TIME space

Odds For Life on Mars Tick Up—a Little

High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water
High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water NASA/JPL

New findings about both methane and water boost the chances for biology

September of 2013 was a bad time for those who hope there’s life on Mars. We’ve had evidence for decades that water flowed freely across the surface of the Red Planet billions of years ago, and that evidence has only gotten stronger and stronger the closer we look. Not only was there potentially life-giving water back then: Mars also had the right kind of geology to support mineral-eating microbes. And while all of that was in the distant past, the detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere by Earth-based telescopes and Mars orbiters raised hopes that bacteria might still be thriving below the surface—not unreasonable, both because all manner of Earthly critters do perfectly well below-ground and because the vast majority of methane in our own atmosphere results from biological activity. Mars’s methane might come from a similar source.

But when the Curiosity rover sniffed the Martian air directly last year, it smelled…nothing. At most, there were just three parts per billion (ppb) of methane wafting around, and possibly much less than that. “We kind of thought we’d closed that chapter,” says Christopher Webster of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the instrument that did the sniffing. “A lot of people were very disappointed.”

Not any more, though. Just weeks after that dismal reading, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) picked up a whiff of methane at a concentration of 5.5 parts per billion. “It took us by surprise,” says Webster, and over the next two months, he says, “every time we looked there was methane. Indeed, the concentrations even rose, to an average of 7.2 ppb over that period, he and his colleagues report in a new paper in Science.

And then, six weeks later, the methane was gone, and hasn’t been sniffed since. “It’s a fascinating episodic increase,” Webster says.

What he and his colleagues can’t say is where the methane is coming from. Because it’s transient, they think it’s probably from a fairly local source. But whether it’s biological or geological in origin, they don’t know. It’s wise to be cautious, however, says Christopher Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton. “Hopes for biology on Mars have had a way of disappearing once Martian chemistry has been better understood. But figuring out what’s responsible for the methane is clearly a key astrobiological objective—whatever the answer turns out to be.”

That’s not the only important Mars-related paper in Science this week, either. Another, also based on Curiosity observations, concerns Mars’s long-lost surface water, and one of the most important points is that there’s a lot more of it left than most people realize—”enough,” says Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Paul Mahaffy, lead author of the paper, “to cover the surface to a depth of 50 meters [about 165 ft].” That doesn’t mean it’s accessible: it’s nearly all locked up in ice at the planet’s poles, but some is also entrained in the clay Curiosity dug into when it was prowling the Yellowknife Bay area of Gale Crater.

Some of that water, says Mahaffy, is tightly chemically bound to the clay and is not a big player in Mars’s modern environment. Some is not quite so locked down and has been interacting with the tenuous Martian atmosphere for the past three billion years. The hydrogen in Martian water, as in Earthly water, may contain both a single proton and a single electron, or a proton and electron plus a neutron—so-called heavy hydrogen, or deuterium. As the Martian atmosphere has thinned over the eons, the ratio of hydrogen to deuterium in the water has gradually been dropping, as the lighter version escapes more easily into space. Since the modern water is twice as rich in deuterium as the water from billions of years ago, that suggests that there was about twice as much surface water in total at the earlier time, but its hydrogen residue has vanished.

“That’s a fair bit of water,” says Mahaffy, “but it’s a lower limit. There could be much more beneath the surface today that we haven’t seen. It was a really interesting time. There were a lot of aqueous processes going on, and a lot of flowing water.”

Where there is (or was) water, there could be (or could have been) life. For Mars enthusiasts, that’s why December of 2014 is a lot better than September of 2013.

TIME Aging

Study Finds Those Who Feel Younger Might Actually Live Longer

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A new study shows people who feel younger than their actual age live longer

People who feel three or more years younger than they actually are had lower death rates compared to people who felt their age or older, according to a recent study.

Two University College London researchers studied data collected from 6,489 men and women whose average age was 65.8. On average, people in the study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, felt closer to 56.8. Among the participants, 69.6% said their self-perceived age was three or more years younger than their chronological age, 25.6% said they felt their age or close to it, and only 4.8% felt older than they actually were.

When the researchers compared the self-perceived ages to death rates, they found that rates were lower among those who felt younger, compared to participants who felt their age or older.

Of course unrelated factors like disabilities and overall health played a role, but when the researchers adjusted for those factors, they still noted a 41% greater mortality risk for the people who said they felt old.

What’s driving this apparent phenomenon needs further assessment, but the authors suggested that people who feel younger may have greater resilience and will to live. “Self-perceived age has the potential to change, so interventions may be possible,” the authors write. “Individuals who feel older than their actual age could be targeted with health messages promoting positive health behaviors and attitudes toward aging,” the study concluded.

TIME movies

What Is It About Gone With the Wind That Still Enchants Us?

LIFE Gone with the Wind - Front Cover

Read the introduction to LIFE's book Gone With the Wind: The Great American Movie 75 Years Later, excerpted here

Scarlett O’Hara famously vowed she would lie, steal, cheat or kill to survive. And just like its heroine, Gone with the Wind has shown remarkable resilience. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the film remains a fixture in popular culture. Its iconic status is more secure than ever, thanks to television, DVDs, parodies and revivals that roll around as regularly as national holidays. Just as amazingly, Margaret Mitchell’s 1,037-page novel has been in print since it became a best-seller in 1936, its life extended by a prequel, a sequel—and, of course, the movie.

The story of a small corner of the South in the 19th century, a war movie with no battle scenes, revolving around a heroine of questionable morals, has proved uncannily adept at crossing barriers of geography and time. The poster of Scarlett and Rhett posed against the flaming sky is as instantly recognizable in China or Ethiopia or France as the American flag. The movie is still the biggest blockbuster in history with ticket prices adjusted for inflation. And if it doesn’t have quite the must-see thrill it once did, if many of its transgressions appear fairly innocuous today, others are as fresh and controversial as they were in 1939.

Politically incorrect and racially retrograde, GWTW has offended so many sensibilities that the overture should be preceded by a trigger alert: Beware! This is history written by the losers. The Yankees are irredeemable villains; the slaves too happy in their subjugation to yearn for freedom. The marital rape, in which Rhett forces himself on Scarlett and—horrors!—she enjoys it, can still raise the blood pressure of feminists. But the allure of Gone with the Wind is more powerful, fed by fantasies that run roughshod over ideology.

I came to it as a Southern teenager in the ’50s, when the book was a sort of underground bible. We consumed it under covers with a flashlight, much as Margaret Mitchell read the romance novels her bluestocking mother deplored. The movie, ideally cast, preserved all the disreputable qualities of its heroine, the delicious ambiguities of good boy and bad boy in her two lovers. As with the book, we embraced the movie in a state of critical and political innocence. Max Steiner’s sweeping score is nothing if not relentless, yet who can hear the first few chords of Tara’s theme without experiencing a frisson?

There is a reason so many studios turned the property down. The book was too long, its legion of admirers too passionate. They would detect any alteration, would brook no compromise. And who could play the crucial and near-impossible role of Scarlett? A known movie star would bring too much baggage, an unknown wouldn’t have the chops. The budget would be prohibitive. Only producer David O. Selznick had both the ego and cultural pretensions to even attempt it, and he passed many an insomniac, pill-fueled night as the $4.25 million production went through five directors, 15 screenwriters, firings and rewritings, not to mention finding the leading lady only after shooting had begun. In the end, what should have been one of the great disasters was a triumph, not just a blockbuster and winner of 10 Academy Awards, but a showcase of a kind of filmmaking that we would seldom see again. Yet the irony can’t have escaped spectators: The New World’s most democratic medium had given us the portrait of an aristocratic past whose seductiveness depended on the denial of unpleasant truths.

The scapegrace daughter of a high-minded suffragette, Margaret “Peggy” Mitchell was a tomboy truant, then a flapper who acted up at parties while her mother marched for the vote and attended to the sick. From this dividedness comes Scarlett, an unresolved amalgam of the high-spirited party girl, thumbing her nose at proprieties, and the lost girl, longing for the love of a disapproving mother.

Officially she would have nothing to do with Selznick’s film, thus providing herself with deniability should her fellow Atlantans be outraged by the movie’s vulgarities. In her letters, she took a line of baffled innocence. The book had “precious little obscenity in it,” she wrote disingenuously to a correspondent, “no adultery and not a single degenerate, and I couldn’t imagine a publisher being silly enough to buy it.”

Macmillan bought it, of course. With very little effort on the publisher’s part, Gone with the Wind sold 1 million copies in the first six months, then (with a great deal of effort on the part of Selznick et al.) it became an Oscar-winning movie, all with its degeneracy intact. I’m thinking of such no-no’s as a house of prostitution patronized by Rhett Butler and other Atlanta notables; the marital rape; a near rape in Shantytown (Scarlett is attacked by a black man in the book, saved by one—Big Sam—in the movie); adultery of the soul if not of the body between Scarlett and Ashley; and a farewell punctured by a four-letter word not allowed on the heavily censored movie screens of the time. The offenses against gentility include a harrowing childbirth and, against virtue and Hollywood conventions, a heroine of unprecedented selfishness who lies and cheats her way through Reconstruction, stealing her sister’s man in the process. Mitchell’s way of rationalizing her she-devil protagonist was to maintain that Melanie was the heroine, not Scarlett. Or was meant to be.

But we teenagers knew forbidden fruit when we tasted it. In the uptight, prefeminist ’50s Scarlett was a slap in the face to all the rules of white-gloved ladylike behavior in which we were steeped, a beacon (however tarnished) of female wiliness and defiance. She looked marriage and adulthood square in the face—a life on the sidelines, matronly chaperones in dowdy clothes—and would have none of it. Proudly adolescent, a rebuke to grown-up hypocrisy and conformity, she’s the opening salvo in the teenage revolution, pioneer of a new demographic that would become official with rebel James Dean.

Naturally, the first American readers and audiences saw GWTW as a fable of the Depression, when men were laid off and women were compelled to find ways to survive. Later it would inevitably echo the reality of the Second World War, with men fighting abroad and women going to work for the first time. Perhaps more surprising is the way the movie has enraptured hearts and minds around the world. From postwar France, left-wing cine clubs in Greece and prisons in Ethiopia, there have come stories of people who are by no means sympathetic to slave-owning Dixie, but who nevertheless identify with the South and see it as a mirror of their own travails. Maybe it’s because GWTW is not about bravery on the battlefield but the courage of resistance, of holding it together, of coming through in the clutch—in other words, gumption, Margaret Mitchell’s favorite word. The Darwinian struggle is between, as Ashley says, “people who have brains and courage . . . and the ones who haven’t.”

This confusion of good and evil, of winners and losers, is embedded in the very marrow of Gone with the Wind, as it is in the idealized vision of the South so long cherished by the former Confederacy. Margaret Mitchell spent hours as a child on her grandmother’s porch, listening to relatives tell war stories. She claimed not to have realized until she was 10 years old that the South had lost the war. And so it is that in the face of unacceptable defeat, she gives spiritual victory to her characters. If Scarlett is the motor, Yankee-like in her drive, the impractical, ungreedy Ashley embodies the South’s moral ascendancy. Audiences, as well as characters in the movie, tend to cut Scarlett a surprising amount of slack, rationalize her selfishness as necessary (and very American) expediency. GWTW is full of such questionable fudgings and South-justifying sentimentalities, and its reception, never unmixed, has been plagued by stories that haunt us. Butterfly McQueen could never escape the role, or voice, of Prissy. And though Hattie McDaniel would end up winning the Oscar for playing Mammy, she couldn’t attend the premiere in segregated Atlanta.

Still, it’s important to give Mitchell and Selznick the benefit of context—different time, different rules; and they were more progressive than many around them. As a Jewish man, Selznick understood persecution and didn’t want to go to his grave with the racist legacy of D.W. Griffith. He listened to advisers and blacks on the set, and dropped the word n-gger (used in the book by blacks in reference to one another). Mitchell was a product of the Jim Crow South, but wound up funding education for blacks at considerable risk to herself.

The film, with all its complications and controversies, with all its success, proved as much a burden for its authors as a joy. Margaret Mitchell was overwhelmed by attention and ailments and died at age 48. Selznick, too, suffered from the stress, and Vivien Leigh, the third obsessive of the trio, gave so much of her unstable self to the incandescent Scarlett that she displayed symptoms of burnout the rest of her life.

You are about to embark on a fascinating journey into the heart of an American epic—some would say the American epic. As you read the juicy stories about the making of the movie and the making of Mitchell, you may find, as I did, that the film remains a testament to the manic dedication of Selznick, Mitchell and Leigh . . . and to a fourth partner, the viewers, who have made the film—intensely—their own.

LIFE’s book Gone With the Wind: The Great American Movie 75 Years Later is available here.

See photos from the Gone With the Wind set here, and from the making of the movie here

TIME psychology

How to Live a Long Happy Life — 8 Insights Backed by Research

Smiling cereal
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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Japan

Japanese Space Explorer to Blow Crater in Asteroid

Japan Space Exploration
An H2-A rocket carrying space explorer Hayabusa2 lifts off from a launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima, southern Japan, on Dec. 3, 2014 AP Photo/Kyodo News

The explorer will hide behind the asteroid during the blast and will then try to collect material from inside the crater

(TOKYO) — A Japanese space explorer took off Wednesday on a six-year journey to blow a crater in a remote asteroid and bring back rock samples in hopes of gathering clues to the origin of earth.

The explorer, named Hayabusa2, is expected to reach the asteroid in mid-2018, spend about 18 months studying it and return in late 2020.

A small device will separate from the explorer and shoot a projectile to blast open a crater a few meters (several feet) in diameter. The explorer, which will hide behind the asteroid during the blast, will then try to collect material from inside the crater.

Asteroids can provide evidence not available on earth about the birth of the solar system and its evolution. JAXA, Japan’s space agency, said the research could help explain the origin of seawater and how the planet earth was formed.

Hayabusa2 will attempt to expand on the work of Hayabusa, a previous explorer that returned in 2010 after collecting material from the surface of another asteroid. By reaching inside an asteroid this time, the new explorer may recover material that is not as weathered by the space environment and heat.

The earlier mission was plagued by mechanical failures and other problems. JAXA hopes improvements since then will make this trip smoother.

“The mission was completed one way or another, but we stumbled along the way,” said Akitaka Kishi from JAXA’s lunar and planetary exploration program. “To travel there and bring back something is extremely difficult.”

Hayabusa2, which was launched from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, is a rectangular unit with two sets of solar panels sticking out from its sides. The main unit measures 1 x 1.6 x 1.4 meters (3.3 x 5.2 x 4.6 feet) and weighs about 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds).


Life Lessons from a Seventy-Something

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Whatever you're thinking you'd like to do someday — start now

Answer by Dee Dees on Quora.

By the time people reach their 70s, they’re beginning to look back at the plans they made and dreams they had that never materialized. We always think we’ll achieve a goal when we finish school, or after we’re married, or after the kids are grown, or after we retire, and then one day we look up — and all those things have happened and we still haven’t realized our dreams.

That being said, the first thing I’d tell young people is “Start now.” Whatever you’re thinking you’d like to do someday — start now. If you want to backpack through Europe, do the research, get a passport, save the money. Take steps that will commit you to follow through. Plan it with a friend. Pay a deposit. You might want to start small by doing a one-week hike in Ireland. Plan something bigger for the next year.

I realize sometimes there are commitments to other people that hold us back from doing what we want. If you’re already married, holding a 9-5 job, parenting kids, you need to work around those responsibilities without leaving yourself in the dust. I’m not advocating being selfish, but I’m encouraging you to do what you can when you can.

It’s been said that at the end of life we regret the things we didn’t do more than those we did do. Be responsible in life, but always look for ways to have fun, enrich your life, and have no regrets.

The second thing I’d advise would be to start early planning for retirement. When you’re 20 or 30, retirement seems very far off, and you think you can start saving “later.” The sooner you start some kind of plan, whether savings, an IRA, or other, the more you will be able to enjoy life in your later years, and the less you will need to worry about how you’ll survive after the paychecks end.

This question originally appeared on Quora: What are some life lessons people in their 70s can share with the younger generations?

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

TIME psychology

How Do We Find Meaning in Life?

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Human beings certainly gravitate to religion and it seems we all have an tendency to believe in some sort of karma. Your mind may require meaning. Studies show it’s one of the key factors underlying happiness and motivation.

So what is meaning in life and what does research say about how we might be able to find it?


Studies have shown that stories are key to some of the most fundamental parts of our lives: increasing happiness, group solidarity and meaning in life.

Some research indicates that to have meaning in your life you must have a story. You need to reflect on how things could have been and why they turned out the way they did. Seeing that things had a direction and a purpose provides meaning.

  • Looking back on our lives necessitates a narrative so it’s not surprise that nostalgia increases feelings of meaning in life.

Fundamentally, our brains may not be able to tell the difference between the real and the story.

But stories also distort the world. People who watch lots of TV are less accurate judges of reality. Fiction makes makes our perspective less accurate.

What’s even more interesting is the truth may not matter. Feeling that you know yourself creates a strong sense of meaning in life —whether or not you actually know yourself doesn’t make a difference.

That may seem depressing but it also means that you can craft the stories in your life to build meaning and fulfillment.

Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, has talked about how the process of “story-editing” can help us improve our lives:

The idea is that if we want to change people’s behaviors, we need to try to get inside their heads and understand how they see the world—the stories and narratives they tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do.

So how can you decide what is really meaningful?

Your own regrets and the most common regrets of the dying might lead you in the right direction.

How can you shape the story?

Thinking about your funeral (morbid as it may sound) can help you envision the story you would like told about your life.

How do you make the story part of your life?

Be the story you tell yourself.

Again, Timothy Wilson:

…the “do good, be good” method. It capitalizes on the tried-and-true psychological principle that our attitudes and beliefs often follow from our behaviors, rather than precede them. As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people. Well-designed studies have shown that teen girls who participate in community service programs do better in school and are less likely to become pregnant.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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

TIME Living

When Life Hacks Go Too Far

Kristin van Ogtrop was named Managing Editor of Real Simple magazine in 2003.

We all love a great efficiency hack, but for the important things, short cuts are a waste of time

Who doesn’t love a good life hack? Whether you’re storing Christmas ornaments (hack: use empty egg cartons), opening clamshell packaging (it’s easy with a can opener) or organizing plastic grocery bags (stuff them into an empty paper-towel roll), somewhere there’s a shortcut or trick you can use to make your life easier and prove your cleverness to yourself and the rest of the YouTube-viewing world.

Our life-hacking obsession has grown from a passive enjoyment of the TV show MacGyver to an entire, very active industry with websites and books and apps galore. At this moment, someone somewhere is hacking something, and I don’t mean in the cloud where all your data is securely (ha!) stored. I mean that in an average kitchen or bathroom or basement or garage, some enterprising citizen of this glorious nation is proving her resourcefulness, saving money and flaunting her ingenuity like there’s no tomorrow. If MacGyver could see her, he’d weep with joy.

So life hacks are great, right? Right! Until they’re not. Just ask bacon. Bacon was perfect until the past decade, when some foodie marketer decided it should be trendy and our enthusiasm for it overtook all rational thought. And then manufacturers began to add bacon to beer and toothpaste and condoms and vodka, and suddenly there was chocolate bacon cheesecake, which I actually paid cold hard cash for last month, and when I took one bite, I thought, O.K., that’s it, we’re all going to hell. Bacon, poor bacon, is proof that if you love something you must set it free–that is, before you add it to chocolate cheesecake.

And so it is with life hacks, because now software engineers are trying to convince us that everything is hackable. To wit: next month a Silicon Valley investor/marketing dude named Dave Asprey is publishing a book called The Bulletproof Diet: Lose Up to a Pound a Day, Reclaim Energy and Focus, Upgrade Your Life, in which he describes “hacking his biology.”

You may know Asprey from his Bulletproof Coffee or from his blog, which exhorts us all to “Search. Discover. Dominate.” (First step: skip breakfast in favor of a bizarre, sludgy cup of strong coffee mixed with grass-fed, unsalted butter and Brain Octane™ oil, which you can conveniently buy, along with the coffee, at bulletproofexec.com.) Anyway, Asprey claims he lost 100 lb. and gained 20 IQ points with his Bulletproof Diet, and now he wants the rest of us to hack our biology and follow his excellent example. All I have to say is that if gaining 20 IQ points requires drinking coffee with butter in it, I’d rather be dumb.

I have no doubt that Asprey is quite smart, and certainly he’s an excellent marketer (think Timothy Ferriss meets Tony Robbins), but let’s take a lesson from the ruination of bacon. Just because you can add bacon to chocolate cheesecake doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And there are things in life that, even if they can be hacked, shouldn’t be.

For example, you should not hurry your lacrosse-obsessed 7-year-old son’s long, digressive, boring plot summary of the movie Crooked Arrows, as much as you’re dying to check your email. He sees that phone in your hand and is really hoping you don’t look at it. Never mind that you have watched Crooked Arrows with him at least four times and could yourself recite the plot even while under general anesthesia. Don’t hack your interest in your child’s interest. Bad parenting, bad karma.

You should not hack a conversation with your teenager about drugs, drunk driving, unprotected sex or crazy people on the Internet.

Don’t hack the conversation you have with your parents about what life was like for them when they were your age. (Or their estate planning, medical history and DNR orders. Just saying; you’ll want to give these items full consideration.)

Don’t hack taking a walk with your arthritic 11-year-old Labrador, whose time on this planet is coming to a close. Speaking from experience here.

Don’t try to hack bulb planting, pruning perennials, plucking your eyebrows, making a cake from scratch, sewing on a button, composing an email to your boss or writing a speech that you must deliver at a wedding, retirement party, graduation or funeral. For all these activities, there is no way insufficient effort will produce optimal results. Or to put it in engineering terms, “garbage in, garbage out.”

Which brings us back to today’s hackathon. Although I have no interest in hacking my biology, there’s one thing Asprey and I agree on. You can hack breakfast. But I would not do it by drinking coffee with butter and Brain Octane™ oil. I would hack breakfast with a piece of avocado toast. Yes, avocado toast has taken the nation by storm. And when we see avocado toast in a box of chocolate cheesecake–well, then we’ll know we’ve gone too far.

Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple and author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom

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

TIME psychology

The Secret to Telling if Your Life is on Track

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Sir Ray Avery, entrepreneur and author of Rebel With A Cause, says it’s as easy as counting your days.

“When you’re born, you’re born with 30,000 days. That’s it. The best strategic planning I can give to you is to think about that.”

He’s 65. So he’s “got about 5,625 days to live.” Then he just works backward to plan.

Via Techcrunch (HT: 99U):

“For me, I can reverse engineer my life to achieve much more than you guys. Every day I do a chart on what I’ve achieved and where I want to be. And it makes you scary-as-shit clever,” Avery said. “So think about that. You’ve got 30,000 days and the clock is ticking.”

Mind-blowingly simple yet it makes so much sense.

9 minutes in to his famous Stanford commencement speech Steve Jobs discussed the importance he placed on thinking about death during life:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

And scientists agree he’s on to something. Thinking about death really does help us prioritize and be better people.

Candy Chang gave an inspirational TED talk about a project that asked people to finish the sentence: “Before I die I want to…”


I’d love to write more but I’ve got less than 20,000 days left. So much to do…

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME space

The Great Lakes—a Billion Miles From Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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