Month: January 2017

By Age 6 Girls Are More Likely To Think “Genius” And “Brilliance” Are Male Traits, Not Female

In a heartbreaking new study, scientists have discovered that gender stereotypes can start affecting children from as young assix, the age when girls start thinking of traits like intelligence, brilliance, and genius, as distinctly male.

Its no secret that there is an imbalance of women and men working in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In fact, in the US, where this study was conducted, only 30 percent of people employed in STEM positions are women.

Hoping to find out why this is, researchers from New York University, University of Illinois, and Princeton decided to investigate several possible factors, including whether societal gender stereotypes such as associating intellectual talent with males affected girls choices from a young age.

Their study found that girls as young as six believed that exceptional talent was a boys trait, and their male counterparts are more likely to exhibit “brilliance”. Its also the age they began steering themselves away from activities aimed at the really, really smart, choosing ones aimed at children who try really, really hard instead.

“Not only do we see thatgirlsjust starting out in school are absorbing some of society’s stereotyped notions of brilliance, but these younggirlsare also choosing activities based on these stereotypes, said senior author Andrei Cimpian from NYU in a statement. This is heartbreaking.”

The study looked at 400 children, half of whom were girls, between the ages of five and seven years old to evaluate their opinions and attitudes towards the notions of intelligence and ability.

Our society tends to associate brilliance with men more than with women, and this notion pushes women away from jobs that are perceived to require brilliance, said co-author Lin Bian. We wanted to know whether young children also endorse these stereotypes.

Using the phrase really, really smart as a childs way of understanding the adult concept of brilliance, they carried out several tests to probe the influence of gender stereotypes.

In one example the children were read a story about a really, really smart protagonist that was not revealed to be male or female. Afterwards they were then asked to select the most likely protagonist from among pictures of men and women. At age five, most of the children picked their own gender, proving they viewed their own gender positively, however the sixand seven-year olds mostly picked the male.

Another experiment had the children express their preference for two games they played, one described as for children who are really, really smart and the other for children who try really, really hard. Their findings showed that both genders were interested in the hard game but the sixand seven-year old girls shied away from the smart one.

Already by this young age girls are discounting the evidence that is in front of their eyes and basing their ideas about who is really, really smart on other things, said Cimpian.

Overall, their study highlights how even young children can absorb and be influenced by gender stereotypes that still exist in today’s society, such as that of brilliance or giftedness being more common in men, and this is having a detrimental effect on girls futures.

Because these ideas are present at such an early age, they have so much time to affect the educational trajectories of boys and girls, Cimpian explained.

The authors concluded in their paper, published in the journal Science, that women are underrepresented in fields whose members cherish brilliance (such as physics and philosophy) because societys gender stereotypes harbored from a young age are likely to discourage womens pursuit of many prestigious careers.

The present results suggest a sobering conclusion: many children assimilate the idea that brilliance is a male quality at a young age,” the study states. “This stereotype begins to shape children’s interests as soon as it is acquired and is thus likely to narrow the range of careers they will one day contemplate.”

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/editors-blog/by-age-6-girls-are-more-likely-to-think-genius-and-brilliance-are-male-traits-not-female/

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Five Teams Enter Final Stretch To Win Google Lunar XPRIZE Moon Race And Scoop $20 Million

And then there were five. From an initial 16 teams, five have moved ahead into the final stages of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a competition to launch and land a rover on the Moon by the end of 2017.

The finalists herald from around the world, in Israel, the US, India, and Japan. All of them have launch contracts on various rockets, in an attempt to scoop the $20 million prize money. The first teams rover to travel 500 meters (1,640 feet) on the lunar surface will scoop the prize, with various other technical bonuses available.

Each of these teams has pushed the boundaries to demonstrate that you dont have to be a government superpower to send a mission to the Moon, while inspiring audiences to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, said Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of Google Lunar XPRIZE, in a statement.

The competition began in 2007, and the teams that entered had until December 31, 2016, to get a launch contract, which 11 teams did not manage including German team Part-Time Scientists, who were seemingly on the cusp of doing so. Now, those with launch contracts haveuntil December 31, 2017, to actually launch although they can land on the Moon at a later date, as long as they have launched before then.

XPRIZE also announced there would be an additional $1 million Diversity Prize split among the 16 teams to recognize each of their unique approaches and initiatives over the years, said Gonzales-Mowrer.

Part-Time Scientists had hoped to revisit the Apollo 17 landing site with their rover (illustrated). PTScientists

Of the five finalists, only three have launch contracts on tried and tested rockets. One of these is SpaceIL from Israel, which plans to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Another, Team Indus from India, is planning to launch on the Indian Space Research Organizations Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). And Hakuto, from Japan, plans to hitch a ride with Team Indus.

The other two have contracts with companies that are yet to launch a rocket perhaps making them relative outsiders to win the competition. One is American team Moon Express, which has a multi-mission contract with Rocket Lab USA to launch three missions by 2020. The final team, an international endeavor called Synergy Moon run by Interorbital Systems, hopes to launch on their own Neptune 8 rocket, which would launch from the sea.

Theres plenty of cause for excitement, though. Its looking more and more likely that some of these teams will actually launch by the years end. Whether they will be successful in landing on the Moon or not remains to be seen none have experience indoing so.

But if they do make it, well, we might very well have an old-fashioned Moon race on our hands before the year is out.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/five-teams-enter-final-stretch-to-win-google-lunar-xprize-moon-race-and-scoop-20-million/

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90 errors in GCSE maths revision book for WJEC students – BBC News

Image copyright PA
Image caption The workbooks are used by students studying for GCSE exams

Exam revision workbooks used by GCSE pupils taking Welsh exam board qualifications have been withdrawn after 90 mistakes were found in them.

A team from Cardiff University’s School of Mathematics found about every three in 50 questions contained an inaccuracy, were misleading or supplied a wrong answer.

Publisher Hodder Education is now reprinting the edition and has asked for current copies to be destroyed.

BBC research had led to the discovery.

The One Show commissioned Cardiff University to look at Mastering Mathematics for WJEC GCSE Practice Book: Higher alongside workbooks for five UK exam boards: WJEC, AQA, Pearson/Edexcel, SQA and OCR, some of which had officially endorsed the books.

Hodder Education apologised for the mistakes.

Group managing director Lis Tribe said: “We are human. We do our best. We have made a mistake.

“Where our process fell down, which is a real concern to me and to my team, is that there wasn’t the final quality check that should have taken place. We simply missed a stage because of the pressure of getting the book out on time.

“We are actually very grateful to The One Show for bringing these errors to our attention and enabling us to withdraw the book and put them right.”

‘Unacceptable’

A spokesman for the WJEC said: “We have worked with Hodder to produce endorsed material. However, we have not endorsed the revision guide in question.

“As it has not been subjected to our endorsement process, we are not responsible for its content and cannot comment on it.

“Of course, if we are made aware of any errors in non-endorsed publications, we make every effort to ensure that the relevant publisher is informed.”

Dr Matthew Lettington, who oversaw the research, said the level of mistakes was “unacceptable” and some errors would have been “highly confusing” for students.

The WJEC practice book had the highest level of errors by a significant margin, with 90 mistakes out of 1,496 questions.

The others were:

  • “AQA GCSE Maths Higher Exam Practice Book”, published by Oxford University Press, with three errors in 174 questions
  • “Mathematics GCSE for OCR Homework Book – Higher”, published by Cambridge University Press and endorsed by OCR, with eight mistakes in 1,200 questions
  • “Revise Edexcel GCSE (9-1) Mathematics Revision Workbook – Higher”, published by Pearson Education Limited, with eight mistakes in 563 questions
  • “How to Pass – National 5 Maths”, published by Hodder Gibson and endorsed by SQA, with five errors in 240 questions

The exam boards told the BBC final responsibility for fact checking lay with the publishers.

Pearson/Edexcel said it had already spotted and corrected the eight errors in its workbook and it was being recalled and destroyed.

Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press both said all errors were looked into and corrected in the next reprint.

The One Show is broadcast on BBC One at 19:00 GMT.

Related Topics

Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-38721478

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How statistics lost their power and why we should fear what comes next | William Davies

The Long Read: The ability of statistics to accurately represent the world is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over and putting democracy in peril

In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone no matter what their politics can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here.

Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various experts that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some peoples sense of political decency.

Nowhere is this more vividly manifest than with immigration. The thinktank British Future has studied how best to win arguments in favour of immigration and multiculturalism. One of its main findings is that people often respond warmly to qualitative evidence, such as the stories of individual migrants and photographs of diverse communities. But statistics especially regarding alleged benefits of migration to Britains economy elicit quite the opposite reaction. People assume that the numbers are manipulated and dislike the elitism of resorting to quantitative evidence. Presented with official estimates of how many immigrants are in the country illegally, a common response is to scoff. Far from increasing support for immigration, British Future found, pointing to its positive effect on GDP can actually make people more hostile to it. GDP itself has come to seem like a Trojan horse for an elitist liberal agenda. Sensing this, politicians have now largely abandoned discussing immigration in economic terms.

All of this presents a serious challenge for liberal democracy. Put bluntly, the British government its officials, experts, advisers and many of its politicians does believe that immigration is on balance good for the economy. The British government did believe that Brexit was the wrong choice. The problem is that the government is now engaged in self-censorship, for fear of provoking people further.

This is an unwelcome dilemma. Either the state continues to make claims that it believes to be valid and is accused by sceptics of propaganda, or else, politicians and officials are confined to saying what feels plausible and intuitively true, but may ultimately be inaccurate. Either way, politics becomes mired in accusations of lies and cover-ups.

The declining authority of statistics and the experts who analyse them is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as post-truth politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to peoples emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own truth of what is going on across society.

Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?One way is to view statistics through the lens of their history.We need to try and see them for what they are: neither unquestionable truths nor elite conspiracies, but rather as tools designed to simplify the job of government, for better or worse. Viewed historically, we can see what a crucial role statistics have played in our understanding of nation states and their progress. This raises the alarming question of how if at all we will continue to have common ideas of society and collective progress, should statistics fall by the wayside.


In the second half of the 17th century, in the aftermath of prolonged and bloody conflicts, European rulers adopted an entirely new perspective on the task of government, focused upon demographic trends an approach made possible by the birth of modern statistics. Since ancient times, censuses had been used to track population size, but these were costly and laborious to carry out and focused on citizens who were considered politically important (property-owning men), rather than society as a whole. Statistics offered something quite different, transforming the nature of politics in the process.

Statistics were designed to give an understanding of a population in its entirety,rather than simply to pinpoint strategically valuable sources of power and wealth. In the early days, this didnt always involve producing numbers. In Germany, for example (from where we get the term Statistik) the challenge was to map disparate customs, institutions and laws across an empire of hundreds of micro-states. What characterised this knowledge as statistical was its holistic nature: it aimed to produce a picture of the nation as a whole. Statistics would do for populations what cartography did for territory.

Equally significant was the inspiration of the natural sciences. Thanks to standardised measures and mathematical techniques, statistical knowledge could be presented as objective, in much the same way as astronomy. Pioneering English demographers such as William Petty and John Graunt adapted mathematical techniques to estimate population changes, for which they were hired by Oliver Cromwell and Charles II.

The emergence in the late 17th century of government advisers claiming scientific authority, rather than political or military acumen, represents the origins of the expert culture now so reviled by populists. These path-breaking individuals were neither pure scholars nor government officials, but hovered somewhere between the two. They were enthusiastic amateurs who offered a new way of thinking about populations that privileged aggregates and objective facts. Thanks to their mathematical prowess, they believed they could calculate what would otherwise require a vast census to discover.

There was initially only one client for this type of expertise, and the clue is in the word statistics. Only centralised nation states had the capacity to collect data across large populations in a standardised fashion and only states had any need for such data in the first place. Over the second half of the 18th century, European states began to collect more statistics of the sort that would appear familiar to us today. Casting an eye over national populations, states became focused upon a range of quantities: births, deaths, baptisms, marriages, harvests, imports, exports, price fluctuations. Things that would previously have been registered locally and variously at parish level became aggregated at a national level.

New techniques were developed to represent these indicators, which exploited both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the page, laying out data in matrices and tables, just as merchants had done with the development of standardised book-keeping techniques in the late 15th century. Organising numbers into rows and columns offered a powerful new way of displaying the attributes of a given society. Large, complex issues could now be surveyed simply by scanning the data laid out geometrically across a single page.

These innovations carried extraordinary potential for governments. By simplifying diverse populations down to specific indicators, and displaying them in suitable tables, governments could circumvent the need to acquire broader detailed local and historical insight. Of course, viewed from a different perspective, this blindness to local cultural variability is precisely what makes statistics vulgar and potentially offensive. Regardless of whether a given nation had any common cultural identity, statisticians would assume some standard uniformity or, some might argue, impose that uniformity upon it.

Not every aspect of a given population can be captured by statistics. There is always an implicit choice in what is included and what is excluded, and this choice can become a political issue in its own right. The fact that GDP only captures the value of paid work, thereby excluding the work traditionally done by women in the domestic sphere, has made it a target of feminist critique since the 1960s. In France, it has been illegal to collect census data on ethnicity since 1978, on the basis that such data could be used for racist political purposes. (This has the side-effect of making systemic racism in the labour market much harder to quantify.)

Despite these criticisms, the aspiration to depict a society in its entirety, and to do so in an objective fashion, has meant that various progressive ideals have been attached to statistics. The image of statistics as a dispassionate science of society is only one part of the story. The other part is about how powerful political ideals became invested in these techniques: ideals of evidence-based policy, rationality, progress and nationhood grounded in facts, rather than in romanticised stories.


Since the high-point of the Enlightenmentin the late 18th century, liberals and republicans have invested great hope that national measurement frameworks could produce a more rational politics, organised around demonstrable improvements in social and economic life. The great theorist of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, famously described nations as imagined communities,but statistics offer the promise of anchoring this imagination in something tangible. Equally, they promise to reveal what historical path the nation is on: what kind of progress is occurring? How rapidly? For Enlightenment liberals, who saw nations as moving in a single historical direction, this question was crucial.

The potential of statistics to reveal the state of the nation was seized in post-revolutionary France. The Jacobin state set about imposing a whole new framework of national measurement and national data collection. The worlds first official bureau of statistics was opened in Paris in 1800. Uniformity of data collection, overseen by a centralised cadre of highly educated experts, was an integral part of the ideal of a centrally governed republic, which sought to establish a unified, egalitarian society.

From the Enlightenment onwards, statistics played an increasingly important role in the public sphere, informing debate in the media, providing social movements with evidence they could use. Over time, the production and analysis of such data became less dominated by the state. Academic social scientists began to analyse data for their own purposes, often entirely unconnected to government policy goals. By the late 19th century, reformers such as Charles Booth in London and WEB Du Bois in Philadelphia were conducting their own surveys to understand urban poverty.

Illustration
Illustration by Guardian Design

To recognise how statistics have been entangled in notions of national progress, consider the case of GDP. GDP is an estimate of the sum total of a nations consumer spending, government spending, investments and trade balance (exports minus imports), which is represented in a single number. This is fiendishly difficult to get right, and efforts to calculate this figure began, like so many mathematical techniques, as a matter of marginal, somewhat nerdish interest during the 1930s. It was only elevated to a matter of national political urgency by the second world war, when governments needed to know whether the national population was producing enough to keep up the war effort. In the decades that followed, this single indicator, though never without its critics, took on a hallowed political status, as the ultimate barometer of a governments competence. Whether GDP is rising or falling is now virtually a proxy for whether society is moving forwards or backwards.

Or take the example of opinion polling, an early instance of statistical innovation occurring in the private sector. During the 1920s, statisticians developed methods for identifying a representative sample of survey respondents, so as to glean the attitudes of the public as a whole. This breakthrough, which was first seized upon by market researchers, soon led to the birth of the opinion polling. This new industry immediately became the object of public and political fascination, as the media reported on what this new science told us about what women or Americans or manual labourers thought about the world.

Nowadays, the flaws of polling are endlessly picked apart. But this is partly due to the tremendous hopes that have been invested in polling since its origins. It is only to the extent that we believe in mass democracy that we are so fascinated or concerned by what the public thinks. But for the most part it is thanks to statistics, and not to democratic institutions as such, that we can know what the public thinks about specific issues. We underestimate how much of our sense of the public interest is rooted in expert calculation, as opposed to democratic institutions.

As indicators of health, prosperity, equality, opinion and quality of life have come to tell us who we are collectively and whether things are getting better or worse, politicians have leaned heavily on statistics to buttress their authority. Often, they lean too heavily, stretching evidence too far, interpreting data too loosely, to serve their cause. But that is an inevitable hazard of the prevalence of numbers in public life, and need not necessarily trigger the type of wholehearted rejections of expertise that we have witnessed recently.

In many ways, the contemporary populist attack on experts is born out of the same resentment as the attack on elected representatives. In talking of society as a whole, in seeking to govern the economy as a whole, both politicians and technocrats are believed to have lost touch with how it feels to be a single citizen in particular. Both statisticians and politicians have fallen into the trap of seeing like a state, to use a phrase from the anarchist political thinker James C Scott. Speaking scientifically about the nation for instance in terms of macroeconomics is an insult to those who would prefer to rely on memory and narrative for their sense of nationhood, and are sick of being told that their imagined community does not exist.

On the other hand, statistics (together with elected representatives) performed an adequate job of supporting a credible public discourse for decades if not centuries. What changed?


The crisis of statistics is not quite as sudden as it might seem. For roughly 450 years, the great achievement of statisticians has been to reduce the complexity and fluidity of national populations into manageable, comprehensible facts and figures. Yet in recent decades, the world has changed dramatically, thanks to the cultural politics that emerged in the 1960s and the reshaping of the global economy that began soon after. It is not clear that the statisticians have always kept pace with these changes. Traditional forms of statistical classification and definition are coming under strain from more fluid identities, attitudes and economic pathways. Efforts to represent demographic, social and economic changes in terms of simple, well-recognised indicators are losing legitimacy.

Consider the changing political and economic geography of nation states over the past 40 years. The statistics that dominate political debate are largely national in character: poverty levels, unemployment, GDP, net migration. But the geography of capitalism has been pulling in somewhat different directions. Plainly globalisation has not rendered geography irrelevant. In many cases it has made the location of economic activity far more important, exacerbating the inequality between successful locations (such as London or San Francisco) and less successful locations (such as north-east England or the US rust belt). The key geographic units involved are no longer nation states. Rather, it is cities, regions or individual urban neighbourhoods that are rising and falling.

The Enlightenment ideal of the nation as a single community, bound together by a common measurement framework, is harder and harder to sustain. If you live in one of the towns in the Welsh valleys that was once dependent on steel manufacturing or mining for jobs, politicians talking of how the economy is doing well are likely to breed additional resentment. From that standpoint, the term GDP fails to capture anything meaningful or credible.

When macroeconomics is used to make a political argument, this implies that the losses in one part of the country are offset by gains somewhere else. Headline-grabbing national indicators, such as GDP and inflation, conceal all sorts of localised gains and losses that are less commonly discussed by national politicians. Immigration may be good for the economy overall, but this does not mean that there are no local costs at all. So when politicians use national indicators to make their case, they implicitly assume some spirit of patriotic mutual sacrifice on the part of voters: you might be the loser on this occasion, but next time you might be the beneficiary. But what if the tables are never turned? What if the same city or region wins over and over again, while others always lose? On what principle of give and take is that justified?

In Europe, the currency union has exacerbated this problem. The indicators that matter to the European Central Bank (ECB), for example, are those representing half a billion people. The ECB is concerned with the inflation or unemployment rate across the eurozone as if it were a single homogeneous territory, at the same time as the economic fate of European citizens is splintering in different directions, depending on which region, city or neighbourhood they happen to live in. Official knowledge becomes ever more abstracted from lived experience, until that knowledge simply ceases to be relevant or credible.

The privileging of the nation as the natural scale of analysis is one of the inbuilt biases of statistics that years of economic change has eaten away at. Another inbuilt bias that is coming under increasing strain is classification. Part of the job of statisticians is to classify people by putting them into a range of boxes that the statistician has created: employed or unemployed, married or unmarried, pro-Europe or anti-Europe. So long as people can be placed into categories in this way, it becomes possible to discern how far a given classification extends across the population.

This can involve somewhat reductive choices. To count as unemployed, for example, a person has to report to a survey that they are involuntarily out of work, even if it may be more complicated than that in reality. Many people move in and out of work all the time, for reasons that might have as much to do with health and family needs as labour market conditions. But thanks to this simplification, it becomes possible to identify the rate of unemployment across the population as a whole.

Heres a problem, though. What if many of the defining questions of our age are not answerable in terms of the extent of people encompassed, but the intensity with which people are affected? Unemployment is one example. The fact that Britain got through the Great Recession of 2008-13 without unemployment rising substantially is generally viewed as a positive achievement. But the focus on unemployment masked the rise of underemployment, that is, people not getting a sufficient amount of work or being employed at a level below that which they are qualified for. This currently accounts for around 6% of the employed labour force. Then there is the rise of the self-employed workforce, where the divide between employed and involuntarily unemployed makes little sense.

This is not a criticism of bodies such as the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which does now produce data on underemployment. But so long as politicians continue to deflect criticism by pointing to the unemployment rate, the experiences of those struggling to get enough work or to live on their wages go unrepresented in public debate. It wouldnt be all that surprising if these same people became suspicious of policy experts and the use of statistics in political debate, given the mismatch between what politicians say about the labour market and the lived reality.

The rise of identity politics since the 1960s has put additional strain on such systems of classification. Statistical data is only credible if people will accept the limited range of demographic categories that are on offer, which are selected by the expert not the respondent. But where identity becomes a political issue, people demand to define themselves on their own terms, where gender, sexuality, race or class is concerned.

Opinion polling may be suffering for similar reasons. Polls have traditionally captured peoples attitudes and preferences, on the reasonable assumption that people will behave accordingly. But in an age of declining political participation, it is not enough simply to know which box someone would prefer to put an X in. One also needs to know whether they feel strongly enough about doing so to bother. And when it comes to capturing such fluctuations in emotional intensity, polling is a clumsy tool.

Statistics have faced criticism regularly over their long history. The challenges that identity politics and globalisation present to them are not new either. Why then do the events of the past year feel quite so damaging to the ideal of quantitative expertise and its role in political debate?


In recent years, a new way of quantifyingand visualising populations has emerged that potentially pushes statistics to the margins, ushering in a different era altogether. Statistics, collected and compiled by technical experts, are giving way to data that accumulates by default, as a consequence of sweeping digitisation. Traditionally, statisticians have known which questions they wanted to ask regarding which population, then set out to answer them. By contrast, data is automatically produced whenever we swipe a loyalty card, comment on Facebook or search for something on Google. As our cities, cars, homes and household objects become digitally connected, the amount of data we leave in our trail will grow even greater. In this new world, data is captured first and research questions come later.

In the long term, the implications of this will probably be as profound as the invention of statistics was in the late 17th century. The rise of big data provides far greater opportunities for quantitative analysis than any amount of polling or statistical modelling. But it is not just the quantity of data that is different. It represents an entirely different type of knowledge, accompanied by a new mode of expertise.

First, there is no fixed scale of analysis (such as the nation) nor any settled categories (such as unemployed). These vast new data sets can be mined in search of patterns, trends, correlations and emergent moods. It becomes a way of tracking the identities that people bestow upon themselves (such as #ImwithCorbyn or entrepreneur) rather than imposing classifications upon them. This is a form of aggregation suitable to a more fluid political age, in which not everything can be reliably referred back to some Enlightenment ideal of the nation state as guardian of the public interest.

Second, the majority of us are entirely oblivious to what all this data says about us, either individually or collectively. There is no equivalent of an Office for National Statistics for commercially collected big data. We live in an age in which our feelings, identities and affiliations can be tracked and analysed with unprecedented speed and sensitivity but there is nothing that anchors this new capacity in the public interest or public debate. There are data analysts who work for Google and Facebook, but they are not experts of the sort who generate statistics and who are now so widely condemned. The anonymity and secrecy of the new analysts potentially makes them far more politically powerful than any social scientist.

A company such as Facebook has the capacity to carry quantitative social science on hundreds of millions of people, at very low cost. But it has very little incentive to reveal the results. In 2014, when Facebook researchers published results of a study of emotional contagion that they had carried out on their users in which they altered news feeds to see how it affected the content that users then shared in response there was an outcry that people were being unwittingly experimented on. So, from Facebooks point of view, why go to all the hassle of publishing? Why not just do the study and keep quiet?


What is most politically significantabout this shift from a logic of statistics to one of data is how comfortably it sits with the rise of populism. Populist leaders can heap scorn upon traditional experts, such as economists and pollsters, while trusting in a different form of numerical analysis altogether. Such politicians rely on a new, less visible elite, who seek out patterns from vast data banks, but rarely make any public pronouncements, let alone publish any evidence. These data analysts are often physicists or mathematicians, whose skills are not developed for the study of society at all. This, for example, is the worldview propagated by Dominic Cummings, former adviser to Michael Gove and campaign director of Vote Leave. Physics, mathematics and computer science are domains in which there are real experts, unlike macro-economic forecasting, Cummings has argued.

Figures close to Donald Trump, such as his chief strategist Steve Bannon and the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, are closely acquainted with cutting-edge data analytics techniques, via companies such as Cambridge Analytica, on whose board Bannon sits. During the presidential election campaign, Cambridge Analytica drew on various data sources to develop psychological profiles of millions of Americans, which it then used to help Trump target voters with tailored messaging.

This ability to develop and refine psychological insights across large populations is one of the most innovative and controversial features of the new data analysis. As techniques of sentiment analysis, which detect the mood of large numbers of people by tracking indicators such as word usage on social media, become incorporated into political campaigns, the emotional allure of figures such as Trump will become amenable to scientific scrutiny. In a world where the political feelings of the general public are becoming this traceable, who needs pollsters?

Few social findings arising from this kind of data analytics ever end up in the public domain. This means that it does very little to help anchor political narrative in any shared reality. With the authority of statistics waning, and nothing stepping into the public sphere to replace it, people can live in whatever imagined community they feel most aligned to and willing to believe in. Where statistics can be used to correct faulty claims about the economy or society or population, in an age of data analytics there are few mechanisms to prevent people from giving way to their instinctive reactions or emotional prejudices. On the contrary, companies such as Cambridge Analytica treat those feelings as things to be tracked.

But even if there were an Office for Data Analytics, acting on behalf of the public and government as the ONS does, it is not clear that it would offer the kind of neutral perspective that liberals today are struggling to defend. The new apparatus of number-crunching is well suited to detecting trends, sensing the mood and spotting things as they bubble up. It serves campaign managers and marketers very well. It is less well suited to making the kinds of unambiguous, objective, potentially consensus-forming claims about society that statisticians and economists are paid for.

In this new technical and political climate, it will fall to the new digital elite to identify the facts, projections and truth amid the rushing stream of data that results. Whether indicators such as GDP and unemployment continue to carry political clout remains to be seen, but if they dont, it wont necessarily herald the end of experts, less still the end of truth. The question to be taken more seriously, now that numbers are being constantly generated behind our backs and beyond our knowledge, is where the crisis of statistics leaves representative democracy.

On the one hand, it is worth recognising the capacity of long-standing political institutions to fight back. Just as sharing economy platforms such as Uber and Airbnb have recently been thwarted by legal rulings (Uber being compelled to recognise drivers as employees, Airbnb being banned altogether by some municipal authorities), privacy and human rights law represents a potential obstacle to the extension of data analytics. What is less clear is how the benefits of digital analytics might ever be offered to the public, in the way that many statistical data sets are. Bodies such as the Open Data Institute, co-founded by Tim Berners-Lee, campaign to make data publicly available, but have little leverage over the corporations where so much of our data now accumulates. Statistics began life as a tool through which the state could view society, but gradually developed into something that academics, civic reformers and businesses had a stake in. But for many data analytics firms, secrecy surrounding methods and sources of data is a competitive advantage that they will not give up voluntarily.

A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it would drastically privatise them. Statistics are one of many pillars of liberalism, indeed of Enlightenment. The experts who produce and use them have become painted as arrogant and oblivious to the emotional and local dimensions of politics. No doubt there are ways in which data collection could be adapted to reflect lived experiences better. But the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/19/crisis-of-statistics-big-data-democracy

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People Across The U.S. Are Raising Money For Girls To See ‘Hidden Figures’

Hidden Figures, the hit film that tells the story of three black women who helped NASA send a man into orbit, has been praised for putting women of color in the spotlight.

Thats why people across the country teens, teachers and community leaders are raising money through GoFundMe to ensure young girls can see the movie.

One of those people is Taylor Richardson, a 13-year-old aspiring astronaut from Florida, who wants to send 100 girls to see Hidden Figures at a theater in Jacksonville, Florida. She also wants to raise money on GoFundMe for the girls to have snacks and get a copy of the Hidden Figures book.

Richardson first saw the movie at a screening at the White House and has since seen it three more times. She said the film was amazing.

Taylor Richardson
Taylor Richardson, a 13-year-old from Florida, wants to raise money for 100 girls to see “Hidden Figures” and get a copy of the book that inspired the movie.

I cried, I laughed, I got angry and then got determined to not let others impressions of me because of the color of my skin impact how my life will be, she told The Huffington Post. These black women did something I never knew about, and its not in any history books that Ive studied thus far.

As of Friday, Richardson has raised $2,540 of her $2,600 goal. She found the girls she plans to take to see the film from organizations that have impacted her life like the YMCA, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, See The Girl and Journey Into Womanhood. She wants them to go home after the movie feeling as inspired as she did.

This movie instills that us girls can dream big and make it even when odds are against us, she said. Most importantly I want girls to know that, like boys, they too can excel in STEM with hard work.

Several teachers across the country have also started GoFundMe campaigns to help send their students to see the influential film. After reaching his goal of $1,000, Peter Modlin will be taking girls in second, third, fourth and fifth grade who attend the Baltimore elementary school where he teaches. Modlin told HuffPost he hopes the students learn to dream big after watching the movie.

I want the girls to see this movie in hopes that a lightbulb might go off, he said. A lightbulb that signifies a belief in the opportunity to do or be anything they want to be, if they work hard to achieve that goal.

Peter Modlin
Second-grade language teacher Peter Modlin is excited to take students to see the film after reaching his $1,000 goal.

Like Richardson and Modlin, Phyllis Marshall raised money on GoFundMe so local girls could see Hidden Figures, and has since taken them to see it.

On Jan. 7, she took 50 girls from Roberts Family Development Center in Sacramento, California, to the theater.Shes worked with the center, which is in a low-income community and provides after-school care, for years.Through GoFundMe she raised more than her $1,500 goal, which provided transportation, snacks and tickets to the movie. Marshall said they loved it.

Phyllis Marshall
Phyllis Marshall took 50 girls from the Roberts Family Development Center, with whom she’s worked for years, to see the movie. She said “they loved it.”

Marshall was glad to be able to show the girls that women can succeed in science, technology and mathematics. She was especially thrilled to show them that women of color and their success deserve a place on the big screen.

I certainly hope as many young girls get to see that movie as possible.

Other teachers and community leaders are raising money for kids to see Hidden Figures, too.Check out their campaigns below.

Read more: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/people-across-the-us-are-raising-money-for-girls-to-see-hidden-figures_us_5877d3aae4b0c42cb17597de?

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How The Insights Of The Large Hadron Collider Are Being Made Open To Everyone

The ConversationIf you visit the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) exhibition, now at the Queensland Museum, youll see the recreation of a moment when the scientist who saw the first results indicating discovery of the Higgs boson laments she cant yet tell anyone.

Its a transitory problem for her, lasting as long as it takes for the result to be thoroughly cross-checked. But it illustrates a key concept in science: its not enough to do it; it must be communicated.

Thats what is behind one of the lesser known initiatives of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research): an ambitious plan to make all its research in particle physics available to everyone, with a big global collaboration inspired by the way scientists came together to make discoveries at the LHC.

This initiative is called SCOAP, the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access in Particle Physics Publishing, and is now about to enter its fourth year of operation. Its a worldwide collaboration of more than 3,000 libraries (including six in Australia), key funding agencies and research centres in 44 countries, together with three intergovernmental organisations.

It aims to make work previously only available to paying subscribers of academic journals freely and immediately available to everyone. In its first three years it has made more than 13,000 articles available.

Not only are these articles free for anyone to read, but because they are published under a Creative Commons attribution license (CCBY), they are also available for anyone to use in anyway they wish, such as to illustrate a talk, pass onto a class of school children, or feed to an artificial intelligence program to extract information from. And these usage rights are enshrined forever.

Open science

The concept of sharing research is not new in physics. Open access to research is now a growing worldwide initiative, including in Australasia. CERN, which runs the LHC, was also where the world wide web was invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist at CERN.

The main purpose of the web was to enable researchers contributing to CERN from all over the world share documents, including scientific drafts, no matter what computer systems they were using.

Before the web, physicists had been sharing paper drafts by post for decades, so they were one of the first groups to really embrace the new online opportunities for sharing early research. Today, the pre-press site arxiv.org has more than a million free article drafts covering physics, mathematics, astronomy and more.

But, with such a specialised field, do these open access papers really matter? The short answer is yes. Downloads have doubled to journals participating in SCOAP.

With millions of open access articles now being downloaded across all specialities, there is enormous opportunity for new ideas and collaborations to spring from chance readership. This is an important trend: the concept of serendipity enabled by open access was explored in 2015 in an episode of ABC RNs Future Tense program.

Greater than the sum of the parts

Theres also a bigger picture to SCOAPs open access model. Not long ago, the research literature was fragmented. Individual papers and the connections between them were only as good as the physical library, with its paper journals, that academics had access to.

Now we can do searches in much less time than we spend thinking of the search question, and the results we are presented with are crucially dependent on how easily available the findings themselves are. And availability is not just a function of whether an article is free or not but whether it is truly open, i.e. connected and reusable.

One concept is whether research is FAIR, or Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. In short, can anyone find, read, use and reuse the work?

The principle is most advanced for data, but in Australia work is ongoing to apply it to all research outputs. This approach was also proposed at the November 2016 meeting of the G20 Science, Technology and Innovation Ministers Meeting. Research findings that are not FAIR can, effectively, be invisible. Its a huge waste of millions of taxpayer dollars to fund research that wont be seen.

There is an even bigger picture that research and research publications have to fit into: that of science in society.

Across the world we see politicians challenging accepted scientific norms. Is the fact that most academic research remains available only to those who can pay to see it contributing to an acceptance of such misinformed views?

If one role for science is to inform public debate, then restricting access to that science will necessarily hinder any informed public debate. Although no one suggests that most readers of news sites will regularly want to delve into the details of papers in high energy physics, open access papers are 47% more likely to end up being cited in Wikipedia, which is a source that many non-scientists do turn to.

Even worse, work that is not available openly now may not even be available in perpetuity, something that is being discussed by scientists in the USA.

So in the same way that CERN itself is an example of the power of international collaboration to ask some of the fundamental scientific questions of our time, SCOAP provides a way to ensure that the answers, whatever they are, are available to everyone, forever.

Virginia Barbour, Executive Director, Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/physics/how-the-insights-of-the-large-hadron-collider-are-being-made-open-to-everyone/

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What Would The Ancient Astrologers Have Told Us About 2017?

The ConversationApparently 2017 will be my year indeed, it is a good year for everyone born between November 22 and December 21 under the sign of Sagittarius half man, half horse, all myth.

Modern astrology as we know it in the form of a yearly, monthly or daily horoscope is based on a celestial coordinate system known as the zodiac, a Greek word that means the circle of life. And, although astrology has been dated to the third millennium BC, it has been argued that it began as soon as humans made a conscious attempt to measure, record and predict seasonal changes.

But, unlike modern times where the idea of star signs and horoscopes is often scoffed at, until the 17th century astrology was seen as a scholarly tradition. And it is credited as influencing the development of astronomy because back then its concepts were used in alchemy, mathematics, meteorology and medicine. And it was even accepted in political and cultural circles.

But by the end of the 17th century, emerging scientific concepts in astronomy undermined the theoretical basis of astrology, which as a result fell out of favour.

The ancient mathematici

Medieval astrologers who were known as mathematici wove stories in an attempt to say something true about the world. And, much like modern mathematicians, they made predictions which they hoped could be verified.

One of the earliest Christian authors, Origen, hinted at the presence and desire for knowledge about the future, given by mathematici. Origen, who had a somewhat uneasy relationship with Christian orthodoxy, speaks of mans insatiable desire to know about the future.

Astrologer-astronomer Richard of Wallingford is shown measuring an equatorium with a pair of compasses in this 14th-century work.

He complained about the situation of the Old Testament Israelites who were forbidden from heathen divination techniques, including astrology and argued that in the Israelites desperation to know more about their future they turned to their prophets and the stories they told. Though, this was convenient for Origen because he argues that they foretold the coming of Christ.

Several centuries after Origens death, bishops at the Christian council of Braga in 561 condemned these mathematici and their stories because of their implicit assumption that the future could be told by looking at the stars which raised questions about free will.

Stars aligned

Throughout history, astrology and the stories told by mathematici were repeatedly condemned and the frequent criticism of the practice only makes sense in the context of astrologys prevalence in the everyday life of the early Middle Ages. After all, you can only disprove what is practised.

The purported relation between body parts and the signs of the zodiac. Limbourg brothers – Own work, Public Domain

Part of the problem was that the stories astrologers and their horoscopes elicited could be dangerous, wielded by kings and emperors like monarchical manifestos that described the tone of their rule, violent or peaceful, long or short. But like beauty, the meaning of a story lies in the eye of the beholder.

Astrology in the Middle Ages held an ambiguous position, disparaged but common, reviled but satiating an innate desire. It told stories about the world and the lives of the people in it, stories that hinted at their true desires and motivations.

Such desires are no more apparent and perhaps surprising that in the case of the bishop and amateur astrologer Pierre dAilly around the year 1400. At the time, the church faced a division which threatened to rip the institution in two. The Great Schism was a result of a desire for a Roman pope after years of the pope having a base in Avignon, France and a series of popes and antipopes brought turmoil to the Church and across Europe.

Plus, historically speaking, the beginnings of centuries and millennia have tended to encourage people to reflect on the stability of the world and its possible end and the schism brought that sharply into focus.

DAilly examined the night sky, but did not predict fire and damnation, instead, he suggested that the end of the world was far in the future, something for other generations to worry about. DAilly confounded expectations by reading the stars and telling whoever would listen to him a convenient truth: the stars tell us to press on and to make something more of this world and who could argue with that?

Reading the future

For DAilly, the prospect of an imminent apocalypse called only for man to repent and pray and possibly abandon the institutions that kept the world ticking over. Whereas D’Ailly hoped that, by facing the fact that the world would continue, the church would heal its recent division and carry on with what it was good at saving souls.

Like D’Ailly, these messages from ancient star gazers tapped into an innate human desire: to gain a sense of control in a world of disorder. Something to hold on to when doubts formed about the road ahead.

Of course, human history is filled with foreboding about the future and 2016 has shown us that the world is still full of surprises. So while these days were not all looking to the skies for an explanation of worldly happenings like our ancestors did perhaps we can look to the past to understand peoples desire to make reason out of the unreasonable.

And while astrology has a somewhat problematic relationship with modern science, my own prediction is that the year 2017 looks set to be as turbulent as any. So perhaps D’Ailly was on to something when he suggested we just try to do our best.

Karl Kinsella, Lecturer in Medieval Art and Architectural History, University of York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/editors-blog/what-would-the-ancient-astrologers-have-told-us-about-2017/

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Can you solve it? New Year, new number, new equation

Complete the countdown conundrum 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2017 and win a prize

Hello guzzlers,

Here in Numberland, we always knew that 2016 was going to be a bad one, since:

2016 = 666 + 666 + 666 + 6 + 6 + 6

But thats last years news. Whats the story about 2017, arithmetically speaking?

Well, 2017 is a prime number – the first since 2011, and the last until 2027. (Prime numbers are those numbers that are only divisible by themselves and 1.)

More notably, 2017 is the smallest whole number whose cube root begins with ten distinct digits:

20171/3 = 12.63480759….

Wowza! At this time of year, many mathematically curious folk spend time looking for satisfying number patterns like this one involving the new date. (Please add your favourites in the comments below.)

Just so you are not left out the fun, todays puzzle is to fill the blanks in the following equation, so that it makes arithmetical sense:

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2017

You can use any of the basic mathematical operations, +, , x, , and as many brackets as you like. So, an answer might look something like (10 + 9 + 8) x (7 6 5)/(4 + 3 + 2 + 1) = 2017, although not this one since this is incorrect.

I do this countdown equation every year. Because 2017 is prime, it is a little bit more difficult that last years equation where the numbers had to equal 2016. In fact, there are only 652 solutions this year, compared with 890 solutions for last year, according to my computer programmer pal Zefram. (Many of these solutions are similar).

Got that? Now lets raise the stakes. Can you do the same to this equation, which is the same as above but with the 10 deleted:

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2017

There are only 107 solutions to this one.

Now you have a taste for this puzzle, fill in the equation with the 9 deleted too:

8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2017.

This one only has 13 solutions. Its interesting that each time we remove a number the solution space shrinks by a factor of about seven.

We have to end there, since there are no solutions when only seven digits are left.

I stipulated above that you must use only the four basic mathematical operations. But of course, if you want to show off, you can use whatever arcane or complicated mathematical operations you want.

I will send a copy of my puzzle book Can You Solve My Problems? to the person who comes up with the solution to any of the three above puzzles that I consider to be the most beautiful, creative or wacky. This could be one with, say, the least number of brackets required, or with the most ambitious use of mathematical symbology. My decision is final!

To enter either tweet your answer with the hashtag #MondayPuzzle or email me. Ill be back with answers and results at the end of the day.

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Photograph: Guardian Faber

I set a puzzle here every two weeks on a Monday. Im always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

My new book Can You Solve My Problems? A Casebook of Ingenious, Perplexing and Totally Satisfying Puzzles is available from the Guardian Bookshop and other retailers. My childrens book Football School: Where Football Explains The World was recently shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award 2017.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/02/can-you-solve-it-new-year-new-number-new-equation

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2017s big ideas part one: from driverless cars to interstellar travel

James Dyson is excited about the SafetyNet invention, Jim Al-Khalili cant wait to study Saturn up close and Amanda Levete looks to a resurgence of civic space

Transport

Mass production of driverless cars
By Jimmy Wales

The human brain is an amazing machine. It can make an unperceivable number of calculations a second. This outstanding ability is widely implemented during one of the most neurologically challenging actions people are engaged with on a daily basis: driving.

Several areas of the brain act in collaboration in order to receive, process, prioritise and implement real-time data perceived during driving. These complex processes may pass unnoticed by the driver, but their uninterrupted functioning is crucial.

The difference between life and death might be determined by a delay of only 100 milliseconds in response time. At high speeds, this micro timeframe can translate into several feet, which may in turn be the difference between avoiding danger and a fatal crash. Such a minor delay may be caused by any minimal distraction: a sudden noise, a quick glance at the phone or a random thought.

So what I am most excited about for 2017 is the groundbreaking invention that has the ability to minimise these dangers and potentially save millions of lives on the road: driverless cars.

We are getting closer than we thought, faster than we imagined, to having mass production of safe and reliable driverless cars. Many people have heard about this innovation, but not many realise how fast it is coming and how dramatically it is going to change society.

In 2016, it is estimated that worldwide automobile accidents claimed the lives of more than 1.1 million people, while more than 31 million people were injured. Once this technology is commonplace and driverless cars are ubiquitous, those numbers will shrink to a tiny fraction of what they are today.

The social impact will be even greater, to an extent that is very hard to fully imagine right now. Driverless cars will make car-sharing so much easier and more efficient that we could make do with 80% fewer cars. That would translate into less environmental pollution by decreased fuel consumption, less traffic congestion, fewer hours wasted on the roads and less need for car parks. Roads could be laid out very differently, making traffic more efficient and safer for passengers and pedestrians.

Modern technology excels in saving us precious time and making our daily lives easier. The next technological innovation will also make our roads much safer.

Jimmy Wales is an American internet entrepreneur and the co-founder of Wikipedia and Wikia.

Diet

Food goes back to basics
By Thomasina Miers

The past few years has been all about fad diets, cutting out food groups, and buying expensive ingredients to chase superfoods and super health. None of this is realistic. And after a year in which our foundations have been rocked, I feel that dieting adds an unhealthy uncertainty to our lives that we really dont need.

Food should not be about denial, guilt or killing ourselves. It is about nurturing, comfort and spending time with people who are important to us. It is about comradeship and community and breaking down barriers. We need that more than ever.

Next year will be about simplifying and going back to basics in the kitchen. The healthiest way to eat is to go as close to the source as possible. Lots of vegetables, which are cheap; lots of grains and beans. Meat only occasionally, and when it has been well looked after. My point isnt that we spend hours or a fortune in the kitchen, just that we adopt an old-fashioned approach where we avoid processed food. I have three children and zero spare time, but we eat well. Dinner is often just kale sauteed in garlic and olive oil on toast with a fried egg on top.

I think well see this in restaurants, too. When was the last time you heard anyone raving about a 20-course tasting menu? It feels as though that is from the last decade. Now its all short menus and home cooking and milk from cows who might actually have eaten some grass in their lives. There is a comfort in that, and I think it plays into deeper insecurities many of us are experiencing.

Thomasina Miers is a cook, food writer and broadcaster, and the founder of the Wahaca chain of Mexican restaurants.

Astronomy

The Cassini missons grand finale from Saturn
By Jim Al-Khalili

An
An image of Saturn from the Cassini mission. Photograph: Nasa/AP

When it comes to physics and astronomy, there have been a number of important stories in recent years that captured the publics imagination. Look no further than the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012 or the first detection of gravitational waves in 2016: ripples in the fabric of space itself due to the collision of two black holes more than a billion light years away. Cool stuff. And who knows what might be just around the corner? While I cannot predict what discoveries will be made in 2017, I can say with some confidence that there is one science story guaranteed to make waves around the world.

Of all the planets in the solar system, Saturn, with its beautiful rings, is without doubt the most enigmatic and mysterious, and in recent years weve had the privilege of being able to study it up close and personal thanks to the pictures beamed back to us by the Cassini spacecraft.

The Cassini mission to the giant planet has provided us with jaw-droppingly stunning colour images of Saturns surface, its rings and its many moons. And weve also made some astonishing discoveries. For example, it has revealed jets of water vapour and organic material shooting out of the south pole of Enceladus, creating tremendous excitement that this tiny moon might even be able to support microbial life beneath its icy surface.

But rest assured, the best is yet to come. In 2017, Cassini will come to the end of its mission, 20 years after it was launched in 1997. Nasa is calling this the Grand Finale, and its going to be pretty spectacular In tighter and tighter orbits, over several weeks, the spacecraft is going to squeeze inside the innermost ring, skimming the surface of the planet ever more closely before finally disappearing beneath the clouds and plummeting to its death.

For the Nasa scientists, it is going to be a huge challenge to collect as much data as possible during those final days, and there is no guarantee that Cassinis instruments will work in the increasingly hostile conditions. They are hoping it will continue to beam back what it sees for as long as it can before being ultimately crushed by the incredible density and pressure within the gas giant. Cue tingles down spines, lumps in throats and tears in eyes all round.

Jim Al-Khalili is a broadcaster and a professor of physics and public engagement in science at the University of Surrey.

Environment

A solution for overfishing
By Sir James Dyson

2017 promises to be an exciting year for SafetyNet, a fishing net with a series of escape rings that help prevent young and endangered fish being caught. The invention, which is engineered by Dan Watson, won the James Dyson award in 2012 because it helps to address the very real problem of overfishing.

SafetyNet exploits the escape behaviour of fish. Small and medium-sized fish swim upwards when stressed, whereas larger fish tend to swim downwards. SafetyNet has illuminated escape rings on its top side, which act like an emergency exit sign for the smaller fish. Water flowing through the wide-open meshes guides them to freedom, while the larger ones are retained in the net.

Since winning the award, SafetyNet has been getting ever closer to making a global impact. Trials show that the number of undesired fish caught is reduced by more than half when SafetyNet is used. With trials set to continue around the world in 2017, I hope that the next round of testing will continue to build awareness of the terrible problem of overfishing.

In 2017, SafetyNet technology will also go on sale to fishermen for the first time, with the first batches available in the middle of the year. But Watson also has his sights set on influencing the wider industry for the better. He will give a presentation on the topic of overfishing to the directorate-general for maritime affairs and fisheries in Brussels, to attract the attention of industry regulators and potentially shape future legislation.

Nearly half of fish caught are thrown back into the sea because they are not suitable to be sold, and many dont survive. If a significant number of young fish are being killed unnecessarily, this has an impact on the overall fish population. The best inventions use engineering and technology to solve existing problems and make the world a better place. SafetyNet shows how young graduates such as Watson can tackle global issues, all too often ignored by established industries, in new and inventive ways.

James Dyson is a British inventor and industrial designer, and the founder of Dyson.

Neuroscience

Neural networks and their effect on Alzheimers disease
By Prof May-Britt Moser

In this post-fact era, I believe that scientists engagement with society will be more important than ever before. We need to do our part in building public trust in science, by ensuring that our papers and talks are as solid and true to data as possible, but also by making sure the knowledge we produce is made accessible for people.

I am excited about the novel results from our lab that we will share with the world in 2017. In our everyday lives, we rely on our ability to navigate and remember. Inside the brain, these cognitive functions have a physiological correlate as specific patterns of activity among nerve cells. Networks of communicating nerve cells form activity maps that each give rise to a specific function. In 2017, we will share new insights into the emergence and maturation of the cells and neural networks that give rise to higher cognitive functions like self-location and memory. These cells are also ground zero, and the very first to be affected by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers. Knowing about how these cells develop into functional networks, giving rise to cognition and behavior, may help us understand what goes wrong when memory and navigation breaks down in people who are diagnosed with Alzheimers disease.

May-Britt Moser is a Nobel prize-winning psychologist and neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

The arts

The documenta exhibition revives the notion of utopia for a dystopian world
By Stefan Kalmr

In 1955, art professor and curator Arnold Bode founded the documenta art exhibition in the West German city of Kassel, once considered by Hitler for the German capital.

Documenta was originally initiated to introduce, or rather reintroduce, art formerly branded by the Nazis as degenerate to the postwar German public. This exhibition has, over the past 61 years, become the Olympus of all exhibitions. It is not a biennial; it is a vision, a proposition and a utopia in a hopelessly dystopian world.

Adam Szymczyk, the curator of documenta 14, which runs from 10 April to 17 September 2017, decided to stage, for the first time in the exhibitions history, one half in another European city: Athens. By doing so, he has mapped the field that best describes the dialectical tension in modern democracy today.

On one side is Kassels documenta: a post-fascist vehicle that believed in the transformative power of contemporary art. On the other side is Athens, the birthplace of democracy, which in recent years has become synonymous with the friction between democracy, national sovereignty and late capitalism.

In my lifetime, I have not experienced a more complex and greater existential crisis than today but a complex time can only be responded to in equally complex propositions. Documenta is a vehicle that affords the complex engagement with art and culture as what it is: a manifestation that responds to the sociopolitical conditions of our time. It is this that makes documenta, and particularly this documenta, so important, as it attempts to mediate between western democracy and capitalism in a state of crisis.

Stefan Kalmr is a veteran art industry and gallery insider and the new director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.

Architecture

MAAT
MAAT in Lisbon, designed by AL_A. Photograph: Paulo Coelho/EDP Foundation

Centuries-old ideas show us how to define public space
By Amanda Levete

There has never been a more important time to find ways of bringing people together. We need public spaces in our cities and our buildings to unite people, spaces where everyone has the chance to gather and to celebrate what we have in common. Im hopeful that 2017 will see the flickering resurgence of outdoor civic spaces blossom into something more profound and lasting.

As citizens, we have perhaps been taking them for granted, but now we are actively recognising the roles played by these vital parts of the urban fabric, and demanding that our cities and institutions protect and expand them.

In 2017 and beyond, we will be seeing cultural projects as urban projects ones that engage with cities and their unrestrained, slightly messy, vibrancy. Id like to think that MAAT, a new museum we designed in Lisbon, where the roof is a new place for people to appropriate as they like, is just one example of many more to come. It is used by lingering couples enjoying the sunset over the Tagus, by kids who just want to run up and down the steps, and by runners, cyclists and skateboarders.

There is something visceral about physical interaction that people are coming to value even more with the rise of the digital. There will be a return to looking at Italian urban planning, such as the Nolli map of Rome that allowed us to see the open public spaces connecting a city, or the Piazza del Popolo of Todi, the citys spiritual, civic and cultural heart, where everyone contributes to the sense of community and has done so for generations.

Of course, these are centuries-old ideas and, in 2017, I hope there will be an increased humility in the architectural community in acknowledging our inspirations and inheritances as well as a renewal of that post-war idealism when architects thought architecture could help make a better society. Sometimes, looking back can be a more radical move than the advent of virtual or augmented reality but it is an approach that architects and cities will increasingly pursue.

Amanda Levete is a Stirling prize-winning British architect and the founder and principal of AL_A, whose new entrance and courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, opens in 2017.

Space

The Starshot project and solar sail technology
By Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Ive been celebrating 50 years of Star Trek this year. I used to watch it as a child and thought, Oh yes, this is for me. I wanted warp drive, I wanted to travel to other planets and star systems. But as I grew older, I realised that our technology is so far from making interstellar travel possible until now.

Last April, the Starshot project was announced. It will use very high-powered lasers to accelerate solar sails on tiny spacecraft, sending them at a fifth of the speed of light to Alpha Centauri, our closest star system, in just 20 years. After the announcement, we discovered Proxima Centauri b, an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri itself. So it gets even more exciting. It pushes the technology we have at the moment to the limit, but the huge challenges are not insurmountable. I think we can do this, and work starts in 2017. We have a chance to take a closer look at an exoplanet, and perhaps even to find signs of life.

Solar sail technology will also allow us to study our solar system in far greater time. We sent the New Horizons probe to Pluto and it took almost 10 years. With solar sails, we could zip across the solar system in a matter of weeks and see whats out there.

As a child, I thought all this was possible, and when I started studying it, I reined in my expectations. But this year, for the first time, Im letting the dream continue. It is incredibly challenging, but when we look at what were achieving in miniaturisation and technology, I believe that in the next 15 to 20 years, we might have our first interstellar probe setting off for that 20-year journey to another star system. That puts it within my lifetime.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and honorary research associate at the UCL department of physics and astronomy.

Developmental biology

A leap forward in embryo technology
By Dr Jim Smith

Science sometimes appears to advance in great leaps, but each of those leaps is usually based on years of painstaking and often unheralded work work based on nothing more than curiosity about how the world works. My area of research is developmental biology: the question of how the fertilised egg becomes an adult organism with all the right cell types in the right place. Of course, it had occurred to me that developmental biology research might one day have practical benefits, but this was not why I did it I did it because the problem is so intriguing.

But, as is often the case, this sort of discovery science is yielding extraordinary benefits. For example, the ability of developmental biologists to culture, manipulate and fertilise embryos in a petri dish, then to transfer the embryos to a mother, led to test-tube babies. And this year, thanks to pioneering work by Doug Turnbull, it has inspired the decision to allow doctors to apply for a licence to create three-person babies, thereby providing, for the first time, hope to mothers carrying mitochondrial disease.

Now we know so much about what happens during normal embryonic development, we are in the extraordinary position of being able to recapitulate it and even to reverse it. Doug Melton has shown how stem cells from patients with type 1 diabetes can be turned into pancreatic beta-cells; many researchers are making organoids, three-dimensional stem cell cultures that will allow the design of personal treatment regimes and generate new cells for gene editing and transplantation. Equally exciting is the recent discovery by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, inspired by his work on newt limb regeneration, that it may even be possible to reverse ageing.

As we understand more about development, now using techniques from chemistry, mathematics, engineering and physics, we can expect even more remarkable discoveries and treatments. This year, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz managed to increase by 50% the length of time we can keep human embryos alive in a dish I cant wait to see what well learn about ourselves.

Jim Smith is a developmental biologist and the new director of science at Wellcome, the science and health foundation.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/jan/02/big-ideas-2017-driverless-cars-interstellar-travel-invention

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