Month: October 2017

Alan Turing’s School Report Goes On Show As Part Of A New Exhibition

A school report of gay mathematician and war hero Alan Turing will be part of the new Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition which opens this week at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

The report is from 1929 when Turing was 13 years old and it’s generally quite mixed. Several of Turing’s teachers praise him for his work but also note how hasty and messy some of it has been. He was strongest in his principal subjects (Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics) and generally weaker in French and English.

“His work on Higher Certificate papers shows distinct promise, but he must realise that ability to put a neat and tidy solution on paper – intelligible and legible – is necessary for a first-rate mathematician,” his Math teacher wrote.

Alan Turing’s School Report from 1929. Sherborne School Archives. The Provost and Fellows of Kings College Cambridge

The exhibition will also feature the book Turing was given when he won the first Christopher Morcom Science Prize at Sherborne School. This was set up by Morcom’s parents in memory of their son who died in 1930 at the age of 18. Morcom is believed to have been Turing’s first love.

Turing’s work during the Second World War was instrumental in the decryption of German ciphers at the Bletchley Park facility, where he constructed electromechanical machines to quickly decode encrypted messages. Some historians estimate that the work that Turing and many other codebreakers (a lot of them were women) did at Bletchley Park shortened the war in Europe by at least four years.

He’s considered the founder of computer science and in 1950 he devised a test to evaluate a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence. He called the test “the imitation game” and it’s currently referred to as the Turing test. This test has been proven to be a widely influential yet somewhat controversial topic in computer science.

Alan Turing was arrested and prosecuted in 1952 when being gay was a criminal offense in the United Kingdom. He chose to be chemically castrated to avoid prison. He died on June 7, 1954, of cyanide poisoning and his death was ruled as suicide. He was 42 years old. The British Government apologized for the appalling treatment of Alan Turing in 2009.

The book Alan Turing received when he won the first Christopher Morcom Science Prize. The Provost and Fellows of Kings College Cambridge


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Lego Releases Figurines Celebrating The Women Of NASA, And They’re Awesome

Earlier this year, Lego asked for suggestions from fans. Science writer Maia Weinstock came up with an awesome idea – a range of figurines celebrating women who have played critical roles in the US space program.

Writing at the time she pointed out how certain women have been critical to NASA missions throughout the space program’s history.

“Yet in many cases, their contributions are unknown or under-appreciated – especially as women have historically struggled to gain acceptance in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

“This proposed set celebrates five notable NASA pioneers and provides an educational building experience to help young ones and adults alike learn about the history of women in STEM.”

Well, Lego loved the idea, and has now released the set for children to play with. They’ve named the set “Women of NASA”. They’re pretty awesome, and everyone from children to current NASA astronauts are loving them.

Retired NASA astronaut Wendy B. Lawrence is considering buying the set. She is NOT too old to buy it – no one is.

The set includes Margaret Hamilton, who developed the onboard flight software for Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s. She is known for popularizing the modern concept of software, and last year was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

Next up is Nancy Grace Roman. Nancy was one of the first female executives at NASA. She’s often called the “Mother of Hubble” for her role in planning the Hubble Space Telescope. As an aside, the astronomer also developed NASA’s astronomy research program.

Nancy in real life. NASA / Wikimedia Commons

The set also includes Sally Ride. You probably already know of Sally, the first American woman in space. A physicist by training, she launched into space in 1983. After retiring from being an astronaut, she focussed on educating children and encouraging them – especially girls – to pursue science as a career, through a foundation she set up.

Joining Sally is fellow astronaut Mae Jemison. Mae trained as a medical doctor, before becoming an astronaut. In 1992 she became the first African-American woman in space. She too developed a company after retiring from NASA. Hers develops new technologies whilst encouraging students in science.

The two are celebrated in a joint figurine, where they have their own space shuttle to fly around in.

The initially proposed set included Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and space scientist. Some of her greatest achievements include calculating trajectories for the Apollo programs, including Apollo 11, which got the first humans on the moon.

Katherine chose not to be a part of the completed set.

Katherine Johnson’s life was recently brought to the big screen in the Oscar-winning Hidden Figures. NASA / Wikimedia Commons
The figurines are going down extremely well with fans, who love the idea as well as the awesome little details.

The set also includes instruments used to calculate and verify trajectories for the Apollo missions (something very important before you send your Lego figurines into space) and a microscale Hubble Space Telescope. The space shuttle even has an external tank and rocket boosters.

NASA themselves are fans.

As is everyone else.

The creator of the set put out a note to thank Lego for doing the set, which she hopes will help children and adults around the world learn about these pioneering scientists.

The figurines will be on sale from November 1.


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This program has a brilliant plan for bringing diversity to the world of STEM.

When Dr. Jennifer R. Cohen was working as a molecular biologist, she often wondered why no one else in her sector looked like her.

As a black woman, Cohen is not the typical face you’d see in a biochemistry lab. The sad reality is science and technology careers are still predominately assumed by white men even though there is a large reservoir of untapped talent among women and people of color.

The reason for the disparity seems to lie in a lack of resources to help talented but underrepresented students reach higher academic levels. While some colleges are currently looking to diversify, it’s often difficult for these students to get on their radar without some sort of assistance.

Cohen knew how much underrepresented talent there was out there just waiting to realize their full potential, so she joined the SMASH program.

SMASH, or Summer Math and Science Honors, is a subsection of the nonprofit organization Level the Playing Field Institute. It’s a rigorous, three-year summer program that provides settings and resources to students who are underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) free of charge. The courses take place at colleges, like UCLA and UC Berkeley, that are leading the way in these fields.

By throwing these students headfirst into an environment stocked with resources, SMASH is giving them all they need to totally “own” STEM.

Students learning computer science in the SMASH University of California at Davis program. All photos via SMASH.

The movement, however, is not just about bolstering science skills. It’s about creating a pipeline into colleges that will help students launch a life pursuing some of the coolest, most sought-after and most impactful STEM-related careers out there.

But they have to get in first.

Aside from helping to eliminate the barriers to a college degree and subsequent career, SMASH’s teachers are doing all they can to give their students confidence. The STEM fields aren’t exactly handing out positions to women and people of color, so they’ll need all the conviction they have to get ahead.

UCLA’s SMASH program, for example, is brimming with teachers who are women of color, and experts in their fields. Pre-calculus instructor Patrice Smith got her Bachelor of Science from UCLA in Mathematics/Applied Science and specializations in Business Administration and Computing. Having role models like her likely encourages the 53% of young women who populate the UCLA program.

Students at SMASH UC Berkeley working in a lab.

“We help them to see that they belong and that they have what it takes so there’s no question in their minds that they can be successful,” Cohen explains.

Having been the only woman of color in the room, Cohen feels she can be especially helpful to the young women in SMASH. Her experience working in STEM shines a light on the inequality and need for change.

But, thanks to SMASH, change is happening, and its students are walking, dissecting, coding, algorithm-solving proof.

Leilani Reyes at SMASH Stanford.

Leilani Reyes, a first-generation college student from Fairfield, California, is studying computer science at Stanford University and was recently a software engineer intern at Medium. She’s forever grateful to SMASH for opening up this world of opportunity to her.

“Academically, it granted me rigor and, more importantly, support from teachers and staff who empowered me to be curious and socially conscious in STEM exploration,” writes Reyes in an email. “Professionally, it granted me resources to develop essential skills like public speaking and connections to mentors and role models who I look to for advice and inspiration.”

Michael Pearson, who attended SMASH UCLA, blossomed into one of the most accomplished computer science students, often helping others with their homework after finishing his own. He’s now pursuing a career in Cognitive and Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

And Thomas Estrada, who went through SMASH UC Berkeley, was awarded the Regent and Chancellor’s Scholarship, which helped fund his undergraduate tuition there. He majored in computer science, and is now pursuing his doctorate. This summer, he landed a coveted internship with Google.

Moises Limon, a first year at SMASH UC Berkeley.

In terms of overall numbers, 78% of current SMASH freshman declared a STEM major. To date, 55% of SMASH alumni college graduates complete with a STEM major. That’s huge compared to the national average of STEM graduates, just 22%. Obviously the program is doing something right.

In the last 17 years, SMASH has helped over 500 alumni hit their academic and career goals.

The program is rapidly expanding into a national institution. One of the first east coast schools they’re partnering with is the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. There’s no telling how far SMASH’s influence will go now.

This story was updated on 10/20/2017.

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Girls in STEM now have a Lego box of their own: Women of NASA | The Daily Dot

With last year’s box-office success of Hidden Figures, it’s only fitting that the trend of promoting pioneering women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) trickled it’s way into the toy world—now, as little figures.

On Tuesday Lego announced the debut of a set unlike any others before it, Women of NASA, highlighting astronomer and educator Nancy Grace Roman; computer scientist and entrepreneur Margaret Hamilton; astronaut, physicist and entrepreneur Sally Ride; and astronaut, physician, and engineer Mae Jemison—each as a mini-figurine.

Photo via Lego

The box also includes three builds illustrating the women’s area of expertise: a posable Hubble Space Telescope with a projected image of planetary nebula for Roman, a stack of book elements representing the Apollo Guidance Computer for Hamilton, and a launchpad and Space Shuttle Challenger with three removable rocket stages for Ride and Jemison.

Photo via Lego

Each set includes a booklet about the four featured women of NASA, as well as the fan creator and Lego designers behind the idea, who hope their magic inspires even more young girls to get involved with these fields of study.

In total, the box contains 231 pieces. Women of NASA goes on sale Nov. 1 for $24.99.

Photo via Lego

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Ancient Text Reveals Earliest Known Understanding Of Zero

The concept of zero is so deeply engrained in our culture that it is hard to imagine not having it. Yet most ancient cultures never came up with the idea, greatly to the detriment of their mathematical development. We don’t know exactly when the idea first appeared, but re-analysis of a nearly 2,000-year-old Indian manuscript has taken us closer to this crucial point.

The Bakhshali manuscript is written on pieces of birch bark and was found buried in a field outside the village of Bakhshali, Pakistan, in 1881. It has been housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, since 1902. It contains hundreds of zero symbols, and clearly represents one of the oldest surviving references to this concept. However, its age has been in doubt, with estimates based on writing style placing it around the year 800.

Testing of three samples in the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit revealed that the manuscript, rather than having a single origin, was created in pieces centuries apart. The earliest measured section dates to somewhere between 224 and 383 AD, while additions were made in 680-779 and 885-993 AD. The last date roughly aligns with other examples we have of the dot symbol, which gradually evolved into our 0, being used to indicate absence. However, the earlier dates are well outside expectations.

The fact the manuscript remained in use for so long, and was expanded at least twice centuries later, indicates its status, probably as a training manual. It is filled with examples of practical arithmetic and algebra. Oxford’s Professor Marcus du Sautoy told The Guardian: “There’s a lot of ‘If someone buys this and sells this how much have they got left?’”

“Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics,” du Sautoy said in a statement. “We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.”

Both the Babylonians and Mayans had symbols for nothing, but it was only when the Indians developed the idea that its mathematical power was realized. Even then, the placeholding dot took centuries to evolve into the concept that zero could be a number.

Arab traders spread the idea from India, but it faced considerable resistance upon its arrival in Europe, even facing attempts to ban it as heresy.

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Trump to launch $200M STEM education initiative with Silicon Valley leaders

Silicon Valley tech companies are teaming up with the Trump administration on a new initiative to push science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in our schools. The new STEM initiative, which Trump will be signing as a memorandum today, will ask the Department of Education to allocate $200 million of its grant funds toward coding and STEM education.

The impetus for this new initiative is train the workers of tomorrow for the growing demand of computer-science jobs. It should also help improve the woeful state of STEM education in this country. According data from the American Institute of Physics, less than 40 percent of graduating high school seniors have taken a physics course. (The White House reports that only 60 percent of high schools even offer physics as a course.) As for computer science, less than half of U.S. high schools offer coding courses.

“Our country is facing a challenge that it hasn’t had to address in two generations: reworking the education system to keep pace with advancing technology,” Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a statement today. “In the 1950s, the race to space drove schools to start teaching physics. Today, it’s all about computer science.”

On Tuesday, Trump’s daughter Ivanka will head to Detroit to announce private sector commitments to this program. Representatives from Amazon, Facebook, Google, GM, and Quicken Loans will be in attendance, among others.

This STEM education effort comes at an interesting time. Many tech leaders recently criticized Trump for his move to end DACA and decision to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military. Earlier this year, many of these same executives served on the Trump administration’s technology council. While Trump dissolved two related councils (members resigned following Trump’s response to the Charlottesville, Virginia, incident), his administration still hopes to work with industry tech leaders to modernize our government, and now, help bring our education system into the 21st century, too.

Today’s STEM-focused endeavor comes after Trump cut the Department of Education’s funds by 13.5 percent ($9.2 billion) earlier this year.

H/T Recode

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Math Suggests The Amount Of Carbon In The Ocean Could Start A Mass Extinction After 2100

Humanity has a huge impact on our planet but predicting the long-term effects of our actions is not exactly simple. An important question scientists have been asking is could our activities trigger a mass extinction?

According to Professor Daniel Rothman, a geophysicist at MIT, if 310 gigatons of carbon were added to the oceans this would first lead to an unstable environment, and then to a mass extinction. This amount is predicted to enter the world’s water reservoir by 2100. The research is published in Science Advances.

“This is not saying that disaster occurs the next day,” Rothman clarified in a statement. “It’s saying that, if left unchecked, the carbon cycle would move into a realm which would be no longer stable, and would behave in a way that would be difficult to predict. In the geologic past, this type of behavior is associated with mass extinction.”

The theory looked at changes in carbon over long and short timescales. Over long timescales, extinction could happen if carbon cycle changes occur faster than the planet can adapt to them. Over short timescales, however, extinction will depend on how big the change is. Rothman was capable of putting a “carbon threshold” on how much carbon the oceans can take in. According to the theory, it might take up to 10,000 years for the full disaster to play out, but Rothman thinks that by 2100 we will be reaching, or moving past, the carbon threshold for catastrophe.

There have been five mass extinctions throughout the history of our planet, and Rothman wanted to know if a sixth was likely based on the data we have today and what we have been doing since the industrial revolution.

“How can you really compare these great events in the geologic past, which occur over such vast timescales, to what’s going on today, which is centuries at the longest? So I sat down one summer day and tried to think about how one might go about this systematically,” Rothman added. “It became evident that there was a characteristic rate of change that the system basically didn’t like to go past. Then it became a question of figuring out what it meant.”

Once the limit is breached, the carbon cycle breaks. Plants can’t take the extra carbon dioxide in and carbon no longer sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it normally gets buried over time. The best case scenario for 2100 sees humans adding 300 gigatons of carbon to the ocean with more than 500 gigatons being added in the worst.

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