Nicole Karlis

Why some New Age influencers believe Trump is a 'lightworker'

Lorie Ladd gazes into the camera with glossy eyes, a look that mimics the long stare one gets after meditating. She's about to give one of her sermons, one of the "most challenging" ones she's ever had to make, she explains. Ladd says she's received a message that needs to be shared from "higher dimensional consciousnesses," what she refers to as the "Galactic Federation of Light." But before revealing the message, Ladd, a self-described "ascension teacher," advises her viewers to shed the stereotypes that have been "programmed" into them — "polarities," she calls them, like "Democrat" and "Republican" — and listen to her message: Donald Trump is a "massive and powerful lightworker."

"To say that I was shocked was an understatement," Ladd tells her nearly 139,000 YouTube followers of her revelation. "I have been digesting information from my guides about what this lightworker in human form looking like Donald Trump has been doing for the human collective; this man has more charge around him than any other human on the planet right now."

Ladd goes on to explain that her video isn't a "political one," but a "consciousness one," and that she's not talking about "voting," but "ascension." Trump, as she explains in the next half hour, is here to help assist humans in what many in the New Age and spiritual communities refer to as a great "awakening" of consciousness. The idea behind the awakening is that human consciousness is approaching a "fifth dimension," which will eventually bring humans closer to the "Source."

A lightworker, as defined by well-being magazine Happiness, is someone who feels "an enormous pull towards helping others." The term, they say, can be interchangeable with "crystal babies," "indigos," "Earth angels" and "star seeds"; "these spiritual beings volunteer to act as a beacon for the Earth, and commit to serving humanity," the story continues. The magazine states that the term was first coined by the New Age author Michael Mirdad.

This rhetoric might sound cultish, but these phrases don't belong to any one specific religious sect. Indeed, such belief systems are part of a larger, more diffuse New Age culture embraced by the ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion in droves — or who were never religious in the first place — and turning to conspirituality by way of many self-described spiritual and wellness influencers online.

Conspirituality, the term that defines this movement, was coined by researcher Charlotte Ward. She describes conspirituality as "a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fueled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews." There is no official indoctrination video, no book to read; the hundreds of thousands of people who embrace these New Age-like beliefs find them on YouTube vlogs like Ladd's, as well as Instagram and Facebook. Recently, conspiritualists have begun to overlap with the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

This notion that Trump is a lightworker shares obvious parallels with the belief, held by some evangelicals, that Trump is comparable to Jesus; similarly, some QAnon followers believe that Trump is the "world leader" whose mission is to "save the children."

Yet what makes the lightworker theory especially odd is that it has emerged from a demographic that would have previously been described as apolitical, or even far-left.

However, as the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol showed, QAnon and Trump adherents are no longer just middle-aged, conservative white men like the Republican Party of yore. Many of those who embrace right-wing fringe beliefs are yogis, and love-and-light types, too. Take Jake Angeli for example, the so-called "QAnon Shaman" who donned a horned hat and spear-tipped American flag as he stormed the Capitol building on January 6. The 33-year-old, who identifies as having "shamanistic" beliefs, was recently granted the right to be fed an all-organic diet in jail in line with his religious practice.

Ladd's declaration that Trump was a lightworker sent shockwaves through conspiritual and self-help communities. (Salon reached out to Ladd for comment, but did not receive a response.) Some spirituality and consciousness bloggers vehemently disagreed. But many influential figures in the community thought Ladd was onto something, including Christiane Northrup, a physician and best-selling author who has been spreading anti-vaccination rhetoric and has embraced QAnon.

Matthew Remski, a co-host of the Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher, described Northrup as a "conspirituality aggregator" who feeds what she finds most interesting to her followers, of which she has many.

"What I think is really brilliant about this particular iteration of QAnon — or 'soft' or 'pastel Q,' you could call it — is that it's really effective at evading content moderation," Remski said. "To only really say something positive about the person who's at the head of QAnon mythology and sort of soft-pedal all of the aggression and triumph that is going to be involved in his mission is a really good way of brand-washing QAnon for the wellness set."

Indeed, while social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have suspended many accounts sharing QAnon-related disinformation, the wellness influencers remain. Dr. Ronald Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and the author of "McMindfulness," said that in uncertain times, societies see a rise of "occultures," meaning "groups of people who are attracted to strange occult and esoteric ideas, mixing them in unforeseen ways with political movements."

"A common theme in such movements is the need for purification, purifying and purging unwanted elements – toxins, impurities, or anything foreign or other," Purser said. "This is why we see so many New Age yoga practitioners seduced by QAnon."

Purser said there are parallels between the rise of "occultures" now and the role spirituality and mysticism played in Nazi Germany. Notably, the Third Reich appropriated the swastika, a symbol used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains; the word means "well-being" in Sanskrit.

"Consider Hitler, who was obsessed with the occult, was a vegetarian, used astrologers [and] oracles," Purser said. "The Nazi Heinrich Himmler, head of SS, was enamored with Eastern mysticism, and he sent an expedition to Tibet in search of lost remnants of a secret and pure Aryan race; Hitler was seen as a 'light worker' [as in someone who's saving humanity] that would purge Germany of Jews."

Purser added that Trump and his enablers have "mastered the ability of weaponized mass delusion through social media."

"Many of the New Agers drawn to QAnon are probably suffering from unresolved trauma – like many in Trump's base as well," Purser said. "It's easier to look to a savior and to find scapegoats than to face one's own fears and pain."

When asked about the term lightworker, and where it derives from, Remski said he first heard it when he was in a "Course in Miracles cult" from 1999 to 2003. The name is a reference to a book, titled "A Course in Miracles," that was published by Helen Schucman in 1976; Schucman claimed the book had been spoken to her via "inner dictation" from Christ. Remski said the word "light" appears in the text frequently.

"Light is not only the sort of keynote of this Manichaean universe in which things are either light or shadow, they're either good or bad, it's also like schizotypal as a universe, it is given this materiality as well," Remski said of Schucman's book. "Light is said to be something that can fill a person up, it can blow a person apart, it can enter a person, and I think it probably overlaps with some pre-modern ideas like prana or ch'ithose kind of folk medicine ideas of vital force — but it's also associated with an absolute truth, an ontological transformation . . . like once once light enters into you, you are forever changed."

Remski believes the conspiritual rhetoric around "light" started after the book was published. While the book "A Course in Miracles" doesn't include the term "lightworker," the theme of light itself runs throughout. "The key is only the light that shines away the shapes and forms and fears of nothing," a typical passage reads.

One prominent figure who was deeply influenced by "A Course in Miracles" is former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. In 1996, Williamson wrote a book, "A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles,'" that was structured as a reflection on the original text. Williamson, too, has used the term "lightworker" before; in a 2013 Facebook post, Williamson wrote, "A light-worker is not someone who ignores the darkness; it's someone who transforms the darkness."

Obviously, Williamson and Trump are political opposites; Williamson, a Democrat, came down hard and repeatedly on Trump's policies during her 2020 campaign. Salon asked Williamson what she thought about the term "lightworker" being used to describe Trump. She replied via email: "I think it's insane. . . . Like many others, I don't understand it but I find it deeply disturbing."

When asked why he believes people have been so eager to embrace this belief that Trump is a "lightworker," Remski said that it is because it can "offer all of the benefits of the conspiratorial mindset, without a lot of the drawbacks."

"Because you're saying something kind about him," Remski said, "as the social psychologists basically repeat over and over again."

Remski believes conspiracy theories are attractive because they "satisfy epistemic needs." "Like, 'I'm now I'm going to know something that nobody else knows,' or 'I'm going to meet my survival needs, meaning this information is going to help me tolerate what's happening, but also maybe even preserve me from danger,'" he said.

But as the social media spread of the "lightworker" theory illustrates, conspiracy theories also open up their adherents to communities of people that they can hang out with, Remski mused.

'Vaccine guilt' is a real thing

When Emily Brimmer's family dentist sent out an email that they were administering vaccines, she jumped at the opportunity. Brimmer is certainly entitled to get one: though only 36 years old, she has type 1 diabetes, lives with family and helps to take care of her 101-year-old aunt. But once inoculated, Brimmer wasn't prepared for one of the unexpected side effects: guilt.

"When you say, 'I got a shot,' there's automatically this kind of perceived feeling of judgment that is like 'Why did you get a shot, and how did you get a shot?'" Brimmer told Salon. "There's just this need to justify the entire thing."

Technically, as a type-1 diabetic, Brimmer is in the "high risk" category. Her primary care doctor wrote her a note affirming this, which she used to get her vaccine. The caveat was that she had to travel from New York, where she lives, to Pennsylvania.

"So that kind of made me feel guilty," Brimmer said in reference to having to cross state borders. "But it's not like I cut any lines, or dressed up like grandmothers and tried to sneak in. . . everything I did was by the book, and on paper I shouldn't feel guilty."

But Brimmer does. And far from being an isolated anxiety, vaccine guilt is actually quite common. Psychotherapist Alyza Berman, founder and clinical director of The Berman Center, told Salon via email that such feelings emerge from a variety of factors: situational comparison, survivor's guilt, and fear of criticism or retribution. And certainly the piecemeal vaccine rollout, and arcane tiered system of eligibility, factor into that guilt when patients appear to sidestep the rules — even if they aren't actually doing so.

"Given the severity of this pandemic and continued rising death toll, people feel guilty when they qualify to be vaccinated before others who've already suffered great losses during the pandemic, or could stand to lose even more as COVID goes on," Berman said. "As human beings, we have an intrinsic nature to want to quantify and compare ourselves to others, whether for good or bad reasons."

Berman said that this can create "an enormous mental toll on people and weigh heavily on someone's psyche when they're trying to evaluate if they're doing the right thing."

Hence, feelings of guilt.

Berman said the phenomenon is "more common than you'd think" and that it's "affecting many people in very similar ways." In other words, something is happening sociologically.

Rick Patterson told Salon via email that he and his wife were able to receive their vaccines "substantially early." She was volunteering at one of the vaccination sites, which often is a way for volunteers to get a vaccine early.

"It was complete luck we were able to obtain our vaccinations when we did, and I feel that there are so many people who need this more than we do right now," Patterson said. He added that it was an "overwhelming thought," that there were "still so many who have not and might not be able to get it anywhere in the near future." Indeed, the inequity troubled him.

Patterson said he feels that his wife, as a vaccination site volunteer, deserved the shot more than him.

"But as her husband, what really gave me the obligation to have one too?" he asked.

Many bioethicists and mental health professionals agree that feeling guilty isn't beneficial to anyone. If you're offered a vaccine, you shouldn't feel guilty. But if you are committing fraud to get a shot early — say, dressing up like an elderly person — then that is something to feel guilty about.

"There is a difference between accepting and even taking advantage of unfairness that exists, and creating unfairness," Dr. Matthew Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado, told Denver-based Magazine 5280. "We all have an obligation to try not to create unfairness."

So what are the guilty to do?

"The main advice I can give someone suffering from vaccine guilt is to give yourself a break," Berman said. "We've been put through an impossible situation over the past year, the likes of which no one has ever seen before." That's inarguably true.

Why some New Agers think Trump is a 'lightworker' — in a troubling parallel to mysticism in Nazi Germany

Lorie Ladd gazes into the camera with glossy eyes, a look that mimics the long stare one gets after meditating. She's about to give one one of her sermons, one of "most challenging" ones she's ever had to make, she explains. Ladd says she's received a message that needs to be shared from "higher dimensional consciousnesses," what she refers to as the "Galactic Federation of Light." But before revealing the message, Ladd, a self-described "ascension teacher," advises her viewers to shed the stereotypes that have been "programmed" into them — "polarities," she calls them, like "Democrat" and "Republican" — and listen to her message: Donald Trump is a "massive and powerful lightworker."

"To say that I was shocked was an understatement," Ladd tells her nearly 139,000 YouTube followers of her revelation. "I have been digesting information from my guides about what this lightworker in human form looking like Donald Trump has been doing for the human collective; this man has more charge around him than any other human on the planet right now."

Ladd goes on to explain that her video isn't a "political one," but a "consciousness one," and that she's not talking about "voting," but "ascension." Trump, as she explains in the next half hour, is here to help assist humans in what many in the New Age and spiritual communities refer to as a great "awakening" of consciousness. The idea behind the awakening is that human consciousness is approaching a "fifth dimension," which will eventually bring humans closer to the "Source."

A lightworker, as defined by well-being magazine Happiness, is someone who feels "an enormous pull towards helping others." The term, they say, can be interchangeable with "crystal babies," "indigos," "Earth angels" and "star seeds"; "these spiritual beings volunteer to act as a beacon for the Earth, and commit to serving humanity," the story continues.

This rhetoric might sound cultish, but these phrases don't belong to any one specific religious sect. Indeed, such belief systems are part of a larger, more diffuse New Age culture embraced by the ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion in droves — or who were never religious in the first place — and turning to conspirituality by way of many self-described spiritual and wellness influencers online.

Conspirituality, the term that defines this movement, was coined by researcher Charlotte Ward. She describes conspirituality as "a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fueled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews." There is no official indoctrination video, no book to read; the hundreds of thousands of people who embrace these New Age-like beliefs find them on YouTube vlogs like Ladd's, as well as Instagram and Facebook. Recently, conspiritualists have begun to overlap with the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

This notion that Trump is a lightworker shares obvious parallels with the belief, held by some evangelicals, that Trump is comparable to Jesus; similarly, some QAnon followers believe that Trump is the "world leader" whose mission is to "save the children."

Yet what makes the lightworker theory especially odd is that it has emerged from a demographic that would have previously been described as apolitical, or even far-left.

However, as the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol showed, QAnon and Trump adherents no longer middle-aged, conservative white men like the Republican Party of yore. Many of those who embrace right-wing fringe beliefs are yogis, woo-woo, love-and-light types, too. Take Jake Angeli for example, the so-called "QAnon Shaman" who donned a horned hat and spear-tipped American flag as he stormed the Capitol building on January 6. The 33-year-old, who identifies as having "shamanistic" beliefs, was recently granted the right to be fed an all-organic diet in jail in line with his religious practice.

Ladd's declaration that Trump was a lightworker sent shockwaves through conspiritual and self-help communities. (Salon reached out to Ladd for comment, but did not receive a response.) Some spirituality and consciousness bloggers vehemently disagreed. But many influential figures in the community thought Ladd was onto something, including Christiane Northrup, a physician and best-selling author who has been spreading anti-vaccination rhetoric and has embraced QAnon.

Matthew Remski, a co-host of the Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher, described Northrup as a "conspirituality aggregator" who feeds what she finds most interesting to her followers, of which she has many.

"What I think is really brilliant about this particular iteration of QAnon — or 'soft' or 'pastel Q,' you could call it — is that it's really effective at evading content moderation," Remski said. "To only really say something positive about the person who's at the head of QAnon mythology and sort of soft-pedal all of the aggression and triumph that is going to be involved in his mission is a really good way of brand-washing QAnon for the wellness set."

Indeed, while social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have suspended many accounts sharing QAnon-related disinformation, the wellness influencers remain. Dr. Ronald Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and the author of "McMindfulness," said that in uncertain times, societies see a rise of "occultures," meaning "groups of people who are attracted to strange occult and esoteric ideas, mixing them in unforeseen ways with political movements."

"A common theme in such movements is the need for purification, purifying and purging unwanted elements – toxins, impurities, or anything foreign or other," Purser said. "This is why we see so many New Age yoga practitioners seduced by QAnon."

Purser said there are parallels between the rise of "occultures" now and the role spirituality and mysticism played in Nazi Germany. Notably, the Third Reich appropriated the swastika, a symbol used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains; the word means "well-being" in Sanskrit.

"Consider Hitler, who was obsessed with the occult, was a vegetarian, used astrologers [and] oracles," Purser said. "The Nazi Heinrich Himmler, head of SS, was enamored with Eastern mysticism, and he sent an expedition to Tibet in search of lost remnants of a secret and pure Aryan race; Hitler was seen as a 'light worker' [as in someone who's saving humanity] that would purge Germany of Jews."

Purser added that Trump and his enablers have "mastered the ability of weaponized mass delusion through social media."

"Many of the New Agers drawn to QAnon are probably suffering from unresolved trauma – like many in Trump's base as well," Purser said. "It's easier to look to a savior and to find scapegoats than to face one's own fears and pain."

When asked about the term lightworker, and where it derives from, Remski said he first heard it when he was in a "Course in Miracles" cult from 1999 to 2003. The name is a reference to a book, titled "A Course in Miracles," that was published by Helen Schucman in 1976; Schucman claimed the book had been spoken to her via "inner dictation" from Christ. Remski said the word "light" appears in the text frequently.

"Light is not only the sort of keynote of this Manichaean universe in which things are either light or shadow, they're either good or bad, it's also like schizotypal as a universe, it is given this materiality as well," Remski said of Schucman's book. "Light is said to be something that can fill a person up, it can blow a person apart, it can enter a person, and I think it probably overlaps with some pre-modern ideas like prana or ch'ithose kind of folk medicine ideas of vital force — but it's also associated with an absolute truth, an ontological transformation . . . like once once light enters into you, you are forever changed."

While the book "A Course in Miracles" doesn't include the term "light worker," the theme of light itself runs throughout. "The key is only the light that shines away the shapes and forms and fears of nothing," a typical passage reads.

One prominent figure who was deeply influenced by "A Course in Miracles" is former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. In 1996, Williamson wrote a book, "A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles,'" that was structured as a reflection on the original text. Williamson, too, has used the term "light worker" before; in a 2013 Facebook post, Williamson wrote, "A light-worker is not someone who ignores the darkness; it's someone who transforms the darkness."

Obviously, Williamson and Trump are political opposites; Williamson, a Democrat, came down hard and repeatedly on Trump's policies during her 2020 campaign. Salon asked Williamson what she thought about the term "lightworker" being used to describe Trump. She replied via email: "I think it's insane. . . . Like many others, I don't understand it but I find it deeply disturbing."

When asked why he believes people have been so eager to embrace this belief that Trump is a "lightworker," Remski said that it is because it can "offer all of the benefits of the conspiratorial mindset, without a lot of the drawbacks."

"Because you're saying something kind about him," Remski said, "as the social psychologists basically repeat over and over again."

Remski believes conspiracy theories are attractive because they "satisfy epistemic needs." "Like, 'I'm now I'm going to know something that nobody else knows,' or 'I'm going to meet my survival needs, meaning this information is going to help me tolerate what's happening, but also maybe even preserve me from danger,'" he said.

But as the social media spread of the "lightworker" theory illustrates, conspiracy theories also open up their adherents to communities of people that they can hang out with, Remski mused.

Why America's power grids will keep failing us

Wednesday marked the third day millions of Texans found themselves without power following a rare winter storm and frigid temperatures dipping into the low 20s. While power is being restored in some areas, rotating outages are expected to start on Wednesday in Texas.

The situation is dire for many Texans. According to The New York Times, at least 23 people have died as of Wednesday morning. Emergency rooms saw a wave of people with carbon monoxide poisoning, the aftermath of attempts to keep warm. Likewise, clean water access is a growing issue as pipes freeze in the Lone Star State.

And Texas isn't alone: As the remnants of the winter storm make its way across the Midwest, and a second winter storm looms in the Northeast, rolling power outages are popping up in parts of Missouri, Louisiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oregon. The situation is eerily similar to what happened in California last summer, when rolling blackouts were sparked by a demand-driven energy shortage; then, a massive heat wave increased air conditioner use and forced rolling power outages. Those blackouts were the first of their kind since 2001 when California faced an electricity crisis.

All these recent incidents are raising concerns over the fragility of the country's fragmented power grid, and how vulnerable these systems are to extreme weather events compounded by climate change.

So what went wrong in Texas?

"Many of the problems we're seeing, both in California now in Texas, are due to the fact that the grid we have in both places is dumb and old, as opposed to being smart, new and flexible," said Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley. "Fossil fuel grids" like the one in Texas, and like what California used to have until they transitioned away from them, are "really dumb systems — they're not adaptive or flexible, and that is really causing a lot of the problems you're seeing in Texas today," Kammen added.

Indeed, fossil fuel power plants are generally built to be far away from population centers, which means that the power has to be shipped long distances. This alone, Kammen said, creates a very "inflexible" system. In Texas, the power shortage happened after natural gas plants couldn't supply the 30 gigawatts of power they were expected to supply. To put this in perspective, 30 gigawatts is more than the average demand in California, Kammen said.

"The idea that so much gas would go offline, because of these freezing events, really speaks to a system that's not adaptable," Kammen said. "It''s not able to reroute power because we have smart interchanges on the transmission network; it's a system that is fundamentally not up to speed . . . they don't have enough sensors on the power lines, on the power plants, so they can predict this."

In a smart grid, which would enable a two-way flow of electricity and data enabled by technology, there would be backup generators, and energy storage systems in place that would have the ability to send power if, say, the turbines went down. While ice forced some turbines in Texas to shut down, energy experts agree — despite Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott casting blame at frozen wind turbines — that frozen turbines are not the root of the cause of the power outages in Texas.

Kammen described the situation in Texas as "policy and technology" failing— especially for low-income communities.

"We know that when these events happen, the power losses are earliest and generally longest in the lowest income communities," Kammen said. "So there's a real environmental justice damage that comes from not having a smarter, more renewable energy–enabled grid."

Kammen added that California, New Jersey and New York — which have become leaders in implementing solar panels — are examples of how states can implement a renewable energy plan.

"In an ice and snow storm like this, what you would have needed to have people do is literally go and shovel the snow off the roof," Kammen said. "I'm hoping that this will push Texas to recognize the large economic benefit of moving to enabling distributed rooftop solar, and more wind farms distributed across the state can be a real benefit here." Modern wind turbines, Kammen noted, have built-in heating systems.

But the problems with the grid in Texas were also the result of a perfect storm of poor planning, decrepit infrastructure, and blind worship of the free market by policymakers.

Vijay Modi, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, told Salon what he believes is happening in Texas is the agglomeration of five separate shifts that have happened in America over the last few decades. First, we've built more housing. Second, our civilization has become more reliant on gas. Third, electric heat pumps have become more popular, especially in the South. Fourth, there's been a momentum in some parts of the country to embrace a free market power utility system — especially in Texas. And finally, many of our gas pipelines and power systems — like the one in Texas — aren't weatherized. Indeed, power grids across the country weren't built with climate change in mind.

"All these factors combined with a weather event unusual for Texas added up to an inadequate supply for this rare event," Modi said. "Unfortunately, we are likely to see more rare events in the future because we have so much more housing and people to support with an aging infrastructure and unusual weather systems."

Modi added that now is the time to "rethink how we engineer our systems for resiliency and for reliability."

Both experts had different opinions on whether this situation — more frequent power outages, rolling blackouts to ease the demand on power grids during extreme weather — would constitute the new normal.

"The short answer is that the new normal is not just because of climate and weather, but it's because of our expectations too," Modi said. "I work in countries where many don't have electricity access at all, for them, the new normal is to get at least enough for lighting and communication. Our new normal will go towards, 'I want to be able to run my electric heat, charge my electric vehicle, run my appliances and my WiFi all at the same time maybe and do so reliably.'"

Modi added that America "can and should deploy smarter engineering solutions that don't require a new $20,000 per customer infrastructure investment to get this reliability."

Meanwhile, Kammen deemed the situation in Texas "the new abnormal."

"It's the new abnormal, if anything — because only after the fact can analysts figure [whether] the Texas storm was driven by the abnormal climate change we're seeing."

Baby bust: Why the coronavirus pandemic is making many Americans rethink having kids

When lockdowns rippled across the country last March, many experts speculated that couples cohabitating together would be more apt to have sex and therefore procreate. There is precedent for this speculation: a month-long blackout in Zanzibar in 2008 — in which many were forced to stay home more frequently, just as one might during a pandemic — caused a mini-baby boom nine months later.

Yet predictions of a pandemic baby boom did not take into account how the loss of jobs, income, childcare services — and an overburdened healthcare system fighting a highly contagious coronavirus — would take a massive mental and emotional toll on women and families across the country. Monthly birth data shows that being confined to one house with your significant other doesn't make for primed conditions to bring another human being into this world, even if popular Etsy baby-wear emblazoned with "Mommy and daddy didn't practice social distancing" suggests otherwise.

According to a Bloomberg analysis, births decreased by 19 percent in California between December 2019 and December 2020. Data from Florida, Hawaii, Arizona, and Ohio show large declines in birth rates since the pandemic started compared to the previous year's data, too. A survey conducted by Modern Fertility, a company that sells fertility tests directly to consumers, found that 30 percent of nearly 4,000 people surveyed stated they changed their fertility plans due to COVID-19. One in four of those respondents said they've become unsure about having children at all; the most commonly cited reason was uncertainty about the world. Notably, a similar number of respondents stated that COVID-19 accelerated their timelines for having children.

Indeed, this tumultuous moment has caused many to rethink having kids.

Sarah Logan, editor of The Bunny Hub, told Salon via email that she and her husband decided not to have another baby right now because of the pandemic.

"These difficult times are not the best time to have another family member," Logan said.

Sandra Henderson, a love dating coach in Los Angeles, told Salon via email she can't help but feel "worried" about raising a child in this "chaos."

"For us, it is better to have a child when everything's back to normal and where everything and every place is a safe place to be," Henderson said. "Plus, we are both working from home now, and with lots of responsibilities we are currently juggling in our hands right now, we think we really can't do it for now."

"These difficult times are not the best time to have another family member," Logan said.

Sandra Henderson, a love dating coach in Los Angeles, told Salon via email she can't help but feel "worried" about raising a child in this "chaos."

"For us, it is better to have a child when everything's back to normal and where everything and every place is a safe place to be," Henderson said. "Plus, we are both working from home now, and with lots of responsibilities we are currently juggling in our hands right now, we think we really can't do it for now."

Nearly a year later, they are still on pause.

"With both of us working from home while there are two little rugrats running circles around us all day long, it's a miracle we manage to get anything done," Miller said. "We know we're not getting any younger, but unfortunately our biological clocks don't always align perfectly with our plans in life; if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that no good comes of forcing something that doesn't feel right. So, our plan is to sit tight and see how things unravel."

But deciding not to have children during the pandemic is a choice that not everyone has the privilege to make. For some who were pregnant and seeking abortions just as the pandemic hit, lockdown limited their access to providers and clinics as a handful of states made it it nearly impossible to terminate pregnancies. For people who were planning on undergoing fertility procedures like in vitro fertilization, the pandemic completely threw a wrench in those plans too — as, at the beginning of the pandemic, many of these appointments were put on hold, delayed, or deemed "non-essential" or "elective" procedures.

Sarah Urbanski had originally planned to utilize a known donor's sperm who lived abroad. The known donor would also be the same donor for her partner's pregnancy later on. But the couple quickly realized that once the pandemic hit, due to travel restrictions, that they were going to have to change plans.

"We pivoted to egg retrievals to allow ourselves to push our timeline out with our known donor hoping that travel restrictions might lessen," Urbanski said, adding that they're now doing reciprocal IVF which is when one partner supplies the eggs to be used for IVF, while the other partner carries the pregnancy. "We're trying to see it as a wonderful option for us, but no part in our fertility journey has gone according to what we originally had planned."

Urbanski said they will be working with an anonymous donor from a cryobank now, but it's been tough to rework their original plan in the middle of the pandemic.

"Any given day there's definitely some highs and lows and you know there's nothing really easy about that, and we're not in a vacuum," Urbanski said. "We have folks who are becoming pregnant and announcing that, and we're so happy for people in our chosen family and community. But it's definitely tough when we're coming around — you know, a year and a half, two years that we've been talking about this — and we still feel like we're at the starting line of our journey."

Fauci says it will be 'open season' for COVID-19 vaccine by April

On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, delivered hopeful news about vaccine availability and the country's lagging roll-out. On NBC's "Today" show, echoing remarks from earlier in the day, Fauci said there could be an "open season" on available vaccine doses by April.

"By the time we get to April, that will be what I would call, for better wording, 'open season,' namely, virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated," Fauci said. "From then on, it would likely take several more months just logistically to get the vaccine into people's arms, so that hopefully as we get into the middle and end of the summer, we could have accomplished the goal of what we're talking about — namely the overwhelming majority of people in this country having gotten vaccinated."

The news coincides with the Biden administration's announcement that they've purchased another 200 million doses of the two coronavirus vaccines, increasing supply by 50 percent to a total of 600 million doses. Securing these additional vaccines means that by the end of July, everyone eligible for inoculation is covered. As previously reported by the New York Times, the Trump administration passed up an offer to purchase Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine beyond the initial 100 million doses. President Joe Biden previously stated that a lack of vaccines was in part to blame for America's slow vaccine roll-out.

On Thursday, Fauci said Americans can expect vaccinations to "pick up" very soon. Currently, eligibility for the COVID-19 varies in each state and county, prioritizing frontline workers, and people over the age of 65 who are considered to have a higher risk of have severe disease outcomes.

"If you look at what's going to happen as we get into March and April the number of available doses will allow for much more of a mass vaccination approach, which is really much more accelerated than what you're seeing now," Fauci said. "If you compare now to what we were doing just literally a month ago, the escalation has really been considerable."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 46.3 million doses have been administered; 34.7 million Americans have received the first dose, and nearly 11.2 million people have received both doses. The population of the United States is about 331 million; experts believe that 80 to 90% of the population must be vaccinated, or immune to coronavirus due to prior infection, in order for herd immunity to be achieved.

Notably, there's no estimated timeline for when children under the age of 16 can receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is authorized for 16- to 17-year-olds as well as adults. The Moderna vaccine was authorized for people 18 and over, and is currently running clinical trials for 12 to 17-year-olds.

In an interview with Propublica, Fauci said he is hopeful children will be able to get the coronavirus vaccine by September 2021.

"We're in the process of starting clinical trials in what we call age de-escalation, where you do a clinical trial with people 16 to 12, then 12 to 9, then 9 to 6," Fauci said. "I would think by the time we get to school opening, we likely will be able to get people who come into the first grade."

Biden explains how Trump's bungling of the pandemic was 'even more dire than we thought'

President Joe Biden appeared in his first network television interview with CBS News since taking office, and provided insight into the COVID-19 pandemic plan his administration inherited from the Trump administration.

In the interview with Norah O'Donnell, she asked if the Super Bowl would have a full stadium next year.

"It's my hope and expectation if we're able to put together and make up for all the lost time in fighting COVID that's occurred," Biden said, indicating that the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic was "more dire than we thought."

"One of the disappointments was when we came into office is the circumstance relating to how the [former] administration was handling COVID was even more dire than we thought," Biden said. "We thought that it had indicated there was a lot more vaccine available and it didn't turn out to be the case."

Biden added that's why his administration has "ramped up every way we can."

Biden took office promising to aid the nationwide rollout of vaccines, with a focus on getting them to marginalized populations who have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. To do this, the Biden administration set a goal to reach 100 million vaccinations in its first 100 days of office. The administration has increased its weekly vaccine supply to states and is purchasing an additional 100 million doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to quicken the pace of the roll-out throughout the summer. The purchases will provide enough supply to vaccinate nearly 300 million Americans by the end of the summer.

Last week, the Biden administration also announced that it will start shipping vaccine doses to retail pharmacies across the nation; this move is separate from an ongoing federal program to have Walgreens and CVS vaccinate residents of long-term care facilities.

"The Centers for Disease Control, which has quite a bit of experience working with pharmacies, is making sure that we are picking pharmacies in that first phase that are located in areas that are harder to reach to ensure that we have equitable distribution of the pharmacy doses," said Jeff Zients , White House coronavirus response coordinator, adding that the first couple of weeks will be a dry run. "Eventually, as we're able to increase supply, up to 40,000 pharmacies nationwide could provide COVID-19 vaccinations."

Biden calling the vaccine situation "dire" during the CBS interview didn't come exactly as a surprise. Politico previously reported that the Biden administration arrived at the White House ready to hit the ground running, but had to spend much of their first week trying to locate 20 million missing vaccines — a consequence of the Trump administration's infrastructure that failed to track the route vaccines took once they left the federal government's storage spaces.

"Nobody had a complete picture," said Julie Morita, a member of the Biden transition team and executive vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to Politico. "The plans that were being made were being made with the assumption that more information would be available and be revealed once they got into the White House."

The Biden administration is also gearing up to use sports stadiums as mass vaccine sites across the country, which Biden spoke about in the CBS interview. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered the league's 30 stadiums as potential vaccination sites.

When asked if the Biden administration would accept the offer, Biden said, "Absolutely, we will."

"Let me put it this way, I'm gonna tell my team they're available and I believe we'll use them," Biden said.

The case for wearing two masks

At President Joe Biden's inauguration last week, many viewers were keen to notice Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) mittens. But there was another inauguration fashion accessory sported by many that caught eyes: politicians donning not one, but two masks. The practice was quickly dubbed "double-masking." Indeed, former South Bend mayor and Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg wore two facemasks, a white one beneath a cloth black one. His spouse, Chasten, sported a double-masked look as well.

Anecdotally, I have noticed more people opting to wear two masks instead of one in the Bay Area, which raises the question: Is two better than one?

On Monday, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci weighed in on double-masking, stating, "it just makes common sense."

"If you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective," Fauci said. "That's the reason why you see people either double masking or doing a version of an N95."

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has yet to officially recommend double-masking — and scientists who have been studying the coronavirus and its mitigation strategies tell Salon it's unnecessary for them to do so, for now, for a number of reasons. One being, that while it may be "common sense," the issue is nuanced. That's partly because the effectiveness of double-masking largely depends on the material of the masks, and how that material compares to the material of one really effective mask.

"More layers is probably better, that does make sense . . . if a droplet gets through one layer maybe you'll be stopped by the next layer — that to me is logical," said Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California, Davis. "But of course it would also depend on the material, and then the coverage of the mask."

For example, one N95 mask is better than two cloth masks.

Dr. John Volckens, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Colorado State University, said that the take home message is certainly "any mask is helpful," but agreed that "double masking" is better than one because of the quality of masks that most of the public is wearing. Studies show the best protection against the coronavirus is an N95 mask. However, they are in short supply and prioritized for healthcare workers. Not only are N95 masks hard to come by, but they need to be professionally fitted to one's face to ensure a tight seal. When this happens, the mask can block 95 percent of very small particles— hence, the name. Even a "suboptimal" fit though can block more than 90 percent of small particles, according to research published before the pandemic. This is why healthcare workers wear N95 masks, which are often accompanied by face shields. But the public isn't wearing N95 masks—they're either wearing cloth masks, or disposable surgical ones.

"A lot of masks that I see out in the wild don't fit very well on people's faces, there are gaps in them, and this is especially true of those blue surgical masks," Volckens said. "Those aren't meant to seal against the face, and if they don't seal against your face, then they leak."

Volckens said after wearing an N95, a person has a ring around their face like they've been snorkeling. That's because the mask has created a seal around that person's face, protecting them from 95 percent of aerosols. Yet that doesn't happen when a person wears either a surgical mask or a cloth mask—there are gaps and leaks on the sides.

"Double masking is a way to combat that lack of protection," Volkens said, "because you have a good mask as the bottom layer like one of those blue surgical masks. The filters in those masks are protective, but they're not allowed to do their job if they're leaking on the side," he continued. "So the second mask you put on holds that filter closer to your face, and provides for a better seal."

The second mask, Volckens said, should be anything that helps press the first one around your face more tightly. He added that the second layer of protection could even be a "mask fitter" or "mask sealer" that holds the mask more tightly around a person's face.

While cloth masks aren't as effective as N95 masks in protecting the person wearing them and other people, they do provide a layer of protection that can have a profound public health impact on a community. For example, a study published in Health Affairs compared the COVID-19 growth rate before and after mask mandates in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Researchers found that mask mandates led to a reduction in daily COVID-19 cases; after five days, the growth rate declined by 0.9 percent. At three weeks, the daily growth rate slowed by 2 percentage points.

"A bad mask is better than no mask at all," Volkens emphasized.

Epidemiologist George Rutherford, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed that the more layers you have, the better. Rutherford emphasized that the public wears masks for three reasons.

"The first one is because 60 percent of people who transmit are asymptomatic when they're at their most infectious, the second is we also want to protect ourselves," Rutherford said. "And then the third is if people do manage to get infected, despite wearing masks, you probably get infected with smaller inoculums, fewer viral particles, and as a result they get less sick."

Rutherford said that wearing two masks is especially a good idea when you're on public transportation, or in any situation where can't control the people around you. But don't expect double masking to be a singular means to get us out of this pandemic— so as long as many people continue to refuse to wear masks.

"I'd rather spend my time getting people to wear masks who aren't wearing masks," he said. "Rather than getting people to wear double masks."

Physicist Avi Loeb thinks there's a 'serious possibility' that 'Oumuamua was an alien spacecraft

Are we alone in the universe?

It's a question humans have been asking for thousands of years—but when a bizarrely fast, cigar-shaped interstellar object jetted past Earth on its trip through our solar system, Harvard professor Avi Loeb believes scientists weren't ready to seriously consider that it was of artificial origin. But Loeb is beyond consideration — he says it's very possible that 'Oumuamua (pronounced "oh moo ah moo ah") was an interstellar spacecraft.

Back in October 2017, a postdoctoral researcher named Robert Weryk at the University of Hawaii was sifting through the usual data stream from the Pan-STARRS astronomical survey of the sky when he noticed an unexpected object. It appeared to be highly elongated, like a stick, with a long axis 10 times longer than its short axis — unprecedented for an asteroid. Some hypothesized that 'Oumuamua swung towards our solar system as a result of a gravitational slingshot of a binary star system; others, that it might be an odd comet, though no tail was evident. Thus the search began to collect and analyze as much data as possible before it left our solar system.

Immediately upon discovering its physical properties, researchers realized its shape — which would minimize abrasions from interstellar gas and dust — would be ideal for an interstellar spacecraft. The idea understandably sent shockwaves through the scientific community and stoked controversy. Ultimately, scientists coalesced behind the idea that it was of natural origin, rather than artificial. But Loeb, who is the former chair of astronomy at Harvard University, remains certain that it was something akin to a light sail — a form of interstellar propulsion — spacecraft created by an extraterrestrial civilization. So much so that he wrote a whole book about it.

That book would be "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth," in which Loeb argues that the scientific community's resistance to discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life has hindered taking seriously his hypothesis that 'Oumuamua was an alien light sail. Loeb reflects on how what happened with 'Oumuamua was a bit of a missed opportunity, and that academia must invest more in the search for life in our universe to better prepare us for another interstellar visitor. But perhaps, most importantly, in a time when Earth faces an urgent global warming crisis, Loeb says that it could be finding extraterrestrial life that saves us from ourselves.

As always, this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What makes you think that 'Omuamua was a light sail spacecraft created by an extraterrestrial civilization?

At first, astronomers assumed it must be a comet, because these are the objects that are most loosely bound to stars. We have mostly comets in the outer parts of the solar system. These are rocks covered with ice, and when they get close to a star they warm up, and the ice evaporates into a cometary tail.

It was natural to assume that about 'Oumuamua, because it came from outside the solar system, so the assumption was it must be a comet. The problem with that was there was no cometary tail. Some people say, "okay it's not a comet, maybe it's just a rock." But the problem is, about half a year later, it was reported that there was an excess push in addition to the force of gravity acting on it by the sun. It exhibited some additional force. Usually that force comes from the rocket effect of the cometary tail, but there was no cometary tail. So the question was, what produces this excess push?

Moreover, during the time that it was observed, the reflected sunlight [off of 'Oumuamua] varied by a factor of 10. So, that implied that it has an extreme geometry. Even if you consider a razor-thin piece of paper tumbling in the wind, the amount of area that is projected in your direction is not varying by more than a factor of 10, because the chance of seeing it edge on is really small. It is tumbling in the wind. So it looked like this object has an extreme geometry. The most likely model that explains the reflective sunlight as a function of time — as it was doubling every eight hours — was that it has a flat, pancake-like geometry, not cigar-shaped the way it was depicted in some cartoons.

On top of that, it was on the shinier end of all the objects we have seen from the solar system. It also came from a special frame of reference that is called the Local Standard of Rest. That is sort of the galactic parking lot where, if you find a car, you don't know what house it came from, because this is the frame of reference where you operate with the motion of all the stars in the vicinity of the sun. Only one in 500 stars is so much addressed relative to that frame as 'Oumuamua was. So it was just like a buoy sitting on the surface of the ocean and then the solar system is like a giant ship bumping into it.

So there were many peculiar facts. I tried to explain the excess push, especially. The only thing I could think of is it comes from the reflection of sunlight. Then it needed to be very thin, sort of like a sail on a boat that is pushed by wind. I couldn't imagine a natural process that would make a lightsail, a sail that's pushed by light. In fact, our civilization is currently pursuing this technology in space exploration.

If this object came from an artificial origin, the question is who sent it? I should say that in September of this year, 2020, there was another object discovered that exhibited an excess push. It was called 2020-SO by the Minor Planets Center that gives names to celestial objects. It turned out that this one ended up being a rocket booster from a failed mission of lunar lander, Surveyor II, that was launched in 1966. So astronomers figured out that it intercepted the Earth if you go back in time to 1966.

But this object actually also showed an excessive push, because it's a hollow rocket booster that is very thin and pushed by sunlight. We know that it's artificially made. It had no cometary tail. We know that we made it. So that provides evidence that we can tell the difference between a rock and an object that is pushed by sunlight. To me, it demonstrated the case that perhaps 'Oumuamua was artificial, definitely not made by us. because it's been only a few months close to us. We couldn't even chase it with our best rockets.

That's fascinating. Can you explain to our readers what is a light sail?

So a light sail is just like a sail on a boat that reflects the wind, the wind is pushing it. In the case of a light sail, it's the light reflected off its surface that gives it the kick, the push. Light is made of particles called photons. Just like billiard balls bouncing off a wall, they exert some push on it. So the particles of light — photons — reflect off the surface and push and give it a kick.

The advantage of this technology is that you don't need to carry the fuel with the spacecraft [as you do with rockets]. Rockets carry the fuel and they expel gas from the exhaust, and that's how they get pushed forward, just like a jet plane. In the case of a light sail, it is light that is being reflected. That's why you don't carry your fuel. You can have a lightweight spacecraft. In principle, you can even reach the speed of light with this technology.

So, as you know, after your paper was published, another one was published in 2019 in Nature Astronomy. That paper proposed a natural origin, that 'Oumuamua could have been a small asteroid that came from a solar system with a gas giant orbiting a star, and that it could have been fragmented and ejected into our solar system. Is there any part of you that thinks that's still a possibility— why or why not?

No. And that is one out of three suggestions that were made by astronomers about the astral origin, and I'll mention all three.

Great.

The [theory] that you mentioned has to do with a disruption of an object that passes close to a star. There are problems with that scenario. First of all, the chance of coming close enough to a star to be disrupted like that is small. Most of [these] kinds of objects do not pass close to the star. So you need a huge population of objects to account for those that pass close to the star and fragment. The more important problem is that if you make shrapnel or fragments as the result of the destruction near a star, they would be elongated — like cigar shaped. The best model for 'Oumuamua was that it was pancake-shaped. You can't get that from the destruction of a bigger object. It's not natural to get that.

So that's my caveat about this scenario — that first, it's unlikely that you would get so many — I mean, you need a lot of objects to explain that we detected 'Oumuamua. More than one, you would expect naturally, given all the rocks that exist in planetary systems. Yet, this model even wants 'Oumuamua-like objects to be produced very close to the host star. So that makes it even less likely to happen.

More importantly, the shape is the issue. How do you get pancake shape?

Then there is another suggestion of a natural origin which is that it's a "dust bunny," of the type that you find in a household. But it needs to be like a football size. The dust bunny, the collection of particles, is sort of like a cloud that then is 100 times less dense than air, more rarefied than air, so that sunlight can push it around. To me, that sounds not so plausible. This object was the size of a football field and it was tumbling around every eight hours. So making that out of a dust bunny, a cloud of dust particles, and imagining that this dust bunny would survive for millions of years in interstellar space — I find that hard to believe.

Then the third possibility that was suggested is that it's frozen hydrogen; that it's a hydrogen iceberg. We've never seen anything like it before. We didn't see a dust bunny, we didn't see a hydrogen iceberg. The idea was that if it's made of hydrogen, then when the hydrogen evaporates, it's transparent so you can't see it. So there is a cometary tail you just can't see. But the problem with this scenario is that we showed in the paper that a hydrogen iceberg would evaporate very quickly in interstellar space because of starlight hitting it. Therefore, it would not survive the journey.

So all together, I find these possibilities less appealing. All of them talk about it being something we have never seen before. So I'm saying, if we discuss it as a natural origin, and it involves something that we have never seen before—then why not also consider an artificial origin? That's also something we've never seen before? That's all I'm saying. I'm not saying it's definitely of artificial origin, but that it's one of the serious possibilities that we should contemplate.

How certain are you that 'Oumuamua was an object with artificial origin?

I would say, given everything we know, I would give a high likelihood that it could have been artificially made. The only way to know for sure, for certain, of course, is to take an image of something like that or get more data on something like that. We can't do it with 'Oumuamua because it's already too far away. It's now a million times fainter than it was when it was close to us. So we missed the opportunity. It's like having a guest for dinner, by the time you realize it's weird, it's already out of the front door into the dark street. That was the first guest, and we should look for more.

I definitely get the sense from your book how this was a missed opportunity to collect data. I thought about how, in your book, you described if cave dwellers were to find a modern cell phone, they would dismiss it as, like you said, as a shiny rock.

Exactly.

Is that what we did with 'Oumuamua?

Exactly. We tend to explain anything new that we see in terms of what we already saw. That's very natural but it also suppresses innovation, it doesn't allow us to see new things. As scientists, we should be open-minded.

Your book is about 'Oumuamua, but it's also about encouraging people to think differently about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, to be more open to it. I think it's interesting how you compare the hefty investments made by the scientific community to exploring dark matter to those invested in finding extraterrestrial life. Why do you think the idea of finding dark matter is more publicly acceptable and more interesting to scientists than searching for extraterrestrial life?

I think the reason is because it's less relevant to our lives. When something is close to home and affects you emotionally, that causes some distress. People prefer not to have that. They prefer to live in peace and be happy.

The point about reality is that it doesn't care about how uneasy you are with the notion. Reality is whatever it is. By ignoring it, you maintain your ignorance.

When the philosophers didn't look through Galileo's telescope, they were happy, because they thought the sun surrounded the Earth and they maintained their philosophical and religious beliefs that we are at the center of the universe. But that was temporary. It only maintained their ignorance for a little while. Eventually we realized that the Earth moves around the sun. The fact that they put Galileo in house arrest didn't change anything. The number of likes on Twitter or whatever we give each other, awards, or put someone in house arrest or anything, that only affects our relation with each other. Reality is whatever it is. By ignoring it, we don't gain anything, we just lose because we are more ignorant.

So my point is, the way to make progress is not to stick to your notions and maintain a prejudice. Of course that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say I don't need to search, I know the answer, I don't need to look through Galileo's telescope, of course it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will never find that you're wrong because you bully people that will do this kind of search, and you don't fund the research in that direction. It's like stepping on the grass and saying look it doesn't grow. Science is not about that, science is about finding the truth.

In the book you emphasize how great the reward would be if we were to discover extraterrestrial life. I'm wondering if you could share more about that with our readers. I think people think that there would be a negative impact on our life, but you argue that it could have a positive impact on human life and on Earth.

First of all, it gives us a better perspective about ourselves. I think astronomy as a whole teaches us modesty. We are occupying one planet out of 10 to the power of 20 planets in the observable universe. We are really responsible for a tiny real estate piece out of the big landscape. Also, we live for a short time relative to the age of the universe. So this immediately tells us that we are not very significant.

Previously, people thought that an Earth-like planet around a sun-like star was something rare. Now, with the Kepler data, half of the sun-like stars have a planet the size of the Earth, roughly at the same separation. Therefore, if you arrange for similar circumstances, I think that you would get similar outcomes.

It would be arrogant to assume that we are unique and special. You know, I think we are as common as ants are on a sidewalk. They are out there and we need to look for clues. Of course if we maintain the idea that we are special and we are unique we will never find the evidence.

On the other hand, if we have the instruments to examine this — we have the telescopes — and the public is so interested in us finding the answer, I think it would be a crime for scientists not to address this interest from the public. Moreover, the public is funding science, so we should attend to the interests of the public. There are examples from history that on many occasions when we thought we knew the truth and we ended up being wrong.

What kind of evidence would the scientific community need to have incontrovertible proof that there is extraterrestrial life, or more 'Oumuamua-like light sails, in our universe?

That's an excellent question. One approach is, of course, to find objects like 'Oumuamua that we can take a photograph of. By the way, we don't necessarily need to chase them in space, because every now and then one of them may collide with the Earth. We see those as meteors. One of the meteors that comes from interstellar space may be space junk from another civilization. That offers us the possibility of putting our hands around it. If there is a meteor that lands on the ground, we can tell from its speed that it came from outside the solar system and it looks suspicious in terms of its composition, we can examine it. So there are ways to continue this search, even just on the ground rather than going to space.

Beyond that, we can look for industrial pollution in the atmospheres of other planets around other stars as a technological signature, rather than looking for oxygen from microbes. That would be one way of definitely finding evidence for life, industrial life, because the molecules like [CFCs] that contaminate the atmosphere of Earth cannot be produced naturally. These are complex molecules. If we find evidence for them on other planets, that would indicate that there is definitely life out there.

I think it's interesting that this book has been published in a time when there's a lot of anti-scientist sentiment. With the coronavirus pandemic, science has become politicized. Do you think that harms legitimizing the search for extraterrestrial life?

No, I would think the other way around. Because the way I see science is that it could be unifying, rather than divisive. As long as the scientific community attends to the interests of the public, and is honest about how much evidence it has for every statement. Right now what happens in the academic world is that the scientists say we should never approach the public until we are absolutely sure about something, because otherwise they might not believe us when we say there is global warming. I don't think that's the right approach.

I think the public should see how science is done in the sense that most of the time there is not enough evidence — and we collect more evidence, more data, and eventually we become convinced that one interpretation is correct. If the public sees that process in motion, then it won't suspect that there is a hidden agenda behind it because it's transparent. You look at the evidence and everyone that looks that has enough evidence and believes the evidence would agree on the conclusions.

It should be understandable by anyone, and it should be something that anyone can pursue. And by collecting evidence and therefore it's not an occupation of the elite. It should not be suspicious. It should not have any political agenda. It should also be independent of which nation conducts it. Indeed, we can bring different nations together.

I'm wondering what do you think really needs to happen for there to be a shift in the scientific community to take the search for extraterrestrial life more seriously?

Well, more people speaking like me. And I hope eventually it will shift also the funding agencies, the federal funding agencies, to go in that direction. I think that what astronomers need to realize is it's not speculative given what we know right now, it's one of the most conservative ideas to fall on. It's much more conservative than dark matter, where we are in the dark, so to speak, because there are so many possibilities. People speculate that we invested hundreds of millions of dollars in experiments without much success yet. We don't know what the "darkness" is made of.

Of course, science is a learning experience and nobody regrets trying those experiments, because we rule out possibilities. That is much more speculative because we've never seen any evidence for dark matter yet or direct evidence for the nature of dark matter. It's part of science to search for the unknown. I would regard the search for extraterrestrial civilization — it should be a mainstream activity especially given the interest of the public.

You've already received a lot of media attention regarding this book and it hasn't even been published yet. I'm wondering what you hope people will get from this book and what you hope comes out of it?

I have two messages and you already mentioned them. One is that 'Oumuamua was unusual. It showed a lot of anomalies that could indicate that it was some technological equipment and we should explore and look for other objects that appear anomalous like it and get more data on them. It's sort of like looking for plastic bottles on the beach.

The second message is that the scientific culture should change and be more open minded to change. I'm sorry to say, but the commercial sector — companies have had much more open-mindedness, much more blue sky research than the academic world these days.

There are companies like Google or SpaceX or Blue Origins — originally it was IBM — that had a lot of innovations in them. That is surprising to me. It should be the academic world that carries the torch of innovation because it has, in principle, the tenure system that allows people to explore without any risk for their jobs. Unfortunately, many practitioners in academia worry more about their image and their honors, and so forth, and engage much less in risk-taking and in thinking independently and looking for evidence than intellectual gymnastics that demonstrate how smart they are.

Avi Loeb's book, "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth," is slated to be released on January 26, 2021 from Houghton Mifflin.

Right-wing moms are defending their sons' 'right' to storm the Capitol. Some even joined in

Our culture has terms for all kinds of mom archetypes: working moms, stay-at-home moms, soccer moms, wine moms and "cool" moms. But have you ever met a helicopter riot mom?

By now, you've seen the images and videos of a mob of mostly white men violently storming and attacking the Capitol last Wednesday. They broke into the building through windows or forced their way through metal barricades. They bore Trump regalia and urinated on the floors. Some were armed with guns and tasers; one man, whom the internet has dubbed "zip-tie guy," dressed head-to-toe in paramilitary gear wielding plastic hand restraints. Counter-terrorist experts say this resembled the Michigan plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, suggesting there was likely a desire to "conduct vigilante justice against members of Congress." Five people are now dead because of Trump's insurrection, including a police officer and a member of Trump's mob.

Yet if you look closely at the images from last Wednesday, you'll notice that behind some of the more-photographed men, there are women lurking in the shadows. Some of them were mothers, who were supporting their insurrectionist sons on the ground.

"Zip-tie guy" was one of these men who brought his mom. Indeed, in the photo of him above, it is believed that his mom is the woman in the background. According to The Tennessean, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently arrested 30-year-old Eric Munchel, the so-called zip-tie guy. He currently faces charges for knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds, without lawful authority, and for violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. And according to the affidavit, federal authorities believe the woman he was photographed with in a hotel lobby and at the riot was his mom, Lisa Eisenhart. A Nashville Public Radio report says that his mom even booked the plane tickets for their flight to D.C.

According to The Sunday Times, a British newspaper, Lisa was interviewed expressing her far-right radical views, confirming she was with Eric, her son.

"This country was founded on revolution," Lisa told the British newspaper. "If they're going to take every legitimate means from us, and we can't even express ourselves on the Internet, we won't even be able to speak freely, what is America for?"

According to the interview, she also said: "I'd rather die as a 57-year-old woman than live under oppression. I'd rather die and would rather fight."

Eisenhart stressed in the interview that they entered the Capitol as "observers," and that her son told her not to touch anything.

Then there are the reports of insurrectionist moms swooping in to defend their sons. Jacob Chansley, 33, also known as Jake Angeli or the "QAnon Shaman," became an iconic symbol of the Capitol riot when he stormed the building donning a Viking-style horned hat, his furry vest open to his tattooed chest; photos of him inside the Capitol plastered the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Angeli was arrested after the riot, and now is being held in an Arizona detention center where he reportedly refuses to eat because he requires organic food. According to ABC 15 in Phoenix, Chansley's mom, Martha, explained that he gets "very sick if he doesn't eat organic food."

Martha Chansley was reportedly "unapologetic" for her son's role in the Capitol riot. "It takes a lot of courage to be a patriot, OK, and to stand up for what it is that you believe," Martha said. "Not everybody wants to be the person up front." She emphasized her son is trying to get people to "wake up."

Mom's support of her son's behavior is surprising inasmuch as it belies what we usually think of when we think of supportive parents. To most Americans, there's nothing wholesome about helping your son achieve an undemocratic coup. On a political level, however, the family element to the riot is not at all surprising. Anecdotally, far-right extremism is either breaking apart or uniting American families these days; many have been birthed into it, radical views upheld and passed down from generation to generation. Moms in politics get attention because they defy our wholesome stereotypes around what "mothering" means.

"There's the one image of the mother at home, you know, very quiet taking care of her business. And then there's a woman who gets mad because her child is threatened," said Katrina Bell McDonald, a retired professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, in an NPR interview. "And that's, I think, why people are so interested when they see mothers banding together."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, we've seen the rise of the "resistance mom" movement over the last four years, mothers fighting for economic justice or civil rights. In Portland, the so-called Wall of Moms — a group of mothers linking arms to protect anti-racism protesters as a response to the federal law enforcement officers who were tear-gassing and beating racial justice protesters — made international news over the summer.

Certainly viewing female activists through the lens of being a mother feeds into the stereotype about what a woman's worth is. But the women supporting their sons at the Capitol were insurrectionists and accomplices — women who believe they, and their sons, were doing the "right" thing.

New York Magazine writer Rebecca Traister once wrote "women's anger certainly isn't always progressive." "White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy's most eager foot soldiers," Traister wrote in her book "Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger."

We saw the embodiment of this on Wednesday, thanks to the helicopter riot moms.

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