TIME Science

Note to Science: The GOP’s Just Not That That Into You

Rick Scott: Not a scientist—and darn proud to say it
Rick Scott: Not a scientist—and darn proud to say it Orlando Sentinel; MCT via Getty Images

Fla. Gov. Rick Scott is the latest Republican to play the scientific ignorance card. It's a game that's gotten old

Every dysfunctional relationship proceeds though the same stages: from promise to problem to crisis and, ultimately, to repetitive farce. There is one more embarrassing public scene, one more fight that disturbs the neighbors—a lather-rinse-repeat cycle that becomes more tiresome than anything else. That final stage is where the hard right of the GOP has at last arrived in its tortured pas de deux with science.

The most recent Republican to get into an ugly dust-up with the scientific truth is Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Running for re-election against former Gov. (and former Republican) Charlie Crist—and currently trailing in polls—Scott was asked by a reporter whether he believes climate change is real. Depressingly but predictably, he went for what is becoming the go-to dodge for too many in the GOP when pressed on a scientific fact that they dare not acknowledge for fear of fallout from the base, but can no longer openly deny for fear of being called out for willful know-nothingism. “I’m not a scientist,” Scott thus began—and there he should have stopped.

The device, of course, is meant to suggest that the issue is just too complex, just too abstruse for people without advanced degrees to presume to pass judgment on. It was the bob-and-weave used by Fla. Senator Marco Rubio when GQ magazine asked him the age of the Earth. “I’m not a scientist, man,” he said—adding the “man” fillip because it presumably suggested a certain whew-this-stuff-is-hard fatigue.

It was used as well by House Speaker John Boehner when he was pressed about proposed EPA regulations intended to curb greenhouse gasses. “Well, listen,” he began, “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”

There’s something not just risibly dishonest about this reg’lar-folk pose, it’s flat-out unseemly too, which is why less disingenuous Republicans, whatever their views, tend to find a defter way to phrase things. Boehner, Scott, Rubio and the like are seeking to have things two incompatible ways—they deny the science, even ridicule the science, and then they seek to hide behind the skirts of the science, recusing themselves from answering questions because it’s all just too dang complicated.

Never mind that if you take them at their word—if you say, okay, let’s see what the eggheads in the labs say, and it turns out that the eggheads in the labs all but universally agree that global warming is dangerously, frighteningly real—they neatly flip the script. The scientists—the ones to whom they pretend to defer—are suddenly dismissed as “grant-grubbing” hoaxsters, conniving with liberal politicians to “expand the role of government.”

But, okay, let’s pretend the politicos are sincere. If the Speaker, by his own admission, isn’t qualified to debate climate change, fine, he’s excused from the conversation—and he should be expected not to offer further opinion on the matter. This, however, is a dangerous game to play. If being a scientist, man, is a threshold requirement for taking a thoughtful, honest position on climate change, then the same is true for being an economist or physician or astronomer if you presume to offer an opinion on the federal budget or the health care law or NASA funding.

The “both sides do it” faux equivalency game is hard to play on this one, since science denial is simply not endemic in the Democratic party the way it is in the GOP. But that hardly means all Dems have covered themselves in glory. West Va. Sen. Joe Manchin literally shot a hole in a copy of the cap and trade bill in a 2010 election ad, a crude symbolic twofer that signaled yes to guns and no to climate regulation in his rural, coal-producing state. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, locked in a tough reelection battle, has consistently blocked climate action, opposing tighter regulations on coal-fired power plants, because, she says, “Requiring [the plants] to use technology that has not been proven viable in industrial settings is completely backward,” a good argument if what she says about the technology were remotely accurate—which it isn’t.

But the hard truth is Manchin and Landrieu are outliers among the Democrats, while the counterfactual voices are among the loudest within Republican ranks. The time really has come for the GOP to fix its relationship with science—or just break up for good. Either way, they should do something soon, because the rest of us are getting sick of the fighting.

TIME Archaeology

The Bodies in the Bogs: An Eerie Gift From the Iron Age

Tollund man, victim of human sacrifice by ritual strangulation in Denmark.
Tollund man, victim of human sacrifice by ritual strangulation in Denmark. Werner Forman—UIG/Getty Images

There are cold cases and there are cold cases, but it’s hard to beat the one that came to light on May 6, 1950, in Silkeborg, Denmark. The local folks were already on edge after reports that a schoolboy from Copenhagen had recently gone missing, and when two brothers from the nearby town of Tollund went digging for peat in a Silkeborg bog, they made a gruesome discovery: a buried body with a rope around its neck showing no signs of decomposition. This was a murder — and it was clearly a fresh one.

Except it wasn’t. The body wore no clothes other than a pointed, leatherized, sheepskin cap that seemed not of this era. The rope was handwoven, not machine-made. And the face of the victim was covered with stubble — clearly not belonging to a young boy. All that, plus the noose, plus the ancient history of the site, suggested that this was not a body from the early years of the space age, but the latter years of the Iron Age. Carbon dating confirmed that — placing the man’s death somewhere between 375 B.C. and 210 B.C.

The extraordinarily well-preserved state of what became known as the Tollund Man was due to the unique chemistry of the bog, with its lack of oxygen, cool temperatures and bacteria-unfriendly acidic environment. The fact that there were remains to unearth at all suggested that, despite the noose, this man was not technically murdered or hanged as a criminal. If he had been, he would have been cremated. Rather, he was probably ritually hanged as a spiritual sacrifice.

Some parts of the man’s body did not fare as well as others. His arms and hands were reduced to little more than a thin layer of toughened tissue covering bones. But his internal organs — particularly heart, lungs and liver — were very well preserved. He is thought to have been about 40 when he died and stood no taller than about 5 ft. 3 in. (1.6 m).

The Tollund Man is by no means the only bog person to have been uncovered in recent decades. About a thousand others have been found in Ireland, England, Denmark and the Low Countries. This July 27, which is, yes, International Bog Day, is a good time to tip a hat to these unglamorous mires of mud and decayed vegetation. They provide an extraordinary look into an often mysterious past — and allow the people of the Iron Age to make themselves mutely known in the modern one.

TIME Environment

The Sixth Great Extinction Is Underway—and We’re to Blame

Goodbye to all that: millions of earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest
Goodbye to all that: millions of Earth's species, like the white rhino, are no match for the one species that considers itself the smartest Getty Images

The Earth has been stripped of up to 90% of its species five times before in the past 450 million years. Now it's happening again—and this time there's no rogue asteroid responsible

Here’s hoping the human species likes its own company, because at the rate Earth is going, we might be the only ones we’ve got left.

Nobody can say with certainty how many species there are on Earth, but the number runs well into the millions. Many of them, of course, are on the order of bacteria and spores. The other ones, the ones we can see and count and interact with—to say nothing of the ones we like—are far fewer. And, according to a new and alarming series of papers in Science, their numbers are falling fast, thanks mostly to us.

One of the first great rules of terrestrial biology is that no species is forever. The Earth has gone through five major extinction events before—from the Ordovician-Silurian, about 350 million years ago, to the Cretaceous-Paleogene, 65 million years back. The likely causes included volcanism, gamma ray bursts, and, in the case of the Cretaceous-Paleogene wipeout, an asteroid strike—the one that killed the dinosaurs. But the result of all of the extinctions was the same: death, a lot of it, for 70% to 90% of all species, depending on the event.

As increasingly accepted theories have argued—and as the Science papers show—we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction, the unsettlingly-named Anthropocene, or the age of the humans.

The numbers are sobering: Over all, there has been a human-driven decline in the populations of all species by 25% over the past 500 years, but not all groups have suffered equally. Up to a third of all species of vertebrates are now considered threatened, as are 45% of most species of invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, amphibians are getting clobbered, with 41% of species in trouble, compared to just 17% of birds—at least so far. The various orders of insects suffer differently too: 35% of Lepidopteran species are in decline (goodbye butterflies), which sounds bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to the similar struggles of nearly 100% of Orthoptera species (crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, look your last).

As the authors of all this loss, we are doing our nasty work in a lot of ways. Overexploitation—which is to say killing animals for food, clothing or the sheer perverse pleasure of it—plays a big role, especially among the so-called charismatic megafauna. So we get elephants slaughtered for their tusks, rhinos poached for their horns and tigers shot and skinned for their pelts, until oops—no more elephants, rhinos or tigers.

Habitat destruction is another big driver, particularly in rainforests, where 25,000 miles (75,000 km) of tree cover are lost annually—the equivalent of denuding one Panama per year, year after year. And you don’t even have to chop or burn an ecosystem completely away to threaten its species; sometimes all it takes is cutting a few roads across it or building a few farms or homes in the wrong spots. Environmental fragmentation like this can be more than sufficient to cut species off from food or water, to say nothing of mates, and start them in a downward spiral that becomes irreversible.

Then too there is global warming, which makes once-hospitable habitats too hot or dry or stormy for species adapted to different conditions. Finally, as TIME’s Bryan Walsh wrote in last week’s cover story, there are invasive species—pests like the giant African snail, the lionfish or the emerald ash borer—which hitch a ride into a new ecosystem on ships or packing material, or are brought in as pets, and then reproduce wildly, crowding out native species.

The result of all this species loss—what the Science researchers dub defaunation—goes far beyond simply leaving us with a less rich, less diverse world. After all, the Earth bounced back from far worse extinctions and did just fine. But it bounced back a different way each time, and the most recent version, the one in which we emerged, is the one we like—and it’s easy to destroy.

Loss of species, the authors point out, means loss of pollinators—which is a real problem since 75% of food crops rely on insects if they’re going to thrive. Nutrient cycles—the decomposition of organic matter that feeds the soil—collapse if mobile species can’t get from place to place and do their living and dying in a fairly even distribution. The same is true for water quality, which relies on all manner of animals to prevent lakes and rivers and streams from becoming too algae-dense or oxygen poor. Pest control suffers as well — when animals like bats are no longer around the eat the insect pests that attack crops, it’s bad news for autumn harvests. North America alone is projected to suffer $22 billion in agricultural losses as desirable bat populations continue to decline.

It oughtn’t take appealing to our self-interest to get us to quit making such a mess of what we’re increasingly coming to learn is an exceedingly destructible world. But it’s that very self-interest that led us to make that mess in the first place. We can either start to change our ways, or we can keep going the way we are—at least until the Anthropocene extinction claims one final species: our own.

TIME World Cup

Robots Have Their Own World Cup

But they're training to compete in ours

The computer Deep Blue defeating world chess champion Garry Kasparov at his own game in 1997 was one thing but when a team of humanoid robots defeats the world’s greatest soccer players it will be something else altogether. These scientists are working to achieve just that. Founded the same year Deep Blue took down Kasparov, the Robocup was born with the mission of developing an artificially intelligent human-like robot by 2050 capable of beating the World Cup soccer champions. But before the robots get to defeating us humans at the world’s favorite game they’re practicing against each other each year in the Robocup, a robot soccer tournament in which the machines must obey the same rules as normal soccer. For this year’s Robocup, more than 4000 engineers and scientists from over 40 countries assembled in Brazil to set their machines competing against one another.

TIME Ukraine

Experts: MH17 Victims Could Have Remained Conscious During Fall

A firefighter and an armed man look at the remains and the corpses of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
A firefighter and an armed man look at the remains and the corpses of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014. Jerome Sessini—Magnum

A forensic analysis of the disaster

In the aftermath of the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet, it has been widely assumed that death—or at least unconsciousness—came quickly for the 298 people aboard when the Boeing 777 came apart in the oxygen-thin, cold air at 33,000 feet. But some medical and aviation experts who spoke to TIME are questioning this assumption.

As photos from the MH17 debris field near Gravobo, Ukraine, have shown, many of the victims’ bodies appeared completely intact after falling from a great altitude. TIME asked experts to review photographs from the scene and found a minority view: some victims may have survived the aircraft’s disintegration and even experienced consciousness during the fall to Earth. The images were taken by French photographer Jerome Sessini, who was among the first at the crash site, and they focused on plane debris and victims’ bodies. (Some of Sessini’s work was recently published by TIME, but the photos reviewed by the experts also included images of human remains considered inappropriate for publication.)

The intact bodies are not out of the ordinary, according to Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner of New York City and chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police. Baden has investigated high-profile plane disasters like the TWA 800 crash in 1996 and the 2010 crash of a Polish government jet near Smolensk, Russia, that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski. As Baden explained, objects falling through the air reach what is called terminal velocity, an upper limit on speed dictated by such variables as air density and the falling object’s surface area—but not the height from which it is dropped. For a human body, terminal velocity is about 120 mph (193 k/h). Impact at that speed inflicts devastating internal injuries, but the skin tends to remain intact.

Baden says that many of the victims did exhibit minor burns and shrapnel wounds, most of which appeared non-lethal. He says this suggests that some of the passengers could have been alive and even conscious during their descent.

“The cause of death in the great majority of these people would have been impact with the ground,” he said. Unless they were affected by the initial explosions or shrapnel, and absent some pre-existing condition like lung or heart disease, they would have remained alive and even been conscious at some point during the approximately 3-to-4-minute fall.

“Even if there’s no oxygen, you’d catch your breath in four minutes,” he said. “You might have some brain damage, but you’d be alive, and you could be conscious,” he said. Autopsies, at least when there is such extensive damage to the head and brain, cannot allow doctors to pinpoint when exactly consciousness was lost, so it might never be possible to know for sure if Baden is right.

The deceleration that occurred as a result of the attack—which could have been the equivalent of driving into a wall at 500 mph—might have been less sudden than has been assumed. The Russian-made SA-11 suspected to have been used in the attack is designed not to strike the aircraft directly, but to explode before impact, instead releasing a cloud of shrapnel.

“The deceleration itself wouldn’t be rapid, it would almost be like someone pulling back on the throttles perhaps,” says Robert Benzon, a former Air Force pilot and veteran accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, now retired. Benzon speculated based on the nature of the missile that the decompression may have been somewhat gradual, and could have been survivable in the short term. “In my estimation what you’d have is a lot of small holes in the airplane,” he says, “so the decompression itself would be pretty slow.”

Several bodies were found still strapped into their seats. Robert Goyer, who is editor-in-chief of Flying magazine, said that airliner seats are designed to withstand tremendous G-forces, sometimes more than a human body can sustain. Even when the seat itself is torn from the surrounding structure of the plane, people are likely to remain belted in. He cited Juliane Koepcke, who in 1971 survived a two-mile fall into the Amazon rainforest, strapped to her seat all the while.

Photographs indicate that those who did stay in their seats tended to retain all of their clothing, but other passengers were found in states of undress. While Goyer said that it was common to see bodies stripped of clothes after falling a long distance through the air, Baden suspected other causes.

“You can lose a shirt or a headband or maybe even a jacket, but not pants and underwear and shoes and socks. It would seem to me, given the situation, that looters came,” he said. As further evidence, he noted indications in the photos that some of the bodies appeared to have been moved around, based on lividity—the dark discoloration of the skin that occurs in the lowest parts of the body, as blood settles due to gravity. (When this discolored skin is seen facing up, it suggests that a part of the body previously low to the ground was shifted from that position.) Baden also observed that none of the bodies pictured appeared to be wearing watches or jewelry.

The investigation into the tragedy was initially hindered by strife in the region, with some reports suggesting that rebels have threatened investigators, tampered with the plane debris, and moved bodies around. The Dutch government has since succeeded in negotiating the release of some of the passengers’ remains, which were kept on refrigerated train cars and eventually flown back to the Netherlands for a more thorough forensic examination.

TIME Environment

Satellites Show Major Southwest Groundwater Loss

A new report suggests that large swaths of groundwater in the Colorado River Basin have been depleted

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Groundwater losses from the Colorado River basin appear massive enough to challenge long-term water supplies for the seven states and parts of Mexico that it serves, according to a new study released Thursday that used NASA satellites.

Researchers from NASA and the University of California, Irvine say their study is the first to quantify how much groundwater people in the West are using during the region’s current drought.

Stephanie Castle, the study’s lead author and a water resource specialist at the University of California, Irvine, called the extent of the groundwater depletion “shocking.”

“We didn’t realize the magnitude of how much water we actually depleted” in the West, Castle said.

Since 2004, researchers said, the Colorado River basin — the largest in the Southwest — has lost 53 million acre feet, or 17 trillion gallons, of water. That’s enough to supply more than 50 million households for a year, or nearly fill Lake Mead — the nation’s largest water reservoir — twice.

Three-fourths of those losses were groundwater, the study found.

Unlike reservoirs and other above-ground water, groundwater sources can become so depleted that they may never refill, Castle said. For California and other western states, the groundwater depletion is drawing down the reserves that protect consumers, farmers and ecosystems in times of drought.

“What happens if it isn’t there?” Castle said during a phone interview. “That’s the scary part of this analysis.”

The NASA and University of California research used monthly gravity data to measure changes in water mass in the basin from December 2004 to November of last year, and used that data to track groundwater depletion.

“Combined with declining snowpack and population growth, this will likely threaten the long-term ability of the basin to meet its water-allocation commitments to the seven basin states and to Mexico, Jay Famiglietti, senior author on the study and senior water-cycle specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

The Colorado River basin supplies water to about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states — California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming — as well as to people and farms in part of Mexico.

California, one of the nation’s largest agricultural producers, is three years into drought. While the state has curtailed use of surface water, the state lacks a statewide system for regulating — or even measuring — groundwater.

TIME space

The Search for Extraterrestrial Air Pollution

A burned-out star, called a white dwarf.
A burned-out star, called a white dwarf. Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images

Alien factories could be a sign of life outside our solar system

Astrobiologists have come up with two basic ideas for how to find life on planets outside the solar system. The first is to look for telltale gases in exoplanets’ atmospheres, such as oxygen and methane, that would suggest the presence of some rudimentary life form, like bacteria. The second involves searching for radio or laser signals from some advanced alien civilizations—a longer shot, since the signals would have to be beamed in our direction — and who knows if aliens use lasers or radio?

But now a team of Harvard astronomers has come up with a third way: look for atmospheric gases generated not by biological processes, but by alien factories.

“I was very surprised,” says Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s astrophysics department and a co-author of a paper describing the technique, “that nobody has thought before about searching for industrial air pollution.”

It’s probably less surprising to others: Loeb is something of a master at asking nutty-sounding questions, then demonstrating that they’re not nearly as nutty as you might think. He co-authored one paper, for example, on how to look for cities on Pluto, and another on why it makes sense to look for habitable planets orbiting dead stars.

This latest effort is no exception. “It’s not crazy, at least as far as I can tell,” says Heather Knutson, a Caltech astronomer who specializes in looking at exoplanetary atmospheres, and who wasn’t involved in this research. “Avi in particular is willing to speculate on some pretty far-out topics, but no one doubts his ability to calculate the relevant physical models correctly.”

In this case, the relevant models involve chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s, the chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Unlike oxygen and methane, which occur naturally, CFC’s are almost entirely artificial. If an Earth-size planet had just ten times the atmospheric concentration of CFC’s that Earth does, Loeb and his co-authors, Harvard freshman Henry Lin and Smithsonian Observatory scientist Gonzalo Gonzalez Abad found, the gases could be detected with the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018.

There are, Loeb admits, a couple of catches. First, the Webb can only pull this off if a planet in question orbits a white dwarf star—the tiny, white-hot ember left behind when a star like the Sun dies. That’s because the CFCs’ signature would appear as a distortion of starlight passing through the planet’s atmosphere. If the star is much bigger than the planet, most of the light hitting the telescope would bypass the planet entirely, and the distortion would be lost in the glare.

Another issue is that high concentrations of CFC’s might signal a civilization that has already managed to destroy itself. Some of these gases attack and destroy a planet’s protective ozone layer, which is why, here on Earth, the worst offenders were banned in 1987.

But it’s also possible that an alien civilization would have pumped its atmosphere full of CFC’s on purpose, says Loeb. “They act as greenhouse gases,” he says, “so if a planet were at the colder edge of its habitable zone, you could imagine using CFC’s to warm things up.” As for the ozone problem, he says, “they could in principle produce extra ozone as well, or design CFC’s that were less harmful.”

As with many of Loeb’s more speculative ideas, he’s not predicting that we’ll actually find CFC-laced exoplanets—just that we could if they happen to exist, and happen to orbit white-dwarf stars.

The odds of discovery via this method are probably very long. But as physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi once said of the search for alien radio signals, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.”

 

 

TIME Disasters

Fear of Flying: Don’t Be Fooled By the Scary News—Air Travel Is as Safe as Ever

If you're like most people, the temptation is to swear off air travel, at least for a while. But you've reached the wrong conclusion.

+ READ ARTICLE

The news from the skies couldn’t get grimmer. In just the week since Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was brought down by a missile strike in Ukraine, killing 298 people, two more planes have gone down or gone missing: On July 23, a TransAsia flight crashed off Taiwan, killing 58 people, probably due to turbulence caused by typhoon Matmo; this morning an Air Algerie plane with 116 people aboard disappeared from radar and is thought to have crashed off of Mali, another possible victim of weather. And all of this comes in the wake of the still-mysterious March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370, with 239 people aboard.

If you’re like most people, the temptation is to swear off air travel, at least for a while. And, like most people, you’ve reached the wrong conclusion.

Human beings are very good at a lot of things, but we’re terrible when it comes to risk assessment. That’s not our fault; we’re wired that way. If the tiger comes from one patch of the forest, you avoid that patch. If snakes are in one fruit tree you never return to it. But the modern world presents a whole lot more complexity than our still slowly developing brains are equipped to handle. And few things flummox us more than airplanes.

Start with the fact that we can’t wrap our brains around how they work in the first place. Yes, there are engines and lift and flaps and who-knows what all keeping them up. But the fact is, a fully loaded 747 weighs 975,000 lbs and attains a top speed of 570 mph at altitudes exceeding 6.5 mi. That kind of machine just shouldn’t work and so we always half-assume it won’t.

There is, too, the much discussed helplessness attendant to buckling yourself into an airline seat, obeying all the rules about seat backs and tray tables and turning off electronic equipment and when you can jolly well get up to go to the bathroom. When you’re behind the wheel, you feel like you’re in control. When an anonymous pilot is at the stick, you feel like little more than cargo.

The occasional rash of disasters like the recent ones don’t help matters any. But the fact is, those are just statistical clusters — the airline equivalent of a few people in one country developing a rare form of cancer, which gets people looking for an environmental toxin or some other cause, when in fact it may just be random numbers at play. Yes, flying into a war zone or the teeth of a typhoon is going to increase the danger that something very bad is going to happen to you. But avoid those obvious no-go zones and the odds are very good you’ll be just fine.

In 2010, according to a report by the U.N.’s Civil Aviation Organization, there were a breathtaking 30,566,513 commercial departures worldwide. Yet, according to an authoritative site that tracks all departures and arrivals, there were only 12 crashes of planes carrying more than 18 people and only three of them resulted in more than 99 fatalities. Those deaths were an unspeakable tragedy for the people who lost their lives and the families they left behind, but in the cold calculus of probability, they’re less than a rounding error compared to all the people who flew aboard those 30.5 million flights.

Despite such low individual odds, one thing that scares us off of airplanes is the unavoidably uneven distribution of the crashes that do occur. So the 35 commercial accidents in 1968 and 1969, the 34 in 1972 and 1973, and the 33 in 1989, would have likely had a lot of people reaching for their car keys and hitting the roads instead. And it’s worse when one of the crashes is especially notorious — such as the Dec. 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which directly preceded 1989′s string of comparatively bad luck.

The Sept. 11 attacks, of course, are the darkest example of all. The two flights that brought down the World Trade Towers alone top the list of the world’s worst air disasters, with the 2,907 deaths easily outdistancing the two-plane runway accident that claimed 583 lives on Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977.

Air travel suffered badly in the wake of Sept. 11, but so, it turned out, did some of the people who avoided the planes. From October to December 2001 there were 1,000 more highway fatalities than there had been in that same period the year before — the simple result of more people being on the road. “It was called the 9/11 effect,” David Ropeik, an independent risk consultant and a former professor of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. Nearly 3,000 people died as a direct result of the attacks and a third again as an indirect one.

Air travel, surely, is not risk free, but it’s hardly a new observation to say that nothing is. Statistical clusters do smooth out over even a relatively short period of time and what feels like a grave danger today will seem relatively benign again tomorrow. The tragedy of the lives lost on the recent crashes is a very real thing; but so is the low likelihood of any one person suffering the same sorrowful end.

TIME Germany

Poll: Only Germans Think They Are Helping to Fix Global Warming

Germany Debates Its Energy Future
Wind turbines stand behind a solar power park on October 30, 2013 near Werder, Germany. Sean Gallup—Getty Images

Germans have a pretty high opinion of themselves when it comes to environmental stewardship, according to a recent TIME poll, but their pride might be a little premature.

From among six large countries surveyed in a recent TIME poll, only Germany sees itself as more a part of the solution to global warming (60%) than part of the problem (40%). Only in Germany did the majority of poll respondents report that their country has a “mostly” or “somewhat positive” role in combating global warming.

The TIME poll surveyed 3,505 online respondents between May 10 and May 22 from the Germany, the United States, Brazil, Turkey, India and South Korea, with an equal number of respondents in each country. The margin of error in the survey is 1.8%.

Despite their environmentalist pride, Germans are not optimistic about the ability of the world as a whole to change its polluting ways—just 19% of Germans think the planet can reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to 37% of respondents overall.

The Germans’ pride likely stems from Energiewende, or “energy transition,” Germany’s closely-followed effort to ramp up energy production from renewable sources. The country has indeed significantly increased solar and wind power, and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in April found Germany to be the most energy-efficient major economy on earth. Germany hit a new record around noon on a day in May this year, producing 74% of its electricity needs from renewable sources.

The problem is that, while solar power plants may be super-effective power producers at noon on a sunny day, without scalable energy-storage technologies they aren’t so effective producing power for other times—when it’s dark, for example. Because Energiewende has been accompanied by a rapid move away from nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster Germany has had to make up its energy deficit by increasing its reliance on coal for the first time in years. German CO2 emissions have actually been rising over past three years.

The country is continuing to perfect and expand its renewable energy portfolio and may one day succeed in cutting back again on its coal habit. For the time being though German perceptions aren’t quite in line with the reality.

TIME space

Here’s the Solar System’s Weirdest-Looking Comet

The OSIRIS instrument on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft photographed the mission's destination comet on July 14, 2014, from about 7,500 miles away.
The OSIRIS instrument on the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft photographed the mission's destination comet on July 14, 2014, from about 7,500 miles away. ESA/Rosetta/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comets are like movie stars—always more glamorous with their makeup on. A new spacecraft is about orbit and land on what might be the homeliest one ever

A comet has a lot to hide. To most people, it’s among the most glamorous objects in the solar system—brilliantly illuminated, racing through space with its glowing tail streaming far behind it. That, at least, is how comets look from great distances, and only when they’re close enough to the sun for the outward-flowing solar wind to light them up and produce those signature tails.

But deeper in space, without the solar floodlights? Not so much. There the comet reveals itself for what it is: a dirty snowball of ice and rock and not a whole lot more. There may be no comet for which that’s truer than the one known unlyrically as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as this GIF made up of images taken by the fast-approaching Rosetta spacecraft reveals. The comet is a lumpy, two-lobed body, measuring about 1.8 mi by 3 mi. (3×5 km), which one astronomer compares to a rubber ducky, and most other folks would describe as just plain ugly.

But Rosetta is an anxious suitor all the same. The spacecraft, built by the European Space Agency, has been en route since its launch in 2004. Rosetta will rendezvous with the comet on August 6 and enter orbit around it shortly there after. In November, it will dispatch a small lander down to its surface—becoming the first spacecraft to master either of those maneuvers, never mind both.

The comet may never be much to look at up close, but the science it could yield—offering astronomers their closest ever look at one of the oldest artifacts of the ancient solar system—could more than make up for that. Appearance has never been everything—and in the case of a historic mission like this one, that’s truer than ever.

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