Category Archives: Science & Environment

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.

S.T.E.M. Success Initiative tells students “You are S.T.E.M.”

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

In 2014, the S.T.E.M. Success Initiative (SSI) was launched to “empower Wooster S.T.E.M. faculty, staff and students in cultivating an inclusive community to better support the academic success S.T.EM. identity development for students from underrepresented groups.” While this is the stated mission of the SSI, it is a far cry from capturing the broad ideas and unique goals of the faculty who lead the initiative. The SSI takes a three-pronged approach to achieving its goal of empowering the Wooster S.T.E.M. community: academic support, professional development and inclusive excellence. Encompassing each of these areas is a robust effort to cultivate external relationships with like-minded groups throughout the College. The SSI, composed of various working groups and an advisory board with a yearly, rotating membership, encourages students to see themselves in S.T.E.M. You can break down barriers.

 In the area of academic support, the SSI operates the S.T.E.M. Zone. The Zone and its student employees, Zone Interns, have developed an exceptional reputation across all departments. Relationships cultivated at the Zone between young students and interns are about more than homework help. Each relationship could be the difference between a student walking away from the Zone with a feeling of belonging or the all too familiar — but extremely false — perception that S.T.E.M. is not for them. 

Kara Melrose, the SSI coordinator, says that the pandemic has made growing these relationships much more difficult. Face-to-face interaction is invaluable to the SSI and the success of the Zone. Melrose elaborated, saying “the informal mentoring environment is hard to create virtually.” However, Melrose, along with Professor Niklas Manz of the physics department, have leaned into this loss. Both Melrose and Manz believe that the pandemic has given them more opportunity to reach out to students virtually. Moving forward, these new virtual capabilities will aid and abet their mission — especially in the area of academic support.

The SSI aims to create an inclusive community. Professor Megan Pollock, chair of the SSI advisory board, stated that “the complexity of issues students face requires diverse groups” to apply their minds and experiences to the evolving fields of S.T.E.M. Over 84 percent of the current S.T.E.M. workforce in the United States is composed of white males, according to the National Science Foundation. Encouraging students from all backgrounds to see themselves in S.T.E.M., breaking down these barriers is intrinsic to the mission of the SSI. 

The advisory board, consisting of staff from CDI, the Learning Center, the SSI coordinator and professors, meets weekly to discuss ways in which they can nurture a more inclusive environment in the classroom. Missy Schen, director of educational assessment and another member of the advisory board, explained that the board reviews best practices each week that make the classroom a more congenial space. These practices include “think-pair-share questions and promoting group work” after careful review of peer-reviewed literature in relevant areas, said Schen. In addition to reviewing best practices, professors attend workshops that help them to make their classrooms open to all people of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities and gender identities.

 S.T.E.M. identity development, directly mentioned in the initiative’s mission, seeks to not only develop a deep sense of “you are S.T.E.M.” in underrepresented groups, but also to instill this sentiment in all students working toward their bachelor’s degree. Manz, when asked how this applies to students who may feel that they are obligated to obtain a doctorate to become a scientist or mathematician, immediately identified how troubling this idea is. “To say that you are not a physicist, geologist, biologist or mathematician because you don’t go to grad school is very problematic,” Manz explained. S.T.E.M. is a mindset. It is not a credential to be waved around. Instead, scientific and mathematical reasoning are a basic approach to life’s most troubling questions about who we are, where we’re going and why the world functions in all of its weird ways. This identity development is part of SSI’s professional development goal, but S.T.E.M. is much more than a job title, a salary or career acumen. SSI, the faculty, staff and your fellow students want you to know that you are S.T.E.M. and always will be.

NASA goes from bunsen to back-burner

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

The privatization of space by large companies like SpaceX and a thriving ecosystem of startups including Relativity Space, Firefly and Made in Space has forced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to reconsider the role it plays in space exploration. Some argue that the privatization of space poses a threat to the hopes of democratizing space. Yet, NASA has been hamstrung by budget cuts since Challenger exploded in 1986 — reminding people how dangerous and perhaps insane it is to strap humans to a rocket that pulls upwards of eight g’s. Now Elon Musk and co. can do it in reverse, landing an orbital class rocket on a dime as it falls through 80 kilometers of sky at Mach 10.

Meanwhile, NASA has spent $18.6 billion on their new Space Launch System (SLS), which they have been working on since 2011. It costs SpaceX just $62 million per launch to toss Falcon 9 into low-earth orbit and land it again as many as 25 times a year. SLS has yet to leave the shore of our little blue dot. 

Then, in 2019, NASA announced that it would allow private citizens to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). These private citizens are not the average Joe. They are wealthy billionaires capable of paying for the $60 million it would cost SpaceX to launch them to the ISS — just as they launched actual NASA astronauts this past November. Prior to contracting out their launch capabilities to SpaceX, NASA had been hitching a ride aboard Roscosmos — Russia’s state-run aerospace company. Opening up space to commercialization as part of the process of democratizing the last frontier is a noble cause. NASA contradicts this sentiment, and in the process has resigned itself to a sort of space authority emeritus.

Instead of leading the space wave, NASA has taken to awarding space contracts and posting YouTube videos about returning to the Moon by 2024. However, the space industry is thriving and we most certainly have NASA to thank for the complex ecosystem of startups that have sprung up around it. Perhaps this is the proper role. Large government organizations simply can not compete with the innovation of agile startups with venture capitalist backing.

This past year, various startups were awarded one billion dollars as part of NASA’s mission to return to the Moon. The agency says that it hopes this new role will allow them to catalyze space in preparation for new markets. In addition to funding the technological and scientific advancements coursing through the veins of young space companies, NASA has agreed to fund some private companies in training their own corporate astronauts. For all of its storied history, the agency has gone to extremes to prevent corporate interest in outer space — especially in the ISS. Last year, Axiom Space agreed to repurpose the ISS when its operational budget runs out in 2022. The space infrastructure company plans on transforming the ISS into a massive space hub — literally a Star Trek-esque spaceport between the Earth and Moon.

NASA’s shift to space catalyst is not a bad thing, but it may represent a dangerous transfer of power in space from a democratic agency to for-profit interests. For now the relationships are very healthy. SpaceX and NASA have worked incredibly well together for many years now; a relation around which hundreds of startups have infused a new space race with nostalgia and innovation. The beloved agency no longer operates at the forefront of space exploration, but it most certainly will continue to surf the space wave as it breaches old stigmas, creates new markets and anchors each endeavor in science.

The big mystery behind climate models: aerosol particles and clouds

Melita Wiles

Science & Environment Editor

 

For what seems like ages, scientists have tried to get a better grasp on climate change and the primary factors causing global warming. We are certain that greenhouse gases are a main contributor, but we still do not fully understand how clouds and aerosols — the tiny particles that create clouds — factor into this picture. Clouds can reflect incoming solar radiation away from the Earth, but also can absorb and hold onto that heat.  

In her talk at The Science Café, Jennifer Faust, a professor of chemistry at Wooster, said, “The biggest uncertainty in modeling global temperature change comes from the interaction of aerosol particles and clouds,” and many scientists would agree with that statement. The complexity of this issue stems from the very beginning: the formation of a cloud. Aerosol particles create clouds with many small droplets, fewer larger droplets or ice particles. Each cloud reflects light differently. Usually the smaller the droplet, the more reflective the cloud. It is still unclear what reflective properties clouds formed from ice particles have. Faust says the science becomes even more complex when considering the chemical composition of the aerosol particles, which will also cause the cloud to reflect differently depending on the type of aerosol. Some aerosols work as reflectors to incoming sunlight, and some absorb it.  

Anthropogenic aerosols can seed cloud formation in the same ways that biogenic aerosols (natural particles) do. The chemical composition of these aerosols dictate what they become — a cloud or something else. If the particle contains hydrophilic particles, then they are more likely to take in water vapor from the area and create clouds. As stated before, ice clouds are more complex to understand and scientists do not yet fully know what properties are attributed to them. Their behaviors, when it comes to reflectiveness and contribution to warming, are commonly made from bacteria and pollen. These tiny particles can be concerning when it comes to climate change, but aerosols can also contribute negatively to the air quality and can harm human respiratory systems. 

Because of these complexities, cloud models are the biggest uncertainty when it comes to larger climate models. As climate models become increasingly more accurate with our newer understanding of clouds, it is not impossible to think that clouds could become thinner or completely burn off in a warmer world. This could add, at a minimum, a degree Celsius to global warming.   

A new technology has come into play to possibly combat this issue, but it also brings concerns of its own. Cloud seeding is a form of weather modification that alters the amount of precipitation that falls from clouds. This is done by shooting substances like silver iodide or dry ice into the clouds to create more precipitation. This modification has many benefits and drawbacks — it can create rain if needed and could help with climate regulation, but it requires the use of harmful chemicals and is expensive. There are also concerns with how this technique could cause potential issues in the future. This technique is man-made and could negatively impact natural processes. 

Our future depends on understanding how our climate changes. The big mystery is cloud formation and the composition of clouds. As Faust said, this task is not simple, but vital to human life and success. Accurately predicting future temperature changes affects science, but also migration, international relations and social justice issues.  

The Science Café holds monthly lectures on Zoom that are open to the Wooster community. The next talk, “Do you have hydroponic produce on your plate?” will be held on March 24.