Such (a) Topical Essential Message

11 Ways Women See STEM as a 4-Letter Word

4. Stemming Tide of Elderly Men

Ask a child to draw a scientist and they likely draw an old man with crazy white hair. STEM has a persistent image problem where girls don’t see themselves reflected in that image.

Related: Girls Love Science. We Tell Them Not To.

The Ocean and its Toys

The Cornish beaches where Lego keeps washing up

[T]he container ship Tokio Express was hit by a wave described by its captain as a “once in a 100-year phenomenon”, tilting the ship 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back.

As a result, 62 containers were lost overboard about 20 miles off Land’s End – and one of them was filled with nearly 4.8m pieces of Lego, bound for New York.

No-one knows exactly what happened next, or even what was in the other 61 containers, but shortly after that some of those Lego pieces began washing up in both the north and south coasts of Cornwall. They’re still coming in today.

Reminiscent of the Friendly Floatees rubber ducks, turtles and frogs.

Easy as … Cake

Harvard students’ invention puts cake in a can

McCallum wondered if he could borrow the technology from the whipped cream can and create a similar delivery mechanism for cake batter, in which an accelerant releases air bubbles inside the batter, allowing the cake to rise without the need for baking soda and baking powder.

To his surprise, it worked.

Arbitrary serving size, too — if you want one cupcake, you make one cupcake. Microwave in 30 sec. With that ease, though, I’m not sure “portion control” is as much of a feature as they tout.

Know When to Walk Away, and Know When to Run

Every now and then there’s a kerfuffle about people treating other people badly. These things need to be talked about, but I wish we could do a better job of it. You might guess that this is prompted by the recent Feynman posts and responses/comments, and you’d be right. Before that it was “not all men”, and before that, Bora. But I’m not going to go into specifics about any of those, I’m going to tell you why such discussion is off the table for me. Even (perhaps especially) in the light of declarations that others must speak up — that silence is assent, and similar assertions.

I used to be active on various discussion boards other than the one that hosts this blog, and I’d go and visit when physics discussions at SFN were slow. I was reading a thread where someone (a crackpot, if I may) was proposing an alternative to relativity, which was almost certainly wrong, and there were posters making note of that in no uncertain terms. I noticed a problem, though — one of the equations the crackpot was using was actually correct — I think it was the gravitational time dilation formula gh/c^2, which is the approximation you get when you can assume g is constant — and I made a post pointing this out: I said that there were a lot of questionable claims being made, but this equation was not one of them. Adjust criticism accordingly. No problem, right?

Not so much. At that point, a number of other posters set upon me, accusing me of defending the crackpot, and concluding that I must therefore be a crackpot. There was one who went so far as to say that no real physicist would ever use an approximate formula (!), because we had computers and could run code using an exact formula. Actual examples, including physics papers using similar approximations were not enough to dissuade these folks from their positions. I had been branded a crackpot and once that had happened, no facts mattered. At that point I was was wrong by fiat so anything I had to say was dismissed, and my support for the entirety of the crackpot’s position was assumed. After that, the only dialog directed at me was sarcastic. I was a leper.

It was not a pleasant experience, and this in a relatively mild atmosphere. It gave me some perspective in moderating discussions involving those who are not enamored of the scientific mainstream — look at the facts, and do not assume more is there than is written, and don’t attack the person. Snark is a signal that any serious consideration is over, so one has to be sure all reasonable discourse has been exhausted. It can happen, and I’m guilty of that from time to time, but it’s after going over the same ground three or four times and making no progress. (Sometimes a claim is so outlandish that ridicule is the only response — but those are exceptions, not the norm.)

I’ll use, as an example, the use of the term I’m not particularly fond of: “fanboy” (or worse, fanboi). I usually see these in discussions about Apple products (as an observer — I rarely participate), aimed at someone who likes Apple products. A: I like X about my iPhone. B: Fanboi! To me, it’s a signal that the party isn’t willing to discuss any merits of the argument. It’s dismissive and no better or more productive than an eight-year-old engaging in name-calling. In the Feynman discussions, I have not checked to see if it was deserved or not (probably yes, but I don’t know), but to my mind any useful conversation is over once someone has dropped the fanboy flag or other blatant sarcasm on the pitch. It’s a big Do Not Enter sign.

Another danger about snark is it’s an invitation for others to jump in. It’s a sort of mob mentality, I think. Scientists having discussions generally keep to the issues and don’t typically degenerate into mockery, but something happens once that first window gets broken. People in the mob probably don’t recognize they are in one, at least at the time.

Pointing out an error in an evolution paper does not make you a creationist, pointing out a mistake in a global warming paper does not make you a denialist, just as pointing out an error in a critique of crackpottery did not make me a crackpot. Correcting the facts is what we should be expecting in discussions, so the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality absolutely does not fit. We, as scientists, recognize the dangers of that in formal science, and go to great lengths to point out to science detractors that we are not promoting dogma. That attitude needs to be more pervasive in discussions about the culture that surrounds science.

I have opinions on matters, and perhaps something to add to a discussion. But the entirely predictable response that gets played out gives me pause about participating. Perhaps that’s an unfixable part of the internet. But it may also be true that some of what many agree are social issues in STEM that don’t seem to be getting better very quickly are being hampered because some people feel shut out of the discussions as they become polarized so quickly. Think about that: people you want to reach are possibly being shut out of the conversation because of the fear that they will be verbally pummeled and shunned at the slightest inkling that they don’t agree with you, because they see how others are treated. You will not hear their voice, and if they feel that they are being attacked, they will not listen to yours.

I want the broader social situation to improve. These conversations need to happen, so we must do a better job of encouraging the conversations. I can disagree with details of something you say without disagreeing with your conclusion. Finding fault with some fact you’ve quoted does not automatically mean I agree with your opponent — I want you argument to be stronger, unassailable, and I’ve found a chink in it. I’m trying to help you. But having been burned by this before, under milder circumstances, I have no wish to jump in to a much hotter fire.

These conversations need to happen. We must do a better job of encouraging the conversations.

How Many Metabols Does that Cost, Anyway?

Arm swinging reduces the metabolic cost of running

Swinging the arms clearly saves energy for runners, and helps to minimise the amount that we rotate the body while swinging our legs, which led Arellano and Kram to wonder whether the metabolic benefits of arm swinging outweigh the cost of carrying the limbs.

Kind of a Drag

Pilot mistake means pingpong balls rain on highway

Moon says a new pilot attempted the drop this year, but apparently didn’t understand that pingpong balls lose speed quickly and drop straight down.

Stare into the Puck, and the Puck Stares into You

Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can’t see it…

A British company has produced a “strange, alien” material so black that it absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light, setting a new world record. To stare at the “super black” coating made of carbon nanotubes – each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair – is an odd experience. It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss.

Revenge of the Orbs

Clapham house fire caused by crystal doorknob

The blaze on Monday was the latest of several fires in London started by household fittings.

Years ago I warned about the dangers of snow globes. Now this. When spheres conspire, bad things can happen.

A Song Should Be Just Long Enough to Reach the End

Why Are Songs on the Radio About the Same Length?

I think there are a lot of reasons, one being that radio stations are not services that play music for you — their business is to air advertisements and use music as one of the hooks to get you to tune in. So long songs would not tend to be selected if they would keep them from airing ads, and that may be enough in the evolution of rock-era songs to keep most of them short. I think Rhett’s gone off on the wrong path by looking at this in terms of how much music you can get on a 45 rpm single.

There’s probably a lot more to this. Writing longer and keeping it interesting without repetition has to be hard, especially if you’ve gotten into a habit of a certain style. I remember seeing an interview with members of The Who (I think it’s in “The Kids Are Alright”) where Peter Townshend says, in relating how Tommy was written, that “rock songs are 2:50 by tradition” and then got the idea of writing a longer theme as a series of short songs.

But this animated gif of the action of a needle on a record is worth the price of admission.

You Can’t Beet This. It’s 24-Carrot Gold.

Lettuce See the Future: Japanese Farmer Builds High-Tech Indoor Veggie Factory

Shimamura turned a former Sony Corporation semiconductor factory into the world’s largest indoor farm illuminated by LEDs. The special LED fixtures were developed by GE and emit light at wavelengths optimal for plant growth.

By controlling temperature, humidity and irrigation, the farm can also cut its water usage to just 1 percent of the amount needed by outdoor fields.

300th Anniversary of the Longitude Act

Maritime museum finds time for celebration of Harrison’s sea clocks

The exhibition marks the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act, passed in 1714, which established the Longitude Board and offered a vast £20,000 prize to anyone who could solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea. It includes the actual act of parliament, passed in the last weeks before the death of Queen Anne, on display for the first time.

The story of John Harrison, the carpenter and self-taught genius clockmaker who invented a series of ever more accurate clocks and then a cabbage-sized watch that solved the problem, but never got the full prize from the board, inspired Dava Sobel’s bestselling book and film, Longitude.

This is the reason why my job (making atomic clocks — real clocks) is a navy job — precise navigation requires precise time. The transition to GPS hasn’t changed that fact. Poor navigational ability is costly:

In a storm in 1707, when an entire British fleet was driven onto the rocks at Scilly believing they were safely out at sea, more than 1,400 sailors drowned.

More: Why longitude mattered in 1714

Turning Up and Turning Down and Turning In and Turning ‘Round

I want a doctor to take your picture
So I can look at you from inside as well

Stop-Motion Animation Reveals the Insides of Objects Sanded Down Layer by Layer

Laurin Döpfner … used an industrial sander to grind down logs, electronics, and even a skull in thin layers which he then photographed to create this amazing stop motion video. Each object is comprised of about 100 different photos

I like the walnut the best, I think.

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