Category Archives: Science

Ada Lovelace Day 2013: Gayla Benefield

Not many girls studied Mechanical Drawing in Libby, Montana. Gayla Benefield was the first. She was also one of the first to notice that something wasn’t quite right about the town; people seemed to have trouble breathing, too many middle-aged men seemed to be using oxygen cylinders. Life expectancy turned out to be way below the national average; both of Benefield’s parents died young.

Turns out that Libby had been contaminated by asbestos dust from the local mine that formed the bedrock of its economy. Nearly half the town has been affected by asbestos related cancers. This is an obscene statistic; mesothelioma took my father, a tiny asbestos fibre entering his lungs as a young man, then, thirty years later… Put a human face on Libby’s situation and it’s truly horrific.

Yet, as Margaret Hefferman points out in her TED Talk on the subject, it’s an example of wilful blindness; until Benefield starting asking questions and raising the alarm, the idea that Libby’s air and trees and playgrounds were toxic was… Ignored? Unknown? Suppressed?

Ironically, it’s Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which we celebrate those women in science who were – are – ignored, unknown or suppressed. We might argue that we’re enlightened now, but look at how men dominate media punditry in science (to the extent that an organisation like HerSay is necessary). Look at how even a noted, successful scientist like Richard Dawkins is more than capable of putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to sexism.

I’m not sure if , in the strictest sense, Gayla Benefield counts as a woman in science and technology – she was working as a meter reader when she started to get suspicious about Libby – but there’s something scientific about spotting hidden patterns and connections, in asking questions and following a lead to its conclusion. And, sadly, there’s something of the history of science in vested interests turning a blind eye to evidence presented, even when the consequences of this are fatal.

Gayla Benefield saw those patterns and dared to speak out; despite the everyday sexism afflicting the media and society as a whole, there are thousands of women working in science and technology, trying to unravel the connections between our observations and yes, save lives. Thank you, ADW, for helping us start to look beyond our wilful blindness.

Yuri’s Night 2013

For as long as I’ve walked on this planet, space has worn humanity’s footprints – satellites, Voyager, the bits and pieces left behind on the Moon by the Apollo missions. Neil Armstrong taking that small step has always existed in grainy black and white footage and we’ve always been a space-faring species, even if we’ve not quite passed the garden gate. It’s always been this way, at least for my generation and the generations since.

And so today it’s good that there are some many commemorations of Yuri Gagarin and his flight 52 years ago, a flight that lasted under two hours but which changed everything, opening up a whole new horizon as he became the first human being to go into space, the first to orbit the Earth.

It was a massive achievement – I think it’s been overshadowed by the moon landings, and certainly I remember mutterings that the series Enterprise, with its opening montage of historic moments in spaceflight, had somehow managed to omit Gagarin. Oversight? Probably, but it just goes to show how easily we forget.

(Back in the day though, the news was huge. One thing I didn’t know, and that came as a bit of a surprise, was that Gagarin visited Manchester on a post-orbit world tour. Thousands lined the streets in the rain, Gagarin insisting on riding with the top down so that he could wave to the crowds. It seems like the sort of thing that doesn’t happen any more, certainly not for those who still travel into space. Eventually the final frontier starts to feel like a trip to the shops. Heck, now we can film it and put it on Youtube – check out the fantastic First Orbit, which recreates Gagarin’s journey.)

Maybe that’s because it was a different world back then, two superpowers eyeing each other warily, everyone else seemingly stuck in the middle, nuclear spectres stalking history and secrets and fears spinning the globe. Everything’s changed now, and the space race now just feels like history, a bygone age of spies and empires, one of which is now dead, the other hanging on as everything changes around it.

But I’m having a bit of a personal response to this particular anniversary – I hadn’t realised how young Gagarin was when he flew into orbit. 27 is nothing, heck, nowadays it’s almost still adolesence. And yet there he was, changing the world in his mid-twenties. Seven years later he’d be dead, killed in a plane crash at 34, almost the same age I am now. It’s stupid I know, but it makes me look at my accomplishments, or lack of them. 34 still seems young to me, but by that age some people had already changed the world.

But that’s maudlin, and if you let it the idea of space exploration can do that to you, reminding you of your smallness and your fragility and your transitory nature. Instead I like to think of it was something liberating and empowering. Yes, the universe is big, but we can still look up and step out into it, sailing towards another destination, flinging peole out there and letting them poke around.

(Incidentally, that’s why you can send all the robots you want to Mars, you’re not going to really capture the public imagination until there are people heading there.)

So raise a glass to Yuri Gagarin, because 52 years ago he heralded the world in which we live. And look to the stars for they’re in reach, even when we tell ourselves they’re just too far away.

Ada Lovelace Day 2012

Ada Lovelace

So it’s Ada Lovelace Day, and while I was thinking of writing about Mary Anning (I like dinosaurs), that post got overtaken by events. Because only last week, a 14 year old girl was shot because she wanted to be a doctor.

The whole concept of this is almost beyond belief – no, scratch that, it’s horribly believable. After all, this isn’t the first time girls have been attacked because they dared to try and get an education. And while it’s bad enough that women face a hard time working in STEM subjects (and in geek culture in general), the idea of teenagers being killed for having that ambition is just…

So let’s celebrate Malala Yousafzai. She’s fourteen and decided to speak out publicly about the Taliban’s edict that girls shouldn’t attend school in her home town of Swat in Pakistan, an edict that has lead to the destruction of 150 schools. Malala wrote a blog about all this for the BBC, and thanks to this and her activism (which has lead to her being awarded a number of peace prizes), she was shot by the Taliban last Tuesday.

She wanted to be a doctor.

Malala Yousafzai

Now she wants to be a politician to help fight for those other girls who want to become doctors, or engineers or programmers or whatever. And yes, that’s a noble and necessary goal, but isn’t it horrific that the world loses a doctor because the fight to see girls receive a decent education is so necessary?

Now I know that I’m a white western male, and am therefore up to my eyeballs in privilege, but it seems ridiculous that we’re marginalizing and persecuting the ambitions of around half the world’s young people. Look at all the talent and passion humanity is squandering because people like Malala not only receive a lack of encouragement but are shot at. Yesterday was Blog Action Day, and it was all about ‘The Power of We’, about how working together and forging communities can change the world. Well, this is the flipside – disenfranchised teenagers and dreams and ambitions being destroyed by extremists. And yes, we can demonise and hate those extremists, but 150 schools don’t get destroyed, women don’t get paid less, without some level of tacit approval from everyone else. That should be a wake-up call; for the sake of young people like Malala, let’s hope it is.

(Okay, so I got a bit political this year. For a less politicized response to ALD, here’s my post from last year…)

Triumph of the Nerds

You want to know what people talk about the triumph of the nerds? It’s not because of geek culture becoming mainstream. It’s not even because NASA can land a huge robot on Mars. It’s because of the joyful-but-slightly uncomfortable hugging in this video.

It’s because of passion, dedication, hard work and excitement.

Nerds rule.

The Higgs Boson For The Rest Of Us

So, scientists have discovered the Higgs Boson to a 5-Sigma level of uncertainty! Scientists have openly wept and given the announcement standing ovations. It’s a great moment for science and for the idea of discovery as a whole, especially given the omnishambles we’re used to currently seeing on the news.

But here’s the thing: What is the Higgs Boson?

I’m not sure. See, I’ve got a degree in history and English. I’m proud of that, but it doesn’t help you understand the fundamental properties of the universe. Now, if I don’t know about something I’ll normally give Wikipedia a look, but this is what it said about Higgs:

The Higgs boson is a hypothetical elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics. It belongs to a class of particles known as bosons, characterized by an integer value of their spin quantum number. The Higgs field is a quantum field that fills all of space, and explains why fundamental particles (or elementary particles) such as quarks and electrons have mass. The Higgs boson is an excitation of the Higgs field above its ground state.

Which is fine as it goes, but I’m not sure it helps the layman much. Fortunately, the Guardian gives us the simplified version:

The Higgs Boson explained with sugar and ping-pong balls, which is about my level.

The New Scientist also does a good job of explaining it, although without props.

All of which goes to show the importance of good science journalism that can engage a general as well as a specialist audience. The findings of science belong to the world and we should celebrate those who can communicate difficult concepts in schools, on TV and in the wider public sphere.

So congratulations, and thank you.