Category Archives: Science

‘Star Trek’ legend gets closer look at the final frontier

nichellenichols‘Star Trek’ legend Nichelle Nichols moved one step closer to her iconic role of Uhura on Tuesday when she flew aboard NASA’s SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The science center is built aboard a modified Boeing 747, and is the world’s biggest flying observatory, boasting a telescope that views the skies through an open door in the aircraft.

Nichols even participated in a Twitter Q&A during the flight, discussing details about the tech of the telescope and the craft itself, noting that the cabin was pressurized so they didn’t notice altitude changes even though the observatory door is open at 37,000 feet, and answering a fan who asked if she planned to taunt William Shatner about being closer to space than he was. (“I sure am!”)

She was also asked a question near and dear to most geek girls’ hearts concerning how to get more females and people of color involved in STEM careers.

“I think science has to be taught in schools as an exciting topic to children so that they can become more engaged as adults,” she replied.

The SOFIA flight is the culmination of a decades-long partnership with NASA, since Nichols has been active in encouraging minorities to be part of the organization’s space program. Her work both on and off the screen helped two women pioneers, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, achieve their dreams of going into space.  When asked if her ground-breaking role on ‘Star Trek’ sparked her interest in space travel, she replied that she’s always had a passion for space. Here’s wishing she has many more years of sharing that passion with generations to come.


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Filed under Education, News, Science, Space, Television, women

Baroness de Laroche: They couldn’t take the sky away from her

baronessdelarocheNot only is this International Women’s Day, it’s a day to celebrate Elise Raymonde Deroche, also known as Baroness de Laroche. On this day in 1910, de Laroche was the first woman ever to receive a pilot’s license for an airplane.

Born in 1882 in France, she had an early passion for mechanical things, including motorcycles and cars, and took to the skies as a balloonist before the first planes came along. Her forthright manner and engineering knowledge resulted in others bestowing the title of “Baroness” to her; Baroness de Laroche took the name and flew with it, attending gatherings of aviators in places like Egypt, Hungary and Russia, where she flew in a challenging demonstration on a small aviation ground before the Czar and received his personal congratulations afterward.

“He asked what my feelings had been, and I was able to assure him that his presence in the first place, and the houses and the landing ground, which was only 30 meters wide, in the second, had brought my heart into my mouth,” she later told Colliers magazine.

Although she would later set world records in the air, she was grounded during World War I because the military believed flying was too risky for female pilots. Instead, she became a driver, often transporting officers to and from the battlefield front lines, a job that was only slightly less dangerous than flying.

After the war, de Laroche was again in her favorite place among the clouds as part of her new goal to become the first female test pilot. She died doing what she loved in 1919, when a training flight aboard an experimental craft crashed. Although she never fully realized her last goal, she still has a lofty place in aviation history and a statue in her honor at France’s Le Bourget Airport.

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Drop the Bass, Get Into Space

Do you finally have Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” out of your head? Prepare for the tune to orbit your brain a few more times with this clever parody by the intern team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Instead of addressing the size of someone’s booty, this group addresses the size of the universe. Bonus points for a great mix of guys and gals, so everyone can be inspired by the first flight of Orion.

All together now, “We’re bringing rockets baaaaaack….”

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Dora Dougherty Day

doradoughertyIf you’re delayed in an airport on this busy Thanksgiving weekend, give a thought to Dora Dougherty and the trail she blazed for women in the skies.Born today in 1921, her life path progressed from childhood airplane fanatic to accomplished, record-holding pilot and WWII veteran.

Dougherty learned to fly in a civilian program to increase the number of trained pilots prior to the USA’s entry into World War II. In an era where women pilots were frowned upon, Dougherty took her final flight test from an instructor who wouldn’t speak to her or any female flying a plane. After scoring her license, she applied to serve as a WASP (Women’s Air Service Pilots) and was accepted in 1943; her main duties were flying drones and pulling targets until she and a fellow female pilot were the first to fly the B-29 Bomber. Dougherty was chosen because of her adaptive skills in flying any type of plane, and because most military pilots believed the B-29 would be unreliable and dangerous and men were skittish about flying the massive craft. After proving the B-29 was “so easy to fly even a woman could do it,” she went on to train many male pilots to fly it.

After the war, Dougherty continued to pursue the science behind her passion, earning her PhD in aviation education and psychology. She also saw the future in helicopters, and set two records for helicopter altitude and distance in 1961. Later on, she and her fellow WASPs fought for recognition for their wartime duty, and eventually won their military benefits.

Dougherty passed away last year, but her amazing life and ambition will inspire girls for generations to come, and reminds us all that childhood dreams do matter.

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Artistic Surprise is Key to Next-Gen Lovelace Test

160405716_d922229704_zFirst there was the Turing Test, then the Lovelace Test. Now there’s Lovelace 2.0, an intelligence test for the next generation. While the focus of Turing’s methodology was all about the fake out, this test requires a computer program to gaze into its own navel and come up with something unexpected.

The first Lovelace Test, named for geek pioneer Ada Lovelace, theorized in 2001 that instead of tricking people into believing a computer was a human, it would be more effective if the computer could create something artistically unique, something beyond the output expected by the test’s creators.

“It’s important to note that Turing never meant for his test to be the official benchmark as to whether a machine or computer program can actually think like a human,” said Mark Riedl, an associate professor at Georgia Tech and the scientist behind Lovelace 2.0. “And yet it has, and it has proven to be a weak measure because it relies on deception. This proposal suggests that a better measure would be a test that asks an artificial agent to create an artifact requiring a wide range of human-level intelligent capabilities.”

While the original Lovelace Test merely required the original creation to be a surprise, Lovelace 2.0 sets up parameters based on the originality of the computer’s creation and not necessarily the quality of it. In essence, if the computer creates an original song, poem or other piece of art, the only thing that counts is its uniqueness and not if humans like it or understand it. Someone break out the digital berets, because it sounds like computers may have a future in artistic expression.



Photo: Andrew Becraft

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Caroline Willard Baldwin Day

If you check those daily history sites like we do, you may notice that tomorrow  (June 20)  in 1895, Caroline Willard Baldwin received the first ever PhD in Science awarded to a woman by an American university.

That’s a remarkable achievement for the time. If you’re a female geek, you may also wonder about the rest of Caroline’s story.  We certainly did, and spent an afternoon tracing her life through the Internet. Thankfully, it seems that everyone bought into that “information superhighway” line years ago, because one clue led to another, and another, and yet another. While it’s not the complete picture, we can tell you Caroline was an extraordinary woman and an extraordinary mind.

Caroline was born in San Francisco on June 30, 1869. She was the only child of Army vet and miner Alfred Baldwin, one of the pioneering members of Santa Cruz County in California, and Fannie Willard, who was noted for her intellectual pursuits. Fannie must have been quite a woman in her own right, because in addition to public schooling, she rounded out young Caroline’s education with lessons in language and other subjects.

Caroline went on to become the first woman to receive a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Mechanics at the University of California in 1892. She was so bright, she was one of the student speakers for the commencement ceremony at the University of California and placed third in her graduating class at Cornell University, where she received the famed doctorate in 1895. She wrote “A Photographic Study of the Arc Spectra” for the Physical Review journal of experimental and theoretical physics in 1896, and you can still read and download it today at the Internet Archive.

Three years after receiving her doctorate in physics, she married Charles Theobald Morrison and had two children, but she didn’t just pack her degrees away and take on the only role of wife and mother as society would expect at the time. Not only did she teach physics at the California School of Mechanical Arts, she also co-created the entire physics course there, authoring it with George Merrill. She was also active in a number of charities, and her favorite hobbies included “mountain trips” and “automobiling,” according to the 1914 Women’s Who’s Who, proving that her quest for adventure involved both mind and body. She left this earth far too soon, and her January passing is noted in the May 1928 issue of the Cornell Alumni News.

As Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know the rest of the story.” We just felt such an accomplished, history-making woman deserved more than one line on a webpage. By the way, if any of you write steampunk, she would make an awesome heroine.


Filed under Education, History, News, Science

All the World’s a Stage, and Astronomers Find a Galaxy in the Cheap Seats

Who’s an adorable little galaxy? You are!

Astronomers at Arizona State University (ASU) have discovered something more distant than Kim Kardashian’s chances of winning a Nobel Prize in Physics: a galaxy so faint, it’s listed as one of the top ten most distant objects from space. The one thing astronomers can tell from 13 billion light-years away is that they are looking at the galaxy’s baby pictures, back when the universe still had a full head of hair and something to do on Saturday night.

The team, led by James Rhoads, Sangeeta Malhotra, and Pascale Hibon of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, utilized the Magellan telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. These telescopes produce extremely clear images, and the team focused in on narrow infrared bandwidths, going step by step through the universe’s photo album by looking for longer, more colorful wavelengths. The technique is a lot like reviewing your hairstyles through the decades, until you finally flip all the way to the baby curls in the beginning.

While this galaxy, affectionately called LAEJ095950.99+021219.1, is the farthest one yet identified, the team plans to continue pushing the boundaries of the technique and technology to learn more about the characteristics of these galaxies and how they morph into the recognizable galaxies we know today.

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