How did humanity exist before air conditioning?

While the temperature doesn’t seem to be rising much in Hamilton, Canada (it’s actually very pleasant lately), I still remember what it’s like to have all of my water weight on the outside of my body. Luckily for me, I will have access to an air conditioner this year.

But how did humanity survive so many summers before inventing air conditioning?

Modern temperature control is mostly reactive, and based on overpowering nature. For example, when you get into your car after it’s been parked in the sun, the first thing you do is crank the AC. If you are clever, you may try to push the hot air out of the vehicle by opening the windows before engaging the air conditioning. Whether you are clever about it or not, battling with nature is not an energy efficient way of beating the heat.

By looking at the architecture of older and even ancient buildings, you see an incredible diversity compared to modern designs. Yet, despite the aesthetic differences of different cultures, some techniques seem to be invented over and over again. These techniques are often solutions to problems created by the local climate, and are of course energy-free. This type of architecture –  that eschews traditional aesthetics to better fit the climate – is known as vernacular architecture, and is fascinating. By studying these structures, one can identify a few fundamental strategies employed in many of the worlds warmer locations that could inspire smart, energy saving design


The basics: Objects are heated as the absorb energy. Energy is transmitted from the Sun to Earth via light. Putting something between you and the Sun will reduce the energy that’s transmitted to you. Therefore, you should put something between the inside of your home and the sun.

The next level of shading is understanding where the energy goes, if not into your home.

Conventional wisdom tells us your black t-shirt is going to be hotter in the sun than your white one because black absorbs more energy. So what you really want is something that doesn’t absorb light to shade your home. Failing that, you can try to keep the blinds far away from the inside of your home as you can, so the heat absorbed by the blinds doesn’t get transmitted to your home.

This was well understood in the Southern United States, whose architecture is well known for featuring giant porches. The porches serve the dual purpose of providing a pseudo room with excellent airflow, while shielding the house’s facade from direct sunlight.

Obviously the home of some Southern high roller. Look at those porches!

But this technique was not reserved for the wealthy. Even small homes could benefit, by pointing your front door East and building out a long awning.

Obviously not the home of some Southern high roller. But they are making due!

(Worth noting, a deep cave provides excellent shading)


Ventilation serves several purposes. The most obvious is to shuttle hot air out of your house and replace it with cooler air from outside. Another reason is to aid in evaporative cooling, and both of these reasons are linked.

Initially, the walls and roof of your house insulate you from the heat of the day. However, as the day wears on, your walls absorb more and more energy. Eventually the walls and roof become hotter than the air outside (feel a tin roof at noon). This energy radiates inwards, heating the inside of your home and everything in it. Since the walls and roof are hotter than the outside air, if the air inside is unable to escape, and given enough time, the temperature in your home will surpass the temperature outside. What makes matters worse, each wall is radiating heat. This means more energy will eventually be transferred to the air inside your home.

By analogy, the temperature of a lake will be lower than the temperature of a kiddie pool next to the lake. While the lake will absorb energy from above, the kiddie pool will also absorb energy from the plastic walls in addition to the energy from direct sunlight. Additionally, as the molecules of water at the top surface of the lake take on energy, they will pass some off to adjacent molecules, of which there are many. A kidding pool does not have the ability to exchange its water or distribute its absorbed energy very well. The stagnant water – or air – will therefore reach a much higher temperature.

Image result for gross kiddie pool

If only we could get a bit more water circulation in here…

As well as distributing energy more evenly, ventilation aids in evaporative cooling. As you and your appliances (like your shower, faucets, etc) sweat, moisture is taken up by the air in your home, increasing the air’s humidity. Increasing the humidity does two things. First, there is a limit to the amount of moisture air can hold based on air pressure and temperature. This means if the air in your home is humid, it will not be able to wick away as much moisture from your body, slowing your body’s best method of cooling. Not only does humidity negatively affect your body’s own cooling mechanism, it also makes it harder for the temperature of the air to be reduced.

Based on the composition of an object, different amounts of energy will be required to raise the temperature any given object. This characteristic is known as a materials thermal capacity. For example, water has a high thermal capacity, making it particularly hard to heat. This is why going to the beach is such a good idea in the summer – the lake will stay cool regardless of season. However, this argument works in reverse too. To cool a mass of water at a specific temperature is difficult. Water is said to have a large “thermal mass”, drawing the analogy between heating and cooling to pushing a weight.

Ventilation is very important to the Malay, an ethnic group occupying locations that are today a part of the modern nations of MalaysiaIndonesiaBruneiSingapore, and southern Thailand.

When hot air is also very humid, it is carrying a lot of energy. Since a significant fraction of the air is made up of water, reducing the temperature of the air will be much harder than if the air was dry. (Now think about why air conditioners spit out water.) So you have two options. You can either attempt to cool this air and all the evaporated water it is carrying (which will be very energy intensive), or with appropriate ventilation, replace the moist air with dry air before cooling it.

It is not surprising, then, to see that warm climate architecture all over the world emphasize the importance of airflow. Large breezy windows, open-concept porches and sleeping rooms, as well as artificial wind-tunnels are all strategies that can be found all over the world. Beautiful examples of artificial wind tunnels, or alleys that collect and funnel air through one channel, can once again be found in the American South.

Oak Alley plantation, LA. This alley of trees funnels air towards the front of the house, where one will likely find a large porch.

Both the “Dogtrot” and “Shotgun” home utilize a unique wind tunnel design to optimize airflow as well. The former having a constant, open channel cutting through the home, and the latter lining up all of its rooms, forcing the breeze to pass through the entire house.


A breeze can be channeled horizontally like in the designs above, or it can be directed upward. Since hot air rises, ceiling ventilation like a good cupola make for an airflow that pulls cool air up and shuttles hot air out.

Large windows in the protruding “cupola” concentrate and release hot air. This creates a negative pressure in the house, sucking air from outside, in.

(Worth noting, a large cave will have plenty of air, like a lake does water, to distribute heat evenly. Not that it would ever really get hot in there.)

Heat Sinks

As we learned above, some materials are considered to have a large “thermal mass”, which means it requires a lot of energy to raise and lower its temperature. This effect keeps lakes cool, humid air hot, and explains why summer homes are often situated near a body of water. Air passing over the water is cooled, and is mercifully delivered to your property.

Or even “cooler”, you can just live on the water.

This effect can also help determine what materials to construct your house from. Heavy plaster walls, for example, will absorb lots of energy, radiating very little into your home. However, it holds on to this energy, so “night flushing” is required to keep your home cool day-to-day. This process involves keeping your house shut during the day, then opening it up at night to try and pull as much energy out of the walls as possible. This sort of architecture is common in places with large diurnal temperature swings.

Iconic Greek architecture using thick, heavy walls. Very cave-like. I’m into it.

Alternatively, one can take this principle to the extreme and build walls so thick that they won’t absorb enough heat over an entire season, let alone one day, to heat your home.

A very old structure from Mesopotamia. The conical shape also minimizes the surface area to volume ratio, meaning less energy is absorbed or released on the surface compared to the amount of space on the inside.

These structures have the dual purpose of also keeping your home warm in the winter, and are common in places with large seasonal temperature differences. (Worth noting, this can be accomplished by living in a cave or underground)

A seaweed roof in Denmark. Not typically known for their brutal summers, a thick roof will also insulate the home in the winter (heat will try to escape from the roof).

Modern Cooling

With the advent of air conditioning, a lot of these techniques are disappearing. In a world unconvinced of climate change, where energy and fossil fuels are so inexpensive, why let nature dictate your architecture? However, these designs could be one part of a low energy temperature control strategy in modern buildings. Coupling these smart designs with energy efficient appliances and air conditioning could represent the next step in human comfort.

Or we could all move into caves. That would work too. I vote caves.

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Science for everyone – Pint of Science comes to Hamilton

Science took over the world last week.


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Pint of Science, a global science-for-everyone festival that spans three days in May, made its debut in Hamilton last week. The festival is run predominantly by volunteers and aims to bring science to the people through engaging, digestible public lectures – often in a bar or pub.

If this sounds familiar, it is very much like the Science on Tap event I wrote about earlier this year. While Pint of Science made its debut this year in Hamilton, it is actually a long standing event originating in just three UK cities in 2013. Pint of Science has since spread to over 300 cities across 21 countries.

For its first year in Hamilton, we were treated to three days of two simultaneous lectures at two local bars – The Phoenix on McMaster campus and West Town bar. Topics focused on astronomy, light, and neuroscience and featured researchers from McMaster and their graduate students.

Screenshot 2018-05-20 at 10.18.58 AM

Lots of fun to be had in Hamilton last week.

All of these lectures looked good, so I decided where to go based on beer list.


Welcome to The Phoenix. They claim they have the largest beer selection and patio in Hamilton.

The first day I got to see Dr. Alan Chen and his graduate student (and my roommate) Johnson Liang talk about where all the big elements come from. In short, during their average life cycle, stars will produce elements as large as Iron via nuclear fusion. To make anything larger requires a star to go through a rare life event like going supernova, which partially explains the high abundance of smaller elements in the universe, and the scarcity of heavy metals.


The following evening featured Dr. Laurel Trainor and her graduate student Andrew Chang of the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University. Their research focuses on musical and rhythmic development in infants and children, and how the study of music on the human brain can help us understand our own interpersonal communication.

Some of their research is done in McMaster’s LIVElab, one of the coolest “venues” I’ve ever heard of. I say venue, because it is a mix of concert hall and laboratory. It’s so cool that I promise to do an article on it soon. To quote the lab’s website,

The LIVE (Large Interactive Virtual Environment) Lab is a unique 106-seat Research Performance Hall designed to investigate the experience of music, dance, multimedia presentations, and human interaction.

The space includes Active Acoustic Control; Sound Recording Equipment; and measurement of Behavioral Responses (96 tablets), Movement (motion capture), Brain Responses (EEG), Muscle Tension (EMG), Heart Rate, Breathing Rate, and Sweating Responses (GSR).

The final day featured Dr. Kalai Saravanamuttu from the Department of Chemistry at McMaster University and graduate student  Kathryn Benincasa speaking about their work on light. What makes their light interesting is how they can focus it and keep it coherent over long distances.

Typically light will disperse over long distances, meaning a tight laser beam, or the light from a flashlight for that matter, will spread and become weaker as it travels. Dr. Saravanamuttu’s lab uses techniques to keep the light from dispersing, and is exploring applications for these types of long-range, coherent beams. One particularly interesting application is to give solar panels bug eyes.

Picture the honey-comb-like eye of an insect. By multiple facets over a lens allows them to focus light over nearly 180-degrees. For a bug, that means it can see everything and have a minimal blind spot. For a solar panel, this means it can absorb light from all directions at once. This requires a system of keeping light focused and coherent (check), in a geometry similar to a bug’s eye, that can coat a solar panel. By making these thin, specially designed coatings for solar panels, the researchers hope to increase the efficiency of solar panels making them more economically viable.


Imagine building this structure so the straws point outward over a full 180-degrees. Then shrink it down so you can paint it over a solar panel. You would get light from every direction focusing onto your solar panel.

The best thing about all of these lectures is that they were all completely free to attend. I have written about how important it is for scientists to keep the public informed about their work, and seeing how successful these public lecture events are suggests there is a strong desire for more of them. If you are interested in this sort of thing, keep an eye on this facebook page. There will be some very exciting news in the near future.

Elastogranularity and how soil shapes the roots of plants, continued

This week a short article of mine was posted on Softbites, a blog “run by a group of young scientists who want to attract a wider audience to the beautiful world of soft matter.” To quote their homepage,

Softbites brings you digestible summaries of the latest research in soft matter.

If you have a soft spot for the science of bubbles, liquid crystals and other squishy materials you might have heard of soft matter! If you have not, this branch of physics is a fascinating interdisciplinary field studying various kinds of materials from gels to biological systems. They all share the fact that they are soft, which means they are not exactly solid nor liquid. For instance, if you poke a bit of foam, it will resist like a solid at short times, but it will flow at longer times.”

I wrote about a paper recently published in Physical Review Letters (but also available for free on the arXiv) by DJ Schunter Jr of the Douglas Holmes Group at Boston University. In this paper they take two existing, well understood systems and combine them to create something new and exciting. In particular, they take buckling of beams and combine it with granular rearrangement.

This post is a more technical article and is an addendum to my article on Softbites. I will be diving into some specifics of the analysis of the experiment, and is intended for those who have read the article on Softbites (here) and want more details. I encourage you to please go and read the Soft bites article before continuing below.

Exploring the difference in buckling as a function of packing fraction

Recall the difference in buckling behavior for different packing fraction \phi_{0}, demonstrated in Figure 1:

Untitled2.pngFigure 1. An elastic beam in inserted into a rigid box filled with beads. Depending on the packing fraction,  \phi_{0}, of the beads, the beam exhibits one or two buckles. The curvature of these buckles are affected by \phi_{0}.

To quantify the difference in buckling that happens at different packing fractions, the increase in amplitude relative to wavelength of the buckles, A_{0}/\lambda, is plotted as a function of the length of insertion relative to initial beam length, \sqrt{\Delta/L}. For small values of \Delta, the curvature of the buckle is small and can be approximated as a triangle with height A_{0} and base \lambda = 2L_{0}. As \Delta increases, the height of the buckle increases according to A_{0}/\lambda \propto \sqrt{\Delta/L}. This is shown by the black dashed line in Figure 4, and experiments at both high and low \phi_{0} (red and blue dots respectively) follow this relationship for small \Delta. As \Delta increases, even in the absence of beads, the analytic solution for the beam’s buckling (shown by the blue curve) begins to deviate from this approximation. For intermediate values of \Delta, experiments at both high and low \phi_{0} are shown to follow the analytic solution of a beam bending in the absence of beads. This suggests the beads are not yet confining the beam in any meaningful way. At even higher \Delta, low \phi_{0} experiments continue following the behavior of a free beam but high \phi_{0} begins to deviate rapidly. This deviation shows that confinement due to the beads has a strong effect on the geometry of the buckles in these cases, and the results are consistent with the numerically calculated solution for buckling in the presence of beads (red line).

Untitled.pngFigure 2.  Increase in relative amplitude A_{0}/\lambda as a function of \sqrt{\Delta/L}. Solutions for small buckles (dashed line), buckling in the absence of beads (blue line), and buckling accounting for beads (red line) are shown. Experimental data for small \phi_{0} (blue dots) and large \phi_{0} (red dots) show good agreement with each of their corresponding solutions.

Local curvature and bead dislodging

So far we have seen that the nature of buckling is highly dependent on the bead packing fraction \phi_{0}. At low \phi_{0}, the beam buckles as if the beads were not present. At high \phi_{0}, the buckles become highly confined. Confining the buckles forces them to take on a higher curvature – the extra length of beam has less area to spread out in. This forces the beam into an unfavorable shape and effectively stores excess energy in the beam like compressing a spring would store energy within the coils of the spring. Like a spring, if you were to suddenly remove beads from the box (or the compression on the spring), the beam would suddenly pop into a more straight, less curved shape. What we can take away from this observation is that the higher the local curvature of the beam, the more stored energy there is within the beam, and the more the beam is pushing back on the beads in the area of high curvature. Eventually the pressure on the beads will be too great, and one will be forced to pop out of plane, on top of the rest of the beads.

The plot in Figure 3 shows maximum curvature \kappa multiplied by beam thickness h (\kappa ~ compression of the spring, h ~ stiffness of the spring) plotted against \phi_{0} for higher and lower insertion lengths \Delta/L (light blue and dark blue dots, respectively). The plot shows that higher $\phi_{0}$ leads to higher maximum curvature in the beam, as does larger insertion lengths. The plot also shows experiments where a bead becomes dislodged (red squares). This happens more frequently for highly curved and thick beams. The additional images in Figure 3 shows examples of bead movement for systems at various points on the plot. Longer arrows represent larger bead movement, and red circles represent a bead which dislodges from the rest of the beads. Also, notice the direction the beads move in Figure 3 (I). The arrows show how the beads would be pressing into the beam, and help explain why the buckles would move together at high packing fractions.

Screenshot 2018-05-18 at 9.52.16 AM.pngFigure 3. Beam curvature \kappa normalized by beam thicknessh as a function of packing fraction \phi_{0} for normalized insertion lengths \Delta/L = 0.1 (light blue) and \Delta/L = 0.4. \kappa h is shown to increase for larger \phi_{0}. To the right of the plot are examples of bead movement (arrows) for experiments corresponding to regions within the plot. Dislocated beads are shown in red.

This is a unique experiment, and one that I found very satisfying to write about. What I like most about this work is how well quantified each observation is. In many papers, authors will present a system, show off some interesting observations and leave it at that. However, DJ Schunter Jr et al. take this neat experiment and quantitatively explain so much about it, including the spontaneous disloging of beads from the system. The experiment is not too hard to understand qualitatively, but being able to make actual predictions about a system requires a quantitative explanation. When you can predict exactly how a system will behave, it is then possible to use it for something constructive.

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The Scientist’s Guide to Vinyl // The Hipster’s Guide to Atomic Force Microscopy (Happy Record Store Day)

Anyone worth their gourmet-pink-Himalayan-rock-salt knows that vinyl is the premier way to listen to music. The snap crackle pop, the warm analogue glow – vinyl connects us to our music in a primal way akin to how a campfire connects us to the natural world.

Just kidding.

There have been many articles written about the dubious claims surrounding sound quality and vinyl. To me, there is no perceived benefits to vinyl compared to high-quality digital music. (This is constantly being written about. A quick google search gave me some good stuff, like this, this, and this)

So if sound quality isn’t a consideration, and if you are going to insist on buying music rather than streaming it, you will need to choose a physical medium. For me, this comes down to aesthetics. I like the big album art, the weightiness of the records themselves, and the cumbersome, almost ritualistic act of putting on a record that forces you to really pay attention and be involved in what you listen to. But what I like most is the beautiful simplicity of the technology.

The record player operates on the principle that sound is a pressure-wave in the air that will physically vibrate whatever it hits. This vibration is transmitted to a needle, carving little mountain ranges into the “master” record. This record can then be used as a model for large-scale reproduction.

To get the sound out, you reverse the process. This is the familiar picture of a record player – a needle is dragged across the grooves, following the topography. This movement is translated along the arm of the record player to a wire coil in a magnetic field. By moving the coil, an electric signal is created which is then amplified and sent to the speakers.

What I find incredible about this process is how intricate the topography within the grooves must be such that complicated musical pieces can be contained within it. This means the needle needs to be both sensitive to very small movements of the tip, and also be able to probe very narrow “valleys” in the record. The former is achieved by having a very flexible shaft and a device sensitive to very small fluctuations in the produced electric signal. The latter requires a needle tip that is very thin. A demonstration of this second point is shown below.

Figure from an untraceable textbook, I found this on a forum.

A stylus tip that is larger than the undulations within the groove will not be able to transmit the full information to the speakers. However, a very thin tip will be able to track in the narrowest of grooves.

Perhaps even more impressive, is the robustness of this technique. (This is a story I first heard from 99% Invisible – one of my favorite podcasts.)

In the 1950’s, beneath the brutal censorship of the Iron Curtain, the youth of Soviet Russia were just as obsessed with rock and roll as the rest of the world. However, as if to win a “you think your parents are bad?” contest, consumption of “American” media like rock and roll records was punished severely. Therefore, importing records was a very dangerous proposition and obtaining one was nearly impossible. Yet, this quarantined media still found a way to spread in the form of homemade records.

DIY record cutters were made, and nearly everything was tried as a substitute for vinyl. One of the more successful mediums was used x-ray sheets. You know, those transparent sheets you see on TV when a doctor is showing off a broken bone? The plastic used in these sheets was thin and flimsy, but allowed for reasonable reproduction of a smuggled copy of Johnny B. Good. The resulting records were very low quality, highly illegal, creepy, and ultimately, the most hipster thing imaginable.

How’s this for a Record Store Day exclusive? Bone music via Paul Heartfield, St. Louie Blues via Igor White, Image via Jozsef Hajdu, from 99PI.

Now, the enterprising hipster may be thinking to themselves, “if this technique is so sensitive to undulations, can we use this to measure the topography of other surfaces?”

With the right tip (perhaps some sort of silicon or silicon nitride, with a radius of curvature about 100x smaller than a record player’s?) and an ultra-flexible cantilever, it would seem possible to measure incredibly small surface features, no?

Congratulations, you just invented the Atomic Force Microscope!

An animation of an operating AFM. Notice the laser is deflected differently as the tip tracks along the topography of the sample. (Thanks, Carmen Lee)

At its most basic, an AFM is just a ridiculously sensitive record player. A very sharp tip at the end of a flexible cantilever is dragged along the surface of a sample. As the tip rises and falls with the topography of the sample, the cantilever bends to accommodate these elevation changes. Of course there are some differences to accommodate the differences between the two devices. For example, rather than converting the undulations into an electric signal with a coil and magnetic field, the AFM uses what I think is an even more simple and intuitive technique. A laser beam is reflected off the top of the cantilever into a detector. The angle the cantilever makes with the detector changes as it bends, meaning the laser will hit the detector at a different spot. The longer the beam travels, the more it amplifies the size of the undulations. This allows for the measurement of surface features accurate to the sub-nanometer scale.

Atomic force microscope topographical scan of a glass surface. The micro and nano-scale features of the glass can be observed, portraying the roughness of the material. The image space is (x,y,z) = (20 µm × 20 µm × 420 nm). (wiki: Chych derivative work: Materialscientist (talk))

Despite being based on very old technology, the AFM wasn’t invented until the late 1980’s. Manufacturing such fine tips is not easy, and keeping errant vibrations out of your measurements is non-trivial. In fact, in a lab I used to work in, very accurate measurements required one to wait until the frequency of buses to the University decreased. The vibration of buses driving past the building was enough to compromise the results.

However, if you are able to compensate for these vibrations, this technique is so accurate and robust that it has become the go-to technique for most surface sciences. An AFM can image the structure of biological molecules and cellular components, individual polymers, and with the proper set-up, individual atoms within a structure (!!!).

So if you chose to observe Record Store Day this year, don’t feel silly for “wasting money on a dead technology”. You can feel proud that you are actually wasting your money on a very crappy AFM.

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“Hey you’re a physicist…” tangled cables

Two of my best friends have this joke. They will spontaneously ask me a question prefaced with “Hey Adam, you’re a physicist…” The question is often ridiculous, and always out of the blue. We may go weeks without speaking only to receive a text like, “Hey Adam, you’re a physicist. Why is Neapolitan ice cream so bad?” or “Hey Adam, you’re a physicist. How much should I invest in Bitcoin? Also, what is Bitcoin?”

But sometimes they end up being interesting, and something I can answer them…

“Hey Adam, you’re a physicist – why do my headphone cables keep getting tangled?”

The short answer is “cuz math tells us so”. I’m not going to pretend I understand said math, but I can give a very qualitative description.

Image result for tangled headphones

Aw what the hell?! Photo from Business Insider

Researchers devised a model of a coiled string and assigned some probability to “braid moves” as the coil is agitated. Braid moves are described as a spontaneous crossing of the string from adjacent lengths of cable.  By this they mean a cross-over between to lengths of the coil that are parallel to each other. They can pause after a certain number of braid moves and decide if the string has knotted.

Schematic by Dorian M. Raymer and Douglas E. Smith from their manuscript, originally published in PNAS. The wire coils within the box, forcing free ends to lay parallel to the rest of the coil. Knots form as the free end of the wire crosses adjacent segments.

This model predicts a few interesting things. The probability that the string will knot increases rapidly at short times and approaches 100%. Also, tangling and subsequent knotting happens more readily for longer and more flexible strings.

These researchers then performed an experiment to test these predictions. One at a time, they took strings of various lengths and stiffness, coiled them, and placed them in a box. They shook the box, then observed if a knot had formed. They indeed found longer, flexible strings will knot more readily, and that knots will form within seconds of agitating the box.

So how can you stop your wires from tangling? You can instead use short, stiff rods instead of wires. Or maybe just try this.



#ScientistsWhoSelfie and the Roll of Social Media in Science

Recently Science, a high-profile journal, published an opinion piece calling into question the effectiveness of social media – specifically Instagram – on science outreach. The piece, written by Meghan Wright used popular Instagram blogger Samantha Yammine (Science Sam) as an example of the way this specific type of “outreach” that is over-glorified and ineffective.

There has already been much discussion over the article, mostly focusing on the seemingly personal nature of the criticism. This has created the #ScientistsWhoSelfie movement to show support and appreciation for the people who donate their time to make science more inclusive via social media.  However many of the points discussed in the article have yet gone analyzed. For this, I spoke to to Liz Grey – a physicist who has recently turned to intellectual property law in Ottawa, and Carmen Lee – a current physics graduate student at McMaster University.

Meghan Wright says in “Why I don’t use Instagram…” that using social media as an outreach tool is ineffective at combating female discrimination.

…it disturbs me that these efforts are celebrated as ways to correct for the long held and deeply structured forms of discrimination and exclusion that female scientists face. I wonder whether our efforts should instead be directed toward advocating for policy changes at institutional and governmental levels.

Meghan Wright, “Why I don’t use Instagram…”

Social media visibility may not solve deep-seeded discrimination, but there is proof that it may be helping to broaden what a “typical” scientist is perceived to be – at least in children. It won’t solve the underlying issues  like equal pay or necessarily convince people who make hiring decisions, but it can help women and minorities from feeling like outsiders. “Of course there is work that needs to be done in administration, but the number of times I’ve met people in public and been told ‘you don’t look like a scientist’ is crazy!” said Carmen. And of course women aren’t the only group that can benefit from this. “The more diverse of a social media representation of science is, the better”

While many people have differing opinions on the effectiveness of social media on correcting for deep discrimination, no one would claim it is the way of doing this. “Of course there is a danger in only communicating through social media, but if that’s how individuals want to do it, that’s ok too”, explains Liz. Expanding public perception of who scientists are will at the very least make the STEM community feel more inviting. However, making STEM appear more inclusive is really just a band-aid solution. “Band-aids are very useful and important sometimes, but bringing them into surgery is of course ridiculous”.

Wright goes on to make another interesting point:

Time spent on Instagram is time away from research, and this affects women in science more than men. That’s unfair. Let’s not celebrate that.

Meghan Wright, “Why I don’t use Instagram…”

While this point does not seem to apply to Yammine – a graduate student hoping to work outside academia, potentially as a science communicator – this is an important point for others not pursuing this path.

“Beginning in undergrad women are chosen to be the face of diversity – you are chosen to to meet with people to show how inclusive the department is. 30 minutes here and there definitely add up over a career.” said Carmen.

Liz agreed, adding that there is a pressure to fill these roles.”I feel there is some amount of pressure to be representative of women who do science, like science, and aren’t afraid of math.” This feeling also carried over in Law. “Many lawyers that are women are still considered ‘woman-lawyers’ or ‘female lawyers'”, as if this were a different classification of lawyer. And with this differentiation in gender comes gender-based programs that cut into research. “For example, there is a Women’s Legal Mentorship program in Ottawa. I could be a member of this program but like the author, I don’t want to present myself like this or spend time away from my work. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my community by not being involved.”

Some of these groups, like the Women’s Legal Mentorship program are women-exclusive, but many are not. “In many cases men are making the decisions. You want to empower girls to rise above and overcome, but in some ways it may be more useful to frame it as a men’s problem.” said Liz. ” Carmen, a member of Graduate Women in Physics and Astronomy (GWIPA) said, “these issues are everyone’s problem –  GWIPA makes a point of inviting all male students to our events.” Yet male attendance continues to be abysmal. She seemed particularly amused to observe, “men who come seem to be sensitive to being the only man in a room and.. get very hand-wring-y”.

Something both Carmen and Liz emphasized was that any attempt to make STEM more welcoming to under-represented people is helpful, but it can’t just be an effort on the part of the under-represented. Everyone needs to work to make their community inclusive. At McMaster, this could mean volunteering and supporting events put on by GWIPA and WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), especially if you are male. Please consider joining and helping these groups or your local equivalent.

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Book Club: The River of Consciousness – Oliver Sacks

As the author of several books, most notably, Awakenings (1973) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), Dr. Oliver Sacks educated his readers on the importance of treating all patients with humility, especially those with invisible illnesses plaguing the dark fissures of the brain. Dr. Sacks, a trained neurologist, had a talent for listening to his patients, learning about their symptoms, then backtracking to find the neurological sources for the experienced symptoms. No headache or bout of unsteadiness went under-analyzed by Dr. Sacks.

The River of Consciousness, published posthumously, explores the interdependent relationship between science and the human condition. Common within his prior publications, Dr. Sacks contextualizes neurological conditions by examining historical medical anthologies and past scientific innovations that may be deemed relevant to a patient’s case.

The first chapter opens with an examination of Darwin’s evolutionary studies. As Dr. Sacks notes, Darwin was primarily recognized for his research into animal evolution, but he spent most of his early years enthralled by botany and the world of plant evolution. Dr. Sacks identifies several unlikely connections between modern neurology and early studies in plant evolution. For example, Venus flytraps use electrical stimulation to capture their victims which shows similarities between the electrical activities in the brain of humans.

The weakness of our memory is also explored in The River of Consciousness; weakness which can be exploited by the strength of our mind and imaginative capabilities. Dr. Sacks shares a descriptive and vivid story of a bomb raid he recalled having lived through in England during World War II. However, once Dr. Sacks fact-checked this event with his brother, his brother clarified that both he and Dr. Sacks were at boarding school during this particular raid and that a very detailed letter sent from their other brother, who was indeed present during the raid, instilled the realistic memories into the mind of Dr. Sacks. When given enough information, our brains have the power to create memories of events that may not have happened.

Near the end of the book, Dr. Sacks remarks on individual’s consciousness being derived from past experiences, making consciousness subjective and unique to each individual. We use our memories to place ourselves in present moments, making us conscious to certain events taking place around us. We may spend an entire day with someone and be experiencing the same present events, but our consciousness during those events are uniquely our own and completely different from the other person’s consciousness.

Dr. Sacks strategically concludes his book by examining the importance of the evolution of the sciences in unison to the evolution of humans and plants (as the author notes in his opening remarks referencing Darwin’s research). New theories should not replace older, outdated theories; rather, they should be developed alongside older theories, paving the way for even newer scientific innovation. Scientific innovation is derived from reworking and disproving itself.

Dr. Oliver Sacks passed away on August 30, 2015 at the age of eighty-two as a result of cancer. He was an empathetic and diverse neurologist who treated his patients as humans and their conditions with respect. What’s more, he was able to educate the public with well-written books, journal articles, and newspaper editorials. His brilliant mind will forever be missed.


By: Sydney Myles