Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

05 NOVEMBER, 2013

What’s Wrong with the Nobel Prize

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How come only fifteen women were ever awarded the prestigious accolade in science?

Inspired by this piece on the surprisingly dark origin of the Nobel Prize, Joe Hanson of the wonderful It’s Okay To Be Smart breaks down the inner workings of the esteemed accolade and discusses a darker aspect still — its chronic, hegemonic Middle-Aged White Man syndrome: Why was Rosalind Franklin snubbed? How come Alice Munro’s 2013 win made her only the fifteenth woman to ever win a Nobel in science? Isn’t it disheartening to hold Marie Curie, remarkable though she was, as such a dramatic outlier rather than one of many merited women?

Except for the size of the pile of Swedish krona you get, not much has changed about the awarding of Nobel prizes in, well, ever. This begs the questions: Is it time to overhaul the Nobel prizes? Do they really represent how science is done? And what are they for, exactly?

Complement with this visual history of Nobel prizes and laureates and this rare look at Alfred Nobel’s will.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2013

How to Watch the Un-sunlike Sun: Solar Eclipse Tips from Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell

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“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.”

Rarely does the dated phrase “heavenly bodies” come more vibrantly alive than in the event of a solar eclipse, when the Moon passes in front of the Sun from the vantage point of our planet and leaves our earthy hearts astir with awe for a few fleeting moments of transcendent presence with “the heavens” and their majestic motion. But to observe a solar eclipse is itself an art, one to which pioneering astronomer and reconstructionist Maria Mitchell was particularly privy.

In Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — which also gave us the her timeless insight on science and life, the story of her seminal comet discovery, and her reflections on education and women in science — Mitchell recounts with her characteristic blend of good-natured wit and wisdom her experience of observing the 1878 solar eclipse, for which she traveled to Denver along with several of her former female students:

In the eclipse of this year, the dark shadow fell first on the United States thirty-eight degrees west of Washington, and moved towards the south-east, a circle of darkness one hundred and sixteen miles in diameter; circle overlapping circle of darkness until it could be mapped down like a belt.

[…]

Looking along this dark strip on the map, each astronomer selected his bit of darkness on which to locate the light of science.

But for the distance from the large cities of the country, Colorado seemed to be a most favorable part of the shadow; it was little subject to storms, and reputed to be enjoyable in climate and abundant in hospitality.

My party chose Denver, Col. I had a friend who lived in Denver, and she was visiting me. I sought her at once, and with fear and trembling asked, ‘Have you a bit of land behind your house in Denver where I could put up a small telescope?’ ‘Six hundred miles,’ was the laconic reply!

I felt that the hospitality of the Rocky mountains was at my feet. Space and time are so unconnected! For an observation which would last two minutes forty seconds, I was offered six hundred miles, after a journey of thousands.

Mitchell goes on to extract from the experience some practical advice on the art-science of such heavenly observation:

Persons who observe an eclipse of the sun always try to do the impossible. They seem to consider it a solemn duty to see the first contact of sun and moon. The moon, when seen in the daytime, looks like a small faint cloud; as it approaches the sun it becomes wholly unseen; and an observer tries to see when this unseen object touches the glowing disc of the sun.

When we look at any other object than the sun, we stimulate our vision. A good observer will remain in the dark for a short time before he makes a delicate observation on a faint star, and will then throw a cap over his head to keep out strong lights.

When we look at the sun, we at once try to deaden its light. We protect our eyes by dark glasses—the less of sunlight we can get the better. We calculate exactly at what point the moon will touch the sun, and we watch that point only. The exact second by the chronometer when the figure of the moon touches that of the sun, is always noted. It is not only valuable for the determination of longitude, but it is a check on our knowledge of the moon’s motions. Therefore, we try for the impossible.

She goes on to describe the specific process of her team’s observation — one made all the more impressive by the fact that these were all women scientists in an age when the science education of girls was practically nonexistent:

One of our party, a young lady from California, was placed at the chronometer. She was to count aloud the seconds, to which the three others were to listen. Two others, one a young woman from Missouri, who brought with her a fine telescope, and another from Ohio, besides myself, stood at the three telescopes. A fourth, from Illinois, was stationed to watch general effects, and one special artist, pencil in hand, to sketch views.

Absolute silence was imposed upon the whole party a few minutes before each phenomenon.

Of course we began full a minute too soon, and the constrained position was irksome enough, for even time is relative, and the minute of suspense is longer than the hour of satisfaction. [Footnote: As the computed time for the first contact drew near, the breath of the counter grew short, and the seconds were almost gasped and threatened to become inaudible, when Miss Mitchell, without moving her eye from the tube of the telescope, took up the counting, and continued until the young lady recovered herself, which she did immediately.]

What followed was a singular blend of rigorous precision and the kind of transcendence in which Carl Sagan found the spirituality of science. Mitchell writes:

The moon, so white in the sky, becomes densely black when it is closely ranging with the sun, and it shows itself as a black notch on the burning disc when the eclipse begins.

[…]

As totality approached, all again took their positions. The corona, which is the ‘glory’ seen around the sun, was visible at least thirteen minutes before totality; each of the party took a look at this, and then all was silent, only the count, on and on, of the young woman at the chronometer. When totality came, even that ceased.

How still it was!

As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the corona burst out all around the sun, so intensely bright near the sun that the eye could scarcely bear it; extending less dazzlingly bright around the sun for the space of about half the sun’s diameter, and in some directions sending off streamers for millions of miles.

It was now quick work. Each observer at the telescopes gave a furtive glance at the un-sunlike sun, moved the dark eye-piece from the instrument, replaced it by a more powerful white glass, and prepared to see all that could be seen in two minutes forty seconds. They must note the shape of the corona, its color, its seeming substance, and they must look all around the sun for the ‘interior planet.’

But Mitchell’s most prescient and timeless reflection in observing the eclipse speaks poetically to the spirit of today’s “citizen science”:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals remains a fantastic read and is available as a free Kindle download, as well as in other free digital formats on Project Gutenberg.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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31 OCTOBER, 2013

This Is Mars: Mesmerizing Ultra-High-Resolution NASA Photos at the Intersection of Art and Science

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Unprecedented look at the ever-enchanting Red Planet, at once more palpable and more mysterious than ever.

“Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there WILL be by the end of this century,” Arthur C. Clarke predicted in 1971 while contemplating humanity’s quest to conquer the Red Planet. “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you,” Carl Sagan said a quarter century later in his bittersweet message to future Mars explorers shortly before his death. Sagan, of course, has always been with us — especially as we fulfill, at least partially, Clarke’s prophecy: On March 10, 2006, we put a proxy of human life on, or at least very near, Mars — NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with its powerful HiRISE telescope, arrived in the Red Planet’s orbit and began mapping its surface in unprecedented detail.

This Is Mars (public library) — a lavish visual atlas by French photographer, graphic designer and editor Xavier Barral, featuring 150 glorious ultra-high-resolution black-and-white images culled from the 30,000 photographs taken by NASA’s MRO, alongside essays by HiRISE telescope principal researcher Alfred S. McEwen, astrophysicist Francis Rocard, and geophysicist Nicolas Mangold — offers an unparalleled glimpse of those mesmerizing visions of otherworldly landscapes beamed back by the MRO in all their romantic granularity, making the ever-enthralling Red Planet feel at once more palpable and more mysterious than ever. At the intersection of art and science, these mesmerizing images belong somewhere between Berenice Abbot’s vintage science photography, the most enchanting aerial photography of Earth, and the NASA Art Project.

In a sentiment of beautiful symmetry to Eudora Welty’s meditation on place and fiction, Barral considers how these images simultaneously anchor us to a physical place and invite us into an ever-unfolding fantasy:

At the end of this voyage, I have gathered here the most endemic landscapes. They send us back to Earth, to the genesis of geological forms, and, at the same time, they upend our reference points: dunes that are made of black sand, ice that sublimates. These places and reliefs can be read as a series of hieroglyphs that take us back to our origins.

For a profound appreciation of how far we’ve come, complement This Is Mars with these beautiful black-and-white photos of vintage NASA training facilities and Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury’s now-legendary 1971 conversation on Mars and the human mind.

Images courtesy of Aperture

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