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What’s The Big Deal About Solar Eclipses? It’s A ‘Full-Body Experience.’

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Since seeing his first solar eclipse at age 12, Ralph Chou has tried to relive that profound experience over and over, chasing the moon‘s shadow around the world.

It’s what inspired him to become a professional astronomer, then an optometrist with a special research interest in how to protect human eyes while viewing the sun. Chou, who has retired from teaching at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, is considered one of the foremost experts on solar eclipse glasses and filters.

On April 8, he will travel to West Texas near the Rio Grande River for what will be his 30th encounter with the eclipsed sun.

“If I had banked all the money I spent on airfares and hotels and all the other stuff for traipsing after eclipses for the last 60 years, I would be a very wealthy man,” he told Mashable.

For the uninitiated, all the hype surrounding the 2024 eclipse might seem peculiar: Why the fuss for a few minutes when the moon blocks the sun in space? This unusual phenomenon has transfixed civilizations throughout history. Ancient peoples have associated eclipses with superstitions. Some cultures continue to regard a total solar eclipse as a spiritual event.

Though many astronomers are excited about the potential research that could come from experiments planned during the upcoming eclipse, witnessing it will be much more personal. It’s a chance to contemplate life’s mysteries, they say, the majesty of our planet and its star, and our place in the universe. Ask a heliophysicist for a description of totality, and you might think she’s scatting poetry.

“It sounded cheesy, even though I study the sun and love the sun. The first time people were explaining this to me, I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, right,'” Kelly Korreck, NASA‘s eclipse program manager, told Mashable. “But having gone through it, it really is a full-body experience.”

“Having gone through it, it really is a full-body experience.”
Credit: ROBYN BECK / AFP via Getty Images

Here’s how she explains it:

At the peak of the eclipse, there is basically what looks like twilight all around the horizon — but darkness. Animals come to roost, or try to kind of wind down for the day, and then come back awake. You hear crickets during midday. If you were closer to a farm, you’d hear a rooster crow.

“The light gets a little eerie because it’s just coming in at different angles.”
Credit: Alan Dyer / VW Pics / UIG via Getty Images

There’s just something magical about seeing what’s behind the sun — seeing some stars, seeing this beautiful corona around it. It gives you that sense of place, that sense of belonging, and also smallness in the universe.

That moment is when she had the epiphany other eclipse spectators have likely envisaged for millennia.

“How did we get so lucky to be in this place, where things just happened to align this way?” she said.

“Tree leaves show the crescent moons of the eclipse as it’s going, so they are pinhole projectors.”
Credit: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Michael Zeiler, an eclipse cartographer, has seen 11 total and four annular solar eclipses in his days. He and his wife founded the GreatAmericanEclipse.com, a resource for solar eclipses around the world, to share their passion for the phenomenon. No one has to be a scientist to appreciate a 360-degree sunset, he told Mashable, or the spiky glow of the corona, the sun’s outermost atmosphere.

“But what adds a punch to that is the disc of the moon, which appears to be the blackest black you’ve ever seen.”
Credit: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

And when you do finally see it, it’ll be seared into your memory forever.

What is shocking are two things that you see at once: The first thing is the beauty of the sun’s corona. You’ve never seen that before.

“If you go into the experience with some understanding, that fear will be tempered by or overwhelmed by the ecstasy of things, of something so beautiful.”
Credit: ABDUL QODIR / AFP via Getty Images

“It sounded cheesy, even though I study the sun and love the sun. The first time people were explaining this to me, I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, right.'”

Though a total solar eclipse isn’t particularly rare, Zeiler defines it as an unforgettable “peak life experience” that may become a new obsession.

“Once you’ve seen one, you’ll want to see another,” he said.

“Once you’ve seen one, you’ll want to see another.”
Credit: Natalie Behring / Getty Images

Even after all this time, Chou still gets emotional.

When that last bit of sunlight is snuffed out by the edge of the moon, and you see the corona for the first time for that eclipse, that is one of those absolute moments of wonder. You realize that this is something that the universe has provided for us, and there is nothing that we, as humans, can do to stop it, make it start over, or anything else. This is just the universe going on, no matter what.

“You realize that this is something that the universe has provided for us, and there is nothing that we, as humans, can do to stop it.”
Credit: Dimitrios Manis / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

There’s a lot to ponder in what will amount to as much as 4.5 minutes of totality for the millions of people in the path of the moon’s shadow, which starts on Mexico’s Pacific coast, arcs from Texas to Maine, enters Canada through Ontario, and exits on the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland. Major U.S. cities in the corridor include Dallas, Indianapolis, and Cleveland.

Special protective solar filters attached to cameras and other devices can allow viewers to capture the event in pictures and videos without damaging their vision, but Korreck gives the bold advice of putting the phone down.

You’re going to be gobsmacked by what you see, hear, and feel.

“Really just kind of drink it in,” she said, “instead of feeling like you have to take a picture right now.”





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Are You Safe? Out-of-Control Satellite Set To Crash Into Earth Imminently

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NASA has estimated a slim chance of one in 2,500 that a satellite, known as ERS-2, could land on someone’s head upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Expected to disintegrate into multiple pieces during reentry, most of the satellite’s components are projected to burn up. The European Space Agency (ESA) has described ERS-2’s reentry as ‘natural,’ indicating their lack of control over the satellite.

The primary force affecting the satellite’s descent is atmospheric drag, which can be influenced by unpredictable solar activity. Despite efforts to forecast its reentry window within a few days, pinpointing the exact time and location remains elusive until its final orbits. However, as the reentry date approaches, estimates become more precise.

The ESA recently released photos of the satellite hurtling towards Earth’s atmosphere, captured between January 14th and February 3rd, with ERS-2’s altitude exceeding 300km. Presently, it maintains an altitude of approximately 200km, descending over 10km daily at an accelerating rate.

The ESA anticipates the satellite’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere around 7:10 AM EST or 4:10 AM PST on Wednesday, February 21st, although this prediction carries a staggering margin of error of 26 hours.

Upon reaching an altitude of about 80km, ERS-2 is expected to disintegrate and burn up, with some fragments potentially reaching Earth, most likely landing in the ocean. Launched in 1995, the ERS-2 mission garnered significant attention at the time.

About ERS-2

The ERS-2 satellite, launched in 1995, was a pioneering Earth-observing satellite developed by Europe. Alongside its twin, ERS-1, it provided crucial data on polar caps, oceans, and land surfaces, aiding in disaster monitoring. Despite its operational end in 2011, the satellite’s contributions continue, with its controlled deorbiting ensuring a safe descent, and minimizing space debris. The risk of injury from such debris remains extremely low, reassuringly less than 1 in 100 billion annually, vastly lower than everyday risks.

SEE ALSO: Apple Smart Ring Could Be Coming Soon, Latest Patent Hints At Imminent Launch





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Women in AI: Rashida Richardson, senior counsel at Mastercard focusing on AI and privacy

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To give AI-focused women academics and others their well-deserved — and overdue — time in the spotlight, TechCrunch is launching a series of interviews focusing on remarkable women who’ve contributed to the AI revolution. We’ll publish several pieces throughout the year as the AI boom continues, highlighting key work that often goes unrecognized. Read more profiles here.

Rashida Richardson is senior counsel at Mastercard, where her purview lies with legal issues relating to privacy and data protection in addition to AI.

Formerly the director of policy research at the AI Now Institute, the research institute studying the social implications of AI, and a senior policy advisor for data and democracy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Richardson has been an assistant professor of law and political science at Northeastern University since 2021. There, she specializes in race and emerging technologies.

Rashida Richardson, senior counsel, AI at Mastercard

Briefly, how did you get your start in AI? What attracted you to the field?

My background is as a civil rights attorney, where I worked on a range of issues including privacy, surveillance, school desegregation, fair housing and criminal justice reform. While working on these issues, I witnessed the early stages of government adoption and experimentation with AI-based technologies. In some cases, the risks and concerns were apparent, and I helped lead a number of technology policy efforts in New York State and City to create greater oversight, evaluation or other safeguards. In other cases, I was inherently skeptical of the benefits or efficacy claims of AI-related solutions, especially those marketed to solve or mitigate structural issues like school desegregation or fair housing.

My prior experience also made me hyper-aware of existing policy and regulatory gaps. I quickly noticed that there were few people in the AI space with my background and experience, or offering the analysis and potential interventions I was developing in my policy advocacy and academic work. So I realized this was a field and space where I could make meaningful contributions and also build on my prior experience in unique ways.

I decided to focus both my legal practice and academic work on AI, specifically policy and legal issues concerning their development and use.

What work are you most proud of in the AI field?

I’m happy that the issue is finally receiving more attention from all stakeholders, but especially policymakers. There’s a long history in the United States of the law playing catch-up or never adequately addressing technology policy issues, and five-six years ago, it felt like that may be the fate of AI, because I remember engaging with policymakers, both in formal settings like U.S. Senate hearings or educational forums, and most policymakers treated the issue as arcane or something that didn’t require urgency despite the rapid adoption of AI across sectors. Yet, in the past year or so, there’s been a significant shift such that AI is a constant feature of public discourse and policymakers better appreciate the stakes and need for informed action. I also think stakeholders across all sectors, including industry, recognize that AI poses unique benefits and risks that may not be resolved through conventional practices, so there’s more acknowledgement — or at least appreciation — for policy interventions.

How do you navigate the challenges of the male-dominated tech industry, and, by extension, the male-dominated AI industry?

As a Black woman, I’m used to being a minority in many spaces, and while the AI and tech industries are extremely homogeneous fields, they’re not novel or that different from other fields of immense power and wealth, like finance and the legal profession. So I think my prior work and lived experience helped prepare me for this industry, because I’m hyper-aware of preconceptions I may have to overcome and challenging dynamics I’ll likely encounter. I rely on my experience to navigate, because I have a unique background and perspective having worked on AI in all industries — academia, industry, government and civil society.

What are some issues AI users should be aware of?

Two key issues AI users should be aware of are: (1) greater comprehension of the capabilities and limitations of different AI applications and models, and (2) how there’s great uncertainty regarding the ability of current and prospective laws to resolve conflict or certain concerns regarding AI use.

On the first point, there’s an imbalance in public discourse and understanding regarding the benefits and potential of AI applications and their actual capabilities and limitations. This issue is compounded by the fact that AI users may not appreciate the difference between AI applications and models. Public awareness of AI grew with the release of ChatGPT and other commercially available generative AI systems, but those AI models are distinct from other types of AI models that consumers have engaged with for years, like recommendation systems. When the conversation about AI is muddled — where the technology is treated as monolithic — it tends to distort public understanding of what each type of application or model can actually do, and the risks associated with their limitations or shortcomings.

On the second point, law and policy regarding AI development and use is evolving. While there are a variety of laws (e.g. civil rights, consumer protection, competition, fair lending) that already apply to AI use, we’re in the early stages of seeing how these laws will be enforced and interpreted. We’re also in the early stages of policy development that’s specifically tailored for AI — but what I’ve noticed both from legal practice and my research is that there are areas that remain unresolved by this legal patchwork and will only be resolved when there’s more litigation involving AI development and use. Generally, I don’t think there’s great understanding of the current status of the law and AI, and how legal uncertainty regarding key issues like liability can mean that certain risks, harms and disputes may remain unsettled until years of litigation between businesses or between regulators and companies produce legal precedent that may provide some clarity.

What is the best way to responsibly build AI?

The challenge with building AI responsibly is that many of the underlying pillars of responsible AI, such as fairness and safety, are based on normative values — of which there are no shared definitions or understanding of these concepts. So one could presumably act responsibly and still cause harm, or one could act maliciously and rely on the fact that there are no shared norms of these concepts to claim good-faith action. Until there are global standards or some shared framework of what is meant to responsibly build AI, the best way one can pursue this goal is to have clear principles, policies, guidance and standards for responsible AI development and use that are enforced through internal oversight, benchmarking and other governance practices.

How can investors better push for responsible AI?

Investors can do a better job at defining or at least clarifying what constitutes responsible AI development or use, and taking action when AI actor’s practices do not align. Currently, “responsible” or “trustworthy” AI are effectively marketing terms because there are no clear standards to evaluate AI actor practices. While some nascent regulations like the EU AI Act will establish some governance and oversight requirements, there are still areas where AI actors can be incentivized by investors to develop better practices that center human values or societal good. However, if investors are unwilling to act when there is misalignment or evidence of bad actors, then there will be little incentive to adjust behavior or practices.



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