TIME Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Interstellar, Abe Lincoln and Respecting Science

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The host of the new Cosmos has some smart things to say about Hollywood and hard science—in 140 characters

You’ve probably never seen a movie with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. That’s too bad, because now you have reason to wish you had. That, at least, is how I felt when I read the stream of Tweets Tyson sent out after he watched Interstellar, the sci-fi blockbuster that traffics in a lot of the same cosmological physics he tackles in his career as director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and host of the 21st-century update of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. The experience was a little like binge-watching the Syfy Channel with your smartest nerd friend. There were these, for example:

Then there was this, because your smartest nerd friend is no fool.

And then there was this, because that same nerd friend knows it’s high time science was made cool, fashionable and entirely gender-nonspecific.

Tyson stresses that he is an educator first, and a celebrity, public figure and commentator second, third and fourth. For that reason, he does not pretend to be a film critic.

“If you tell people you liked or didn’t like a movie, a fight immediately breaks out,” he told TIME in a phone conversation today. “I’m not a fighter. If a movie makes no pretense of being scientifically accurate, I like to point out the things they got right—like when Star Wars showed a planet with a double sunset. If a movie does make pretenses of accuracy, I feel it’s my responsibility to point out what they got wrong.”

Tyson didn’t find a lot to quarrel with in Interstellar scientifically—which has been the consensus among critics, whether they gave the movie a rave or a pan. But he was more struck by what the movie offers not just cosmologically, but culturally—beginning with those lead characters.

“You don’t have to look too far back in history for the Godzilla-type film in which the scientist is the one responsible for the problem, and he usually dies with his creation,” he says. “In this movie, the characters are all scientists, they all have fully fleshed-out personalities—as parents and children and spouses. It’s an important part of the story and it bodes well for this kind of movie in the future.”

The appeal of Interstellar also speaks to our primal—and improbable—fascination with cosmology. As I wrote in last week’s TIME cover story, the number of people on the planet who actually understand the physics that govern the universe is tiny; what’s more, that science has no direct impact on our lives day-to-day. And yet we can’t get enough of it. Compare that to equally complex fields like biology and medicine. Our health and very lives turn on those areas of study, but if you try to start a technical conversation about them, people go blank.

“I don’t think the fascination with cosmology necessarily begins with the science itself,” Tyson says. “I think it’s a primal fascination with exploration. Not every person has that urge—and that’s good. If we all did, humanity wouldn’t survive because a lot of explorers die. But I’m proud to be a member of a species in which there are enough explorers to lay out the terrain so that the people who follow don’t risk as much.”

There is, as well, something significant in the timing of Interstellar—which opened in the same week as the equally science-wise The Theory of Everything, a biopic of Stephen Hawking. Both movies are thriving, but both are also being released into a culture that is increasingly awash in science denialism. We may gobble up what Hollywood offers us, but when it comes time to fund NASA or the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), or time to simply accept the truth of climate change, we turn into primitives, killing the funding we need and ignoring the dangers we face.

As I’ve written before, politicians are increasingly playing the “I’m not a scientist” card, wearing their lack of scientific credentials as both populist badge and political shield, allowing them to deny what the real scientists are telling them without actually saying so. But Tyson believes that this ruse may have run its course.

“There’s a limit to how much you can continue to deny science, and its close cousin technology, without feeling an impact on your wallet,” he says. “It’s enlightened investments in—and innovations derived from—science and technology that fuel economies. To cherry-pick science for your cultural, political or religious morés is to deny the role it’s played in enabling the wealth the country enjoys.”

And while expedience and cynicism are bipartisan scourges, there’s no denying that one party is guiltier of science denialism than the other—and, as Tyson points out in another Tweet, that party just got a whole lot stronger. There’s a certain irony in that.

“Go back 150 years or so,” he says. “That’s when Abe Lincoln established the NAS. It was meant to serve as a scientific advisory body for the betterment of the country—and it was created by a Republican. I don’t think any leader could get into trouble for saying ‘I may not be a scientist, but I’ve got advisers who are—and I’m going to listen to them.'”

Lincoln may have known nothing about the science in Interstellar or the problem of global warming, but he surely would have known enough to listen and learn. Let’s hope his 21st century heirs—of both parties—can learn to do the same.

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 movies

What Interstellar Got Right and Wrong About Science

INTERSTELLAR
Warner Brothers—Melinda Sue Gordon Matthew McConaughey in 'Interstellar'

Even a movie largely based on real science is bound to bend the rules a bit

If you’re one of the estimated 3 gajillion people who have seen or will see Chris Nolan’s blockbuster movie Interstellar, one thing is already clear to you: this is not a documentary. That means it’s fiction, specifically science fiction, which is how you get the sci and the fi in the sci-fi pairing. So if you go into the movie looking for a lot of scientific ‘gotcha’ moments, let’s stipulate up front that you’re going to find some.

That said, part of Interstellar’s considerable appeal is that it does go heavy on the science part of things. Nolan enlisted Caltech cosmologist Kip Thorne as the film’s technical adviser, and Thorne kept a whip hand on the production, ensuring that the storyline hewed as closely as possible to the head-crackingly complex physics that govern the universe.

So where did Interstellar play it absolutely straight and where did it take the occasional narrative liberty? Here are a few of the key plot points and the verdict from the scientists (warning, there may be spoilers ahead):

1. A worm hole could open in space, providing a short cut from one side of the universe to the other. Verdict: Mostly true

Worm holes are a pretty well-accepted part of modern cosmology and it’s Thorne’s theorems that have helped make them that way. The idea is that if you think of space-time less as a void than as a sort of fabric—which it is—it could, under the right circumstances fold over on itself. Punching the necessary holes in that fabric so that you could make your universe-transiting trip would be a bit more difficult. That would require what’s known as negative energy—an energetic state less than zero—to create the portal and keep it open, says Princeton cosmologist J. Richard Gott. There have been attempts to create such conditions in the lab, which is a long way from a real wormhole but at least helps prove the theory.

One bit of license the Interstellar story did take concerns how the wormhole came to be. It takes a massive object to generate a gravity field sufficient to fold space-time in half, and the one in the movie would have to be the equivalent of 100 million of our suns, says Gott. Depending on where in the universe you placed an object with that kind of mass, it could make a real mess of the surrounding worlds—but it doesn’t in the movie.

2. Getting too close to the gravity well of a massive object like a black hole causes time to move more slowly for you than it would for people on Earth. Verdict: True

For this one, stay with space-time as a fabric—a stretched one, like a trampoline. Now place a 500-lb. cannon ball on it. That’s your black hole with its massive gravity field. The vertical threads in the weave of the fabric are space, the horizontal ones are time, and the cannon ball can’t distort one without distorting the other, too. That means that everything—including how soon your next birthday comes—will be stretched out. Really, it’s as simple as that—unless you want to spend some time with the equations that prove the point, which, trust us, you don’t.

3. It would be possible to communicate to Earth from within a black hole. Verdict: Maybe

The accepted truth about a black hole is that its gravitational grip is so powerful that not even light can escape—which is how it got its name. But even physics may have loopholes, and one of them is something known as Hawking radiation, discovered by, well, guess who. When a particle falls into a black hole, the fact that it’s falling creates another form of negative energy. But nature hates when its books are unbalanced—a negative without a corresponding positive is like a debit without a credit. So the black hole emits a particle to keep everything revenue- neutral. Zillions of those particles create a form of outflowing energy—and energy can be encoded to carry information, which is how all forms of wireless communication work. That’s hardly the same as being able to radio down to Houston from within a black hole’s maw, but it takes you a big step closer.

4. It would be possible to survive the leap into the black hole from which you hope to do your communicating in the first place. Verdict: False—except…

Cosmologists vie for the best term to describe what would happen to you if you crossed over a black hole’s so-called event horizon, or its light-gobbling threshold. The winner, in a linguistic landslide: spaghettification—which does not sound good. But that nasty end may not happen immediately. “Most people would agree that a person who jumps into a black hole is doomed,” says Columbia University cosmologist and best-selling author Brian Greene, “but if the black hole is big enough, you wouldn’t get spaghettified right away.” That’s small comfort, but for a good screenwriter, it’s all the wiggle room you need.

5. And finally: Anne Hathaway could move through time and space and help save all of humanity and her hair would still look fabulous. Verdict: Who cares? We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Read next: Watch an Exclusive Interstellar Clip With Matthew McConaughey

TIME movies

How Stephen Hawking Went Hollywood

A theory of love: Eddie Redmayne, as a young Hawking, meets the future Mrs. Hawking
A theory of love: Eddie Redmayne, as a young Hawking, meets the future Mrs. Hawking

James Marsh, director of the poignant Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, talks about making a movie with—and about—a living legend

It’s a very good thing director James Marsh isn’t a defeatist. If he were, he would curse the Hollywood calendar that has his compelling biopic of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, opening in the same week as Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Interstellar. Ordinarily, an arena-scale spectacle like Interstellar and a bit of cinematic chamber music like Theory wouldn’t have a lot to fear from each other, since their audiences would be decidedly different. But that’s not so this time.

Both movies, in their own ways, wrestle with the same head-spinning questions: the mysteries of the universe and the physics of, well, pretty much everything there is. And both, in their own ways, succeed splendidly. Nolan had the far heavier lift when it came to the sheer scale of the production he was undertaking. But Marsh had the tougher go when it came to making sure his audiences sat still for the tale he wanted to tell, since he didn’t have eye-popping special effects and a thumping score to make the science go down easier. But he plays to that minimalism as a strength, keeping things small, intimate and sometimes brilliantly metaphorical.

On occasion, the facts of Hawking’s own life supplied those metaphors. Even as the great physicist was descending into the black hole of an illness that would render him both immobile and mute, he discovered the phenomenon now known as Hawking radiation, a form of energy that allows information to escape from the gravitational grip of a black hole—a grip so great that it swallows even light. Hawking has spent most of his life finding his own way to get information and ideas out to the world.

And when did the young Hawking have the flash of insight that the eponymous radiation exists? While struggling to free himself from a tangled pajama top that his weakened muscles could no longer negotiate. When life throws a good director a fat, over-the-plate pitch like that, the good director hits it out of the park—and Marsh excels in that moment, as he does with the film as a whole.

Taking a break from both promoting Theory and directing a new project for HBO, Marsh spoke to TIME about getting to know Hawking, working to understand his physics, and turning what could have been a mawkish tale of sickness and survival into a movie that is equal parts drama, wit, love story and ingenious science lesson.

How difficult was it to weave hard cosmological science into a personal story about a man, his marriage and his illness?

I think of myself as a member of the general audience who comes to the movie not overly familiar with cosmology. I pitched the science at a level that I think I would understand, so audiences will too. The movie is really a story of the heart, about two people [Hawking and his wife Jane], and we give them equal screen time. There was a very interesting tension between Hawking’s scientific career on the one hand and his marriage and health on the other. They move in opposite directions, with one soaring as the other is declining. A drama wouldn’t ordinarily be the best way of exploring complex ideas like Hawking radiation, but that balance, that tension made it possible.

Cosmology is that rare science that almost no one understands but almost everyone finds fascinating. Why do you think that’s so?

These are the biggest questions imaginable. Stephen’s work is dealing with the nature of time and the boundaries of the universe. He approaches them through the lens of physics, but what he’s engaging with are the deepest mysteries we can contemplate.

How involved was Hawking in the production?

[Screenwriter] Anthony McCarten spent many years working on a screenplay and talking to Jane Hawking, whose memoir is the source of the movie. We then went to Stephen and he read the script. He wasn’t wildly enthusiastic with the idea but he agreed to cooperate. He offered us some items from his personal collection, including the medal that [his character is seen] wearing at the end of the movie. At each step of the production we involved him, consulted with him. We had a physicist—a former student of his—on the set at all times to make sure all of the equations looked right.

Did Hawking himself ever visit?

During the May Ball shoot [a scene at an outdoor dance], he came to the set with his handlers and other assistants. He was very impressed by the scale of everything, but it raised the stakes a lot when he was there, especially because it was on the same night Jane showed up. Earlier, Jane took us to the house where they lived when they were first married. She showed us the spot where Stephen was saying “I have an idea” when he was struggling with his pajamas and came up with Hawking radiation. Scientists are like filmmakers: they have the oddest ideas at the oddest times.

Did you give Hawking any kind of final approval of the film before it was released?

When it was cut but not finalized, we took the film and showed it to him as a mark of respect. Had he not liked it we would have failed, so that was very nerve-wracking. It seemed to us that he had an emotional reaction while he was watching the movie. His response afterwards was very generous. He said the movie felt ‘broadly true,’ and then he sent the company an e-mail saying that when he watched Eddie [Redmayne, who plays Hawking] perform, it was like watching himself. He also offered us the use of the real electronic voice he uses to communicate to replace the one we were using. It has a weird emotional spectrum and it made the movie better. It felt like an endorsement.

TIME space

What Richard Branson Can Learn From the Virgin Galactic Tragedy

Broken dream: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field on Nov. 2, 2014 north of Mojave, Calif.
Sandy Huffaker—Getty Images Broken dream: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field on Nov. 2, 2014 north of Mojave, Calif.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Every disaster can be equal parts tragedy and travesty. Both are avoidable.

Am I the first person to discover that the ecosystem of Twitter can be a little bit toxic? Those 140 characters, it seems, don’t always lend themselves to nuanced and reasoned discussion, and so the discussion that does take place is often—how best to put this?—discourteous.

All right, maybe that’s not news to anyone. But I’ve discovered that ugly truth anew in the past few days, in the wake of my Oct. 31 piece arguing that that day’s crash of Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo—which took the life of test pilot Michael Alsbury, a 39-year-old married father of two—could be laid directly at the feet of Branson himself. I accused Branson of too much hucksterism and too much hubris. I meant what I said, and I stand by it.

Many of the tweets that opinion elicited are best left in the Twitter muck, particularly this thoughtful take, and this one and this one, which would be so much better if the author had taken the time to spell-check schmuck. There was, too, a response from Chris Sacca, a deservedly well-regarded investor in Uber, Kickstarter, Instagram and more and a man with an impressive 1.49 million Twitter followers: “Brave pioneer died conducting research. Go f*ck yourself, Time.” (Asterisk not provided in original.)

O.K., let’s all take a deep breath and try to collect ourselves. All disasters can be equal parts tragedy and travesty if we don’t keep our heads about us, but that doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. I’m happy to concede that my phrasing was provocative, and I indeed conceded it on CBS This Morning the day after the crash. But that doesn’t mean it was misplaced. Let’s start with that hubris thing.

As I mentioned in my earlier piece, I attended the Mojave Desert jamboree that Virgin Galactic threw last year for a few hundred of its paying passengers and got a look at SpaceShipTwo up close. What struck me the most was a bit of company artwork stenciled on the fuselage of the ship, as well as on all of the press materials distributed that day and even on the very lanyards that held the credentials of all of the attendees.

It was a series of silhouettes that represented a sort of walking tour of the key mile markers of human spaceflight. First was an Icarus-looking figure with large feathered wings; next came the Wright Brothers’ plane, then what appeared to be Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Those were followed by an X-1 (the first plane to break the sound barrier), a 747, the Apollo lunar module, and then SpaceShipOne (the forerunner of SpaceShipTwo, and the first private craft to achieve suborbital flight). Finally came SpaceShipTwo itself, mated to its larger carrier craft.

So of the eight greatest pivot points in the long history of human aviation, Branson claims a connection to two—one of which (SpaceShipTwo) has never even done the thing that it was built to do, which is to get to space. Yes, logos are just semiotics—but semiotics count, especially when they seem to define the company’s culture.

As recently as Sept. 27, according to Mail Online, Branson was predicting that success for SpaceShipTwo was just months away, despite the fact that the company has been in operation since 2004 and has continually missed such self-imposed deadlines; had just switched from a rubber-based to a plastic-based fuel that had not even been tested in flight until last week; and still holds only an experimental—not operational—permit from the FAA. But never mind.

“I would very much hope that before Christmas, Virgin Galactic has visited space,” Branson told Mail Online. “And then we’ll move the whole program to New Mexico where myself and my son will be the first people to go up from the Spaceport in the spring of next year.”

These are less the words of a pioneer than those of an entrepreneur who has to keep the enthusiasm around his enterprise high, partly because he’s answerable to a lot of other people with a lot of money on the line: There is, for example, the $218.5 million the taxpayers of New Mexico have ponied up to build that spaceport near the appropriately named town of Truth or Consequences. There’s the estimated $300 million that’s been poured into Virgin Galactic by the Abu Dhabi–based firm Aabar Investments. And most troubling of all, there are the $20,000 deposits Virgin’s estimated 800 customers have put down to hold their reservations for their eventual flight.

This is where Branson dramatically parts company with all of the legends his acolytes in the Twitterverse and elsewhere like to invoke—especially the Wright brothers. Orville and Wilbur, it’s worth remembering, risked only their own hides on their first flights—and they never, ever presumed to take their highly experimental plane commercial no matter how confident they were in its reliability.

What’s more, they were genuinely attempting to accomplish something that had never been done before—powered flight—as opposed to simply coming up with a new way to fly a manned suborbital mission that was first checked off humanity’s bucket list on May 5, 1961, when Alan Shepard pulled it off. And if you’re going to make the argument that Branson is trying to democratize (the go-to word) spaceflight, making it available to everyone as opposed to just the elite, I would argue that you have to be pretty darned elite to be able to plunk down $250,000 for a 15-minute vacation—which factors out to a cool $16,666 per minute.

Second to the Wrights when it comes to easy and inapt comparisons are the heroes of NASA’s early days, who—argue the enthusiasts—lost plenty of pilots themselves and never would have gotten anywhere if they hadn’t taken bold risks. “You’ve read The Right Stuff, right?”@Kazanjy challenged me in a tweet. Yes, @Kazanjy, I have. And more relevant to our conversation, I wrote Apollo 13. I’ve also reported and written extensively about multiple space disasters over the years, including the loss of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia and the Mir space station accident in 1997.

The Challenger explosion in particular, as history has shown, was the direct result of the same get-it-done, fly-it-now, meet-the-deadline urgency the Virgin Galactic brass are applying to the SpaceShipTwo engineers. This doesn’t mean Branson has been cavalier with the lives of his pilots any more than NASA was, or that he isn’t genuinely heartbroken at the loss of one of them. It does mean that both he and the space agency of the Challenger era were pushing their staffs to keep unrealistic promises they themselves had made: a workable vehicle that could go commercial as soon as spring, in Branson’s case; and a shuttle that could fly payloads cheaply with a quick turnaround time, in NASA’s case. Something similar was true of the Apollo 1 launchpad fire that cost the lives of three astronauts in 1967, as NASA raced to meet the deadline President Kennedy set of having Americans on the moon by 1970.

What Apollo 13 showed was that even when the pressure is off—when the moon race is won and the hardware has been proven and you can finally begin flying missions that are less about just getting home in one piece and more about doing some actual science—you still can’t take anything for granted.

The reason the Apollo 13 astronauts, who had exhaustively prepared for every conceivable thing that could go wrong with their spacecraft, never rehearsed for the one that did, was that no one ever conceived of a quadruple failure of multiply redundant hardware. And if anyone did conceive of it, there was no point in preparing for it, because it would be like preparing for what to do if you drive your car over a cliff. You do nothing; you just die.

The Apollo 13 crew survived, but in the case of Virgin Galactic, a man has indeed been lost. It’s a hard and tragic truth that that death, unlike the Apollo 13 breakdown, was foreseeable. So too is the risk of a ship full of paying tourists suffering the same fate if Branson’s enterprise ever gets off the ground. It shouldn’t.

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 space

Enough With Amateur-Hour Space Flight

A fatal accident in the Mojave Desert is a lesson in the perils of space hubris

It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the hard-working people of Virgin Galactic—Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism company—after the loss of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle in a crash in the Mojave Desert at a little after 10 a.m. PDT Friday. And it’s completely impossible not to hurt for the families of the two pilots involved in the accident—one of whom was killed and the other of whom suffered serious injuries, according to local police.

But it’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. Amazon.com zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company—because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?

Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, is at least in the business of flying aircraft, but the key part of that compound word is air. Space, as Branson surely knows, has none of that—and that changes the physics considerably.

A Virgin crash always seemed troublingly likely. And since it is the company’s whole purpose to carry passengers, it seemed equally likely to hurt or kill a lot of people too. I visited Branson’s self-styled spaceport in the Mojave last year to watch a brief test flight of his spacecraft. The mission that day was intended more as an air show than anything else—part of a pep rally for the hundreds of Virgin customers who would be attending to hear about the company’s progress. All of them had reserved a seat and paid a deposit toward their $200,000 ticket for a trip that—if it ever happened—would last just 15 minutes and ascend to just 62 miles (100 kilometers), which technically counts as being in space, but only to the extent that riding a jet ski off the beach in Ft. Lauderdale counts as going to sea.

But never mind, because the crowd seemed happy to be there and to take Branson’s word that they really, truly would get their chance to be astronauts. For the record, the demonstration flight they had come to see never took off due to high desert winds.

The Virgin crash comes just three days after the Oct. 28 explosion of an Antares rocket taking off from Wallops Island, Va., on an unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station. That first part of a very bad week for the space industry was especially cautionary, because Orbital Sciences, the Virginia-based manufacturer of the rocket, is by no means a newcomer. It’s been in the business for more than three decades and has a very good track record of getting payloads—not passengers—off the ground and into orbit. Yet even it cannot control all of the lethal variables—technical, meteorological, human—that make space travel such a dicey game.

The practice of non-professionals insinuating themselves into the space business is not new. We have a launch facility at Cape Canaveral yet built a Mission Control center halfway across the country in Houston—the least efficient, most senseless arrangement imaginable—because then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson was the White House point man for the space program and he wanted his home state of Texas to get a bite of the big moon pie. Ex-Sen. Jake Garn and current Sen. Bill Nelson both elbowed their way aboard space shuttle flights since, unlike all of the other American kids who want to play spaceman, they were powerful figures in Congress and could loosen or tighten NASA’s purse strings at will.

Once NASA announced that after the shuttle program ended in 2011 it would be outsourcing the low Earth orbit portion of its portfolio to the private sector, it was inevitable that there would be a scramble of companies vying for those contracts—and that’s by no means all bad. In some respects, space has always been privatized: North American Aviation, Grumman Aerospace, Boeing and others have all been major NASA contractors, and they are hardly government-owned operations.

All, however, are deeply experienced in the business of aeronautical and astronautical design, too. Elon Musk, founder of the upstart SpaceX is, so far, defying doubters, with a string of both commercial launches and resupply missions to the ISS and no major disasters. But SpaceX is a rare bird—and still a young one—and it has a while to go before it establishes its true space cred.

It’s Branson, however, who has always been the most troubling of the cosmic cowboys—selling not just himself on his fever dreams but his trusting customers. One of those would-be astronauts I met in the Mojave that day was a teenage girl, whose parents had put aside enough money to buy her the singular experience of a trip to space. They beamed at her courage as we spoke, and seemed thrilled about the ride she was soon to take. Those plans, presumably, are being rethought now.

TIME space

The Great Lakes—a Billion Miles From Earth

This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas.

A new picture from the Cassini spacecraft reveals a dazzling vista on Saturn's moon Titan

Titan coulda’ been a contender. Saturn’s largest moon is a very distant, very cold place, -289º F (-179º C) worth of cold in fact. But even before the Cassini probe arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004, it was clear the giant world had unrealized potential. Its hydrocarbon atmosphere always suggested that had it been situated closer to the incubating warmth of the sun, it might have cooked up life. Indeed, astronomers long considered Titan a sort of flash-frozen version of the early Earth—back in the epoch when biology had yet to emerge but all of the ingredients for it were in place.

One other thing Titan was thought to share with Earth was the presence of oceans and lakes. The Titanian version would be filled with liquid methane and ethane instead of water, but the behavior of those bodies—freezing, evaporating, lapping up against shorelines—would be the same. When Cassini arrived, its radar scanners confirmed that these theories were true, and its infrared imagers have been returning better and better images of the lakes and seas—none so striking as the one above, just released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees the mission.

The image shows the region around Titan’s north pole, with the sun—more than 900 million miles (1.4 billion km) distant at the time the picture was taken—glinting off the sea known as Kraken Mare. Clouds farther north of the site are likely refilling the sea with rain—the methane and ethane variety again. Close analysis by JPL researchers has also revealed what they call a bathtub ring around Kraken Mare, the residue left over when some of the contents of the sea evaporated, reducing its overall size.

The north pole is not the only region of Titan that is home to lakes and seas; the southern extremes of the moon have them too, but not nearly as many. This, investigators believe, is due to greater volcanic activity occurring in the north, leaving the region scarred with divots. These then served as the basins that became the seas.

Nobody is seriously expecting to find life in the Titanian depths—unless it’s a form of life that needs no liquid water and can somehow survive the punishing temperatures of the deep solar system. But nobody minimizes the value of the science that’s coming back from Cassini either. If nothing else, studying Titan reminds us of how precise the conditions must be for biology to exist on any world—and how lucky we are that those conditions were met here.

TIME movies

Watch an Exclusive Interstellar Clip With Matthew McConaughey

Cooper faces some dubious realities in this exclusive first look at Christopher Nolan's space epic Interstellar

Of all of the conspiracy loonies currently at large — birthers, truthers and grassy-knollers, we’re looking at you — there are none quite as febrile as the folks who claim the Apollo moon landings were faked. The theory (with apologies to the word “theory”) presumes that all of the 400,000 people directly or indirectly involved in the moon landings schemed in perfect secrecy to pull off the greatest scam in history, and have maintained their silence for more than two generations since the lunar program ended in 1972. It would be easier just to go to the flipping moon.

But what’s preposterous in real life plays for poignant drama in the new film Interstellar — set sometime in the vaguely defined future, when Earth is slowly being suffocated by an unnamed blight and luxuries like space travel are out of the question. To keep people’s minds off the great things humanity once did so they can better accept their sadly reduced state, the U.S. government itself adopts the Apollo hoax story, writing it into all federally approved textbooks. In a movie in which so much takes place in the trackless expanse of space, one of the most affecting scenes plays out in a principal’s office, where a grounded astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) is being told that his daughter has gotten into trouble for spreading the purported lie that yes, in a different age, human boots indeed left prints on another world.

TIME space

NASA’s Antares Explosion: What it Means

An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28, 2014.
Jay Diem—AP An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28, 2014.

The rocket's fortunately fatality-free failure to launch spells trouble for one of NASA's major contractors

The good news—the very, very good news—is that no one was aboard Orbital Sciences’ Antares booster when it exploded just six seconds after leaving the launch pad on Wallops Island, Va. at 6:30 PM EDT on Oct. 28. It was the fifth launch of the Antares and the fourth that was headed for the International Space Station (ISS) on a resupply mission. The booster made it barely 200 feet off the ground.

The bad news—the very, very bad news—is what this means for Orbital as a continued player in the competition to supply the ISS. It was in 2008 that Orbital (which has a long history in the space biz) and Elon Musk’s SpaceX (which had none at all) won a $3.5 billion NASA contract, with Orbital taking $1.9 billion of that for eight flights. Halfway through the contract, the company was looking to re-up, and this will not reflect well on them at the bargaining table.

Orbital was never a serious part of the even more furious competition to take over the manned portion of NASA’s low Earth orbit portfolio. The winners of that battle, named Sept. 16, were SpaceX again, and Boeing—a venerable part of the NASA family and prime contractor of the ISS. Tonight’s explosion would be a lot more worrisome if one of those two—already gearing up to carry people—had been responsible. But for Orbital, it will be bad enough.

Worse for the company is CEO David Thompson’s admission on Oct. 29 that part of the problem could be the AJ-26 engines used in the deceased booster’s first stage. Originally designed by the Soviet Union (that’s not a typo—we’re talking about Russia long before the fall of communism) the engines were later updated and retrofitted for the Antares booster.

It is too early to say if the AJ-26’s were indeed responsible for the explosion, but old hardware is old hardware and in an era in which the likes of Musk are starting with a blank page when they design their engines, taking outdated stuff off the shelf is not the way to inspire confidence. In 2012, a catty Musk made that point, telling Wired magazine:

One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s—I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.

Musk being Musk, that’s more than a little hyperbolic, but the snark still stung Orbital. It is an especially bad time for any aerospace company to have to be defending the use of Russian-made engines, ever since spring when U.S. sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Crimea led Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin to mock America’s dependence on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry,” Rogozin said, “I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

More worrisome was Rogozin’s threat to limit sales to the U.S. the RD-180 engines that are used in America’s workhorse Atlas V rocket. That bit of bluster soured politicians on continuing to do space business with Russia at all and kick-started efforts to develop a domestic alternative to the RD-180. Now comes Orbital with an older, far worse Russian engine that just may have caused an entire rocket and its cargo to go up in flames.

A reputation-saving case the company could plausibly make—though it would be suicide to try—is the “stuff blows up” argument. Space travel is notoriously hard and rockets are notoriously ill-tempered. They are, after all, little more than massive canisters of exploding gasses and liquids, with the weight of the fuel often much greater than the weight of the rocket itself. This is not remotely the first time launch controllers have witnessed such a fiery spectacle on the pad and it won’t be the last. Realistically, there will never be a last.

But Orbital is supposed to be a senior member of the space community, not one of the freshmen like SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. No exploding rocket is good—especially when contracts are ending and NASA is again looking for free agents. It’s much worse for an outfit that’s been in the game for a while. Final determination of how bad the damage is will await the investigation into the cause of the explosion. But one thing’s certain: you wouldn’t want to be on the company’s Vienna, Va. campus tonight—on what is surely going to be the first of a lot of very long nights to come.

TIME behavior

Breaking Bad Action Figures? Really, Toys R Us?

No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.
No, you're not hallucinating, that really is a Walter White doll.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In a spectacularly bad bit of judgment, the big box store puts a meth manufacturer on its shelves.

Human history is often defined by its very worst pitch meetings. Take the one in 1812, when one of Napoleon’s generals told the Great Emperor, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s invade Russia—in the winter!” Or the one in 1985, when the anonymous product developer at Coca-Cola said, “How ’bout we take a product everyone loves, quit making it and replace it with a different formulation no one is asking for! What could go wrong?”

So too it must have gone in the executive suites of Toys R Us, when someone made the compelling case for stocking a brand-new line of action figures based on the wildly successful Breaking Bad series. After all, nothing quite says holiday shopping like a bendable, fully costumed figurine of Walter White—the murderous chemistry teacher turned crystal meth manufacturer—and Jesse Pinkman, his former student and current bag man. And you want accessories? We’ve got accessories—including a duffle bag stuffed with imaginary cash and a plastic bag of, yes, faux crystal meth for White. Pinkman comes with a gas mask, because the folks at Toys R Us are not the kind to forget about corporate responsibility. If your kids are going to grow up to run a meth lab, it’s never too early to teach them basic safety.

It might not surprise you to learn that Toys R Us has faced a teensy bit of blowback from this curious marketing decision. Florida mom Susan Schrivjer has posted a petition on Change.org that has just exceeded 2,000 signatures, demanding that the company pull the products. She also appeared on The Today Show to make her case more publicly.

“Anything to do with drugs is not doing the right thing,” she said. “I just think they need to look at their vision and values as they call them.”

The part that’s more surprising—but sadly only a little—is that even after being called on its appalling lack of judgment, Toys R Us has not responded with the quickest, loudest, most abject oops in corporate history. Instead, it is standing its ground. Why? Because the dolls are sold only in the “adult section” of the store, of course—the ones intended for shoppers 15 and up.

OK, let’s start with the fact that Toys R Us has an adult section at all—something I never knew and I suspect many other parents didn’t either. So what will they stock there next? A line of Toys R Us hard cider? Toys R Us adult literature? A Toys R Us edition of Fifty Shades of Gray—which is really OK because hey, it actually comes with a set of 50 gray crayons? If an adult section must exist at all, at what point does full disclosure require the company to rebrand itself “Toys as Well as Other Things Not Remotely Appropriate For Children But Don’t Worry Because We Keep Them in a Separate Section, R Us”?

More important, let’s look at above-15 as the dividing line for the adult section—a distinction that makes perfect sense because if there’s anything 15 year olds are known for, it’s their solid judgment, their awareness of consequences, their exceptional impulse control and their utter imperviousness to the siren song of drugs and alcohol. Oh, and they never, ever emulate bad role models they encounter on TV, in the movies or among their peers. What’s more, kids below the age of 15 never, ever run wild in a sensory theme park like a big box toy store, finding themselves in departments not meant for them and seeing products they shouldn’t see. Toys R Us, you’ve thought this one out to the last detail!

What the company’s consumer researchers probably know and if they don’t they ought to, is that the brain’s frontal lobes—where higher order executive functions live—aren’t even fully myelinated until we reach our late 20s, which is why young people can be so spectacularly reckless, why soldiers and political firebrands tend to be young and why judges, heads of state and clerical leaders tend to be old. The adult fan of Breaking Bad might actually enjoy the new toys as collectors items–something to be bought or given as a gift with a little twinkle of irony, a this-is-so-wrong-it’s-right sort of thing. But that kind of nuance isn’t remotely within a child’s visible spectrum.

Really, Toys R Us, there is absolutely no surviving this one. Back up the truck, pack up the toys and send them to a landfill. And if you’re even thinking about following this one up with a Boardwalk Empire board game complete with a Nucky Thompson plush toy, stop now. Or at the very least, invite me to the pitch meeting.

Read next: Toys R Us ‘Breaks Bad’ with New Crystal Meth Toys

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