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Space Madness: The Psychosis That Never Happened

From Star Trek to Ren and Stimpy to Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Pioneers Over C,” pop culture and fiction are filled with men, women, and animals who have gone excitedly beyond the bounds of the Earth ... only to lose their grips on reality and mentally break from the stress of space travel. The phenomenon is colloquially known as Space Madness—and while we laugh it off as a TV trope today, in the late 50s, when manned space travel was just a few years away, the disorder was a valid fear.

Around the same time that American moviegoers were watching General Merritt lose his mind and sabotage his craft in Conquest of Space, psychiatrists feared the same fate for real-life space travelers. In a special report on “space psychiatry,” the American Journal of Psychiatry noted that one might expect strong indications of psychopathology from men who signed up to be fired into the cosmos. "Volunteers for dangerous missions," it said, "occasionally have rather bizarre motivations." The report recommended interviews and psychologic testing to weed out those with “gross judgmental defects or other major defects in ego integration,” but concluded that “man’s psychological plasticity is a matter of record, and if workable and habitable space ships are constructed … effective pilots can be found to use them.”

Still, the idea weighed heavy on minds at NASA. In an examination of the history of space madness published earlier this year, science historian Matthew H. Hersch writes that government psychiatrists feared that the volunteers for the first manned space missions would be “impulsive, suicidal, sexually aberrant thrill-seekers.” Even if guys like these didn’t make it through screening, the psychiatrists were still worried that seemingly normal, sound minds would break when dealing with weightlessness, radiation, isolation, fear, and even the deprivation of cigarettes and Coca-Cola in space, and doom their missions.

Down to Earth

When the United States Air Force began trying to identify pilots with both the technical skills and the physical and mental fortitude for space travel, however, the psychiatrists who did the screening actually found little cause for alarm.

Instead, the volunteers exhibited many qualities associated with the stereotypical NASA nerd. Most were were engineers that, while drawn to the allure and danger of flying, were studious, professional, responsible, and comfortable working with dangerous machines. They were stable men with “excellent interpersonal skills and slight obsessive-compulsive tendencies.”

“Tests revealed the would-be spacemen to be sane, poised professionals able to absorb extraordinary stresses,” Hersch writes, and the screeners found the whole group to be free of “psychosis, clinically significant neurosis or personality disorder.” While a few pilots didn’t meet the intellectual aptitude requirements, none of the initial volunteers were cut from selection on psychological grounds.

In training and in orbit, the astronauts displayed the same cool they had during testing. After Neil Armstrong had to eject from a jet-powered lunar landing simulator less than a second before it crashed to the ground, Hersch recounts, he was back at his desk an hour later, quietly working, with “a lack of affect that one colleague regarded as odd, even for an astronaut." Psychiatrists assigned to returning astronauts to look for evidence they were “spaced out or raptured to death” found no signs of any problems. “If anything," says Hersch, “spaceflight had flattened the men's personalities rather than encouraging bouts of emotion or grandiose thoughts.”

There are some notable exceptions, of course. After his space-faring career, Buzz Aldrin struggled with alcoholism and depression as part of what he called a “good, old-fashioned, American nervous breakdown.” Other astronauts dealt with substance abuse too, or marital discord, but “these reactions were not uniform,” Hersch says, and didn’t “amount to a discrete syndrome or disease.”

With Space Madness never manifesting in real life, a new archetype was born: the astronaut as an unshakeable space-age cowboy.

You can read Hersch’s article here.

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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in own solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last week, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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