Category Archives: Science & Environment

Your questions answered: the COVID-19 vaccine, virus variants and more

Melita Wiles

S&E Editor

 

What is in the vaccine?

There are three main types of the COVID-19 vaccine. First, the mRNA vaccine consists of certain materials from the actual virus. These materials prompt our cells to create proteins that are unique to COVID-19. The virus’ DNA is still present in our bodies, but our body now has copies of proteins that enable it to destroy the DNA and fend off future attacks. The second type, protein subunit vaccines, injects harmless COVID-19 proteins into our bodies, as opposed to contracting the entire virus that causes the illness. Our bodies respond by creating antibodies to fight any future invasions. The third type, vector vaccines, contain different viruses that can be thought of as a shell. Inside the shell are COVID-19 proteins that hitch a ride in the shell (hence the term vector).  

What is the difference between the three vaccines?

DO NOT wait for a specific brand of the vaccine. The best vaccine is the first one available to you. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is a two-shot process. Shots are administered three weeks apart. The Moderna vaccine also consists of two shots, but given four weeks apart. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine only requires one shot. DO NOT compare efficacy rates! These are not a measure of effectiveness. Efficacy is a ratio taken from trials that measures the fraction of those who got COVID-19 with the vaccine versus those who got COVID-19 with the placebo. The J&J vaccine is not “worse” than the other two.

What does the vaccine do? 

The vaccine is made to support our bodies in the process of developing immunity to the

virus that causes COVID-19. It is meant to protect us from the virus, so we don’t have to get COVID-19 itself to create antibodies. As the CDC puts it, “Vaccines train our immune systems to create proteins that fight diseases, known as ‘antibodies,’ just as would happen when we are exposed to a disease but – crucially – vaccines work without making us sick.” Our bodies are left with a supply of memory (T- and B-lymphocytes) that can help fight the virus in the future.  

Am I getting the actual COVID virus injected into my body? 

No. None of the vaccines that you can receive right now contain the live virus that causes COVID-19.

What are the side effects?  

Side effects include pain, redness and swelling in the arm where you got the shot, exhaustion, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea overall after the shot.

Are side effects good?

Side effects mean that your body is building protection and should subside after a few days, according to the CDC.

Will I need to get this vaccine again or is it a one and done thing?  

The CDC reports that they are still learning about how long the vaccines can protect people. However, experts have made educated guesses on this question. Some say the vaccines will last at least six to eight months. Once again, there is no set answer to this question yet, and federal health officials have not come out with any definitive answer.

Will the vaccine protect me from other variants?

Variants are mutations in the original COVID-19 virus’ DNA. Each of the vaccines currently in play are less effective against the variants discovered thus far. In short, continue to follow public health guidelines and wear a mask.

Why should I get the vaccine?

The science is sound. You are protecting not just yourself, but others as well. Each of us has a responsibility to our community that goes beyond personal freedoms. The shot is a small sacrifice to make. Do not make public health personal or political. Please.

Do I still have to wear a mask once I am vaccinated? 

Yes. You should wear a mask and practice social distancing when in public, gathering with multiple households of unvaccinated people, or visiting someone who is at increased risk from COVID-19. Still avoid larger gatherings and if you travel, and watch out for symptoms associated with the virus.

Can I pass the vaccine to others even though I am immune? 

People who are immune can still be contagious, that is why it is so important to keep following masking and social distancing rules in public and around others, especially unvaccinated people.  

What can I do after I have been fully vaccinated?

Once you are fully vaccinated, you are able to gather indoors with other vaccinated people without social distancing or masks. You can also spend time with unvaccinated people from any age from other households without masks or social distancing.

Will the COVID-19 vaccine alter my DNA?

No, COVID-19 vaccines do not interact with your DNA in any way. The mRNA vaccines teach our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. The vector vaccine uses a different, harmless virus to deliver important instructions to our cells to start building protection. The vaccines do not go into our DNA in any way.

Does the vaccine insert a microchip in me?

No.

“Visions of the Future” poster collection and space exploration

Jonathan Logan

S&E Editor

 

For two years, I had never set foot in the bottom floor of the physics department’s building (turns out that is where we keep the shrink ray machine). The faculty put up all of the senior/junior thesis posters down there. But, lining an entire wall in the main hallway is a full collection of the jointly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Jet Propulsion Lab’s (NASA-JPL’s) Visions of the Future poster series.

One afternoon, I spent the better part of ten minutes studying each one, comparing them to visions I have filed away from reading sci-fi novels and watching television shows like The Expanse. Pacing down the hallway, I noticed two things:

  1.   I would give up my earth-bound life to stand on Europa for one day as Jupiter engulfed my field of view.
  2. Where’s the Moon poster?

The goals of space exploration are being overrun by a sentiment of escape — a sentiment I had just fallen victim to in a matter of ten minutes as I closed my eyes and saw Jupiter swing overhead. Heavy space tourism themes characterize each individual poster, hinting at the sentiment of escape.

NASA and JPL have taken us to the Moon — and, yeah that’s about it. Amusingly, the Moon does not even have its own poster in the collection. The collection instead focuses only on the places we as humans have not been to: Mars, Venus, Europa, or anywhere that is not the one other place humans have actually set foot. They even have a poster for one of the recently discovered TRAPPIST exoplanets some 40 light-years away. Something as simple as the lack of a Luna-themed poster is indicative of a much more worrying phenomenon.

Here is some background on the creation of the Visions of the Future poster series:

A creative team of visual strategists at JPL, known as “The Studio,” created the poster series, which is titled “Visions of the Future.” Nine artists, designers and illustrators were involved in designing the 14 posters, which are the result of many brainstorming sessions with JPL scientists, engineers and expert communicators.

The design is supposed to mimic those of the national parks posters created by the Works Progress Administration. Joby Harris, the illustrator, said that they wanted to make the planets and moons seem like far-off destinations.

I am not trying to minimize the scientific and technological advancements NASA and JPL have made on behalf of the world. However, the Visions of the Future posters offer a glimpse into the mindset our storied space agency has with respect to space exploration now. Their mindset is escapist and disconnected from the history they claim to build upon as we “return to the Moon by 2024.”

Where is the poster of the Apollo 11 crew standing on the Moon or an illustration of a moon cafe called Aldrin Coffee (you’d get a real Buzz)?

The poster of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, depicts a group of space tourists on an underwater viewing platform watching something that says to me the creators of the poster drew more inspiration from Europa Report than they did the actual Galilean moon. A giant space octopus hotel is more sensationalist than it is scientist.

However, space is really difficult. Viewing the potentially terraform-able planets and moons as “destinations” like the national parks implies that “The Studio” and the experts they consulted think of what they do as enabling the rest of us to take a space vacation.

The glaring oversight of or wanton disregard for our own Apollo era missions to the Moon only confirm the sort of been there, done that mindset we have towards landing on our own Moon. Getting back to the Moon won’t be easy, but it will probably still be the first tourist destination beyond low-earth orbit.

Perhaps the only way to convince the general public that space exploration is worth their time and money is by confronting them with sensational illustrations of who we want to be. For now, the poster series is representative of the idealism we, and now JPL, stuff the space turkey with. The simple fact that they focus on tourism is evidence that space is some sort of escape; when in reality space would be the scariest, hardest vacation you might never return from.

Yet, I still look forward to the day when we can write: “out of office, experiencing the charm of gravity assists.”

The clear and obvious tourism themes that characterize every single one of the posters indicate that our space agencies subconsciously view venturing out into space as an escape from Earth. Not to mention the oversight or wanton disregard for the only place we’ve set foot on: our own Moon.

If we allow the tourist destination themes present in these posters to permeate our thinking, we run the risk of not just forgetting our pale blue dot, but of going to space for the wrong reasons. There is nothing wrong with imagining worlds unknown, but there is something very wrong with wanting to escape to what can only be imagined.

Inequality and Racism in A.I.

Jonathan Logan

S&E Editor

 

Timnit Gebru, a highly respected artificial intelligence (A.I.) ethicist, finished her Ph.D. thesis and was promptly hired by Google as part of their campaign to increase algorithmic scrutiny. Google, along with many Big Tech Companies have always pushed inclusive narratives. However, in December of 2020, Gebru was abruptly fired from her A.I. ethics research position. The company cited a paper in which she took issue with their minority hiring practices and language models, both of which lead to discriminatory biases. Many critics and fellow researchers cite this incident as further evidence that Big Tech companies do not truly care for underrepresented peoples. The hiring of researchers like Gebru is merely a front.

Gebru became a S.T.E.M. celebrity when she posted a well-written opinion piece on Facebook in response to exclusionary practices she witnessed while attending a conference in Barcelona, Spain. It reads: “I’m not worried about machines taking over the world. I’m worried about groupthink, insularity and arrogance in the A.I. community. The people creating the technology are a big part of the system. If many are actively excluded from its creation, this technology will benefit the few while harming a great many.

This post and the responses it received led Gebru to start a group called “Black in A.I.” A prominent ethics researcher that already worked in Google took Gebru in at Google where she would eventually be hired.

Beneath these public relations and front-page stories are actual examples of artificial intelligence drawing conclusions or carrying out its tasks with abhorrent racist results. For example, Google Photos (one of their many apps), is capable of sorting through pictures you may upload to their service. If you have 50 pictures of flowers in your upload folder, Google Photos will sort those 50 flower pictures in a folder labeled “flowers.” In 2015, a Brooklyn, N.Y. resident used the service to sort some photos a friend had sent their way. There was an entire folder labeled “gorillas.” This person opened the folder only to find 80 pictures of a Black friend.

Neural networks are responsible for analyzing huge amounts of data (the pictures you might upload to Google Photos) and determining what those photos are of based on training data. That training data is how the neural network learns to classify a picture of a flower as a flower. However, machines – especially artificial intelligence, are a direct reflection of the human that created it.

Something that scientists and engineers frequently fail at is communicating the complexities of the work they do. However, when it comes to blatantly racist technology, we cannot just accept “technical difficulties” as the reason. We have to hold scientists and engineers to a higher level of accountability when it comes to these issues; and even more so when the issues come to light. The groupthink that the mostly white males engage in at Google and other tech companies is directly reflected in their work. It was while confronting this that Timnit Gebru was fired by Google.

Ethics matter, especially in a field driven by scientific advancements. The cases of Gebru and Google Photos are merely drops in an ocean of misconduct by artificial intelligence experts and the companies that develop the technology. The bias that permeates artificial intelligence systems and the undercurrent of exclusion that runs through tech companies must be addressed. These are not isolated events, nor are they confined to Silicon Valley. We can not write off inequity to technical difficulty or allow the developers of artificial intelligence to suppress the likes of Timnit Gebru

New Minds, New Fears, New Hopes

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

The 21st century has been referred to as the century (thus far) of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Pop culture likes to push dystopian visions of an automated future or romanticize the idea of consciousness in androids. Academics like to flourish the discussion of A.I. with philosophical questions that distract from conversations on ethics and application. That leaves the rest of us to speculate or argue about the nature of human thought. Undercurrents of fear flow through these discussions: will I be replaced by a thing coded 1010 instead of ATGC? Can I count on privacy anymore? Is the singularity happening in 2029 or 2049?

As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Between fear and fascination, we can perhaps understand the path down which human-machine augmentation will lead us. A.I. already suffuses much of the technology we use on a daily basis. In this section special, title, Artificial Intelligence will be decoded and explored as it pertains to every aspect of our lives.

Our world is rife with examples of A.I. being used in a misguided, immoral fashion: data-driven policing, actuarial models determining creditworthiness or the grading of ACT/SAT essays. All of these cases and more were deeply explored in Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction.” O’Neil, who holds a doctoral degree in mathematics and worked as a quant for a prominent hedge fund, has been sounding the alarm on A.I. and algorithmic hegemony since 2016. O’Neil advocates for the limiting of A.I. as it becomes increasingly pervasive. She advocates not for an all-or-nothing approach to machine intelligence, but an approach of guarded optimism.

 Leaning towards the balanced caution that O’Neil preaches, but taking it to extremes, is pop culture. Fear and vices rule the narratives that they propagate, but perhaps these are necessary — a warning from the visions of a future O’Neil might see in amoral practices like data-driven policing. The important thing to guard against in these dystopian or post-apocalyptic phantasms is not their narrative, but their realism. In the arts, realism avoids speculative thought that does not match current scientific or factual trends. Ayanna Howard, a roboticist and the first female dean of the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University, frankly stated in 2019 that Artificial Intelligence is far from being able to take over the world. Shows like HBO’s “Westworld” or Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” would have us believe that we are a mere decade from Rehoboam charting a course for the entire human race. The sentiments of fear these films produce are necessary in the discussions on A.I. However, they are not to be interpreted as the most likely path forward in human-machine augmentation.

Contrary to the fear, A.I. has infused many fields of science and even the arts with new hope for what might be possible. In medicine, A.I. is actively cutting out the $2-6 billion price tag of drug development. According to an article published in Nature, most drugs fail between “phase one trials and regulatory approval.” Many pharmaceutical companies have partnered with software companies to develop A.I. that eliminates the time-consuming trial and error processes that identify cancer mechanisms or potential therapies. Instead of changing the independent variable to see how the dependent responds, scientists — with the advent of access to large datasets can “feed” historical or synthetic patient data to an A.I. like IBM’s Watson, and predict what causes things like cancer metabolism to overwrite normal cellular metabolism.

There is a fundamental concept that underpins A.I. This concept gets tossed around a lot, and in the process, nobody really understands it. Algorithms. Many people confuse computer code for algorithms. Algorithms are the logical, abstract processes one goes through when solving a problem. You do it on a daily basis. However, you do not need someone to spell it all out for you on a piece of paper. Before going to Lowry, you do not have to sit down and write down an exact path on a campus map. Computer code, whether that be the most basic binary (1 and 0) or programming languages (Java, Python, etc.) is merely how a computer interprets and executes the abstract process of the algorithm; it is the writing on a piece of paper, code is the visual map of exactly how you would walk to Lowry. We are different from A.I. because we do not have to feed instructions to our brains before doing something — we just do it.

The similarities between the human mind and an artificial mind are striking. We are right to fear what we can not envision. We are not right to allow the fear to override curiosity. Yet, it would be unwise to allow ignorance and blind optimism to justify, in hindsight, a world ruled by weapons of math destruction. Perhaps the deeply human will guide us in a world shared with minds “half as complicated, but twice as elegant” – Blade Runner: 2049.

Impostor syndrome means you are not on your own

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

We know you faked your way here. You know it, too. In fact, you have almost completely dissociated the person that has accomplished all of the wonderful things you have done from your own self. We know you can bust out a sick electro shuffle in your dorm room when your roommate goes to the bathroom, but it is probably more like an electro struggle at that banger of a party you went to (before the pandemic, obviously).

“Impostor syndrome”, a phenomenon coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, describes a feeling felt by almost everyone ever that their accomplishments are not their own; that they faked their way to success. The feeling occurs when we are unable to attribute our successes, and more importantly, our failures, to ourselves. For some, impostor syndrome begins with the fear of failure. For others, it occurs when they encounter a body of knowledge so fascinating and unknowable that they begin to question their life up until that point.

Impostor syndrome is not formally recognized in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) as a mental disorder which is correct. There is nothing wrong with you, whether or not some stupid book says there is. Impostor syndrome is something over 80 percent of Americans struggle with, according to a study by the National Institute of Health (NIH). The study found that it is just as prevalent among men and women as it is among old and young.

They found that by setting a series of outcome variables, such as work satisfaction, burnout and avoidance of promotion, impostor syndrome manifests itself in five ways: expertise, perfection, genius, soloism and heroism. Each one is self-explanatory, and anyone can fall into the trap of any or all of these responses. The NIH study found that these manifestations occur when an individual starts a new job, a new class at college or it could be a lifelong ebb and flow.

College students feel this rather acutely. We simultaneously deal with coming of age, political awakenings and even loss, all in the short time of four years. At orientation, different people who have been there and done that tell us how selective the process of making it to college was. Then, as we assimilate into our new college lives, we start to get our first few bad grades. This causes us to spiral and make career choices that do not match our capabilities. We get caught up in what professional skills we ought to develop instead of being curious. The end product is feeling tired and burnt out.

We all walk the tightrope of arrogance and humility forever; the arrogance displayed by acting like an expert, seeking unattainable perfection, acting like a natural, doing it all by yourself or throwing caution to the wind and playing the role of the hero who has been around the block; the humility displayed by caution, shyness, vulnerability or saying “no, you go first.” That tightrope can be lonely, but you are anything but alone.

We know you deserve to be here. You need to know it, too. Maybe you just need to practice that electro shuffle a bit more before he or she or they notice (winky face). Don’t exhaust yourself over the science of impostor syndrome or the root cause of it all. Tom Hanks has often commented on how fraudulent he feels. If the Tom Hanks can have impostor syndrome, then you are most certainly not alone. Competence is made out to be the end all, be all. Enjoy the process of becoming competent, do not get focused on the final product or the “been there, done that.” Remember that the best part of “Among Us” is being the impostor.

A multidimensional approach to mathematics and gender

Melita Wiles

Science & Environment Editor

 

After starting her career in mathematics, a male-dominated field, and then transitioning to art, a female-dominated field, Eugenia Cheng — mathematician, musician and author — has had much time to consider ideas of gender and success in different professional settings. She has written a book called, “x+y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto to Rethinking Gender,” in which she uses math to explain new ways of exploring gender and success.

Cheng is a category theorist, meaning that she studies mathematical structures. When explaining this area of math herself, she describes it as the “flexibility of thinking” or “the mathematics of mathematics.” Although her work is abstract, she believes that because abstractness is further removed from life, it also becomes more inclusive.

We are more accustomed to thinking in one dimensional space. Cheng wants to challenge us to think in more dimensions. She thinks it would be beneficial to create descriptive characterization words of people’s behaviors and interactions instead of classifying people by gendered terms like feminine, masculine, grandmother or uncle, but rather by intrinsic characteristics. By ignoring the specific individuals and focusing on their behaviors, Cheng proposes two new words: ingressive and congressive. Ingressive is defined as focusing on oneself and being individualistic, independent, competitive and adversarial, while congressive focuses on collaboration and interdependence, accounts for others and emphasizes society and community. Cheng clarifies that she is not advocating for “gender blindness” because it is important that we address all forms of bias and exclusion.

Cheng supports both congressive learning and living. She believes, especially in the U.S., that we favor ingressive learning and working styles, which create toxic environments for success and productivity. In education specifically, she believes that more people would be interested in math if they were taught in a more congressive way. Cheng tested this while teaching math to art students at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. She says by taking a congressive approach, she saw more students realize that math is more than a right or wrong answer; it is about how to think. Teaching in a congressive way creates a more inclusive environment, where students can investigate, discover and uncover relationships. Cheng describes it as “low floor/high ceiling,” where the expectation is low to start, but the reward is very high in the end. Conversely, ingressive learning focuses more on right and wrong, facts and rules and competition. With ingressive learning there is less time to explore and be creative, which is what math is all about to Cheng. Category theory is innately congressive. It focuses on relationships and understanding structures and gives us different ways in which things may be similar or not.

With these terms we can categorize how people behave and their interactions with each other, instead of focusing directly on intrinsic gendered characterizations. Cheng’s philosophy supports the idea of congressive living, in which we can create an inclusive, multidimensional world where all people feel heard, valued and successful.