Skepchick Quickies, Weekend Edition – 6.7


Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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  1. This isn’t techincally a candidate for the list of scientists killed or injured by their experiments, but I’d like everyone to spare a thought for Thomas Midgley.

    In 1921, while working for General Motors, he discovered that adding tetraethyl lead to automotive fuels could reduce engine “knocking”. GM called the additive “ethyl”, avoiding all mention of lead in reports and advertising. This finally made gasoline competitive with ethanol as the fuel of choice, and since there was no profit in ethanol, cars have run on it ever since.

    Within two years, Midgley had to take an extended holiday because he was suffering from lead poisoning. But this didn’t actually kill him.

    Fast forward to 1930, he discovered that CFCs could be used for refrigerants and propellants, which had advantage over the toxic and explosive chemicals use previously.

    He died in 1944 after contracting polio. But it wasn’t the polio that killed him. Oh, no. He was bedridden, so he invented an elaborate mobility-assistance system involving ropes and pulleys. He died of strangulation, caused by getting entangled in it.

    Cause of death: karma.

  2. The 80s fashion article was interesting I wonder if they are aware of the theory of the Golden Mean with regard to attractiveness.

    Basically, the authors in the “80s = ugly” article said “we think things in the 80s are ugly, so here’s probably why.” But according to another theory, they might have been attractive if they were following the golden mean. I’d be interested in seeing an analysis that showed whether any of these folks fell within the golden mean or they were just *that* asymmetrical that they are still “unattractive”.

  3. The symmetry thing makes sense as a general rule I suppose, but I’ll have to admit I was quite into the punk/new wave aesthetic at the time (sported a purple mowhawk at one point). On the other hand, social signaling via fashion must play a pretty big role too. My hypothesis is that for certain segments of the population it doesn’t really matter what the fashion is, as long as one can stay on top of it within one’s (sub)culture, it shows a degree of social savvy that may be important from an evolutionary standpoint (economic resources, social standing, etc.) I also think the human brain can filter out cosmetics and decorative elements such as hairstyle to judge actual physical symmetry. If someone were to have radical plastic surgery to skew their face–and I have seen Jocelyn Wildenstein in real life–shudder, I don’t think it would matter much where their hair was parted.

  4. The Galileo one was a myth. He was losing his eyesight, but this was likely due to natural causes. It was NOT a result of him looking at the sun through a telescope. He knew full well the dangers involved. He performed these experiments by aiming the telescope at the sun, then holding a white card in front of the telescope and seeing how the sunlight reflects off of it.

    Me, I’d replace him with Ascanio Sobrero, who invented/discovered nitroglycerine in 1846. The first time he made it, the mixture blew up in his face, leaving him permanently scarred. Later, he wrote, “When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerine explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to be its discoverer.”

  5. Kimbo: an episode of Brainiac tested the golden mean. They got test subjects and had people rate their beauty. They found no correlation between their ratings and the golden mean.

  6. Regarding gender and math/reading scores: I had always felt that I wasn’t very good in math, that humanities subjects were my strong suit throughout my primary education. A couple of years ago I was going through some storage boxes, including one that had several years’ worth of report cards. It turns out I was much better in math and science than in English, social studies or history. Now I’m wondering why, with that numerical data in front of me at the time, I thought I couldn’t do math (I had something on the order of 96% average throughout high school). I was in high school in the late 70’s and early 80’s, so maybe I was just convinced, in spite of my own personal experience, that girls were worse in math.

  7. That “computers can recognize attractiveness” story is thoroughly unimpressive. I’d be greatly shocked if a neural network couldn’t be trained to respond to facial characteristics in a way which mirrored ratings given by people. So what?

    Many of the stories told about the Golden Ratio are mythical, as Keith Devlin explains:

    The issue here is not whether you can find GR somewhere. If you look hard enough you will be able to find any (reasonably sized) number almost anywhere. The question is whether there is more to it than mere numerology. Is there a good scientific explanation to show why GR appears [e.g., in the nautilus shell], or is there definite evidence that, say, a particular artist made deliberate use of GR in his or her work? If not, all you have is an unsubstantiated belief. You may as well believe in fairies.

    First of all, whether or not the ancient Greeks felt that the Golden Ratio was the most perfect proportion for a rectangle, many modern humans do not. Numerous tests have failed to show up any one rectangle that most observers prefer, and preferences are easily influenced by other factors. As to the Parthenon, all it takes is more than a cursory glance at all the photos on the Web that purport to show the Golden Ratio in the structure, to see that they do nothing of the kind. (Look carefully at where and how the superimposed rectangle — usually red or yellow — is drawn and ask yourself: why put it exactly there and why make the lines so thick?)

    Another claim is that if you measure the distance from the tip of your head to the floor and divide that by the distance from your belly button to the floor, you get GR. But this nonsense. First of all, you won’t get exactly the number GR. You never can; GR is irrational, remember. But in the case of measuring the human body, there is a lot of variation. True, the answers will always be fairly close to 1.6. But there’s nothing special about 1.6. Why not say the answer is 1.603? Besides, there’s no reason to divide the human body by the navel. If you spend a half an hour or so taking measurements of various parts of the body and tabulating the results, you will find any number of pairs of figures whose ratio is close to 1.6, or 1.5, or whatever you want.

    Then there is the claim that Leonardo Da Vinci believed the Golden Ratio is the ratio of the height to the width of a “perfect” human face and that he used GR in his Vitruvian Man painting. While there is no concrete evidence against this belief, there is no evidence for it either, so once again the only reason to believe it is that you want to. The same is also true for the common claims that Boticelli used GR to proportion Venus in his famous painting The Birth of Venus and that Georges Seurat based his painting The Parade of a Circus on GR.

    Painters who definitely did make use of GR include Paul Serusier, Juan Gris, and Giro Severini, all in the early 19th century, and Salvador Dali in the 20th, but all four seem to have been experimenting with GR for its own sake rather than for some intrinsic aesthetic reason. Also, the Cubists did organize an exhibition called “Section d’Or” in Paris in 1912, but the name was just that; none of the art shown involved the Golden Ratio.

    Then there are the claims that the Egyptian Pyramids and some Egyptian tombs were constructed using the Golden Ratio. There is no evidence to support these claims. Likewise there is no evidence to support the claim that some stone tablets show the Babylonians knew about the Golden Ratio, and in fact there is good reason to conclude that it’s false.

    Turning to more modern architecture, while it is true that the famous French architect Corbusier advocated and used the Golden Ratio in architecture, the claim that many modern buildings are based on Golden Rectangles, among them the General Secretariat building at the United Nations headquarters in New York, seems to have no foundation. By way of an aside, a small (and not at all scientific) survey I carried out myself a few months ago revealed that all architects polled knew about the GR, and all believed that other architects used the GR in their work, but none of them had ever used it themselves. Make whatever inference you wish.

  8. I was in high school in the late 70’s and early 80’s, so maybe I was just convinced, in spite of my own personal experience, that girls were worse in math.

    I went to high school in the late 70s and I never got that message that girls were worse in math. Looking back I think my school must have been pretty exceptional. At the time, I assumed it was average.

  9. @writerdd:

    That’s the weird thing. I actually did better in math than most of my peers, in fact, better than my older brother who was considered quite bright, and aced the state Regents exams in all math subjects, so the facts were in my favor. Maybe I thought being “good” in math meant getting a 100% average, if 96% was somehow not as good because of my being a girl–I don’t know. I did have a some real weirdo math teachers–one was kicked out of seminary and eventually lost his teaching job for sexually abusing some of the boys in our junior high school, one who had been in the German army during WWII, and another who would make blatently sexual/sexist comments on what the girls in class were wearing. All three of these fellows were quite free with their disdain/antipathy toward women–something that would certainly get them fired today, but at that time was somehow allowed to go on.

    It is a personal curiosity for me why, for all these years, I “remember” not being too good in math.

  10. My favorite math teacher — 7th grade algebra — was a woman. Maybe that helped with my self-evaluation.

    Of course fanatical Christianity robbed me of any chance to further my math skills and do anything with them. When I finally quit the church, I did, at least, take a few calculus classes. Just, well, because it was fun.

  11. Blake, thanks for the info, as well. I didn’t mean to sound like I was promoting the Golden Mean idea, I was just wondering if the researchers had taken that point of view into account in their research. It is an interesting “debate” – symmetry vs. non-random asymmetry.

  12. I have no question that gender issues affected my perception of my own abilities in math. In grade school, I had few issues with any subject, and my math and language skills were equally good. In middle school, I had a top-notch math teacher in 7th grade who was one of the most gender-blind people I have ever had the good fortune to learn under. (He was also the track coach, and under his leadership our school of 750 had a 200-member track team with a very sizable number of girls.) My 8th grade teacher recognized my abilities and put me on the school’s MathCounts team, where I took first-place honors for individual and team.

    So, one would think I would have a fair amount of confidence in my math skills. Unfortunately, I spent the next two years with a teacher whose teaching style was to demonstrate the technique, leave the assignment on the board, and spend the rest of the class period “available for questions”, which meant “working on football plays” since he was the head coach. It would have been hard to say exactly how he discouraged the girls, but he unquestionably did. I didn’t take any more than the two years that were required for graduation, and came away from his class convinced that I was bad at math.

    Here’s the bizarre part. When I took the SATs, well over a year after having any math instruction of any kind, I got the results back and they simply reinforced my conviction. My math score was 60 points lower than my verbal score, therefore I was “bad at math.” (This was in 1990, before they adjusted the scoring system, and most of my advanced placement classmates had total scores ranging from 1200-1400.)

    My scores? 800 on the verbal, 740 on the math. But to me this meant I was “bad at math.” Go figure …

  13. This new research exactly supports my hypothesis. My understanding of why some men think women are bad at math is that once women become adults and romantically involved with men, there are some men who insist on telling them that something 2 inches long is actually 6 inches long. Women value the feelings of their romantic partners so they humor these men. Over time women learn to recognize which men need to be humored in this way, even men they have never been romantically involved with. Women then confabulate the lengths of things when talking with these men, so these men develop the idea that women are bad at math.

    The men who think women are bad at math are the men that women noticed need to be humored about the length of things. My experience has always been that women are excellent at math. Men who experience that women are bad at math must be doing something to bring that out in women. Telling women they are bad at math does make them bad at it. It is men who are misogynistic who are so insecure that they need to lie to women about such things. Those are the same men who tend to cause the gender inequalities in other areas.

  14. Regarding the gender math gap, the Sciencenews article started off by talking about Summers (who I think was making statements, however ill-advisedly, about gender differences at the upper end of the ability range) but the article then went on to talk about a study which was seemingly looking largely at average performances of populations.

    I’m sure if Summers was looking at the most recent (2006) figures, from
    he’d point out that in both the top 2 categories in the maths test, it’s evident that throughout the OECD countries, despite variation in magnitude, there was still a difference between genders consistently in favour of the boys.
    In every one ofl the OECD countries, in relative terms, that difference was greater in the top (level 6) category than in level 5. Summers could probably take a degree of comfort from that.

    In the sciencenews article, where mention is made of high-end performance, it does seem to choose a category (top 1%) which would make a skeptic wonder if the choice was made because it happened to give desirable data for the countries defined as gender-neutral, especially if no mention was made of the level 5&6 category data which gives a quite different impression.

    Even in the 2003 figures,
    Iceland was the only place where girls beat boys in the top 2 categories, though that had changed by the 2006 results.

    (from the sciencenews article)
    >>”The Macao region of China, Brazil and Turkey had low scores in gender equality and correspondingly low girls’ math scores.”
    In 2003, that does seem to be at best misleading.
    Macao-China had pretty good absolute scores for boys and girls, (both rather better than the OECD average) albeit with a relatively high difference between male and female scores, (which dropped somewhat in 2006).
    Turkey, on the other hand, had relatively low absolute scores (both below the OECD average), but with relatively low difference between the genders (again rather lower than the OECD average).
    In Brazil, the absolute scores were both low but the gender difference was actually fractionally lower than the OECD average, though that worsened in 2006.
    I wish I knew what sciencenews meant by ‘low girl’s maths scores’, since it isn’t obvious from the data I can find.

  15. Calculus, fun? Geez, Donna, you *are* weird.

    Actually, I really like math, I just hit a wall at calculus. Hard. Going about 90mph.

  16. Wow. That list of scientists had one name missing that should have been a shoo in. The early 19th century physicist and biologist Dr. Frank Stone. (The spelling may be off, I’m going from memory here.) He conducted early experiments on the interaction between electric current and the mammalian brain. Eventually he managed to cobble together and electrically animate a human body/brain. The creation, a modern Prometheus if you will, was eventually implicated in Dr. Stone’s death. (Along with several others?)

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