Infinite in All Directions: Feminine Genius, Saturn on Steroids, Cybersec in Space

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Hedy Lamarr. Credit: slightlyterrific/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Hedy Lamarr. Credit: slightlyterrific/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Belated wishes for Hamilton Day.

The gender of exceptionalism

In the post-Twitter era – where the Twitter era was given to brevity but not concision, to the momentary but not the minutiae – it’s become something of a fact to recognise that science does not always happen in sudden bursts. In fact, it happens exceedingly more so as a slow process whose progression runs against the grain of the media, most establishments of which are wont to sensationalise smaller findings, and against the grain of academic evaluation, most institutions of which prioritise the significance of disparate results over the harder-to-measure quality of work done over a long time.

A parallel thought that has begun to emerge in the better science writing around the web is to recognise a similar process at work in technology. W. Patrick McCray, one of my favourite writers on this subject, had a beautiful essay on Aeon on October 12, where he wrote about the various aspects in the history of technology that have made it what it is perceived to be today. To paraphrase him, technology is now more than anything else a layered stack put together by activities like maintenance, repair and recycling – and that to focus on disruptive innovation alone as being technology’s potential is misleading.

In McCray’s essay, the word ‘nurture’ appears just once, toward the beginning, which immediately prompted me to think of a New York Times piece (written by JoAnna Klein, whom I attended NYU with) about the gendering of the word ‘nurture’. Klein writes that the effect of the metaphors used to describe genius is different depending upon the metaphors themselves – which is obvious. Then, she takes it a step further to discuss research that has shown that using the term “light bulb” to invoke a sense of exceptionalism, which McCray repeatedly decries in his essay, works better when the scientist at hand is a man, and that the term “nurture” works better when the scientist at hand is a woman. An excerpt:

Ann Fink, a neuroscientist and feminist biology fellow at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, says their study supports emerging evidence that harassment, discrimination and unconscious bias discourage women from breaking into male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The study, she said, shows that implicit associations affect how people judge someone’s competence in the sciences — in this case, genius.

“A really common gender stereotype is that men are brilliant,” said Dr. Fink, while “women are nurturing.” And when they don’t conform to those roles, they both suffer.

Anyone who has worked in science knows that big ideas take enormous effort. But a myth persists that ability comes from something innate, and that truly genius ideas arrive in eureka moments. This study suggests that it benefits a man to downplay how much work went into his ideas. And it benefits a woman to prove how much work went into hers.

This gendering of genius is not surprising but is surely curious. Our ideas of male and female industry over the years have seeped into our language, and when we repeat that language, we reinforce a form of discrimination that we should be working harder to leave behind. We must now note that the language used to discuss genius has also been scarred, and should be rectified by being mindful of how we describe women and men at work.

Further, there’s also something to be said about how we think about the history of technology. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, with their overarching desire to keep disrupting anything that moves, have given us the impression that this is what technology is about – a point McCray makes in his essay. It doesn’t help either that the Valley is also mostly white men, overstating the agency of the Great White Innovator. With Klein’s article in mind, it becomes clear that our sense of technology has been dominated by scenes of white men having at it, jumping in leaps and bounds and casting longer shadows that obscure the agencies of those quietly maintaining, repairing, recycling.

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An epidemic of loneliness

In the epic fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen, there is a species of bipedal creatures called the Jaghut. They are taller than humans, more fiercely built and are immortal. What magnifies their power even more so is that they’re more adept at wielding their brand of magic than are most other creatures. As a result, the Jaghut are easily able to turn tyrannical, quickly subjugating other civilisations, conquering lands and generally subjecting their flavour and bend of justice upon other species. But on the other hand, they are also wiser, more introspective, with the effect that over many millennia, all the Jaghut come to the conclusion that their own civilisation must be disbanded if only the other species of the world, and their civilisations, can flourish. So on one fine day, they abandon their kingdom and go their own separate ways, leading lonesome, monastic lives for the rest of eternity.

Now, a match cut: In a powerful and lucid essay in The Guardian, the British writer George Monbiot explores what neoliberalism has done to the human mind. Specifically, how the socioeconomic choices we’ve been making in the last few decades have created loneliness. This may not be a deliberately manufactured brand of loneliness like that of the Jaghut, but the effect of being alone – and its confluence with our idea of success – reaches far beyond its provenance itself. Sample this from the full:

What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world. The latest, catastrophic figures for children’s mental health in England reflect a global crisis.

There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

In Britain, men who have spent their entire lives in quadrangles – at school, at college, at the bar, in parliament – instruct us to stand on our own two feet. The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.

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Sustaining a super-Saturn

Between 2007 and 2012, astronomers from the Leiden Observatory and the University of Rochester, New York, studied a brown dwarf named J1407b. Brown dwarfs are objects that are too heavy to be planets but too light to be stars. This one was orbiting a star designated J1407 about 420 lightyears from Earth. At the time of its discovery, the astronomers noted that something – or some things – was repeatedly transiting in front of the object. One explanation that fitted the data was a ring system just like the one around Saturn, with one difference: this one had to be 200-times larger. Discounting its feebler rings, Saturn’s are about 300,000 km wide. J1407b’s rings to compare seemed to be 120 million km wide – waaay larger than Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. However, more information was needed before the astronomers could conclude they were in fact rings because J1407b’s orbit around its star often took it very close to the star, which could disturb the ring formations.

The same astronomers reported last week in a new paper that the rings could in fact be rings if they satisfied one condition: they had to move in the direction opposite to the brown dwarf’s rotation. If this was satisfied, the astronomers figured that the system could persist for at least 100,000 years. This feature is called a retrograde orbit – famously found in the Solar System between Neptune and the orbit of its giant moon Triton – and is beneficial to a system of bodies because it has to do with the system’s stability. Say we have a planet orbiting a star. The sphere of space around the planet in which its gravitational attraction dominates the motion of bodies is called the Hill sphere; the radius of this sphere is called the Hill radius. A moon orbiting the planet within the planet’s Hill sphere will have a stable orbit if two conditions are met:

  1. The moon is in a prograde orbit (i.e. orbiting the planet in the direction of the planet’s rotation – the opposite of a retrograde orbit)
  2. The moon is within one-third of the Hill radius

However, if the moon is farther out from the planet – beyond one-third the Hill radius but within the Hill sphere itself – it can still orbit the planet if it is in a retrograde orbit. The astronomers studying J1407b are banking on this fact of nature, and what a wonderful fact it is, for the brown dwarf to hang on to its ring system.

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On The Wire


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How Researchers Found That Tourists Accidentally Carried a Superbug from India to Paris

“The most difficult, thankless and uninteresting part of any research, particularly in a field like microbiology, is collecting the samples. Generally, this exercise is expensive, often tedious and at times amenable to justifiable criticism at the end of the study. Recently, researchers from University Hospital Münster and the Robert Koch Institute, both in Germany, used an ingenious method to collect samples for their project. They successfully persuaded 39 tourists (known to them) to collect swab samples from 400 bathroom door handles from 136 airports in 59 countries. And they discovered that a drug-resistant strain of bacteria from India has reached Paris.” (9 min read)

Why ‘Asgardia’ Is More Likely to Be a Pie in the Sky Than a Nation in Space

“I have become citizen number 62 of Asgardia, a new space nation dedicated to expanding peaceful exploration of space for the benefit of humanity. It is led by Igor Ashurbeyli, chairman of UNESCO’s Science of Space Committee and founder of the Aerospace International Research Centre in Vienna. At first glance, it’s an amazing concept and surely one that every space scientist should welcome. According to its website, Asgardia will offer an “independent platform free from the constraint of a land-based country’s laws. It will become a place in orbit which is truly ‘no man’s land’”.” (6 min read)

Why Open Access Has To Look Up For Academic Publishing To Look Up

“In one noteworthy development, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a complaint against the OMICS group for deceiving authors and misrepresenting its editorial quality. The OMICS group has its roots in Hyderabad and runs a multitude of open access journals. It carried a notorious reputation for soliciting articles profusely, and then holding the articles hostage unless the authors paid hefty fees for their publication. It apparently charged the fees for conducting peer-review, which as this harrowing account of an author reveals, was an utter sham. It also seems that the group targeted unsuspecting scholars from developing countries, where there was a higher concentration of early-career researchers eager to get their works published.” (8 min read)

How Arab Medicine Found a New Home in Medieval India

“Both al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī and Yūnānī Ṭibb had a large following in the Islamic world, and still do to this day. India is a perfect example of the staying power of these kinds of medicine. When Yūnānī arrived in South Asia, scholars and intellectuals fleeing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought with them medical knowledge based on Arabic sources, beginning a medical tradition which would adapt and thrive from the period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1516) into the modern day. Knowledge of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī also accompanied these scholars to India. Today, Yūnānī colleges are supported by the Indian government, and medical practice in the region is a mixture of the traditions that flourished there, including Yūnānī, Ayurveda, al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, and allopathy (often called Western medicine).” (8 min read)

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An arbitrary line in the sand

Sometimes, there comes along an article that I can only highly recommend you read, for anything I might have to say about it, the article itself says better. And I believe in not trying too damned hard. So here: David Colquhoun on how “we got probability wrong” and mucked up academic psychology.

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Cybersecurity in space

On May 19, 1998, the Galaxy IV satellite shut down unexpectedly in its geostationary orbit. Immediately, most of the pagers in the US stopped working even as the Reuters, CBS and NPR news channels struggled to stay online. The satellite was declared dead a day later but it was many days before the disrupted services could be restored. The problem was found to be an electrical short-circuit onboard.

The effects of a single satellite going offline are such. What if they could be shutdown en masse? The much-discussed consequences would be terrible, which is why satellite manufacturers and operators are constantly devising new safeguards against potential threats.

However, the pace of technological advancements, together with the proliferation of the autonomous channels through which satellites operate, has ensured that operators are constantly but only playing catch-up. There’s no broader vision guiding how affected parties could respond to rapidly evolving threats, especially in a way that constantly protects the interests of stakeholders across borders.

With the advent of low-cost launch options, including from agencies like ISRO, since the 1990s, the use of satellites to prop up critical national infrastructure – including becoming part of the infrastructure themselves – stopped being the exclusive demesne of developed nations. But at the same time, the drop in costs signalled that the future of satellite operations might rest with commercial operators, leaving them to deal with technological capabilities that until then were being handled solely by the defence industry and its attendant legislative controls.

Today, satellites are used for four broad purposes: Earth-observation, meteorology and weather-forecasting; navigation and synchronisation; scientific research and education; and telecommunication. They’ve all contributed to a burgeoning of opportunities on the ground. But in terms of their own security, they’ve become a bloated balloon waiting for the slightest prick to deflate. How did this happen?

Earlier in September, three Chinese engineers were able to hack into two Tesla electric-cars from 19 km away. They were able to move the seats and mirrors and, worse, control the brakes. Fortunately, it was a controlled hack conducted with Tesla’s cooperation and after which the engineers reported the vulnerabilities they’d found to Tesla.

The white-hat attack demonstrated a paradigm: that physical access to an internet-enabled object was no longer necessary to mess with it. Its corollary was that physical separation between an attacker and the target no longer guaranteed safety. In this sense, satellites occupy the pinnacle of our thinking about the inadequacy of physical separation; we tend to leave them out of discussions on safety because satellites are so far away.

It’s in recognition of this paradigm that we need to formulate a multilateral response that ensures minimal service disruption and the protection of stakeholder interests at all times in the event of an attack, according to a new report published by Chatham House. It suggests:

Development of a flexible, multilateral space and cybersecurity regime is urgently required. International cooperation will be crucial, but highly regulated action led by government or similar institutions is likely to be too slow to enable an effective response to space-based cyberthreats. Instead, a lightly regulated approach developing industry-led standards, particularly on collaboration, risk assessment, knowledge exchange and innovation, will better promote agility and effective threat responses.

Then again, how much cybersecurity do satellites need really? Because when we speak about cyber anything, our thoughts hardly venture out to include our space-borne assets. When we speak about cyber-warfare, we imagine some hackers at their laptops targeting servers on some other part of the world – but a part of the world, surely, and not a place floating above it. However, given how satellites are becoming space-borne proxies for state authority, they do need to be treated as significant space-borne liabilities as well. There’s even precedence: In November 2014, an NOAA satellite was hacked by Chinese actors with minor consequences. But in the process, the attack revealed major vulnerabilities that the NOAA rushed to patch.

So the better question would be: What kinds of protection do satellites need against cyber-threats? To begin with, hackers have been able to jam communications and replace legitimate signals with false ones (called spoofing). They’ve also been able to invade satellites’ SCADA systems, introduce viruses to trip up software and, pull DOS attacks. The introduction of micro- and nanosatellites has also provided hackers with an easier conduit into larger networks.

Another kind of protection that could be useful is from the unavoidable tardiness with which governments and international coalitions react to cyber-warfare, often due to over-regulation. The report states, “Too centralised an approach would give the illicit actors, who are generally unencumbered by process or legislative frameworks, an unassailable advantage simply because their response and decision-making time is more flexible and faster than that of their legitimate opponents.”

Do read the full report for an interesting discussion of the role cybersecurity plays in the satellite services sector. It’s worth your time.

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Other bits of interestingness

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has a problem with its engine

Evaluating citizen scientists’ ability to detect unusual features in ATLAS images of LHC collisions

Chicxulub ‘dinosaur crater’ investigation begins in earnest

Historic Yerkes Observatory still giving public a glimpse at our galaxy

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