- Star Trek Stops Women From Becoming Computer Scientists
- Saving Earth From an Asteroid Will Take Diplomats, Not Heroes
- Name the New Super-Earth
- Most Earth-Like Extrasolar Planet Found Right Next Door
Posted: 17 Dec 2009 03:00 AM PST
The gender gap in computer science may have been widened by Star Trek, a new study suggests — but it could be bridged with a less geeky image.
New research published in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the stereotype of computer scientists as unwashed nerds may be partially responsible for the dearth of women in the field, as shown by National Science Foundation statistics.
"What this research shows is that the image of computer science — this geeky, masculine image — can make women feel like they don't belong," says lead author Sapna Cheryan of the University of Washington.
"I think this is an important contribution to the literature," says Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton of the University of California, Berkeley. He says it raises questions about how much conscious control people have over their choices.
Previous research has found that a person can get a good sense of what another individual is like just from spending a few minutes perusing that person's bedroom. Cheryan wondered if the same was true of classrooms.
"You can get a message about whether you want to join a certain group just by seeing the physical environment that that group is associated with," Cheryan says. "You walk in, see these objects and think, 'This is not me.'"
Cheryan and colleagues tested this idea by alternately decorating a computer science classroom with objects that earlier surveys pegged as stereotypically geeky—Star Trek posters, video games and comic books — or with objects that the surveys found to be neutral— coffee mugs, plants and art posters. Thirty-nine college students spent a few minutes in the room, then filled out a questionnaire on their attitudes toward computer science.
Women who spent time in the geeky room reported less interest in computer science than women who saw the neutral room. For male students, however, the room's décor made no difference.
In follow-up tests, a total of 215 students were asked to imagine they were joining either a geekily decorated or a neutrally decorated company after graduation. For every possible scenario, women preferred the non-geeky space.
"It's a consistent effect," Cheryan says. "The environment can communicate a sense of belonging, but it also communicates a sense of exclusion, or a sense that this is not a place where I would fit in."
Cheryan acknowledges that the geeky classroom setup is a caricature of computer science. But, she points out, people respond to that stereotype whether it's true or not, and study participants found the nerdy room believable.
"There's this idea that people develop interest in their major or their chosen career through some kind of internal passion they have," Mendoza-Denton says. "These studies show that in fact the spaces that you walk into can have those kinds of effects. Those are very subtle things that we can miss."
Cheryan suggests that nonstereotypical depictions of computer science, in the media and in classrooms, could help update the field's image.
Mendoza-Denton adds that the results can be put to use in other fields in which minorities are underrepresented. But first, he says, "People have to begin to take it seriously."
"The scientific basis for making the case that the décor of a particular room matters is very clear," he says. "But whether institutions or companies or universities decide to take those steps to increase diversity really is up to people listening to the research."
Posted: 16 Dec 2009 03:29 PM PST
The reality will be far less dramatic, former astronaut Rusty Schweickart told scientists at the American Geophysical Union meeting here Wednesday. Asteroid-deflection efforts will have to start years before a prospective impact and will have to be essentially international.
"Whether or not the international community, within or outside the United Nations, can rise to the demands of such a challenge in advance of an impact … is problematic," Schweickart summarized.
Two general strategies for deflecting asteroids are currently on the table. The first is some type of impactor or blast, possibly nuclear, that would knock the asteroid off the collision course. The second is a longer-term "shepherding" operation that would slowly morph the asteroid's trajectory in space so that it misses Earth. Both schemes would have major international implications.
Nuclear weapons have been explicitly outlawed in space since the Partial Test Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1963. Sending a nuclear weapon into space to hit an asteroid would require modifying the treaty, which could have unforeseen negative repercussions.
"Many of us have expressed our concern about nuclear effects because of political options," said David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center who organized a session at the AGU meeting about near-Earth objects.
Schweickart's group, The B612 Foundation, has advocated a different approach to asteroid deflection, but one that will require an equally difficult international negotiation. They propose to bump or tow an asteroid "in a controlled manner" so that it misses Earth. The only problem is that such a process would take time and as the asteroid's trajectory changed, it would be "pointed" at different places along a horizontal plane on Earth called the risk corridor.
That's a major geopolitical problem, Schweickart said, because it requires temporarily increasing the risk to one population — in the example above, Venezuela, or Russia — to eventually eliminate the risk for the entire Earth.
"It's going to be slowly dragged across the Earth. That is a binary decision," Schweickart said. "You don't have the option of dragging it down through the Antarctic."
Who gets to decide which way the asteroid is dragged away from an impact with Earth? The United Nations? The United States? Russia? Some independent body of astronomers and space agencies?
"What deflection technologies are OK and who says they are OK?" Schweickart asked. "Who accepts liability? How do you decide that it's OK to endanger the people of Venezuela or the people of Kazakhstan?"
He called figuring such questions out a "geopolitical decision of the first order." Earlier this year, the Association of Space Explorers presented a report to the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space recommending that some international decision-making bodies be created to evaluate and respond to near-Earth object hazards.
The U.N. committee could bring some options before the General Assembly by 2012, although Schweickart has some doubts that people are politically prepared to deal with the tough decisions that humanity could face to deflect an asteroid.
"You're going to have to make that decision when the probability is less than one, 10 or 20 years ahead of time," he said. "That's not easy for anyone, let alone the United Nations."
Posted: 16 Dec 2009 10:57 AM PST
Astronomers have spotted the most Earth-like planet to date, a massive ocean world that probably has an atmosphere and — though it's highly unlikely — may support life. And it needs a better name.
For now, GJ 1214b is tagged according to standard exoplanetary nomenclature: the technical name of the star it orbits, plus a letter to signify the order of its discovery. (The letter "a" is reserved for the star itself.) It's a name only a committee could love, and hardly appropriate to the discovery's emotional resonance.
"We've been finding exciting planets for 50 years, and we're still calling them by these terrible catalog names," said David Charbonneau, a Harvard University astronomer who helped discover GJ 1214b, but doesn't even have a nickname for it. "I have three young daughters, and I think they might be inspired by a better name."
To help David out, we're asking you to submit your own names for this watery super-Earth. Jump in!
Submit your own name:
Posted: 16 Dec 2009 10:45 AM PST
Meet GJ 1214b, the most Earth-like planet ever found outside our solar system.
It's not exactly Earth's twin: It's about six times bigger, a whole lot hotter and made mostly of water. But compared to the giant gas balls that account for nearly every other extrasolar planet ever found, it's pretty darn close. And through a fortunate happenstance of cosmic geometry, astronomers will be able to study GJ 1214b in great detail.
"If you want to describe in one sentence what this planet is, it's a big, hot ocean," said Harvard University astronomer David Charbonneau. "We can even study its atmosphere. This planet will occupy us for years. That's part of what's so exciting about it."
Described by Charbonneau and 17 other astronomers in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, GJ 1214b is the latest of roughly 400 planets detected by earthly telescopes. Of these, 28 are considered "super-Earths" — planets with a mass roughly comparable to our own.
The super-Earths themselves are too distant to be seen. Instead, astronomers infer their presence from subtle distortions in starlight, caused when photons travel through the super-Earths' gravitational fields. Depending on the degree of distortion, astronomers can even calculate a planet's mass.
That's how Corot-7b, a rocky planet with roughly twice the heft of Earth, was spotted in February. Ditto Gliese 581c, identified two months later, and orbiting its star at a distance consistent with human notions of habitability.
Unfortunately, not much more will ever be known about those planets. Corot-7b is 500 light-years away, too distant for our telescopes to discern more detail. And from our viewing angle, Gliese 581c never quite crosses directly in front of its sun, causing photons to warp in ways that would reveal its atmospheric character.
GJ 1214b does pass in front of its sun. Separated from Earth by a distance of just 42 light years, it's close enough to be studied. Scientists will finally get to look at another Earth-like world.
"Only rarely does a long-sought scientific frontier loom so prominently just beyond the horizon, that the next generation of instruments seems sure to reach it," wrote Geoffrey Marcey, a University of California, Berkeley astronomer, in a commentary accompanying the findings. "They provide the most-watertight evidence so far for a planet that is something like our own Earth, outside our solar system."
Based on its radius and mass — about 2.7 and 6.6 times that of Earth's — Charbonneau and the other astronomers have calculated GJ 1214b's density. It appears to be composed of extraordinarily deep oceans, surrounding a rocky core.
The planet's atmosphere and precise composition remain a mystery, but it's likely composed of many of the same elements found elsewhere at sites of planetary formation, in swirling disks of dust and gas that have yet to accrete: hydrogen, helium, nitrogen, magnesium, oxygen, carbon.
That list of ingredients raises at least the possibility of life. With an estimated temperature of 370 degrees Fahrenheit, GJ 1214b is an unlikely incubator (Earth's toughest extremophile, a microbe that lives in deep-sea volcanic vents, maxes out at 284 degrees) but it's not impossible.
"I don't want to imply that there's any indication of life as we know it. It might have life, but it would have to be a strange kind of life," said Charbonneau.
The telescopes sure to be trained on GJ 1214b in the near future will try to answer that question. But even if it proves barren, other planets await. The telescopes that spotted GJ 1214b were custom designed to find Earth-like planets around nearby stars, and had only operated for a few months before striking water.
"We only look at a handful of stars before finding this planet, said Charbonneau. "Either we got lucky, or the planets are very common."
Citations: "A super-Earth transiting a nearby low-mass star." By David Charbonneau, Zachory K. Berta, Jonathan Irwin, Christopher J. Burke, Philip Nutzman, Lars A. Buchhave, Christophe Lovis, Xavier Bonfils, David W. Latham, Stephane Udry, Ruth A. Murray-Clay, Matthew J. Holman, Emilio E. Falco, Joshua N. Winn, Didier Queloz, Francesco Pepe, Michel Mayor, Xavier Delfosse & Thierry Forveille. Nature, Vol. 462 No. 7275. Dec. 16, 2009.
"Water world larger than Earth." By Geoffrey Marcy. Nature, Vol. 462 No. 7275. Dec. 16, 2009.
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