Today is Ada Lovelace day

Dear imaginary readers, today we celebrate a special day. It’s Ada Lovelace day!

This day is meant to be an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Ada Lovelace, “analyst and metaphysician” who did “poetical science”, is known for her work on the first mechanical general purpose computer, the analytical engine. Her notes on the engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. The first computer programmer was a woman.

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You can find the whole comic and many other interesting ones in Sydney Padua website.

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IG NOBEL 2015: THE WINNERS

Wearing a toilet seat on his head, David Hu, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biology at Georgia Institute of Technology, walks away with his team's Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds) at the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prizes awards ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts September 17, 2015. The annual prizes, meant to entertain and encourage global research and innovation, are awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research as a whimsical counterpart to the Nobel Prizes. REUTERS/Gretchen Ertl - RTS1NI9
Wearing a toilet seat on his head, David Hu, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biology at Georgia Institute of Technology, walks away with his team’s Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds). Photography: REUTERS/Gretchen Ertl – RTS1NI9

Have you ever heard about the Ig Nobels? Well, if the answer is negative, you definitely must find out more. The Ig Nobels are a very peculiar form of scientific award. In fact these prizes are conferred to scientists for achievements and discoveries that first make people laugh then make them think. The Ig Nobel prize is handed out by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine at the Harvard University for silly sounding scientific discoveries that often have surprisingly practical applications.

The following are the 2015 winners, awarded of this important reward last Thursday during the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony.

CHEMISTRY PRIZE — Callum Ormonde and Colin Raston [AUSTRALIA], and Tom Yuan, Stephan Kudlacek, Sameeran Kunche, Joshua N. Smith, William A. Brown, Kaitlin Pugliese, Tivoli Olsen, Mariam Iftikhar, Gregory Weiss [USA], for inventing a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg.

PHYSICS PRIZE — Patricia Yang [USA and TAIWAN], David Hu [USA and TAIWAN], and Jonathan Pham, Jerome Choo [USA], for testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds).

LITERATURE PRIZE — Mark Dingemanse [THE NETHERLANDS, USA], Francisco Torreira [THE NETHERLANDS, BELGIUM, USA], and Nick J. Enfield [AUSTRALIA, THE NETHERLANDS], for discovering that the word “huh?” (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language — and for not being quite sure why.

MANAGEMENT PRIZE — Gennaro Bernile [ITALY, SINGAPORE, USA], Vineet Bhagwat [USA, INDIA], and P. Raghavendra Rau [UK, INDIA, FRANCE, LUXEMBOURG, GERMANY, JAPAN], for discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters (such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and wildfires) that — for them — had no dire personal consequences.

ECONOMICS PRIZE — The Bangkok Metropolitan Police [THAILAND], for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes.

MEDICINE PRIZE — Awarded jointly to two groups: Hajime Kimata [JAPAN, CHINA]; and to Jaroslava Durdiaková [SLOVAKIA, US, UK], Peter Celec [SLOVAKIA, GERMANY], Natália Kamodyová, Tatiana Sedláčková, Gabriela Repiská, Barbara Sviežená, and Gabriel Minárik [SLOVAKIA], for experiments to study the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities).

MATHEMATICS PRIZE — Elisabeth Oberzaucher [AUSTRIA, GERMANY, UK] and Karl Grammer [AUSTRIA, GERMANY], for trying to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.

BIOLOGY PRIZE — Bruno Grossi, Omar Larach, Mauricio Canals, Rodrigo A. Vásquez [CHILE], José Iriarte-Díaz [CHILE, USA], for observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.

DIAGNOSTIC MEDICINE PRIZE — Diallah Karim [CANADA, UK], Anthony Harnden [NEW ZEALAND, UK, US], Nigel D’Souza [BAHRAIN, BELGIUM, DUBAI, INDIA, SOUTH AFRICA, US, UK], Andrew Huang [CHINA, UK], Abdel Kader Allouni [SYRIA, UK], Helen Ashdown [UK], Richard J. Stevens [UK], and Simon Kreckler [UK], for determining that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.

PHYSIOLOGY and ENTOMOLOGY PRIZE — Awarded jointly to two individuals: Justin Schmidt [USA, CANADA], for painstakingly creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which rates the relative pain people feel when stung by various insects; and to Michael L. Smith [USA, UK, THE NETHERLANDS], for carefully arranging for honey bees to sting him repeatedly on 25 different locations on his body, to learn which locations are the least painful (the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm). and which are the most painful (the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft).

You can find out last year winners here.

Watch the whole ceremony:

The art of pipetting

Dear imaginary readers, I think that many of you, even if you are actually fictional characters, may work as science or laboratory technicians. By chance it happens that I work as a lab tech myself .

One of the part that I like the most of my job is to interact with young people, who may be very enthusiastic and at the same time showing a lack in terms of experience of lab practice. When they make mistakes I use to take it with irony, just laugh about it and start again (it is the same thing that I do for my gaffes).

Some of my colleagues don’t seem to have the same reaction, and can get quite frustrated and angry, when they have to repeat the same thing more than two times. We tough it would have been a good idea to find video tutorials on basic lab techniques. The first one we explored was the art of pipetting.

That’s how we came across a funny video realized by the Dryden High School art students, who wrote and produced this unique and amusing video featuring student videography and student actors, as part of a project merging art and science to increase science awareness in non-science students and classes, with support from Cornell’s NIH-funded ASSET program.

The video they put together is a must-see for everyone who works in a laboratory in any capacity. It may distract the audience on the practical task of pipetting, but I think it may be an effective tool especially in secondary schools.

Having a laugh has never hurt anyone. Enjoy!

“Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” Mark Twain

//www.cornell.edu/video/how-to-use-a-pipette/embed

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Art of Science

Dear imaginary readers, can you look at nature and find its intrinsic beauty? That is what artist has always done, producing different visions and reproduction of the natural world.

What about scientists? Are they able to reproduce the hidden aesthetics and symmetry of it? Well, to me, the answer is necessarily yes. In the past a scientist was often an artist as well.

Think about Leonardo, for example. Visual art has been important for the scientific community as a way to share knowledge, results, and new achievements (see also my previous blog post Science drawings at the Royal Society).

The fact that art and science are  interconnected is still true. The authors of the images exposed at “Art of Science”, edition 2014, organized by the Princeton University, are mainly researchers, PhDs students, and undergraduates students. The exhibition aims to show the link between science and art, even when the artistic side of it comes out in a random accidental way.

The images displayed are the products of research projects, and they are chosen both for their aesthetic excellence and for their scientific or technical interest.

They have the power to raise attention on the process of the scientific research, and attract the general public, giving them the opportunity to appreciate the overlapping of science and art, and the secret beauty of the micro and macroscopic world seen with the eyes of scientists.

These are the four winners:

  • First Place
1
Watermarks, by Sara Sadri (postdoctoral researcher
  • Second Place
2
Fungus among us, by James S. Waters (postdoctoral researcher)
  • Third Place
3
Portrait of the artist in the air shower, by Yasmin Afsar (graduate student)
  • People’s choice
4
Fruit fly factory by Yogesh Goyal (graduate student), Bomyi Lim (graduate student), Miriam Osterfield (post-doc), Stas Shvartsman (faculty member of staff)

You can admire all the images participants at the “Art of Science” 2014 and the online galleries from previous years here.

Why it’s crucial to get more women in science

Dear imaginary readers, because today is the national women’s day, I would like to share with you a very interesting article written by Marguerite Del Giudice, published on National Geographuc on November 2014. Even though it focuses mainly on the USA situation, I believe it is worth a reading, both for women and men.

I would also like to remember to all the women that the battle for equality it is still on, and I hope we will fight other battles as our, like the ones for the minorances and the oppresses of the world.

I will leave you with a quote by Rose Luxemburg, the one who is believed to have chosed the 8th of March as an international date to celebrate the fight for their rights of the women from all over the world.

“THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY THING ONE CAN DO IS ALWAYS TO PROCLAIM LOUDLY WHAT IS HAPPENING”.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images
Rachel Carson, who revealed the unregulated use of DDT and other pesticides by the chemical industry in her book “Silent Spring”, would have gotten a Ph.D. in biology from John Hopkins University but was overburdened by three jobs and the responsibility of caring for her mother. Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time & Life Pictures, Getty.

Why it’s crucial to get more women in science

Amid growing signs that gender bias has affected research outcomes and damaged women’s health, there’s a new push to make science more relevant to them.

James Gross, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has a 13-year-old daughter who loves math and science. It hasn’t occurred to her yet that that’s unusual, he says. “But I know in the next couple of years, it will.”

She’s already being pulled out of class to do advanced things “with a couple of other kids, who are guys,” he says. And as someone who studies human emotion for a profession, Gross says, “I know as time goes on, she’ll feel increasingly lonely as a girl who’s interested in math and science”—and be at risk of narrowing her choices in life before finding out how far she could have gone. (See “In Her Words: Sylvia Earle on Women in Science.”)

Gross’s concern speaks volumes about what has been a touchy subject in the world of science for a long time: Why are there still so few women in science, and how might that affect what we learn from research?

Women now make up half the national workforce, earn more college and graduate degrees than men, and by some estimates represent the largest single economic force in the world. Yet the gender gap in science persists, to a greater degree than in other professions, particularly in high-end, math-intensive fields such as computer science and engineering.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women in fields commonly referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) made up 7 percent of that workforce in 1970, a figure that had jumped to 23 percent by 1990. But the rise essentially stopped there. Two decades later, in 2011, women made up 26 percent of the science workforce.

It’s not that women aren’t wanted. “I don’t know any institution today that is not trying to hire more women scientists and engineers,” says one science historian. But many cultural forces continue to stand in the way—ranging from girls being steered toward other professions from an early age and gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace to the potentially career-stalling effects on women of having children……you can read the full article here.

The copy of the copy of Marie Curie’s picture

Dear imaginary readers,
I’m to be blamed for neglecting my blog for so long. I hope you will forgive me.  Today, the 6th of January, is a bank holiday in Italy, celebrating a nice lady who comes on a broomstick (for that reason someone says she is a witch), to deliver sweets and small gifts. She is known as Befana. In her honor, I will offer you a story that I would label as “image’s plagiarism“. The female figure I’m going to talk about is not an imaginary person and not a witch. On the contrary she is one of the most famous and important scientist of the history, even though she uncovered properties of elements that have special,  nearly magic properties.

Let me introduce her by a photo.

manyaCb&wFrontzack (1)
Paul Schroder’s 2011 picture

I’m sure a big part of you are very confident in their answer. Marie Curie. Well, actually, the person in the picture is not Marie Curie, even though the scene, dress style, background and glassware were modeled after a famous Marie Curie’s picture taken in 1912.

The photographer who snapped the photo in 2001 is Paul Schroder, and the model is Susan Marie Frontczack, a professional storyteller and actress, who travelled across the US for 13 years to perform her monologue “Manya. The living History of Marie Curie”.

marie in laboratory 1912 (1)
Original picture of Marie Curie, 1912.

There is nothing wrong with this picture. The problem is that the image was used as stamp’s theme in many different African countries, such as Togo, Zambia, and Republic of Guinea, in order to celebrate the famous Polish scientist.

zambia
Zambia’s stamp honoring the 100th anniversary of her Nobel Prize in chemistry, 2011

Susan Marie Frontczack  has mixed feeling about the stamps. From a certain point of view they prove that she does good job as an actress, on the other hand she is not happy about the use of the picture without permission.

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Poster for Frontczack play

She explained the purpose of her work in the following interview, released for the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Actress and storyteller Susan Marie Frontczak visited CHF in April as part of the first-ever Philadelphia Science Festival. Her one-woman show, Manya: A Living History of Marie Curie, depicts the life of the Nobel laureate from childhood to the discovery of radium. Frontczak left an engineering job at Hewlett-Packard to pursue storytelling and theater. Since 2001 she has transformed herself into such historical figures as Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Shelley, and Irene Castle for audiences around the world. Before her performance Frontczak spoke with Chemical Heritage’s Anne Fredrickson about her craft.–AF   

AF: What first attracted you to Marie Curie’s story?

SMF: When I was nine or ten years old, I read a juvenile biography of Marie Curie that had an image of her with a whole mountain of rock, with her digging through it to get this tiny little piece of radium. That image really stuck with me; even then I admired her perseverance.  

AF: You’ve said that it can take two to three years to develop your living-history characters. What was the process for Manya?

SMF: I wrote the script based on her writings, her letters, her vocabulary, and my understanding of her life. I went to Paris. I got permission through her granddaughter to look at the archives, hold her lab book, and look through her letters. And I read everything I could get my hands on. Historical accuracy is of high importance to me. I wanted the piece to be scientifically accurate but also understandable to nonscientists. I wanted people to realize, “Oh, this was a real human being.”

I also had to figure out my own justification for Marie Curie to stand up and talk to an audience for forty minutes or two hours. It’s not the kind of thing she would volunteer to do. That’s why Manya is set in 1915. During the war Curie actually solicited funds from people—not 100 or 300 or however many there are in my audiences—but from a handful of people sitting in a parlor. I pretend [the crowd is] this handful of people, there to help support the Red Cross and its mobile X-ray units, which Marie Curie helped develop. I let that be the framework: “You said you’d come to this fundraiser so long as I tell you my story. All right, I’ll tell you my story.” That’s an artifice, but through that framework we go back in time with her.

AF: Are there other aspects of her life you hope people will take away from your performance?

SMF: Different themes run through the show—and they speak to different people. Some people, for example, don’t know she was Polish. They walk away thinking, “Gee, I had always thought she was French.” Some people pick up on the fact that she was a lifelong teacher, and some notice more personal themes: her constant struggle for laboratory space or the fact that the Curies did not like being famous. Marie Curie wrote that their “lives were altogether ruined by honors and fame.”  

AF: Your performances draw scientists, nonscientists, families. How do you manage such mixed audiences?

SMF: When my audience includes children, I make the program more interactive. And there are always some lovely ways in which the audience members inform each other. I love having scientists, especially chemists, in the audience. There is an excerpt from Curie’s writings that I paraphrase in the show: “We used the adjoining yard for chemical operations that produce clouds of hydrogen sulfide and other irritating gases. But when it rained, we brought these inside.” To the nonscientist it sounds very matter of fact. But as soon as I say “clouds of hydrogen sulfide,” the chemists in the audience groan. That lets the people who aren’t chemists know that it was dangerous and that she didn’t regard the danger. Having that mix in the audience means they really teach each other without realizing it.

 From the Chemical Heritage Foundation magazine, August 15, 2011.

 

In the future she would like to turn her one woman show in a movie. I wish her dream would become real soon!