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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  • The word "creative" is sometimes waved around like a badge of honor. We speak of creativity in hushed tones, as the special province of the "talented". In reality, the creative process is messy, open, and vulnerable.
  • For this reason, creativity is often at its best in a group setting like brainstorming. But in order to work, the group creative process needs to be led by someone who understands it.
  • This sense of deep trust—that no idea is too silly, that every creative impulse is worth voicing and considering—is essential to producing great work.
  • Climate scientists say that Greenland is experiencing ice losses that are unusually early and heavy.
  • Two main weather factors are fueling the losses: a high-pressure system and the resulting low cloud cover.
  • Greenland is a major contributor to sea-level rise.


Four trillion pounds of ice melted in Greenland on June 13 due to unusually warm and sunny weather, scientists report. Although it's normal for ice to melt during Greenland's "melt season," the ice this year is melting earlier than expected and at an alarmingly fast rate.

"It's very unusual to have this much melt so early in the season," William Colgan, senior researcher at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, told the BBC. "It takes very rare conditions but they're becoming increasingly common."

Greenland's current ice loss is on track to break records. In 2012, the island nation saw similarly severe losses, which, like current melting, was fueled by two main weather factors: a high-pressure system that carried warm air from the Central Atlantic to the skies over Greenland, causing warmer temperatures, and the resulting low cloud cover and snowfall, which allowed sunlight to hit the vast ice sheets.

Frozen white ice reflects most sunlight back into the sky. But melting ice turns into darker colors, which absorb more light and heat. This creates a positive feedback loop that speeds up melting.

"You've experienced this if you've walked down the road barefoot on a hot summer day," geologist Trevor Nace wrote for Forbes.

"The black asphalt is much hotter than the white concrete sidewalk. This is due to the difference in how much solar radiation white versus black reflects. Hence, as Greenland melts more of its ice, the surface is converted from a high albedo white to darker colors. This, in turn, causes more melting and adds to the positive feedback loop."

Albedo

Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme/https://amap.no

This figure depicts how radiation from the sun is reflected or absorbed by different terrains. More radiation is reflected by white snow and ice, while more radiation is absorbed by dark surfaces, such as water.

Steffen Olsen, a scientist with the Danish Meteorological Institute, got an eerie up-close look at the changing ice sheets last week. Olsen was on a routine mission to pick up weather monitoring tools on sea ice in northwest Greenland when he saw meltwater pooled up on the sheet's surface, making it look like his sled dogs were walking on water.

Greenland's rapidly melting ice could raise global sea levels.

"Greenland has been an increasing contributor to global sea level rise over the past two decades," Thomas Mote, a research scientist at the University of Georgia who studies Greenland's climate, told CNN. "And surface melting and runoff is a large portion of that."

  • A team of researchers discovered that permafrost in Northern Canada is melting at unusually fast rates.
  • This could causes dangerous and costly erosion, and it's likely speeding up climate change because thawing permafrost releases heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere.
  • This week, Canada's House of Commons declared a national climate emergency.


A new study shows that permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is melting 70 years earlier than predicted. The melting was triggered by a series of unusually hot summers, said researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who measured the thawing while visiting remote outposts in Northern Canada. "What we saw was amazing," Prof. Vladimir E. Romanovsky told Reuters. "It's an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years."

Permafrost is ground that's been frozen for two or more consecutive years. This frozen soil helps to structurally support mountain ranges and slopes. "Think of permafrost as sort of the glue that holds the northern landscape together," permafrost scientist Steve Kokelj told CBC.

When permafrost thaws quickly, it not only causes landscapes to erode, but also releases tons of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere. This could start a dangerous feedback loop that speeds up climate change and threatens the ability to maintain and build new infrastructure.

For example, there were 87 landslides in one night in Canada's Northwest Territories. Nobody was injured in those remote areas, but Canadian climate scientists have a saying: "What happens in the North doesn't stay in the North."

"It's a canary in the coalmine," Louise Farquharson, a post-doctoral researcher and co-author of the study, told Reuters. "It's very likely that this phenomenon is affecting a much more extensive region and that's what we're going to look at next."

Thawing permafrost might already be limiting where new buildings and infrastructure can be built.

"We have to figure out what we're going to do in the future," Aurora Research Institute professor Chris Burn told CBC. "Because otherwise, when we make an investment in a building [or road] which is meant to last 50 years, if in 15 years it's no good we've wasted a huge amount of resources."

A 'climate emergency' in Canada

Canada is especially vulnerable to climate change. A report issued in April from the Environment and Climate Change Canada said that Canada is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the world, but that the warming is "effectively irreversible." This week, Canada's House of Commons voted to declare a national climate emergency.

"This is a national security issue, it is time we started treating it as one," wrote Green Party Leader Elizabeth May on Twitter.

Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, echoed a similar sense of urgency to Reuters. "Thawing permafrost is one of the tipping points for climate breakdown and it's happening before our very eyes," she said. "This premature thawing is another clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately."

  • Earth's orbital space is getting more crowded by the day.
  • The more satellites and space junk we put into orbit, the greater a risk that there could be a collision.
  • Not all materials burn up during reentry; that's why scientists need to stress test satellite parts to ensure that they won't become deadly falling objects.


It's a simple fact that where there are humans, there's trash. Earth's orbit is no exception. The Space Surveillance Network keeps track of 22,300 bits of space junk orbiting the Earth, but there's almost certainly more than this. Statistical models estimate that there are 34,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters; 900,000 from 1 cm to 10 cm; and 128,000,000 objects between 1mm and 1cm in space. And this is a significant problem.

If some of this space debris strikes a satellite, it could destroy that satellite, creating more bits of space debris that may strike other satellites in a chain reaction of catastrophe called the Kessler syndrome. To avoid this, it's important that we design satellites so that they can fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. This represents part of the mission of the European Space Agency's (ESA's) CleanSat initiative. This initiative is focused on keeping our use of space sustainable so that we can continue to enjoy the benefits of GPS, weather modeling and other satellite-based services.

It's also the reason why researchers blasted a magnetotorquer, a piece of satellite technology, in a plasma wind tunnel, heating it to several thousands of degrees Celsius within the hypersonic plasma until it was mostly vaporized. You can watch it happen in the video above. And here's a picture of the aftermath.

"Satellite reentry is not a single event but rather a process," explains Tiago Soares of CleanSat. "From observations, we see the main body break apart typically at 70–80 km altitude, after which the insides are scattered. The kind of objects that can survive down to the surface are propellant tanks made from materials with high melting points, such as titanium or stainless steel, along with dense items such as optical instruments and large mechanisms."

One such dense item is a magnetotorquer. This device helps satellites interact with Earth's magnetic field to orient the satellite, and it's made of some sturdy stuff. The outside is composed of a carbon fiber–reinforced polymer, while the inside is made of copper coils and an iron-cobalt core.

What is D4D? Design for demise.

Photo: ESA/DLR

The magnetotorquer prior to being melted.

Generally, parts of spacecraft and satellites burn up in reentry, but some sturdy pieces can survive the reentry process, or are instead only broken up into potentially deadlier fragments. In 1997, for example, a woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was struck by a small fragment from a Delta rocket, though she wasn't injured. She could have been, however: hundreds of miles away, two Texans were woken up in the middle of the night when the 250kg fuel tank from that same rocket fell just 50m from their farmhouse.

Avoiding incidents like these is why researchers wanted to observe the magnetotorquer as it was subjected to the high heat from the kind of plasma it would generate on reentry. Modern spacecraft are built according to the design-for-demise concept, or D4D. D4D is the idea that satellites should be designed so that as few of their parts as possible can survive reentry or so that they can be safely pushed off into quieter parts of space after their lifespan ends.

Thanks to D4D and modern regulations, there's a 1 in 10,000 chance that a dead satellite in an uncontrolled reentry could hurt anyone on the ground. But some components of a spacecraft are too sturdy to burn up during reentry, such as optical instruments, propellant and pressure tanks, reaction wheels (which are gyroscopes that change a satellite's direction), and magnetotorquers.

"As part of CleanSat," said Soares, "we are looking into making such objects more destructible. Perhaps through new aluminum alloys for tanks, for example. However, even redesigned parts will not melt if they are not exposed to the searing heat early enough. This shows the need to adopt an overall approach to D4D, such as opening up the satellite body as early as possible during reentry." That's why ESA blasted the magnetotorquer in a plasma wind tunnel. Doing so provides insights into the dynamics of satellite reentry, which will in turn enable us to make a cleaner, safer orbital space.


  • The internet is parasitic on traditional media sources, says Keith Whittington. Traditional news outlets do the hard reporting to generate the facts and notable opinions that other outlets respond to.
  • The greatest challenge to truth in journalism is that social media presents news stories out of context; we no longer see news among other news articles, and we may only ever see the headline without the detail and nuance required.
  • Media institutions are working to tackle these challenges, but until then it is our responsibility as citizens and consumers to get smarter about how we navigate news feeds and the hyper-partisan press.