TIME Bangladesh

Otters Have Helped Bangladesh Fishermen Catch Fish For Centuries

The rare, long standing technique is in decline as natural fish populations have reduced drastically in recent years

Swimming in circles alongside a fishing boat, two otters wait to catch fish in a river in southern Bangladesh. As the animals squeak in the water, fishermen lower a net into the river, in the heart of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Then, one by one, the short-haired otters dive under the water with a splash, chasing a school of fish close to the banks of the river.

Otter fishing is a centuries-old tradition in Bangladesh, where fishermen have been using trained otters to lure fish into their nets – a rare technique passed on from father to son that relies on coordination between man and otter.

“We use them because they catch more fish that we can alone,” Shashudhar Biswas, a fisherman in his 50s whose family has trained otters for generations, told the AFP. Biswas explains that the otters do not catch the fish themselves, but they chase them towards fishing nets.

“The otters manage to spot fish among the plants, then the fish swim away and we stay close with our nets. If we did it without them, we wouldn’t be able to catch as many fish,” says Shashudhar’s son, Vipul. Vipul added that it’s much easier to make ends meet thanks to this technique.

Fishing is usually done at night, and the otters can help fishermen catch as many as 26 pounds of fish, crabs and shrimp.

But the partnership between man and otter is on the verge of extinction. It’s already died out in other parts of Asia as fish populations decline, wildlife experts say. Short-haired otters are an endangered species in Bangladesh and experts say that otter fishing may play a key role in their conservation.

TIME selfie

There’s A Scientific Reason for Why You Look Weird In Selfies

It's not just your face

There are many reasons why you look weird in selfies. Sometimes it’s simply because you have a weird-looking face (sorry, guys.) Sometimes it’s because you’re a trend-following New York Times Style Section reader who knows ugly (and preferably monocled) is the new pretty. Sometimes it’s because you posed like this:

But Nolan Feeney at The Atlantic says that there’s a completely separate reason why photo subjects think they look a little off in their selfies. And that reason is science. Specifically, science of the brain.

We are used to identifying with our faces as they would appear in a mirror, but when we take a selfie, the camera captures our faces as strangers would see us from head on rather than we would see ourselves in a reflection. Emotionally unprepared to see our unsymmetrical faces tilting in a slightly different way, we sometimes approach selfies with confusion and disdain.

There’s also the technical issue of our close-range camera phone lenses distorting our faces.

But is this a reason to say no to the selfie for self preservation’s sake? Hogwash. While some say selfies make people narcissistic, others say that they actually make them more comfortable in their own skin. Because the more times you take a selfie, the more comfortable you are seeing your face in all angles.

And as long as your hair looks good, who cares about the other stuff, anyway?

TIME space

Space Discovery Suggests Unknown Planet At Solar System’s Fringe

2012 VP113, also known as "Biden," because of the VP in the provisional name.
2012 VP113, also known as "Biden," because of the VP in the provisional name. Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo—Carnegie Institution for Science

Astronomers found a new dwarf planet beyond Pluto they say could signal the existence of a much bigger planet further out in our solar system, a potentially groundbreaking discovery that could change the way we look at our cosmic neighborhood

Science teachers, get ready, you may soon have to come up with a new mnemonic device for the planets.

Astronomers announced Wednesday the discovery of a new dwarf planet at the outer edge of our solar system. While that’s interesting on its own, the scientists also believe something far more fascinating: that the dwarf planet’s far-out position suggests there may be a much larger planet beyond it.

The dwarf planet—named 2012 VP113, and nicknamed “Biden” for obvious reasons—was found near another tiny, icy planet named Sedna that was first discovered ten years ago, National Geographic reports. Scientists involved in the new discovery believe the two objects may have been pulled so far out in the solar system by the gravity of a much larger planet hulking still farther out in our solar system.

“A rogue planet could have been ejected from our solar system and perturbed their orbits,” says Scott Sheppard, a co-author of the report. “Definitely, it could still be out there.”

Harold Levison, an astronomer who was not part of the study, said Biden’s discovery “suggests something interesting.” However, Levison advised caution about the theory put forth by the study’s authors — that a giant mystery planet lurking in the outer reaches of the solar system is responsible for the location of the cluster.

“There may be another explanation we just haven’t seen yet,” he said.

[National Geographic]

TIME space

NASA Is Letting People Choose Its Next Uber-Techy Spacesuit

Here are the options...

NASA is making space nerds’ dreams come true: They can vote on what the next spacesuit design will look like. (First Cosmos and now this? It’s space nerd Christmas!)

The Z-1 Spacesuit — named one of TIME’s best innovations of 2012, FYI — is upgrading to a Z-2, made with the help of 3D human laser scans and 3D-printed hardware. To fully engage its core audience, NASA is allowing its fans to pick which high tech design will be built. Here are the options, each with a subtly different theme:

1. Biomimicry

This suit is meant to look like the world’s oceans:

NASA

And to embrace the “bioluminescent qualities of aquatic creatures found at incredible depths,” it also glows in the dark:

NASA

2. Technology

This design uses Luminex wire and light-emitting patches:

NASA

3. Trends in Society

This is what NASA thinks a spacesuit would look like if it was ‘reflective of what every day clothes may look like in the not too distant future”:

NASA

And here’s the 2012 Z-1:

NASA

People can vote here.

Of course, like most awesome things on the Internet, there’s a bit of a catch. The spacesuit isn’t actually space friendly. According to the frequently asked questions section, it isn’t designed to fly in space because the outer layers doesn’t have the functionality of “micrometeroite, thermal and radiation protection.” This is a prototype used primarily for aesthetics. Womp womp.

TIME natural disaster

Landslides May Be Inevitable, But They’re Not Yet Predictable

A massive landslide killed dozens in Washington
A massive landslide near Oso, Washington killed at least 16 people, with far more still missing Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images

There was plenty of warning before the deadly Washington landslide. Why didn't it help?

There was the rain. The tiny town of Oso in northwestern Washington state is used to wet weather—rain falls every other day on average—but the past few months have been positively biblical, with precipitation as much as 200% above normal. There was the geography: steep terrain composed of glacial sediment, which is a loose mix of sand, silt and boulders, the geological equivalent of a banana peel. And there was the history. Mudslides have hit the land around Oso numerous times over the past few decades, including as recently as 2006. There’s a reason that some residents used to call the area “Slide Hill.”

Yet when the earth gave way on the morning on the morning of Mar. 22, no one was ready for the scale of devastation. More than 15 million cu. yards (11.5 million cu. m), equivalent to three million dump truck loads, came tumbling down, burying nearly 50 homes in a hilly area 60 miles (97 km) northeast of Seattle. At least 16 people have died in the landslide, which covered more than a square mile (2.6 sq. km) and more than 170 people are listed as missing, even as hope of finding survivors dwindles. Even if the number of missing comes down, as officials have predicted, this will go down as one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history.

There was no shortage of warnings. As the Seattle Times reported earlier this week, a study by outside consultants had been filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hill that collapsed on Mar. 22. A 2000 study by the engineer and geomorphologist Tracy Drury warned that future landslides would take an increasing toll because “human development of the floodplain in this area has steadily increased.” Yet while local officials claimed that residents knew of the landslide risks, there’s little evidence that much was done to try to mitigate those risks. A 1,300 ft. (396 m) “crib wall” of boom logs anchored by 9,000 lb. (4,082 kg) concrete blocks every 50 ft. (15 m) was built after the 2006 landslide. But it was helpless against the landslide. “The place was set up to be unstable,” says David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington.

But despite all that, it’s not surprising that Oso wasn’t ready when the earth collapsed. Even though they kill more than 25 Americans and cause more than $2 billion in damages each year on average, landslides are the “underappreciated natural hazard,” as Montgomery puts it. But as Andrew Freedman points out on Mashable, that’s in part because there’s no uniform, national monitoring system:

Instead, the USGS, working with the National Weather Service (NWS) and state and local agencies, has put together a “patchwork quilt” of monitoring and experimental warning programs, based upon rainfall and soil moisture and pressure measurements. One such program has been in place near Puget Sound, but did not cover the area where the March 22 landslide occurred.

This is despite the fact that landslides are the most geographically dispersed natural hazard—all 50 states face at least some mudslide risk. But the widespread nature of landslide risk is part of the reason why there is no uniform warning system, although the USGS has put together a national map that identifies high-risk zones. (Unsurprisingly, they tend to be mountainous regions like the Appalachians, the Rockies and the Pacific Coastal ranges.) While landslides as a whole are common, they occur only rarely at any given location—even places as inherently unstable as the hills above Oso can go decades between slides. And while decades of study—and a national network of radar stations—has enabled meteorologists to predict hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather with increasing precision, it is still incredibly difficult to identify when a landslide-prone hill will finally crumble. Heavy rainfall obviously plays a role, allowing water to infiltrate and loosen soil, but slides can also be triggered by earthquakes or erosion. “We can identify hazard zones, the places where you can expect a high probability of failure,” says Montgomery. “But it’s hard to say this slope will go on this particular day. We just don’t have enough data about the internal plumbing of the hillside.”

And it’s not just mountain towns that are at risk of landslides. Oregon state geologists have said that as much as 30% of metro Portland is in a high-risk zone for landslides, and a 2013 study by the University of Washington found that Seattle has some 8,000 buildings are at risk of an earthquake-induced landslide. Internationally, the danger is far greater: a 2o12 study in Geology estimated that rainfall-induced landslides alone—like the one near Oso—killed more than 32,000 people between 2004 and 2010, a massive toll, even though mudslides tend to get far less attention than earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes. Homes with a view come with danger attached, even if it’s one most people don’t know. Changing that fact might be the best way to ensure that the next major landslide is nowhere near as deadly.

TIME The Weekend Read

Parent Like a Mad Scientist

Taking them to my alma mater, U.C. Berkeley, where upon Yo announced, ÒDad, thereÕs no way I am going here. My days of attending the schools you went to are over.Ó
Me with my daughter, E, and my son, Yo. I gave the kids unique names based on research showing that this might endow them with superior impulse control. Stephen P. Hudner

Give your kids weird names, expose them to raw sewage, and still be the world’s best dad

As an immigrant society with no common culture, we Americans have always been blessed with the ability to make things up as we go, be it baseball, jazz, the Internet … even Mormonism. Yet, when it comes to parenting, we’ve become obsessed with finding the one best way — whether it’s learning to raise our kids like the Chinese, the French, Finns, or whatever other group is in fashion today. It’s time to stop. No one culture has parenting down pat; there’s no one best model that we can look to for all the answers. And that’s a good thing. Parenting should be an adventure. And more importantly, if we want to keep America’s culture young and prosperous and innovative, parenting should be an experiment.

Yo engaged by something his mother is demonstrating to him; E mad for some reason. Courtesy Dalton Conley

I should know. I’m a bit of a mad-scientist parent myself — just ask my kids, E and Yo.

As a dual-doctorate professor of sociology and medicine at New York University, I gave my kids “unique” names based on research about impulse control. I exposed them to raw sewage (just a little!) and monkeys (O.K., just one!) to build up their immune systems based on the latest research on allergies and T-cell response. I bribed them to do math inspired by a 2005 University of Pennsylvania study of Mexican villagers that demonstrated the effectiveness of monetary incentives for schooling outcomes. And don’t think my offspring were the only ones bearing the brunt of all this trial and error: I got myself a vasectomy based on research showing that fewer kids may mean smarter kids.

There’s a method to my madness (namely, the scientific method). Parentology — as I call this approach to raising kids — involves three skills: first, knowing how to read a scientific study; second, experimenting on your kids by deploying such research; and third, involving your kids in the process, both by talking to them about the results and by revising your hypotheses when necessary.

Kids raised this way won’t necessarily end up with 4.0 GPAs, but they almost certainly will become inquisitive, creative seekers of truth.

Dalton Conley's kids, Yo, left, and E, right.
Often we are asked if E (right) and Yo (left) are twins; they are not. Despite knowing that narrow birth spacing may be disadvantageous, we popped our kids out a mere 18 months apart. Courtesy Dalton Conley

“Parentology” in Practice

My son’s name: Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser KnucklesI put my approach into practice more or less immediately upon becoming a father, throwing out my copy of Dr. Spock and instead conducting a series of experiments on my two young children, now 16 and 14. No, I didn’t raise one in the woods with wolves and the other in a box. But I did give my children weird names — E (my daughter) and Yo (my son, full name: Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles) — to teach them impulse control. Evidence shows that kids with unusual names learn not to react when their peers tease them (at least in elementary school). What’s more, a 1977 analysis of Who’s Who by psychologist Richard Zweigenhaft found that unusual names were overrepresented, even after factoring out the effect of social class and background.

Meanwhile, after exploring the literature on verbal development, I decided not to teach my kids to read, but instead I read aloud to them constantly. It turns out that exposure to novel words, complex sentences and sustained narratives are what predict verbal ability later on, not whether a 4-year-old can decode words on a page. And the best predictor of later verbal skills is the number of total and unique words a child hears before kindergarten. Psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley observed how poor and middle-class parents interact with their toddlers. They estimated that the middle-class kids heard an average of 45 million words over a four-year period, while the poor children heard a mere 13 million. This difference, in turn, explained later achievement gaps. Unable to mimic Robin Williams and babble away, I decided the best thing was to read to my kids constantly. So while E and Yo were both behind their peers in reading in first grade, by fourth grade they had the best scores in their respective classes.

Dalton Conley reads to his son, Yo.
Reading is fundamental. Though I never taught them to decode words on the page, I was a human Kindle before there were such things. I never stopped reading to them. Courtesy Dalton Conley

Of course, not all my experiments have been successful. (If they were all successful, they’d hardly be experiments.) When my son was 11, his school wanted to medicate him for what administrators suspected was ADHD. I thought there might be a way around it. Scientific studies reviewed by University of California, San Diego, professor Andrew Lakoff in 2002 show that psychopharmacological placebo effects are almost as big as those of the actual drugs. And even student-teacher interaction is not immune to such Pygmalion-like dynamics. In one classic 1968 study, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson lied to teachers, telling them that they had identified a new test that could pick out genius kids with remarkable accuracy. Then they randomly picked certain pupils and informed the teachers that these particular kids had aced the test. Lo and behold, when the scientists showed up a year later, the scores of the kids who had received the “teacher placebo” treatment had jumped 15 points in their actual IQs relative to the control-sample kids.

Worried about sleep apnea and its potential role in causing ADHD, we took Yo in for an evaluation. My attempt to cure ADHD with a placebo came to naught. Courtesy Dalton Conley

With this research in mind and fearful of the risks of actual medication, I lied to the school, his sister and my son himself, telling them all that I was giving him a powerful stimulant (when it was actually a vitamin), hoping that if they all thought he was calmer and more attentive, they would treat him as such and his behavior would improve. While his teachers noted an improvement in his concentration and behavior for a few weeks after I started my placebo protocol, he backslid — prompting calls from the school about his inappropriate behavior — and was ultimately given a formal ADHD diagnosis. The real stimulants worked. However, I did decide to experiment with only giving him the drugs during the school week (in order to mitigate against long-term effects and possible habituation to the drug), which has been successful so far.

Customizing to the Kid

As you can see, while knowing how to read the existing science is important, even more critical is being able to properly experiment on your own young. What works for one kid (or one population of kids) may not work for all, and your family may require customization in order to make a technique work or just to be comfortable with what you’re doing.

Even when there’s research on a topic, you can’t be sure how it will apply to your own kids. You need to experiment.Even when there is a clear scientific consensus on, say, the importance of breast-feeding, we don’t often know the distribution of those effects. If a particular intervention — say, paying a child to do a half hour of math a day, like I did — is shown in a randomized, controlled trial to raise math scores by 20%, that could mean that all the kids in the bribery group saw their scores jump by a fifth. Or it could mean that for 80% of the kids, the bribes did not make a whit of difference, but for 20% it doubled their scores. This is what researchers call heterogeneous treatment effects.

Some kids are car-truck-train kids; others are animal kids. Guess which ours are. Courtesy Dalton Conley

Other times, results vary across studies and methods. One 2005 study of Mexican families found that cash rewards that were conditional on school attendance were hugely effective in improving child outcomes such as health and educational attainment. But an effort to replicate this in New York City showed only minor educational benefits in 2009. And a third study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics in 2010, focused on elementary-school students in Coshocton, Ohio, found that it worked to pay the students themselves (as opposed to their families) based on how well they did on outputs (i.e., test scores). But the largest U.S. study of all — conducted in 2011 by Harvard economist Roland Fryer in Chicago, Dallas, New York City and Washington — found that when rewards were focused on outcomes like passing tests, they failed to produce meaningful improvements. But in that study, when the rewards were based on performing input tasks like reading a book or being on time to class, then they worked. (Even in this study, however, results were not consistent across cities, age groups or race.)

In short, even when there’s research on a topic, you can’t be sure how it will apply to your own kids — so it’s necessary to embrace experimentation. While I may never know what explains why some studies found big gains from bribery and others failed to, I was able to bribe both my kids to do extra math. I simply adjusted the rewards to fit the kid (something that would be impossible for researchers to do in a big study). As a parent, I could play on my son’s love of video games to offer a minute-for-minute swap of online math problems in exchange for World of Warcraft time. For my daughter, the enticement was gummy bears.

I did worry that by providing external motivation in the form of bribery, I might erode their internal motivation for mathematics, as some psychology research has suggested can happen. But that was a risk I was willing to take because — unlike with reading, for instance — they weren’t exactly clamoring for math problems. Here was a case of customizing the existing research to one’s own children. I may or may not have eroded their internal motivation to do math (and I doubt either will end up a professional mathematician), but at least they passed the big tests they needed to in order to get into high school.

How to Know What Matters

Lots of folks think being a scientist is knowing a bunch of esoteric facts that fit together, like how the Earth’s tilt causes the seasons or what mitochondria do or how, exactly, light can be both a wave and a particle. But the scientific method is what’s most important — especially when it comes to parenting. Particularly important, especially for middle- and upper-class parents, is knowing how to read a study and sift out causal relationships from the chaff of mere correlations. (It turns out a lot of great outcomes are correlated with being born in good economic circumstances to well-educated parents, but you want to figure out how to cause better outcomes.)

To assuage my own anxieties, I just keep reminding myself just how unimportant going to Harvard really is.For instance, take my educational choices for my kids — or, more accurately, their choices. That is, after all the extra math prep I bribed them to do to get them into Stuyvesant (the prestigious New York City high school that students must test into), I allowed them to decide if they actually wanted to go or not.

This may seem, at first blush, to be more like 1970s-style laissez-faire parenting. But actually I was following the latest cutting-edge research in ceding educational choice to my kids. Two studies by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger in 2002 and 2011 showed that if you are white and middle class (which we are), it does not make a difference where you go to college. While it is true that graduates of more-selective institutions fare better in terms of income and wealth later on, compared with graduates of less selective schools, it turns out that this is an artifact of what we scientists call selection bias. It’s not that Harvard is adding so much value to your education as compared with the University of Nebraska — it’s that Harvard admissions is good at picking winners.

This research was about college, but my intuition that it also applied to high school was confirmed when MIT economist Joshua Angrist obtained the data from the selective exam-admission schools in Boston and New York City. He examined the data for what we call regression discontinuities. The logic is the following: if the cutoff to get into Stuyvesant is, say, 560 in a given year, then it is really pretty random whether an individual scores 559 or 560. It could be the difference of a good breakfast or a single vocabulary word that was in one kid’s stack of flash cards by chance. In other words, it probably does not reflect a major difference in innate ability. But the consequences of that point difference determine which school the kid ends up attending. By comparing two groups — the one just above and the one just below the line — we can see how big the “treatment effect” of attending the “better” school is. And it turns out not to matter at all, in either Boston or New York.

So, though both my kids gained admission to the most prestigious math and science high school in the country, I let them choose whether they went there or not. I figured, with no overall treatment effect, why not let them go where they sensed they would feel the most comfortable? They knew what environment was best for them. My daughter turned down her offer of admission, while my son decided to go. I, meanwhile, am taking notes to see how this next phase of the experiment turns out. (She is a sophomore and he is a freshman.) Meanwhile, to assuage my own anxieties, I just keep reminding myself just how unimportant going to Harvard really is.

One of the many cross-species interactions that take place in our home. No underworked immune systems here. Courtesy Dalton Conley

The Path to Enlightening Kids

One of the few fake animals in our house. Courtesy Dalton Conley

Finally, perhaps the most important part of parentology is to involve the kids themselves. Whether that means discussing the research about standing desks and their role in preventing obesity, giving them an opportunity to help design the experiment or debriefing them about its results (like when I confessed to my son that I had been giving him a placebo and not the real ADHD medication), the teachable moment is, actually, the most valuable part of the entire experiment.

Turn your rug rats into lab rats — they might not go Ivy, but they’ll be a lot more fun.Having a kid who knows how to separate out causation from mere correlation is more important than having one who can memorize a list of amino acids or Egyptian pharaohs. This is the real goal of experimental parenting: indoctrinating one’s kids into the Enlightenment way of thinking. Helping them learn to question — not authority necessarily: this isn’t 1960s hippie-dippie parenting, after all — but knowledge itself.

So, where tradition fails us (after all, what does the Bible have to say about kids and cell phones?), we can and should resort to the scientific method. Hypothesis formation, trial, error and revision. That is, we should experiment on our own kids.

Worried that screens may be disrupting your teen’s sleep? Do a controlled study in which you take the iPad away at night for two weeks and chart what happens. Want to encourage better study habits? Set up a marketplace for grades or effort and fine-tune the rewards and punishments in real time. Want to exercise the self-discipline muscles of your kids’ brains? Make them wear a mitten on their dominant hand for a couple of hours a day. Want to boost their performance before a big test? Prime them with positive stereotypes about their ethnic and gender identities. Today it is easier than ever — with Google Scholar and the like — to immerse oneself in the most cutting-edge research and apply it to one’s kids.

Like with patient-driven medicine, in which informed patients advocate to their doctor rather than just passively receiving information, I predict that American parents and their children will increasingly shun authorities — even good old Dr. Spock — and instead interpret and generate the scientific evidence for themselves.

Rather than a rigid formula of 10,000 hours of violin practice or a focus on a single socially sanctioned pathway to success, American parents should pursue an insurgency strategy: more flexibility and fluidity; attention to often counterintuitive, myth-busting research; and adaptation to each child’s unique and changing circumstances.

E working on her novel. Perhaps my reading-out-loud experiments worked. Courtesy Dalton Conley

If you approach your rug rats this way, by turning them into lab rats, I can’t guarantee they will get into Columbia. But I can predict with statistical confidence that they will be creative, fulfilled members of society and that you will have a lot more fun raising them along the way.

Dalton Conley is a professor of sociology and medicine at New York University and author of Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask.

Parentology Quiz

TIME space

Space: Where America and Russia Are Stuck With Each Other

American astronaut Steve Swanson, left, and cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, are seen as they depart the Cosmonaut Hotel, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, prior to their launch aboard a Soyuz rocket
American astronaut Steve Swanson, left, and cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, are seen as they depart the Cosmonaut Hotel, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, prior to their launch aboard a Soyuz rocket NASA/Joel Kowsky & Getty

Two countries don't have to like each other to fly together; they just have to need each other

There’s no Crimea in low Earth orbit. That happy fact is one reason that, for now, at least, U.S.-Russian cooperation in space will go on, including a planned launch today from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, which will ferry two cosmonauts and one astronaut up to the International Space Station (ISS). It’s something of an irony that during the early years of the Cold War, the race to the Moon was the very soul and symbol of the rivalry between the two countries, and now space is the only place America and Russia can stand to be in each other’s company. But it’s not exploratory good-fellowship at work. It’s hard reality—not to mention hard currency.

Start with the currency: Capitalist Russia may be richer than the Soviet Union ever was, but its economy is still a slow, petro-dependent mess. Ever since the last shuttle stood down in the summer of 2011, the U.S. has had no way to get astronauts up to the ISS other than aboard the workhorse Soyuz rocket. Even when the shuttles were flying, our astronauts would sometimes hitch a ride aboard the Soyuz, but seats didn’t come cheap, going for $26 million each in 2006. That fare that jumped to $43 million in 2011 and now that the shuttle program is no more, it’s a tidy $71 million per. When the airlines do it, it’s called dynamic pricing; when the Russians do it, we call it highway robbery. But hey, we always wanted them to try capitalism. Well, this is what it looks like.

For Russia, there’s also international prestige at work. Their space program consists of pretty much the old Soyuz and nothing more—no space stations of their own, no lunar probes, no interplanetary probes. Baikonur itself, which used to be within the Soviet Union, has been part of another country entirely—Kazakhstan—since the Soviet break-up (though as recent event have shown, those post-Soviet borders may be less permanent than one might think). This comes at a time when the U.S. is still the world’s dominant spacefaring nation, China is a rising cosmic power, and even North Korea—Asia’s Toontown—can put a satellite in orbit. If you want to play in the big leagues, you’ve got to have people in space, and the ISS gives Russia some place to send them.

The U.S., meantime, has to tolerate Russia and pay its extortionate ticket prices simply because that’s the only lift around. When you’re hitching a ride to spring break, you’d better be ready to pay for the gas and the Red Bull and put up with whatever’s on the radio. The ISS (despite that International in the moniker) is almost entirely a NASA-built, U.S.-paid-for station, and the hard fact is, Moscow controls our access to it.

That should change soon—even faster now that the political situation is so sour. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences—private American companies both—have already made successful unmanned resupply runs to the ISS and both are also working on upgrading their cargo vehicles to carry people. SpaceX is currently in the lead, though it’s at least a few years away from flying astronauts. NASA is building its own heavy-lift rocket for carrying astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, but it won’t be ready for anything but test flights until after 2020.

That schedule, of course, could be accelerated considerably if Washington gave NASA the green light and the cash. America’s manned space program went from a standing start in 1961 to the surface of the moon in 1969—eight years from Al Shepard to Tranquility Base. The Soviet Union got us moving then. Perhaps Russia will do the same now.

TIME deepwater horizon

The BP Oil Spill May Have Caused Heart Defects in Tuna and Amberjack

This DigitalGlobe satellite image depicts an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the sinking of Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible rig whose purpose was to drill oil wells in extremely deep water. DigitalGlobe / Getty Images

There is a "reduced survival" rate for these economically important fish species, says the co-author of new study

A damning new study says that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could have led to potentially lethal heart defects in yellowfin amberjack, yellowfin tuna and bluefin tuna — three economically important fish species.

To conduct the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, scientists recreated the contaminated sea environment with samples from the BP oil spill, and introduced fish larvae to it. They found that the fish exhibited a number of heart defects, which could lead either to death or a slower swimming pace.

“So they are either going to get eaten or they won’t be able to eat enough,” says co-author John Incardona, research toxicologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “That leads to reduced survival.”

The study comes three months after scientists announced that Louisiana dolphins face lung disease and low birthrates following the spillage of more than 636 million liters of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Peter Hodson, a fish toxicologist unconnected to the recent study, told The Verge that it was a “tour de force” for researchers to manage to keep the larvae alive long enough to study the oil’s effects. However, a BP spokesperson said that “the paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact.”

The bluefin tuna population in the Gulf of Mexico is already struggling from overfishing and water pollution, and faces virtual extinction.

[Verge]

TIME creationism

Creationism in Schools—On the Taxpayer’s Dime

Back to the future? At South Carolina's Bob Jones University, Dr. Maude Stout "teaches the controversy" over evolution in 1948.
Back to the future? At South Carolina's Bob Jones University, Dr. Maude Stout "teaches the controversy" over evolution in 1948. Francis Miller—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Vouchers are increasingly being used to teach kids to question not just evolution, but cosmology, biology, even math.

Science loves balance. Gasses rush in to fill vacuums; cells seek homeostasis; an action is never quite satisfied until there has been an equal and opposite reaction. So it’s perhaps fitting that just days after the science wires were buzzing over a new (and thrilling) confirmation of the Big Bang, there is a new (and dispiriting) report on Politico.com about the growth of taxpayer-funded anti-science education in American schools.

According to Politico, 14 states will spend a collective $1 billion in 2014 on vouchers for private and religious schools that teach kids to mistrust not only the science of evolution, but also cosmology, geology, biology and even math. Twelve other states—including bright blue New York—are considering following their lead.

Occasionally the programs don’t just “teach the controversy,” as their backers like to say, but something darker. Evolution, according to one set of texts, is a “wicked and vain philosophy.” Children are taught to “discuss the importance of a right view of evolution,” a view that does not—no surprise—include an enthusiastic embrace of Darwin.

The problem with teaching children like this—apart from the fact that it’s simply incorrect—is that it disqualifies them from full participation in the larger world. It’s awfully hard to be part of the global conversation about the Big Bang breakthrough when understanding the science requires you to accept that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, while your teachers are telling you it’s less than 10,000. It’s awfully hard to be mathematically literate when your geometry and algebra classes are being interrupted to discuss the role numbers play in the Bible.

All of this is being shouted about and litigated over, with the usual parties involved: the ACLU is suing to prevent New Hampshire’s and Colorado’s voucher programs from going forward; Republican political leaders—including Sen. Lamar Alexander, Rep. Eric Cantor and La. Governor Bobby Jindal—are calling for even more-ambitious voucher programs. The Koch Brothers and their billions are pushing for additional public subsidies to pay for the expanded programs.

Backers of the non-science curriculum, of course, frame their goals in the noble-sounding idea of allowing families to “choose the best learning options for their children,” in the phrasing of the website for Florida-based Step Up For Students, which provides scholarships for low-income kids to attend private schools. But their thinking is more troubling than that. Bob Tuthill, the group’s head, told Politico that topics like the age of the Earth and the reasons for the Civil War are simply too controversial for the government to mandate how they should be taught. Once your anti-science ideology is bumping up against the whole Civil-War-was-about-states’-rights-not-slavery school of thought, you’ve got to rethink the company you’re keeping.

Even schools that take pains to give a nod to scientists do it in a qualified way that undoes their ostensible point—as when the website of a Philadelphia private school applauds “the men and women of science,” but cautions that “our understanding is not complete until we filter it” through Scripture. But science already has a filtration process in place, thank you very much. It’s called peer review and many of those peers are people of deep faith and spirituality themselves; they’ve simply learned to keep their religious beliefs and their scientific rigor far enough apart so that both are served well.

None of this non-science comes free. At the same time a Gallup poll reveals that 46% of Americans believe human beings were created in their present form, one international survey found American kids finishing 26th of 34 countries in math and 21st in science. Paul Peterson, the head Harvard University’s Program on Educational Policy and Governance is oddly sanguine about where this could lead, according to Politico, predicting that the free-market system will weed out the schools that teach science badly, because parents will quit sending their kids there.

The problem is, before that happens the American economy will already have weeded out the children who graduated from those schools—at least when it comes to competing for the highest skilled, best-paying jobs. And the global economy, which increasingly depends on innovation and high tech, will weed a little bit more of America out too.

TIME energy

The Afterlife of Oil Spills

Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup
Nearly 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill Chris Wilkins—AFP/Getty Images

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists are still reckoning with the ecological cost

On a shelf at my home, I have a small jar that contains a smear of crude oil. I dug it up on the shore of a small island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in May of 2009, on a reporting trip for a story about the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That crude oil is more than 25 years old now, and its existence is a reminder of just how long lived the effects of a major oil accident can be. Years after the spill has been stopped, after the press has gone home, the crude oil released into a river or a sea will affect the biology of almost anything it touches—just as it continues to weigh on the people who live and work in the area fouled by crude.

That’s worth remembering as we observe the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill today. On Mar. 25, 1989, a tanker captained by Joseph Hazelwood ran aground on Alaska’s Bligh Reef, spilling nearly 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude oil into Alaska’s near-pristine Prince William Sound. The oil spread out to more than 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline, choking bird and sea life, and permanently damaging the region’s ecology. Even now, you can still find some of that oil on remote beaches in the Sound, preserved by the cold. As of 2010, just 12 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services affected by the spill were considered fully recovered or very likely recovered. The once-prosperous Pacific herring fishery still remains closed after the population of the fish crashed in the years following the spill. While much of the Sound has rebounded, it will never be the same—even a quarter century later.

The Exxon Valdez disaster was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history—until April 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was destroyed in a well blowout, leading to an oil gusher that lasted 87 days and resulted in more than 200 million gallons (757 million liters) of crude flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. While much of the oil was either cleaned up in a response operation that cost billions of dollars or was broken down by bacteria in the warm Gulf waters, the ecological damage from the spill was major, and almost four yeas later, scientists are only beginning to gauge the cost to marine life.

Here’s one example: in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and several universities assessed the impact of Deepwater Horizon oil on developing embryos of bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack, all commercially important fish species that spawn near the site of the accident. The research team exposed embryos taken from breeding facilities to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a toxic agent released by crude oil. In each tested species, PAH exposure—at levels the researchers said was realistic for the Gulf spill—was linked to abnormalities in heart function and defects in heart development. As the paper concluded:

Losses of early life stages were therefore likely for Gulf populations of tunas, amberjack, swordfish, billfish, and other large predators that spawned in oiled surface habitats.

The PNAS study isn’t the first to blame the BP oil spill for lingering problems with Gulf marine life; a study published earlier this month linked the spill to dwindling numbers of bottlenose dolphins Louisiana’s Barataria Ba. Nor will it be the last. But that hasn’t slowed the rush to keep drilling going in the Gulf of Mexico, a rush that BP has now been allowed to rejoin after initially being barred from participation in lease sales in the region. The British company won 24 out of 31 bids entered in an Interior Department offshore drilling lease sale held last week, paying more than $41 million for the right to explore oil and gas in the region. Altogether 1.7 million acres (.69 million hectares) off the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were opened up for new drilling. Despite evidence of the risks, nothing seems likely to stop operations in the Gulf.

As long as there is offshore drilling and marine transport of oil, the risks of accidents will exist. Just two days before the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, at least 168,000 gallons (636,000 liters) of oil spilled from a barge in Galveston Bay in Texas. The spill is blocking the bustling Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest seaways in the U.S., and threatens an environmentally sensitive bird sanctuary nearby. Given the small size of the spill, it won’t have the kind of major aftereffects seen in the Valdez and the BP dissters. But it’s one more reminder that as long as our economy remains so dependent on oil, there will always be the risk of another catastrophe that could linger on and on.

[Update: BP sent along a statement in response to the PNAS study—I'm including it below:

The paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack or other pelagic fish species in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil concentrations used in these lab experiments were rarely seen in the Gulf during or after the Deepwater Horizon accident. In addition, the authors themselves note that it is nearly impossible to determine the early life impact to these species. To overcome this challenge, it would take more information than what’s presented in this paper.

It's worth noting that the researchers mention in the paper how difficult it is to sample live but fragile yolksac larvae of big pelagic species like the bluefin tuna in the wild, which is the embryos used in the study were collected from breeding stations on land, not the Gulf itself.]

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