On television, it's hard to get a sense of just how small the stretch of West Florissant Ave. — the thoroughfare in Ferguson, Mo., that's drawn international attention after the killing of Michael Brown — really is.
On either side of West Florissant, there are nail salons and barber shops, liquor stores and Chinese food spots, convenience stores and places you can buy refurbished electronics or pay your utility bills. Because of the unrest, lots of the stores are boarded up, some as precautions against vandalism and looting, others as a result of it. Some are open — and have graffiti on the wooden boarding to indicate as much — while some are temporarily closed, presumably until things calm down. The QuikTrip, the convenience store that police allege Michael Brown stole from before he was killed, is on West Florissant, too. It's since been burned down.
Since the shooting, protesters have been out marching on this half-mile stretch, but over the last few days, people haven't really started to come out until the afternoon. They loop up and down, holding signs, chanting several different chants, beating drums, singing spirituals, fists in the air. There are lots of police officers and nearly as much media; earlier in the week it seemed that all the white people here had press badges or police badges.
A few miles west is another Florissant: South Florissant Rd. (It's counterintuitive, I know.) This sleepier, less electric stretch is considered downtown Ferguson. It's the historic district. There are folks sitting outside a wine bar, there's a brewery, and a few sit-down restaurants. There's a sparkling new fire station, with the Ferguson Wall of Fame in front. (Michael McDonald, the blue-eyed soul singer who recently offered his opinion on the events in his hometown, is on the wall.) Across from the fire station, construction proceeds on a new police headquarters.
I don't want to hammer too hard on the juxtaposition — lots of storefronts sit vacant, a sign that it's not the rosiest economic times over here, either. (Eric Kayne, the photographer I'm rolling with, quipped that South Florissant's abandoned storefronts might pull higher rents than the abandoned storefronts on West Florissant.) But the homes near South Florissant are decidedly larger, further back from the street.
Besides the clutch of about two dozen or so protesters, black and Latino, across from the not-yet-occupied police station — and the drivers whizzing by honking their horns — it's pretty quiet over here. There's a satellite truck for some news agency here, but no cameras.
A retired teacher named Linda Owen and her husband Alan walk down the street. Alan was wearing a t-shirt that said "I [HEART] FERG." I ask where he got the shirt, and Linda says there's a little store down South Florissant that sells them, near the farmer's market. "If you go further up there you'll see lots of little shops, little antique stores," Linda says.
"The racial makeup is different down there," Linda says ("down there" being West Florissant), "and the economics are different, but it doesn't matter to me." Before she retired, she taught a school that pulled from those more-black neighborhoods. She worries about how her old students are making out through all of this, and starts to tear up. "I want it to be over in a way that everyone can accept. I don't know that that's going to happen."
Other people just want it over, period. My Code Switch teammate Shereen Marisol Meraji talked to a resident from this part of Ferguson who said the hullabaloo down the way was just nuisance.
"I think it's crazy," Katie Mory told Shereen. "I want to take my kids outside and not have to listen to the helicopter swarming above our house. And I just — it all just needs to be done and over with."
The sense of urgency and scope we saw on TV and social media about West Florissant — one widely-shared photo depicted someone holding up a sign that reads "Negro Spring" — suggests that Ferguson is now the official locus for our National Conversations on race and what some call the militarization of police.
But it's harder to see any of that here on South Florissant, even as there's evidence of the disinvestment that's buffeted North St. Louis more broadly. The strife between black residents and their police are just one manifestation of Ferguson's deep-seated historical challenges.
And the end to the pitched battles playing out as global news just a few miles away might only resolve a very, very small part of those challenges.
Host Jessica Harris speaks with Jonathan Bush, the co-founder of Athenahealth, a cloud-based software enabled company that helps physicians manage patient's electronic medical records.
Harris also speaks with Dan Yates, the co-founder of Opower.
Writer, director and producer Matthew Weiner has won numerous Emmys for his work on the hit television shows “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.” Now, for the first time, he’s bringing his talents to the big screen, with the film “Are You Here?” which Weiner wrote and directed.
The movie centers on the close — and bizarre — friendship between two men: Steve, played by Owen Wilson, and Ben, played by Zach Galifianakis. It also stars Amy Poehler and Laura Ramsey.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks to Matthew Weiner about his new film “Are You Here?”.
- Matthew Weiner, writer, director and producer. He is the creator of the AMC television drama series “Mad Men.” He was also a writer and producer for “The Sopranos,” during the HBO show’s fifth and sixth seasons.
What a difference 180 years makes.
Back in the 1830s, a Scottish minister and amateur astronomer named Thomas Dick tried to calculate the number of intelligent creatures in the universe. He assumed that all heavenly bodies supported intelligent life, maybe not exactly like us, but similar to us in size and habits of living. Then he took population figures for Great Britain and, assuming that space aliens lived just as densely, he projected populations onto various planets.
There are, he decided, 50 billion Venusians living on Venus.
Mars, he thought, had 15 billion Martians.
22 Trillion Times 31
Jupiter? Seven trillion Jupiterinos — or whatever you call them. He even thought that Saturn's rings were totally occupied by 8 trillion inhabitants — on the rings alone! In the end, he figured our solar system was home to 22 trillion individuals, and that, he said, did not include the sun. The sun, he thought could support an additional 31 times as many creatures — because it only seemed sensible that every celestial orb was, in effect, a floating shelter for somebody. Everything you could see in the sky was a home.
A generation earlier, the brilliant astronomer William Herschel (discoverer of the planet Uranus) felt pretty much the same way. In 1794, he also said the sun was probably inhabited, "like the rest of the planets, by beings whose organs are adapted to the peculiar circumstances of that vast globe." Somehow, sun-dwellers had learned not to boil.
Itty Bitty Life
That was then. Today we are in a very different mood. We have ceased to expect any life form that's intelligent (or even large) in our solar system, other than life here on Earth. We spend our exploratory dollars painstakingly searching for little bits of microbial life or, failing that, we hope to turn up a rare fossil remnant of a life that blinked out hundreds of millions of years ago. Instead of Thomas Dick's universe jampacked with creatures, we are even imagining the radical alternative, that there is nobody anywhere — except for us.
If that's too depressing (or improbable), then there's the thought that if intelligent life exists elsewhere, it is so remote, so hard to find, we may never make contact. In the end, we may never know for sure if we are unique, extraordinary or commonplace. We just won't know. Ever.
That's a sad falling off from the exuberance of the 1830s. But stick around. The mood, says Columbia University astrobiology professor Caleb Scharf could change — and soon. In his new book, The Copernicus Complex, he addresses the riddle of life in the universe and says, "We are much, much closer to an answer than we have ever been in the history of the human species; we are on the cusp of knowing."
What's changed? Professor Scharf says we now have the tools we need — though I suspect they will have to be refined — to spot life's true colors. And when we look across the universe, that's what we should be looking for, he argues: colors. Telltale colors.
Given the "right instruments," he writes, we will soon be able to target a planet, and look at the light reflecting from its atmosphere (if it has one) and, by reading a spectrograph that tracks colors, we will see, in effect, signs of life.
To oversimplify, let's pretend we see a planet that looks like this ...
And let's say the presence of yellow (I'm making this up) is evidence of oxygen, while the presence of pink is evidence of methane. So this planet has both oxygen and methane floating in its air. So?
So, says Scharf, oxygen and methane are not usually found floating in an atmosphere. They normally combine with other elements and disappear from the air. "Detecting both of these gasses in an atmosphere ... tells us that something must be continually replenishing them, and one of the best sources is life itself." So this planet now has a "biosignature" — essentially a chemical exclamation point that says, "Check me out! I may be a Carrier of Life."
With 1,700 planets already discovered (700 just in the past year), biosignatures give us something specific to look for.
We already use color spectrum technology to map changes on Earth. Satellites use reflected light to track growing and shrinking lakes, deserts, forests, meadows, parking lots, beaches. Low-level plants reflect 10 times the usual near-infrared light. What's happening low on the ground sends different reflections back up to space, and there's hope, writes Scharf, "that as we get better and better at capturing the light from distant worlds ... we may spot these biosignatures."
If a tinge of blue, a hint of green, a splash of infrared catches our eye, that doesn't mean we're glimpsing anything intelligent. After all, for most of Earth's history, the only beings around were (to quote New York Times reporter George Johnson) "unicellular slime." Slime may leave a signal, but it isn't fun. Saturnal Ring Beings by the trillions? That's a party.
But once we see slime's telltale colors, then we can narrow our search, look closer, and maybe, just maybe, improve our chances of finding E.T.
If E.T. is out there, he, she, it is probably inhaling, exhaling, creating waste, making noise, building, buzzing about, leaving, as Caleb Scharf says, "a filthy fingerprint" of color which points straight back to its home like a rainbow landing in what would truly be a pot of gold — the secret address of our nearest neighbor.
Caleb Scharf's new book nicely tackles the probability of life in the universe question, arguing that what's improbable/probable depends on what you think life should look like. If you start at the end of the tale with yourself as the star of the show, the chances of you happening do seem very improbable. But what if you loosen up, and imagine countless different forms of intelligent life? Then the odds change. His book is called "The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance In A Universe Of Planets And Probabilities."