Karen Olsson

  • culture July 24, 2019

    The Pursuit of the Unknown

    The word conjecture derives from a root notion of throwing or casting things together, and over the centuries it has referred to prophecies as well as to reasoned judgments, tentative conclusions, whole-cloth inventions, and wild guesses. “Since I have mingled celestial physics with astronomy in this work, no one should be surprised at a certain amount of conjecture,” wrote Johannes Kepler in his Astronomia Nova of 1609. “This is the nature of physics, of medicine, and of all the sciences which make use of other axioms besides the most certain evidence of the eyes.” Here conjecture allows him

  • Eclipse Sync

    The way this story begins, it could be the setup of a math or physics problem. Two astronomers and their assistants depart England, one pair headed south toward the island of Príncipe, the other southwest, to Brazil. Meanwhile the moon, as it loops around the earth, will soon occupy a position between the earth and the sun. Once the observers reach their tropical outposts, they assemble their equipment and wait for the moon and the sun to line up exactly: a solar eclipse.

    The eclipse in question took place a hundred years ago, in May 1919, drawing a swath of shadow over the South Atlantic

  • Frontiers for Fears

    If you’d asked me, fifteen years ago, to picture a group of activists up in arms about illegal immigration, I might’ve imagined a small gathering of eccentrics at some suburban restaurant, passing around xeroxed pamphlets. At least in Texas, where I live, immigration was a marginal concern. Conservative activists here considered gays and lesbians more of a threat than laborers from Mexico. There were two main channels of Republican politics, pro-business and Christian-right, and to be a hard-core nativist was to subscribe to a fusty extremism not really embraced within either one.

    So what

  • Mine Control

    The Marcellus Shale is a 575-mile-long stretch of sedimentary rock, most of it deep underground, that settled millions of years ago over the imprint of an ancient sea. It lies beneath much of Appalachia, extending up through western and northern Pennsylvania and a section of western New York. Trapped within the rock are vast stores of natural gas, and because it’s so close to existing gas pipelines and the cities of the East Coast, the Marcellus Shale has long been, for energy companies, an attractive prize—“like discovering an underground deposit of beer directly beneath Yankee Stadium,” the

  • Pièces de Résistance

    THAT IT'S COME TO THIS—that I actually find myself, in private thought, trying to explain to nobody in particular (but also to the president of the United States) why we really would be better off letting most of our immigrants stay here, whether they are credentialed or not—it's like having a song stuck in my head, only instead of a song there's just my own inner voice delivering a kind of wheedling lecture on the Golden Rule. My imaginary interlocutor couldn't care less: His eyes glaze over, and he's puttered off to command a new round of ICE raids and/or unleash more tweets before I have a

  • Across the Great Divide

    One day in August of 2012, the ground began to tremble in the tiny town of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, the smell of oil filled the air, and the bottom of a nearby bayou tore open. Earth, brush, and trees were sucked under, as though down a drain, while oil oozed to the surface. The sinkhole, which eventually covered thirty-seven acres, was not a spontaneous development: Underground drilling by a company called Texas Brine had pierced the wall of a subterranean cavern, and the cavern had collapsed. The eerie disaster made a ghost town of Bayou Corne, after the state of Louisiana recommended that

  • Right Twisted

    The question of when the Lone Star State will “turn blue” has become as predictable a feature of the Texas campaign season as flags, bunting, Ted Nugent cameos, and generalized public indifference. It’s treated as a math problem. Political analysts come to us with calculations and charts, quantifying the growth of the Hispanic population and tossing around percentages—of eligible Hispanic voters, actual Hispanic voters, and actual Hispanic voters who will vote for Democrats—to predict just when the state might once again claim a Democratic majority. In Texas as elsewhere, we’ve become preoccupied

  • Revolutionary Road

    It’s counterintuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians. In the 1880s, these included radicals like George Bernard Shaw, Henry Havelock Ellis, and Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. They worked there, and they talked during smoke breaks and visits to Bloomsbury tea shops. They moved fluidly between politics and the arts, deploring factory conditions as fervently as they dissected Ibsen’s plays. The reading room was a vital seedbed for such Victorian-era social-reform