Will inertia rule America's course for now?

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By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE executive editor

I woke up this morning thinking about Newton’s first law of motion.

Today, amid the uncertain results of the U.S. presidential election, the country has formally withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, an international accord in which nations commit to meeting targets in our collective fight against the climate crisis. The break was initiated by incumbent President Donald Trump, and if the final results swing in his favor, we’re that much less likely to be compelled to change this state of motion.

Likewise, the election uncertainty raises the prospect that the country’s ineffectual response to the COVID-19 pandemic will keep skidding on the metaphorical ice, as the U.S. death toll heads toward 250,000 and the number of Americans infected climbs to almost 10 million. Or that the controversial wall building on the southern border will continue, zombie-like, for months, even if a different leader is chosen. (We'll have more on this later in the newsletter.)

In some areas, inertia may be a good thing. Trump increased the pace of research and exploration of space (my particular passion) and that may glide on under either a Trump or a Biden administration. (Pictured above, left to right, Second Lady Karen Pence, Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump watch the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in May.)

As Scientific American points out, “presidential administrations have a history of changing space-exploration plans, with the inevitable result of delaying any eventual goal by forcing NASA to change gears.” But so far, the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, has had little to say about the future of the space projects that sprung up under Trump, signaling only a broad endorsement for humans returning to the moon. Under either candidate, our lunar ambitions will most likely sail forward unimpeded.

Inertia, which comes from the Latin for “idleness” or “laziness,” is something that can be countered by an external force. For instance, if Biden ultimately wins, he could yet have the U.S. rejoin the Paris agreement, as could any future president, Alejandra Borunda writes for Nat Geo. But no matter who holds the seat of power, the question will be whether we as a nation manage to overcome forward motion quickly enough to address the most critical issues. “The U.S. being absent from the Paris Agreement hasn’t stopped long-term momentum,” climate analyst Kate Larsen tells us, “but it has slowed it—and put the U.S. at a disadvantage.”

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Today in a minute

This just in: After slamming into Nicaragua, Hurricane Eta weakened to a tropical storm, but is expected to regroup as it heads back over the Caribbean, CNN reports. Forecasts put it heading past Cuba toward the southeastern United States by the weekend. The emergence of Eta tied the high on record for number of named storms and hurricanes in the region. Hurricane season doesn’t end until November 30.

The black hole information paradox: For a half-century, scientists have puzzled over a problem. If you jump into a black hole, do you fall into nothingness and disappear forever? Nope, theoretical physicists say now. “Particle by particle, the information needed to reconstitute your body will reemerge,” Quanta magazine reports. That part isn’t so new, but the “how” is: New calculations indicate the information gets out via gravity, with a layer of quantum effects, without requiring any of the machinations of string theory.

Plastic trash: Americans produce more plastic trash than any other country in the world, Nat Geo’s Laura Parker reports. New research shows that China produces more plastic than other nations, but the U.S. is the No. 1 plastic polluter. That flies in the face of U.S. officials, who have tried to blame their pollution on China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Your Instagram photo of the day

Bright and steamy: Hot water trickles down Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. The area consists of about a hundred hot springs that are scattered on a hillside with stepped travertine terraces. Travertine is a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs. Says photographer Sofia Jaramillo: “This is one of my favorite places to explore in the park because of the incredible views of the brightly colored pools.”

Subscriber exclusive: The mighty microbes of Yellowstone

The night skies

Moon visits twins as meteors fly: Late Thursday and Friday showcase the moon gliding through the constellation Gemini, the twins. Look toward the low eastern sky Thursday for the waning gibbous moon to form a celestial triangle with the twin stars Castor and Pollux (pictured above). The next night the moon will have lined up below the stellar duo, with Castor being stark white and Pollux noticeably yellow. Sky-watchers should also look out Thursday for a smattering of shooting stars as the Northern Taurid meteor shower peaks. Expect to see about 10 meteors an hour around 1 a.m., when the shower’s namesake constellation, from which where the meteors appear to radiate, is high in your southern sky. —Andrew Fazekas

The big takeaway

The Wall: For the 30 miles of Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Memorial, a three-foot-tall fence that allowed animals to move freely once ran through the wilderness along the U.S.-Mexico border. But now, nearly the entire stretch is blocked by a 30-foot-tall wall of steel and concrete. Nearly 400 miles of border wall have been completed in the last two years, mostly in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and another 330 more miles are under construction. Nat Geo’s Douglas Main explores how that has changed the land, some of it home to endangered species. (Pictured above, contractors tear through a hill in building a wall along the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.)

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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.

The last glimpse

Want to get away? More than 300 million worlds with roughly similar conditions to Earth are scattered throughout the Milky Way galaxy. A new analysis shows that, of the galaxy’s sunlike stars, a much higher percentage than previously thought hosts rocky worlds in their habitable zones, where liquid water could pool. And that’s not even accounting for potentially life-friendly worlds that are not rocky planets like Earth, Nat Geo’s Nadia Drake reports. “They could have forest moons like Endor” in Star Wars, says Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State. “Or, I guess, Pandora, like in Avatar.” (Pictured above, an artist’s depiction of Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone.)

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Percoraro helped produce this. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good week ahead.

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