Stories tagged women

Contours of atoms in space
Contours of atoms in spaceCourtesy BBC
Dorothy Hodgkin had a unique sense of how atoms were structured to form some of the most important molecules of her day. This audio slideshow from the BBC--on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of her birth--highlights how she discovered the structure of Vitamin B12, Penicillin, and Insulin. It's fascinating to see the connection between her childhood drawings of flowers and church mosaics and the complex orientation of the blobs of atoms in these miniscule molecules.

The flu and cold season is upon us, and with it the regular reminders to wash your hands. Check out this story – that tells you how many specific types of bacteria the average hand carries around at any particular time. And gals, you have even more reason to wash your hands than guys.


I would so not do this: Joseph Kittinger jumps out of the Excelsior III balloon at 102,800 feet.
I would so not do this: Joseph Kittinger jumps out of the Excelsior III balloon at 102,800 feet.Courtesy US Air Force
I attended yet another great Cafe Scientifique event put on by the Bell Museum the other night called: Art and Aeronautics—A Conversation with Tomás Saraceno. Tomás and his teammate Alberto are artists in residence at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and have been working with the Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics department at the University of Minnesota. In short they are building a giant balloon out of reclaimed trash--primarily plastic bags. This talk got me on an balloon science research kick and thought I would share some links:
First off, check out some of the pics of Tomás and Alberto's project, the Museo Aero Solar.

There was lots of talk at the presentation about women's important role in the early days of flight when ballooning dominated. There was even some debate about whether a woman was the first person in space...via the 1920s! I couldn't immediately find any information on this claim on ye old internets, but I would love to hear from any buzz readers who might know more information.

Getting to space by balloon might seem crazy, but that's exactly what the Air Force was trying to do before our attempts with rockets. Check out Project Manhigh(yep its really called that) and Project Excelsior. Several of these early space balloons were piloted by Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger, the first, possibly only, man to ever break the speed of sound, without a vehicle. He did it by jumping out of a balloon about 20 miles up.

Students are getting into the high altitude balloon game all over the place as well: reusable experiment platform goes to the edge of space, pics at the edge of space, and legos in space.

I think balloons are my new favorite science obsession.


Depending on the variety: you may indeed end up a very different person.
Depending on the variety: you may indeed end up a very different person.Courtesy william c hutton jr
You know what’s bad? Animal cruelty.

Seriously. I mean, I don’t want to go out on a political limb here, but… I’m against it. You can put that on your head and call it a hat: JGordon is officially against animal cruelty.

Unfortunately, I’m also lazy and ignorant. What exactly constitutes animal cruelty? And, if I’m taking part in it, will it be too inconvenient for me to change my ways?

Is dressing my dog up in clothes that match my own considered “cruel”? What if I take him out on the town, and refer to him as my “twin” and “special friend”?

Reaching into fish tanks to flick the goldfish—cruel, or playful? Because the fish seem to like it, even if their owners don’t.

Screaming at pigeons? And does the language I use matter?

And how, really, should I feel about the dairy industry?

Well, that’s when I turn to PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA is a non-profit animal rights organization that works to prevent animal cruelty in medical and cosmetic testing, factory farms, and fur farms (among other areas). It encourages activism, transparency in business’ use of animals, and community involvement. And changing the names of towns like Rodeo, California, and Hamburg, New York, to something “less suggestive of animal exploitation.” And comparing the treatment of animals to the Holocaust. And sending letters to celebrity babies, reminding them that they shouldn’t wear fur. Vital, heady stuff.

This week, PETA has sent a bold new letter to ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s, with a message sure to resonate in the hearts of non-celebrity baby people around the world: stop using cruelty-tainted cow’s milk for your gourmet ice cream, and start using delicious, healthy, human breast milk.

The letter points out that, in addiction to the cruelty employed in obtaining cow’s milk, drinking milk can lead to anemia and diabetes in children, as well as allergies and obesity and heart disease. This may very well be the case, although the citation for all of these arguments is a link to another PETA website called “” points out that a glass of milk is about 49 % fat, which seems like an awfully dubious figure. (The USDA says that whole milk is about 3.25% fat. But they would, wouldn’t they.) A variety of studies show both increases and decreases in cancer, heart diseases, etc, from consuming milk (Here’s a link to wikipedia’s milk medical research section, which has links to the original studies cited, which I don’t want to take the time to post here.)

Breast milk, it seems, is pretty good for babies, and may be good for folks with gastro-intestinal disorders. And it doesn’t come from sad cows, as far as I know.

PETA got the idea from a particular Swiss restaurant that plans to replace 75% percent of the cow’s milk they use with human milk. The obvious next step is to present the notion to a major ice cream maker, although I’m not sure that the massive breast milk infrastructure that will allow a Swiss restaurant to partially replace the cow milk they use exists in America. Still, the message was sent, and I think the American people heard it loud and clear: PETA has some ideas that we can relate to.


What to know and when to know it: Two mammography images show the difference between a non-cancerous (left) and cancerous (right) breast.
What to know and when to know it: Two mammography images show the difference between a non-cancerous (left) and cancerous (right) breast.Courtesy National Institutes of Health
Record numbers of women are opting for a test that checks if their genetic make-up makes them stronger candidates for breast cancer. Last year about 100,000 women were tested. Doctors generally recommend against testing anyone under the age of 25, the same age that mammograms are first recommended. That’s because little can be done to screen or prevent breast cancer before that age.

But a growing movement among young women wants to find out how their genetic make-up could impact their risk for breast cancer. And they want to find out that news at an earlier age.

It’s a hot ethical question in clinics across the country today, which is explained in full detail here.

On the one side, pro-testing people point out that young people armed with this information could make lifestyle choices that could reduce their cancer risk. There is some evidence that young women with a positive genetic test have quit smoking, for example. Others have limited alcohol intake or avoided using birth control pills, two other factors that can raise breast cancer risk.

On the other side of the debate, researchers say that young women have enough health issues to deal with at an early age. Ringing alarms for something they can’t be “officially” tested for until later in life is just one more worry that they really don’t need to deal with at the time.

The tests themselves cost around $3,000. More and more medical insurance companies are providing coverage for the test.

If the test shows a faulty gene, the patient’s risk of developing breast cancer is three to seven times higher. In a few cases, parents have tested the genes of their pre-adolescent children. One girl test was just four years old.

What do you think? Is this good genetic curiosity or being a genetic busy-body? Is it important to find out this information if nothing can be done to treat the situation for a number of years? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.

Men like petite leggy women. Man, I would have liked to have been in on that study. (With apologies to amdayton.)


Women in science: Should government-funded labs make a point of hiring an equal number of men and women?
Women in science: Should government-funded labs make a point of hiring an equal number of men and women?Courtesy NIOSH—Nat’l Inst. For Occupational Safety & Health

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off. Previous entry here.)

Affirmative action. Another nice, safe topic that we have talked about before, though in a different context.

In 1972, Congress passed an education bill which included, among its amendments, the following language:

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Certainly sounds fair. But this amendment, known as “Title IX,” has caused its share of headaches. The law states that men and women should have equal opportunity in educational activities. But “opportunity” is often hard to measure. If few women partake in a given activity, is it because of discrimination? Because of lack of interest? Or, in the case of athletics, because of physical limitations?

Hard to say sometimes. So instead, the courts look at outcomes. If significantly more men than women are participating in a activity, the courts tell the schools they need to get the numbers in line. Usually this means trying to increase women’s participation. Too often, however, it has meant cutting support for men – a surreal Harrison Bergeron result if ever there was one.

This same “logic” is now to be applied to academic science departments. Under pressure from Congress, several federal science agencies are now looking for discrimination in college science departments. And, since motive is hard to prove, there are fears that courts will again fall back to looking solely at results, and force schools to hire equal numbers of male and female scientists, regardless of their qualifications. Which is fairly antithetical to the pure meritocracy science is supposed to be.

No one wants discrimination. But it would be a national tragedy if the pursuit of political correctness ended up hindering American science, just as science has become more important than at any moment in human history.

New York Times reporter John Tierney has reviewed the National Academy of Science’s report on discrimination, and has found very little evidence of bias. And, as we discussed earlier, many women do not pursue math careers, not because of discrimination, but simply because of individual choice.

This appears to be a solution in search of a problem.

A European study finds that men score lower on a general intelligence test after being shown a picture of a blonde woman. The researchers say the men were responding to social stereotypes that portray blondes as less intelligent. My own field research has found that attractive women of any hair color will reduce a man to a babbling idiot.


All you do to me is talk talk: A new study finds that too much sharing can actually be a bad thing. Photo by Steffe from
All you do to me is talk talk: A new study finds that too much sharing can actually be a bad thing. Photo by Steffe from

No surprise there. Every parent of a teen could tell you that. But now, thanks to a study at the University of Missouri-Columbia, science has confirmed what we already knew.

The study found that girls who talk to their friends extensively about their problems are unlikely to resolve those problems, but instead are more likely to become anxious and depressed.

This reminds me of a study I read about years ago (sorry, no link) about the different communication styles used by men and women. That long-ago study found that when a man asks a question, he is generally seeking information. But often when a woman asks a question, she is seeking validation. (These are just broad trends – obviously, this does not hold true for all people or for all questions.) Women are more likely to use questions as a form of social bonding, and making sure everyone is in agreement.

Connecting these two studies, I would postulate that when the girls talk about their problems with friends, the friends confirm and validate each other's feelings, making the problems seem more real and more important.

Keeping your feelings bottled up inside is the route to mental health. Stoicism rules!

(I also have a theory as to why men never ask for directions, if anyone is interested.)


Veggies: Vegetables are an important part of a low fat diet. Image courtesy Icarus Diving.

The Women's Health Initiative is a clinical trial sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, an institute of the National Institutes of Health. It included the largest ever study of a low-fat diet in postmenopausal women to see if such a diet reduced their rate of contracting certain diseases. 48,835 women aged 50-79 participated for an average of 8 years. The results of the low-fat diet trial showed no significant reduction in the rate of breast cancer, heart disease, or stroke and no effect on the risk of colorectal cancer. However, the women in the study had trouble sticking to the recommended amount of daily fat and they did not necessarily cut out the types of fat considered most harmful (saturated fats and trans fats).

What About Nutritional Supplements?

The study also followed 36,282 women of the same age range to find out if calcium and vitamin D supplements reduced the rate of broken bones from osteoporosis. Again the results appeared to show no appreciable advantage to taking the supplements, although there was an average of 1% gain in bone density.

X-Ray: Osteoporosis can lead to broken bones. Image courtesy Retrogradeheart.

Drop the Supplements and Forget the Low-Fat Diet?

Researchers found that the trend in positive results was going upwards for the group on the low fat diet enough to encourage the researchers that continued monitoring of the women over the next few years will show a positive result. And people connected with the calcium/vitamin D supplement study say that despite the slightly elevated risk of kidney stones that was seen in some women, the overall gain in bone density was great enough to make a difference for some women and to have a positive impact on money spent on health care for osteoporosis-related injuries.

The upshot is that there are still opportunities to learn more information about how diet and supplements affect the health of these postmenopausal women, including why some subgroups of women were affected in ways that others weren't. Doctors and researchers aren't changing their overall advice yet, although people should always discuss their diets with their doctors as cases can differ from person to person.