On Wednesday night, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shared an altered video of a press briefing with Donald Trump, in which CNN reporter Jim Acosta's hand makes brief contact with the arm of a White House Intern. The clip is of low quality and edited to dramatize the original footage; it's presented out of context, without sound, at slow speed with a close-crop zoom, and contains additional frames that appear to emphasize Acosta's contact with the intern.

And yet, in spite of the clip's dubious provenance, the White House decided to not only share the video but cite it as grounds for revoking Acosta's press pass. "[We will] never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern," Sanders said. But the consensus, among anyone inclined to look closely, has been clear: The events described in Sanders' tweet simply did not happen.

This is just the latest example of misinformation roiling our media ecosystem. The fact that it continues to not only crop up but spread—at times faster and more widely than legitimate, factual news—is enough to make anyone wonder: How on Earth do people fall for this schlock?

To put it bluntly, they might not be thinking hard enough. The technical term for this is "reduced engagement of open-minded and analytical thinking." David Rand—a behavioral scientist at MIT who studies fake news on social media, who falls for it, and why—has another name for it: "It's just mental laziness," he says.

Misinformation researchers have proposed two competing hypotheses for why people fall for fake news on social media. The popular assumption—supported by research on apathy over climate change and the denial of its existence—is that people are blinded by partisanship, and will leverage their critical-thinking skills to ram the square pegs of misinformation into the round holes of their particular ideologies. According to this theory, fake news doesn't so much evade critical thinking as weaponize it, preying on partiality to produce a feedback loop in which people become worse and worse at detecting misinformation.

The other hypothesis is that reasoning and critical thinking are, in fact, what enable people to distinguish truth from falsehood, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. (If this sounds less like a hypothesis and more like the definitions of reasoning and critical thinking, that's because they are.)

Several of Rand's recent experiments support theory number two. In a pair of studies published this year in the journal Cognition, he and his research partner, University of Regina psychologist Gordon Pennycook, tested people on the Cognitive Reflection Test, a measure of analytical reasoning that poses seemingly straightforward questions with non-intuitive answers, like: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? They found that high scorers were less likely to perceive blatantly false headlines as accurate, and more likely to distinguish them from truthful ones, than those who performed poorly.

Another study, published on the preprint platform SSRN, found that asking people to rank the trustworthiness of news publishers (an idea Facebook briefly entertained, earlier this year) might actually decrease the level of misinformation circulating on social media. The researchers found that, despite partisan differences in trust, the crowdsourced ratings did "an excellent job" distinguishing between reputable and non-reputable sources.

"That was surprising," says Rand. Like a lot of people, he originally assumed the idea of crowdsourcing media trustworthiness was a "really terrible idea." His results not only indicated otherwise, they also showed, among other things, "that more cognitively sophisticated people are better at differentiating low- vs high-quality [news] sources." (And because you are probably now wondering: When I ask Rand whether most people fancy themselves cognitively sophisticated, he says the answer is yes, and also that "they will, in general, not be." The Lake Wobegon Effect: It's real!)

His most recent study, which was just published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, finds that belief in fake news is associated not only with reduced analytical thinking, but also—go figure—delusionality, dogmatism, and religious fundamentalism.

All of which suggests susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than by partisan bias. Which on one hand sounds—let's be honest—pretty bad. But it also implies that getting people to be more discerning isn't a lost cause. Changing people's ideologies, which are closely bound to their sense of identity and self, is notoriously difficult. Getting people to think more critically about what they're reading could be a lot easier, by comparison.

Then again, maybe not. "I think social media makes it particularly hard, because a lot of the features of social media are designed to encourage non-rational thinking." Rand says. Anyone who has sat and stared vacantly at their phone while thumb-thumb-thumbing to refresh their Twitter feed, or closed out of Instagram only to re-open it reflexively, has experienced firsthand what it means to browse in such a brain-dead, ouroboric state. Default settings like push notifications, autoplaying videos, algorithmic news feeds—they all cater to humans' inclination to consume things passively instead of actively, to be swept up by momentum rather than resist it. This isn't baseless philosophizing; most folks just tend not to use social media to engage critically with whatever news, video, or sound bite is flying past. As one recent study shows, most people browse Twitter and Facebook to unwind and defrag—hardly the mindset you want to adopt when engaging in cognitively demanding tasks.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Platforms could use visual cues that call to mind the mere concept of truth in the minds of their users—a badge or symbol that evokes what Rand calls an "accuracy stance." He says he has experiments in the works that investigate whether nudging people to think about the concept of accuracy can make them more discerning about what they believe and share. In the meantime, he suggests confronting fake news espoused by other people not necessarily by lambasting it as fake, but by casually bringing up the notion of truthfulness in a non-political context. You know: just planting the seed.

It won't be enough to turn the tide of misinformation. But if our susceptibility to fake news really does boil down to intellectual laziness, it could make for a good start. A dearth of critical thought might seem like a dire state of affairs, but Rand sees it as cause for optimism. "It makes me hopeful," he says, "that moving the country back in the direction of some more common ground isn’t a totally lost cause."

On November 8, an unimaginably fierce firestorm broke out in Northern California. Fed by dry vegetation, and fanned by northeasterly winds pouring off the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it rapidly descended on the community of Paradise, home to nearly 30,000 people.

Scott McLean, deputy chief of Cal Fire, was among the rescuers, driving through town and frantically trying to get people out. “I just left the hospital, heading up into the mess again,” he told WIRED Friday evening. “And out of the smoke comes this little old lady with a little puppy in a wheelchair just scooting down the road. These people didn't have ways to get out. So I picked her up, put her in my truck, and took her back to the hospital.”

Virtually nothing is left of Paradise—the tally is almost 19,000 structures destroyed. That makes the Camp Fire by far the most destructive wildfire in California history. It is also by far the state’s deadliest, with a death toll of at least 88 and hundreds still missing.

Something’s gone awry in California. Fires aren’t supposed to destroy entire cities—at least not since San Francisco burned in 1906. Fire codes, better fire-resistant materials, fancier firefighting equipment, and water-spewing aircraft have made it easier to put out flames. Yet in the last year, California has seen seven of its 20 most destructive wildfires ever. The Camp Fire comes just a year after the second most destructive blaze, the Tubbs Fire, struck the city of Santa Rosa in the wine country, leveling 5,500 structures and killing 22.


The WIRED Guide to Climate Change

“How could this happen?” says Stephen Pyne, a fire researcher at Arizona State University. “How did this come back? I mean, this is what we saw in the 19th century.”

You can find much of the “how” in the clash of two long-term trends, climate change and population growth. The fires aren’t going away, but likely neither are the people. So how do you keep 40 million people and counting from suffering the same fates as the residents of Paradise? And how do you protect $2.6 trillion in property?

“At some point, you don't know what to say,” adds Pyne. “It's like mass shootings; we're just sort of numbed by it and we don't seem to be able to respond.”

But respond California must.

How We Got Here

Climate change didn’t invent wildfires, but according to the data, it’s making them worse. This is largely a problem of timing. Normally by this time of the year, California has at least a little bit of rain, which helps rehydrate parched vegetation. With global warming, though, the state is in a severe drying trend in the autumn, as you can see in the graphic below.

The fast, hot winds that blow in from the east this time of year are further desiccating the vegetation, providing ample fuel for what became the Camp Fire, as well as the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. These conflagrations spew embers that fly for miles ahead, creating a multitude of new fires, which firefighters simply can’t handle.

The fires are encroaching on sprawling development in California—or, more accurately, the development is encroaching on the fires. “I think of fire as a driverless car,” says Pyne. “It's just barreling down the road integrating everything around it. It's a reaction—it takes its character from its context.”

Controlling fire, then, means changing its character by tweaking our cities and communities. Fire codes emerged as a reaction to the need to control urban development. Plain wooden shingle roofs are a no-no, for instance. Properties are subject to rules about creating defensible spaces—for example, clearing out dead plants and grass. In 2005, a new California law bumped the required clearance from 30 to 100 feet.

But fire codes only go so far. “One of the weaknesses is that it's really difficult to actually enforce that,” says Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of Idaho. “The enforcement falls on the local municipal agencies and fire departments, and oftentimes they simply don't have the resources.”

Then there are California’s struggles with fire suppression. Not letting trees burn can actually lead to bigger blazes. “There's really good scientific evidence that the tree density in the Sierra Nevada right now is much higher than it was in the pre-European settlement period,” according to Kolden. “That's very much a product of 100 years of fire suppression.”

Forests packed with more fuel than is natural also creates more conflagrations, across millions of acres of wildlands where crews should be reducing fuel loads. “You don't have a lot of resources to do that, because so much of your funding now goes to simply fighting fires year round,” she adds. “That fuel simply remains there, and will remain there until it finally burns.”

One solution is prescribed burning, a measure that California hasn't quite embraced. So far this year, the state has done around 55,000 acres of prescribed burning. The southeastern US churned through 5.5 million acres last year—100 times more. And the Southeast as a region is only about five times bigger than California.

“When you look at the southeastern US, it's not a place where we think of as having a lot of wildfires, and they really don't,” says Kolden. “That's because the southeastern US does an enormous amount of prescribed fire because their vegetation grows back so quickly.”

California’s densely packed wilderness has another thing going against it: power lines. Indeed, the prime suspect of the Camp Fire is the local utility, PG&E, which reported an electrical incident at the conflagration’s origin just before crews spotted the blaze. The utility may be to blame for last year’s Tubbs Fire as well. The question then becomes: Why on Earth are we not burying power lines?

The reason is lots of metamorphic rock—very dense stuff that forms in high pressure and high heat conditions. It’s not easy to drill through. “It becomes prohibitively expensive to bury lines and still be able to provide access to those lines,” notes Kolden. Utilities can bury them where there’s dirt, sure, but it’s still going to be very expensive.

Fire Is a People Problem

Yes, California needs to get better about fuel management. At their core, though, wildfires are a people problem. Fires in the state typically have raged either in the wilderness or in cities. Which is why we have wildland firefighters, who are lightly outfitted, as well as urban firefighters, who wear much heavier protections to enter burning buildings.

They’re also trained in radically different ways. “Structural city firefighters are really focused on saving people, and they understand a lot of the chemistry and physics of burning buildings,” says Kolden. Wildland firefighters, on the other hand, know how fire behaves in forests.

But now that wildfires are moving into populated areas, both groups are being marshaled to fight blazes where they’re not accustomed to fighting. The issue now is whether to train firefighters to handle both scenarios, or better assign resources to make sure each group fights where they're most comfortable. Kolden believes that the latter is the safer option.

Then there’s the matter of training everyone else living in California—building with better materials, clearing out defensible spaces. Let's take the town of Montecito as a model for how to bolster a community against wildfire.

A few years back, Kolden helped put together a worst-case scenario model that projected a fire driven by 60-mph winds could destroy 400 to 500 homes in Montecito, a superwealthy community on the Southern California coast. Last year, that conflagration came in the form of the Thomas Fire. But Montecito had been readying itself for decades.

“They really focused on defensible space around homes, particularly the homes that were closest up against the wildland areas,” she says. “They focused a lot on doing brush removal along their road system.” In addition, they made a mountain of information available to firefighters who might come from out of town to help battle a blaze. Basically: This is how we’ve prepared.

When the Thomas Fire hit, Montecito couldn’t rely on aircraft to drop water, but seven homes were lost—not 500. . “To me it was a model,” explains Kolden. “This community has figured out what works for them. And the homeowners 100 percent bought into it, and they're all working together to make the community resilient to fire.” To be clear, what works for a coastal enclave like Montecito might not work for a forest town like Paradise. Each community is unique, and will need its own unique solution.

Sadly, a month after it broke out, the Thomas Fire took its true toll on Montecito: Heavy rains triggered mudslides on burned-out land, killing 21 people in the area.

Still, Montecito had a solid fire evacuation plan in place, in stark contrast to what happened in Paradise. The Mercury News reports that the evacuation was absolute chaos. Many residents are saying they received no warning at all from authorities, and only made it out because they either spotted the flames or a neighbor came for them.

According to the Los Angeles Times, authorities didn't issue the first evacuation order until the fire had already reached Paradise, 90 minutes after the fire was first spotted at its origin east of town at about 6:30 am. Even then, they reportedly didn't initiate a full-scale evacuation—fearing a repeat of a 2008 fire evacuation, in which roads became clogged. The full-scale evacuation order didn't land until more than an hour after that, at 9:17 am.

By then, the Camp Fire was burning Paradise. Residents fleeing at the last minute crammed the few escape routes. Some abandoned their vehicles to escape on foot. Not everyone could. Paradise is a retirement community; its elderly need time and sometimes special arrangements to clear out of their homes, let alone get out of town.

“It's what I feared,” says Thomas Cova, who studies wildfire evacuations at the University of Utah. “It looks like we're repeating history again from the Tubbs Fire last year.” During that disaster, authorities opted not to send an alert, fearing they’d cause alarm and hamper emergency efforts. That fire claimed 22 lives.

McLean, of Cal Fire, says that his organization immediately notified the Butte County Sheriff’s Department when they spotted the blaze. The sheriff is then in charge of sending out an alert. “We have a warning failure of really epic proportions,” says Cova.

A particularly powerful tool is the Amber Alert system, but Paradise residents say they didn’t receive any warning through it. (The mayor of Paradise says the town did have an evacuation plan that was practiced in 2016.)

As Montecito proved last year, it doesn’t have to be this way. “We know enough to stop this,” says Pyne. “We knew enough decades ago.”

Fueled by climate change and fierce winds and dry vegetation, fires will keep licking at places like Paradise. The future of cities will depend on how serious they get about fuel management and building codes—and in case that fails, evacuation procedures. To that end, in September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that bolsters wildfire prevention efforts.

California will have to spend billions upon billions to fix this problem, but that’s a tiny investment compared with what it stands to lose.

The Parker Solar Probe just earned the title of the fastest-moving manmade object. Launched by NASA this past August, this robotic spacecraft is currently very, very near the Sun, on its way to probe the outer corona of our local star.

OK, I know you have questions. Let me just jump right into it.

How fast is it going?

According to NASA, its current speed is 153,545 mph (or 68.6 kilometers per second). But really, that just means super fast. It's nearly impossible to imagine something that fast when the fastest man-made stuff on Earth is perhaps a rail gun projectile at about 2.52 km/s. That means the Parker Solar Probe is traveling at a speed that is 27 times faster that the fastest thing we've got down here. Zoom fast.

What does this have to do with the speed of light?

Of course, light is even faster. Light has a speed of about 3 x 108 m/s (300,000 km/s). But why does that matter? You can't get an object up to (or greater than) the speed of light. Why? Let's start with an example. Suppose I have a force of 1 Newton and I push on an object at rest with a mass of 1 kg for 1 second (I'm using easy numbers). The momentum principle says that the momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Also, the force applied to an object tells us the rate of change of momentum. This means a 1 Newton force for 1 second gives a CHANGE in momentum of 1 kg*m/s (the change part is important).

This mostly works for super high speeds. The momentum principle still works as long as you use a better definition of momentum. It should look like this (in one dimension).

In this expression, the p is momentum (don't ask why) and the c represents the speed of light. Notice that as the velocity gets closer to the speed of light, you get a much smaller increase in speed for the same force. In fact, if the velocity was equal to the speed of light you would be dividing by zero—which is generally a bad thing.

Just to be clear, there aren't two models for momentum. You can always use the more complicated version of momentum. Try this: Calculate the momentum of a baseball with a mass of 0.142 kg and a speed of 35 m/s. First do this with the simple formula of mass times velocity and you get 497 kg*m/s. Now try it with the more complicated formula. Guess what? You get the same thing. I recommend using the simple formula whenever possible.

Just how fast is the Parker Solar Probe going compared to the speed of light? If you divide the probe's speed by the speed of light you get 0.00023. Actually, we can write this as 0.00023c (where c is the speed of light). It's fast, but it's not light-speed fast.

Why is this speed relative to the Sun?

You will probably see something about the speed of the Parker Solar Probe labeled as the heliocentric velocity. What's the deal with that?

On Earth, this is rarely an issue. If you are driving your car at 55 mph, everyone understands that we are measuring this velocity with respect to the stationary ground. In fact, velocities only really make sense when measured relative to some reference frame. On the Earth, the obvious reference frame is the ground.

What if you didn't want to use the Earth's surface as a reference frame? Imagine a police officer pulling you over in your car and saying "oh hello, I clocked you at 67,055 mph." That could indeed be true since the Earth isn't stationary. In order to orbit the Sun, it has to travel with a speed of 67,000 mph to make it all the way around the Sun in one year. Yes, that's fast (with respect to the Sun).

If you wanted to measure the speed of the Parker Solar Probe with respect to the Earth, you would have a tough time because you wouldn't just have one value. As the probe moves closer to the Sun, the probe and the Earth can be moving in different directions. So even though the speed relative to the Sun could stay constant, its speed relative to the Earth would change since the Earth is turning in its orbit around the Sun.

If you really want to get crazy, you could use some other reference frame—like the galactic center. But let's not get crazy.

How does the probe break its own speed record?

The probe will go even faster than it is already traveling. NASA projects a slightly faster speed as it gets closer to the Sun in 2024. But why does it get faster when it is closer to the Sun?

There are two key ideas here. The first is the gravitational force. This is an attractive force between the Sun and the probe. The magnitude of this force increases as the distance between them decreases. Oh, don't worry—you can't notice an increase in gravitational force as you move closer to the ground. Even if you moved a vertical distance of 1000 meters, this is insignificant compared to the size of the Earth with a radius of 6.37 million meters.

The other part of the problem is circular motion. Imagine the space probe traveling in a circular orbit (which isn't actually true). In order for an object to move in a circle, there needs to be a force pulling it towards the center of the circle. The magnitude of this sideways force is proportional to the square of the object's velocity, but inversely proportional to the radius of the circle. Putting the gravitational force and the required circular force together, I get the following expression for the orbital velocity.

In this expression, Ms is the mass of the Sun and G is the gravitational constant. But the main point is that the velocity increases as the radius decreases. It's just physics.


If you want some fun physics homework questions, I have you covered. Here you go.

  • Calculate the kinetic energy of the Parker Solar Probe at its current velocity (with respect to the Sun). Yes, you need to look up or estimate the mass of the probe.
  • Suppose you were going to get the probe up to speed by having a human on a stationary bike connected to a generator. The human can produce 50 Watts for as long as you like (maybe it's two humans who take turns). How long would it take to get the probe up to its current speed?
  • The probe has been in space for about 3 months (let's go with 3 months). Suppose that the probe was traveling at a constant speed this whole time (use its current velocity). Create a plot of speed vs. time as measured relative to the Earth. Remember, in 3 months the Earth changes direction.
  • How many candy bars would the probe need to "eat" to get to its current speed. Yes, I'm assuming the probe eats. This might be useful too.

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When a blue-hulled cargo ship named Venta Maersk became the first container vessel to navigate a major Arctic sea route this month, it offered a glimpse of what the warming region might become: a maritime highway, with vessels lumbering between Asia and Europe through once-frozen seas.

Years of melting ice have made it easier for ships to ply these frigid waters. That’s a boon for the shipping industry but a threat to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Nearly all ships run on fossil fuels, and many use heavy fuel oil, which spews black soot when burned and turns seas into a toxic goopy mess when spilled. Few international rules are in place to protect the Arctic’s environment from these ships, though a proposal to ban heavy fuel oil from the region is gaining support.

“For a long time, we weren’t looking at the Arctic as a viable option for a shortcut for Asia-to-Europe, or Asia-to-North America traffic, but that’s really changed, even over the last couple of years,” says Bryan Comer, a senior researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation’s marine program. “It’s just increasingly concerning.”

Venta Maersk departed from South Korea in late August packed with frozen fish, chilled produce, and electronics. Days later, it sailed through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia, before cruising along Russia’s north coast. At one point, a nuclear icebreaker escorted Venta Maersk through a frozen Russian strait, then the container vessel continued to the Norwegian Sea. It’s expected to arrive in St. Petersburg later this month.

The trial voyage wouldn’t have been possible until recently. The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, with sea ice, snow cover, glaciers, and permafrost all diminishing dramatically over recent decades. In the past, only powerful nuclear-powered icebreakers could forge through Arctic seas; these days, even commercial ships can navigate the region from roughly July to October—albeit sometimes with the help of skilled pilots and icebreaker escorts.

Russian tankers already carry liquefied natural gas to Western Europe and Asia. General cargo vessels move Chinese wind turbine parts and Canadian coal. Cruise liners take tourists to see surreal ice formations and polar bears in the Arctic summer. Around 2,100 cargo ships operated in Arctic waters in 2015, according to Comer’s group.

“Because of climate change, because of the melting of sea ice, these ships can operate for longer periods of time in the Arctic,” says Scott Stephenson, an assistant geography professor at the University of Connecticut, “and the shipping season is already longer than it used to be.” A study he co-authored found that, by 2060, ships with reinforced hulls could operate in the Arctic for nine months in the year.

Stephenson says that the Venta Maersk’s voyage doesn’t mean that an onrush of container ships will soon be clogging the Arctic seas, given the remaining risks and costs needed to operate in the region. “It’s a new, proof-of-concept test case,” he says.

Maersk, based in Copenhagen, says the goal is to collect data and “gain operational experience in a new area and to test vessel systems,” representatives from the company wrote in an email. The ship didn’t burn standard heavy fuel oil, but a type of high-grade, ultra-low-sulfur fuel. “We are taking all measures to ensure that this trial is done with the highest considerations for the sensitive environment in the region.”

Sian Prior, lead advisor to the HFO-Free Arctic Campaign, says that the best way to avoid fouling the Arctic is to ditch fossil fuels entirely and install electric systems with, say, battery storage or hydrogen fuel cells. Since those technologies aren’t yet commercially viable for ocean-going ships, the next option is to run ships on liquefied natural gas. The easiest alternative, however, is to switch to a lighter “marine distillate oil,” which Maersk says is “on par with” the fuel it’s using.

But many ships still run on cheaper heavy fuel oil, made from the residues of petroleum refining. In 2015, the sludgy fuel accounted for 57 percent of total fuel consumption in the Arctic, and was responsible for 68 percent of ships’ black carbon emissions, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Black carbon wreaks havoc on the climate, even though it usually makes up a small share of total emissions. The small dark particles absorb the sun’s heat and directly warm the atmosphere. Within a few days, the particles fall back down to earth, darkening the snow and hindering the snow’s ability to reflect the sun’s radiation—resulting in more warming.

When spilled, heavy fuel oil emulsifies on the water’s surface or sinks to the seafloor, unlike lighter fuels which disperse and evaporate. Clean-up can take decades in remote waters, as was the case when the Exxon Valdez crude oil tanker slammed into an Alaskan reef in 1989.

“It’s dirtier when you burn it, the options to clean it up are limited, and the length it’s likely to persist in the environment is longer,” Prior says.

In April, the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. body that regulates the shipping industry, began laying the groundwork to ban ships from using or carrying heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. Given the lengthy rulemaking process, any policy won’t likely take effect before 2021, Prior says.

One of the biggest hurdles will be securing Russia’s approval. Most ships operating in the Arctic fly Russian flags, and the country’s leaders plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in coming years to beef up polar shipping activity along the Northern Sea Route. China also wants to build a “Polar Silk Road” and redirect its cargo ships along the Russian route.

Such ambitions hinge on a melting Arctic and rising global temperatures. If the warming Arctic eventually does offer a cheaper highway for moving goods around the world, Comer says, “then we need to start making sure that policies are in place.”

Way, way out at the cold, dark edges of the solar system—past the rocky inner planets, beyond the gas giants, a billion miles more remote than Pluto—drifts a tiny frozen world so mysterious, scientists still aren't entirely sure if it's one world or two.

Astronomers call it Ultima Thule, an old cartography term meaning "beyond the known world." Its name is a reference to its location in the Kuiper Belt, the unexplored "third zone" of our solar system populated by millions of small, icy bodies.

Numerous though they are, no Kuiper Belt object has ever been seen up close. NASA's two Voyager probes—which traversed the third zone decades ago—might have spied a glimpse of one had they been equipped with the right instruments, except that the Kuiper Belt hadn't even been detected yet. On New Years Eve, for the first time, NASA will get a chance at some facetime with one of these enigmatic space rocks.

At 9:33 pm PST, 33 minutes past midnight on the East Coast, the agency's New Horizons probe will make a close pass of Ultima Thule, making it the most distant object ever to be visited by a spacecraft.

Astronomers have almost no idea what awaits them. “What’s it going to look like? No one knows. What’s it going to be made of? No one knows. Does it have rings? Moons? Does it have an atmosphere? Nobody knows. But in a few days we’re going to open that present, look in the box, and find out,” says Alan Stern, the mission's primary investigator.

New Horizons has traveled for 13 years and across 4 billion miles to reach this point, and the probe looks to be in fine shape: Mission planners confirmed earlier this month that it will pass within 2,200 miles of Ultima Thule after determining that large objects, like moons, and smaller ones, like dust, were unlikely to pose a threat to the spacecraft as it blazed past in excess of 31,000 miles per hour. ("When you're traveling that fast, hitting something even the size of a grain of rice could destroy the spacecraft," says Hal Weaver, the mission's project scientist.)

New Horizons' trajectory will carry it three times closer to Ultima Thule than it did Pluto, which it shot past in the summer of 2015. The photos New Horizons beamed back then were the most detailed ever captured not just of the former planet, but the outer solar system. Because of its proximity, the images the probe collects of Ultima Thule will be more detailed still, and from a billion miles deeper in space. "Pluto blew our doors off," Stern says, "but now we're heading for something much more wild and woolly."

Stern and his team discovered the object in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope, while searching the sky for places New Horizons could visit after its brief encounter with Pluto. In those first images, Ultima was just a glob of pixels that shifted every few minutes against a backdrop of unmoving stars.

In more recent images, captured by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, the object still appears as little more than a speck in a sea of much brighter specks. "When you search for it, it looks like stars puked all over the imagery," says planetary scientist Amanda Zangari, who spent most of December collecting Ultima Thule's position and brightness measurements. "To even see the darn thing, you need to stack multiple images, account for the distortion between them, and subtract the stars." At 1/100th the diameter of Pluto, and 1/10,000th its brightness, Ultima Thule makes for a more elusive quarry than the erstwhile planet.

Through their observations, the team has determined that Thule (whose official designation is 2014 MU69) is either two separate objects orbiting one another at close range, or a pair of bodies that gravitated toward each other til they merged, forming the two lobes of something astronomers call a contact binary. Either way, the data suggests Ultima is no more than 20 miles in diameter, dark as reddish dirt, and well within range of New Horizons' fuel supply.

It is also, in all likelihood, very, very old. Which is precisely why astronomers are so excited to study it up close.

Kuiper Belt objects like Ultima Thule are thought to be remnants of the solar system's formation—the cosmic refuse that remained after the planets came into being some 4.6 billion years ago. That makes them an enticing destination for astronomers: Many of those objects aren't just ancient, they're also, astronomers think, perfectly preserved by temperatures approaching absolute zero. (So far removed is Ultima Thule from the sun's warming rays, that our parent star would appear to an observer on its surface about the size that Jupiter does from here on Earth). NASA's plan to visit one, map its features, study its makeup, detect its atmosphere (if one exists), and search it for satellites and rings is more than a flyby mission. It's an archaeological expedition of cosmic scale and consequence.

New Horizons will investigate Ultima with the same suite of instruments it used to study the Pluto system back in 2015. A trio of optical devices will capture images of the object in color and black-and-white, map its composition and topography, and search for gasses emanating from its surface. Two spectrometers will also search for charged particles in Ultima Thule's environs; a radio-science instrument will measure its surface temperature; and a dust counter will detect flecks of interplanetary debris. Fully loaded, the piano-sized probe weighs a hair over 1,000 pounds and requires less power than a pair of 100-watt light bulbs to operate its equipment.

After its New Years Eve flyby, New Horizons will continue on its path out of the Kuiper Belt. But the third zone is vast. Even traveling at nearly nine miles per second, it'll take the spacecraft a decade to traverse it and enter interstellar space. Stern and his colleagues will use that time to search for yet another target—one even further from the sun than Ultima Thule, and shrouded, perhaps, in still more mystery. It's a tantalizing prospect for the New Horizons team. "To visit a place you know nothing about," Weaver says. "That's exploration at its finest."

Learn More About the New Horizons Mission

  • In 2015, New Horizons zipped past Pluto, giving astronomers their closest look yet at the erstwhile planet and its moons.
  • NASA's probe traveled some 3 billion miles to reach Pluto. It's traveled another billion, still, to reach Ultima Thule.
  • How does New Horizons beam all its observations back to Earth, when it's so far away? Very slowly.

Related Video


Mission to Pluto: The Story Behind the Historic Trip

It’s taken nine years to get there, but on July 14, 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft will finally fly by its destination: Pluto. Find out how the historic mission to Pluto happened from the people who helped launch it.

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

You probably didn’t give much thought to how exactly you loaded this webpage. Maybe you clicked a link from Twitter or Facebook and presto, this article popped up on your screen. The internet seems magical and intangible sometimes. But the reality is, you rely on physical, concrete objects—like giant data centers and miles of underground cables—to stay connected.

All that infrastructure is at risk of being submerged. In just 15 years, roughly 4,000 miles of fiber-optic cables in US coastal cities could go underwater, potentially causing internet outages.

That’s the big finding from a new, peer-reviewed study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon. To figure out how rising seas could affect the internet’s physical structures, researchers compared a map of internet infrastructure to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s predictions for sea-level rise near US coasts.

In New York City, about 20 percent of fibers distributed throughout the city are predicted to flood within 15 years—along with 32 percent of the fibers that connect the metropolis to other cities and 43 data centers. The research suggests that Seattle and Miami are especially vulnerable, along with many coastal areas.

“All of this equipment is meant to be weather-resistant—but it’s not waterproof,” says Paul Barford, UW-Madison professor of computer science and a coauthor of the paper. Much of the system was put into place in the ’90s without much consideration of climate change, he says.

On top of that, much of the internet’s physical infrastructure is aging. Paul Barford says a lot of it was designed to last only a few decades and is now nearing the end of its lifespan.

That is, if the floods don’t get to it first. While 15 years may seem shockingly soon, we’re already seeing more high tide flooding, points out Carol Barford (married to the aforementioned Paul), a coauthor on the paper and director of UW-Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. We’re seeing outages related to extreme weather, too: Hurricane Irma, for example, left over a million people without internet access.

It’s hard to predict exactly what would happen inland when coastal infrastructure floods—but the internet is an interconnected system, so damage in one place could affect others. For those inland, it’s possible that coastal flooding could cause a total internet connection outage, or issues in connecting to particular web pages and services.

Still, there’s a lot of research to be done. “We need to better understand the scope of the problem to create good solutions,” says Ramakrishnan Durairajan, a University of Oregon assistant professor of computer and information sciences and the paper’s lead author. Further studies could examine the effects of increased extreme weather on the system, he says, as well as ways to better engineer web traffic in the face of floods or other climate-induced disasters.

The takeaway, Carol Barford says: “If we want to be able to function like we expect every day, we’re going to have to spend money and make allowances and plans to accommodate what’s coming.”

Related Video


King Tides Show Us How Climate Change Will Threaten Coastal Cities

Seawall-topping king tides occur when extra-high tides line up with other meteorological anomalies. In the past they were a novelty or a nuisance. Now they hint at the new normal, when sea level rise will render current coastlines obsolete.

Are Diplomas in Your DNA?

March 20, 2019 | Story | No Comments

Last week, scientists published the biggest-ever study of the genetic influence on educational attainment. By analyzing the DNA of 1.1 million people, the international team discovered more than a thousand genetic variants that accounted—in small part—for how far a person gets through school. It made a lot of people nervous, as they imagined how this new research could be applied in Gattaca-esque testing tools.

But those concerns aren’t new—and neither is the kind of research published last Monday. This sort of correlational work for educational attainment has been in progress since at least 2011. And there is already a consumer product on the market that draws from that early research.

Log onto the Helix DNA marketplace—it’s like the app store for consumer genetic products—and the candy-colored website invites you to “Get started with DNA.” Clicking through takes you to one of Helix’s featured products: the DNAPassport. It was developed by Denver-based HumanCode, which Helix acquired in June, and lets users explore where their ancestors come from, whether they might be sensitive to gluten or lactose, and more than 40 other genetically-influenced traits. One of them is something called “academic achievement.”

It’s based on a single genetic variant called rs11584700, near a gene called LRRN2 that codes for a protein involved in neuron signaling. And it was discovered by the same consortium that published the massive genetic analysis on Monday.

Social scientists’ first attempts at unearthing links between genes and people’s behaviors, in the mid-2000s, were plagued by small samples, weak methods, and unreproducible results. So to save the field from itself, a behavioral economist named Daniel Benjamin, at the University of Southern California, borrowed an idea from medical geneticists. He convinced research organizations from around the world to pool their data, giving them enough power to run something called a Genome-Wide Association Study, or GWAS. The first thing they looked at was how long people stay in school.

In 2011, Benjamin founded the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, along with David Cesarini and Philipp Koellinger. Their goal was to find a reliable measure of heritable influence on education attainment so that other researchers could control for genetics in their experiments, the same way they’d control for socioeconomic status or zip code. Since then, the SSGAC has uncovered more than 1,000 genetic variations associated with years of schooling. Benjamin’s team has gone out of its way to make it clear that each one exerts only a teeny tiny bit of influence—three additional weeks of education, max—and that even collectively, the variants are not powerful enough to predict an individual’s academic achievement.

But that’s not stopping companies from using their research to sell people insights into their degree-seeking behavior. Based on one of the consortium’s earlier papers, and a second one using data from the UK’s National Child Development Study, HumanCode added the academic achievement feature to its DNAPassport app last December. Users who’ve got a pair of G’s or an A and a G at that location will learn that those genotypes are “associated with slightly higher educational attainment in Europeans.” If your spit turns up an AA, well, no higher ed association for you.

“I’m not afraid to share that my own academic achievement SNP is not the desirable one,” says Chris Glodé, formerly the CEO of HumanCode, now a chief product officer at Helix, as he sends over a screenshot of his “Normal,” aka AA genotype. He says HumanCode made the decision to add the feature after seeing educational attainment show up on a number of third-party sites like GenePlaza, Genome Link, and Promethease. These are websites where people can go to upload the genetic data files they get from spit testing kits like 23andMe, Ancestry, and Helix, to further explore their DNA. “A lot of people are using these third-party services, so the idea that we’re going to prevent people from finding out this information for themselves seems not only unlikely, but also misaligned with our mission,” says Glodé. “The question then became, can we present this information responsibly?”

HumanCode sold DNAPassport on Helix’s marketplace even before the company was acquired. So its product has been subject to Helix’s scientific evaluation process since late 2017: The company requires that any variants used in a product are based on studies with more than 2,000 people whose results have been replicated. In the case of academic achievement, Helix also required that HumanCode list it with a disclaimer of sorts, called a LAB designation. “The research supporting the genetics underlying this trait require more work,” reads the site’s language. “Traits with the LAB designation may have limited scientific support from studies that are small/preliminary or lacking independent replication. Additionally, some traits with LAB designations have valid and replicated associations, but we want to learn more about how genetics influences the trait.”

About a quarter of DNAPassport’s traits fall under LAB designation. They’re all grouped together in the “Just for Fun” category of traits, “to reinforce that this information shouldn’t be used for making lifestyle decisions,” says Glodé. Sometimes, when new and better research comes out, traits get upgraded. If he were still the CEO of HumanCode and it was still an independent company, his team would probably update the academic achievement trait with the latest variants. But he says Helix has no plans to do that. Instead, it’s focused on encouraging developers to bring new products to its platform, including tests that might include educational attainment.

“Provided the context was appropriate, that a product was intended to be informational and educational, I think Helix would be open to it,” says Glodé. “But they would likely still require the results to presented the way we did in DNAPassport, providing additional qualifications that the research isn’t as well established as for traits like height and eye color.” And that the results don’t apply beyond people of European descent. Like the vast majority of genetic population studies, the SSGAC’s research cohort is overwhelmingly European, and the variants identified have little predictive power for non-European populations.

Benjamin—the SSGAC co-founder—says relying on his study’s genetic score to predict educational attainment for an individual would be inaccurate. Using just a single variant, even more so. “If companies want to do this I would be concerned that they’re accurately communicating the information,” says Benjamin. “It’s not just a matter of disclosing the limitations of the predictive power.” Along with other members of the consortium and its advisory board, Benjamin spent hundreds of hours writing a 27-page FAQ to accompany their paper, explicitly because of the potential for misinterpretation. He credits companies like 23andMe that use a rating system to communicate how confident users can be in the results.

While 23andMe has played a significant role in supporting research into the genetics of educational attainment—the company contributed deidentified data on 365,536 of its research-consented customers to the SSGAC’s latest study—it does not at this time offer a report for academic achievement. Nor does it have any educational attainment reports in the product pipeline, according to a company spokesperson.

Remember, no one knows exactly how these genes create a tendency toward degree-seeking behavior. They could influence how fast neurons fire, or they could make sitting at a hard wooden desk for eight hours not feel like torture. Maybe they remove the stigma of asking for extra time on tests or assignment extensions. Researchers will need to do a lot more work to figure out the why. But when they do, you can be sure someone will try to sell it to you.

Front and center for this week’s jaunt into space is one of the most interesting—and possibly habitable—moons of our solar system. As the largest moon of Saturn, Titan measures about 3,200 miles in diameter, bigger than our own moon (which is a little over 2,000 miles wide). It’s covered in a thick atmosphere of clouds and haze that likely condenses onto the surface—and there might be organic compounds within.

So let us have a look at Titan like we’ve never seen before, thanks to the Cassini spacecraft’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. Earlier views were hampered by variations in resolution and lighting that reduced the surface clarity. (Blame tiny particles in the moon’s atmosphere called aerosols for scattering visible light.) But now astronomers are now able to peer below the clouds of Titan in the infrared spectrum, along with combining 13 years of image data—the entire length of time that NASA’s Cassini was in orbit.

It gets better. Titan has lakes and rivers, but unlike the lakes and rivers on Earth that are filled with actual water, Titan’s are made up of liquid methane and ethane. Scientists are still studying the provenance of these liquids and how they remain stable. Here’s a hint: Titan’s surface is a stone-cold -290 degrees Fahrenheit.

So put on a Mylar sweater, bring some oxygen, and enjoy pioneering to Titan!

Once you’re done dipping into a dwarf planet and beholding a nebula, peruse Wired’s full collection of space photos here.

This story was originally published by The Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Greta Thunberg cut a frail and lonely figure when she started a school strike for the climate outside the Swedish parliament building last August. Her parents tried to dissuade her. Classmates declined to join. Passersby expressed pity and bemusement at the sight of the then unknown 15-year-old sitting on the cobblestones with a hand-painted banner.

Eight months on, the picture could not be more different. The pigtailed teenager is feted across the world as a model of determination, inspiration, and positive action. National presidents and corporate executives line up to be criticized by her, face to face. Her Skolstrejk för Klimatet (school strike for climate) banner has been translated into dozens of languages. And, most striking of all, the loner is now anything but alone.

On March 15, when she returns to the cobblestones (as she has done almost every Friday in rain, sun, ice and snow), it will be as a figurehead for a vast and growing movement. The global climate strike this Friday is gearing up to be one of the biggest environmental protests the world has ever seen. As it approaches, Thunberg is clearly excited.

“It’s amazing,” she says. “It’s more than 71 countries and more than 700 places, and counting. It’s increasing very much now, and that’s very, very fun.”

A year ago, this was unimaginable. Back then, Thunberg was a painfully introverted, slightly built nobody, waking at 6 am to prepare for school and heading back home at 3 pm. “Nothing really was happening in my life,” she recalls. “I have always been that girl in the back who doesn’t say anything. I thought I couldn’t make a difference because I was too small.”

She was never quite like the other kids. Her mother, Malena Ernman, is one of Sweden’s most celebrated opera singers. Her father, Svante Thunberg, is an actor and author (named after Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize–winning scientist who in 1896 first calculated how carbon dioxide emissions could lead to the greenhouse effect). Greta was exceptionally bright. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s.

“I overthink. Some people can just let things go, but I can’t, especially if there’s something that worries me or makes me sad. I remember when I was younger, and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears and so on. I cried through all the movies. My classmates were concerned when they watched the film, but when it stopped, they started thinking about other things. I couldn’t do that. Those pictures were stuck in my head.”

She has come to accept this as part of who she is—and made it a motivating force instead of a source of paralyzing depression, which it once was.

At about the age of 8, when she first learned about climate change, she was shocked that adults did not appear to be taking the issue seriously. It was not the only reason she became depressed a few years later, but it was a significant factor.

“I kept thinking about it, and I just wondered if I am going to have a future. And I kept that to myself because I’m not very much of a talker, and that wasn’t healthy. I became very depressed and stopped going to school. When I was home, my parents took care of me, and we started talking because we had nothing else to do. And then I told them about my worries and concerns about the climate crisis and the environment. And it felt good to just get that off my chest.

“They just told me everything will be all right. That didn’t help, of course, but it was good to talk. And then I kept on going, talking about this all the time and showing my parents pictures, graphs and films, articles and reports. And, after a while, they started listening to what I actually said. That’s when I kind of realized I could make a difference. And how I got out of that depression was that I thought: It is just a waste of time feeling this way because I can do so much good with my life. I am trying to do that still now.”


The WIRED Guide to Climate Change

Her parents were the guinea pigs. She discovered she had remarkable powers of persuasion, and her mother gave up flying, which had a severe impact on her career. Her father became a vegetarian. As well as feeling relieved by the transformation of their formerly quiet and morose daughter, they say they were persuaded by her reasoning. “Over the years, I ran out of arguments,” says her father. “She kept showing us documentaries, and we read books together. Before that, I really didn’t have a clue. I thought we had the climate issue sorted,” he says. “She changed us and now she is changing a great many other people. There was no hint of this in her childhood. It’s unbelievable. If this can happen, anything can happen.”

The climate strike was inspired by students in Parkland, Florida, who walked out of classes in protest against the US gun laws that enabled the massacre on their campus. Greta was part of a group that wanted to do something similar to raise awareness about climate change, but they couldn’t agree what. Last summer, after a record heat wave in northern Europe and forest fires that ravaged swathes of Swedish land up to the Arctic, Thunberg decided to go it alone. Day one was August 20, 2018.

“I painted the sign on a piece of wood and, for the flyers, wrote down some facts I thought everyone should know. And then I took my bike to the Parliament and just sat there,” she recalls. “The first day, I sat alone from about 8:30 am to 3 pm—the regular school day. And then on the second day, people started joining me. After that, there were people there all the time.”

She kept her promise to strike every day until the Swedish national elections. Afterward, she agreed to make a speech in front of thousands at a People’s Climate March rally. Her parents were reluctant. Knowing Thunberg had been so reticent that she had previously been diagnosed with selective mutism, they tried to talk her out of it. But the teenager was determined. “In some cases where I am really passionate, I will not change my mind,” she says. Despite her family’s concerns, she delivered the address in nearly flawless English and invited the crowd to film her on their mobile phones and spread the message through social media. “I cried,” says her proud dad.

People with selective mutism have a tendency to worry more than others. Thunberg has since weaponized this in meetings with political leaders and with billionaire entrepreneurs in Davos. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act,” she told them.

Such tongue-lashings have gone down well. Many politicians laud her candidness. In return, she listens to their claims that stronger climate policies are unrealistic unless the public make the issue more of a priority. She is unconvinced. “They are still not doing anything. So I don’t know really why they are supporting us, because we are criticizing them. It’s kind of weird.” She has also been withering about leaders in the US, UK, and Australia who either ignore the strikers or admonish them for skipping classes. “They are desperately trying to change the subject whenever the school strikes come up. They know they can’t win this fight because they haven’t done anything.”

Such blunt talk has found a broad audience among people jaded by empty promises and eager to find a climate leader willing to ramp up ambition. Thunberg’s rise coincides with growing scientific concern. A slew of recent reports has warned that oceans are heating and the poles melting faster than expected. Last year’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spelled out the dangers of surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. To have any chance of avoiding that outcome, it said, emissions must fall rapidly by 2030. That will require far more pressure on politicians—and nobody has proved more effective at that over the past eight months than Thunberg.

The girl who once slipped into despair is now a beacon of hope. One after another, veteran campaigners and grizzled scientists have described her as the best news for the climate movement in decades. She has been lauded at the UN, met French president Emmanuel Macron, shared a podium with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and has been endorsed by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

You may think this would put the weight of the world on the 16-year-old’s shoulders, but she claims to feel no pressure. If “people are so desperate for hope,” she says, that is not her or the other strikers’ responsibility.

“I don’t care if what I’m doing—what we’re doing—is hopeful. We need to do it anyway. Even if there’s no hope left and everything is hopeless, we must do what we can.”

In this regard, her family sees her singular focus as a blessing. She is someone who strips away social distractions and focuses with black-and-white clarity on the issues. “It’s nothing that I want to change about me,” she says. “It’s just who I am. If I had been just like everyone else and been social, then I would have just tried to start an organization. But I couldn’t do that. I’m not very good with people, so I did something myself instead.”

While she has little time for chitchat, she gets satisfaction from speaking to a big audience about climate change. Regardless of the size of the crowd, she says she does not feel the least bit nervous.

She seems incapable of the cognitive dissonance that allows other people to lament what is happening to the climate one minute, then tuck into a steak, buy a car, or fly off for a weekend break the next. Although Thunberg believes political action far outweighs individual changes to consumer habits, she lives her values. She is a vegan and only travels abroad by train.

At its best, this sharpness can slice through the Gordian knot of the climate debate. It can also sting. There are no comfortable reassurances in her speech, just a steady frankness. Asked whether she has become more optimistic because the climate issue has risen up the political agenda and politicians in the US and Europe are considering green New Deals that would ramp up the transition to renewable energy, her reply is brutally honest. “No, I am not more hopeful than when I started. The emissions are increasing, and that is the only thing that matters. I think that needs to be our focus. We cannot talk about anything else.”

Some people consider this a threat. A handful of fossil fuel lobbyists, politicians, and journalists have argued Thunberg is not what she seems—that she was propelled into prominence by environmental groups and sustainable-business interests. They say the entrepreneur who first tweeted about the climate strike, Ingmar Rentzhog, used Thunberg’s name to raise investment for his company, but her father says the connection was overblown. Greta, he says, initiated the strike before anyone in the family had heard of Rentzhog. As soon as she found he had used her name without her permission, she cut all links with the company and has since vowed never to be associated with commercial interests. Her family says she has never been paid for her activities. In a recent interview, Rentzhog defended his actions, denied exploiting Greta, and said that climate change, not profit, was his motive.

On social media, there have been other crude attacks on Thunberg’s reputation and appearance. Already familiar with bullying from school, she appears unfazed. “I expected when I started that if this is going to become big, then there will be a lot of hate,” she says. “It’s a positive sign. I think that must be because they see us as a threat. That means that something has changed in the debate, and we are making a difference.”

She intends to strike outside parliament every Friday until the Swedish government’s policies are in line with the Paris climate agreement. This has led to what she calls “strange contrasts”: balancing her math homework with her fight to save the planet; listening attentively to teachers and decrying the immaturity of world leaders; weighing up the existential threat of climate change alongside the agonizing choice of what subjects to study in high school.

It can be grueling. She still rises at 6 am to get ready for school. Interviews and writing speeches can leave her working 12- to 15-hour days. “Of course, it takes a lot of energy. I don’t have much spare time. But I just keep reminding myself why I am doing this, and then I just try to do as much as I can.” So far, this does not appear to have affected her academic performance. She keeps up with homework and is in the top five in her class, according to her father.

And now that she is active on climate change, she is no longer lonely, no longer silent, no longer so depressed. She is too busy trying to make a difference. And enjoying herself.

This Friday, when she takes her usual spot outside the Swedish Parliament, she will be joined by classmates and students from other schools. “It’s going to be very, very big internationally, with hundreds of thousands of children going to strike from school to say that we aren’t going to accept this anymore,” she says. “I think we are only seeing the beginning. I think that change is on the horizon and the people will stand up for their future.”

And then the activist slips back into being a teenager. “I’m looking forward to it and to see all the pictures the day afterwards. It’s going to be fun.”


Sean Parker, Napster cofounder


Alex Marson, biologist and infectious disease doctor at UC San Francisco

When Sean Parker was young, he cofounded Napster and changed the way we listen to music. In his twenties, he helped jump-start Facebook and changed the way we interact with each other. Now, at age 38, he’s set on changing something else: the way we treat disease. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which he founded in 2016, has dedicated $250 million toward using new technologies like Crispr to teach the human body to vanquish cancer. Alex Marson is a scientist building the tools to do just that. His research at UC San Francisco and the Parker Institute rejiggers the DNA of T cells—your immune system’s sentinels—to better recognize and attack malignant mutineers. Parker and Marson sat down to talk about Crispr, genome editing, and the most exciting coding language today: DNA. —Megan Molteni

Sean Parker: I first learned about the therapeutic potential of Crispr a few years ago, and back then it really only allowed us to remove a gene or prevent it from functioning. The ability to completely reprogram a cell’s functions seemed like an ambitious, distant possibility.

Alex Marson: Yeah, for the past few years we could only use Crispr to make cuts inside of cells and snip away portions of DNA. But now we have a paste function. We showed in a Nature paper in July that if we mix our Crispr components in just the right recipe, we can zap the T cells with a bit of electricity to send in the genome-editing machinery. Then we can make edits that are about 750 nucleotides long at multiple sites, which starts to give us enough flexibility and real estate to give cells dramatic new functions. We’re now able to paste in a new T cell receptor, which is designed to recognize an antigen found on some cancer cells, giving us T cells that attack only the cells that carry that signal.

Parker: This was total science fiction up until very recently! But because of your breakthrough, we can now get into the source code and fundamentally alter the capabilities of not just T cells but any cell type. When I first started reading wired in the 1990s, one of the big ideas was that nanotechnology was going to cure all diseases with little silicon-based robots circulating in our bloodstream. Twenty years later it turns out those tiny machines are actually cells taken from our own bodies, reprogrammed, and put back in.

Alex Marson

Path not taken:
Culinary school

Marson: You’re making me realize that what I’m really trying to do in the lab is create tools that make a more flexible programming system for the field more broadly. That’s what Crispr has the potential to offer: to make it easier to write new code in the language of genetics.

Parker: You know, the advice I would give young people today is not to go into computer science; a much more exciting place to be is the world of biology. It’s going through the same kind of transformation right now that occurred in information technology 20 years ago.

This article appears in the October issue. Subscribe now.

MORE FROM WIRED@25: 1998-2003

  • Editor's Letter: Tech has turned the world upside down. Who will shake up the next 25 years?
  • Opening essay by Kevin Kelly: How the internet gave all of us superpowers
  • Melinda Gates and Shivani Siroya: Giving (micro)credit
  • Peter Thiel and Palmer Luckey: Remaking reality
  • Jill Tarter and Margaret Turnbull: The E.T. hunters
  • Marc Benioff and Boyan Slat: Betting on a cleaner ocean

Join us for a four-day celebration of our anniversary in San Francisco, October 12–15. From a robot petting zoo to provocative onstage conversations, you won't want to miss it. More information at

Related Video


25 Years of WIRED

WIRED is turning 25! We are celebrating in San Francisco this October with four days of events honoring the ideas, innovations, and icons who have shaped the world we know today—and those who will shape it for the 25 years to come.