TIME Opinion

The Reason Every One of Us Should Be Thankful

Thanksgiving Preparations
Illustration of preparing the Thanksgiving meal circa 1882. Kean Collection / Getty Images

As Thanksgiving approaches, a little bit of historical context goes a long way

Astronomy is a historical science because the distance scales involved are so immense that to look out into space is to look back into time. Even at the almost unfathomable speed of light — 300,000 kilometers per second — the sun is eight light minutes away, the nearest star is 4.3 light years away, the nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is about 2.5 million light years away and the farthest object ever observed is about 13.8 billion light years away. Astronomers call this way of describing such distances “lookback time.”

The concept is not limited to astronomy: current events also have their own lookback times, accounting for what gave rise to them. Just as looking at a star now actually involves seeing light from the past, looking at the world today actually involves looking at the reverberations of history. We have to think about the past in order to put current events into proper context, because that’s only way to track human progress.

Consider the longing many people have for the peaceful past, filled with bucolic scenes of pastoral bliss, that existed before overpopulation and pollution, mass hunger and starvation, world wars and civil wars, riots and revolutions, genocides and ethnic cleansing, rape and murder, disease and plagues, and the existential angst that comes from mass consumerism and empty materialism. Given so much bad news, surely things were better then than they are now, yes?

No.

Overall, there has never been a better time to be alive than today. As I document in my 2008 book The Mind of the Market and in my forthcoming book The Moral Arc, if you lived 10,000 years ago you would have been a hunter-gatherer who earned the equivalent of about $100 a year — extreme poverty is defined by the United Nations as less than $1.25 a day, or $456 a year — and the material belongings of your tiny band would have consisted of about 300 different items, such as stone tools, woven baskets and articles of clothing made from animal hides. Today, the average annual income in the Western world — the U.S. and Canada, the countries of the European Union, and other developed industrial nations — is about $40,000 per person per year, and the number of available products is over 10 billion, with the universal product code (barcode) system having surpassed that number in 2008.

Poverty itself may be going extinct, and not just in the West. According to UN data, in 1820 85-95% of the world’s people lived in poverty; by the 1980s that figure was below 50%, and today it is under 20%. Yes, 1 in 5 people living in poverty is too many, but if the trends continue by 2100, and possibly even by 2050, no one in the world will be poor, including in Africa.

Jesus said that one cannot live on bread alone, but our medieval ancestors did nearly that. Over 80% of their daily calories came from the nine loaves a typical family of five consumed each day. Also devoured was the 60 to 80% of a family’s income that went to food alone, leaving next to nothing for discretionary spending or retirement after housing and clothing expenses. Most prosperity has happened over the two centuries since the Industrial Revolution, and even more dramatic gains have been enjoyed over the last half-century. From 1950 to 2000, for example, the per capita real Gross Domestic Product of the United States went from $11,087 (adjusted for inflation and computed in 1996 dollars) to $34,365, a 300% increase in comparable dollars! This has allowed more people to own their own homes, and for those homes to double in size even as family size declined.

For centuries human life expectancy bounced around between 30 and 40 years, until the average went from 41 in 1900 to the high 70s and low 80s in the Western world in 2000. Today, no country has a lower life expectancy than the country with the highest life expectancy did 200 years ago. Looking back a little further, around the time of the Black Death in the 14th century, even if you escaped one of the countless diseases and plagues that were wont to strike people down, young men were 500 times more likely to die violently than they are today.

Despite the news stories about murder in cities like Ferguson and rape on college campuses, crime is down. Way down. After the crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s, homicides plummeted between 50 and 75% in such major cities as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore and San Diego. Teen criminal acts fell by over 66%. Domestic violence against women dropped 21%. According to the U.S. Department of Justice the overall rate of rape has declined 58% between 1995 and 2010, from 5.0 per 1,000 women age 12 or older to 2.1. And on Nov. 10, 2014, the FBI reported that in 2013, across more than 18,400 city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that report crime data to the FBI, every crime category saw declines.

What about the amount of work we have today compared with that of our ancestors? Didn’t they have more free and family time than we do? Don’t we spend endless hours commuting to work and toiling in the office until late into the neon-lit night? Actually, the total hours of life spent working has been steadily declining over the decades. In 1850, for example, the average person invested 50% of his or her waking hours in the year working, compared to only 20% today. Fewer working hours means more time for doing other things, including doing nothing. In 1880, the average American enjoyed just 11 hours per week in leisure time, compared to today’s 40 hours per week.

That leisure time can be spent in cleaner environments. In my own city of Los Angeles, for example, in the 1980s I had to put up with an average of 150 “health advisory” days per year and 50 “stage one” ozone alerts caused by all the fine particulate matter in the air—dirt, dust, pollens, molds, ashes, soot, aerosols, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—AKA smog. Today, thanks to the Clean Air Act and improved engine and fuel technologies, in 2013 there was only one health advisory day, and 0 stage-one ozone alerts. Across the country, even with the doubling of the number of automobiles and an increase of 150% in the number of vehicle-miles driven, smog has diminished by a third, acid rain by two-thirds, airborne lead by 97%, and CFCs are a thing of the past.

Today’s world has its problems — many of them serious ones — but, while we work to fix them, it’s important to see them with astronomers’ lookback-time eyes. With their historical context, even our worst problems show that we have made progress.

Rewind the tape to the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period or the Industrial Revolution and play it back to see what life was really like in a world lit only by fire. Only the tiniest fraction of the population lived in comfort, while the vast majority toiled in squalor, lived in poverty and expected half their children would die before adulthood. Very few people ever traveled beyond the horizon of their landscape, and if they did it was either on horseback or, more likely, on foot. No Egyptian pharaoh, Greek king, Roman ruler, Chinese emperor or Ottoman sultan had anything like the most quotidian technologies and public-health benefits that ordinary people take for granted today. Advances in dentistry alone should encourage us all to stay away from time machines.

As it turns out, these are the good old days, and we should all be thankful for that.

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is the author of a dozen books, including Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain. His next book, to be published in January, is entitled The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.

TIME space

All That Glitters: 15 Breathtaking Photos of Meteor Showers

Geminids and Leonids and Perseids, oh my!

Not all meteor showers are created equal. Some are cosmic nor’easters; some are mere drizzles. This year’s edition of the Leonid meteor shower, beginning Nov. 17, will, alas, be more of the latter—and there’s a simple cosmic explanation for that.

The annual sky show is the work of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which makes a single loop through the solar system once every 33.5 years, leaving a trail of dust and other debris in its path. Once a year, Earth moves through that wake, and the cometary bits streaking through the atmosphere are what we see as a meteor shower. When the comet passed by recently, the debris trail is denser and the fireworks are greater.

That was the case in 1966, when tens of thousands of meteors rained down per hour. Things were a little spottier, but still still pretty exciting from 1999 to 2002, when there were thousands of flashes every hour. And now? Expect no more than 10 to 15, since Tempel-Tuttle is at its greatest distance from the sun—about 1.8 billion mi (2.9 billion km) away.

Still, if you’ll take whatever meteors you can get, peak viewing times in North America will be from midnight to dawn on the nights of Nov. 17 and Nov. 18. Look in the direction of the constellation Leo—which is how the shower got its name. A NASA livestream, beginning at 7:30 PM EST on the 17th will also be tracking things as they happen—or in this quiet year, kind of don’t happen.

TIME space

The Ten-Year Journey to Land on a Comet

The first spacecraft to attempt such a daring maneuver could reveal secrets of the solar system

Traveling in space takes a lot of patience—but the wait is often worth it. That’s a fact the European Space Agency (ESA) is about to learn in a very big way.

On November 12, the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft will drop an oven-sized research vessel onto the surface of a comet where it will perform a variety of scientific experiments. The mission—the first of its kind—has been 10 years in the making. If successful, it could reveal secrets about the anatomy of comets, the formation of our solar system and perhaps even the origins of life. “What we believe is that we will study the most primitive material in the solar system,” says Dr. Gerhard Schwehm, who served as Rosetta’s mission manager at the ESA from 2011 until his retirement earlier this year.

Comets are considered the bones of the ancient solar system. Their long, elliptical orbits mean they spend most of their time in the deep freeze of space, far from the sun, which preserves their original composition. And their small mass means very weak gravity, which in turn means low gravitational pressure and heating—something else that messes with internal chemistry on larger bodies.

Rosetta’s target comet, Churyumov-Gerasimenko, known as 67P, resembles nothing so much as a 2.5-mile long (4 km) unshelled peanut, albeit one tearing through space at 11 miles per second (39,600 mph, or 63,730 k/h). It hails from a region called the Kuiper Belt, a band of icy bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit. Unlike asteroids, comets contain a great deal of ice. As they approach the sun, some of that ice vaporizes into a cloudy atmosphere called a coma. When charged particles called solar wind hit the comet, the gas streams away, forming a blue ion tail.

A photo illustration of the Rosetta probe and Philae lander above the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet. ESA/Getty Images

In the past three months, Rosetta has has been flying along beside 67P, taking numerous measurements of its chemistry, including the composition of its singularly unpleasant gasses. Gorgeous from a distance, the comet emits copious amounts of both ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which means that if you could smell it (and be thankful you can’t) you’d get a nose full of rotten eggs, horse stable and formaldehyde.

But the real fun and the real risk will start on when Rosetta releases its probe—dubbed Philae—to attempt its historic landing. The vehicles will separate at a distance of about 14 miles (22.5 km) above the comet. A 14-mi. plunge to the surface of the Earth would be over very quickly, but with 67P’s gentle gravity, Philae’s fall will take 7 hours. Once it makes contact with the comet’s surface, a thruster on its top will ignite for one minute to keep it from bouncing away, while two harpoons will anchor it to the ground.

Philae carries 10 scientific research tools to study the surface and interior of the comet, including a camera, a thermometer, and seismographs in its feet to listen to the cracks and pops within the core as the comet out-gasses. It also carries a drill to collect and analyze sub-surface samples. Even the harpoons have a research purpose, using sensors to detect the resistance of the ground they penetrate. All of this data may offer clues for the conditions—temperatures, pressures and other variables—in which the comet’s dust was originally formed.

“It shows the evolution of the universe,” says Schwehm.

And perhaps the evolution of biology too. It’s possible that water and the life-forming molecules within it arrived via comets that smashed into Earth billions of years ago. If there are commonalities between our oceans and the icy stuff on the comet—namely, organic compounds such as nucleic acids and amino acids—we can, as Schwehm says, “put pieces of the puzzle together.”

Throughout its stay on 67P, Philae will remain in constant contact with Rosetta, which will relay its transmissions the 317 million mi. (510 million km) back home, a journey that even at light speed takes 30 minutes. When they are on opposite sides of 67P, the two probes will transmit radio waves to each other through the body of the comet itself to study its internal structure.

Philae’s stay on 67P will be a short one. Once it is in place, a 64-hour countdown begins before the probe’s on-board battery runs down. Solar panels covering nearly every surface of Philae’s body can provide some juice, but the weak sunlight that bathes the probe at such great solar distances cannot keep it running in even a low-power mode for more than a few weeks.

That seems an awfully small payoff for the 10 years it took the spacecraft to arrive—a spiraling trip that included three fly-bys of Earth and one of Mars to pick up speed thanks to the planets’ gravity. But Rosetta has a longer life ahead of it after Philae dies, escorting 67P around the sun and observing its rate of water loss, surface temperatures, and the way its shape changes as it loses mass. It will keep that job up as long as it can, before accompanying the tiny world back to the distant solar system, and breaking contact with Earth forever.

TIME astronomy

A Fireball Was Seen Streaking Across the Texas Sky on Saturday Night

The flash was bright enough to be picked up by a NASA camera over 500 miles away

A fireball described as being brighter than the moon was seen streaking across the sky in Texas Saturday night.

The American Meteor Society says more than 200 residents reported seeing a very bright and fleeting flash at around 8.45pm, CNN reports.

Dr. Bill Cooke heads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office and said the fireball was a meteor.

“This was definitely what we call a fireball, which by definition is a meteor brighter than the planet Venus,” he said.

The meteor, Cooke estimates, was over four feet wide, weighed about 4,000 pounds and was a dazzling five times brighter than the moon.

“This event was so bright that it was picked up on a NASA meteor camera in the mountains of New Mexico over 500 miles away, which makes it extremely unusual,” he said.

Read more at CNN

TIME astronomy

Rogue Stars Are Everywhere You Look

A recent study found that as many as half the stars in the entire universe live outside galaxies

Astronomy 101 tells us that galaxies are massive collections of stars, gas and dust—”island universes,” early 20th-century stargazers used to call them–glowing with the light of hundreds of billions of stars, surrounded by darkness. Sure, the occasional star manages to escape the gravitational bonds of its galactic home, but that’s a rare event.

That’s what astronomers thought, anyway. But two new discoveries have made it startlingly clear that stellar liberation isn’t even remotely uncommon. Last week, a paper in the Astrophysical Journal reported that as many as 200 billion stars are roaming free in a cluster of galaxies known as Abell 2744 some four billion light-years from Earth.

But that pales next to a study just published in Science. An international team of astronomers has found that as many as half the stars in the entire universe live outside galaxies. “It is remarkable that such a major component of the universe could be hiding in plain sight,” writes S.H. Moseley, of the Laboratory for Observational Cosmology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in an accompanying commentary.

“Remarkable” is probably the understatement of the year. But in fact, those billions of quintillions of orphan stars really have been visible all along—in a sense, anyway. Astronomers have had evidence for at least a half a decade, thanks to the Spitzer Space Telescope, that the cosmos is suffused with a faint glow of infrared light whose sources are too faint to identify. Some of it presumably comes from the very first galaxies that lit up after the Big Bang, too small to see individually but producing an overall haze of infrared light.

But that’s just a presumption, and, says James Bock, an astronomer at Caltech and a co-author of the paper, “I was kind of skeptical about the the Spitzer results anyway.” so a group of astronomers led by Caltech’s Michael Zemcov, at Caltech, decided to find out what’s actually going on. They couldn’t make their observations from the ground because the atmosphere itself glows with infraed light. “It’s pretty horrible,” says team member and co-author James Bock, also at Caltech. “So we need to get above the atmosphere—but not for a long time.”

So they sent their instruments up on a sounding rocket, which shot up to about 200 miles in altitude, then parachuted back down. Their goal was not to find the sources of infrared light directly, but rather to see how the intensity of the light varied across a relatively wide swath of sky.

It turned out to vary significantly, with brighter patches spanning 20 times the area of the full Moon. “They’re associated with clusters of galaxies,” Bock says, “but we calculated how much infrared light could be coming from the clusters themselves, and it wasn’t enough.”

Instead, they concluded, it must be coming from stars completely outside the galactic clusters, flung into intergalactic space as galaxies collided, their clashing gravitational fields whipping stars in all directions. The same process presumably send stars flying around within Abell 2744, the cluster described in last week’s announcement—but on a much vaster scale.

The discovery of huge numbers of stars nobody knew about doesn’t necessarily alter our overall view of the cosmos. It doesn’t refute the existence dark matter, or of dark energy, or the Big Bang itself. But it does give astronomers a whole new collection of objects to think about. “If you want to understand the global process of star formation,” says Bock, “you can’t just look at galaxies.” If you do, he says, “you’ll miss all the action.”

TIME Vintage Science and Tech

Edwin Hubble: A Classic Portrait of a Genius at Work

Revisiting a 1937 photograph of the astronomer Edwin Hubble -- arguably the single greatest photo ever made of a scientist at work

Today he is remembered mainly because of a modern marvel, the Hubble Space Telescope, that bears his name. But in the first quarter of the 20th century, the handsome, self-mythologizing and brilliant astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble was famous for what he discovered while peering through an earlier, land-based telescope: namely, that we are not alone. Or rather, that our galaxy is not alone. In fact, ours is one of literally billions of galaxies — an exhilarating and humbling reality that had long been debated but, until Hubble, was never decisively shown.

Like Einstein’s theory of relativity (the validity of which Hubble’s discovery helped bolster), Edwin Hubble’s astonishing revelation — officially delivered as a paper at the Jan. 1, 1925, meeting of the American Astronomical Society — fundamentally altered the way we see the universe, and our place in it. Some people reacted to Hubble’s research with dismay, feeling that such a finding reduced centuries of human striving to near-irrelevancy.

After all, in the face of a cosmos as vast and mutable as that described by Hubble, even the highest aspirations and accomplishments seem somehow pointless. Vain. Puny.

Others, meanwhile, celebrated the ramifications of Hubble’s work and his genius: if a man — albeit one firmly standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before — could envision and then, though rigorous work and discipline, prove that our universe is comprised of not only billions of stars but billions of galaxies, then what sort of other discoveries might lie in wait?

If a single human mind could encompass such a radical view of the cosmos, what other marvels could the human mind and the human imagination achieve?

Here, on Hubble’s 125th birthday (b. Nov. 20, 1889), LIFE.com considers his legacy as seen through the lens of a photograph made in 1937 by Margaret Bourke-White. In the picture — arguably the single greatest photo ever made of a scientist at work — Hubble sits at the controls of the 100-inch Hooker telescope in California, the very same mind-bendingly powerful (and beautiful) device through which he gazed for years on end before shocking the world with his pronouncement of January 1925.

As LIFE wrote in the Nov. 8, 1937 issue of the magazine, in which Bourke-White’s picture first appeared:

On top of Mt. Wilson, 70 miles east of Los Angeles, works a group of patient men who think in terms of decades and whose calculations are made in terms of millions of light years. They are the astronomers in charge of the 100-inch telescope which in the last 20 years has gradually rolled back the frontiers of the universe. Night after night and for hours on end they sit . . . taking photographs of distant stars. To them, the earth is an infinitely small cog in an immense clock. Hence they live in an atmosphere pleasantly devoid of the petty realities of life.

Whether or not any scientist, no matter how accomplished, has ever truly been able to “live in an atmosphere pleasantly devoid of the petty realities of life” is obviously open for debate. But in Bourke-White’s remarkable portrait of Hubble, we witness a man so at ease and in sync with the massive machine before him that he seems almost to be a part of it — or rather, it is part of him: an extension not of his corporeal body, but of his imagination, and his will.

Alone, riveted, tirelessly tracking and mapping the heavens, Hubble is in his element. The “petty realities” fade; the universe expands; human knowledge advances.

That a single picture made more than three-quarters of a century ago can capture all of that, in an instant, says as much about the heart-stopping adventures of our greatest scientists as it does about both the talent of our greatest photographers, and the deep, enduring appeal of photography itself.

[MORE: ‘The Best of LIFE: 37 Years in Pictures’]

TIME space

New Mesmerizing Image of a Young Star

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri
This is the sharpest image ever taken by ALMA ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

The detail in the image is far greater than anything even the Hubble could achieve

If someone had been around to see it, this is what our Solar System probably looked like when it was only a million years old (for the record, it’s nearly 4.6 billion now, and counting). This image was taken by the giant ALMA telescope, located in the high desert of northern Chile, which sees in radio wavelengths. The detail here is far greater than anything even the Hubble could achieve.

The glowing disk is dust and gas whirling around the young star, known as HL Tauri, located about 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. The dark gaps are almost certainly places where the gravity of newly forming planets has swept the dust clean — exactly as Earth, Mars and the other planets in our mature Solar System did long ago. It’s a strong clue that our theories of how planets form are very much on the right track.

TIME space

See the Spookiest Space Photos This Halloween

Nebulae that look like witches, zombie stars, and spectral clouds of star dust

TIME space

Watch Highlights From This Week’s Solar Eclipse

Watch highlights from the solar eclipse over North America

Much of North America saw a partial solar eclipse Thursday afternoon, barring obstructive rainclouds.

If you weren’t outside, watch the moon cover part of the sun here at TIME.com.

The sun’s dance with the moon was live-streamed from the Slooh Community Observatory beginning at 5 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. PT, hosted by meteorologist Geoff Fox with expert astronomer Bob Berman.

While the next partial solar eclipse is expected on Aug. 21, 2017, there won’t be another one visible across the entire country until 2023.

Read next: Watch the Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse in One GIF

TIME space

What’s Cooler Than One Comet? A Storm of Them

Nifty alright. Now imagine 500 of these babies.
Nifty alright. Now imagine 500 of these babies. Art Montes De Oca; Getty Images

A stunning sighting around a nearby star offers a glimpse of our own solar system billions of years ago

With some 2,000 planets now known to orbit stars beyond the Sun and thousands more in the can waiting for confirmation, the once-exotic term “exoplanet” is so commonplace it requires no definition for many people. The term “exocomet,” by contrast, is a bit more obscure. Astronomers have known for years that comets orbit other stars—in particular, the relatively nearby star β Pictoris, which lies about 63 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Pictor.

But a new paper in Nature is more than a little mindblowing nevertheless. A team of astronomers is reporting the detection of nearly 500 individual comets that passed in front of β Pictoris between 2003 and 2011. And that’s not even remotely a complete sample. “We had only a couple of nights of observing time per year,” says lead author Flavien Kiefer, now at the University of Tel Aviv. “If we’d been looking constantly, we would have seen many thousands.”

There are a lot of reasons all of this seems slightly crazy. To start with, there’s the notion that you can see something as relatively tiny as a comet from nearly 300 trillion miles away. And in fact, you can’t. But when comets approach the heat of a star, some of their substance boils off to form an enormous cloud of gas and dust, and sometimes a tail as well. And when that cloud moves in front of the star, it distorts the starlight in ways you can see with sufficiently powerful instruments.

In this case, the scientists used the High-Accuracy Radial-Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), located at the European Southern Observatory, in Chile. As the name implies, it was designed to find planets—and it has. HARPS does so by looking for subtle changes in starlight created as the star wobbles in response to an orbiting planet’s gravitational tug. The distortions caused by an intervening comet are different, but HARPS can find those too.

The technique isn’t easy, says Aki Roberge, an astronomer with NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, in Maryland who has studied β Pictoris as well, and who wrote a commentary in Nature on the new results, but it clearly works. “We always knew this would be a powerful technique,” she says, “They’ve done a really amazing job.”

The sheer number of comets also seems unlikely at first, until you realize that β Pictoris is extremely young—about 22 million years old compared with the Sun’s 4.6 billion. If we could see our own Solar System at that age, it wouldn’t look all that much different: a thick disk of gas and dust surrounding the central star, with planets just assembling themselves out of chunks of rock and ice. In fact, β Pictoris has at least one young planet already, but there’s still an awful lot of debris flying around.

And that’s what makes this discovery so important, not just as a technical tour de force, but also scientifically. “We can now begin to study a newly forming solar system in detail,” says Kiefer, “and perhaps get an understanding of how our own Solar System was born.”

It probably won’t be the last chance to do so, either. Roberge has her eye on a star called 49 Ceti, which she says is very similar to β Pic in many ways. Kiefer, meanwhile, is conducting preliminary surveys of no fewer than 30 promising stars. With powerful instruments like HARPS on the case, the word “exocomet” could become a lot more familiar before long.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser