Sunday, October 22, 2017

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

The famous Milgram Experiments carried out at Yale in the early 1960’s and verified many times since then show that under the right conditions and given the overt or covert approval of authority figures, normally sane and rational people can carry out or allow others to engage in horrifying acts of aggression and cruelty towards their fellow human beings. One need look no further than current events in Myanmar involving the Rohingya minority, recent Sunni-Shiite atrocities in Syria and Iraq, Serbian attacks on Muslims in Bosnia or the Hutu massacres of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in the 1990’s to demonstrate the terrible destruction the right combination of conditions and leadership can provoke.

Donald Trump at a rally, May 5, 2016, Charleston, West Virginia. 

The question “Can it happen here?” is one which every American, regardless of party affiliation, political ideology or economic standing should be asking at this critical point in our national history. The alternative is to blindly assume that America is somehow exempt or immune from tides of history which have swept over so many other nations before us.

We have, for perhaps the first time, a Chief Executive whose authoritarian tendencies, ability to incite violent passions in significant portions of the population, lack of empathy towards minorities and vindictiveness toward those who stand against him significantly increase the possibility that, under the right conditions, this country as well could act out in a similarly destructive manner both at home and abroad.

The President has frequently demonstrated a willingness and even compulsion to assert his dominance by publicly humiliating and attacking members of his own Party and Administration—as well as gratuitously mocking and demeaning both his predecessors and political opponents. His seemingly boundless capacity for distorting and denying factual evidence while stirring up resentment toward vaguely-defined ‘others’, leaves little hope that he will observe any of the normally accepted rules of personal, social or political discourse or behavior.

By continually attacking the Press (“fake news”) for doing its job he has indicated either profound ignorance of or a deliberate effort to override Constitutional protections regarding freedom of speech and publication. In fact, even when his more cautious advisers have counseled restraint, he has acted as though restrictions on executive power were inconveniences to be ignored or disregarded rather than guidelines carefully designed to preserve the balance of powers necessary for democratic government.

Rather than seeking to understand and heal national or international divisions, President Trump revels in every opportunity to stir controversy and provoke passionate reactions, tweeting relentlessly about alleged ‘wars on Christmas,’ ‘wars on coal,’ ‘disrespect toward the flag;’ or demeaning a foreign leader as ‘Rocket Man’ while heightening tensions with Iran over a nuclear deal hammered-out by the US and multiple powers.

It is not difficult to imagine conditions under which a Trump-led administration would find it nearly irresistible to identify those with differing political interests, ideological beliefs and religious practices, as well as ethnic characteristics, not merely as legitimate opponents but as ‘enemies of the state,’ a term he has already dredged from what the New York Times has called a “Venomous Past.” A serious economic crisis such as that in 2007-2008; the outbreak of war in Asia; a damaging terrorist act on our homeland could provide the necessary excuse.  Each of these scenarios would heighten public polarization and facilitate a default to strong administrative action. Legal restraints would inevitably yield to aggressive policing behavior and the suppression of dissent. In such a moment of crisis, Congressional reaction would likely follow the President’s lead.

For the most part, the American political system has succeeded by containing differences--with the Civil War being the great exception—due ultimately to the recognition by those in power that dissent need not be perceived as disloyalty and that compromise is ultimately more powerful than winning at all cost.  Periods of enormous tension such as those during the “Red Scares” following World Wars I and II and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960’s and ‘70’s tested the system to, and at times, beyond its limits.  But it is this current test, occurring during a period of relative peace and prosperity but enormous cultural, technological and economic upheaval that may well provide its greatest challenge yet.

Never before has so much of our future fallen into the hands of a leader who seems unwilling, and perhaps psychologically unable to abide by either the formal or informal rules and standards of democratic governance.  Checks and balances are fine on paper, but, like paper, they can far-too-easily be blown away by tumultuous winds stirred by the unstable combination of crisis, unfettered passion and the authoritarian proclivities of a populist leader.

Les Adler


If you liked this post, please sign up to follow or receive email notices from

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


You've probably read or heard about the latest breakthrough in gravitational-wave astronomy--the first detection to two neutron stars merging, with the added bonus of the first follow-on observations of the event across the entire electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves.

Artist's conception of neutron stars merging
Credit: NASA

With three gravitational-wave observatories online (see LIGO and VIRGO), observers were able to accurately triangulate the most recent burst of gravitational waves that rumbled past Earth on August 17. With a much smaller part of the sky to scan, astronomers were able to pin down the source of the event--the merger of two neutron stars in a distant galaxy producing a kilonova--and track its evolution through observations in gamma-rays, x-rays, visible light, infrared and radio waves. 

This unprecedented series of observations let astronomers compare the neutron-star merger to theoretical predictions in great detail, including proving that most of the elements heavier than iron--including gold, platinum and uranium-are forged in these collisions. They also provided new information about the accelerating expansion of the universe. In addition, it demonstates that astronomers now have a huge new window into the universe that promises a stream of surprises and new discoveries.

For great pictures, animations and a more in-depth description of this breakthrough and its implications, click here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I live in Santa Rosa, California. As you know, Santa Rosa, along with many other parts of California, is still reeling from the impact of raging wildfires.

A barn goes up in flames in Glen Ellen, California
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My wife and I are lucky--our house happens to be located a mile or two from where the firestorm stopped. We've spent several sleepless nights, bags packed and in our car, monitoring whether or not we would need to flee. But other than that, we have not been directly impacted by the fires.

Many people were not so lucky. This morning's paper lists 50,000 residents of our county--that's one out of every ten--under evacuation orders, 35 confirmed deaths, 235 people still missing, 5700 homes and businesses destroyed, and more than $1.2 billion in economic damage in Santa Rosa alone. Many of our friends and people we know have lost their homes, businesses or jobs.

We're all-too-used to reading about or seeing images of catastrophes somewhere else--floods in Bangladesh, drought in Australia, hurricanes battering Puerto Rico, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Perhaps we've been moved to a moment's empathy or pity, perhaps we make a donation to some aid agency, or perhaps we just shake our heads and move on.

It's different when it's here rather than there, in our home town rather than someone else's, harming our family or friends rather than strangers.

Our natural disaster, our catastrophe has brought several realizations home to me:

--It can happen here. None of us is immune. Here in Santa Rosa, it wasn't just the Journey's End mobile home park that was destroyed, it was also the middle-class Coffey Park neighborhood and the idyllic Fountaingrove neighborhood, home to many doctors, lawyers and other well-off citizens. Like the residents of Journey's End and Coffey Park, the residents of Fountaingrove had to desert their homes with little or no warning in the middle of the night as the unexpected firestorm blasted through, driven by 70 miles-per-hour winds. Some, many of them elderly or disabled, simply could not get out in time.

--It's real, and it hurts.  It's one thing to see struggling people on TV. It's very different when it's you spending hours hosing down your house and yard while hot embers fall from the sky, when it's you trying to decide what necessities to throw into the car, looking around your house wondering if you'll see it again, or you helping a desperate friend rescue a few precious things before the fire strikes again. It's different when the store you shopped in yesterday is gone today and the neighborhood you've visited a hundred times is a blackened wasteland.

--Ordinary, daily life is precious. It's trite to repeat that "you don't really know what you've got 'till it's gone," but it's also a profound truth. We may all strive to do or experience something extraordinary, have a peak experience, change the world, but in the end what's truly valuable is the everyday life of everyday people. When that's disrupted or lost, you suddenly realizes how precious it was.

We've experienced just one corner of one natural disaster. The dozens who have died, the thousands who've been displaced, represent just a tiny fraction of the estimated 65 million displaced persons and refugees in the world today. But even that enormous number pales in comparison to the number of people--people just like you and me--who are at risk from two existential threats--climate disruption and nuclear war.

I'm not going to argue the reality of either threat. I'll only point out that common sense should tell us that the number and intensity of the extreme climatic events that we're experiencing is far from normal, and that further destabilization of the climate could threaten any or all of us. And a moment's thought should be more than enough to remind us that even a "limited nuclear exchange" could result in misery or death for hundreds of millions of people.

The limited, local disaster I'm living through has brought home to me the preciousness--and fragility--of each of our lives. Multiplying the losses experienced here by millions is no longer unthinkable, but it is unacceptable.

I've been extremely impressed by the local leaders who have come to the fore in this disaster--the local and state fire officials, the sheriff and police officers, mayors and other elected officials. They have all been clear, direct, factual, and focused on responding to and resolving the crisis, step by step. Their efforts to protect lives, contain the fires, begin to bring them under control and now, line up the resources needed to rebuild, seem to be well coordinated and, as more resources have been marshaled, increasingly effective. I've been similarly impressed by how ordinary people have responded--rescuing and helping others, giving time, goods and money to help people who've had to evacuate or who have lost their homes, and showing great dignity and resilience in the face of disaster.

Unfortunately, the contrast with how our national leaders are dealing with the existential threats of climate disruption and nuclear war could not be greater. In both cases, actions by President Trump, his advisers and appointees, and Congress are making things worse rather than  better. Pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement is just the most blatant of the many steps Trump has taken to reverse global progress on the climate. And undermining the nuclear accord with Iran, and the belly-thumping battle between Trump and Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un are dramatically increasing the risk of a nuclear war.

The point of this commentary is to remind everyone that when it comes to the global risks from climate disruption or nuclear war, there is actually here, and they are actually us. People here in Santa Rosa took action as the flames approached, and most were able to save their lives and those of their loved ones. Government officials and agencies took coordinated action to limit the scope of the disaster. People at all levels did what what needed. We need our nation's leaders to act equally well.

We all need to take action now with respect to the threats of runaway climate change and nuclear war. Now, with every tool at our disposal, because when those fires come roaring out of the skies, it will simply be too late.

If you enjoyed this post, please sign up to receive email alerts or to follow