A Dying Coal Town Falls Into 'Fracking Frenzy' In 'Heat & Light'

Heat and Light

“More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.” That’s a line Jennifer Haigh places at the beginning and the end of her latest novel, Heat & Light.

Haigh knows a lot about “what lies beneath” in Pennsylvania. She was born in the coal country of Western Pennsylvania and her 2005 bestselling novel, Baker Towers, traced the rise and fall of the fictional coal town, Bakerton, in the years following World War II. Haigh returned to Bakerton a few years ago in her short story collection, News From Heaven; now, in Heat & Light she’s paying a more extended visit.

For Haigh, Bakerton is becoming something akin to Faulkner’s apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County. It’s a place she’s brought to life so scrupulously that she can delve deep, both into the minds and family histories of her mostly working-class characters, as well as into the land itself and the stories it contains.

Heat & Light is her most ambitious — and compelling — novel yet. What Tom Wolfe did for the New York City of the so-called, “go-go ’80s” in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Haigh does here for Bakerton — and the obscure real-life locales it’s based on — in this, our own era of “fracking frenzy.”

Heat & Light is an exquisitely designed, semi-satirical social novel featuring a cast of at least 15 main characters. The central story revolves around fracking — the method by which natural gas trapped underground in shale rock is released through drilling and the injection of a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand.

The novel opens in 2010, when a salesman comes to town representing a Texas company called Dark Elephant Energy. In simple two-minute pitches, the salesman offers farmers around Bakerton a sweet deal, whereby Dark Elephant leases their land, drills into what he calls “Nature’s safe-deposit box” and releases the treasure of natural gas. He claims the drill will run so far beneath the land that farming can go on as usual. In return, the farmers get a leasing bonus up front and a percentage of future profits.

Who would say no to such easy money, right? But the regrets skyrocket a couple of years later, after the tap water gets funky and residents begin suffering from rashes and boils, memory loss and miscarriages.

After the natural gas boom goes bust and Dark Elephant drill workers (some of whom we’ve gotten to know) are laid off and stiffed on their last paycheck; after the old hardwood forests are cut down and muddy clearings “the size of … shopping mall[s] are carved out” — that’s when most folks in Bakerton realize they’ve been royally fracked.

The challenge with such a political, and heavily populated novel like Heat & Light is to make us readers care; to topple us from our Olympian condescension and get us to identify with these characters and the mistakes they make out of greed and need.

Jennifer Haigh’s previous books include Baker Towers and News From Heaven. Rob Arnold/Ecco hide caption

toggle caption Rob Arnold/Ecco

As spectacular as Haigh’s panoramic social focus is in this novel — whisking us from Dark Elephant’s shareholders’ meeting in Houston into Bakerton’s taverns, the Walmart, the local Meth-head hangouts and storefront churches — she’s also superb at getting us into the nitty gritty of her character’s worldview, as well as their speech.

Most Bakerton natives begin their sentences with the resigned preface, “Anyways.” Chief among them is Rich Devlin, who’s inherited his family’s property, but works as a prison guard because he can’t afford to farm. Rich’s father always told him that “there are two kinds of work: the kind where you shower before and the kind where you shower after.”

Rich can’t wait to scrub the prison smells off him every night. With the money from Dark Elephant, Rich thought he could finally quit the prison job and begin farming. But, now his water and land are polluted. He can’t even afford to sue. “Anyways,” there are so many contractors and subcontractors involved, he wouldn’t know where to begin.

In another one of her signature poetic pronouncements on her home territory, Haigh says that: “Rural Pennsylvania doesn’t fascinate the world, not generally. But cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest. Bore it, strip it, set it on fire, a burnt offering to the collective need.”

In Heat & Light, Haigh succeeds in making rural Pennsylvania — its land and people — plenty fascinating. Through the intimacy of her sweeping portrayal of Bakerton and the world beyond, she also compels readers to think about what we value and what possessions and dreams we sell off way too cheap.

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Stephen Curry Is NBA's 1st Unanimous MVP

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry reacts after scoring in the second half of the Warriors' Game 4 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry reacts after scoring in the second half of the Warriors’ Game 4 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night. Craig Mitchelldyer/AP hide caption

toggle caption Craig Mitchelldyer/AP

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who leads the league in scoring, steals and the seemingly impossible shots that he’s made a habit of sinking from well beyond the three-point line, has been named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the second year in a row.

It’s the first time a player has been unanimously chosen for the award.

All 130 sportswriters and broadcasters who were allocated an MVP vote, along with one fan who voted, marked Curry in first place. Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs came in second, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers in third, and Oklahoma City Thunder teammates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in fourth and fifth, respectively.

Final NBA MVP voting results:
1) Steph Curry
2) Kawhi Leonard
3) LeBron James
4) Russell Westbrook
5) Kevin Durant pic.twitter.com/fBIJacdEQc

— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 10, 2016

Not that there were any doubts about Curry’s greatness, but for further proof, look at what he did in last night’s Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was Curry’s first game back since sustaining a knee injury two weeks ago. He came off the bench to score 40 points — 17 of which were in overtime — to lead the Warriors to a 132-125 victory.

Golden State now leads Portland 3-1 in the seven-game series. If (when) the reigning NBA champions advance to the conference finals, they’ll face the winners of the San Antonio-Oklahoma City semifinal series, which is tied at 2-2. In the Eastern Conference finals, Cleveland awaits the winner of the Miami Heat-Toronto Raptors series, which is also tied at two games apiece.

A repeat of the last year’s NBA championship featuring the Cavaliers and the Warriors looks likely, and with Curry back on the court, the MVP award might not be the only trophy he hoists two years in a row.

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Fact Check: Did Hillary Clinton Introduce A New Approach To Early Education?

Hillary Clinton reacts as a 3-year-old presents her with her artwork at Lee Highway KinderCare in Fairfax, Va.

Hillary Clinton reacts as a 3-year-old presents her with her artwork at Lee Highway KinderCare in Fairfax, Va. Jacquelyn Martin/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jacquelyn Martin/AP

This week Hillary Clinton was in Virginia to talk about women, family and workplace issues. She met at the Mug’n Muffin coffee shop with local participants in a program called Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters.

In HIPPY, as it’s called, parents receive free books, educational materials and weekly home visits to coach them on how to get their young children ready for school. For example, by reading to them daily.


A Clinton campaign video features Bill Clinton, in a speech, crediting his wife with bringing the program to the U.S. from Israel when she was first lady of Arkansas in 1985.

“She comes in one day, jumping up and down happy,” the former president says in the video. “She says, ‘I found it. A preschool program in Israel that teaches people to be their children’s first teachers even if they’re illiterate. I think it could work here’ … Next thing you know it’s in 26 states. It’s still thriving and there are thousands of people in this country today who have better lives and learn more and grew up just because of her.”


Hillary Clinton did bring the program to Arkansas, but she wasn’t responsible for importing it to the United States.

And it is national, in 21 — not 26 — states and DC, but it’s not very big — only 15,000 participants each year.


“Clinton discovered the program many years ago when it came to the U.S.” says Margie Margolies, the chairwoman of HIPPY USA‘s board. “She was instrumental in growing the program in Arkansas when Bill was governor. She had been working for a way to boost the educational start of children in Arkansas, so she reached out to the Israeli founder to find out how to scale it up. Arkansas is still one of our largest programs.”

Could HIPPY scale up nationwide? Should it?

Decades of independent research, including randomized controlled trials, show that children ages 3, 4, and 5 who participate in HIPPY are more prepared for school. Studies in four states found that higher reading, math and social studies scores persisted into third, fifth and sixth grades.

Teachers report that parents who participate in HIPPY become more involved in their children’s educations for years to come. HIPPY seems to blunt the impact on school performance of factors like being an English-language learner. Children who go through the program also seem to have better attendance, behavior, peer interactions and academic self-esteem.

Although Margolies says that she wouldn’t want to “pit” HIPPY against universal pre-K programs, the fact remains that the home-visit program seems to produce similar effects on kids at a lower cost per participant. And there are ancillary benefits, like connecting families to housing, health care and job assistance.

Of course, it’s hard to control for the enthusiasm factor. Low-income, working parents who are willing to sign up for 30 straight weeks of home visits, and then actually stick with the program (with no payments or other incentives beyond a few free books), must be exceptionally committed to their children’s welfare.

But, if nothing else, the success of HIPPY demonstrates that it is possible to close the notorious “word gap” and change parents’ behavior.

“It really makes a huge difference in people’s lives,” says Margolies, who has been with the program in Milwaukee for nearly two decades. “I’m lucky enough to have seen in many years how much more confidence the parents have.”

Many of the home-visit coaches, she says, began as parents in the program. “We have a woman right now, it’s her first job ever. She was a parent and she’s being trained as a home visitor. … It’s a great start for parents too, not just for kids.”

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Researchers Hope This Invention Could Wave Away Medical Data Hacks

Dartmouth College researcher Timothy Pierson holds a prototype of Wanda, which is designed to establish secure wireless connections between devices that generate data.

Dartmouth College researcher Timothy Pierson holds a prototype of Wanda, which is designed to establish secure wireless connections between devices that generate data. Eli Burakian/Dartmouth College hide caption

toggle caption Eli Burakian/Dartmouth College

Doctors’ scrawls on prescription pads and medical folders are so analog.

These days, they’re prescribing and keeping track of patients’ records using digital devices connected to wireless networks, sometimes remotely. More medical devices are also becoming increasingly small and wearable; they often connect with a handheld controller or even your smartphone through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, sometimes sending the data directly to physicians.

This convenience, accessibility and cost reduction for our health care comes with risks. A few keystrokes could end in a wrong treatment, for instance — in 2007, Dick Cheney’s cardiologist disabled the wireless functionality of the former vice president’s heart defibrillator out of safety concerns.

The overarching and long-growing problem is this: How do we protect the highly personal data flowing through wirelessly connected medical devices?

Enter Wanda, a prototype developed by Dartmouth College doctoral student Timothy Pierson and his team.

Wanda is essentially two antennae attached to a ruler, in a wand-like fashion. The device uses radio waves to establish a secure wireless connection between devices that generate data.

Here’s how it works: The user turns on the medical device and the digital device it’s getting linked to and then points Wanda — about 11 inches or less away — at the devices one at a time. Wanda then generates and transmits a secret password to each of the devices, connecting them securely within seconds.

Many Wi-Fi networks that transmit personal data aren’t secure connections — and cybercriminals make more money hacking a person’s medical information than from stealing their credit card details, says David Kotz, a Dartmouth computer science professor who leads the Trustworthy Health and Wellness project. It’s developing a technology platform that secures and protects personal health information.

Plus, putting these devices in the hands of patients and relying on them to establish Wi-Fi networks is fraught with difficulties. Some patients don’t have the technical know-how; others have a medical condition that poses a challenge. Most people, however, just create security passwords for their Wi-Fi networks that can easily be hacked, Pierson says.

This could lead to a data breach that may compromise the security of a patient’s records, or even the patient’s health if, for instance, their wireless heart pacemaker or dialysis machine is hacked. Internet security experts have warned for years that these devices are open to data theft and remote control by hackers — and the equipment to do so cost less than $20 in 2011, when a researcher hacked into his insulin pump and altered the settings.

Wanda’s major appeal is its ability to generate a targeted, strong pass code that connects a medical device in essence without the patient’s involvement. Researchers elsewhere have tried similar hypothetical approaches, but they require extra equipment to be included in the medical device, Pierson says.

Some of these ideas suggest that a secret password can be created by using a speaker and a microphone to send sound waves to devices, or by simultaneously shaking devices equipped with accelerometers that detect motion and orientation to establish a secure wireless connection.

Try shaking a treadmill or a refrigerator, Pierson says. “We haven’t seen anything like [Wanda] on the market,” he adds.

Pierson says he and his colleagues envision possibilities for Wanda beyond health care, especially as more of our household items get connected to the Internet. But for now, the team’s focus is on Wanda’s ability to protect sensitive patient data in a medical setting.

Wanda for now is only a prototype. Pierson says it has been received well by volunteer testers who have expressed interest in purchasing the device if and when it hits the market. A release date hasn’t been scheduled because Pierson and his team are still in the process of filing for a patent.

The Senate health committee has been working on legislation that may help spur these kinds of devices through federal regulatory approvals. The lawmakers have set data security as a priority in their latest biomedical innovation agenda.

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Texas Lt. Gov. Targets Fort Worth Schools Chief Over Transgender Guidelines

A student boards a Fort Worth Independent School bus in Texas in 2009. The new district superintendent is facing criticism for issuing guidelines on supporting transgender students.

Texas’ lieutenant governor is calling for the resignation of the Fort Worth Independent School District superintendent over guidelines intended to support transgender students.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s push follows a national spate of legislation regarding trans people’s access to restrooms as well as protections for LGBT people — notably in North Carolina and Missouri.

A student boards a Fort Worth Independent School bus in Texas in 2009. The new district superintendent is facing criticism for issuing guidelines on supporting transgender students. Tony Gutierrez/AP hide caption

toggle caption Tony Gutierrez/AP

The Fort Worth guidelines, announced on April 26, call for school district personnel to acknowledge and support students’ gender identity and expression, and they address access to restroom and locker room facilities. The report also says that “failure to comply … may result in adverse employment action.”

The lieutenant governor said Monday that Superintendent Dr. Kent Paredes Scribner “has lost his focus and thereby his ability to lead the Fort Worth ISD.” Patrick’s statement continued:

“He has placed his own personal political agenda ahead of the more than 86,000 students attending 146 schools in the district by unilaterally adopting ‘Transgender Student Guidelines.’ …

“Campus safety should be of paramount concern for anyone in his position. Every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged.”

The lieutenant governor criticized Scribner for acting “unilaterally,” and a school board member told WFAA-TV that she had received complaints from parents who said that “they weren’t allowed to publicly comment on the issue.” Patrick said parents should take their concerns to a school board meeting Tuesday night.

“The district considers the new rules ‘guidelines,’ which do not require a vote by the school board,” NBC in Dallas-Fort Worth reports. School Board President Jacinto Ramos Jr. told NBC in a statement:

“We have enormous confidence in Superintendent Kent P. Scribner, his team and our Board. We are focused on creating a strong, safe, and productive learning environment for ALL students.”

The Texas Tribune says the district had been working on the guidelines for about a year, while NBC reported that “the district had been working on a more inclusive policy since 2014 and drafted a new set of guidelines last summer. The official said Scribner told the school board he signed those guidelines.”

Scribner’s appointment was unanimously approved by the board in September, as WFAA reported at the time. The ABC affiliate said Scribner previously led the largest school district in Arizona, and he currently serves on the President’s Advisory Commission on Education Excellence for Hispanics.

The Fort Worth school district spokesman would not provide comment to local outlets on Monday.

Here are some key parts of the guidelines, which were published in full by NBC:

  • The document opens with a series of definitions about gender identity and expression and being transgender.
  • It requires district personnel “to acknowledge the gender identity that each student consistently and uniformly asserts.”
  • It identifies the campus counselor to as “a designated ally for students who wish to discuss these issues.”
  • The guidelines have a section on privacy, which “includes keeping a student’s actual or perceived gender identity and expression private. School personnel may only share this information on a need-to-know basis or as the student directs. This includes sharing information with the student’s parent or guardian.”
  • Here’s the restroom part, which says students should use the facility that corresponds with their gender identity, but that they should also have access to a single-stall restroom or a space with similar privacy:

“Students must feel comfortable and safe in the use of restrooms and locker room facilities. Under no circumstances may a school require a student to use facilities that are potentially unsafe for the student. If other students feel uncomfortable sharing a restroom with a transgender student or if a student has a need or desire for increased privacy, the school must allow the student(s) access to a single stall restroom, a gender neutral restroom, or the opportunity to visit the facility when other students are not present. The single-user restroom, however, must not be given as the only option for transgender students who need or desire increased privacy.”

  • “For physical education classes that are gender-based, transgender students shall participate in physical education by their gender identity asserted at school.”
  • “School personnel must be role models of these guidelines. Wherever arbitrary gender dividers can be avoided, they must be eliminated.”

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Does Putting On A Few Pounds Help You Cheat Death?

Calipers can give a more accurate measure of an individual's body fat, but for population-based studies, the BMI is the way to go.

Calipers can give a more accurate measure of an individual’s body fat, but for population-based studies, the BMI is the way to go. Kris Hanke/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Kris Hanke/Getty Images

A body mass index under 25 is deemed normal and healthy, and a higher BMI that’s “overweight” or “obese” is not. But that might be changing, at least when it comes to risk of death.

The body mass index, or BMI, associated with the lowest risk of death has increased since the 1970s, a study finds, from 23.7, in the “normal” weight category, to 27, which is deemed “overweight.”

That means a person who is 5’8″ could weigh 180 pounds and be in that epidemiological sweet spot, according to the NIH’s online BMI calculator. The results were published Tuesday in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers came to that conclusion by looking at data from three studies of people in Copenhagen, one from the 1970s, one from the 1990s and one from 2003-2013. More than 100,000 people were involved. Because Denmark has an excellent national health registry, they were able to determine to pinpoint the cause of death for every single one of those people.

The risk of death for people who are obese, with a BMI of 30 or greater, also declined, to the point that it was on a par with some people of so-called “normal” weight.

So being fatter, at least a bit, may be healthier.

“I was surprised as a scientist to see how clear the result was,” Borge Nordestgarrd, a clinical professor and chief physician at Copenhagen University Hospital and senior author of the study, told Shots.

So he and his colleagues sliced and diced the data to see what could account for the shift. They looked at age, sex, smoking, cancer and heart disease. The most relevant was the decline in smoking since the 1970s. But when they looked at the mortality rates in nonsmokers who had never had cancer or heart disease, it also became associated with a higher BMI over time.

So what’s going on?

“Now we get into the speculation part, right? I know you journalist always want that,” Nordestgaard says. “One option certainly is over these three decades we have become much better at treating the cardiovascular risk factors that come with overweight and obesity.”

That includes treating high cholesterol with statins; treating high blood pressure with diet, exercise and an array of medications; and making concerted efforts to help people to control blood sugar.

People in Denmark got heavier on average over the course of the study, as they have in the United States and most other countries. By 2013, 56 percent of the Danes had a BMI of 25 or higher. So you could think, OK, the new average is a heavier average.

Or you could wonder if being a bit heavier somehow helps confer health benefits that affect longevity.

Researchers have long known that people who are very thin tend to have a shorter life expectancy, often because they’re dealing with cancer or other serious illnesses. The sweet spot on the BMI/longevity axis is typically somewhere near the middle. But there’s no much data to back the notion that a bit more pudge is protective. “This is total speculation,” Nordestgaard says.

The BMI has been vilified as a poor measure of an individual’s health. Someone who is big, fit and well-muscled, like a pro football player, can peg an obese BMI. And all of the people in this study are white, so that’s a limitation. But the BMI, which is a general measure of body fat, has proven useful for thinking about the health of large groups of people, as in this study.

Nordestgaard and his colleagues are going to dig into this more in an effort to figure out what’s going on, but he cautions that these kinds of data dives can take many months.

But it does raise the prospect of whether it may soon be time to tweak the official definition of normal, healthy weight.

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NIH Announces Leadership Shake-Up At Renowned Research Hospital

The National Institutes of Health is overhauling the leadership of its world-renowned Clinical Center, after an independent task force found the center was putting research ahead of patient safety.

As NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce has reported, the Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., is the largest research hospital in the world. Patients come from across the country seeking its experimental therapies. But a recent independent review found safety problems at found in two laboratories, including one run by Dr. Steven Rosenberg, a world-renowned researcher at the National Cancer Institute. Rosenberg is a pioneer in cancer immunotherapy, which harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight disease.

In 2015, the NIH was forced to close the Clinical Center’s in-house pharmaceutical production facility after inspectors found fungal contamination, insects in light fixtures, and problems in the air-handling system. That incident prompted the formation of an independent task force to review the Clinical Center’s operations.

In its report issued this spring, the task force concluded that researchers were more preoccupied with their scientific studies than with the safety of the patients enrolled in the center’s clinical trials. “The emphasis on research is so great, and on trying to save people’s lives, that there became a cultural attitude that overshadowed handling some of the details that are important details,” Norman Augustine, who chaired the task force, told Greenfieldboyce.

While the safety deficiencies put patients at risk, no one is believed to have been harmed by the problems, according to the task force report.

Following the report’s recommendations, the NIH will create three new leadership positions to oversee the Clinical Center. One of those positions will be a new chief executive officer. “NIH will begin a nationwide search for a physician CEO with proven experience in management of a complex inpatient and outpatient facility,” the agency said in a statement provided to NPR over e-mail.

The new CEO will replace Clinical Center Director John Gallin, who has overseen the research hospital since 1994. The statement says Gallin will remain in his post until the new director is found. It adds: “NIH is deeply grateful to Dr. Gallin and his colleagues for their dedicated leadership, and will count on them over the next few months to move this effort forward with maximum energy and intensity.”

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Are We About To Send 'Spacechips' To The Stars?

An artist rendering of a sail propelled by a laser.

An artist rendering of a sail propelled by a laser. Q. Zhang/Courtesy of UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group hide caption

toggle caption Q. Zhang/Courtesy of UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group

“Is this for real?”

That was the only line in an email my graduate student send me about a month ago. Along with her terse question was a link to a new paper on the astrophysics preprint archive (a website where newly completed research get posted). The paper’s title was enough to set me back: “A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight” by Philip Lubin. “Wow,” I thought to myself. “Is this for real?” I downloaded the paper and started reading.

One week later, as I was still crawling through the paper’s physics, Russian billionaire philanthropist Yuri Milner announced the $100 million Starshot program intended to leapfrog humanity across interstellar space.

Listening to even the briefest outline of the plan, I realized they were talking about Lubin’s road map. While my student and I were asking whether this was for real, someone else was already sinking a ton of money into making it a reality.

So who is this guy Philip Lubin? What, exactly, is his “road map?” And, most importantly, is this for really for real?

Lubin is a respected scientist who has done most of his studies in cosmology. “Most of my work is very traditional,” Lubin says. “I am a very conservative scientist. I don’t usually go out on the edge.”

So if Lubin is a guy who stays away from the edges, what about his road map? “This,” Lubin says freely, “is definitely on the edge.”

To set things in context, remember that we first escaped Earth orbit about 60 years ago. Since then we have accomplished some pretty impressive feats. But nothing we’ve done so far even gets us anywhere close to the stars. It took 10 years for the New Horizons probe to cross the solar system and reach Pluto. But even with its remarkable velocity of 58,000 km/hr it would still require around 100 millennia for New Horizons to cross typical interstellar distances. That means the challenges involved in getting an interstellar probe to its target in anything close to a human lifetime are immense.

That is where Lubin comes in. Along with his studies of the early universe, Lubin and his team have also been working on technologies associated with “directed energy.” When you hear that term you could think “laser” — but there’s more to it than that. Lubin has been using advances in the science of photonics to explore arrays of laser systems that work together creating extremely powerful, large-scale beams of directed energy.

Lubin calls his idea Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation or DE-STAR. As the name implies, the genesis of the research program was using the lasers to defend Earth from asteroids.

“Since we started our program, we’ve probably gone through about 100 undergraduate researchers because they just love the idea of destroying something,” Lubin told me.

And destroy things they did.

“We had all kinds of objects in the lab that [the students] blew holes through,” says Lubin. “One student brought in a bullet-proof vest and we blew a hole through that.”

But Lubin’s team quickly saw the possibilities for interstellar travel. Light particles (called photons) carry momentum and can push on the things they interact with. This is the principle behind proposals to use sunlight to push giant solar sails around interplanetary space. People also have imagined using Earth-bound lasers fired at a sails for propulsion before.

But it’s the low-cost “phased array” lasers Lubin studies that represent a new direction. Adding them to the equation means high-powered spacecraft drivers might be possible in near term (decades not centuries).

Reaching the stars, however, requires reaching velocities close to light speed. The nearest star is 4.3 light-years away. That means it would take 4.3 years traveling at light speed to get to there. But the more mass you want to send to the stars, the more energy you need to accelerate that mass close to light speed. While Lubin’s directed energy system can push a sail (and a tethered spaceship) outward, a reasonable version of the machine can only get the craft close to the light-speed limit if you think really, really small. That’s why rather than spaceships, Lubin wants to send “spacechips.”

As his road map paper puts it, “…we consider functional spacecraft on a wafer, including integrated optical communications, imaging systems, photon thrusters, power and sensors combined with directed energy propulsion.”

So, basically, we’re talking about sending smartphones to the stars. That, my friends, is edgy.

So how did the edgy ideas in Lubin’s road map become part of Yuri Milner’s $100 million Starshot program? After giving a talk at the SETI Institute, Lubin’s paper found its way to members of Breakthrough Initiatives, including Milner. Then, in January, Lubin and Milner met to discuss the road map.

“He’s a truly fascinating individual,” Lubin says of Milner. “He’s both someone of means and quite a deep thinker. He had been dreaming of doing something in the realm of interstellar but nothing he had looked at was credible.”

According to Lubin, Milner and his institute had been exploring “real ideas” in the sense of thinking about, for instance, using anti-matter as a propellant. But while anti-matter is real and its physics is understood (as opposed to a warp drive), doing anything meaningful with it was just too hard (and, hence, too expensive) to imagine.

“Our stuff is really hard, but anti-matter is even harder,” says Lubin.

So what Milner saw in Lubin’s approach was something that, with time and development, might be technologically feasible and economically possible. Lubin says Milner told him that this idea was the first thing he had seen that was really credible.

So the question Milner, Lubin and others, including Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, tried to answer in their meeting was whether the road map lead to something real. The answer Milner eventually found was “yes.” And that, in part, was how the Starshot program was born.

Lubin takes pains to explain that what must happen now is a long, multi-decade road of development. In particular, what is needed is not just new technology but the new technologies that can make the next generation of new and cheaper technologies possible.

“If someone asked in 1961 how much would it cost to get the moon in 1962 you would say that question doesn’t even make sense,” Lubin says. That’s because multiple layers of breakthroughs that fed on each other were all required to make the moon landing possible.

So if the question is “Are we ready to send a starchip to the nearest stars soon?” — the answer is most definitely no. But something new, something radical and something truly fascinating has most definitely begun. Lubin, Milner and Breakthrough Initiatives are indeed dreaming a most audacious dream. Perhaps Lubin himself put it best in his road map paper:

“We posit a path forward, that while not simple, it is within our technological reach. We propose a road map to a program that will lead to sending relativistic probes to the nearest stars and will open up a vast array of possibilities of flight both within our solar system and far beyond… “

Amen to that, brother. Now we shall wait and see what you come up with.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described “evangelist of science.” You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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