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- Astrophysicists have analysed Saturn's core by listening to it sing
The Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan. There is blame to be shared, and lamenting to be done. But there's also a note of caution to consider against the orientalising impulse of the media.
The falling man
Almost twenty years ago, on September 11th 2001, the world was transfixed by the sight of a falling man; just one of dozens who chose to jump from, rather than burn in, New York's doomed twin towers. This week, the echoes of that horror reverberated in Kabul, and around the world.
The scenes from Kabul airport are unlikely to be forgotten. Desperate Afghans had flocked there in hope of escape, but found none. Attack helicopters flew just a few metres off the ground, using their rotor wash to clear a path along the runway for fleeing transport planes. Imagine the relief aboard those aircraft replete with Westerners and a lucky few Afghans, as the wheels left the tarmac. Now imagine that as one of those stubby C-17s lifted off towards safety, climbing and climbing into the sky over Kabul, a lone figure – the loneliest imaginable – losing grip of the fuselage.
The international airport in Kabul bears Hamid Karzai's name. Afghanistan's former president still looms large over the country, long after his term ended. Indeed, his family's networks of patronage, links to the opiate trade, and outright graft, have proven tenacious. He's never far from the action (influence, not fighting). And so there was little surprise that he bobbed up again this week for meetings with the outgoing government's chief peace negotiator Abdullah Abdullah, and one Anas Haqqani. The latter's surname might sound familiar. It is a proud family name in the region, and one that also happens to be synonymous with the most powerful Taliban offshoot in Pakistan. The meeting was to eke out a deal to ease the transition - a peaceful transfer of power if you will - to the Taliban's Mullar Abdul Ghani Baradar.
As to the future, one Taliban spokesperson had this to say, "We will not discuss what type of political system we should apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is Sharia law and that is it." But by Sharia law, or any other, the country still needs to be administered. And that's why Karzai was popping up to ask if he could be of assistance. Whatever council structure the Talib opt for, the effect will be the same. Fighters will rove from house to house, searching for and arresting suspected US collaborators. These endangered Afghans were the ones swarming to the airport, until the Taliban tightened their checkpoints. The transport planes are still leaving, but for the most part, the Afghans who need to be on them are not.
The fog of war
The seizure of Afghanistan is one of those rare moments that is identifiable as history even as it occurs. Historical in scope but doubly so in implication – that battle is now being fought over what it means . An imperial folly undone by patient guerrillas? A once-in-a-generation abrogation of human rights? Take everything with a grain of salt as the official histories emerge. As causation and blame are meted out over the coming years, remember the Afghan experience. Here are the words of a Kandahari tribal elder, recorded by the journalist and human rights campaigner Sarah Chayes in 2007, "the Taliban hit us on this cheek, and the government hits us on that cheek".
Over the coming weeks there will be time aplenty for discussing the broad brushstrokes. Pronouncements of victory. The exercise of state power. Aid flowing or disappearing overnight. The intelligence apparatus of one foreign power or another jockeying for position. But our focus shouldn't be limited to these machinations – abstract or solid. We should turn our eyes and hearts to the actual individuals living in Afghanistan. And not only to those Afghans who fit our mores: liberal, materialist, inoffensive. Much of the coverage has tunnelled in on a few relatable figures: the national cricket team, or the all-girl robotics team. Such coverage searches for mirrored values on its subjects and eschews value judgements based on religious grounds. It's a tricky path to walk, and one that only works by ignoring vast swathes of the country. What – heaven forbid asking – of the Afghans who practice Sharia law by choice?
The Afghans who deserve our attention are all of them. Those who worked as interpreters and those who shot at them. Those who will rejoice in an Islamic emirate and those who will be laid low by it. They all deserve our attention because two decades of war flattened an entire country into good guys and bad guys. It was never so.
The deadliest natural disaster of 2021
"Haiti is now on its knees", intoned Ariel Henry , the recently-inaugurated president. He presides over a country that seems to lurch from one disaster to the next. Many seem to be the products of human design, but the situation right now on the island of Hispaniola (shared with the neighbouring Dominican Republic) between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates is not one of them. The country is bracketed by a pair of highly active faultlines; Septentrional in the north and Enriquillo-Plantain Garden in the south. The latter broke two centuries of relative calm by ripping Haiti open in 2010. It did so again last Saturday, producing a subterranean spasm that struck just 10km below the surface of the Tiburon peninsula.
The loss of life has been staggering. At time of writing, there were 2,189 confirmed dead . Another 300 are still missing. Many of those unaccounted for will be found under the rubble of tens of thousands of collapsed buildings – homes and businesses that were designed to withstand hurricanes, not earthquakes. 12,000 are injured. And a veritable sea of Haitians have lost their homes. They are now internal refugees in a country that lacks the emergency services to treat them, and the infrastructure to shelter them. Many were left in the open as Tropical Storm Grace blanketed the island with rain on Monday and Tuesday. 600,000 require humanitarian assistance that, a week after the shocking quake, is arriving in a trickle .
The security situation was already brittle before the presidential assassination in July. This week, reports emerged of Haiti's ubiquitous armed gangs operating in the very centre of Port-au-Prince. Two desperately-needed doctors were abducted from the capital in the last few days, possibly to treat the injured in gang-controlled areas outside the city. Haiti is in need .
A vaccine for HIV, a vaccine for everything
It's been a good pandemic for some. Technology manufacturers, latex glove manufacturers, and plenty of speculators have made bank. Then there is Moderna which has been transformed from a cash poor and unfashionable company with unproven technology into $100bn household name . It's now twice the size of Bayer. Quite a turnaround in 18 months. And Moderna's executives are clearly not done yet. In fact, they're seeing the messenger RNA Covid vaccine as just a proof of concept with far, far wider uses. The first of these is in tackling one of medicine's most devilish problems: HIV.
The Massachusetts-based biotech company announced on Thursday that it is recruiting 56 healthy candidates aged 18-50 to test the safety and antibody generation of its two new HIV vaccines . The trials will run until 2023. Thus far, treatment has been the only effective measure because it is such a difficult virus to attack. The HIV protein spike (remember those?) that breaches our cells is covered in a sugar-residue to render it invisible to most antibodies. Once in, it mutates and changes the shape of the spike itself. This makes it a moving target inside our bodies. And Moderna's vaccine trials are the first step in what a long journey.
Meanwhile, Moderna's mRNA vaccine rivals at Pfizer/BioNTech have reported their own breakthrough. Researchers in Singapore have discovered that survivors of the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic had an unusual reaction to the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid shot . The vaccine provoked an antibody response for the current coronavirus and also for the one from 2003. This cross-neutralising effect has sent a ripple of excitement around the world: a single vaccine for multiple coronaviruses – perhaps even those yet to emerge – has moved from tantalising pipe-dream to reality.
The best of times
Puri's pure potability
Puri has become the first Indian city to provide clean, piped drinking water to all its residents. For years, the city’s 250,000 dwellers had relied on private suppliers for drinkable water . This created a lack of access to clean water and meant that water-borne diseases were also prevalent. Across India, some 38m people contract water-borne diseases like typhoid and cholera each year. Now, though, Puri can supply a surplus of potable water to improve people’s quality of life.
Your brain isn't a computer but it can be printed by one
Researchers have come up with a better way to test treatments for glioblastoma: 3D-print replicas of them . The replicas are created using a sample of a patient’s tumor, and fitting it with working blood vessels. By doing so, the most effective treatment for each individual can be found in a quicker and much less invasive way. Not only that, the method can also be used to test potential medicines that are yet to reach the market.
The worst of times
The mighty Colorado River reduced to a stream
For the first time ever, America’s largest water reservoir by volume has hit a shortage. Lake Mead provides water to tens of millions across the country’s west, but its levels have been declining since 1999. The past 16 years have been the basin’s driest period in 1,200 years. As a result, neighbouring states are set to receive less water. Arizona will be hit the hardest, losing almost a fifth of its water supply from January 2023.
Bangladesh's missing critics
Bangladesh’s ruling party is forcibly disappearing citizens as a means of silencing dissent. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, 86 people are currently missing as a result of these actions. Since Sheikh Hasina took power in 2009, almost 600 have been forcibly disappeared . Despite years of accusations, the country’s authorities are yet to investigate the disappearances, or hold anyone accountable.
"While studying theology, I learned that I have flaws like all humans do, but being a trans woman is not one of them."
– Alexya Salvador is Brazil's first transgender reverend. In a country that has a vocal, extreme, and at times violent strains of Catholicism and evangelicalism, this is a moment to celebrate.
400,000 unmade cars
- The ongoing computer chip shortage has forced Toyota, the world's second-largest carmaker, to cut production by 40% in September.
- The University of Applied Sciences Graubünden in Switzerland has accurately calculated the "irrational number" pi to nearly 63tn places . Not sure what is so applied about this science but we may as well put the supercomputers to work before they put us to work.
"Snake shocks Sydney shoppers by slithering along supermarket spice shelf" – The Guardian . We also ride kangaroos to school.
The special mention
Vale, Maki Kaji . The much-beloved inventor of the Sudoku puzzle died this week aged 69. You brought quiet fun and satisfaction to our lives and will continue to do so well into the future.
A few choice long-reads
- We love Tim Harford's work at Financial Times but we don't love this title: Why Covid regulations may be around longer than you think.
- Now that Trump is out of the White House we can have a civil discussion about what really happened in Wuhan. A cracking piece from Businessweek.
- The Economist throws some punches in a familiar fight: economics. What on Earth is quantitative easing for and why is it still here?
Tom Wharton @trwinwriting