Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting September 27th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, Scientific American writer J. R. Minkel joins us to talk about six big current debates in science. We will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news too. First up, we will hear from Maria Zuber. She is the head of the department of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences over at M.I.T. and she was also a member of the committee that last week released a major new report on women in science under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, National Institutes of Health and other institutions. On Friday, I visited her at M.I.T. where we talked about the report and also about her research on planetary mapping.
Steve: Professor Zuber thanks for talking to us today.
Zuber: It's good to be here.
Steve: Tell me about this report. How did the report actually come into being?
Zuber: Okay. This report is actually a follow-on from another national academy report. It's called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm", and this was a report that came out last year and it addressed the challenges to America maintaining its preeminence in competitiveness. So, obviously one of the factors that came out of that was utilizing the talent pool; and so, as a consequence of that this study was commissioned.
Steve: Can you just briefly give us the bottom line? What were the findings of this report?
Zuber: I think we can divide the findings into two separate things, okay? First of all, we took on the challenge
on to study the literature about the differences between men and women and we studied the biological cognitive and brain function differences between men and women and showed that while there certainly are difference[s] between men and women, there are no differences that would cause women not to be able to excel in math, science and engineering. That conclusion was not a surprise to many of us, but we now have all the literature on the matter documented in the report and its there for everyone to go and to see. The other conclusion that we found—and this one was a surprise—is that the lack of women in academic positions is not primarily a pipeline problem. Many of us expected that the answer to this was going to be that there just wasn't a big enough pool of qualified applicants, but it turns out that that's not the case. We all wish that there were more women with advanced degrees, but the numbers are increasing. In many cases, they're reaching parity, still not in the physical sciences, but certainly in the biological sciences and chemical sciences, the numbers are increasing greatly; and there's certainly a large enough pool so that there should be considerably more women at higher levels and academia than what we see right now.
Steve: Yeah, I was surprised to see that since 2000 more than half of the bachelors degrees in science and engineering have gone to women.
Zuber: That's right. And given the rapidity of the change and how quickly the numbers have increased, you certainly can't describe that evolution.
Steve: Right. So, if it's not a pipeline problem, what is the problem?
Zuber: If you go in and you dissect what's really going on here, you have two matters that you have to contend with. The first of those is that women have to be hired into these positions; and then when they are hired you have to keep them, okay? And those turn out to be two separate issues; and the first issue, the hiring issue, we found that there seems to be a tendency in academia, like other parts of life, that when you are trying to recognize something that's excellent, it's easier to recognize excellence when it's something close to what you know. You know, when you are trying to envision somebody who would fit within a department who is doing excellent work, it's more easy for people for faculty members to envision people like their students or postdocs, who undoubtedly are excellent; but it's not a fair representation of what the whole pool is. So, a part of it is just getting people to look more broadly at what defines excellence. And then the matter for retention, it turns out that perhaps the biggest impediment to succeeding within academics is not having a wife at home, okay, and you know, many years ago men had the academic positions, their wives were at home taking care of the house while they were working on their careers. And not having the support structure at home is [a] real challenge to people who are trying to build their careers, especially in the childbearing years; and so here we are talking about, you know, childcare chores at home, the time that goes into that—and this certainly affects women. But one of the interesting outcomes of this is that it affects most male junior faculty members these days as well because most of the couples are dual-career couples. So, actually one of the outcomes of this report is that if we can make the situation better for women in terms of retaining them in academic positions once they get them, where these steps are also going to help with men as well, and it would be great if we could help everybody. And actually one of the findings or one of the recommendations of the current report is that if we really want to get better in terms of our representation of women on college faculties, then we ought to collect the data on this and have universities, you know, willfully publish it so that we can put it out there and see which institutions are taking measures to make things better. And then, well, people will walk with their feet; then, you know, women want to go places that they are comfortable and if institutions are taking steps to just level the playing field—we are not asking for special circumstances for women, we are just asking for the playing field to be level—and if the playing field is level and if women feel like they are going to be treated fairly in all respects, I think you will see them gravitating to those institutions that are really being proactive about this matter.
Steve: How do we ensure that the report's recommendations actually get implemented?
Zuber: I guess one of the general conclusions here is that if you look at what the challenges and what the impediments are, that you can't point to any one place in the system as being broken, okay? That if we are really going to make progress in this area, it's going to take changes at many levels starting at the levels of departments up through university administrations; but then also journals, societies, you know, even congress getting involved in this. So, we are talking to all of these people. We have talked to a group of academic societies and we have asked them to get together; and we have developed a scorecard for progress, defining progress in hiring and retaining women, and we have asked them to get together and talk about it, modify it if necessary, but to be a clearing house for the collection of that information. And we frankly feel that peer pressure is best; that if this group of societies was willing to collect this information and if universities decided to participate in this, then this would help this move forward.
Steve: Let's talk about your research for a moment; let's talk about what you actually do as a scientist. I know that you are a planetary mapper. What's going on in your research right now?
Zuber: Well, it's an exciting time for me. There's a spacecraft called the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and that has just gotten into orbit around Mars last year and it's now achieved its mapping orbit. So, within the next month it will begin its primary two-year mapping mission of Mars; and I am responsible for the radio science experiment on that spacecraft. This spacecraft has a big antenna, which means that very good signal for studying radio things, but also high data rates that that's going to transfer. So, we will be doing high-resolution gravity maps of Mars to look at the internal structure, but also we will be using this information to look at the structure of the atmosphere and the seasonal cycle of carbon dioxide exchange between the polar caps and the atmosphere.
Steve: What other planets have you looked at?
Zuber: Well, let's see. We have an experiment that is en route to Mercury called the Messenger mission, which will be arriving at Messenger in year 2011 and actually the spacecraft just did a flyby of Venus last week, where we actually collected some data looking at the reflectance of the Venus atmosphere. So, it's good to be able to do some additional science while the spacecraft is in its cruise phase. I also have two experiments on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which will be launched in 2008, where there we will map the topography of the moon in greater detail than we did the topography of Mars; and hopefully make the definitive map of the moon there or at least the definitive map for the next couple of decades. And that mission is being designed and the equipment is being built now, and, in fact, yesterday I was just at a review. The other experiment we have on that spacecraft is a little device where we are going to arrange sending a laser from Earth up to range to the spacecraft in order so that we can get the position of the spacecraft very exactly. It will help us improve the gravity field of the moon so that we can target images very precisely and allow us to do precision navigation and landing.
Steve: I read somewhere that because of your work our knowledge of the topography of Mars is actually superior to what we know about the topography of the Earth. Is that right?
Zuber: On a global basis, there are certainly parts of the Earth—such as the United States and Europe—where the topography is known much better than it is for Mars; but there are other areas on the earth where we don't know the topography nearly so well. So, on a global basis, yes the topography of Mars is known better than the Earth and soon, we will know the moon better than Mars.
Steve: So, are there plans to use the same kind of techniques on the Earth? Can we launch this stuff up and actually look down on the Earth and get that level of topographic information?
Zuber: There are plans underway to do that now and, you know, I get the question all the time: How come you can do this for Mars and not for Earth? And there are two answers to that. One of them is because they let us, okay—
and on Earth, when you get to very high-resolution topography, you run into national security issues, okay? But the other answer is—this might seem like a conundrum—but in some ways it's easier to do it for another planet. Earth has an ocean , so and there are difference techniques that are optimum when you are trying to measure topography on land versus the ocean. And the other matter is that Earth has a very thick atmosphere, which causes difficulties; and trying to do very precise measurements for more, but —you can't get down real low because the spacecraft don't last very long. So, there are practical challenges as well, but of course those are offset by the practical challenges of actually sending a spacecraft to another planet.
Steve: Professor Zuber thanks very much. Good luck upon your other planets and best of luck here on Earth, too.
Zuber: Thank you very much.
Steve: The report "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering" is available at the Web site of the National Academy's press, www.nap.edu; or go to www.tinyurl.com/qa6bz
Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Allergic to cats? You can now buy mutant hypoallergenic cats.
Story number 2: Service with a smile. Businesses benefit from consumer satisfaction whether a salesclerk['s] smile is sincere or phony.
Story number 3: Phishing attempts—where somebody e-mails you and tries to get you to give up personal financial information—almost doubled in the first six months of 2006 versus the six months before that.
Story number 4: Air travelers don't mind security delays unless one airport's delays are way worse than others.
We'll be back with the answer. But first, J. R. Minkel is a longtime contributor to Scientific American. He recently joined the staff as reporter and he has a new feature out on our Web site called That's Debatable: Six Debates at the Frontier of Science. We talked in my office at Scientific American.
Steve: Hey J. R. How are you?
JR: Pretty good Steve.
Steve: Thanks for coming in. You have got this piece up on the Scientific American Web site, The Six Debates at the Frontier of Science. So, give me the quick tour. What are the six debates?
JR: Well, there is
a string theory. This is a big proposal to mesh quantum physics and gravity and whether that's going anywhere or not. There is whether global warming is causing hurricanes to be stronger. The hobbit, this little skeleton found in Indonesia—whether that's a new species or just a certain inbred pygmy. There is how to study the relationship of diet to chronic disease. There have been a lot of sort of dismal reports about whether a low-fat or high-vegetable or high-fiber diet does anything good for you. How do gas giant planets form and whether growing new brain cells is something that is part of the process that keeps people from being depressed.
Steve: Why are these six the debates in science that you settled on as the big six?
JR: You know, scientists are always debating different things, but I thought lot of these have been in the news lately and some of them touch on really [much] bigger, important things. Like the string theory thing goes to the heart of, you know, fundamental theoretical physics—the project that Einstein was working on and whether that's going anywhere; whether we might solve that anytime in our lifetimes.
Steve: A unification of all the other aspects of physics into one big theory.
JR: Yeah, that's right. And you know the hurricane thing, I think after Katrina, everyone is very concerned about that and there has been an up[turn]
throw of some interest ing in global warming, and you know hurricanes are part of that, maybe. I mean, Others were things in the news that I have found interesting, but I hadn't really seen pull together in that way.
Steve: When you were doing the research on these six rather
dispread[disparate] subjects, what if anything struck you as a commonality among them, and what surprised you—if anything—while you were doing your research.
JR: I think they all show how, you know, how sort of tortured the relationship is between the data and, I guess, the theory or what scientists make of that data. And there is sort of this
on a romantic notion that, you know, a scientist just kind of looks at the data all spread out before him or her and the conclusion is, you know, somehow obvious. Well, you know, a lot of times the data is really hard to get and, you know, even when it's more plentiful, people just disagree about what [it's conveying] 's convincing.
Steve: How would you categorize the level of emotion in these various debates? Is it getting nasty in some of these fields?
JR: It's sort of surprisingly nasty in string theory. Some people on the non-string theory side complain of being, you know, unfairly attacked by various members of that community.
Steve: [The piece is called] "That's Debatable", and it's about the six big debates in science going on right now, by J. R. Minkel. J. R., thanks very much.
JR: Thank you Steve.
Steve: J. R.'s article is available free in our Web site's new section; that's www.sciam.com/news.
Now, it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the stories.
Story number 1: Hypoallergenic cats are now on sale.
Story number 2: Smiles from salesclerks don't have to be real to satisfy consumers.
Story number 3: E-mail phishing expedition has almost doubled in 2006.
Story number 4: Security delays don't rankle unless there are longer waits at some airports than others.
Story number 1 is true. Hypoallergenic cats are finally on sale. Most cats carry a gene for glycoprotein called Fel D1 that makes some people miserable, but 1 in 50,000 cats naturally lacks the gene. Well, a company searched for such cats, bred them, and produced a line of Fel D1-free kitties, price tag about $4,000. Did you land on your feet?
Story number 4 is true. People are okay with security delays at airports, but start getting testy if one particular airport’s delays are way worse than another or if delays at one time of day are much longer than at another time at the same airport. The study appeared in the Journal of Air Transportation Management.
Story number 3 is true. E-mail phishing attempts were up 81 percent in the first six months of 2006 compared with the previous six months. Over 157,000 phishing e-mails were sent, but those e-mails go to multiple recipients, so millions were actually targeted. For more info, check out the article "Criminals Flock to the Internet" at www.sciam.com/news.
All of which means that story number 2—about consumers being happy with real or fake salesclerks’ smiles—is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS, because research reported in the Journal of Marketing found that consumers really can tell if a salesclerk is genuinely happy to serve them or is putting on a show; and businesses don't benefit from customer satisfaction in return traffic unless the smile is real. Yes, have a nice day.
Well that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And also remember that science news is updated daily on the Scientific American Web site, www.sciam.com, and check out the new daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science, at our Web site and over at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.