Monthly Archives: November 2012

Women Have Small Brains and Other Biases of Science

But we must not forget that woman are, on the average, a little less intelligent than men, a difference which we should not exaggerate but which is, nonetheless, real. We are therefore permitted to suppose that the relatively small size of the female brain depends in part upon her physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual inferiority.

-Paul Broca

Paul Broca 1824-1880

Back in the mid 1800’s there lived a professor named Paul Broca. His work on the brain was instrumental in brain anatomy and anthropology. He determined the part of the brain associated with speech, revolutionizing our understanding of human speech. His work was thorough, and he was ahead of the times in his scientific thinking. However, even the best scientists can be influenced by social bias.

Paul Broca performed measurements of cranial sizes of male and female skulls, and found that the female cranial size was smaller. Was the measurement correct? Well, to a certain extent, yes. Yet, the problem with the study was his conclusion. A great summary of some of Broca’s study can be found in this essay by Stephen Jay Gould (PDF). The issue is that there are numerous factors that may lead to intelligence, and not all are linked to brain size. In fact, with newer technology, we have also found that it is neural connections within the brain which make a great contribution to intelligence.

Female Brains Are Still Smaller

Now, the time of Paul Broca was very different from modern day. You would think something like using brain size to prove women are less intelligent would be a thing of the past. Not necessarily. A study from 2006 by Philippe Rushton claimed that men were on average smarter than women due to brain size. This debate was still going on in 2006.

This same author published a paper in 2002 citing differences in brain size in different races are what cause the IQ differences. The paper, called “Brain size, IQ, and racial-group differences: Evidence from musculoskeletal traits,” in which the concluding sentence of the abstract states “brain size-related variables provide the most likely biological mediators of the race differences in intelligence.” [Rushton, 2002].

When coming to scientific conclusions, it is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation.

The ultimate problem with studies like these is that they completely disregard cultural and societal contributions to intelligence. For instance, we are just now coming into a time where more women are applying to college than men, and more equal opportunities are available to minorities and women.

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To end, I leave you with the most recent tidbit of information I could find. For the first time in recent history, women are scoring higher on IQ tests than men.

So much for that publication citing the reason for women’s lower IQ scores was due to their brain size.

Exploding Capacitors

What happens when you hook a capacitor to a voltage source backwards?

Explosions!

The labs were one of my favorite parts of electrical engineering. Of course building things was fun, but some of my memories of lab were of breaking/exploding/burning things. Chemists think they have all the fun, but really, it’s the electrical engineers that have all the fun. I’ve taken many chemistry labs outside of engineering. While I enjoyed making esters and beautiful dyes, the most fun shenanigans to be had existed in the electrical engineering labs.

Often times during a lab session, this odor of burnt electronics wafts through the hallways. There are many things to destroy. Capacitors, diodes, resistors—they are all fair game in an undergraduate electronics course. I’ve also tried various food items in electronic circuits as well. Marshmallows are fairly uninteresting, but if you find a nice salty watery food like a pickle, you are in for a treat. Yes, the halls of the electrical engineering wing are always filled with the faint smell of burning.

Encountering the Aurora

“Wow,” I thought to myself, as I saw the Aurora fluttering through the sky. I grabbed my camera with my shivering hand and begin to point and click numerous times. I definitely did not succeed in taking any viable pictures on my first time viewing the magnificent aurora. I didn’t succeed the second night either…

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Upon my first time seeing the Aurora, I immediately felt this ethereal connection to previous humans who had claimed the Aurora were sky spirits. My scientific brain took over as I realized I was making a spiritual connection to a chemical reaction in the sky.

What are the Aurora?

There are actually several kinds of Aurora that we can see with the human eye. The image I posted is of the green line aurora. This type of aurora is caused by an emission by an electron moving from an excited state to a lower electronic state in an oxygen atom. There are three reactions that take place to cause this electronic emission of green light.

1) Energy transfer between N2 and O

2) Dissociative recombination of O2+ + e

3) Direct excitation of atomic oxygen by ambient energetic electrons

When the earth’s magnetic field is disrupted by solar winds, ions are displaced to the lower atmosphere in excess. This influx of added ions and electrons is what cause increased chemical reactions during the aurora.

Capturing the Aurora

The photographs I took of the aurora on my first attempt were just black dark shots of nothing. I managed to get strange faint green wisp in one of the shots, but aside from that, the pictures were really just blank.

After being directed to a website about photography, and getting encouragement to try and take decent pictures, I caved and bought a new camera. It was the cheapest camera to be found that took extended exposure photographs. Alas, after increasing the exposure and sensitivity to light, I captured the aurora.

I still have a ways to go before I take stunning and crisp pictures, but it’s certainly a step away from my previous label of stunningly bad photographer.

Thoughtful Children’s Toys

I think this is a beautiful idea. While there is still argument about whether or not women are better at verbal skills and worse at spatial reasoning due to cultural upbringing or nature, designing children’s toys to give young girls more options in life helps them benefit in many ways. Creating an engineering toy that blends with what young girls in our current culture are interested in is brilliant. That’s what the creator of GoldieBlox is doing.

Beautiful Blogger Award

This is the first award I have been nominated for by another blogger, and of course I want to say thank you to The Green Study for nominating me.

While I realize not everyone is really big on the blog awards, I like them because they expose other bloggers out there. Through reading nominees of these awards on blogs I follow, I’ve learned about some other excellent blogs. I am excited to pass this on to my readers, while also recognizing some of the blogs I’ve been following.

Identify and show appreciation of the blogger who awarded you

Thanks to Michelle at The Green Study. I always enjoy reading her blog posts. She writes of many things with a writing style that I envy.

Add the award logo to your blog

Tell your readers 7 things about yourself

1. I am writing from above the Arctic Circle, and I’m looking forward to seeing more sun when I go home soon.

2. When I was 13, I decided I was too cool for school and made it my lifelong dream to eventually own a candle shop in the mall. Clearly engineering school has shattered my dreams.

3. I actually enjoy cooking!

4. I like climbing. I also enjoy taking other people climbing and watching them get scared.

5. I like cheese.

6. If I must wear socks, I only wear wool socks. Even in the middle of summer.

7. In the first grade, when I got sent home sick, I cried because I wanted to stay at school and learn.

Nominate 5-10 bloggers you read regularly for this award

While I have recently started following many excellent blogs that I am looking forward to reading more of, here are a few blogs I’ve been following for awhile longer:

Broad Blogs
A well written academic blog by Dr. Platts  who has a PhD in sociology. She has some great insight into many things having to do with women and society. I love her approach to explaining many issues of today.

A Life Unexamined
Written by Jo, an asexual college student. I always come away from her blog with a fresh perspective!

Opt4
A blog promoting healthy relationships and increasing awareness about domestic violence.

Whit and Wisdom
Whit, and Wisdom is a blog by a woman named Whit in her mid-twenties. I love her witty posts relating to things ranging from feminism to politics to everyday life.

Unladylike Musings
This is a lovely blog written by a Quaker female who works at a women’s shelter. She describes the title “Unladylike Musings” as a challenge to the idea of emphasized femininity.

Inform your nominees that you nominated them

Doing that as soon as possible…

My Thoughts As a Woman

I sit hear scanning papers, clicking on my computer, scanning papers some more, thinking about the mathematical equations and how they can be used to solve problems. I hold the academic papers like a tomb of truth from which information can be gleaned and used to discover more things about the world.

When I started this blog a very short time ago, I wanted to share facts about things I found interesting. I also wanted to bring attention to things within our society that I think need to be changed. I’m struggling with the best way to do this. There was this part of me that was hesitant to share my own thoughts and experiences while stepping away from the safe word of facts and academic publications I am used to. One personal experience does not make a fact. Yet, I’m finding through reading many other brilliant blogs, that personal experiences are so important to shaping the views of society. Through each other we connect, and we see underlying problems that need to be fixed within the society wherein we live through our similar accounts.

In an equal society, this blog title would be called my thoughts as a human. Unfortunately, being a female engineer has shaped my experiences in a way that reminds me I am a woman. I wish I could say that it’s only being in a male dominated field that reminds me of this, and that I can just focus on that, but when I step into the world I also must be ever cognizant that I am a woman. If I forget, there will be something or someone to remind me of what I am, and sometimes this can be dangerous, so I must never forget.

During my younger years, I didn’t understand the meaning of being a woman. I didn’t see a difference between my male classmates and me. I remember being in an advanced math group in my class and working with another male student. There was nothing to even consider about this situation. It was just two students who enjoyed math, studying math together.

When I was 12, my family moved to a very conservative town. By the time I had graduated from high school, it had been made very clear to me that I was a female, and that, far beyond the different body types and sexual attractions, females are supposed to be different from males.

The reasons why there is this imposed difference in the way men and women are treated need to be addressed. I’m seeing different aspects at each level of the female life that may pose barriers to success and happiness. These obviously vary with severity from person to person and in different areas of the world. I will do my best to bring to light the things that are within my reach, and I will continue to read about the things that are within yours.

Has Voyager 1 Left the Solar System?


Source: Hubblesite.org
 

A few weeks ago it seemed the evidence was looking good. Voyager may have left the solar system, although it seems its not 100% official yet. The three things used to help classify whether it has left are increases in high-energy cosmic rays, a drop in charged sun particles, and a change in magnetic field. The high-energy cosmic rays and decrease in charged sun particles have been seen. It will be interesting to see what the data shows in the coming weeks.

Why are there not more females in academia?

If there is a belief that women’s brains are different when it comes to science and engineering, then how does that affect the perception of women who are already in the area of study?

There is no question that we lack women in academia in many fields. In academia, women are still the minority in publications. Even with increasing numbers of enrollment of women in STEM fields, only a small fraction of publications are written by women across many fields. Part of the issue is that far fewer women want to go into academia or research than men. While 72% of women start off wanting to pursue research as a career upon entering a PhD program, 61% of men feel the same way. Yet, at the end of a PhD program the number of women drops to 37% while the number of men only drops 59%. This is a huge gap and drop in interest.

As a graduate student, I can think of many different reasons why one would not want to go into academia, or continue into research. There are the politics, the competitive environment, obnoxious university policies, long work hours from teaching and getting research funding, but in the end these things seem that they would drive both men and women away. There may be other subtleties to look at when approaching this gender imbalance as well. While I have had some female professors outright tell me they have never experienced any form of harassment during the time of their professorship, I’ve also heard many female voices from the other end of the spectrum saying harassment is a huge problem for women at universities. I’ve found some interesting reads on this subject.

When men and women were both asked why there were fewer women in fields such as physics, the responses were different. A study from Rice University sheds light on whether gender leads to different interpretations of discrimination and why women may choose to leave a field. An excellent blog post sums up some of these findings. The study showed that it was the women who were more likely to say discrimination was a reason for women not choosing fields such as physics. Men were more likely to cite differences in the brain between men and women for the different choices. This study exposes some of the issues surrounding discrimination and its potential for keeping women from advancing in male dominated fields such as physics. It’s a concern when the target gender is far more likely to cite discrimination as a factor for not staying in a field than the majority gender in a field. Furthermore, if there is a belief that women’s brains are different when it comes to science and engineering, then how does that affect the perception of women who are already in the area of study?

The Stories

There are some excellent websites out there which allow for people to put forth some of the problems women in academia face. These websites give some great insight into what it is like for women in academia, and are not just limited to the STEM fields.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me
What is it like to be a woman in philosphy?