How Female Genius Changed the World, One Big Idea at a Time
Sponsored by 92nd Street Y
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
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
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
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."
- Disheartened, many are convinced there's no fighting climate change at this point.
- There's no single on/off switch, however, so we can still lessen its effects.
- It's up to us to make the crisis our leaders' priority.
With unprecedented extreme weather buffeting basically everyone everywhere, with places like idyllic Kirbati disappearing beneath the rising seas, and with Australia on fire for goodness sake, it's easy to get the feeling that humanity has already failed to meet the greatest challenge we've ever collectively faced: Climate change. The mental image is one from movies: An explosive's timer ticking inexorably down to zero and, in fact, sitting on zero right now, flashing as we await the final boom. In reality, though, the image presents a misleading metaphor, since there is no single triggering deadline. There's a better visual metaphor: Punching ourselves in the face.
(Adam "Climate Adam" Levy is a University of Oxford doctor in atmospheric physics)
Climate experts have drawn various red lines in the sand that we dare not cross lest we trigger some terrible effect. By and large, their predictions have been, if anything, too optimistic. Climate change is not coming — it's here, even if the scientific community thought, or maybe hoped, it might not land its first punches so soon.
"Climate change has already killed hundreds or thousands — or more — of people, through malaria, through dengue, through a hundred other avenues that we're only now starting to be able to quantify." — Colin Carlson, Georgetown University, speaking to LiveScience.
The most universally accepted red line was drawn by the U.N.'s 2018 IPCC report. It prescribed limiting the Earth's increase in temperature to 1.5° C (2.6° Fahrenheit) by the year 2100, a feat that would require cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 45% before 2030, just a decade from now. Yet here we are, two years later and emissions are still going up. 2018 set a new record high which was promptly exceeded in 2019. Stanford University's Rob Jackson tells the Washington Post, "We're blowing through our carbon budget the way an addict blows through cash."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, author of the Green New Deal Initiative, recalls that for many of her constituents, the U.N. report created a sense of urgency that mystifyingly appeared to escape, and continues to escape, Washington: "Millennials and Gen Z and all these folks that come after us are looking up, and we're like, 'The world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change, and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?'"
The truth is, however, that missing the 2030 deadline doesn't mean we all suddenly die and society instantly crumbles. Not necessarily, anyway. That 1.5° mark is definitely the threshold for terrible consequences, but it's just the nearest nightmare, and there are plenty more following close behind it, each of which makes things worse.
Can we completely avoid climate change's irreversible effects? Too late. Can we avoid its worst-case scenarios? Absolutely yes.
9 ticking clocks
Image source: Stockholm Resilience
Experts cite nine such deadlines looming, as shown in this gif from Stockholm Resilience.
There's work to be done, and two types of people stand in the way of continuing to try and make things better, or at least less worse:
- Climate-change deniers — mostly people with a vested financial interest in fossil fuels, joined by people who just don't want to face the confirmed scientific truth.
- People who are ready to give up trying.
"Some people — I'm hazarding industry and those focused on maintaining a growth-focused economy — would argue that we don't want to sacrifice things in the short term," says Lini Wollenberg of the University of Vermont, "and that society will figure out the technology to deal with it later."
Wishful thinking that technology can come up with some fix later on is childish. Maybe it'll happen, but meanwhile it bestows permission on humanity to do nothing now, even as the effects of our procrastination are already being felt. What's worse, the dreamed-of solutions would have only larger and increasingly more difficult problems to remedy if the solutions materialize at all.
Scientists agree that we can best put the brakes on climate change by doing two things:
- Immediately cutting back carbon emissions.
- Developing a workable system for pulling excess carbon from the atmosphere using currently available technology. The most realistic approach appears to be the strategic planting of more trees.
Make no mistake, though, this is a long-term fight, and rather than continuing to punch ourselves in the face believing there's no way to make it stop, we simply cannot lose heart. This is not some abstract, feel-good affirmation, either. We need to recommit ourselves to doing everything we can to support efforts to turn this around.
Of course we can help by considering our own carbon footprints, but the big steps are in the hands of governmental leaders, like it or not — individuals' contributions to emissions add up, but they pale in comparison to the amount of institutional, industrial carbon being set aloft. As the Earth burns, it becomes ever-more clear that only regulatory mechanisms have the muscle to force positive action. It will require a commitment on our part to ensure that power to make the necessary large-scale changes is in the hands of people who get it. Each of us has to prioritize electing and supporting leaders who get it. Vote, march, reduce. All of it can help. And it's not too late.
- According to a study from anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, when humans fall in love, regions of the brain that are rich in dopamine (a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in feeling pleasure) light up and parts of the brain that are used in fear and social judgment are operating at lower rates.
- The surge and decline of hormones in our brains when we experience a breakup are also similar to those felt when withdrawing from an addiction to drugs - and the pain felt during a breakup has appeared on MRI scans as similar to the physical pain felt with a severe burn or broken arm.
- Understanding the neuroscience of heartbreak can help us better understand how to heal from the physical and emotional pain caused by a breakup, according to well-known psychiatrist and author Dr. Guy Winch.
What happens in your brain when you’re in love
While the feeling of being in love is seemingly magical, there are scientific reasons why being in love feels so good. And as such, there are scientific reasons why falling out of love or going through the heartache of a breakup feels so awful.
Biological anthropologist and well-respected human behavior researcher Dr. Helen Fisher published a groundbreaking study in 2005 that included the very first functional MRI images of the brains of people who were in the midst of "romantic love".
The team of researchers, led by Dr. Fisher, analyzed 2500 brain scans of students who viewed photos of someone special to them (in a romantic capacity) and compared those with scans taken of students who viewed photos of acquaintances.
In the instances where people were shown photos of individuals that they were romantically involved with, the brain would show activity in regions such as the caudate nucleus, which is a region of the brain associated with reward detection and the ventral tegmental area of the brain, which is associated with pleasure and motivation.
These are also areas of the brain that are rich with dopamine, which is a type of neurotransmitter that plays a big role in feeling pleasure. The role of dopamine in our system is to activate the reward circuit, which makes whatever we're doing at the time a more pleasurable experience that can be equated to the type of euphoria associated with the use of addictive substances such as cocaine or alcohol.
Not only does the human brain work to amplify positive emotions when it experiences love, but the neural pathways that are responsible for negative emotions such as fear are deactivated. When we are engaged in what is considered "romantic love," the neural mechanism that is responsible for making assessments of other people and formulating fear-based thoughts shuts down.
A 2011 study conducted at Stony Brook University in New York (which also included Dr. Fisher) concluded that it's possible to feel these effects with someone even after decades of marriage.
The study looked at MRI scans of couples who had been married an average of 21 years, and while the euphoria that comes with falling in love may have changed, the same heightened levels of activity in dopamine-rich areas of the brain that were found in new couples were also seen on these MRI scans.
When we are in love, our bodies are actively producing feel-good hormones and denying the release of negative hormones - and when this process suddenly stops, the "withdrawal" we feel can be extremely difficult to process both on an emotional and physiological level.
What happens in your brain when you’re going through a breakup
A study performed by researchers Lucy Brown, Xiomeng Xu, and Dr. Fisher scanned the activity in the brains of 15 young adults who had all experienced unwanted breakups yet still reported feeling "in love" with the person.
All of these individuals were in various stages of break up. Some still sent messages to their loved ones that went unanswered, and some simply feeling depressed that the relationship was over.
The individuals were shown photos of their former partners, and the scans taken during this time showed activity in several different areas of the brain, including the ventral tegmental, the ventral striatum, and the nucleus accumbens. All three areas are a part of our reward/motivation system, which communicates through the release of dopamine.
There is a direct link between those who have experienced rejection from someone they love (an ex-partner, for example) and those who have experienced withdrawal from addictive substances.
"Romantic love can be a perfectly wonderful addiction when it's going well...and a perfectly horrible addiction when it's going poorly."
- Helen Fisher
What if we cared for broken hearts the same way we care for broken bones?
According to Dr. Guy Winch, psychologist and author of "How to Fix a Broken Heart," heartbreak is a form of grief and loss that can cause serious issues with insomnia, anxiety and even depression or suicidal thoughts. According to Winch, who is known to specialize in "emotional first aid," heartbreak should be taken very seriously, as should our efforts to recover from it.
Columbia University cognitive neuroscientist Edward Smith completed a series of studies and tests in 2011 that proved the pain we feel during heartbreak is similar to physical pain we might feel due to a severe burn or broken arm.
In these studies, the goal was to see what happens in the brains of people who have recently been through a breakup with a long-term partner.
In the MRI images of these people struggling with recent heartbreak, the parts of the brain that lit up were the same parts of the brain that are active when you experience physical pain.
Dr. Winch, in an interview with Blinkist Magazine, explained a similar study that he was a part of where physical pain that was rated as level 8 (on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being almost intolerable pain) showed similar results to an MRI taken by someone who had just talked about and relived their breakup.
The physical pain, which only lasted 7 seconds, registered the same in the patient's brain as the emotional pain of the breakup, which for some can last for days, weeks, or even months.
Understanding this link between heartbreak and physical pain should allow us to take a more all-encompassing approach to heal from the pain of a breakup.
Using logic and neuroscience to heal from a breakup
"It's not just about time and waiting it out - it's about taking steps." - Dr. Guy Winch
Photo by Tero Vesalainen on Shutterstock
There are a few things we can do that are essential to surviving and healing from heartbreak, based on what we know from these studies.
Avoiding visual reminders of your ex-partner may seem like an obvious answer to help you recover, but sentimental reminders such as pictures or revisiting places you used to spend time with them are very likely to create dopamine surges in your brain that relate to feelings of craving and withdrawal.
Replacing those surges of dopamine is the next positive step: taking up a fitness class or joining a gym is something many people do to "power through" a breakup, but exercise can also lead to the release of endorphins that trigger a positive feeling throughout the body and brain.
Finding a "new normal" after a heartbreak can seem impossible - but one of the first things you need to do is to recalibrate your mind. Making a list of reasons your ex-partner wasn't perfect or being honest with yourself about parts of that relationship that were negative or unhealthy can be the beginning of resetting your system to see things in a more true light.
According to Dr. Winch, one of the biggest hurdles to recalibrating your mind and adapting to life without your ex-partner is that we don't find closure.
Winch suggests that we try to accept the reason for the breakup or even find another reason. Maybe the relationship would not have worked out because you wanted different things in life or because they were not emotionally available for you. Finding logic in heartbreak can be a good start to the healing process.
- Technology will change the way that humans tell and experience stories in the future.
- Palmer presents an idea for AI film that watches the viewer and changes the narrative based on their emotional responses to chaotic events.
- By acting as a feedback loop, the AI will make storytellers aware of their implicit bias and become conscious of subconscious behaviors.
- A recent study analyzed observations of gravitational waves, first observed in 2015.
- The data suggests, according to the researchers, that black holes aren't bounded by smooth event horizons, but rather by a sort of quantum fuzz, which would fit with the idea of Hawking radiation.
- If confirmed, the findings could help scientists better understand how general relativity fits with quantum mechanics.
What's it like on the outer edges of a black hole?
This mysterious area, known as the event horizon, is commonly thought of as a point of no return, past which nothing can escape. According to Einstein's theory of general relativity, black holes have smooth, neatly defined event horizons. On the outer side, physical information might be able to escape the black hole's gravitational pull, but once it crosses the event horizon, it's consumed.
"This was scientists' understanding for a long time," Niayesh Afshordi, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Waterloo, told Daily Galaxy. The American theoretical physicist John Wheeler summed it up by saying: "Black holes have no hair." But then, as Afshordi noted, Stephen Hawking "used quantum mechanics to predict that quantum particles will slowly leak out of black holes, which we now call Hawking radiation."
ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser
In the 1970s, Stephen Hawking famously proposed that black holes aren't truly "black." In simplified terms, the theoretical physicist reasoned that, due to quantum mechanics, black holes actually emit tiny amounts of black-body radiation, and therefore have a non-zero temperature. So, contrary to Einstein's view that black holes are neatly defined and are not surrounded by loose materials, Hawking radiation suggests that black holes are actually surrounded by quantum "fuzz" that consists of particles that escape the gravitational pull.
"If the quantum fuzz responsible for Hawking radiation does exist around black holes, gravitational waves could bounce off of it, which would create smaller gravitational wave signals following the main gravitational collision event, similar to repeating echoes," Afshordi said.
Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman
A new study from Afshordi and co-author Jahed Abedi could provide evidence of these signals, called gravitational wave "echoes." Their analysis examined data collected by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors, which in 2015 detected the first direct observation of gravitational waves from the collision of two distant neutron stars. The results, at least according to the researchers' interpretation, showed relatively small "echo" waves following the initial collision event.
"The time delay we expect (and observe) for our echoes ... can only be explained if some quantum structure sits just outside their event horizons," Afshordi told Live Science.
Afshordi et al.
Scientists have long studied black holes in an effort to better understand fundamental physical laws of the universe, especially since the introduction of Hawking radiation. The idea highlighted the extent to which general relativity and quantum mechanics conflict with each other.
Everywhere — even in a vacuum, like an event horizon — pairs of so-called "virtual particles" briefly pop in and out of existence. One particle in the pair has positive mass, the other negative. Hawking imagined a scenario in which a pair of particles emerged near the event horizon, and the positive particle had just enough energy to escape the black hole, while the negative one fell in.
Over time, this process would lead black holes to evaporate and vanish, given that the particle absorbed had a negative mass. It would also lead to some interesting paradoxes.
For example, quantum mechanics predicts that particles would be able to escape a black hole. This idea suggests that black holes eventually die, which would theoretically mean that the physical information within a black hole also dies. This violates a key idea in quantum mechanics which is that physical information can't be destroyed.
The exact nature of black holes remains a mystery. If confirmed, the recent discovery could help scientists better fuse these two models of the universe. Still, some researchers are skeptical of the recent findings.
"It is not the first claim of this nature coming from this group," Maximiliano Isi, an astrophysicist at MIT, told Live Science. "Unfortunately, other groups have been unable to reproduce their results, and not for lack of trying."
Isi noted that other papers examined the same data, but failed to find echoes. Afshordi told Galaxy Daily:
"Our results are still tentative because there is a very small chance that what we see is due to random noise in the detectors, but this chance becomes less likely as we find more examples. Now that scientists know what we're looking for, we can look for more examples, and have a much more robust confirmation of these signals. Such a confirmation would be the first direct probe of the quantum structure of space-time."
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