Category Archives: Research

Voyager 1 now on a Magnetic Highway

Recently I wrote about recent talk of the changes that voyager 1 has been seeing as it reaches the outer edges of the solar system. There are three things that would help determine an exit from the solar system which include an increase in cosmic particles, a decrease in charged sun particles and change in the magnetic field.

While there have been decreases in sun charged particles and increases in cosmic particles, there hasn’t been a flip in the magnetic field. Scientists now think that voyager is in a newly discovered region in the edges of the solar system where interstellar magnetic field lines are connected with the sun. In this area, particles from inside the heliosphere are leaving, while cosmic particles are quickly entering the heliosphere replacing the lost particles. This area has been dubbed the “magnetic highway.”

NPR Interview with Ed Stone

Video describing the Voyager 1 entry into the magnetic highway:

Women Have Small Brains and Other Biases of Science

But we must not forget that woman are, on the average, a little less intelligent than men, a difference which we should not exaggerate but which is, nonetheless, real. We are therefore permitted to suppose that the relatively small size of the female brain depends in part upon her physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual inferiority.

-Paul Broca

Paul Broca 1824-1880

Back in the mid 1800’s there lived a professor named Paul Broca. His work on the brain was instrumental in brain anatomy and anthropology. He determined the part of the brain associated with speech, revolutionizing our understanding of human speech. His work was thorough, and he was ahead of the times in his scientific thinking. However, even the best scientists can be influenced by social bias.

Paul Broca performed measurements of cranial sizes of male and female skulls, and found that the female cranial size was smaller. Was the measurement correct? Well, to a certain extent, yes. Yet, the problem with the study was his conclusion. A great summary of some of Broca’s study can be found in this essay by Stephen Jay Gould (PDF). The issue is that there are numerous factors that may lead to intelligence, and not all are linked to brain size. In fact, with newer technology, we have also found that it is neural connections within the brain which make a great contribution to intelligence.

Female Brains Are Still Smaller

Now, the time of Paul Broca was very different from modern day. You would think something like using brain size to prove women are less intelligent would be a thing of the past. Not necessarily. A study from 2006 by Philippe Rushton claimed that men were on average smarter than women due to brain size. This debate was still going on in 2006.

This same author published a paper in 2002 citing differences in brain size in different races are what cause the IQ differences. The paper, called “Brain size, IQ, and racial-group differences: Evidence from musculoskeletal traits,” in which the concluding sentence of the abstract states “brain size-related variables provide the most likely biological mediators of the race differences in intelligence.” [Rushton, 2002].

When coming to scientific conclusions, it is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation.

The ultimate problem with studies like these is that they completely disregard cultural and societal contributions to intelligence. For instance, we are just now coming into a time where more women are applying to college than men, and more equal opportunities are available to minorities and women.

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To end, I leave you with the most recent tidbit of information I could find. For the first time in recent history, women are scoring higher on IQ tests than men.

So much for that publication citing the reason for women’s lower IQ scores was due to their brain size.

Why are there not more females in academia?

If there is a belief that women’s brains are different when it comes to science and engineering, then how does that affect the perception of women who are already in the area of study?

There is no question that we lack women in academia in many fields. In academia, women are still the minority in publications. Even with increasing numbers of enrollment of women in STEM fields, only a small fraction of publications are written by women across many fields. Part of the issue is that far fewer women want to go into academia or research than men. While 72% of women start off wanting to pursue research as a career upon entering a PhD program, 61% of men feel the same way. Yet, at the end of a PhD program the number of women drops to 37% while the number of men only drops 59%. This is a huge gap and drop in interest.

As a graduate student, I can think of many different reasons why one would not want to go into academia, or continue into research. There are the politics, the competitive environment, obnoxious university policies, long work hours from teaching and getting research funding, but in the end these things seem that they would drive both men and women away. There may be other subtleties to look at when approaching this gender imbalance as well. While I have had some female professors outright tell me they have never experienced any form of harassment during the time of their professorship, I’ve also heard many female voices from the other end of the spectrum saying harassment is a huge problem for women at universities. I’ve found some interesting reads on this subject.

When men and women were both asked why there were fewer women in fields such as physics, the responses were different. A study from Rice University sheds light on whether gender leads to different interpretations of discrimination and why women may choose to leave a field. An excellent blog post sums up some of these findings. The study showed that it was the women who were more likely to say discrimination was a reason for women not choosing fields such as physics. Men were more likely to cite differences in the brain between men and women for the different choices. This study exposes some of the issues surrounding discrimination and its potential for keeping women from advancing in male dominated fields such as physics. It’s a concern when the target gender is far more likely to cite discrimination as a factor for not staying in a field than the majority gender in a field. Furthermore, if there is a belief that women’s brains are different when it comes to science and engineering, then how does that affect the perception of women who are already in the area of study?

The Stories

There are some excellent websites out there which allow for people to put forth some of the problems women in academia face. These websites give some great insight into what it is like for women in academia, and are not just limited to the STEM fields.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me
What is it like to be a woman in philosphy?

A New NASA Spacesuit

NASA is in the process of getting a new space suit design for the Constellation program. The program aims to send humans deeper into space and eventually to Mars. Currently, there are two prototypes for new suits, a slimmer and maneuverable version launch and spacewalks, and a heavier suit for walking on the moon. The designs will allow for more protection and mobility in future missions to come.

Random Knowledge:
Did you know that astronauts wear diapers under their suits during spacewalks?

A great overview of spacesuit evolution over the years can be found here.

Video

Ultra-Fast Photography Shows Light Propagation

Dr. Ramesh Raskar has developed an absolutely incredible way to take photographs so fast that the propagation of light can be recorded.