Got science questions? Skype A Scientist can help

A non-profit dedicated to science communication offers to connect learners with over 11,000 scientists.

Got science questions? Skype A Scientist can help

A child in a video call with a scientist. Chemistry notion can be seen on the screen.

Credit: SUPERMAO/Shutterstock
  • A non-profit dedicated to science communication has made a splash during COVID, offering video calls with science experts.
  • Interested groups can fill out a form requesting particular topics.
  • Individuals can also participate in events both online and in person.

It is no secret that there is a lot of anti-intellectualism these days. Lots of people are increasingly distrustful of scientists, rejecting the scientific consensuses they disagree with, and holding a negative view of experts in general.

In an attempt to reverse this tide, Dr. Sarah McAnulty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and an expert on cephalopods, founded Skype a Scientist, a non-profit designed to put people in contact with scientific experts on a variety of topics.

When there’s something strange you want to learn about, who you gonna’ call?

Skype a Scientist allows groups to schedule video call chats with scientists. Individuals can also participate in events with featured speakers. More than 11,000 scientists have signed up to work with the organization, and more than 14,000 Skype calls have been made. The operation is financed by a dedicated group of Patreon donors alongside the Kavli Foundation.

Scientists who sign up to work with the program are placed with their engagement using an algorithm that includes factors such as time zone differences, needed areas of expertise, demographic information, and languages spoken; 14 languages are now available, including American Sign Language.

The most frequent connections are between scientists and students in the classroom. A typical call with an elementary school featuring microbiologist Dr. Nichole Broderick is described in UCONN magazine:

"The first thing she showed them was a large, stuffed fruit fly. This impressed them. Then she flashed test tubes full of living flies. Fascination ensued, for she was obviously no ordinary person but rather someone with a deep grasp of what was important in life: stuffed animals and bugs. Later she told them she was a microbiologist who studied the germs living in the flies' stomachs. That was when the questions started.

"Where did you grow up?"
"Why do moths eat clothes?"
"Do aliens really exist?"

The teacher of these kindergartners says she has never seen them as engaged as this, when they got to Skype a scientist."

It looks like some doctors do make house calls, just of a different type. 

The organization's fundamental goal is "to make science accessible and fun through personal connections with scientists." That personal connection is essential. Many popular representations of scientists tend towards the image of an old, white guy who doesn't socialize well. This isn't terribly accurate and, perhaps more importantly, can both turn people who don't fit that description away from science and discourage people from trying to engage with scientists at all. By organizing these meetings, Skype a Scientist takes the image of the scientist out of the ivory tower and into the real world.

Another of the program's many goals is to break down stereotypes of scientists. To remedy the mentioned stereotypes, classroom demographic information is used to help pair scientists and participants to provide meaningful representation.

As Dr.McAnulty explained to Forbes:

"We also try to match our scientists and classrooms based on whether the classroom has over 50% of any under-represented minority in science; we then match them with a scientist from that same group so that we can make the most of these connections. For students, seeing themselves represented in science is really important for them to realize that science is a place for them. We try to do our best to make as many people feel welcome in science as possible."

The organization's focus has been on classrooms, but they have recently begun to cater to smaller groups. In-person events have also taken place in Connecticut.

As public trust in science and scientists declines, we all pay the price. Programs like Skype a Scientist can help increase the public's understanding of what science is, who is doing it, and if its something they want to look further into. While chatting with scientists about their work might not fix anything overnight, it can remind us that scientists are people like us who work to make the world a cooler, more knowledgeable place.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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