Bookbyte Blog

Posts tagged ‘science’

We’re One Step Closer to Getting Real Lightsabers, People

Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker on Bespin

Image via Wookiepedia

According to an article published in the science journal Nature, scientists from MIT and Harvard have managed to observe light photons as particles. That means that while light doesn’t really have matter or mass in the way we normally understand it, it can still be made to “stick together” to form light molecules.

Now, if we can just get three or four feet worth of these light molecules to stick together and add whatever properties let it deflect lasers and slice through flesh, we’ll have ourselves our very own lightsabers.

 

STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too

iStock_000018821167Small

It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

Sexist-Proving Scientists Prove Scientists Sexist

A comic on Rosalind Franklin from Kate Beaton's webcomic "Hark! A Vagrant"

Source: Hark! A Vagrant

The fact that women aren’t paid as fairly as men isn’t news to anyone. But this is the first time I’ve seen that stat approached as a highly controlled purely scientific study, and directed at the very people conducting the study.

A group of researchers at Yale conducted a double-blind study that sent out identical application materials for entry-level academic science jobs. The catch? The applications were randomly given a male or female name. You can read the full published paper here. (It’s only six pages, so it is readable for the curious.)

The end results were biased. Really, really biased. On a scale of 1-5 in the categories of competence, hireability, and mentoring, women were consistently rated about 0.7 points lower then men. The “hiring” scientists were also asked to offer a starting salary to the applicants. The women were offered an average of $26.5K. The men were offered a little over $30K.

Marie Curie must be turning over in her radioactive grave.

I’m sure you could probably do this study with any industry and get more or less the same results. But the reason this study is worth a blog post is (a) the whole scientists using science against other scientists thing has a bit of an ouroboros feel to it and (b) there is already such a strong stereotype against women in math and science. This study suggests that stereotype might be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If women are rated lower and paid less, there will be fewer female scientists considered eligible candidates and more female scientists who look elsewhere for a field where it is easier to thrive unimpeded. From the study’s conclusions:

To the extent that faculty gender bias impedes women’s full participation in science, it may undercut not only academic meritocracy, but also the expansion of the scientific workforce needed for the next decade’s advancement of national competitiveness.

It’s not worth giving the individual scientists any grief about this. Like so many things, the problem is social and institutional, not individual. Note that the study found no discernible difference between male and female hiring academics. The women displayed the same bias. How can that be?

Once again, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Female scientist reads application from another woman, is subconsciously aware of the stereotype and subtly adheres to it, despite better judgment at a higher processing level. Or it might be explained by a type of subconscious stereotype threat. (Here’s a good NPR article on the topic.)  Female scientist reads application from another woman, is actively aware of the stereotype, and judges more critically to prove that she has no bias one way or the other. With both explanations, the end result is the same.

That’s the sad/confusing part. Being aware of a problem is the right first step towards fixing it, but perhaps awareness subtly contributes to the problem too.

The Bad (But Fun) Science of John Carter

Image

Source: Walt Disney Studios

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book A Princess of Mars, and in the film adaptation John Carter, out this week, I don’t think it would be a spoiler to say that the story takes a few liberties with science. Turns out Mars isn’t populated by nomadic tribes of green people and the atmosphere is not safe for shirtless men.

In the story, Carter — already a natural warrior — becomes super-powered on the Martian surface because the lower gravity decreases his mass. That’s the justification for him besting Martians in one-on-one combat, bounding across deserts, and, as seen in the above picture, whipping boulders at giant space hippo-gorillas.

So I guess it’s good that none of the sequels take place on Jupiter, because then Carter would be screwed.

The gravity rationale sums up the book and film’s approach to science very nicely. It feels as if Burroughs (and subsequently director Andrew Stanton) paid just enough attention in physics and astronomy to hear something that sounded cool, but didn’t stick around to hear it get ruined by qualifiers.

(Side note: Siegel and Schuster, the creators of Superman, liked Burroughs’ low-gravity-equals-superpowers idea so much that they used it as the original explanation for where Superman gets his strength. Originally, Superman couldn’t fly, just leapt great distances… just like John Carter.)

But even if it seems like the story is taking a half-ass approach to science, that’s not exactly true. It’s just taking an obsolete approach to science, one that didn’t seem completely unreasonable when Burroughs initially wrote about it. Burroughs was inspired largely by the writings of astronomer Percival Lowell, who spent night after night in his Arizona observatory, making educated guesses about what he could see on Mars. He believed that he could see evidence of canals on Mars, which indicated the presence of a civilized life form.

It’s easy to laugh at him for guessing, but keep in mind, Lowell’s book Mars and Its Canals came out in 1904. He couldn’t exactly send a probe up there at that time to verify his speculations. All he had to work with was a telescope, whatever knowledge of mathematics and physics he had, and imagination.

So even though Lowell was not exactly highly regarded by his contemporaries, since he was guilty of imagining way, way too much, his ideas ultimately found a new life in science fiction, a realm that’s much more rewarding to wild speculation.

If you see John Carter this weekend and have trouble accepting some of the more ludicrous science remind yourself of the hundreds of incidences of bad science you see in just about every movie and TV show. Cars that fall off cliffs don’t explode. Silencers on guns don’t reduce a gunshot to a whisper. Lasers don’t fire little bolts that go “PEW! PEW! PEW!” You can accept a handful of ridiculous science as just part of the fun but reserve scorn for the special few that seem to be playing in a universe with completely different rules. (See Armageddon. No I’m sorry… please do NOT see Armageddon.)

So which is more important in your view of science fiction — the science or the fiction?

(If you want to read a few John Carter novels before seeing the film, check out e-book version, which collects the first five books in the series, along with artwork and a glossary, available for $1.99.)

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