News from Nature: women in physics, atom wranglers, musical preferences

Here’s some fascinating stories I’ve been working on lately for Nature in Washington, D.C. I’m proud of these first three news stories for them, and if you’re interested, check them out on Nature‘s website. (And if you quote or cite any of them, please give proper credit.) Special thanks go to my editors, Lauren Morello and Jane Lee.

 

Women in physics face big hurdles — still

Persistent biases continue to affect the numbers of female physicists.

There are more women in the sciences than ever before. They hold leading faculty and administrative positions while their representation in fields such as biology, sociology and psychology has increased. Yet the physical sciences are woefully behind when it comes to the number of women at all levels.

“Physics and engineering both have big gender divides,” says Eric Brewe, a physics education researcher at Florida International University in Miami.

This persistent problem prompted a special issue of the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research, with 17 papers and an editorial on gender issues in physics, published on 1 August. Brewe was one of two guest editors for the issue.

(Credit: ullstein bild/Getty)

(Credit: ullstein bild/Getty)

…The special issue addresses the reasons why relatively few women enter the field of physics, as well as the factors that deter them from completing their degrees. They include a lack of role models, entrenched stereotypes and an undervaluing of their abilities. Many authors also highlighted the fact that women are — usually inadvertently — made to feel like they don’t fit in…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 1 August 2016.]

 

Atom wranglers create rewritable memory

Chlorine atoms arranged into grids bring researchers closer to data-storage devices that could hold the US Library of Congress.

Engineers can only stuff so much computing power into devices like smartphones and tablets before they run up against physical barriers. Although Moore’s law famously predicts that the number of transistors people can squeeze onto memory chips will double every couple of years, technology cannot be miniaturized indefinitely.

Researchers are trying to get around this by starting small — using individual atoms — to make big gains in data-storage capacity. Now, a team has developed a 1-kilobyte rewritable data-storage device using chlorine atoms arranged on a small metal surface. If the team expanded that surface to one square centimetre, it could hold about 10 terabytes of information, the researchers report on 18 July in Nature Nanotechnology.

“It’s by far the largest assembly on an atomic scale that’s ever been created, and it outperforms state-of-the-art hard disk drives by orders of magnitude in data capacity,” says lead study author Sander Otte, a physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 18 July 2016.]

 

Poor musical taste? Blame your upbringing

The world that we hear shapes the music that we like.

Some people like to listen to the Beatles, while others prefer Gregorian chants. When it comes to music, scientists find that nurture can trump nature.

Musical preferences seem to be mainly shaped by a person’s cultural upbringing and experiences rather than biological factors, according to a study published on 13 July in Nature.

“Our results show that there is a profound cultural difference” in the way people respond to consonant and dissonant sounds, says Josh McDermott, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and lead author of the paper. This suggests that other cultures hear the world differently, he adds.

The study is one of the first to put an age-old argument to the test. Some scientists believe that the way people respond to music has a biological basis, because pitches that people often like have particular interval ratios. They argue that this would trump any cultural shaping of musical preferences, effectively making them a universal phenomenon…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 13 July 2016.]

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