30 July 2010

Google reveals our stereotypes, plus, sexy scientists in their skivvies!

Science textbooks have been trying hard to include photographs of multi-gendered, multi-cultural scientists. But has our image of the "scientist" really been affected by these attempts at equity? Today I Google-imaged "scientist" just to see what I would get.
There are a couple of things I noticed immediately about these results.
  1. Our collective image of the "scientist" wears a lab coat.  Only one of the 33 pictures on the first page of results is not wearing one.
  2. The color scheme of our collective "scientist" is apparently blue, green and white.
  3. Of 33 pictures on the first page of results, 7 of them include women. 2 of those pictures with women come from a the same web comic, and are actually jokes, leaving five serious depictions of women in science.
  4. In the 33 pictures of scientists in the first page of results, there are 21 pairs of glasses.
  5. In 22 of the pictures on the first page of results a scientist is working with or displaying some kind of mysterious liquid in a test tube or beaker.  In fourteen of these 22, the liquid is bubbling or smoking ominously.
  6. 3 of the 33 pictures on the first page of results depict a scientist who looks like they might possibly not be white.  It's hard to tell.  Two of those three questionably ethnic scientists are also women.
  7. At least nine of the scientists appear to be "mad."
  8. In the first two pages of results, there are only four real photographs of women "doing science."  One of those four is a model in a lab coat and little else, shown below.
Did anybody else notice something interesting about our emergent image of the scientist?  Please, comment!

22 July 2010

How to Control Things With Your Mind FOR REAL

I'm not sure how this escaped my notice, but technology that uses BRAINWAVES to control machines is now SO ACCESSIBLE that they've built it into kids' toys. That's right, they're making toys where you can put on a headset and control the movement of objects with YOUR MIND. Is anybody else peeing their pants right now?

13 July 2010

In the Spirit of the MLB All-Star Break: Curve-ball Physics

I thought I would take a break from the kind of science that you have to think really hard about, and reflect on the simple physics behind the curve-ball.  We're talking about a pitch that is SO counterintuitive that for years, baseball experts couldn't even agree on its existence.  Well it turns out the pitch exists in a major way.  A good curve-ball can arc a solid foot and a half away from its original path, and be close to impossible to hit.  Vin Scully called Clayton Kershaw's curve, which he's about to lob in the photo below, "public enemy number one"; this pitch is no joke.

In 1852, a German-Jewish physicists named Heinrich Magnus (below) was the first to describe the way objects spinning in a fluid create a kind of whirlpool around themselves, which has the effect of pushing them slightly off course.  This phenomenon, known as the "Magnus Effect," is what makes curve balls curve.

08 July 2010

Emergence, Patternicity and "The Wave": Are we all crazy?

After reading Emergence by Steven Johnson, I was left wondering why we have so much trouble abandoning the watchmaker metaphor--which Johnson refers to as "the myth of the ant queen"--and accepting the idea that nature can regulate itself.  Patterns occur in nature because individuals make decisions based on what's right next to them, and these decisions average out into big trends.  Take ants (of course) for example: one forager ant meets five other ants that smell like foragers, and she decides to switch to nest maintenance.  This tiny decision, when scaled up, creates an enduring ratio of foragers to nest maintenance workers in the colony that can last for decades.  Yet we still can't drop the image of the dictatorial queen!

My own graduate work is on how people conceptualize things that are really, really big.  So of course my first guess for what obstacle might be keeping our brains from accepting emergence was the scale necessary for the phenomenon to be possible. For example, let's say that one forager ant met five forager ants by accident, and she switched to nest maintenance unnecessarily. On a local level, that ant is going against the pattern. But when decisions about what job to do are made by hundreds or even thousands of ants, a stable ratio emerges. In the same way, there are always a dozen or so drunk baseball fans who throw up their arms too early or too late as "The Wave" moves around Dodger Stadium.   But on a scale of thousands of Dodgers fans deciding individually when to throw their hands up, a stable wave pattern emerges that moves fluidly through the stands.  We struggle to extrapolate this phenomenon to nature because, outside of sporting events, we don't usually hang around with tens of thousands of other humans.