Tag Archives: Research

The Discovery of Greenland’s Massive Canyon

NASA scientists have recently discovered a canyon underneath Greenland’s ice sheet by using radar data. The canyon is 400 miles long and half a mile deep (for comparison, the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and a little over a mile deep). This canyon was believed to have been formed before the glacier over Greenland formed.

Radar uses electromagnetic waves to penetrate through the ice. In much the same way that shining a flashlight through a window to a wall will case light to reflect off of the wall back to the person holding the flashlight outside, the longer radio waves used with radar reflect off of the earth’s surface.

It is definitely interesting to learn about this canyon, but the importance of the discovery is beyond being a neat fact. Water flowing beneath the glaciers actually contributes to a complex relationship with glacial movement and melting, and the transport of glacial melt water from inland portions of the glacier to the ocean is pertinent to this topic.

It’s still a trend though, right? Right?

Sure, just find a periodic function to fit this data. Be sure to include that last part. Then we can talk.

Global Carbon Dioxide Levels Reaching 400 PPM (for more information).

Ice-core_co2

NSF Science Must “Directly Benefit the American People”

LamarSmith

It already does, but Representative Lamar Smith thinks that there are many scientists that are schemers out to steal money from the government. In fact, he decided to pick out a few projects that didn’t interest him to use as examples of how NSF just throws money to “useless” research.

Additionally, he would like Congress to get involved in the peer review process, because congress has such great track record of being efficient and solving problems. When we start moving away from the peer review process, and into the “I am judging this research based on my feelings, even though I am a politician and not a scientist” process, problems arise. Scientists work very hard to convey research to the public as well as agencies such as NSF. However, many fields go into such intricate detail that it is necessary to have other people in the field review the scientific project proposed. Many researchers are adding a tiny grain of sand to the astoundingly large world of research. Some research leads to things that we don’t notice like an improved polymer, or a tiny addition to a huge model of the climate, or a small statistical study that opens up new questions about the ways in which we are currently running our society.

Lamar Smith is a climate change critic, a trendy thing in the Republican Party. This goes to show that he is not spending a lot of time delving into the research itself, and attempting to understand it. I am happy that he at least read through some of the NSF proposals, but what he should really spend time doing is reading some of the peer reviewed papers that have come out of research, and the citations of those papers.

Declining Female Interest in STEM Fields

In the most recent years, the gender gap in STEM interest has been increasing.

The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by papers with equations scribbled all over them. Believe me, I wasn’t pretending to be a savant for the world’s attention. I went to a public place so that I would stop saying aloud “Ugh, you moron, you don’t know any of this.”

To my surprise, a woman stopped me on her way out and asked if I was majoring in math. I looked up and responded with a hint of defeat that I was trying to study engineering. Then I asked if she had previously studied math.

She responded that she had, and then proceeded to tell me about all of the different options it gave her, and about the different jobs she had which finally led her to the marketing of accessories (she pointed to a purse she had with her). We had a short discussion about all of the opportunities that having a background in math and science offers you. It doesn’t force you into one single career; it opens a road to opportunity.

Yet, in the United States, it seems we are still stuck in the belief that math is hard, or that it is reserved for only the smartest students. Believe me, you don’t have to be a genius to learn processes that go with math and science.

Pursuing an education in STEM doesn’t shovel you into a basement corner where you have to sit and endlessly pump out math equations, or drink coffee and write computer code all day. STEM fields teach you a way of thinking. Of course, there are engineers who will go into “hard-core” engineering, just as there are English majors who will devote their lives to researching a single form of literature from a very specific time period and geographic location. Certainly, there are people who have specific passions and talents in life, and pursue education based on this. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, many people want an education leading to a career of sorts that contributes to the world in a positive way and provides a stable income. My concern is that young women are being discouraged from educational paths that provide this because they are mislead about what studying the sciences or engineering entails.

The Interest in STEM Fields

Below is a plot of male versus female interest in STEM fields. You can see the whole report here.

The gap in STEM interest between high school freshmen males and females has been increasing.

Seeing that the overall interest in STEM has been increasing makes me incredibly happy. It is wonderful that students are becoming more interested in STEM fields. Many new and upcoming jobs have some component of science or engineering. Just look at how often we use computers and modern technology outside of what is considered “the engineering world.”

What is disappointing is that female interest in STEM fields has been declining since the class of 2010. In fact, the gender gap in STEM interest is steadily increasing. In addition to the declining female interest, the study also states “since the graduating class of 2000, African American interest in STEM majors/careers has dropped by nearly 30%.”

Engineering and science are fields that should include everyone. The skills learned allow for numerous career paths from medicine to business. While I think it is excellent that we see an increasing interest with male students (specifically Caucasian men), I must ask, what is it about our culture or the way that we are currently portraying engineering and science to high school students that is causing women and African American students to have a declining interest in more recent years?

Europa’s ocean may have similar salts to Earth’s ocean

Europa_Nasa

Image of Europa from NASA/JPL

A recent study done with the Hawaii Keck telescope looked at spectra from Jupiter’s famous icy moon Europa. Many scientists have speculated that the moon may harbor life in an ocean underneath its thick ice shell. Now, spectra are showing a magnesium sulfate compound on the surface of the ice. While it is though the sulfate component may have come from the volcanic moon Io, it is still speculated that the magnesium may be from salts within the ocean. Thus, there is hope there are similar salts in Europa’s ocean to what is in Earth’s ocean. Read more about this here.

Seeing a talk on the Deepsea Challenge

Big conferences can be incredibly overwhelming, but there is also this sense of excitement and mystery. I usually spend a lot of time going to talks within my own field, but sometimes it’s fun to walk into a random room.

While walking around the gigantic conference centers, I came across the press area. I peeked my head into a small room and saw on the screen “Up Next: Deepsea Challenge Panel.” I was incredibly disappointed that I had missed much of the earlier talk by the panel, which included several well-known scientists and James Cameron, on the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER that was piloted by James Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. I decided to sit down and see what happened. To my delight, it was a press conference with the panel. I leaned forward in my chair, hidden in the back corner of the room, and listened intently.

For those of you who do not know about the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, James Cameron became the first person to go to the ocean’s deepest trench alone. Also involved in the science team and panel were three well know scientists, Dr. Patty Fryer, Dr. Doug Bartlett and Dr. Kevin Hand. You can read about the entire science and engineering team here.

I watched as the group of four answered questions about the mission, all the while making science seem adventurous and exciting. There was talk of discovering a potentially new species of an amphipod crustacean in addition to an organism that contained a compound which has promise of treating Alzheimer’s. The importance of this mission in understanding a potential area for the beginning of life and the discovery of life on other places such as Europa was also discussed.

I left the meeting with a new sense of anticipation for science to come. James Cameron mentioned that touching the bottom of the trench and saying you have explored the trenches is like dropping from a plane into a corn field in Nebraska and saying you have seen the United States. It’s clear there is still much left on our own planet which has yet to be explored.

** This past week I have been spending my time at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. This conference includes between 15,000-20,000 people every year. The conference focuses on everything ranging from space and planetary science to climate change to education.

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.