Good News for A New Year

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I am quite a few smiles short of being a jolly Pollyanna, since I’ve noticed that always looking on the bright side can blind you to the truth, and I also think everything happens for, hmmm, no reason whatsoever.

But here we are in 2020, hopefully with our eyesight 2020, too, metaphorically if not physically.And I do believe perspective is crucial for keeping up the good fight. So this post is a New Year’s greeting of good news. That doesn’t mean I don’t dwell anxiously and glumly and militantly on all that’s bad, nor is this intended to relax us. On the contrary, it’s meant to remind both you and me of what we can do by reminding us of what we’ve already done, and that what we’re currently doing really does work.

For one thing, an impeached Donald Trump is standing trial before the United States Senate and the American people. Only a short while ago, that seemed impossible.

Another example: this story about an experiment on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Climate change’s rising temperatures have stressed the coral, literally bleaching the reefs, and the coral animals have ejected the algae they need to survive. If afflicted coral die, other animals abandon the area, which then becomes ominously quiet without fish (who make more noise than you’d expect) and shrimp, who pop their claws. In a new study, researchers lowered loudspeakers to the dead reefs and played recordings of healthy reefs. Drawn by the sounds, the local species diversity shot up 50 percent. Sound influences animals. Noise pollution spikes stress hormones in birds; mountain lions tested in 2017 fled from the sound of Glenn Beck’s taped voice—but sounds played in the wild may hold promise. The fish and crustaceans that followed the sounds to the barrier reef stayed there, and their presence may help coral regrow. A good experiment by smart humans.

Here’s a quick dip into statistics assembled by the staff of New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff. It may surprise you. Every single day in recent years another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 people got piped water for the first time ever; 650,000 people went online for the first time, every single day. Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood, and as recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. That figure has now dropped to four percent. As late as 1981, 42 percent of the planet’s population lived in extreme poverty, on about a dollar a day; that 42 percent is now less than 10 percent. Such diseases as leprosy, polio, river blindness, and elephantiasis are on the wane, and global efforts have turned the tide on AIDS. Female genital mutilation has been greatly reduced as a practice, due to indefatigable efforts by women activists in those countries most affected, meaning that fewer girls will die, be maimed for life, or suffer an impaired sexual existence due to cutting. Fifty years ago, the majority of the world population had always been illiterate; now we’re approaching 90 percent adult literacy—with particularly large, desperately needed gains in the education of girls.

Entire constituencies are stepping forth from the shadows of society and clamoring for visibility. For instance, a rural school in South Korea, finding its classrooms emptying due to the country’s plummeting birthrates, had no children to teach. But another group of would-be students appealed to the school—so it opened its doors to illiterate women who had hungered for decades to learn how to read and write. Now the students at the school range in age from 50 to 80.

Back here in the US of A, women have been fighting for almost a century to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and formally enshrine women’s rights in the Constitution. On January 15, the Commonwealth of Virginia voted to become the 38th and final state needed to ratify the ERA. That’s the good news. But wait—don’t celebrate yet. Whether or not the Constitution has actually been amended for the 28th time—and for the first time in more than a quarter century—is now officially in question in the courts. Even before the Virginia legislature voted, ERA opponents had filed a federal lawsuit (as they have been doing, knee-jerk, for decades), this time backed by the Donald Trump/William Barr (In)Justice Department, launching a legal battle that could wind up in the Supreme Court. Claiming the ratification deadline had passed, the Office of Legal Counsel pronounced the ERA dead, insisting that in order to revive it, supporters must now start all over from scratch. That’s their expectable interpretation, of course, and we have superb legal teams defending the Amendment’s passage who have already counter-filed in the courts—and we will eventually win. But the inequality folks are so threatened by women’s simple desire to be visible in humanity that they make us battle for that, EVERY. SINGLE. STEP. OF. THE. WAY.

That’s why it takes so long, too long, for these dynamic changes to be sparked. But this progress, small it is as it is when compared to what still needs to be done, was brought about step by laborious step by people who refused to be stopped. Usually such people were invisible to the powerful, or were ignored if seen, and if seen more than once, denounced. Sooner or later, though mostly not in their lifetimes, they were recognized; more importantly, the work about which they were so passionate, their discoveries and creations—artistic, scientific, political—were absorbed by and became part of human consciousness.

Vera Rubin, in 1970 a young astronomer at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, was finding that the distracting, dispiriting, misogynistic behavior in her field of academic cosmology was destroying her sense of self-worth. When she arrived for a meeting with a major astrophysicist she was told they would have to talk in the lobby because women weren’t allowed upstairs in the offices. Even years later, when she gained access to the Palomar telescope, she found there was no women’s restroom there. So she taped the outline of a woman’s skirt over the image of a man on the door–and then used the restroom. Believing “There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman,” she withdrew from academic activities to focus on her research. And Vera Rubin discovered dark matter, the invisible “something” with such powerful gravity it molded the large-scale structures of the universe. Influential astronomers dismissed her findings. But today, a half century later, the search to demystify dark matter preoccupies particle physics and astronomy, stretching from underground particle colliders to orbiting telescopes with all types of ground-based observatories in between. Last week, the National Science Foundation announced that its newest laboratory observatory would be named the Vera C. Rubin Observatory—the first national observatory named for a woman. The discovery of dark matter spun off into the revelation of another mystery of the universe, now called dark energy; although the discoverers of dark energy won the Nobel Prize in 2011, Dr. Ruben (perennially mentioned as a possible candidate) never did. She died in 2016. New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye recently wrote a beautiful piece honoring Rubin and deploring the sexism in science.

Now, the Rubin Observatory will go on to investigate the cosmic push-pull between dark matter and dark energy, and to inspire women, and men of conscience, to look inward at themselves as they look outward to the stars. And if it’s true that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice, then to speed and increase that bending we can each of us throw our weight on that arc, with all our might. Happy New Year.