The World and Everything in It - December 14, 2021
NASA’s new space telescope; the end of efforts to pack the Supreme Court; and a tiny Australian spider made internet famous. Plus: commentary from Steve West, and the Tuesday morning news.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Good morning!
Progressive dreams to pack the Supreme Court seem dead for now. President Biden’s Supreme Court Commission issued its final report.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Also NASA’s new space telescope promises new discoveries.
Plus the amazing arachnids of Australia.
And the reason to find joy in this season.
REICHARD: It’s Tuesday, December 14th. This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.
EICHER: And I’m Nick Eicher. Good morning!
REICHARD: Up next, Kent Covington with today’s news.
KENT COVINGTON, NEWS ANCHOR: Thousands without heat, water after tornadoes kill dozens » Residents of Kentucky counties ravaged by a violent swarm of tornadoes could be without heat, water or power for weeks.
State officials issued that warning on Monday, as the toll of damage and deaths becomes clearer.
At least 88 people are dead in five states — including 74 in Gov. Andy Beshear’s home state of Kentucky. The governor choked up on Monday as he spoke about the victims.
BESHEAR: The age ... the age range is 5 months to 86 years, and six are younger than 18.
A 2-month-old girl has now died as well, succumbing to injuries from the storm.
Kathy Stewart O’nan is mayor of Mayfield, Kentucky, the devastated town of about 10,000 people. She told reporters…
O’NAN: There are people suffering who I, as a former teacher, taught. There are people I’m watching as first responders take care and search and rescue that I taught.
The death toll is expected to rise.
The federal government has pledged support to Kentucky and four other affected states. President Biden will travel to Kentucky tomorrow to get a firsthand look at the damage.
Biden to sign order to make govt services more customer friendly » President Biden signed an executive order Monday aimed at making government services more customer friendly.
BIDEN: The bottom line is we’re going to make the government more effective for the American citizens so it’s not as confusing and it’s straight forward.
Speaking at the White House, the president said he hopes to save Americans time and frustration on everything from renewing passports to applying for Social Security benefits to getting aid after natural disasters.
The order is aimed at cutting red tape and things like shortening long phone calls with government agencies.
White House officials said they hope it can help to renew faith in government.
Numerous presidents have tried through the years to make government more nimble. President Bill Clinton famously pledged in 1993 to “reinvent government” with an interagency task force.
Hong Kong tycoon given 13 months jail for Tiananmen vigil » A Hong Kong court, now under Beijing’s thumb, has sentenced a businessman and pro-liberty activist to more than a year in jail for urging people to take part in last year’s banned Tiananmen Square vigil. WORLD’s Kristen Flavin has more.
KRISTEN FLAVIN, REPORTER: The court sentenced 73-year-old Jimmy Lai to another 13 months behind bars.
The District Court also convicted seven others on similar charges and handed out sentences of up to 14 months.
Hong Kong’s government has banned the candlelight vigil for the past two years supposedly over pandemic concerns. But many believe it’s part of the Chinese government’s continued effort to roll back liberties in what used to be a semi-independent city.
Lai was already behind bars for taking part in pro-democracy protests. He’ll serve a total of 20 months on charges related to those demonstrations.
He was the founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. The paper was forced to shut down in June after police froze more than $2 million of its assets, searched its office, and arrested editors and executives.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kristen Flavin.
U.K. reports first omicron death » British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday confirmed the first death in his country from the omicron COVID-19 variant.
Johnson said that while omicron might not be as lethal as delta, it is serious and it is increasing hospitalizations.
JOHNSON: I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus; I think that’s something that we need to set on one side and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates though the population. So the best thing we can all do is get our boosters.
And Londoners waited for hours outside a hospital by the River Thames to get COVID-19 vaccines on Monday morning.
The health secretary expects omicron to oust delta as the dominant strain in the country by tomorrow.
Researchers are still studying the omicron strain. But so far, most health officials say that while vaccines are less effective against omicron, they do provide significant protection, particularly against serious illness.
I’m Kent Covington. Straight ahead: NASA’s new space telescope.
Plus, anticipating the birth of a child.
This is The World and Everything in It.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 14th of December, 2021.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: peering into space.
Next week, NASA is scheduled to launch its largest and most powerful space telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope is the product of a more than two-decade collaboration among American, Canadian, and European space agencies.
REICHARD: This next generation of telescope will provide unprecedented views of the universe. And that has space researchers excited. WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett spoke with three of them.
BONNIE PRITCHETT, CORRESPONDENT: After lifting off from French Guiana aboard the Ariane 5 rocket, the James Webb Space Telescope will begin a month-long journey to reach its destination. This gravitational sweet spot in the solar system is called a Lagrange point. And it’s 1 million miles from Earth.
Klaus Pontoppidan, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, explained why NASA chose that particular spot.
PONTOPPIDAN: This spot in space is significant, because due to the combined gravity of Earth, the Earth and the Sun, it's solid, it can stay there for an extended period of time with only a little bit of, of rocket burns to keep it there over time. And so, it means it doesn't drift away from the Earth, that allows us to have very stable communication with with a high bandwidth…
Freed from the launch capsule, the telescope will unfurl during its journey. Stefanie Milam described some of the process. She’s NASA’s Webb Telescope deputy project scientist for planetary science.
STEFANIE MILAM: We slowly unfold things because we have an infrared telescope. So, we want it to be cold on the optic side, but warm on the sunward side. So, we have to make sure we unfold things in a way that ice and dust from the rocket or fuel from the rocket doesn't freeze onto the surface of the cold parts…
Shields will protect the telescope from thermal radiation from the Sun, Moon, and Earth. Once in place, mission specialists will take five months to fully calibrate the telescope.
What are scientists hoping to see?
Astrophysicist Amber Straughn explains in a NASA video.
STRAUGHN: Webb has four broad science goals: To detect the first stars and galaxies that were born in the very early universe. So, this is a part of the universe we have not seen at all yet. We don’t know what’s there. So, the telescope in a sense is going to open up this part of the universe…
Thousands of researchers, representing about 400 projects, are already waiting to find out. They’ve earned access to Webb in its first year of operation.
Klaus Pontoppidan says the Space Telescope Science Institute will facilitate access to the telescope.
PONTOPPIDAN: And it's our responsibility to make sure that a worldwide community of astronomers and scientists can use the observatory to get the best science out of it…
Like its predecessors Webb will provide not only views of a place in the universe, but a place in time.
Danny Faulkner is a retired professor of astronomy and physics at the University of South Carolina and staff astronomer for Answers in Genesis. He explains how we see light and its relation to time.
FAULKNER: When we look at something, light to us seems to be instantaneous. You see something taking place, and and you cannot see any any evidence to delay at all….
Light travels at a constant speed throughout the universe and takes time to reach the human eye or a telescope lens. Scientists use that passage of time as a means of measuring distance between places in the vast universe. For example, light from the moon takes about one second to reach Earth. Light from the sun, 8 minutes.
FAULKNER: When you're talking about stars. It's even more if you're talking about galaxies, and presumably, it's going to be far, far more than that. So that's what they mean by, you know, ‘look back time’ and trying to study the early universe. The early universe doesn't exist anymore. But with within a Big Bang worldview, we can see the early universe by looking at very distant galaxies. And that's again, why, why the Webb telescope is optimized to study those very distant galaxies…
Faulkner doesn’t believe in the Big Bang theory. But he’s excited about what young earth scientists can discover from Webb’s far-reaching observations.
FAULKNER: And every time we've built these things, we've expected to find This. This. This. And this. And when we do we usually find out, ‘No, it's That. That. That. And that. We can’t anticipate where this is going. And there are always surprises out there…
NASA’s Stefanie Milam called discoveries made by the Hubble Space Telescope “mind-blowing.” She expects no less from the larger and more powerful Webb.
MILAM: Absolutely universe shattering. This is going to rewrite the textbooks…
But scientists’ ability to see what’s out there will be limited by Webb’s 5 to 10-year life span.
So, why spend $10 billion for what is at most a decade-long mission?
MILAM: Humans are curious by nature. And we want to know, and I think this is just taking us to the next level of what we don't know.
Klaus Pontoppidan says the desire to explore is part of our basic humanity.
PONTOPPIDAN: I think, as humans, I think we have this innate desire to, to understand where we come from, and to understand our place in cosmos. And there are different ways to go about that…
Danny Faulkner from Answers in Genesis compared the universe to a giant billboard.
FAULKNER: The heavens do declare God's glory. And the heavens proclaim His handiwork. That's interesting that astronomy is singled out in that way. It's part of why God made what he what he did.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Up next: President Biden’s Supreme Court commission issues its official final report.
From the moment President Biden took office, some in his party have pressed him to work with Senate Democrats to get rid of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority. One option? Increase the number of justices on the bench, thereby allow President Biden to place more liberal justices on it.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Publicly, the president said he’s “not a fan” of that idea. But in April, he signed an order forming the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States. Thirty-four former judges and legal scholars made up the Commission.
Its stated purpose? To provide an analysis of the arguments for and against changes to the Supreme Court.
EICHER: And last week, that commission presented its findings. Here now to talk about what the panel did or did not determine, and what it means, is Mark Caleb Smith. He’s a political science professor at Cedarville University, a Christian college in Cedarville, Ohio.
REICHARD: Good morning, professor!
MARK CALEB SMITH, GUEST: Good morning. How are you doing today?
REICHARD: With regard to expanding the Supreme Court, there were really two different questions. First, can it be done? And second, should it be done?
The panel didn’t really take a position on whether Democrats should pack the court. But what about the commissioners’ answer to the first question—can they legally pack the court?
SMITH: Yeah, I mean, they certainly can legally pack the court if they choose to do that. The size of the Supreme Court is set by congressional legislation and there's no constitutional impediment to them packing the court or expanding the size of the court, however, we're going to define our terms. So it's never been really about the ability of Congress—if it chooses to go down that road—to expand or even contract the size of the court. I think most of it really hinges on that second question: should they do it?
REICHARD: Hypothetically, supposing President Biden and Senate Democrats were on board to expand the court, how would that work? Is that something they could do with a simple majority—just 51 “yes” votes?
SMITH: The filibuster would come into play. So, unless the Democrats in the Senate are willing to get rid of the filibuster, then a simple majority would not be enough to do it. And we do know from Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema, they've already expressed publicly that they would not be willing to abolish the filibuster in order to expand the size of the court. And so, again, I think the mechanics are in place of the Democrats could do this, at least in theory. The practicality of it, though, is I'm not sure there's an easy way to go about it.
REICHARD: The commission also addressed the proposal of introducing term limits for Supreme Court justices. What did they find there?
SMITH: It's a mixed record. I mean, because we do have states that have a variety of approaches to judges, electing them, having them for certain terms of office and things like that. It's difficult to know, in some ways, what kind of impact that would have on the federal judiciary. We have a long standing tradition in our country, those federal judges having a lifetime appointment on the court. And for some people, that's frustrating. They want to see more turnover and more transition on the court. We have to understand, I think, though, one of the reasons that they do not have term limits is so they can, for one, develop expertise in the law. The federal law is big, multifaceted, complicated, and most of their job is actually interpreting federal law. It's not interpreting the Constitution. Those lifetime appointments also give them some level of judicial independence. If you're not worried about how long you'll be in your seat, if you're not looking over your shoulder, if you're not concerned about the next appointment, if there is one, you have a certain amount of independence as you approach difficult, prickly questions—especially questions so I think even term limits present a lot of questions for the court and whether it’d be a good idea.
REICHARD: The panel commission took positions on several lesser topics—on things like public audio and opinion announcements, and an advisory code of ethics for justices. Speak to some of those things for a moment. What kinds of recommendations did the commission make?
SMITH: There's an awful lot of support in different quarters about making the court more accessible. As your listeners probably know, very little of what the court does is in public. What takes place in public is really just the oral arguments that occur and those have recently begun to show up online, which I think is a positive step in some ways because people can listen, if they choose to do that. There's been a good bit of pressure, though, to expand that reach and in different parts what the court does, or even maybe to make the court have their oral arguments televised . The court, I'll just say, the court has made very clear that they don't really see a need to change anything from what they're doing right now. I'm paraphrasing here but at one point, former Justice Souter essentially said, if you put cameras in the Supreme Court it'll be over my dead body. And I actually think that probably reflects where most of the justices are. To me, when you have cameras and more access in a courtroom, you tend to have lawyers that are playing up to an audience, you then have judges that sometimes are cultivating an audience or a certain profile. Whereas when you have limited access, I think those things are less likely to happen.
REICHARD: Do we have any indication on how Congress or the White House might act on the commission's findings?
SMITH: You know, the good rule of thumb when we think of presidential commissions is that if a president wants to be done with a problem and avoid it, he makes a commission out of it. And so Joe Biden, I don't think was ever really interested in pursuing court packing or significant judicial reform. But he was getting a lot of pressure within his party to do some of those things. Creating a commission, getting a report that's fairly ambiguous, even though it's big and has a lot of people involved with it, it's an ambiguous report, doesn't give clear recommendations on the hot button issue of court packing. I think it's a perfect outcome for Joe Biden. He can say, well, you know, we studied it. There wasn't a strong conclusion on it so we're just sort of moving on from there. The pressure is going to come from Congress, especially the left wing of his party, the more progressive parts of the Democrats. They want to see significant judicial reform, they're going to keep pushing for things like packing the court. But you know, as we've already discussed, I'm not sure there's any practical way of going about that. And so I kind of see this as being a dead issue, probably. Unless the court hands down a blockbuster decision in June, where they may overrule Roe vs. Wade or something like that. If that happens, we could see these arguments come back. But to me, I think they're sort of at least dead for now.
REICHARD: Mark Caleb Smith from Cedarville University has been our guest. Professor, thanks so much!
SMITH: Thank you.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Well, it can happen to any of us.
But it’s still embarrassing when it happens.
The Transportation Department in Delaware learned of the embarrassment when people driving by a highway sign posted photos of it online.
A green directional sign on Interstate 95 in Wilmington pointed to exit seven for Delaware Avenue.
Problem is, that’s not how the contractor who made the sign spelled “Delaware.” It was D-E-L-W-A-R-E … Delware … missing the ever-crucial letter “A.”
Clearly, nobody caught the obvious spelling error until after the sign’s installation. Here at WORLD, we do know how typos operate. They are very stealthy until they’re published, then they become as obvious as, well, a green highway sign!
The Delaware DOT did try to have a sense of humor about it, joking that maybe it was just a test to see if drivers are paying attention.
So the sign company put a rush order on a replacement with the correct spelling. Ah, that might be the problem: rush order. I’d say take your time, guys.
It’s The World and Everything in It.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, December 14th.
Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: spiders!
A few years ago, several videos of some colorful spiders went viral. One of them shows a spider dancing as though wearing a sombrero and playing maracas
AUDIO: [PEACOCK DANCE]
Another one has a spider wielding lightsabers.
AUDIO: [LIGHTSABER SPIDER]
They’re peacock spiders native to Australia and they’re about the size of a grain of rice. WORLD correspondent Amy Lewis caught up with the man who recorded the original videos to find out more about the spider under the sombrero.
AMY LEWIS, CORRESPONDENT: Until about 15 years ago, very few people knew peacock spiders even existed.
OTTO: How do I best describe a peacock spider? It is a small spider between 2 and 4 mm long in general.
And no one knew why they were so colorful.
OTTO: And they are a part of the jumping spider family. They have big front eyes, they’re very visual things, and they catch their prey by jumping at it. And they got their name through a strange habit that no other spider has.
Jürgen Otto is a peacock spider expert. He moved from Germany to Queensland, Australia to study marine mites in the Great Barrier Reef. While there, Otto discovered and named about 200 new mite species. That’s a lot, but he says not many scientists were looking for them. He was.
His habit of looking for small bugs took a new turn when he and his family moved to Sydney. He took up wildlife and flower photography as a hobby.
SOUND: [Birds early morning]
When a friend invited him to visit a national park, he grabbed his camera.
OTTO: I found one of these spiders accidentally, almost stepped on the spider and started to photograph it. I got intrigued by some colors that I saw and started to investigate what kind of spiders’ might have been…
Scientists called it a flying spider. They thought colorful extensions on its abdomen helped the spider glide through the air. But Otto suspected the males used them for courtship. All he needed was a female spider.
OTTO: It took me three years to actually find one. And the females were also unknown at this stage. And you need to get females and males together for anything to happen.
He created a habitat on his desk with leaves and sticks and added the male and female spiders. Then he watched as an exotic miniature courtship dance began.
OTTO: You can imagine a peacock unfolds his feathers, it’s exactly what a peacock spider does in effect. They have these flaps they unfold. They elevate their abdomen to display these flaps. They usually raise a third pair of legs and move that around. In fact, the whole spider starts moving around. It’s like a dance. And they do this to impress a female. It’s a courtship ritual.
If the male’s dancing doesn’t impress the bland-looking female, she might show him eight cold shoulders. If she’s already mated and hungry, the colorful male takes the risk of being her next meal.
Otto began photographing and videoing the tiny spiders’ display. He started a Facebook fan page. He created a peacock spider website and posted videos of their dances online.
OTTO: All of the sudden, somebody, me in this case, brought this to the world’s attention. And people just were completely surprised by it. How can this happen? In fact, for quite some time, people kept telling me that I’m making this up.
The natural wonders of creation sometimes get eclipsed in a world of fake news and altered reality.
OTTO: People couldn’t believe it and, I mean, I guess that’s part of my fascination about these spiders as well, is that in fact, what you see there is quite unbelievable. It’s something that you wouldn’t expect to happen. And when you see it, you’re surprised by it, and you’re fascinated by it. You start telling other people about it and want to document it.
Since then, Otto and colleague David Hill have documented about 50 more species of peacock spiders. They display colors and patterns in the shape of an elephant’s head or Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ painting. Even their dances are different from each other. One has the endearing nickname of Sparklemuffin.
OTTO: Birds of paradise are known to be flamboyant, colorful like these spiders. They do similar sort of dances, as peacock spiders do, similar kind of courtship ritual. But we know they’re birds, like they’re vertebrates. We associate intelligence with birds. They’re much larger. So, seeing a bird doing this kind of doesn’t surprise us anymore. Yeah, we’re used to it.
We don’t expect similar behaviour from something we could accidentally step on.
OTTO: Just this thing that they’re spiders is something kind of weird to people. Like spiders are something, something ugly, something to be feared of. They look in the corner of the room on a window. They’re unattractive. But yet, then you show them something that is the absolutely opposite and, yeah, it becomes unbelievably fascinating.
It’s not just the spiders’ dances that fascinate people. The unique microscopic structures of their colorful scales can display a rainbow’s full spectrum depending on the angle. Some species have a patch of non-reflecting ultra-black on their backs.
OTTO: There’s interesting things to learn from them. I guess we’re just at the beginning of understanding how these colors work.
The recent discovery of these intriguing creatures brings to mind Proverbs 25:2 that says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”
Clinton Berends pastors South Barwon Christian Reformed Church in Geelong, Australia. He’s not a spider enthusiast. But he enjoys all of God’s creation, from the Australian Outback to the tiny features of his garden.
BERENDS: We know that there is structure and order behind it because God created it. It’s not just, it’s not just random. At school I was a bit of a science and maths nerd but what I loved was reading the history of exploration of biology, of physics, and all those things which become possible because, you know, God created it and he put order in it and has given us a mind to explore all of these things. That’s a tremendous privilege.
Even though Otto has done so much work with peacock spiders, he keeps looking for new things. And he recommends keeping your eyes open wherever you live.
OTTO: A few years ago, actually, I found myself a new species of jumping spider in Australia that wasn’t a peacock spider. And I can tell from my experience that it’s probably at least as interesting, even perhaps more interesting than peacock spiders. It’s something that I would never imagined. You’ll find something interesting if you keep looking. You don’t know what it will be.
You might find it unexpectedly when you’re looking for something else.
AUDIO: [Children finding a peacock spider]
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis in Geelong, Australia.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, December 14th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Here’s WORLD commentator Steve West on the reason to be glad.
STEVE WEST, COMMENTATOR: Sometimes, in the midst of all the run-up to Christmas, it's nigh impossible to catch the real Christmas. I feel like a minnow trying to swim upstream in a torrent of Christmas marketing and gift-giving.
Yet the best Christmas I remember was also the most difficult for my wife and me. Some time after Thanksgiving in 1991 we received a call from a counselor at a crisis pregnancy center in a small Oregon town. She told us that an unwed mother she counseled had chosen us to parent her soon-to-be-born child.
That Advent season became a season of expectancy not just of Christ’s birth but of this immediate birth. While happy, we also pondered what it all meant, questioned how it would happen, and considered the possibility that it would all unwind. Advent was in some ways all awry, fraught with thoughts not of the Incarnate One, but the child to come. It took us out of the Christmas rush and onto another focus entirely: a birth.
Two days before Christmas, we got an urgent call from the counselor. The birth mother was in labor. We booked tickets for our 3,000 mile journey and left tree and gifts and family—only to be informed on arrival that it was false labor. Since it was too expensive to fly home and then back again, we settled into a mom-and-pop motel in a town of no more than 3,000 people, strangers in a strange land.
Fog and mist enveloped us in that unknown town. We bought cheap paper Christmas decorations and stuck them on the walls of our motel room. We decorated a tabletop tree. We felt alone, missing home, family, friends, and church. We waited. We spent our days getting to know a very pregnant teenage girl—a girl carrying our baby. But eventually, a baby boy was born, and we came home on January 7th, just over two weeks later. Advent, Christmas, and even Epiphany had passed.
Maybe that's the only antidote for Christmas—for the false one destined to collapse the day after—to be wrenched out of our comfort zone and set down in a foreign place. When you have been stripped of what passes for Christmas here and set down in a place where your focus is on a child to come, Advent becomes a sober waiting, the birth a celebration. Unto us a child is born, Isaiah says. For us, a child was born.
It’s sometimes difficult to hear what those words are saying in the midst of all that swirls around us. But on at least one Christmas it wasn't like that. If our son’s birth was that momentous, how can I ever again pass by the words "unto us a child is born" and not be awestruck at the reality of the Creator of all poured into a little boy?
Unto us a child is born.
So be indignant about any Christmas that passes for a celebration of less than that. Ruminate on the love of a God who poured Himself out for a world that will celebrate anything but His birth. Rejoice, and be glad.
I’m Steve West.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Tomorrow: the summit for democracy—a big conference at the State Department.
We will talk about that, World Tour, and more tomorrow.
I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
The World and Everything in It comes to you from WORLD Radio.
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The Bible says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
Go now in grace and peace.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.