Tag Archives: technology

Stop Teaching Girls that Science is Only For Boys.

(clockwise from left): Agnes J. Quirk, Helen Morgenthau Fox (1884-1974), and Florence Hedges (1878-1956)

I spent some time on Sunday helping some high schools girls revise their physics papers. Other than catching the standard misspelled words and clunky sentence structures, an interesting theme appeared in common in the papers; the girls kept writing in masculine references.

Humans have long gazed at the stars in wonder but in one paper it was specifically “man” gazing and wondering. Another paper referred to some scientists as “these men” as if gender had some kind of relevance that needed to be specifically pointed out. The papers weren’t about the lives and biographies of scientists but rather were about science in general. The scientists were men it is true, but it wasn’t necessary to emphasize that, any more than one might say that they were white or British or Greek or young or old, rich or poor, graduates of some exclusive university, or rugby fans. What did gender matter? The papers were speaking of discoveries.

But gender specific references crept into each paper multiple times.

The girls were subtly telling me that they thought science is for men. They were exposing the boundaries of the culture box that they live in, where men are glorified for wondering at stars by children raised to see them as superhuman and out of reach.

It was as if these scientists sprang fully formed and erect from the head of the father of all geniuses, historic discoveries clenched firmly in their fists, ready to enlighten the earth. Any child learning about science would be daunted.

That is a myth more romantic than the reality, which is that these men didn’t work alone and certainly weren’t born with breathtaking discoveries in hand. They worked for years, building their knowledge, sharing data, taught by parents and teachers, supported by assistants, students, and domestic help, promoted by mentors and sponsors, nurtured by loved ones, engaged by peers.

Not one of them could produce a single thought without sufficient food and water and warmth and they each created a human standard waste disposal problem.

All of these nitty gritty details of life fall away from the pedestals of great “men.” None of it matters, only the note that these were not just scientists, with all of the process and work that involves; no, these were Men. And if the girls are concluding from this that science is distinctly masculine, the boys probably are too.

I frequently see articles and statements made about the need for more women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related careers.

“Why?” they ask repeatedly. “Why aren’t girls interested?”

Discovery and innovation always benefit from a diversity of perspectives and this is a particularly important need in these industries.

There is no biological requirement of a penis in STEM careers. I’m unaware of any significant discovery that required one as part of the process. We’ve seen successful female scientists so we know it’s possible. That means the restrictions are cultural and that means that we can have an effect if we pay attention to cultural factors, even if they seem small. A factor isn’t small if it’s pervasive. Air molecules are small too.

Narratives and stories are an important part of any culture. Science stories that specifically emphasize masculinity have the accumulated effect of excluding women from the culture of science.

If we really want more women to enter STEM careers and if we want the men in these careers to accept them, and I believe we do, we need teachers in these areas to be careful not to exclude females by using male-only language. Point it out in textbooks and talk about it. Point it out in papers from both genders. Leave it out of lectures.

It is as easy to say “human” as it is to say “man” and as easy to say “scientist” or “mathematician” as it is to say “men.” Words matter because words evoke images and if a girl can’t imagine herself as a scientist or a mathematician, then she’ll never dream of it while wondering at the stars.

Image: “(clockwise from left): Agnes J. Quirk, Helen Morgenthau Fox (1884-1974), and Florence Hedges (1878-1956)” by Smithsonian Institution, on Flickr

How a Personality Profile Helped Uncover John Edwards’ Lies

It’s easy for a confident liar to lie. Getting that same liar to tell the truth is another story, a story told by David Perel, former Editor-in-Chief, National Enquirer, in a recent post.

As Perel recalls, no one wanted to take the National Enquirer seriously when it published a piece about the pregnant girlfriend of a married presidential candidate. The man, John Edwards, denied it. Edwards’ aide supported the lie by claiming paternity himself. And with the supermarket tabloid’s long history of reporting ‘news’ about such fantasy figures as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, displaying photos of Satan’s face in a black cloud, denial was an easy sell for Edwards.

Incredibly, the Enquirer team had not expected the denial or the creative cover story. Edwards was betting that only his confession could validate the unsavory story. He wasn’t about to do it.

Unwilling to write off an actual news story and all of the effort and high-tech resources that getting it entailed, the Enquirer hired a mental health professional to help them to understand why Edwards was lying and how to gain his confession.

The analyst told Perel that Edwards was a man who prioritized and controlled his own carefully constructed image. He would never confess to anything unless it was the only way to keep some of that control. This knowledge changed the way Perel handled the growing evidence.

Perel held most of the evidence back but let Edwards know that the Enquirer team had stalked and photographed him throughout a recent encounter with his mistress. Edwards was given just enough information to realize that the Enquirer’s claims were true. From there his own imagination and guilty conscience could take over. Not knowing what else the Enquirer had, Edwards confessed to the affair but continued to deny fathering a child with his mistress, keeping some small control of the extent of his betrayal.

It was enough to validate the Enquirer. Thousands of man hours and the use of the best technology available had still come down to one thing: understanding Edwards and predicting his reactions.

According to Perel, letting Edwards imagine the worst was the only way to get him to tell some truth.

“Is Facebook Damaging Your Brain?”

My brother Bill sent me this youtube link last night – Is Facebook Damaging Your Brain?.

The journalist understandably seizes on the most exciting aspect of neuroscientist Lady Susan Greenfield’s concerns for the title. The edited clips suggest that she sees a possible correlation between social networking and rising rates of ADHD and Autism “over the last 10 years.” Perhaps that suggestion is only in the editing, as she must be aware that social networking is much more recent. Facebook itself was limited to college students and faculty until recently.

Then she says, “…depending on what kind of person you want the next generation to be…”

I wonder if aging adults have a primal fear of losing the attention of their descendants even while becoming more and more dependant upon them. After all, it’s one thing to share photos with Grandma over Facebook, and quite another to drive over with the photos and visit her, and maybe clean the gutters or clear some snow and ice while you’re there.

I’m all for studying the effects of computing on the brain but I wouldn’t worry too much about Facebook as a cause of autism. Instead, I recommend that you make sure you have frequent facetime with Grandma and Grandpa, if you’re fortunate enough to still have them. Go and see what they might need but aren’t asking for.

If you want to worry about brain damage, maybe you should worry more about common chemicals in your environment, for example, Ammonia (
It’s What’s For Dinner)

Waste Not, Want Not

Today is Easter Sunday. I’ll be having dinner with family at my parent’s home. My mom will be serving her traditional ham.

Mmm hot, sweet, and smoky ham. It’s one of the best things she makes, a favorite from childhood on. Leftovers at their house this week will include another favorite, scalloped potatoes, and a not-so-favorite, split pea soup. But she may have extra leftovers because I’m not sure I want to eat the ham this year. Not because I’m committed to some fad diet that doesn’t include ham, or because I’m watching my salt, or because I’ve finally decided to take the plunge into a vegetarian lifestyle. No, it’s something else, something that has been on my mind for about a month, mingling with things that I’ve learned prior to that about how we in this country produce our food. Call it an emerging fear, maybe even paranoia, but my misgivings about our food supply have been growing and something I read last month in the New York Times has really gotten my attention and hasn’t let go yet. So be forewarned: what I’m about to talk about might dampen your enthusiasm for ham and pork and bacon too. Or maybe you can write this off as mere speculation and happily go back to attacking that still-steaming slice of ham.

The Story

According to this article on nytimes.com: “A Medical Mystery Unfolds in Minnisota,” a mysterious neurological illness has broken out among workers at a pig slaughterhouse in Minnesota. Not just random workers either; all of the afflicted workers are on or near a specific processing line, a workstation referred to as the “head table,” where the severed heads of the hogs are processed.

One of the procedures at the head table is to literally blow the brains out of the skull using highly pressurized air, a process that splatters the workers with flying bits of vaporized brain tissue that get on their exposed skin, into their eyes, nose, and mouth, and inhaled into their lungs. Hour after hour, day after day. The packing plant processes 19,000 hogs along with their heads every day. This procedure has been used in Minnesota since 1998, and only two other of the 25 packing plants that were checked use the same procedure. Only one of those two, in Indiana, has a few workers that are showing similar symptoms. Strange that this illness has suddenly shown up now when this procedure has been in use for about ten years.

(By the way, if you’re interested in the job, starting pay is $11 to $12 bucks an hour.)

The crippling illness involves serious nerve damage. It isn’t contagious and infection has apparently been ruled out. The spinal cord is inflamed from what appears to be an auto-immune reaction. The immune system is attacking the patient’s own nerves as if they are foreign. That doesn’t sound like much fun.

Twelve patients had arrived with these symptoms by November of last year, all of them having worked near the “head table.” Fortunately for these workers, the packing plant is located near the famed Mayo Clinic. Some of the best doctors in the country are working on figuring this out. So much cutting edge research is performed at the Mayo that it is published in over 2800 bio-medical publications a year. That must involve a lot of research subjects. I’ve never been there but the place must be huge.

A quick peek at their web site confirmed something I was looking for: one research area looks at Valvular Heart Disease, its treatments and surgical procedures. I’m vaguely familiar with one surgical procedure because my brother has had a heart valve replaced – with a valve from a pig’s heart. It’s a life-saving procedure and my family is grateful that treatment was available for my brother. How convenient for the heart researchers at the Mayo Clinic that a pig slaughterhouse is nearby. It probably means ready access to hogs. I can’t imagine taking just the pig’s heart and throwing the rest of the animal away. It seems reasonable to guess that the ham on my family’s plates could have come from the same animal that provided a valve to someone’s heart. Waste not, want not.

But medical researchers aren’t stopping at pig valves. They are working hard to genetically alter pigs in order to make their organs more compatible to humans. Scientists would like to transplant pig hearts into human patients and they’ve made a lot of progress. At the Mayo Clinic, they’ve already managed to keep a baboon alive with the heart from a pig that has had a human gene inserted. Recent publications out of the Mayo Clinic’s Xenotransplantation program (transplanting organs from an animal into a human) include such titles as “Cardiac xenotransplantation: Recent preclinical progress with 3-month median survival.” (2005) and “T cell responses during pig-to-primate xenotransplantation” (2006,) and also “Increased immunosuppression not anticoagulation extends cardiac xenograft survival” (2006). Thousands of lives could be saved annually if this research is successful and scientists are just about there.

What does a genetically altered pig look like? Probably a lot like any other pig, even if it does have a human gene or two inserted. It probably eats like a pig and grunts like a pig, mucks in the mud like any other pig. A pig farm that breeds genetically altered pigs probably has a lot in common with any other pig farm. The workers on the pig farm might be a lot like any ordinary farmer, doing chores, feeding hogs. Ideally such a farm would be located near the market for its products, in this case a large experimental medical facility. Or a packing plant. Waste not, want not.

What has changed recently at the hog packing plant? Maybe it’s the hogs.

From the New York Times article:

“Clearly, all the answers aren’t in yet,” Dr. Osterholm said. “But it makes biologic sense that what you have here is an inhalation of brain material from these pigs that is eliciting an immunologic reaction.” What may be happening, he said, is “immune mimicry,” meaning that the immune system makes antibodies to fight a foreign substance — something in the hog brains — but the antibodies also attack the person’s nerve tissue because it is so similar to some molecule in hog brains.

“That’s the beauty and the beast of the immune system,” Dr. Osterholm said. “It’s so efficient at keeping foreign objects away, but anytime there’s a close match it turns against us, too.”

So I have to ask: Did genetically altered pigs from the Mayo Clinic end up at the nearby packing plant? Have genetically altered pigs entered our food supply? Hogs carrying human genes? If so, how much have these hogs been altered? Why haven’t we been told? Should we care? They’re being tested like a medical device, shouldn’t they be tested to determine if they’re safe for human consumption before we start eating them?

How do you feel about ham now?