How Female Genius Changed the World, One Big Idea at a Time

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This Team of Female Astronomers Revolutionized Our Understanding of Stars

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.


The most fundamental knowledge we have of stars comes from a team of Harvard astronomers working at the turn of the 19th century. This team, known as the "Harvard computers" for their ambitious calculations, was composed entirely of females. As astronomer Anna Frebel explains, male researchers were interested in galaxies — the day's hot topic. As a result, women pioneered the field of stellar research. Their methods of cataloging stars and determining their chemical composition are still taught at universities today.

Why Fewer Women Succeed at the Highest Levels of Science — From a Woman Who Did

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.


"Sometimes you have to learn when not to be too much of a lady," says Joy Hirsch. "So if you have to kick a**, just go do it." Director of the Brain Function Laboratory at Yale University, Hirsch knows the challenges that women face in professional life. Often valued for more traditional qualities like the ability to teach or mentor, women aren't always first thought of as leaders; but of course they are, and always have been. The challenge ahead of us, as Hirsch says, is to "allow ambitious, talented women to contribute as best they can."

Why We Explore the Oceans

97% of Earth’s water is ocean. Without the ocean, Earth would be much like Mars: a bleak, barren, inhospitable place.

The Dangers of Deep Sea Diving

Forget sharks and predatory animals—the most dangerous aspect of diving is oxygen.

If The Oceans Are in Trouble, We're in Trouble

Sharks are scary, but an ecosystem without them is even scarier.

How a 27 Year-Old Poet Became the World's First Computer Programmer

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.


The story of Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer, begins with a mathematically gifted mother and, as father, the Romantic poet Lord Byron. Notorious for his philandering, Byron contributed the strong poetical streak to his daughter's worldview. Lovelace's interest in poetry, however, was something her mother wanted stamp out, surrounding Lovelace with mathematics at the exclusion of the arts. But when Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the mechanical engineer behind the first computer, she found an outlet for her creativity, writing the first complete computer algorithm and becoming the world's first computer programmer, all at the age of twenty-seven.

Behind Our Favorite Children's Books, a Woman Who Championed Imagination

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.


Some of our most timeless children's books — The Giving Tree, Charlotte's Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon — are the result of the little-known publisher Ursula Nordstrom. Editor-in-chief of children's books at Harper & Row through the middle of the 20th century, Nordstrom championed complex, non-commercial stories for children at a time when it was unpopular to do so. The friendships she built with authors like Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, helped embolden their talents and bestow their gifts upon children of all ages.

To Expose the Truth about Mental Asylums, Nellie Bly Feigned Insanity to Study One

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.


Nellie Bly may be little known but her achievements are truly outsized. She spoke out for women's rights; carved out a place for women in journalism by feigning insanity, entering a mental institution, and covering what she saw as a reporter; and she beat Jules Verne's hypothetical record of traveling around the world in 80 days, accomplishing the feat in just 72.

Maria Mitchell: America's First Celebrity Scientist

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.


While England's Charles Darwin studied the foundations of biological science, America's Maria Mitchell became famous for her celestial discoveries. She was our nation's first professional female astronomer. Maria Popova explains: "In 1831 when she was still a teenager obsessed with stargazing she heard that the king of Denmark had offered a gold medal valued at 20 ducats, which was a lot of money at the time to the first person to discover a telescopic comet. It took her 16 years to master the science and the craft of observation, but she did become the first person and C1847T1 was known for 100 years Miss Mitchell's Comet."

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  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
  • Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
  • Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.


Imagine everyday citizens engaging in the democratic process. What images spring to mind? Maybe you thought of town hall meetings where constituents address their representatives. Maybe you imagined mass sit-ins or marches in the streets to protest unpopular legislation. Maybe it's grassroot organizations gathering signatures for a popular referendum. Though they vary in means and intensity, all these have one thing in common: participation.

Participatory democracy is a democratic model that emphasizes civic engagement as paramount for a robust government. For many, it's both the "hallmark of social movements" and the gold standard of democracy.

But all that glitters may not be gold. While we can all point to historical moments in which participatory democracy was critical to necessary change, such activism can have deleterious effects on the health of a democracy, too. One such byproduct, political psychologist Diana Mutz argues, can be the lessening political tolerance.

Participation or deliberation?

In her book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy, Mutz argues that participatory democracy is best supported by close-knit groups of like-minded people. Political activism requires fervor to rouse people to action. To support such passions, people surround themselves with others who believe in the cause and view it as unassailable.

Alternative voices and ideologies — what Mutz calls "cross-cutting exposures" — are counterproductive to participation because they don't reinforce the group's beliefs and may soften the image of the opposing side. This can dampen political zeal and discourage participation, particularly among those averse to conflict. To prevent this from happening, groups can become increasingly intolerant of the other side.

"You can have a coup and maximize levels of participation, but that wouldn't be a great thing to do. It wouldn't be a sign of health and that things were going well."

As the book's title suggests, deliberative democracy fosters a different outlook for those who practice it. This model looks toward deliberation, communication, compromise, and consensus as the signs of a resilient democracy. While official deliberation is the purview of politicians and members of the court, it's worth noting that deliberative democracy doesn't mean inactivity from constituents. It's a philosophy we can use in our daily lives, from community memberships to interactions on social media.

"The idea is that people learn from one another," Mutz tells Big Think. "They learn arguments from the other side as well as learn more about the reasons behind their own views. [In turn], they develop a respect for the other side as well as moderate their own views."

Mutz's analysis leads her to support deliberation over activism in U.S. politics. She notes that the homogeneous networks required for activism can lead to positive changes — again, there are many historical examples to choose from. But such networks also risk developing intolerance and extremism within their ranks, examples of which are also readily available on both the right and left.

Meanwhile, the cross-cutting networks required for deliberative democracy offer a bounty of benefits, with the only risk being lowered levels of participation.

As Mutz writes: "Hearing the other side is also important for its indirect contributions to political tolerance. The capacity to see that there is more than one side to an issue, that political conflict is, in fact, a legitimate controversy with rationales on both sides, translates to greater willingness to extend civil liberties to even those groups whose political views one dislikes a great deal."

Of politics and summer camp

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Take that! A boxing bout between two members of a schoolboys' summer camp at Pendine, South Wales, takes place in a field within a ring of cheering campmates.

Of course, listening openly and honestly to the other side doesn't come naturally. Red versus blue. Religious versus secular. Rural versus cosmopolitan. We divide ourselves into polarized groups that seek to silence cross-cutting communication in the pursuit of political victory.

"The separation of the country into two teams discourages compromise and encourages an escalation of conflict," Lilliana Mason, assistant professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, writes in her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. "The cooperation and compromise required by democracy grow less attainable as partisan isolation and conflict increase."

Mason likens the current situation to Muzafer Sherif's famous Robbers Cave Experiment.

In the early 1950s, Sherif gathered a group of boys for a fun summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. At least, that was the pretense. In reality, Sherif and his counselors were performing an experiment in intergroup conflict that would now be considered unethical.

The 20 boys were divided into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles. For a while, the counselors kept the groups separate, allowing the boys to bond only with their assigned teammates. Then the two groups were introduced to participate in a tournament. They played competitive games, such as baseball and tug-o-war, with the winning team promised the summer camp trophy.

Almost immediately, the boys identified members of the other team as intruders. As the tournament continued, the conflict escalated beyond sport. The Eagles burned a Rattlers flag. The Rattlers raided the Eagles' cabin. When asked to describe the other side, both groups showed in-group favoritism and out-group aggression.

Most troubling, the boys wholly assumed the identity of an Eagle or Rattler despite having never been either before that very summer.

"We, as modern Americans, probably like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated and tolerant than a group of fifth-grade boys from 1954. In many ways, of course, we are," Mason writes. "But the Rattlers and the Eagles have a lot more in common with today's Democrats and Republicans than we would like to believe."

Like at Robbers Cave, signs of incendiary conflict are easy to spot in U.S. politics today.

"Political Polarization in the American Public", Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 12, 2014)

A 2014 Pew survey found that the ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans is much more distant than in the past. More Republicans lie further right of moderate Democrats than before and vice versa. The survey also found that partisan animosity had doubled since 1994.

In her book, Mason points to research that shows an "increasing number of partisans don't want party leaders to compromise," blame "the other party for all incivility in government," and abhor the idea of dating someone from outside their ideological group.

And let's not forget Congress, which has grown increasingly divided along ideological lines over the past 60 years.

A dose of daily deliberation

Painting by Charles Francois Jalabert (1819-1901) 1846. Beaux-Arts museum, Nimes, France. Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images.

Horace, Virgil and Varius at the house of Maecenas.

A zero-sum mindset may be inevitable in a summer camp tournament, but it's detrimental if taken into wider society and politics. Yet if participatory democracy leads to the silencing of oppositional voices, a zero-sum mindset is exactly what we get. Conversely, creating networks that tolerate and support differing opinions offers non-zero benefits, like tolerance and an improvement of one's understanding of complicated issues.

Mutz wrote her book in 2006, but as she told us in our interview, the intervening years have only strengthened her resolve that deliberation improves democratic health:

"Right now, I'm definitely on the side of greater deliberation rather than just do whatever we can to maximize levels of participation. You can have a coup and maximize levels of participation, but that wouldn't be a great thing to do. It wouldn't be a sign of health and that things were going well. Democracy [must be] able to absorb differences in opinion and funnel them into a means of governing that people were okay with, even when their side didn't win."

Unfortunately, elected officials and media personalities play up incivility and the sense of national crisis for ratings and attention, respectively. That certainly doesn't help promote deliberation, but as Mutz reminded us, people perceive political polarization to be much higher than it actually is. In our daily lives, deliberative democracy is more commonplace than we realize and something we can promote in our communities and social groups.

Remember that 2014 Pew survey that found increased levels of partisan animosity? Its results showed the divide to be strongest among those most engaged and active in politics. The majority of those surveyed did not hold uniform left or right views, did not see the opposing party as an existential threat, and believed in the deliberative process in government. In other words, the extremes were pulling hard at the poles.

Then there's social media. The popular narrative is that social media is a morass of political hatred and clashing identities. But most social media posts have nothing to do with politics. An analysis of Facebook posts from September 2016, the middle of an election year, found the most popular topics centered on football, Halloween, Labor Day, country music, and slow cookers.

And what of political partisanship and prejudice? In an analysis of polarization and ideological identity, Mason found that labels like "liberal" and "conservative" had less to do with values and policy attitudes – as the majority of Americans agree on a substantial number of issues – and more to do with social group identification.

Yes, we all know those maps that media personalities dust off every election year, the ones that show the U.S. carved up into competing camps of red and blue. The reality is far more intricate and complex, and Americans' intolerance for the other side varies substantially from place to place and across demographics.

So while participation has its place, a healthy democracy requires deliberation, a recognition of the other side's point of view, and the willingness to compromise. Tolerance may not make for good TV or catchy political slogans, but it's something we all can foster in our own social groups.

Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America

  • The comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) was spotted by an amateur astronomer.
  • The object is moving so fast, it likely originated outside our solar system.
  • The comet should be observable for another year.


A comet that may coming from outside our solar system has been discovered. If confirmed, this would be second interstellar object ever identified, with the first one being 'Oumuamua, found in 2017.

The new comet, dubbed C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), was discovered by the Ukrainian amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Nauchnij, Crimea on August 30th, 2019. Since the find, the origins of the unusual space rock, which doesn't seem to have a circular or elliptical orbit, have been debated by the astronomers.

The object's so-called eccentricity, one of its key orbital parameters, has been measured by the Minor Planet Center to be more than three, which means it has an arc-shaped trajectory.

Composite image by Travis Rector. Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA

Gemini Observatory two-color composite image of C/2019 Q4 (Borisov). Blue and red dashes show background stars which seem to streak due to the motion of the comet.

One other eye-popping indicator that serves as the clue to the comet's interstellar origins is its high velocity of about 93,000 miles per hour (or 150,000 kph). That's too fast to be pulled in by the sun's gravity and also means that the object is probably just passing through.

Davide Farnocchia of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at JPL says the velocity is significantly above other objects that orbit the Sun this far away. "The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space," pointed out Farnocchia.

Borisov's comet is not likely to come close to Earth, currently about 260 million miles away from our Sun. At its closest point to Earth (or perihelion), it's still projected to stay as far as 190 million miles, farther than the orbit of Mars.

How do we know this is even a comet? From the coma – its fuzzy looks, which are indicative of the object having a central icy body with a cloud of dust and particles surrounding it on approach to the Sun, which is heating it up, reports NASA's press release. The nucleus of the comet is estimated to be between 1.2 and 10 miles (2 and 16 kilometers) in diameter.

For about another year, you too can take a peek at the unusual space body if you have a professional telescope. "The object will peak in brightness in mid-December and continue to be observable with moderate-size telescopes until April 2020," explained Farnocchia. "After that, it will only be observable with larger professional telescopes through October 2020."




"A conversation is like a tunnel dug under the prison floor that you—patiently and painstakingly—scoop out with a spoon. It has one purpose: to get you away from where you are right now."

That is from the very, very weird tale Car Concentrate from Israeli writer Etgar Keret's wonderful new collection of short stories called FLY ALREADY. It's not a bad description of the situation most of Keret's characters find themselves in—wriggling like butterflies stuck on the pins of their own minds or circumstances, trying by any means necessary to get free. It's maybe not too much even to say that this is the human condition as Keret sees it and the reason he writes stories—to open up magical escape hatches in the midst of suffocating realities like divorce or religious hatred. His stories are strange, beautiful, funny, and poignant—somehow emotionally connected even though they're full of people who struggle to make sense to (and of) one another. Like all great art, they defy description, so ignore everything I've just said and go read them…but first, stick around for a bit to see what kind of escape tunnel this conversation might turn into.

Surprise conversation starters in this episode:

Michio Kaku on uploading your consciousness and traveling to other planets

  • Robotic automation may one day make slavery economically inefficient, but automation does not spring forth fully formed.
  • An interim period of piecemeal coverage may leave many at-risk, low-skilled workers in danger of exploitation.
  • Nor can automation sate the political and social motives for slavery found in some societies.


An estimated 40.3 million people suffer today in slavery. Living a shadowed existence between lawful states, victims yield their captors $150 billion in illegal profits every year. This most wretched of facts is made even more haunting when you consider that 1 in 4 victims are children.

"We know that if there are 40 million people in modern slavery, only tens of thousands of victims are being helped, assisted and supported, whether through the criminal justices system or through victim support systems," Fiona David, Walk Free Foundation's executive director of global research, told CNN. "It's a massive gap that we have to close."

Thanks to the efforts of governments and NGOs, that gap is closing.

There are fewer slaves in the world today, per capita, than at any other point in history. Chattel slavery, the kind that lead to the Atlantic slave trade, was once a human universal. Today, it is abolished and morally condemned. Other forms of slavery, such as child labor and forced marriage, are in decline. And the United Nations has set a target to end modern slavery by 2025.

We are closer to ending this morally bankrupt practice than at any point in our history. Will the final push come in the form of robotic automation?

Robots to end slavery?

(Photo: Global Slavery Index)

A map showing the estimated prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 people) according to the Global Slavery Index's 2018 findings. The 10 countries with the highest prevalence are noted.

The idea is simple enough. Slavery is an economic crime. Its perpetrators lure desperate and disenfranchised peoples with the promise of a livelihood. They then force their victims to do repetitive, physically demanding, and often dangerous work while cutting them off from any physical, social, and lawful means of escape.

By design, machines perform repetitive tasks without concerns for the dangers or physical demands. In richer countries, they are already employed in industries associated with chattel slavery abroad, such as mining, farming, and textiles. As the thinking goes: if automation were to become widespread and cost effective enough, it would eradicate the need for cheap human labor and render slavery economically inefficient.

At End Slavery Now, Cazzie Reyes details how such a future might play out. Currently, China's factories are losing their traditional source of cheap labor as worker wages and education levels rise. To address this labor gap, the country purchased 56,000 robots in 2014 and plans to rapidly increase factory automation.

As this shift continues, low-skilled workers may "be moved from completing routine to more value-added tasks" or even new jobs in robot manufacturing.

Robots may also challenge another form of slavery: sexual exploitation. In the Netherlands alone about 4,000 people are coerced into the sex trade every year. Worldwide 4.8 million people are sexually exploited with no means of escape, the vast majority young women and children.

But brothels have emerged in Europe and Japan that provide companionship with realistic sex dolls. In the U.S., Houston almost became the first city to open a robot brothel, but its city council banned renting sex dolls in October of last year (though businesses can still sell them for home use).

In Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy argues that such institutions can reduce prostitution rates. As the dolls become more lifelike, he sees the world's oldest profession going the way of match girls and lamp lighters.

Futurists Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars divine a similar future in their paper "Robots, men, and sex tourism." By 2050, they write, Amsterdam's famed red-light district will be dominated by hyper-realistic sex androids. The androids would not only allow the sex industry to grow but also curb the spread of STIs and improve the government's ability to regulate human trafficking.

Sold down the river

Photo credit: Francesco Paroni Sterbini / Flickr

Many manufacturing jobs, like this silk factory near Dalat, Vietnam, are at risk as automation enters the ASEAN-5 countries.

As automation spreads into new territories and industries, it may make slavery less economically efficient in the long run. In the short term, however, slavery will remain expedient, and economic expedience, not efficiency, has been a main driver of slavery throughout history.

That's the future predicted by Verisk Maplecroft's "Human Rights Outlook 2018" report.

The report estimates that over the next two decades, 56 percent of workers in ASEAN-5 manufacturing industries will lose their jobs to automation. With few skills and fewer options, displaced workers can become targets of the exploitative practices that lead people into slavery and human trafficking.

The ASEAN-5 countries already rank high on the Modern Slavery Index, and the report forecasts further deterioration. It is estimated that Vietnam alone could see 36 million people seeking new jobs in the coming decades, creating ample opportunities for human traffickers.

"Displaced workers without the skills to adapt or the cushion of social security will have to compete for a diminishing supply of low-paid, low-skilled work in what will likely be an increasingly exploitative environment," Alexandra Channer, Verisk Maplecroft's human rights strategy lead, said in a release. "Without concrete measures from governments to adapt and educate future generations to function alongside machines, it could be a race to the bottom for many workers."

Similarly, the belief that robotic sex workers will significantly reduce demand for sexual exploitation, let alone drive it to zero, is hardly universal. Opponents argue that sexual exploitation is as much about degradation as sex, that humans will always prefer other humans, and that there are lines that robotic sex peddlers won't cross but human traffickers will (i.e., the exploitation of children).

"So we're not just having a conversation here about objects that people rub on their genitals. This is not what this is about," Kathleen Richardson, director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, told Feminist Current. "[Sex robots are] piggybacking off on those real lived experiences of real human women being dehumanized by the commercial sex trade."

Social and political death

Nor is slavery only an economic crime. It has many social and political causes that automation cannot address.

For example, North Korea has instituted a system of state-sanctioned force labor. Its government has arrested tens of thousands of people, typically for crimes against the state, and sentenced to work in labor camps. These prisoners work dangerous, long hours in mines, factories, and logging camps and may even be exported to places like China and Russia, where they yield North Korean leaders between $1.2 and $2.3 billion dollars annually.

While automation may, one day, reduce demand for North Korea's macabre exports, it is unlikely the totalitarian regime would do away with this system in the name of economic efficiency.

That's because this form of slavery is as much political as it is profitable. It removes dissidents from political life and places them in a type of social purgatory. Citizens who are tired, hungry, weak, and enslaved in a strange land make for poor revolutionaries.

Additionally, our modern definition of slavery has expanded to practices beyond chattel slavery. It now includes any practice that reduces a person to the statues of property and deprives them of their right to choose, such as forced marriage. However, forced marriage is as much a social and cultural transaction as it is an economic one. In countries that value such institutions, no machine could replace that form of social control.

Will automation be part of the solution?

Truth is, we don't know. As Pauline Oosterhoff, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, writes: "The fact is that we do not have a sure-fire way to eradicate slavery in the existing economy. We are not really sure what role previous rounds of automation have played in either eliminating or encouraging modern-day slavery, and we do not know what effects new developments in automation and artificial intelligence will have."

Automation may make reducing chattel slavery easier in some states, but it can't inoculate societies from the social and political ills that create opportunities for exploitation. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, contemporary abolitionists focus their efforts on these strategies:

Better law enforcement. Governments can better provide law enforcement with the tools to combat human trafficking and streamline the court processes and laws to make legal efforts more consistent and effective.

Transparent supply chains. Modern businesses have complex international supply chains that may intersect with slavery — some even argue it's impossible to make a smartphone that doesn't rely on child labor. In addition to transparency laws, abolitionist call for mandating supply chain investigations and making ethical sourcing a central business practice.

More comprehensive and widespread reporting. Reports that name governments, businesses, and individuals complicit in slavery help lessen demand as such public shaming leads to social opprobrium and economic consequences.

Public education. Exposing abuses to the public educates them on modern slavery practices. This can help at-risk communities from falling prey to exploitation, and move constituents to support funding rehabilitation and prevention programs.

Will these efforts close the slavery gap? It will be difficult, especially by 2025, but at no other point in history has the will and the means to do so existed in such abundance. And we have 40.3 million reasons to make sure we do.

  • Conventional schooling was largely designed with an industrial-revolution mindset.
  • However, this factory model of education doesn't hold up today. Our access to technology allows learning to happen beyond the conventional classroom.
  • Unschooling serves as a reinvention of education that invites students to indulge in their natural curiosity on their individual path to knowledge.