Krista Langlois is freelance journalist and occasional copywriter based in Colorado. She writes about people and the natural world for publications including The Atlantic, National Geographic, Outside and others. You can find her work at www.kristaleelanglois.com.
More than a thousand years ago, Egyptians noticed a shining red object that seemed to wander through the night sky. Fascinated, they painted the celestial body onto star charts and the ceiling of tombs. Chinese, Greek, Roman and other ancient astronomers also tracked the red planet, making up stories about it and attributing it with an array of astrological powers.
In more modern times, too, people obsess over Mars. It has stunning topography, with a volcano three times higher than Mount Everest and gorges four times deeper than the Grand Canyon. Massive windstorms shape its sands into ever-shifting, otherworldly dunes. Its surface temperature is 138 degrees Fahrenheit colder than Earth’s, and its atmosphere deadly thin. Although liquid water once pooled and coursed across the surface of Mars, that water seems largely locked up as ice today.
In 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui secretly altered the DNA of a pair of human embryos to make them resistant to the HIV virus. When the twin babies were born and Dr. He announced what he’d done, scientists and governments around the world condemned him. One researcher called his actions “unconscionable...an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible.” The Chinese government launched an investigation, and media circulated calls to ban or limit the technology that made the genetic engineering possible.
The CIA, no doubt, was paying attention to the whole hoopla. Although the twin babies represent the current apogee of genetic engineering, Dr. He’s work was predicated on decades of research and debate—much of which was monitored by the CIA, which has experimented with using genetically-engineered insects and other animals as instruments of espionage.
The word robot comes from the Czechoslovakian word robotnik, meaning “forced labor,” or “slave.” And indeed, since it was coined by Czech writer Karl Čapek in 1920, people have both feared and fantasized about robots. Friendly ones, like The Jetsons’ housecleaner Rosie or Star Wars’ C3PO, exist to make our lives easier. But lurking behind their helpfulness is the prospect of malevolence, a suspicion that the machines we’ve built in our image could turn on us. As Bladerunner artfully captured, becoming too dependent on robots could make us—not them—the real slaves.
Yet while pop culture reflects society’s conflicted feelings about automation, the scientific fields of robotics and artificial intelligence have marched forward with less ambiguity. Robots have transformed from clunky, bumbling machines to sleek, capable devices that deliver packages, vacuum our floors, and manufacture items we use every day. As these machines encroach deeper into our lives, the question of how we got here is increasingly relevant to scientific historians and other researchers. What philosophical, technical and cultural advances led to the automated world we now inhabit?
Earlier this year, the United States Department of Defense and U.S. Intelligence Community issued reports warning that human-caused climate change is already exacerbating national security threats and global instability—a problem that’s only expected to worsen in coming decades. Among the impacts listed are rising sea levels that could flood U.S. military bases on Pacific islands; punishing drought that’s driving conflicts in East Africa; and melting Arctic sea ice reinvigorating competition for natural resources between the U.S., Russia and China.
Yet while the ways in which climate change fuels conflict and instability are ever evolving, the threat itself is hardly new. As early as the 1980s, the U.S. Naval War College began studying the intersection of global warming and American security. And a division of the CIA that monitored, recorded and translated into English thousands of foreign broadcasts and publications has been tracking international research on the issue for even longer. Today, these reports, found in Climate Science and Sustainability, offer a compelling archive for researchers interested in tracking how governments around the world have responded to the growing threat of climate change over time.
On April 26, 1986, a safety experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine went terribly awry, unleashing plumes of fire and invisible radioactive particles that rained down on surrounding towns and cities. Considered the worst nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl disaster exposed millions of people to radiation and displaced some 200,000 people from their homes.
Yet coverage of the disaster by the Soviet government and state media was shockingly circumspect, focusing on the valiant efforts of workers rather than the devastation experienced by innocent people and animals. A July 1986 report from Pravda, the official newspaper of the USSR, for example, praised the “organized and precise work” of cleanup crews, adding that “many of the power station workers serving the power units are setting examples of courage [muzhestvo] and enthusiasm in their labor.”