In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Nature, and Smithsonian magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.
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Are We at Risk for a Space Arms Race?
The Pentagon’s space-based missile defense plans could escalate tensions with rival space powers.
On March 27, India tested its first anti-satellite weapon, an interceptor missile that blew up an Indian military satellite in space. The test put India in an exclusive club of nations — including the U.S., Russia, and China — that are building the capacity to shoot down both missiles and satellites. And the other members of the club aren’t happy.
On April 1, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine criticized India’s test, angry that the resulting debris may have reached the orbit of the International Space Station and other satellites.
“That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said at a town hall meeting that was livestreamed on NASA TV. “And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see happen.”
Yet the future of human spaceflight looks increasingly militarized. The Department of Defense has declared its own plans to attach missile-detecting sensors on satellites, and more menacingly, to seriously consider building interceptors that could be deployed in space. If Congress approves new funding for these projects, the technology could encourage rivals to ratchet up their own space weapon capabilities, triggering an arms race that could make orbital wars with lasers and satellites a reality…
[Read the entire piece in Medium magazine, published on 18 April.]
The Disturbing Resilience of Scientific Racism
A new book explores how racist biases continue to maintain a foothold in research today.
Scientists, including those who study race, like to see themselves as objectively exploring the world, above the political fray. But such views of scientific neutrality are naive, as study findings, inevitably, are influenced by the biases of the people conducting the work.
The American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois once wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” His words were borne out, in part, by science. It was the century when the scientifically backed enterprise of eugenics—improving the genetic quality of white, European races by removing people deemed inferior—gained massive popularity, with advocates on both sides of the Atlantic. It would take the Holocaust to show the world the logical endpoint of such horrific ideology, discrediting much race-based science and forcing eugenics’ most hardline adherents into the shadows.
The post-war era saw scientists on the right-wing fringe find ways to cloak their racist views in more palatable language and concepts. And as Angela Saini convincingly argues in her new book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, published May 21 by Beacon Press, the “problem of the color line” still survives today in 21st-century science…
[Read the entire piece in Smithsonian magazine, published on 20 May.]
Women in physics
The percentage of women in post-graduate physics positions has stalled just below 20%. The most precipitous drop in women’s representation occurs between high school and university; however, women at all career stages struggle with ongoing cultural burdens and obstacles.
In affluent countries, only approximately one-fifth to one-fourth of the students enrolling in a university undergraduate physics course are women. “Given that the United States isn’t the only country that’s hitting a 20-percent limit, I suspect that 20 percent is the number of women who are tough enough to bear it,” said Laura McCullough, a physicist at University of Wisconsin–Stout…
Researchers have found evidence for regional variation, including some surprises. In particular, many Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries, such as Iran and Romania, are doing better than the United States, Canada and central European countries1. The latter have lower percentages of women in physics and other science fields, even though they have higher absolute numbers. This may be due to a different salience of gender-based stereotypes that influence students as they pursue their studies and consider careers in science…
[Read the entire piece in Nature Reviews Physics, published on 7 May.]