Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison Talks Diversity in STEM: “They Think of It as a Nicety. No, It’s a Necessity.”

Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison (Credit: NASA)

Doctor Mae Jemison, who was the first African-American woman in space, recently spoke to HuffPost about the importance of introducing kids to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education early in life—and how doubly important it is for that to mean all kids, of all backgrounds. She spoke to HuffPost as part of her collaboration with Science Matters, an initiative from the National 4-H Council and Bayer that’s meant to encourage kids all over the country, from both rural and urban areas, to pursue the agricultural sciences.

“Science Matters will extend the reach of our hands-on STEM programming,” said Artis Stevens, the chief marketing officer for the National 4-H Council, “which is proven to grow 4-H’ers who are two times more likely than others to enter STEM careers.”

As part of her talk with HuffPost, Jemison celebrated the ways that urban gardens can be used to inspire enthusiasm, curiosity, and excitement in young learners. “There’s nothing more exciting to see something growing ― and you can eat it!” she said. “That’s something parents can do with their kids as well.” However, as much as she lauded this outreach, she also called for systemic changes that would make it easier for talented young scientists all of backgrounds and identities to enjoy fulfilling STEM careers.

“It’s not about just making girls continuously jump over these hurdles that we put in place in front of them. It’s about us taking those hurdles down,” she said.

In addition, she pointed out the practical, intellectual benefits of including everyone in STEM fields. It’s both a question of morality and a question of competitiveness. “We’re losing talent and we’re losing capability by not including them,” she told HuffPost. “When people think about why it is important to have a diversity of talent in a field, they think of it as a nicety. No, it’s a necessity. We get better solutions.”

(via HuffPost; image: NASA)

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Releases Full, Commercial-Free Version of His Interview With Stephen Hawking

We were all saddened to learn of the passing of world-renowned astrophysicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking today at the age of 76. What’s particularly melancholy is that a mere ten days before his death, he recorded an interview with another renowned astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, for Tyson’s series, Star Talk, on National Geographic TV. The episode, which originally aired on March 4th, was released today in a commercial-free version in memory (and celebration of) the legendary Hawking.

It’s a fascinating interview, and one of the more interesting question that Tyson asks Hawking is “If we had some way to communicate through time with [Isaac Newton], and tell him about what life is like today, are there any questions, any problems that you would like him to solve?”

What’s interesting is Hawking’s response. He’d ask Newton: “Is a solar system stable? And what happens to a star that cannot support itself against its own gravity?”

As Tyson points out, Hawking doesn’t want to ask Newton for insight into new discoveries. He’s curious about how Newton would answer a question “at the boundary of where [he] left off in his own studies.” The playfulness of Hawking’s response is pretty awesome. It’s like This is stuff I already know, but I want to see how long it would’ve taken you to get there.

Check out the full, uninterrupted episode above, and then tell us below: what do you wish YOU could ask Stephen Hawking about the universe around us?

(via Laughing Squid, image: screencap)

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A Tribute to Stephen Hawking, Who Died Today at 76 Years Old

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking died early this morning at 76 years old, leaving many of us very sad but also very inspired by his life, especially considering he was told he only had two years to live all the way back in 1963, at 22 years old, due to motor neurone disease. He beat the odds in a big way, bringing us all a lot of science and laughter over the years, and this is our small way of paying tribute.

A statement today from his children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world.”

In the above video, you can watch Hawking sing Monty Python’s “Galaxy Song” to help put things in perspective. His children’s statement continued, “He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

Hawking has made plenty of fun appearances like this over the years, including cameos on Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes, as himself), The Simpsons, Futurama, and more. You can also get some extra Hawking by checking out The Theory of Everything, his recent biopic, which was all around a pretty good movie. (You can also watch Jane Hawking talk about the movie here.) Or, you can play some Science Kombat, in which Hawking is a playable fighter.

He also recently appeared in a charity comedy video in which he auditioned new voices, was involved in an initiative to send tiny space probes to far away locations at a significant fraction of the speed of light, and warned us about aliens killing us, AI killing us (more than once), climate change killing us, and us killing us—although those last two are basically the same. Now, it’s up to the rest of us to do something about it.

He also once did something we all kind of want to do in the back of our minds, but we’re not all exactly famous enough in the science world for it to mean anything: He threw a party for time travelers.

Farewell, Stephen Hawking.

(image: Jemal Countess / Stringer)

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Warning: Your Amazon Alexa May Be Plotting Your Demise

amazon alexa talking laughing

A number of Alexa owners have reported their personal AI assistants displaying some disturbing behavior. One Twitter user posted a video of her Alexa randomly laughing maniacally, apparently with no provocation.

Apparently, this isn’t an unusual occurrence, either. Amazon told BuzzFeed that they’re “aware of this and working to fix it.”

I’ve had my Alexa randomly start talking, sometimes with no one in the room. It’s usually just a simple “I didn’t catch that” which I assume is because it was triggered by something on the television in the next room. Occasionally she says longer sentences for no reason. But I’ve never experienced any of this very HAL-like behavior.

Random laughter from echo dot?? from r/amazonecho

As if the whole listening-in-on-your-conversations thing wasn’t creepy enough, this might be the motivation I need to bury my Alexa in my basement forever. What about you all? Will you fight or welcome our tiny, helpful robot overlords?

(via Twitter, image: Amazon)

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HPV Vaccination Rates Are Still Upsettingly Low

science woman novartis vaccines research lab

HPV, or human papillomavirus, can lead to cervical cancer, penile cancer, oral cancer, genital warts, and other cancers in both men and women. It’s the most common STI in the United States. However, the rates of immunization are still way too low. Why is it that what is essentially a vaccine for cancer is having so much trouble in the United States? Studies on the high immunization rates in countries like Rwanda and Australia show that it’s not only possible, but beneficial.

A study in 2016 showed that after introducing the vaccine, the prevalence of HPV decreased significantly. However, only 43% of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 were immunized with the recommended doses (meaning while 65% of girls and 56% percent of boys had the first dose, they didn’t complete the vaccination series).

A new report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association shows that only 29% of its insured teen members receiving their first dose by their 13th birthday. Nationally, you can check out the percentage of coverage here. An interesting side-by-side comparison with these maps about how states cover sex education might be the answer to why pre-teens, teenagers, and those in their early-to-mid 20s aren’t getting vaccinated. Dr. Margaret Stager of the Metro Health Medical Center in Cleveland told NPR that while the number is slowly rising, misconceptions about the vaccine continue.

Because the CDC recommends the vaccines at ages 11 or 12, there’s often pushback from parents who feel like the cancer-preventing vaccine might encourage sexual activity. “I’m worried my child will think that getting this vaccine makes it OK to have sex” is a talking point in this “Talking to Parents” tip sheet. Side note: the idea that a shot will make a girl promiscuous is absolutely ridiculous, but in what world is cancer a better alternative to promiscuity?

The CDC even has a section to emphasize that the vaccine is meant for your child “before they begin sexual activity”:

“This is not to say that your preteen is ready to have sex. In fact, it’s just the opposite—it’s important to get your child protected before you or your child have to think about this issue. The immune response to this vaccine is better in preteens, and this could mean better protection for your child.”

Additionally, the recommendations to vaccinate boys didn’t begin until a year after it was first introduced for girls, and though the lack of an HPV test for men has led some to assume it doesn’t matter, men are more likely to get Oral HPV cancer.

For more information about the HPV virus, you can find the CDC’s resources for parents and children here.

(via NPR, image: Novartis Vaccines Research Lab on Flickr)

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From “Fancy My Hero” to “Tweet up Bat,” This Neural Network Wrote the Only Candy Heart Messages Fit for 2018

Image of candy hearts that say,

Researcher Janelle Shane, whose work with neural networks we’ve covered before, is at it again. This time, she tried to train a neural network to create its own candy heart messages. “I collected all the genuine heart messages I could find,” she explains at her website, “and then gave them to a learning algorithm called a neural network. Given a set of data, a neural network will learn the patterns that let it imitate the original data—although its imitation is sometimes imperfect. The candy heart messages it produced … well, you be the judge.”

The results were, perhaps unsurprisingly, mixed. Some of the bot’s suggestions, like “LOVE BUN,” seemed pretty accurate, while others like “YOU ARE BABE” and “FANCY MY HERO” only managed to capture the sentiment of a candy heart. From there, of course, things got weird. From “I HONKER” to “TWEET UP BAT” to “U HACK,” the network’s next tries were decidedly less human-sounding. Still, I have to love the sound of the verb “honker.”

Below are just a few of my favorite selections. You can see the full list over at Shane’s website. As always, tag yourself. (I’m HOGSYEA.)

  • LICK
  • MY MY
  • U HACK

Shane later increased the size of her dataset. For the first batch, she writes, “I could only find about 360 existing messages total. So, when I decided to generate some more messages, I decided to add my favorite neural network-generated messages to the original dataset, increasing the total to almost 500. This is still really small for a neural network, but a noticeable upgrade.”

What did the network do with the enhanced dataset? “The first thing I noticed,” Shane said, “is the definite upswing in the number of messages involving bears.”


The other new suggestions included the below nonsense phrases, and you can see more in the full second list at Shane’s website.

  • OOO
  • IN A FAN
  • OY
  • MY HAG

Haven’t had enough yet? Shane writes that the neural network also generated some inappropriate suggestions, so you can request to view those via this form.

Shane’s previous neural network experiments include Dungeons & Dragons spells, guinea pig names, and cookbook recipes. If you have any questions about playing around with your own neural networks, she has a great FAQ at her site.

(via NPR and Nerdist; image: Flickr/Frank Guido under CC 2.0)

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Now The Robots Are Skiing and Opening Doors

As the robots move ever closer to Terminator status, they know they’re going to have to pick up some basic motor skills. From playing soccer to dancing en masse to doing push-ups, they’ve been making steady progress in imitating our moves and adapting to the demands of bipedal and quadripedal movement. And now they’ve added skiing and door-opening to their repertoire.

First off, those creepy Boston Dynamics robot-dogs are at it again. And just like the raptors in The Lost World, this time they’ve learned teamwork. In the above video, two SpotMini robots help each other to open doors. Using cameras and an extendable arm, it determines where the door is and holds it open for its friend.

I also hate everything about the nightmarish way it moves. As Wired observes, “This newest version of SpotMini marries the stability of a quadruped with the dexterity of a human. It’s a hybrid creature that shows the awesome power of robotics: Human engineers are inventing an incredible array of new species because they’re not bound by the rules of nature, just physics. Want to put an extra arm on a four-legged robot? Go ahead.”

Meanwhile, while the humans are distracted by the Olympics over in Pyeongchang, the robots had their own skiing competition in Hoengseong, Korea. In the “Edge of Robot: Ski Robot Challenge,” each of the eight participating teams entered a self-driving robot, who had to navigate around red and blue flagpoles. In order to compete, the robots had to meet specific requirements: two-legged, joints mimicking elbows and knees, and a height of at least 50 centimeters.

Unlike the Boston Dynamics SpotMini, these guys are pretty cute and squat, and watching them crash into flagpoles and get caught by their creators is pretty fun. Plus, just like with small children who are fiendishly good at human skiing, the robot with the lowest center of gravity won.

At the end of the day, as much as I dislike them, these videos do demonstrate just how struggling and slow-moving our current robots are. They’ve got a long way to go before they can even hope to imitate the wonders and dynamism of the human body, and even longer before they can hope to overpower us in hand-to-hand combat. But, still. I’ve got my eye on these sneaky little Frankensteins.

(via Wired and The Verge; image: screengrab)

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The Reason Only Thor Can Pick up His Hammer Is … Science

Chris Hemsworth as Thor

The comics are pretty clear on the ground rules: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he [OR SHE] be worthy, shall possess the power of THOR.” But how does this work?

Writer Mark Waid went into the science behind Thor’s hammer in Avengers #679, and that science appears to be theoretical physics—with a little help from super-advanced blacksmithing dwarves (and Odin’s enchantment doesn’t hurt). has the text from the back matter of Avengers #679, with Waid’s explanation:

Okay. The science of Thor’s magic hammer, taken in part from all the research I did for that Thor/Hulk crossover I did a few years back with Walt Simonson: Uru metal was forged in fiery pits by dwarven blacksmiths. Based upon its observed properties–that it is nigh-indestructible, cannot be lifted by anyone except if they be as worthy as Thor and always returns to his hand–there can be only one explanation: “Uru metal” must actually be an exotic form of matter that can be induced to emit gravitons. Gravitons are particles (theoretically predicted but, unlike the Higgs boson, still not experimentally confirmed) that mediate the force of gravity, just like photons transmit the force of electromagnetism.

Are you following? Good. Because while the theoretical physics here sounds legit, it would still appear to need a kick from an advanced civilization and an all-seeing Allfather in order to work:

While we are unable to forge Uru metal on Earth, the dwarven blacksmiths, being as advanced compared to us as we are to our early ancestors, could craft a hammer whose properties seem like magic to us. Being able to change the rate of emission and absorption of gravitons is equivalent to being able to change an object’s mass and even shape it. If a person whom the hammer has determined to be unworthy attempts to lift the hammer, thanks to Odin’s enchantment, the Uru metal will dramatically increase the rate of graviton emission. This will result in an exponential increase in the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the hammer, such that it cannot be budged. When Thor grips Mjolnir’s handle, the ‘identity recognition enchantment,’ if you will, causes the graviton emission to cease, and the hammer resumes its normal weight.

So I’m down with gravitons making the hammer impossible for anyone to pick up save Thor (or anyone worthy)—it’s fun to consider the science behind the fantastic. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur C. Clarke might interject here.

While all of this does seem to weigh rather heavily on Odin’s special enchantment ensuring that Mjölnir can recognize the worthy upon contact, have no fear—science may provide an answer for that as well.

Waid’s Thor-based theoretical physics seems to have come by way of Professor Jim Kakalios, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota who has written extensively about the Avengers’ material science. As Bleeding Cool points out, Kakalios shared his explanation of Mjolnir’s properties with Waid back when the writer was working on The Indestructible Hulk.

Kakalios went deep into the science behind Thor’s hammer a few years ago for Wired, in an essay more than worth your time if you like to think about how seemingly impossible things can be made plausible. Kakalios theorizes that Odin’s original enchantment could be explained as a sort of nanotechnology developed by the highly advanced Asgardians:

In the Avengers: Age of Ultron clip, Tony Stark speculates that there is a biosensor in the hammer’s shaft that recognizes when Thor has grasped Mjolnir. He is correct, in a sense—though it is not Thor’s fingerprints that the hammer is reading. Most likely it is taking some complex biological and psychological profile that calculates the “worthiness” of whoever is trying to lift the hammer. This is consistent with the scene in the clip where Steve Rogers (Captain America) is able to move the hammer (albeit slightly), while Tony Stark and Jim Rhodes, using thruster-assisted Iron Man and Iron Patriot gloves, are unable to budge Mjolnir at all.

And that’s where Kakalios’ gravitons theory comes into play.

On Earth, these fundamental particles have not been experimentally confirmed to exist, but as stipulated, the Asgardians are ahead of us scientifically. Gravitons are conjectured to transmit the gravitational force, and if an object emits additional gravitons, it is equivalent to increasing its mass. Thus, when an “unworthy” person applies an upward force, the uru metal increases the hammer’s weight to exactly cancel this lift, and the hammer remains unmoved. When Tony and Rhodey simultaneously exert a larger upward force, the emission rate of gravitons increases, to again neutralize their efforts. The greater weight will not damage the tabletop, as only enough gravitons are emitted to balance out all upward forces, to keep the hammer stationary. Once the lifting force is stopped, the excess graviton emission also ceases.

I’m definitely not going to look at Mjölnir in the movies the same way again—and since the hammer was destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok and Thor appears to be on the hunt for a new weapon in Infinity War, I’m now looking forward to hearing about the scientific properties behind his new, seemingly “enchanted” axe.

But I have some lingering questions: how was Hela able to catch and crush Mjölnir? Was it because she once wielded it? If so, how and why was she determined to be worthy then? And if magic is really science, does this make Loki some kind of Einstein?

(via Comicbook,com, images: Marvel)

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New 2018 Emojis Will Include Superheroes and Villains

157 new emojis will be headed for smartphones in 2018. While redheads (and bald heads) will finally be getting some long-deserved representation, we’re most excited about being able to express our geekery in emoji form.

The Unicode Consortium, which decides on the emojis that come into being and sounds like a nerdy supervillain organization, has released a preview of what we can expect to see dotting our text messages in 2018.

Emojipedia's sample 2018 emojis

There are several that I am personally psyched about: a pirate flag, for all of my Black Sails needs; a bagel, which happens to be my favorite food; a mango, which will surely come to have some sort of sexual connotation and take up a prominent place in our cultural lexicon.

Superhero emojis

But for our purposes, we’re most thrilled to see a series of super-powered figures. Because of copyright, there’s no one here attached to an existing character, but rather an emoji person posed to either save the day or destroy the world. The emojis come in a variety of skin tones and gender variants.

I have to say I’m loving the Bride of Frankenstein hair on the lady villain above. Plus, there’s plenty of times a day I could use a “shaking your fist while delivering a monologue about your nefarious plans” image reaction. Couldn’t you?

Perhaps to use when constructing narratives in conjunction with the above, there’s also goggles and a lab coat and a test tube, a potentially evil microbe, a mosquito (for sure evil), a raccoon (for Rocket; also: pure evil), a newly bald man (Lex Luthor), and an infinity symbol so you can stop typing out “Infinity War” all the damn time.

These images are all samples, meaning that they could be altered somewhat by the time they hit your phone, but chances are you’ll be seeing these emojis released in 2018. Even cooler: the Unicode Consortium, which is comprised of major tech companies, is accepting applications for the next round of emoji consideration until March. This is your chance to be made immortal.

What are you happiest to see here? It’s the badger, isn’t it?

Peacock and Badger emojis

(via PC Mag, ABC, image: screengrab, Emojipedia)

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The Robots Are Even Beating Us at Scrabble Now

Science has already given us robots who can do push-ups, who can play Jeopardy!, who can beat a human at Go, receive more citizenship rights than human women, and invent languages that humans can’t understand. Now, they’ve come for the word-nerd games.

Nerdist‘s Dan Casey recently sat down to play Scrabble with the Intelligent Vision System (IVS). The IVS was originally created by Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), a Taiwanese research company, to improve automation in the manufacturing sector. Thanks to its features, the IVS also just happens to be really great at Scrabble. So there goes yet another game that the robots have bested us silly humans at.

As Casey explains, “With a combination of artificial intelligence, a front-facing camera that examines the board, and spindly appendages that place custom-made, oversized versions of the game tiles on the board, IVS is devilishly good at Scrabble. [However,] the robot isn’t without its limitations. As it stands right now, it can only build off the previously played word.” Well, at least we have that consolation.

(Via Nerdist; image: )

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