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The Year’s Geekiest Gifts

If you wanted to give your true love all the gifts from the 12 Days of Christmas, it would cost you $27,673. But there’s no need to shell out that much for our picks of the best science-themed and geekiest gifts of 2014… except for #9.

1. You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes, astronaut Chris Hadfield’s book of stunning photographs from the International Space Station.

2. Engineering kit/anti-“pink aisle” company GoldieBlox released its character Goldie as an articulated action figure, complete with zipline. True to form, they produced a striking video for its launch.

3. Due to incredible demand, the female scientist LEGO Research Institute is back in stores and online. No need to pay twice or even more than five times the price at online resellers! Be aware, there’s often a limit of 1 per household.

4. You can use littleBits modular electronic prototyping kits for anything from learning to program with Arduino to converting your appliances into a smarthome

5. It’s trivia time! The Art of Science Advanced Trivia Game (available at thinkGeek) lets you tailor trivia categories to players’ scientific strengths, with wickedly challenging questions in a variety of science fields.

6. Proof: The Science of Booze is Adam Rogers’ riveting history of alcohol, exploring the various sciences involved in its production as well as in our insatiable demand for its many varieties.

7. A Klein bottle opener, consisting of a single-surface shape. This “mathematical joke” is 3D printed from stainless steel.

8. The “STEM: Women Are All Over It” shirt, successfully Kickstarted in response to #shirtgate. Although the for-charity fundraising just ended, the shirt’s pattern, comprised of the faces of female scientists, will be made available soon.

9. The pièce de résistance: Wernher von Braun’s house. You and your family could live in the original mid-century modern home of the noted space engineer and rocket scientist, located in Huntsville, Alabama. It’ll only set you back $379K U.S.

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Celebrating Situating Science and CCSST

The Situating Science cluster, and now the Canadian Consortium for Situating Science and Technology are doing inspiring work in helping all of us to understand how science works and how science and society interact. Below is a short video celebrating their accomplishments and explaining what they do. You can also subscribe to their YouTube channel.

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Weekly Roundup – We Need to Talk about TED

Why read books or papers when there are easily-digestible videos of charismatic experts summarizing their work for you? Here are 5 interesting recent TED Talks, running the gamut from astronomy to metaphysics.

What’s the next window into our universe?

How not to be ignorant about the world

What makes us sick?

What’s next in 3D printing?

Why does the universe exist?

But to keep you from getting complacent (and to trap you in a paradox) here’s a classic TED talk on why TED talks are terrible.

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Weekly Roundup is going on vacation

That’s right, this will be the last column of the summer. I know you’ll miss us, so it’s supersized to tide you over until September.

We already knew that having sisters (who do the chores) make men more conservative, girls get lower allowances for doing more chores, and Pat Mainardi’s masterpiece The Politics of Housework is nearing its 45th birthday. A new study suggests that daughters’ career ambitions are enhanced when their fathers help out around the house.

Are you sensitive to gluten? Are you sure? The authors of the original study identifying non-celiac gluten sensitivity were repeatedly unable to replicate their results.

It’s Shark Week, and that means the return of the proud Discovery Channel tradition of lying to scientists.

You can debunk and debunk-debunk all you want, but academic urban legends persist thanks to a variety of poor citation practices. Even superstars aren’t immune to the temptations of research shortcuts, as Žižek and Goodall must attest.

With the announcement of this year’s Fields MedalsMaryam Mirzakhani became the first female recipient of the highest prize in mathematics. Alex Bellos at the Guardian breaks down the 4 medallists’ work.

How NASA psychologically screens astronaut candidates: “We’re looking for the ‘right stuff,’ but we’re also trying to get rid of people with the ‘wrong stuff.'” Which is important, since astronauts don’t get enough sleep either on Earth or in space.

In light of this year’s Xtreme Eating Awards, Slate explains why it’s misleading to directly compare calorie-laden foods and hours of exercise. I don’t know if I’d swim 7 hours for the Cheesecake Factory’s 2,780-calorie Bruléed French Toast with bacon, but with 93 grams of saturated fat, it’s one menu item that’s better shared with the whole table.

Kentucky State University interim president Raymond Burse took a voluntary $90K salary cut to increase the pay rate for minimum-wage university employees.

Christie Aschwanden reviews the results of several recent surveys suggesting that sexual harassment and gender bias are widespread in the sciences.

What is the key to happiness? Having things work out better than you expect, according to a PNAS study claiming to have produced an equation that can predict happiness through MRI data. We enjoy anticipating good things, but we’re even happier with pleasant surprises. Unfortunately for pessimists, grumbling about how bad things are likely to be erodes the benefits of an unexpected happy ending.

Here’s an interesting debate about the science Ph.D. job market, where Slate’s Jordan Weissmann sees the situation as bleak and Bloomberg Businessweek’s Alison Schrager disagrees. Weissman’s rebuttal points out the opportunity costs for science and math students of not pursuing an M.B.A. instead—an option which offers better renumeration.


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Weekly Roundup

LEGO has announced that it has approved one of the finalists in its Ideas product competition: a trio of female scientists based on Ellen Kooijman (aka Alatriel Elensar)’s Female Minifigure Set. It will be marketed as the LEGO Research Institute, and will be eventually available in stores.

Here are anonymous comments made by “muzzled” Canadian government scientists about the state of science under the Harper Government. Yikes! On a related note, Stephen Harper urged Canadians to “listen to the scientific evidence” when it comes to vaccinating children.

How many polar bears are there? It turns out that’s a tricky question.

Solar roadways have made a big splash with a successful Indiegogo campaign and flashy video. The husband-and-wife team of Scott and Julie Brusaw want to replace asphalt roads, sidewalks, and parking lots with durable, LED-programmable, and replaceable hexagonal panels that would generate electricity, with additional benefits including warning drivers of obstacles or animal crossings, responding to parking lot conditions, and providing infrastructure for buried power, phone, and internet lines. Unfortunately, critics figure that the project’s estimated $56 trillion price tag will be an impediment to scalability, as will problems such as keeping the glass layers clean and preventing traffic hacking.

The Chemical Blog describes the chemical composition of tattoo ink, which is surprisingly unregulated.

There is more fructose in many soft drinks and sweetened juices than their labels disclose, according to a new study in Nutrition. This is a problem for the Corn Refiners Association, who claim that High-Fructose Corn Syrup (or “corn sugar,” as we learn in this helpful video) is practically equivalent to sucrose (table sugar; glucose-fructose in a 1:1 ratio).

The FDA’s cost-benefit analysis for new e-cigarette regulations includes a “lost pleasure” factor which accounts for the expected decrease in lifetime pleasure for those who quit.

Sometimes all you need is a good headline: Researchers Develop Robot That Lets Them Feel Softness of Virtual Breasts.

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Weekly Roundup


Here’s a roundup of the best April Fool’s Day hoaxes from around the web, and another one focused on the science/library community. But NPR’s prank is the clear winner.

“You don’t think of the Bible necessarily as a scientifically accurate source of information, so I guess we were quite surprised when we discovered it would work. We’re not proving that it’s true, but the concept would definitely work”: Physics students at the University of Leicester have determined that Noah’s ark would indeed be buoyant.

Don’t tell Mr. Toad: A new study suggests that children retain less information about animals from anthropomorphized accounts. But kids learn more when science is packaged in a music video.

We don’t have stasis fields yet, but in a new clinical trial, gunshot or stabbing victims will be placed in suspended animation (induced hypothermia) while doctors repair damaged organs. [via Marginal Revolution]

Eliminating invasive species is more difficult than we realize, as is even labelling them “native” or “alien.”

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Weekly Roundup

Powerpoint presentations are the bane of higher education and the corporate world, claims this Powerpoint presentation.

A 43% reduction in American childhood obesity has been reported across multiple news outlets, but some question such striking results. Mark Liberman at Language Log has done some digging and suspects both the statistical treatment of reference population growth charts, as well as changes to the sampling method which result in a more racially-inclusive population.

We eat too much of everything… except yogourt: the FDA has proposed new serving sizes for several types of food to better reflect actual consumption habits.

Here is the first x-ray image of individual living cells, preserved without chemical fixation, from Physical Review Letters. This research illustrates the nanoscale damage to cell structures caused by traditional techniques [via Gizmodo].

What do women want while ovulating? Positional goods that improve their status compared to that of other women, according to a new paper in the Journal of Marketing Research. “Overall, women’s monthly hormonal fluctuations seem to have a substantial effect on consumer behavior by systematically altering their positional concerns, a finding that has important implications for marketers, consumers, and researchers” [via Marginal Revolution].

A new Pew survey of millennials, a demographic who confuse their parents, teachers, therapists, and bosses, shows that they are also pretty confused.

Men who act sexually aggressive in a barroom setting don’t drink more alcohol, but they target women who do, claims a new study in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research [via Jezebel].

Insert a reference to your thawed-virus horror film of choice: a thirty thousand-year-old giant virus was discovered in the Siberian permafrost. But don’t worry; it only infects amoebas [via io9].

If you’ve got the time to scroll through mostly darkness, check out this scale representation of the solar system where the moon = one pixel.

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Spontaneous Generations: Economic Aspects of Science

Mike Thicke

I had the privilege this year to edit an issue of Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science. Issue #7, focusing on “Economic Aspects of Science,” is now online. We have contributions from many authors that readers of this blog should be familiar with, including Steven Fuller, Mark Brown, David Tyfield, and Esther-Mirjam Sent. Reproduced below is my editor’s introduction to the focused discussion.

Science has long been understood as an economic endeavor. As early as 1879, Charles Sanders Peirce applied abstract economic reasoning to model scientific decision-making (Peirce 1967). Beginning in the 1930s, chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi and physicist-turned-sociologist John Desmond Bernal clashed over whether the science of their time was best organized according to free-market or socialist principles (Polanyi 2000; Bernal 1939). And perhaps most well known to students of science, Vannevar Bush argued in his 1945 report, Science the Endless Frontier, that the social and economic benefits of science justified public funding of scientific research.

In recent years, it has only become more clear that science cannot be understood separately from its economic circumstances. During the Cold War, massive government funding for science in the United States and elsewhere created the illusion that science could be understood as a disinterested search for truth insulated from economic concerns (cf. Merton 1942). However, since the early 1980s, science has entered what Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent call a “Globalized Privatization Regime,” characterized by increased private funding for research and globalized intellectual property laws (Sent and Mirowski 2008). Even those scientists who still rely on public funding are increasingly being asked to justify their research in economic terms (Brown, this issue). With most scientists no longer protected from market considerations, their activities can no longer be understood as resulting solely from a desire for knowledge and peer recognition. Rather, these scientists must be understood as entrepreneurs in the literal sense: as individuals seeking funding from a variety of sources in order to further enterprises that will yield tangible economic benefits.

Even philosophers, who as a group have been very reluctant to acknowledge that science is undergoing a fundamental restructuring, have recently begun worrying about the new economic circumstances of science. Philosophers have never shied away from employing economic methodology for understanding science (eg. Radnitzky 1987; Kitcher 1993; Goldman and Shaked 1991). However, they have generally viewed science as an abstract economy, where scientists compete not for dollars but for esteem. Now, prompted primarily by troubling developments in the biological sciences, they have begun turning their attention to the concrete economy of science (eg. Radder 2010). The most common concern expressed by philosophers is that the commercialization of scientific research is undermining the Mertonian norms of disinterest and communalism, and as a result, undermining science’s objectivity and epistemic authority (eg. Resnik 2007). Consequently, it is now fair to claim that researchers from every discipline of science studies have become interested in science as an economic activity.

The papers in this issue’s focused discussion build upon that interdisciplinary interest in science as an economic activity. They include contributions from historians, sociologists, philosophers, and economists.

Continue reading

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Weekly Roundup

After a very busy week with York University’s Materiality Conference, I’m happy to offer this supersized weekly roundup.

Biological Psychiatry recently published a study linking placental abnormalities and autism risk.

Russell Foster argues in New Scientist (republished at Slate) that high schools ought to start later to provide teens with much-needed extra sleep.

From Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog, women apparently prefer deep male voices, while men prefer high female voices; a paper published in PLOS ONE explains these results in terms of body size preference. But don’t despair; you can always change your voice with this.

The House Science Committee is embroiled in a dispute over NSF funding for the social and behavioural sciences, as committee chair Lamar Smith’s questioning the NSF’s peer review system comes under some sharply-worded criticism.

An image of a 4th-grade science quiz entitled “Dinosaurs: Genesis and the Gospel” from a Christian school in South Carolina has widely circulated online.

A new “Vampire” treatment for baldness involves reinjecting the patient’s own platelet-rich plasma.

A “no jab, no play” campaign launched yesterday aims to allow childcare centres in New South Wales, Australia, to ban unvaccinated children from attending. A similar policy in Ottawa has resulted in hundreds of current high school students facing suspension for failing to provide up-to-date proof of immunization.

Blueprints for a 3D printed gun have been released online by Defense Distributed, prompting calls for tighter legislation.

The National Institute for Mental Health has rejected the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is about to release its 5th edition. NIMH research will now be oriented away from the DSM’s categories.

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Weekly Roundup

Screenshot from the EC’s highly criticized video recruiting girls to STEM.

It turns out we won’t be hit with an asteroid on the day after Valentines’, so our roundup can proceed apace.

Scientists at the University of Leicester announced that they have identified the remains of King Richard III, based in part on DNA from a living Canadian descendent.

Mars vs Venus? Nope, we’re all Earthlings around here… A new study by Carothers and Reis suggests that many “gender-specific” personality traits (assertiveness, empathy, “desire to have sex with multiple partners” and even “interest in science”) overlap to such an extent that predicting someone’s gender based on traits alone is impossible (via Buzzfeed).

Speaking of “interest in science,” the “stereotype threat” of “innate differences” may be responsible for the United States, Canada, and other countries bucking the worldwide trend of 15-year-old girls outperforming boys in a science test administered by the OECD (published in a New York Times interactive graph). So avoid stereotypes, even if (like the European Commission) you have good intentions.

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