland here in America may produce 150 bushels of corn; in Africa it’s just 30. The problem is largely rooted in our increasingly unstable climate, with severe droughts burning out harvests or heavy rainstorms destroying them.

“Millions of people eat rice in Africa,” says Gates, “and rice has to be kept much wetter than other crops. At the equator it’s staying drier longer, but when the rains do come, they hit harder.”

In the case of rice and corn and all other crops, the answer is seeds engineered for the conditions in which they will have to grow, not for the more forgiving farmlands of the West. In Tanzania, site-specific seed corn has been made available and is already changing lives. “That seed,” one farmer told Gates when she visited in 2012, “made the difference between hunger and prosperity.”

Finally comes banking. Across Africa, only 37% of people are part of the formal banking system, but up to 90%, depending on the area, are part of the M-Pesa network—a mobile banking link accessible via cellphone. The Pesa part of the name is Swahili for money and the M is simply for mobile.

“Today too many people put their money in a cow or in jewelry,” Gates says. “But it’s impossible to take just a little of that money out. If someone gets sick or you have another emergency, you simply sell the cow.” Mobile banking changes all of that, making it much easier to save—and in a part of the world where even $1 set aside a day can mean economic security, that’s a very big deal.

Nothing about the past 15 years guarantees that the next 15 will see as much progress. The doctrine of low-hanging fruit means that in almost all enterprises, the early successes come easier. But 15 years is a smart timeframe. It’s far enough away that it creates room for different strategies to be tried and fail before one succeeds, but it’s close enough that you still can’t afford to waste the time you have. Wasting time, clearly, is not something the folks at the Gates Foundation have been doing so far, and they likely won’t in the 15 years to come either.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Environment

A Bad Day for Climate Change Deniers … and the Planet

Deeper, hotter, sicker—and the oceans are only part of it
Roc Canals Photography; Getty Images/Flickr Select Deeper, hotter, sicker—and the oceans are only part of it

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Three new studies offer new proof of how bad the earth's fever has gotten

It’s not often that the climate change deniers get clobbered three times in just two days. But that’s what happened with the release of a trio of new studies that ought to serve as solid body blows to the fading but persistent fiction that human-mediated warming is somehow a hoax. Good news for the forces of reason, however, is bad news for the planet—especially the oceans.

The most straightforward of the three studies was a report from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirming what a lot of people who sweltered through 2014 already suspected: the year is entering the record books as the hottest ever since reliable records started being kept in 1880—and the results weren’t even close.

Average global surface temperature worldwide was 58.24ºF (14.58º C) — surpassing previous records set in 2005 and 2007 — and making 2014 a full 2ºF (1.1ºC) hotter than the average for the entire 20th century. And before you say 2ºF doesn’t seem like much, think about whether you’d prefer to run a fever of 99ºF or 101ºF. The planet is every bit as sensitive to small variations as you are.

“Today’s news is a clear and undeniable warning for all of us that we need to cut climate pollution and prepare for what’s coming,” said Lou Leonard, vice president for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund.

When it concerns the ocean, what’s coming may already be here. A sobering study in Nature looked at sea level rise in both the periods from 1901 to 1990 and from 1993 to 2010 in an attempt to sort out a seeming inconsistency: measurements from 622 tide gauges around the world showed that levels had risen 6 in. (15.24 cm) over the past century, but computer models and other tools put the figure at only 5 in. (12.7 cm). Here too, what seems like a little is actually a lot: a single inch of water spread around all of the planet’s oceans and seas represents two quadrillion gallons of water.

This could have meant good news, since it might have indicated that we’d overestimated the impact of melting glaciers and ice caps. But new computer modeling recalculated the degree of sea level rise over the last century and found that the tide gauges had it right all along, and the only thing that was wrong was that sea levels had risen more slowly than believed in the 90 years that followed 1900, and much faster in the 17 years from 1993 to 2010 — close to three times as fast per year. What does that mean in the long term? Perhaps 3 ft. (0.9 m) greater increase by the end of this century if we keep on the way we’re going.

Finally, according to the journal Science, at the same time sea levels are rising higher, marine life forms are growing sicker, with a “major extinction event” a very real possibility. All through the oceans, the signs of ecosystem breakdown are evident: the death of coral reefs, the collapse of fish stocks, the migration of species from waters that have grown too warm for them to the patches that remain cool enough.

What’s more, the increase in the number of massive container ships crossing the oceans has resulted in a growing number of collisions with whales — encounters in which the animals wind up the losers. Seafloor mining and bottom-trawling nets both plunder fish populations and further damage the environment in which deepwater species can live.

“Humans,” wrote the authors of the Science paper, “have already powerfully changed virtually all major marine ecosystems.”

No part of this bad-news trifecta is likely to change the minds of the rump faction of climate deniers — particularly in Washington. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is set to assume chairmanship of the committee that oversees science in general and NASA in particular had this to say to CNN about climate change: “The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened.”

He’s wrong on the facts — as the new temperature readings demonstrate — and wrong on his interpretation of the science which shows that the rate of atmospheric warming has indeed slowed a bit in the past decade and a half. The reason for that seeming happy development is not that climate change isn’t real, but that the oceans, for now, are sopping up more heat than anticipated—see, for example, those migrating fish.

Meantime, Cruz’s Oklahoma colleague Senator James Inhofe is set to become chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This is the same Inhofe who persists in his very vocal belief that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” and that even if it is true, it might actually be good for the world.

Ultimately, reason will prevail; in the long arc of scientific history it usually does. How much ocean and atmosphere and wildlife we’ll have left when that happens, however, is another matter entirely.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME vaccines

Disneyland: The Latest Victim of the Anti-Vaxxers

Get your shots first: The Magic Kingdom has the measles
Barry King—WireImage Get your shots first: The Magic Kingdom is feeling sick

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The happiest place on Earth catches a bad case of measles—and the usual suspects are to blame

Updated: Jan. 23, 2015

Somewhere in Orange County, Mary Poppins and Ariel the mermaid may be running a fever. The same could be true for her coworkers—any of the other 23,000 people (OK, or characters) who punch in for work at Disneyland every day. And the same could be true too for any one of the estimated 16 million people who will pour into the theme park this year.

The reason? Measles. The cause? This may not come entirely as a surprise: the anti-vaccine crowd.

Just when you think they’ve been run to ground, shamed into silence, and just when you can watch a whole evening of Jenny McCarthy co-hosting the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square and not hear her utter a word of unscientific nonsense, the anti-vaxxers come roaring back. Only three weeks into 2015 the year’s first stories are emerging about the latest victims of the nation’s declining vaccine rate. And this time, ground zero is the self-proclaimed Happiest Place on Earth, which is in danger of becoming the decidedly less consumer-friendly Most Expensive Disease Vector on Earth.

So far, according to epidemiologists, there are 59 cases of measles across California and 42 of the cases are believed to have been contracted at Disneyland. The outbreak has spread to five other states—which is to be expected when the place that is ground zero for any infection attracts visitors from all over the world. Of the first 20 Disneyland victims, 15 were unvaccinated. Concern about the infections has gotten so great that California State epidemiologist Gil Chavez warned the public that anyone who has not had the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine should avoid all California theme parks “for the time being.”

The Disneyland epidemic is not an aberration. In the past year, California had its highest measles caseload in two decades—66, with 23 of them in Orange County. The U.S. recorded 610 cases total in 2014, triple the number as recently as 2011. In the first half of last year, the CDC reported that 69% of the documented cases (200 out of 288) were among unvaccinated people.

It’s no coincidence, as TIME has reported, that the areas of the country with the highest vaccine refusal rates—Orange County; New York City; Columbus, Ohio; Silicon Valley—have higher rates of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, too. What gives the anti-vaccinators so much power to do so much harm is that once vaccine rates fall below 95%, herd immunity—the protection that a well-vaccinated community offers to the few people in its midst who must remain unvaccinated for legitimate medical reasons—starts to break down. In 2012, California was right at that baseline 95% vaccination rate for measles and whooping cough. It’s now at 92%.

Those small percentages can make huge differences. In 2003, a few provinces in northern Nigeria banned polio vaccines, when local religious leaders claimed the drops were designed to sterilize Muslim girls and transmit AIDS. Within three years, 20 previously polio-free countries recorded cases of the disease—all of them the Nigerian strain.

The reaction to the Disneyland epidemic and the anti-vaccine community responsible for it has been blistering. The Washington Post ran an extensive feature on the disgraced and disgraceful Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose fraudulent and entirely retracted 1998 study birthed the antivaccine nonsense. A Los Angeles Times editorial laid the blame for current problem directly at the antivaxxers’ feet and made the story Tweetable with a succinct, 78-character indictment: “Disneyland measles outbreak spurred by ill-informed, anti-science stubbornness.”

American anti-vaxxers remain impervious not only to the public shaming, but to other epidemiological warning flags, like the ongoing whooping cough epidemic in California or last year’s outbreaks of measles in New York and mumps in Columbus. As the Disneyland outbreak continues to worsen, the reaction is likely to be more of the same—which is to say denial coupled with a lot of echo-chamber prattle about a bought-off media carrying water for big pharma, plus the usual scattering of glib Twitter code like #CDCWhistleblower, which purports to be final proof of the great vaccine coverup, but which is nothing of the kind.

Hashtag science is not real science, and conspiracy theories have nothing to do with facts. The problem is, children infected with measles—or polio or whooping cough or mumps—are indeed very real. In the age of vaccines, there ought to be no place they feel unsafe—least of all Disneyland.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Sibling Barbarity: What Drove the Brothers Accused of Paris Attack?

People gather to pay respect for the victims of a terror attack against a satirical newspaper, in Paris, Jan. 7, 2015.
Thibault Camus—AP People gather to pay respect for the victims of a terror attack against a satirical newspaper, in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015.

The sibling bond can be a powerful force for good—until it turns deadly

The murders at Charlie Hebdo are a case of darkness wrapped in darkness, multiple layers of horror that have turned the local slaughter into a global trauma. There’s the hijacking of a religion, with evil committed in the name of a gentle faith; then there’s the threat to free expression, one of the best tools the civilized world has against barbarism. And, of course, there are the killings themselves, methodical executions conducted by pitiless gunmen.

Central to all of that is the mystery of the people whom police believe carried out the killings — no different in some ways from terrorists who’ve gone before them, but very different in one critical way: They were brothers. Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34, both French citizens, were the central—and apparently only—targets in a manhunt that spread across France and enlisted the support of law enforcement experts around the world before they were killed in a police raid Friday after taking a hostage.

The drama played out at the very moment that, 3,500 miles away, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21, is standing trial for the Boston marathon bombing, an act of terror he is accused of committing in 2013 with his older brother Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police just days after the crime.

That, inevitably, raises questions about the sibling bond itself. How do the Tsarnaevs and Kouachis compare with other wicked siblings, like Lyle and Erik Menendez, who murdered their parents in 1989 in a case that became a national obsession? Are they all merely outliers, bad characters who would have each done wrong no matter what? Or is there a particular power the sibling relationship has to hothouse the worst traits in the people who are part of it?

One thing is certain: brothers and sisters influence one another’s behavior in a way that no other person in their lives—not parents, not teachers, not friends or spouses—seems to be able to, especially when it comes to bad behavior. A younger brother or sister is twice as likely to drink and four times as likely to smoke if an older sibling has already picked up the habits, according to research I reported in my 2011 book The Sibling Effect. Younger sisters are four to six times likelier to become pregnant in high school if their big sisters were teen moms first.

“Having an older sibling exposes you to things firstborns simply aren’t exposed to,” Susan Averett, a professor of economics and a siblings expert at Lafayette College, told me. “You see things you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. In some ways your innocence gets taken away.”

Smoking and drinking, of course, are behavioral misdemeanors. But older brothers and sisters can lead their little sibs into much larger crimes too. Theft, assault, drug-dealing, even murder can all be part of a sibling-to-sibling legacy that psychologists and sociologists call “delinquency training.” The hand-me-down misbehavior is more common brother-to-brother, but it’s by no means absent in sisters. More troublingly, it doesn’t take long for learned behaviors to become permanent behaviors—even if the siblings drift apart.

“Siblings train each other, they influence each other,” says psychologist Jennifer Jenkins of the University of Toronto. “A person is fashioned from all these small things.”

Even true felonies, of course, are nothing compared to what the Tsarnaevs and the Kouachis allegedly did. For that kind of savagery, you need something more—and typically that something is grievance, a shared sense of being wronged, which the siblings echo back and forth to each another, repeating and reinforcing the perceived outrage. In most cases, the influence runs from older to younger.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a Chechen immigrant like his older brother, was a scholarship student who wanted to study nursing and was variously described by his friends in all of the ways people who wind up doing something terrible often are—generous, compassionate, thoughtful, never showing a sign of trouble. Tamerlan, on the other hand, never quite adjusted to life in the U.S. and retreated further and further into isolation and resentment. “I don’t have a single American friend because I don’t understand them,” he complained in 2010.

But he did have Dzhokhar, and once Tamerlan began flirting with jihad in 2011, it might have been relatively easy for him to bring his little brother around—especially because no matter how well Dzhokhar assimilated in the U.S., he was still an outsider by birth, language, culture and, in the case of Chechnya, violent, religiously driven politics. Working with that emotional clay, a big brother could easily shape his little sib into nearly anything he wanted.

“When siblings are very close,” psychologist Elizabeth Stormshank of the University of Oregon told me, “that relationship becomes more powerful and meaningful and can enhance risk behavior as well.”

If the Kouachis underwent a similar radicalization, early reports suggest it was younger brother Cherif, not big brother Said, who took the lead. Cherif had already spent time in prison in 2008 for being part of an organization that was recruiting jihadis, while Said’s rap sheet is said to be clean. Both brothers were in Syria within the past year, however, and might well have come back radicalized. According to a witness at the scene of the Charlie Hebdo killings, one of the masked shooters said, “You can tell the media that it’s al-Qaeda in Yemen.”

The Menendez brothers may have similarly schooled one another in grievance, sharing both a home and a hall of mirrors relationship in which they convinced each other that their wealthy parents had done them wrong and that nothing could be more just than for them to die for their crimes and lose their fortune to the sons they’d mistreated. Indeed, the idea that they’d been abused was at the center of the failed defense the brothers mounted at trial.

Certainly, it’s not just siblings who can share a poisonous—and ultimately murderous—relationship. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Roy Malvo, the Beltway snipers who terrorized the Washington metropolitan area in 2003 weren’t brothers. Nor were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers. But in both cases there was a dominant partner—very similar to an older sibling. Muhammad was much older than Malvo—41 at the time of the killings compared to Malvo, who was only 17. Klebold and Harris were classmates, but Harris was the far stronger, far more lethally charismatic personality, someone who would likely have turned out a monster no matter what. Without Harris, Klebold may have had a chance.

It’s way too early to say anything with certainty about the Kouachis’ relationship. Even if both survive the ongoing manhunt and are captured, it may be impossible to unravel their shared pathology. It matters—some—to try, because understanding the mind of evil may help prevent such crimes in the future. But in some ways the effort is irrelevant. The 12 people killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack are never coming back; the 11 people who were injured can never be fully uninjured. It is a sad fact of this latest human atrocity that the sibling relationship—which can be one of the richest and most nurturing of all—may have been the source of so much suffering.

TIME space

Elon Musk Raises the Stakes — and Lowers the Rhetoric

A man known for salesmanship approaches a big launch with uncharacteristic humility

A dose of Elon Musk has always been like a shot of strong drink. You think you can handle him, think you’re impervious to him—think you can hear him go on about private missions to Mars at just $500,000 per seat or freaky sounding hyperloops that would pack people into aluminum tubes and fire them from place to place at 800 mph (1,290 k/h)—and stay skeptical and sober. Then he starts talking, the buzz hits and you’re quickly calculating how fast you could come up with 500 grand for your own Martian holiday.

Part of the reason people believe in Musk is that Musk believes so wholly in Musk—even if he’s not exactly humble about it. Here he was speaking to Wired magazine in 2008, when SpaceX got off to a stumbling start after three straight launch failures: “Optimism, pessimism, f**k that; we’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

Here was Musk in 2012, after one of his Dragon spacecraft splashed down following its first successful mission to the ISS: “In terms of things that are actually launching, we are the American space program.”

And here was Musk that same year, on the people who doubt him: “I pity them. It doesn’t make any sense. They’ll be fighting on the wrong side of yesterday’s war.”

That’s why it’s been such a happy surprise to hear him describe the upcoming launch of his Falcon 9 Booster, scheduled for 6:20 AM ET Tuesday. It will be the fifth unmanned resupply run that his company, SpaceX, will make to the International Space Station (ISS), but the first that will attempt to recover the first stage booster intact. That sounds like a very small deal, but it’s a very big one—especially given the way Musk plans to go about it.

One of the reasons space travel is so bloody expensive is that it’s so bloody wasteful. Expendable boosters—as their names make plain—are one-use-only machines, discarded stage by stage as they climb, with only the payload reaching space. The Saturn V moon rocket, easily the most impressive booster ever built, was also the most breathtaking example of throwaway tech. It stood 363 ft. (110 ft.) tall at launch, but the only piece to make it home was the 9 ft. (2.7 m) pod that carried the astronauts. The rest? Junk—most of it now lying on the ocean floor.

The shuttle program tried to remedy that. The ship’s whale-like external tank was dumped in the drink but the twin solid rocket boosters separated and returned by parachute when their fuel was expended, to be recovered and re-used. The shuttle itself, of course, came home, too. But the whole idea was oversold, with promises that shuttles could be checked out, gassed up and relaunched in a matter of weeks, slashing the price-per-pound of payload dramatically. Those weeks, however, turned out to be months, and every launch cost on the order of $400 million—not exactly a low-cost trucking service.

Musk aims to do things differently. After the upcoming Falcon 9 booster takes flight, its spent first stage won’t just tumble back into the sea. Rather, it will retain enough fuel to right itself and reignite for three separate burns, slowing its plunge from 2,900 mph (4,700 k/h) to 600 mph (965 k/h) and finally just 4.5 mph (7.2 k/h). Fins arrayed around the perimeter of the rocket will control its lift and attitude, and legs will allow to land upright on a 300 ft (91 m) by 170 ft. (52 m) floating platform that has already been built and is anchored in place 200 miles (322 km) off the east coast of Florida.

There are, admittedly, about one jillion things that could go wrong with this plan. Musk claims that the booster can land within 33 ft (9.1 m) of an intended target, but with the leg span of the rocket a full 70 ft (21 m) and and platform’s mere 170 ft. width, that leaves very little margin for error. The rocket stage itself is 140 ft. (42 m) tall—about the height of a 14 story building—but because of its relatively light weight and cylindrical design, SpaceX’s own website compares trying to stabilize the stage as the equivalent of balancing “a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm.”

That’s fine for the PR-minded folks who write the website and are in the business of lowering expectations so they can easily exceed them. But surely Musk—who is his own kind of windstorm—will be less reticent. Not so. He puts the likelihood of success on this first attempt at less than 50-50, and, in an interview with The New York Times, admitted that it could take a dozen flights before the new landing system will reach even 80% to 90% reliability, which sounds impressive but is still below what it will cost to keep costs as low as Musk believes he can drive them.

It’s hard to say what’s behind the candor and caution coming from a man known best for boasts and bravado. Part of it may be the humbling that Orbital Sciences—SpaceX’s main competitor—experienced when one of its rockets exploded en route to its own space station rendezvous in October. Another part, surely, was the far worse loss of Richard Branson’s SpaceShipOne shortly after, which cost the life of a pilot.

Musk is now the biggest name in the frontier field of private space travel and that—plus the realization that he’s no more immune to disaster than anyone else is—cannot help but have a sobering effect. Space seems easier when you’re the upstart, launching only the vaporware of your promises. When you start flying metal, the stakes go way up—and the rhetoric, accordingly, goes way down. Elon, welcome to the big leagues.

TIME

Meet the Twins Unlocking the Secrets of Space

Photograph by Marco Grob for TIME

The Kelly twins--one in orbit and one on Earth--may help NASA unlock the secret of long-term space travel

When Scott Kelly calls home from the International Space Station (ISS) sometime next year, whoever answers the phone may simply hang up on him. The calls will be welcome, but the link can be lousy, with long, hissing silences breaking up the conversation. That’s what happens when you’re placing your call from at least 229 mi. (369 km) above the Earth while zipping along at 17,500 m.p.h. (28,164 kph) and your signal has to get bounced from satellites to ground antennas to relay stations like an around-the-horn triple play. “When someone answers, I have to say, ‘It’s the space station! Don’t hang up!'” says Kelly…

Read the full story here.


This appears in the December 29, 2014 issue of TIME.
TIME animals

Nature’s Top 10 Cute Critters for 2014

A serious science journal allows itself some cuddles

If you read science journals (and really, who doesn’t?) you know that it’s not easy to top Nature—and Nature itself surely knows it. They’re the major leagues, the senior circuit, the place the serious stuff goes to get seen. Nature doesn’t do small—and it definitely doesn’t do cute.

At least, it didn’t.

But every now and then, even the folks on the peer review panels start to feel cuddly. Spend your days vetting new studies about the Dumbo octopus or the toupee monkey or the robot baby penguins that can fool real penguins, and you have to admit that sometimes nature can be pretty adorable—even if Nature can’t.

So in a nod to the sweetness that hides in the science, the journal just released an uncharacteristically precious video–the Top 10 Cutest Animals in 2014. You can go back to being Mr. Grumpypants tomorrow, Nature. But for now, give us a great big hug.

TIME health

For Once the Anti-Vaxxers Aren’t (Entirely) to Blame

Face of the enemy: A molecular model of the whooping cough toxin
LAGUNA DESIGN; Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF Face of the enemy: A molecular model of the whooping cough toxin

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

California's whooping cough outbreak is largely the fault of a harmless but imperfect vaccine

Anti-vaxxers are epidemiology’s repeat offenders—the first and sometimes only suspects you need to call in for questioning whenever there’s an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease. So on those occasions when their prints aren’t all over the crime scene, it’s worth giving them a nod. That’s the case—sort of, kind of—when it comes to the current whooping cough (or pertussis) epidemic that’s burning its way through California, with nearly 10,000 cases since the first of the year, making it the worst outbreak of the disease since the 1940s. So far, one infant has died.

Before we start giving out any laurels, let’s be clear on one point: the anti-vaxxers continue to be risibly wrong when they say that vaccines are dangerous (they aren’t), that they lead to autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and more (they don’t), and that you should take your public-health advice from the likes of Jenny McCarthy, Rob Schneider, and Donald Trump instead of virtually every medical and scientific authority on the planet (you shouldn’t). But a safe vaccine is not always the same as an entirely effective vaccine, and here the whooping cough shot is coming up a little short—with emphasis on the “little.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the pertussis vaccine starts off perfectly effectively, with 90% of kids developing full immunity from the disease in their first year after inoculation. But that protection starts to fade in year two, and by the five-year point, only 70% of kids are still protected. Until the 1990s, a more effective formulation was available, but it was replaced due to side effects (pain, swelling and perhaps some fever—not autism, thank you very much). The newer version eliminates those problems, but at a cost to effectiveness.

The waning protection the vaccine affords helps explain the cyclical nature of whooping cough outbreaks, with cases usually beginning to rise every three to five years. Certainly, the anti-vax crowd has not helped matters any. When a vaccine offers only imperfect protection, it’s especially important that as many people as possible get it since this maximizes what’s known as herd immunity—the protection a community that’s largely immune can offer to the minority of people who aren’t.

Last spring’s mumps outbreak in Columbus, Ohio was due in part to a combination of the relatively low 80-90% effectiveness rate of that vaccine and the poor level of vaccine compliance. As I reported in Time’s Oct. 6, 2014 issue, 80% of people who contracted the disease said they had been vaccinated in childhood, but only 42% of those cases could be confirmed. In the current whooping cough epidemic, California health authorities estimate that only 10% of all people who have come down with the disease were never vaccinated. That’s up to 10% more people than needed to get sick, but a lot fewer than the total in Columbus.

The heart of the anti-vaxxers’ argument is not, of course, that some vaccines offer incomplete protection. If it were, they wouldn’t find so many willing believers. For one thing, the large majority of vaccines achieve at least a 90% effectiveness level—and often much higher. For another, it’s hard to make the case that even if they didn’t, imperfect protection would be better than none at all.

Seat belts, after all, aren’t 100% effective at preventing highway deaths either, and condoms don’t entirely eliminate the risk of pregnancy or STDs. But that doesn’t mean you stop using them, because your brain makes a rational risk calculation about the wisdom of taking cost-free precautions. You might not make such smart choices, however, if somebody muddied the equation by introducing the faux variable of imaginary risk—seat belts and condoms cause autism, say.

Persuading people to run that flawed calculus is where the the anti-vaccine crowd does its real damage. A new—and scary—interactive map from the Council on Foreign Relations tracks the global rise or fall of vaccine-preventable diseases from 2008 to 2014. In the same period, during which most of the world saw a 57% decline in cases, North America—driven mostly by the U.S.—showed a stunning 600% increase.

It’s fitting somehow that the locations of the outbreaks show up on the map as a sort of pox—with the once-clear U.S. slowly becoming blighted from one coast to the other. Misinformation is its own kind of blight—one that’s every bit as deadly as the bacteria and viruses the vaccines were invented to prevent. And it’s the anti-vaxxers themselves who are the carriers of this particular epidemic.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME animals

There Was a Big Bang for Birds

An ex-crocodile. Clearly a step up
Luis Costa—AFP/Getty Images An ex-crocodile. Clearly a step up

A sweeping new study tells a long genetic tale

If there’s a factory where birds are built, the workers were clearly smoking something the day they designed the hummingbird. And the ostrich. And the toucan. Imagine, too, the pitch meeting for the parrot, (“Let’s make this one talk!”), or the peacock (“So we got this crate of feathers…”).

Of course, that’s not how it really happened. Birds came along without our help, evolving from the Aves class into 23 orders, 142 families, 2,057 genera and finally 9,702 species—the most prolific speciation of all four-limbed vertebrates. The problem with such prodigious divergence is that it makes it hard to determine how the great bird explosion began in the first place. Now, however, in a pair of papers in Science, scientists report that they have an answer. Modern birds, they have learned, got their start like the universe itself—with something of a Big Bang, a burst of specialization that began 65 million years ago with the same asteroid hit that wiped out the dinosaurs and made room for mammals and other land animals.

This finding results from the work of hundreds of scientists at 80 labs and universities across 20 countries, done with the help of bird tissue collected from labs and museums around the world. Those specimens were sent to the Genome Tissue Institute in Beijing, where the basic sequencing was conducted. The first and most basic conclusion the investigators reached was a big one. “This confirms that there was a very rapid radiation and that major lineages of birds were in existence 5 to 6 million years after the extinction event,” says Joel Cracraft, an avian systemicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a contributor to the papers. “They were very widely distributed as well.”

But there was much more to be learned, and that required the hundreds of others scientists to get busy parsing the genomes. A lot of their results live down in the technical weeds, where geneticists speak of such things as total evidence nucleotide trees and GTR+GAMMA models. Among the plain-English findings, however, there were some important top-line results. The investigators identified a sort of progenitor bird, for example, a so-called apex predator that came along shortly after the asteroid hit and was the great-great-great granddaddy of all extant land birds. The descendants that that founding father left can be connected in unexpected ways.

The gaudy flamingo and the proletariat pigeon turn out to belong to sister clades—or groups descending from one common ancestor. Similarly, there is a three-way kinship among the cuckoos; the bustards (medium-size game birds that include the paauw and its larger cousin, the straightforwardly named great paauw); and the turacos. The last group is a brilliantly colored and plumed family of birds that include the African banana eaters and the go-away birds, species that got their names because one of them, well, eats bananas and the other issues a warning call that sounds like it’s saying “go away,” which it sort of is.

Among the more granular discoveries, the investigators report that so-called vocal learners—birds with flexible repertoires of songs and mimicked speech—actually share some of their molecular brain structures with humans. And the very act of singing appears to change the birds’ epigenomes—the regulatory system that sits atop the genes and determines which ones are expressed—meaning that the more frequent the song the more specialized the bird’s genetic wiring will become.

But just in case the big, fun, colorful Aves class gets above itself, the papers do stress that every extant bird can trace its line back even further than the apex predator, all the way to a small and rather vulgar group of ancestors that are actually alive today; the saltwater crocodile, the American alligator and the Indian gharial—which is sort of an alligator with an absurdly skinny snout. For birds as much as for humans, it seems, no matter how high you climb, there are always a few embarrassing family members to keep you humble.

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