The Center of Our Galaxy

You’re looking at the first image of the object at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A—pronounced “Sagittarius A-Star”, and abbreviated Sgr A—courtesy of over 300 researchers from more than 80 institutions across the world.

The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes, some of which are among the most powerful scientific instruments ever built.

The global scale of the project reflects massive ambition: The nature of what laid at the heart of our galaxy was uncertain, though a black hole was widely suspected.

Mustering humanity’s best and brightest astronomers, and its most potent tools, we now know for certain it is a supermassive black hole, the largest type of its class.

To get a sense of its scale—however possible that is—Sgr A* is four million times more massive than the Sun, which is one million times bigger than Earth. The center of the galaxy is 27,000 lightyears away, with just one lightyear stretching close to 6 TRILLION miles.
So yeah, this was a hell of an achievement, and it took hundreds of people using purpose-built tools and supercomputers over the span of five years to confirm it.

Black holes have gravity so immense that not even light can escape—hence why images of them are so hard to capture. (As @voxdotcom put it, trying to get a photo of a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.)

Hence, we cannot the black hole itself, but only the glowing gas and other material swirling around its massive gravitation; the stuff that falls into the black hole is unseen and basically erased from the observable universe.

This is a groundbreaking moment in our understanding of these mysterious, dark giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. Indeed, the EHT is also responsible for the very first image of a black hole, M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy over 53 million lightyears away.

Such incredible achievements are only possible with collaboration and curiosity that transcends political and cultural boundaries—something we need now more than ever.

Happy Anniversary to History’s Second Constitution

On this day in 1791, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe—adopted the first written national constitution in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the U.S. Constitution just two years earlier.

Like its counterpart across the Atlantic, Poland’s constitution—titled the Governance Act and known simply as the Constitution of 9 May 1791—was influenced by the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement that, among other things, pioneered concepts like civil liberty, individual rights, religious and political tolerance, and so on.

The first page of the original 1791 constitution.

Remarkably, despite the vast geographic distance between the two countries, Poland’s constitutional structure was markedly similar to that of America: There were three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—with checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet of ministers. The constitution declared that “all power in civil society [should be] derived from the will of the people” and defined the role of government as ensuring “the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order shall always remain in equilibrium. While Roman Catholicism was recognized as the “dominant faith”, freedom of religion was guaranteed—a remarkable proposition in a continent where people regularly killed each other for being the wrong Christian or simply holding the wrong doctrine.

The people of Poland-Lithuania were defined not as “subjects” of a king, but “citizens” with popular sovereignty—which included townspeople and peasants, who in most of Europe had no such recognition. The right to acquire property, hold public office, and join the nobility—whose powers and immunities were restricted—was extended to millions more people, including Jews (who almost everywhere else were denied anything akin to legal recognition, let alone political rights).

The new constitution even introduced a version habeas corpus—the core legal right that prevents abuse of power—known as Neminem captivabimus, summarized as “We shall not arrest anyone without a court verdict”.

The Constitution of 9 May 1791, an idealized portrayal of the constitution’s adoption, by Polish artist Jan Matejko. It was painted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its adoption.

To be clear, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 had its limits, and its radicalism should not be overstated. The monarchy was still retained, with the king serving as head of the executive branch. Religious minorities such as Jews, as well the peasants who made up the vast majority of the population, still had few powers. While constrained, the nobility was not abolished as in the U.S. and later France, and in fact still retained many privileges.

But even in these areas, the Commonwealth went farther than almost any other country in the world at the time. The monarchy was not absolute: The king’s powers were constrained by the constitution and essentially shared with a council of ministers, who could overrule his decrees, forcing him to go to parliament. While peasants and Jews had few rights, they now had official protection from abuse—a step closer to recognizing their political rights, well beyond what was normal at the time. Eligible middle-class people could even join the ranks of nobility, a seemingly paradoxical form of progress that, again, was unusual for the time; nobles certainly couldn’t ride roughshod over commonfolk as they did elsewhere in Europe (which isn’t to say there weren’t abuses—this is still feudal Europe after all).

In any event, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 was a relatively bold and momentous step in the right direction, as evidenced by its rarity at the time—and sadly, by its short existence. In fewer than two years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would be extinguished by the absolute monarchies of neighboring Prussia and Russia, which felt threatened by the constitution and the dangerous “revolutionary” ideas it introduced and could spread. Poland would cease to exist for well over another century, with its experiment never being fully tested—but also never dying off entirely, as the then-ongoing French Revolution and subsequent political reverberations would prove.

The Canadian Doctor Who Discovered Insulin and Gave it to the World for Free

On this day in 1922, a dying 14-year-old named Leonard Thompson received the first purified dose of insulin for his diabetes at Toronto General Hospital in Canada.

Barely six months before Thompson received his life-saving dose, a team of researchers led by his doctor, Frederick Banting of the University of Toronto, discovered that a hormone known as insulin regulates blood sugar, successfully isolating it to treat humans. (As is common with such groundbreaking work, Banting’s colleagues came from various countries and were building on the research of German and Romanian scientists.)

Though widely seen as a modern disease (and it is indeed more common) diabetes is one of the oldest known scourges of humanity; it is described in Egyptian and Indian medical records well over 2,000 years ago. In the 19th century, a 10-year-old child with Type 1 diabetes would typically live for just another year; now, thanks to discoveries like insulin, people with Type 1 diabetes can expect to live almost 70 years.

Until Banting’s achievement, the recommended treatment for Type 1 diabetes was a near-starvation diet, in order to keep sugar from accumulating in the blood. Thompson was just 65 pounds, and probably days from death, before Banting injected him with insulin; another round of shots successfully stabilized his blood sugar levels—and spared him and countless others from enduring such a long, painful, and dangerous treatment.

Banting rightfully won the Nobel Prize in Medicine the following year, along with Scottish team member John James Rickard Macleod. (At age 32, Banting remains the youngest Nobel laureate in the field). Believing that his colleague Charles Herbert Best also deserved recognition as a co-discoverer, the humble Canadian doctor shared his prize money with him.

But more telling of Banting’s character and contributions to humanity was what he did with this groundbreaking—and potentially lucrative—accomplishment: He refused to patent it and make a profit even after being offered $1 million and royalties for the formula. Banting believed that the Hippocratic Oath prohibited him from profiting off such lifesaving treatment, stating that “insulin belongs to the world, not to me”. His co-laureate Macleod likewise turned down the opportunity.

Thus, it was Banting’s teammates Best and James Collip, a Canadian biochemist, who were officially named as inventors in the patent application—but they immediately transferred all rights to their insulin formula to the University of Toronto for just one dollar. All these men believed that insulin should be made as widely available as possible, without any barriers such as cost—something quaint by today’s standards, where the costs of the four leading types of insulin in the U.S. have more than tripled over the past decade, to roughly $250 a vial (some patients need two to four vials a month).

No doubt, Banting and his colleagues would be spinning in their graves.

World AIDS Day

Belated World AIDS Day post: Although HIV/AIDS remains a scourge of humanity—particularly in it’s likely place of origin, Africa—we have made tremendous progress in reducing both infections and rates of death. Being HIV positive is no longer the death sentence it once was—ironically the large number of people living with the disease is in part a testament to the success of treatments and of policies to make them widely affordable and accessible (aided in large part by the much-maligned WHO).

As usual, German data-crunching company Statista lays it all out beautifully in their Instagram (which I highly recommend following).

Even though #worldaidsday has been used to promote awareness of the disease and mourn those who have died from it since 1988, the global epidemic is far from over.

According to data by @unaidsglobal, more than ten million people with HIV/AIDS don’t currently have access to antiretroviral treatment and the number of new infections with #HIV has remained the same compared to 2019 at roughly 1.5 million. When taking a closer look at the numbers, there are enormous regional differences in terms of battling the epidemic. Eastern and southern Africa, for example, combine for 55 percent of all known HIV/AIDS cases, while reducing new infections by 43 percent between 2010 and 2020. Western and central Africa also saw a decline of 37 percent when comparing 2010 and 2020, although it falls short of the benchmark of 75 percent set by the United Nations General Assembly.

While the number of new infections has dropped from 2.9 million in 2000 to 1.5 million last year, the number of people living with HIV increased from 25.5 million to approximately 37.7 million over the past two decades. According to UNAIDS, the increase is not only caused by new infections, but also a testament to the progress that has been made in treating HIV with antiretroviral therapy, which has vastly improved the outlook of those infected with HIV.

The even more astute data-lovers at Our World in Data vividly convey both the scale of the problem and just how much we have progressed, even in the most hard-hit places:

While in law school, I and some colleagues had the incredible opportunity to meet the hard working and earnest people at UNAIDS headquarters in Geneva. This unique entity is the first and only one of its kind in the world, combining the personnel and resources of nearly a dozen U.N. agencies to offer a comprehensive response to this pandemic. UNAID is also the only initiative to include civil society organizations in its governing structure.

Since it was launched in 1994, UNAIDS has helped millions of people worldwide get antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS, provided millions more with preventative methods. Thanks to their efforts, and those of their partners across the world, the rate of infection and death by HIV/AIDS has stagnated or even declined in many areas, while the rate of treatment has increased.

As with so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the fight against HIV/AIDS, disrupting preventative measures and sapping away at an already-taxed healthcare system. With reports of individuals who seem to have naturally cured themselves of the virus, I have hope that we can regain momentum and maybe even develop an outright cure. Fortunately, the progress of the past several years proves we do not have to wait until then to make a difference to tens of millions of lives.

The Duty and Devotion of Albanian Hospitality

Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has committed to taking in up to 4,000 Afghan refugees, which is among the most in the world and the most in proportion to its population (which is roughly 2.8 million)Hundreds of Afghans, including roughly 250 children, are being housed in coastal resorts, under a clever emergency plan developed by the government in response to a devastating 2019 earthquake; when thousands of people were rendered homeless, officials opted to shelter them in the mostly unused space of beach hotels.

Afghan refugees in Albania are being housed in resorts along the Adriatic coast.
Credit: New York Times

Such hospitality is deeply rooted in Albanian culture. The Muslim-majority country is known for its stringent code of generosity and hospitality to anyone and everyone who needs it. Known as besa, which roughly translates to “trust”, “faith”, or “oath”, it commits all Albanians to help people in need regardless of their background or circumstances. As locals explain, the tradition is simple: “If someone needs a place to stay, you give it to them, period”.

While the practice may go back to ancient times, it was first codified in the Kanun, a set of customary laws written in the 15th century to govern the many independent tribes of the region. Within this book is a proverb that sums it up nicely: “Before the house belongs to the owner, it first belongs to God and the guest.” You could knock on the door of any house and ask for help and the owner would have to take you in. The Kanun even advises households to always have a spare bed ready at any time, just in case.

Credit: BBC

While besa is a duty that binds all Albanians, there is evidence that they genuinely find hosting guests as a point of pride. There is one anecdote about a town that rebelled against a hotel that was going to be built there; everyone went to town hall and complained, saying people who needed a place to stay could just come knock on their doors.

Perhaps the greatest proof of this tradition is the Second World War, after which Albania was perhaps the only country to have more Jews than before the Holocaust. Not only did they save nearly their entire Jewish community, but they saved another two thousand or so who had fled to the country. Albanians largely resisted all the pressure and threats by Axis forces to turn over people in hiding. Had anyone given up their guest, they would bear a great shame that could only be solved by “cleaning the blood”—meaning taking vengeance against whoever took and harmed their guest (which is one hell of a story idea…).

This is also why Albania is relied upon by the U.S. and Europe to take in folks neither wants, from Iranian and Syrian refugees, to Guantanamo detainees deemed innocent but nonetheless untrusted.

Space Nationalism or Multilateralism?

Both Russia and China, among the world’s premier space powers, are now aiming for their own space stations, with the latter having already launched the first of several modules.

After the U.S., Russia is the biggest contributor to the International Space Station, which by some measures the most successful and fruitful space project, and among the most expensive scientific endeavors ever.

See the source image

Half the ISS—which involves five space agencies and fifteen countries—is Russian-built and operated, and to this day Russia does most of the legwork in launching both crew and cargo. It was a rare and enduring example of cooperation between two erstwhile rivals, an interesting if fragile antidote to the petty politics on the ground. (Scientists and astronauts from both countries get along pretty well and have consistently collaborated even through the worst flareups of tensions and hostility.)

China was never part of the ISS—a notable absence given its hefty financial resources and technical knowledge—due to a controversial NASA policy implemented by Congress in 2011 that excludes any form of cooperation with any Chinese institution or organization. So I imagine its ambitious attempt at a national space station, like so many of its actions abroad, clearly has a triumphalist “We’ll show you!” aspect to it.

But China’s Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, which is set for completion in just a year, will have only one-sixth the mass of the ISS, and roughly a quarter of its habitable space. This isn’t to say it won’t be an impressive feat—especially for a developing country that remains a byword for cheap consumer goods—but its full potential is likely limited given the sheer costs and complexity of building (and regularly maintaining) a human habitat in space.

See the source image
Source: South China Morning Post

Meanwhile, Russia’s plans are less clear: Though it holds many records in space stations—including launching the first one, having the most in total, and having the most experience with space walks and the like—it no longer has the financial resources to back this knowhow. (That’s what made the ISS so successful: What Russia lacked in America’s vast resources it made up for with its proven expertise, and visa versa.)

Even the otherwise prideful U.S.—albeit namely its pragmatic scientists at NASA—has now seemingly realized that space is too big, costly, and complex an endeavor for even superpowers to handle.

Aside from being a key founder of the ISS, which was created to replace a planned U.S. station that would have been too costly, NASA plans to return to humans to the moon for the first time in fifty years through the Artemis Program—a decidedly international effort.

While it will be led primarily by NASA and its mostly American commercial contractors, it will include personnel, tech, and resources from Europe, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Brazil. (Believe it or not, those last three do carry a lot of technological heft in space; the UAE has a probe orbiting Mars as we speak, and India is notable for accomplishing many difficult space ventures at fairly low cost.) More countries have been invited and are are expected to join.

The Artemis Program not only aims to put humans (including the first woman) on the Moon by 2024, but has the long-term goal of establishing a lunar base that will be a launchpad for crewed missions to Mars.

See the source image

Surprisingly, all this was promulgated during the tenure of a Trump-appointed, former Oklahoma congressman as NASA Administrator, who explicitly modeled the “Artemis Accords”, which broaden international participation in the program, on the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (on which most space law is grounded).

To be sure, neither the Artemis Program, nor the Accords that essentially “internationalize” it, are without their criticisms. Many international legal scholars see them as a way for America to apply its own self-interested interpretation of space law that permits commercial exploitation of celestial bodies; as The Verge reports:

[The] Outer Space Treaty is pretty vague — purposefully so — which means there is a lot of room for interpretation on various clauses. The goal of the Artemis Accords is to provide a little more clarity on how the US wants to explore the Moon without going through the slow treaty-making process. “We are doing this in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Bridenstine, adding that NASA is trying to “create a dynamic where the Outer Space Treaty can actually be enforced.”

One big thing NASA wanted to make clear in the accords is that countries can own and use resources that are derived from the Moon. As part of the Artemis program, NASA hopes to extract lunar materials, such as the Moon’s dirt or water ice that’s thought to be lurking in the shadows of lunar craters. The Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from staking claim to another planetary body, but the policy of the US is that countries and companies can own the materials they extract from other worlds. “Article II of the Outer Space Treaty says that you cannot appropriate the Moon for national sovereignty,” Bridenstine said. “We fully agree with that and embrace it. We also believe that, just like in the ocean, you can extract resources from the ocean. But that doesn’t mean you own the ocean. You should be able to extract resources from the Moon. Own the resources but not own the Moon.”

It’s an interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty that not everyone may agree on. A pair of researchers writing in the journal Science last week have called on countries to speak up about their objections to this interpretation, and that the United States should go through the United Nations treaty process in order to negotiate on space mining. “NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are—a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved,” the researchers wrote in Science.

Still, the overall substance and spirit of the Accords — which at just seven pages, makes for an easy read) — seems like the sensible way forward. I know, I know count on the internationalist to reach that conclusion! But really, if we want to maximize humanity’s potential in space, we must do so as, well, humans: unified in our resources, knowhow, innovation, and vision. Given how much has been accomplished by just a handful of nations on their ow — and the number of countries joining the space club grows annually — imagine what a united front can offer?

Given that China and Russia have lunar aspirations of their own—including a joint lunar base that sort of speaks to my point—it will be interesting to see which vision will play out successfully: The Star Trek-style pan-humanist approach, or the more familiar competitiveness and nationalism that characterized the Cold War or even the colonial era.

What are your thoughts?

World Water Day

Yesterday was World Water Day, launched by the UN in 1993 to raise awareness about the importance of water both environmentally and for humanity as a whole.

I think our strictly terrestrial species is ill-equipped to truly grasp the significance of water, from its role in generating most of our oxygen, to the fact that most living things that have ever lived have been aquatic or amphibious.

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As a middle class person in a developed part of the world, it is also east to take for granted just how elusive access to clean water is; for most of human history, most humans died or were sickened (sometimes permanently) by diseases related to dirty water.

While we’ve made tremendous progress over the past century alone, well over a million humans still die annually from water-borne diseases (many of them children), and nearly one out of four people lack the access to clean water that most us take as a given. The effects of climate change and overexploitation risks depleting an already strained water supply—making World Water Day’s mission of awareness all the more invaluable.

Below is a big data dump concerning all things water, including the progress we’ve made in expanding clean water access, and the challenges that remain in continuing this development while doing so sustainably.

The Seeds of the International Order

Posted @withregram • @ungeneva

Geneva, capital of the world, was crowded to capacity today when representatives of nearly half a hundred nations from every corner of the globe gathered to attend the first meeting of the assembly of the League of Nations.

One hundred years ago this week, the first session of the assembly of the newly established League of Nations was held in the Reformation Hall in Geneva. The meeting brought together representatives of 42 countries representing more than half of the world’s population at the time.

Image may contain: one or more people and crowd
Archive photo/League of Nations

Though the League of Nations is better known for its abject failure to prevent World War II—which led to its replacement by the United Nations in 1945—it is difficult to understate its bold and audacious vision: For the first time in our bloody and divided history, there was a sense of cooperation and community among our fractured civilizations. The League set in motion the growing global consciousness and interconnectedness we see to this day (however tenuously). It also brought attention to issues that were long overlooked or dismissed by most societies: poverty, slavery, refugees, epidemics, and more. It thus laid the groundwork for organizations that aid tens of millions of people worldwide.

Ironically, despite its failure to stop the bloodiest war in history, the League’s successor, the UN, has been credited with preventing any large interstate conflicts to this day—in part because it created a League-induced forum for countries to duke it out at the table rather than the battlefield (to paraphrase Eisenhower). We got a hell of a ways to go, but we have to start somewhere, and this 100-year experiment with internationalism and pan-humanism pales to thousands of years of constant war and repression.

Thank you for your time!

The Swedes Who Saved Millions of Lives

Meet the Nils Bohlin and Gunnar Engellau, whose work at Swedish carmaker Volvo has helped save millions of lives worldwide.

Engellau, Volvo’s president and an engineer himself, helped push for a more effective seatbelt, after a relative died in a traffic accident due partly to the flaws of the two-point belt design—which was not even standard feature in cars at the time. This personal tragedy drove Engellau to find a better solution, hiring Bohlin to find a solution quickly.

There were two major problems with the historic two-point belt design, which crosses the lap only. First, because the human pelvis is hinged, a single strap fails to restrain the torso, leaving passengers vulnerable to severe head, chest and spinal injuries; positioned poorly, the belt can even crush internal organs on impact. Second, they were notoriously uncomfortable, so many people chose not to wear them. Bohlin’s innovation was to find a design that resolved both problems at once.

After millions of dollars and thousands of tests through the 1950s and 1960s, Volvo became the first carmaker in the world to standardize the three-point safety belt we now take for granted. More than that, Volvo pushed hard for the seatbelt to be adopted in its native Sweden, which like most places was initially resistant to having to wear seatbelts.

But Volvo didn’t stop there. While it patented the designs to protect their investment from copy-cats, the company did not charge significant license fees to rivals or keep the design to itself to give their cars an edge. Knowing that lives were at stake worldwide, Engellau made Bohlin’s patent immediately available to all. Having sponsored the costly R&D, they gifted their designs to competitors to encourage mass adoption. It is estimated that Volvo may have lost out on $400 million in additional profits, if not more.

Instead, literally millions of people have been spared injury and death by this now-ubiquitous seatbelt we take for granted. All because a couple of Swedes decided to put people over profits (which isn’t to say they didn’t reap any financial incentive, but proved you can do both).