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Congratulations to the winner of the 2019 Yale Scientific Synapse High School Essay Contest!
This year’s essay prompt was:
There is a moment that defines success, that “ah-ha” moment when the barrier of your expectations of what is possible to achieve is shattered. Yet, for every Nobel Prize success story or every innovation that is deemed media frenzy worthy, there are hundreds of breakthroughs that go unnoticed by the general public. Choose an important but under-discussed breakthrough from the past 5 years, and describe why it is so significant.
Entangled in a Quantum Future
1st Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2019
Bergen Catholic High School, Oradell, NJ
The rate of discovery in science has accelerated dramatically since the 20th century. This should not be surprising since our knowledge base doubles approximately every 13 months. Some scientists even predict that the “internet of things” will lead to even more dramatic accelerations. Many of these advancements have gained widespread recognition while others are relatively unknown to the general public.
For example, Chinese researchers at Shanghai’s University of Science and Technology made advances on data teleportation based on quantum entanglement but remained underrecognized. In 2017, this team, led by Ji-Gang Ren, shattered previous distance records for such teleportation experiments. The previous record, set in 2015, achieved successful transmissions using 104 kilometers of superconducting molybdenum silicide fiber. Firing a high-altitude laser from Tibet to the orbiting Micius satellite, the Chinese team achieved successful transmissions over distances up to 1400 kilometers. Later, they successfully transmitted quantum data from the satellite back to Earth at distances ranging from 1600 to 2400 kilometers. In doing so, they demonstrated the viability of someday being able to create a “quantum internet,” over which information could be exchanged far more securely than is possible today.
The phrase quantum teleportation is somewhat misleading. In the Chinese experiments, no particles were physically teleported from Earth to space like most people might imagine after watching sci-fi programs like Star Trek. “Quantum teleportation” involves information, not matter. To grasp this, we need to understand the basic nature of quantum entanglement.
Quantum entanglement is a way of describing two particles with matching quantum states. The states in question, of which there are four possibilities, have to do with vertical or horizontal polarization. The entangled particles are linked in such a way as to mutually influence one another. Moreover, when one particle is observed, information about the other can be known. These effects hold true even if the entangled particles are separated by great distances.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu first experimentally demonstrated quantum entanglement in a laboratory, showing an Einstein-type correlation between two photons that were well separated from one another. Back then, all she could do was show correlations between entangled photons separated by a small distance. The experiment conducted by Dr. Ren’s team in 2017 is fundamentally the same as the experiment that was conducted by Dr. Wu almost seventy years ago. However, the Chinese researchers’ achievement is significant because they strove to do what Dr. Wu did at a far greater scale. Instead of performing the experiment in a laboratory, the Chinese physicists demonstrated entanglement between a photon on Earth and a photon on an orbiting satellite. These particles were separated by distances of at least 500 kilometers—the greatest distances that quantum entanglement have ever been recorded. This accomplishment was all the more impressive as it was achieved using detectors on a satellite that was traveling around Earth at orbital speeds.
Quantum entanglement means that data can seemingly be “teleported” since the information about one of the particles in an entangled pair will always reflect information relevant to the other particle. This is the main concept behind the potential applications being investigated by scientists. While nothing may be physically teleported, the fact that information about an object can be accessed instantaneously from anywhere has significant implications for the future.
One potential application of this concept is the quantum internet. The researchers showed that working with entangled particles while they are separated and moving at fast speeds is possible. This could provide a means of ensuring data security. Since the mere act of observing a particle changes its quantum properties, recipients of information over a quantum network could instantly know, by comparing the state of the paired particle at the point of transmission to that of its partner at the point of reception, not only if a message had been decrypted, but even if it had been merely observed. To this end, the Chinese scientists—in collaboration with European partners at the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences—aim to establish a secure quantum-encrypted channel by next year, and a global network in the following decade.
It is not surprising that the first practical applications of quantum entanglement are expected to appear in the realm of cyber-security. The regular internet is vulnerable to hacking because data still flows through cables in the form of bits, into which the hacker can tap and decrypt. A bit can either represent a zero or a one, but not both at the same time. The quantum internet, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem because it utilizes qubits, a quantum state a particle is in when it represents both zero and one simultaneously. If a hacker tried to access a stream of qubits, the qubits would seem to have values that are either zero or one, but not both. This means that by trying to access information in the stream of qubits, the hacker would just end up destroying the data he is trying to hack.
Beyond this, the term “quantum internet” doesn’t actually have a clear definition. “Quantum internet is still a vague term,” explains physicist Thomas Jennewein of the University of Waterloo.
In summary, the research being conducted by Dr. Ren, his colleagues, and their European partners on data teleportation via quantum entanglement is significant because it represents the scaling-up of this technology to the point where its practical application is imminent. Before 2017, no previous experiments in this field had been done over comparable distances with such reliable results. The fact that global partners are planning to establish secure quantum channels based on these experiments in the near future ensures not only that such networks will soon be a global reality, but also that scientists will be delving ever deeper into the mystery of quantum entanglement. This research places humanity on the threshold of a new world of quantum applications that we can scarcely imagine today.
Congratulations to the winners of the 2018 Yale Scientific Synapse High School Essay Contest!
A Plantastic Solution to an Aqueous Problem
By John Lin
Water covers about 71 percent of Earth’s surface, but throughout the world, this natural resource appears to be drying up.1 Due to global warming, desertification is rapidly spreading across the world. The world is finding that critical freshwater reserves are disappearing in the face of increasing population growth.2 Just as more water is needed, less water is available. However, cacti have dealt with this problem for millennia and have adapted to arid climates. We can learn from these prickly plants to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems.
Our current stopgap measures are failing. Most modern water storage methods use jerry cans, lidded buckets, and clay pots but require backbreaking labor that is predominantly done by females.3 UNICEF estimates that across the world, women and girls spend 200 million hours collecting water each day, forcing them to abandon their education and employment and enter a cycle of poverty and dependence.4 Additionally, this water is often dirty, resulting in major waterborne disease outbreaks that devastate developing nations, Finally, these buckets require a tradeoff between water supplies, temperature, and sanitation. For example, clay pots lose water to evaporation but are cooler.5 On the other hand, buckets create a warm environment ripe for bacteria growth.
Instead of using costly chemical reactions to synthesize hydrogen and oxygen, scientists can find a cheap solution in biomimicry. Succulent plants are uniquely adapted to absorb and retain water from their arid surroundings. Learning from them will help us efficiently deal with desertification and minimize water conflicts. Cacti are among the most effective succulents, surviving in habitats from the Atacama Desert to the Patagonian steppe.6 Semiarid and arid areas experience varying levels of rainfall, demanding different tissue thicknesses and structural designs. We should study cacti to produce location-specific containers that can absorb and store safe water at optimal temperatures.
Scientists should explore water retrieval methods including cacti’s water absorption. Cacti build shallow roots that can branch out, allowing them to react quickly to rainfall.7 We can utilize capillary action, much like plant roots, to gather water at a cheap energy cost. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of the Sciences are studying artificial root systems that could store rainwater.8 Some cacti also store fog water, thanks to spines that collect water molecules. Scientists from Beihang University are already developing similar structures by electrospinning polyimide and polystyrene.9 Moreover, this could help improve filtration systems. Dr. Norma Alcantar from the University of South Florida found that prickly pear cactus gum effectively removes sediment and bacteria from water.1 0 We could eliminate common diseases, free women to pursue studies, leisure, or careers, and save millions of lives.
Researchers can also improve water storage by focusing on cacti because of their high water retention. Because of their fleshy tissue, many cacti can hold large amounts of water. In fact, Charles Gritzner, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography at South Dakota State University, notes that some can store up to 2 tons of water, or 1,800 liters.1 1 We can learn from their thick structures to maximize the quantity of water stored. Cacti also have unique structural designs including protective hair to deflect sunlight, which defends against dangerous heat levels.1 2 Cacti have additionally developed waxy skin to prevent water loss.1 3 We can combine this with biodegradable material to promote environmental sustainability by avoiding plastic. These innovations fix the current temperature-water loss tradeoff and maximize utility.
This large, bulky bucket would be incredibly adaptable. In foggier areas like the Atacama Desert, artificial spines would help collect water, while mechanical roots would work better in drier places. The layer of gum-like lining on the inner walls of the pail would improve sanitation. The water would be protected from heat through intricate designs of folds and hair. The outer waxy coating would help preserve water while maintaining cooler temperatures. Humanitarian organizations could distribute this in developing nations, ensuring that each family has a stable, safe source of water.
The consequences of ignoring water shortages are dire because water is the most precious resource of life. Not only is approximately 60 percent of the adult human body made of water, each American uses around 80-100 gallons of water every day.1 4,15 This has promoted hygiene and eliminated disease outbreaks, with handwashing alone reducing diarrheal disease-related deaths by almost 50%.1 6 With antibiotic-resistant bacteria developing rapidly, hygiene is critical for public health. Water is also heavily used in food production, irrigating 62.4 million acres of American cropland in 2010.1 7 Agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawals each year.1 8 As global warming intensifies regional climates, more water is needed. Otherwise, the world would be torn apart by hunger and thirst.
Losing water will also have major geopolitical implications. The World Economic Forum has ranked water crises among the five most impactful global issues for the past four years.1 9 As countries compete for an ever-shrinking supply of water, wars are bound to break out. The Global Policy Forum predicts that more than 50 countries across five continents will likely be forced into water conflicts.2 0 Already, nuclear armed states such as India and Pakistan engage in water fights.2 1 The resulting wars could claim billions of innocent human lives.
Although more advanced technology is being developed, biomimicry provides a cheap, clean, and quick answer to the billions of people surviving on inadequate and unsafe water. Unless we take action, water wars, food shortages, and disease outbreaks will tear the world apart. For the sake of humanity’s survival, we must turn to cacti to guide our water foraging efforts in the developing world.
Congratulations to the winners of the 2017 Yale Scientific Synapse High School Essay Contest!
This year’s essay prompt was:
If Science were to make a huge breakthrough in the next year, what do you think would be the most beneficial one to society? Why?
Breaking Through Ocean Acidification
1st Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2017
Poolesville High School, MD
As a Marylander, one of my favorite things to do is make the trek up to the Chesapeake Bay. Its sparkling waters and abundant wildlife set it apart as a prime jewel of the East Coast. Nothing can compare to the experience of paddling down the Potomac River on a sunny day, the boughs of a sycamore arching overhead.
Apart from being a stunner, the Bay provides major cultural and economic benefits. Its unique way of life is perfectly encapsulated in the small towns of Smith Island, where watermen make a living from the estuary’s riches. On a recent visit, one local said to me, “We truly build our lives around the water.” From the local fisherman to larger commercial operations, the Chesapeake provides $3.39 billion annually in seafood sales alone, part of a total economic value topping $1 trillion.
The stability of these waters is endangered by the growing problem of ocean acidification. This occurs when the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed into bodies of water, causing surging acidity levels. Acidification leads to the protective carbonate coverings of shellfish to disintegrate, killing off large amounts of oysters, mussels, and scallops. Oyster reefs filter the Bay; without a thriving population, harmful pollutants run rampant. The low oxygen conditions caused by high acidity also make it hard for fish to breathe. Even with survivable oxygen levels, low pH can be fatal for fish.
The plummeting numbers of these Chesapeake staples make a dent on the economy. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland and Virginia have suffered losses exceeding $4 billion over the last three decades stemming from the decline of oyster health and distribution. High acidity causes oysters’ growth to be stunted, so that shellfish fisheries cannot profit from the smaller, thinner shells.
The losses aren’t economic alone. An estimated 2,700 species call the Bay their home, a remarkable level of biodiversity that is threatened by ocean acidification. The loss of even one species causes a ripple effect through the entire food web, sending it into a state of unbalance. According to a 2004 study in Science, the survival of threatened and nonthreatened species is closely intertwined: when an endangered species goes extinct, dependent ones suffer. Moreover, biodiversity keeps in check the amount of carbon dioxide in any body of water. Zoom out from the Chesapeake to the world ocean. Skyrocketing acidity is present in almost every aquatic biome on our planet. When pH is low, coral reefs cannot absorb the calcium carbonate that makes up their skeleton. Corals, along with snails, clams, and urchins, disintegrate en masse. A particularly disturbing image of ocean acidification is its effect on the neurology of fish. Their decision making skills are significantly delayed to the level where they sometimes swim directly into the jaws of predators.
Economically, the UN estimates that ocean acidification will take a $1 trillion bite out of the world economy by the year 2100. This massive cost has direct human implications, including health, job security, and cultural heritage. In addition, the economies of many countries are wholly dependent upon reef based tourism and other activities built around the water.
We need a solution to our world’s rapidly acidifying oceans. If science were to make a major breakthrough, solving this problem would be beneficial to our economy and ecology on an unprecedented scale. Methods that at first appeared brilliant have either been limited by their feasibility or come to be outweighed by their negative side effects, ultimately prolonging the search for a solution.
The unorthodox method of dumping enormous amounts of iron sulphate into the water is based on the principle that iron fertilizes phytoplankton, microscopic organisms found in every body of water. The energy phytoplankton gain from the iron allows them to bloom, absorbing CO 2 from the atmosphere and the ocean. When the phytoplankton die they sink to the bottom of the ocean, locking the CO 2 there for centuries. In 1988, the late oceanographer John Martin proclaimed, “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” It is theorized that fertilizing 2% of the Southern Ocean could set back global warming by 10 years.
Why not implement this magic fix? First off, iron fertilization has come under fire for its negative side effects. A 2016 study in Nature determined that the planktonic blooms would deplete the waters of necessary nutrients. Additionally, when the large bloom dies, it would create large “dead zones,” areas devoid of oxygen and life. Side effects aside, this technique may be entirely ineffective. Carbon dioxide may simply move up the food chain when the phytoplankton are eaten and be respired back into the water. This was observed when the 2009 Lohafex expedition unloaded six tons of iron off the Southern Atlantic. The desired phytoplankton bloom it caused was promptly gobbled up by miniscule organisms known as copepods.
The alternative solution of planting kelp is less drastic. Revitalizing expansive forests of algae has proven to be effective in sucking up underwater CO 2 . Kelp grows as quickly as 18 inches a day, and once established offers the added benefits of providing a habitat for marine species and removing anthropogenic nutrient pollution. Researchers from the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, who have been monitoring the capability of this process, have found that kelp forests are effective at diminishing acidification on a local scale. While planting carbonsucking species across the ocean would not be a feasible global solution, kelp forests could help solve the acidification crises found in less expansive areas.
To date, there is not one straightforward fix to combat ocean acidification and its corrosive effects. If a scientific breakthrough were to occur, it would perhaps be comprised of a combination of methods. However, as science and technology continuously evolve, the key to deacidifying our oceans may well turn out to be something beyond our wildest dreams.
A Revolutionary Combatant to Global Warming
2nd Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2017
Fairmont Schools, Anaheim CA
Accelerated industrialization and incredible innovation by the human species has completely morphed our 4.54 billion year-old planetary home in just a few centuries. Through feats of agriculture and language, humans have profoundly suggested superiority over all domains that dwell on Earth. Just recently, the culmination of human capability appears evident; through scientific means such as CRISPR’s gene splicing technique and Elon Musk’s inconceivable vision to send people around the moon, humanity is on the verge of a new creation: a feasible “dominance” over our galaxy.
Nonetheless, several ramifications have scarred our Earth ever since humans have undertook these robust, industrial actions. As first priority, scientists should direct their focus onto preserving our planet from the cataclysmic effects of the greenhouse effect — the trapped carbon dioxide gas in Earth’s atmosphere which thereby generates additional heat into our planet. This can be achieved by developing a renewable energy-based device to chemically convert carbon dioxide into clean products, which in turn will inherently benefit our environment and most definitely the society with the future generation of useful, renewable products.
One prominent solar example of this was physically engineered at the University of Illinois in Chicago, by mechanical engineer Amin Salehi-Khojin, in July of 2016. In their prototyping phase, the research team was able to construct a device that can absorb carbon dioxide, utilize sunlight to break CO2 into “syngas” (gas similar to hydrogen and carbon monoxide), and then use this synthesized gas directly as diesel or be turned into other liquid fuels. Just from this experiment alone, it is discernible that the potential to create such a device to eliminate the excess carbon dioxide exists within the scientific community; thus one can expect multiple breakthroughs in this field in the coming year alone, from solar to maybe even wind based technology. Furthermore, this prototype exemplifies the truly infinite possibilities that renewable energy sources can harness by converting the harmful gas into beneficial compounds.
Indisputably, this methodology has positive consequences, with little to no risk, hence producing an overall positive for both the Earth’s maintenance, and all animals and humans in regards to air quality. However, one may argue that this “breakthrough” has existed for epochs: plants, as they convert the carbon dioxide from the air into valuable sugars through the cyclical, self-sufficient process known as photosynthesis. But due to recent industrialization leading to deforestation, plants in general are becoming more and more rare in an industrial-based city. So without having the plants absorb the toxins and carbon dioxide in the air, the breeding ground for extreme pollution in cities, like New Delhi, India, exists. This eventually triggers an urgent necessity for renewable methods to get rid of these pollutants and toxins; and if plants cease to exist in harsh climates where toxins exist, then this innovative technique of splitting the carbon dioxide into useful products surely will have the ability to stay in industrial cities like these; and if they have capability to withstand the worst toxins, they surely will have the staying power in the international market.
In addition to its efficiency, the mere utilization of such a technology will sincerely resonate with the scientific community. Since numerous attempts have been made by scientists to find sustainable solutions to the greenhouse effect, the community — and more so the public — are desperate for a panacea. This solution not only thrives off the absorption of carbon dioxide, but it also creates several efficient products including but not limited to gaseous compounds that can provide liquid fuel or diesel, thereby acting as a detriment to further carbon emissions. Now, the world has seen this technology exist in one small laboratory. Through extensive research on maximizing the utility of the materials, the next massive breakthrough will be attempting to scale this technology to the international market, while ensuring that this device can be inexpensive as possible so that the scientific community can make some slot of profit. For this effective cost and efficient design, this device can essentially gain international acclaim after scientists give their approval to showcase a brand of these carbon emission combatants, all of which exist in different shape or form but run on renewable, green energy.
Without a cast of a doubt, the renewably-energized devices will completely revolutionize our approach to global warming. By developing a method that can concurrently reduce the carbon dioxide emissions and generating “split” products that promote green energy, the scientific community would absolutely gain the same recognition of this breakthrough as, for instance, circulating two men around the moon. This ideology, in effect, prompts people to question who they really are. Scientists are curious and explorative. But can they halt this mindset and instead focus on a more impeding dynamic: introspection of our character. Thus, it is only ethically sound that we as humans understand one blatant reality: our curiosity has, in essence, disrupted the nature of our Earth. So, it is only morally correct that we humans disband from our brigades in space, leave the hospital’s dissections and illnesses, and truly save our only home known to man.
Congratulations to the winners of the third Yale Scientific Synapse High School Essay Contest!
This year’s essay prompt was: “How does bias affect the course of scientific research? Discuss how public and personal bias has hindered and facilitated scientific progress.”
The Duality of Bias
By Rocel Beatriz Balmes
1st Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2014
Haines City High School
Lake Alfred, Florida
Traditionally defined as a partiality towards particular people, objects, or beliefs, bias has developed a rather negative connotation—particularly in science—of resulting in unfair advantages and, thus, inaccurate results. Though this has, in effect, rendered it equivalent to a social pariah to the scientific community, throughout the years, it has persisted as a definitive barrier to scientific and social progress.
Take, for example, the emergence of “Social Darwinism” in the late 1800s. Despite the fact that Darwin focused only on biological evidence in animals and seldom mentioned ramifications for humans, public bias took the words of famed eugenicist Francis Galton and perpetuated the idea of a biologically superior race. Observing and dissecting the differences between their own fair features and the large lips and dark skin of their slaves, Americans came to the conclusion that they were the de facto superior race in all aspects of humanity, despite the lack of scientific empiricism. Instead of obtaining impartial evidence for their superiority—of which, they would actually find none—they focused their efforts on finding justification for their enslavement and systematic dehumanization of African Americans for centuries to come. Though this pseudoscience was nothing but a gross perversion of Darwin’s widely supported Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection, the concept of a harsher eugenics outlined by Vacher de Lapouge based on this very theory and the idea of white supremacy became the underpinnings of Nazi Germany’s eugenics agenda. This form of scientific racism, verified only by the bias of a racist, ethnocentric society led to the creation of global selective breeding programs that eliminated—and, in fact, continue to eliminate—millions of innocent people leaving only masses of unrealized potential for scientific and social progress.
Unfortunately, such bias is not unique to eras of the past. From the very dawn of its conception in the mid-to-late 1900s, stem cell research has been influenced by bias. Though the utilization of the cells as transformative tissues has been revolutionary, this was only possible with the extraction of the inner cell mass in a human embryo. Such procedures, when first introduced, shocked the public as a process strikingly similar to the very destruction of human life, regardless of the undeveloped status of said human. Researchers were swayed by some of the strongest proponents of the ban of such procedures. Rather than specific religious denominations or political parties, the conflict attracted masses of people from differing backgrounds to forge a formidable opposition to the progression of health science. Consequently, some research institutions succumbed to the period’s public and private moral bias and halted experimentation. That is not to say, of course, that this bias was in any way intended with malice or aimed to deprive severely ill people of life-saving stem cells. Bias—public bias in particular—is oftentimes muddled with the fear of the unorthodox and the unconventional. In this case, though the bias did prevent scientific progression, it is important to note that it was influenced by a people that was, perhaps, not quite ready for such progression.
Alternatively, bias can provide the push that some societies need in order to develop and revolutionize. Just as most words in the English language, the word bias is double-faceted by nature. Far from the unscrupulous reputation it usually holds in science, it can also be defined as a predilection or a fondness for something—an emotion that all scientists must have in order to undertake the challenges of their satisfying yet simultaneously grating careers. Thus, through the years, bias has had the dual role of barrier and catalyst to major scientific breakthroughs.
Take, for example, the conflict with stem cell research. Stem-cell pioneer James Thomson was a researcher in one of only two laboratories in 1998 to successfully extract stem cells and, at the same time, destroy the human embryo from which they were plucked. In a New York Times Article titled “Man Who Helped Start Stem Cell War May End It”, Thomson says that he knew of the social stigma that surrounded his research and that he himself was, at first, very skeptical of the moral implications and had even worked with ethicists before he unknowingly detonated a moral bomb with his ground-breaking scientific research. When public opinion proved to be a seemingly significant barrier biased against his progress, however, instead of backing down and raising the metaphorical white flag of surrender, Thomson’s determination was only fueled by this bias against him. Working with researchers from Kyoto University, Thomson helped developed a new technique of adding a few genes to ordinary skin cells to make them function like stem cells. The scientific ramifications of this ethically sound method are infinite. Aside from the obvious benefits in research, the medical world is now bombarded with revolutionary new methods and treatments as vital tissue generation without the need to wait for donors becomes a possibility. Though the road ahead may still be paved with challenges in production for Thomson, without the public and his own personal bias of morality pressuring him, his systematic search for and discovery of an ethical method would not have become a reality.
Though one might be tempted to label the above example as the exemption to the rule of bias’ role in science, it is important to note that some of the greatest innovations and fundamental truths of our world were conceived under researchers’ personal bias of belief in their ideas. From Galileo Galilei and Louis Pasteur, to Marie Curie and Jane Goodall, these scientists lived during eras during which they were ridiculed by a public inexorably biased against them for daring to have an alternative model of the world and, in the latter individuals’ cases, a gender unorthodox for a scientist. Yet, personal conviction, determination and, yes, bias led these three scientists to international acclaim. Indeed, bias possesses a dual dynamism that allows it to stand as an obstruction to and creator of scientific progress. Suspended between these two polarities is where revolution, innovation, and true science emerge.
Everything is Awesome
By Marina Tinone
2nd Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2014
William H. Hall High School
West Hartford, Connecticut
My brother and I were blessed to have our own Lego collections. Our rooms were lined with shelves and shelves of our own creations, some of them built using the instructions from the Lego sets, most of them made by ourselves. We ditched the boring booklets in the box and just made what we needed.
For my brother, his bricks were used to build complex helicopters and submarines, usually creating machines significantly more complicated than the ones designed by Lego. When I asked him about his submarine, and why all the pieces he used weren’t the same color, he told me that the submarine was supposed to be invisible, so the colors didn’t need to match. Besides, the hinges, the pulleys, the contraptions he made by himself– those were the important parts.
In my world, my Lego creations weren’t invisible. My stuffed animals needed sleds to play in the snow, houses to sleep in, school buses to go to school in the morning and come back in the evening. My machines were not as complex as my brother’s, but they worked, and my colors matched. The stuffed animals needed their yellow school buses, and I thought a sled would look nice in blue.
My brother’s Legos always impressed our parents. He definitely had the eyes of an engineer, a scientist. Now, when Mom and Dad looked into my room and watched their daughter raise a blue sled loaded with stuffed rabbits into the air, well… the kids were different, that’s for sure.
Watching my brother receive praise for his creations from our chemist and engineer parents, I thought that science was restricted to those interests. Science was for the ones who made Legos for the sake of the machine, not for the ones whose stuffed rabbits wore scarves.
I wonder– did the world think the same way I did when Rosalind Picard introduced affective computing in 1997? Upon learning more about the limbic system and its role in shaping perception, Picard realized that it was not enough to simply create new microprocessors and develop energy-efficient chips if they didn’t interact with the user’s emotions and social cues. Technology needed a more human touch to develop. When she created this novel field and opened it to the world, did her peers find such emotion-based studies unworthy? Did they believe that such “science” was an aberration to the disciplines that touted rational, sentiment-free thinking?
As Picard explained to Adam Higginbotham of Wired magazine, “I realized we’re not going to build intelligent machines until we build, if not something we call emotion, then something that functions like our emotion systems.”
Today, there is an international conference and a journal dedicated to affective computing, and labs around the world continue to further the field by finding applications for their “intelligent machines” to shape how we interact with technology every day.
What about those who supported computer science in the 1970s, back when computer science looked like a pile of hole-punched papers? Computer scientists once had to suade others of the viability of a field that would later become one of the most relevant and lucrative areas of study.
What about Gregor Mendel’s investigation with pea plants in 1866? Mendel’s contemporaries criticizing his work surely did not know that he would be credited for fathering the ever-evolving field of genetics.
What about Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine in 1798? No one believed that the ungodly idea of infecting someone to treat someone would save millions of lives.
Did those biased against the potential, the validity of these new fields and scientific pursuits, really understand their purposes and merits? With their closed interpretations of science, did they really understand what science is and can be?
Over time, scientists have attempted to define science. Astronomer Carl Sagan asserted that “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” Physicist Stephen Hawking describes science as “not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.”
Although both eloquently stated their thoughts, I am convinced by the words of chemist Marie Curie –
“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician; he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanism, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its own beauty.”
I remember comparing my blue sled to my brother’s invisible submarine, and I hold onto my creation a little tighter. Maybe there is something more to science than my brother’s sophisticated machines. When my younger self stood in her room, surrounded by her Lego bricks, she shouldn’t have diminished the progress she had made in her Lego laboratory, just because she didn’t use pulleys or interlocking gears.
I shouldn’t have been so close-minded against my own science, just because the world around me was biased against my ideas. From my studies, I hypothesized, I tested, I built upon my past results. My world needed science, but it didn’t need what had already been done, or was already deemed acceptable. It needed my own input. Call my ideas biased, call them faulted. But without the individuals interpreting and solving their world’s struggles using their own definitions, science would cease to develop.
Scientists continue to stand in their laboratories in child-like wonder, enraptured by the phenomena that enchant them, in all shapes and forms. Science is about discovering what you find beautiful in your world, and working, playing, in order to fulfill your personal curiosity and the needs of your imagination.
Let’s sit down. Let’s open up those boxes filled with possibilities. Throw away the instructions.
The Good and Bad of Bias and Prejudice in Science
By Jonathan Chan
3rd Place Winner, Yale Scientific Magazine National Essay Competition 2014
Scientists take pride in using the scientific method that dictates testing a hypothesis dispassionately with objective experiments, scrutinizing that the results are replicable, presenting all the data for independent peer review, and addressing any dissenting views vigorously. Over the years, scientists have been very successful in creating the public myth that they love second guessing their own hypotheses to safeguard themselves from unintentional bias and prejudice. This rigorous process has enabled science to become exalted as an arbiter of truth by most people. In reality, however, scientists behave very differently and bias in scientific research is in fact quite common; a steadily growing number of published papers have been found to be not replicable, calling into question the validity of many widely accepted hypotheses.
Scientists are humans, with personal beliefs and values. It is human nature to look for evidence to support one’s beliefs. A fundamental flaw of human nature is its love for being proven right and hate for being proven wrong. This flaw causes scientists to unconsciously find data to confirm their preferred hypotheses or preconceptions, and they overlook – even disregard – evidence that is contrary. This phenomenon is known to psychologists as “confirmation bias”. A study of the efficacy of Chinese acupuncture is an interesting example of how cultural beliefs of scientists affect their research. Clinical experiments on acupuncture performed in Asia overwhelmingly support its therapeutic effectiveness, while trials implemented in the West show inconclusive results.
“Confirmation bias” can influence every step of any scientific experiment set up to test a hypothesis, from how the experiment is designed, to how the results are measured, to how the data are interpreted. Scientific research today is highly competitive and involves significant financial resources; a culture of publish or perish is pervasive. There is constant pressure on scientists to generate groundbreaking discoveries in drugs, materials, and technologies. The experimental methods are highly complex, and as a result, “positive results” are extremely difficult to produce, measure, and assess. No wonder many researchers become overly excited over the first piece of positive data, giving it biased prominence over the mundane, negative results and subsequently “shoe- horning” the flawed data that eventuate a faulty conclusion.
In theory, peer review by independent professionals and publications should provide an effective defense against these subtle biases. In practice, however, this process is just as prone to the same kind of confirmation biases which favors positive results over null data and negative hypotheses. A recent study on the selection process of scientific publications concludes that papers are less likely to be published and to be cited if they report “negative” results. A prominent example of this institutional bias involves a high-profile study which linked child MMR vaccination with increased incidences of autism. This study caused widespread panic and resulted in a detrimental decade-long decrease in child immunization. Although numerous studies were conducted at the same time supporting a contrary conclusion, these “negative-result” papers failed to gain the level of attention of the “positive-result” paper the retraction of which took ten years.
History is replete with incidences where biases and prejudices have not only steered scientific research, but also fostered malicious prejudice of the research on an unsuspecting public. The prejudicial practice of eugenics in the early 1900’s caused thousands of innocent people to be labeled as inferior and unjustly persecuted for no scientific reason. Lysenkoism in the 1930’s in the Soviet Union advocated bias and useless “scientific” methods to increase crop yields for political purpose, resulting in the deaths of millions of starving peasants. On the other hand, bias has not always hindered scientific progress. Scientists in the past could not have known whether their brilliant ideas were right or wrong. Many of the problems they were trying to solve were not only difficult but also inductive due to a lack of evidence. These ideas necessarily originated as wild guesses encompassing the scientists’ individual biases and prevailing societal values.
Astrophysicist Mario Livio in his book “Brilliant Blunders” provides a litany of bias- induced scientific blunders which in time transformed into breakthrough scientific discoveries. Linus Pauling was a protein specialist and was likely to be biased in favor of proteins, which fueled his erroneous prediction of the DNA structure. Charles Darwin came out with the flawed theory of inheritance because he was likely influenced by the biases of the plant and animal breeders prevalent during his career. Lord Kelvin’s inordinate devotion to tidy mathematics and his bias against messiness resulted in his inaccurate calculation of earth’s age.
However, as these unconscious personal biases and societal prejudices are “uncovered” and properly understood, this development can actually facilitate the pursuit of true scientific knowledge. Bias and prejudice in science have caused unfortunate setbacks but at the same time have generated clarity for decisive shifts in thinking and accelerated advances. The scientific process is complex, messy, and at times even boring, full of starts and stops. Yet, this system of inquiry encompasses a self-correcting tendency which has withstood the test of time and remains a stunning success in understanding nature and improving lives. As influential German philosopher Hans-Gerog Gadamer writes: a researcher “cannot separate in advance the productive prejudices that enable understanding from the prejudices that hinder it”. Preconceptions can spur as well as blind in scientific research.
Unfortunately, scientific research today may have become overly zealous in guarding itself against biases and prejudices, succumbing to politically correct social forces and avoiding tackling sensitive problems and issues which may offend the prevailing public morality. Scientific research is increasingly constrained by these forces dictating what topics can be studied, how we study them, why we need to study them, and who gets to do the studying. A bigger crisis looms should science lose its relevance and importance due to excessive fear of unavoidable bias and prejudice in scientific research. As the Wright brothers said: “If a man is in too big a hurry to give up an error he is liable to give up some truth with it.”[/vc_column_text][vc_button2 title=”Go back” style=”square” color=”sky” size=”sm” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fwww.yalescientific.org%2Fsynapse%2Fcontest-winners%2F|title:Contest%20Winners|”][/vc_column][/vc_row]