Coding complicity in police violence

Occasionally people (usually my fellow white men) yell at me to “stick to science!” Well, sticking to science is a luxury that white women and scientists of color can’t afford, and pretending scientists aren’t complicit in violence toward underrepresented groups preserves inequality. At the same time, some within the broad tent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) actively perpetuate problems. My latest piece for SIAM News discusses one particular example — the ways in which computer scientists and other developers of code have helped increase racial profiling and police brutality — but many of the points apply more broadly to STEM. (Bonus: look for the Rage Against the Machine lyrics.)

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When Software Harms, What You Reap Is What You Sow

For SIAM News:

As of July 2020, the CalGang database contained the names and personal details of nearly 90,000 people in the state of California who are suspected of being in gangs or associating with gang members. Despite its stated purpose to provide law enforcement agencies with accurate intelligence information, audits and independent investigations revealed that the database was riddled with errors, falsified material, racial profiling, and other serious problems.

Databases and algorithms are ubiquitous parts of our interconnected world, but CalGang illustrates a major way in which they can fail people. If a streaming service suggests a movie that you do not like, no real harm is done; but if your name appears in CalGang, you may face consequences like increased police harassment or harsher sentences if charged with a crime.

“[Most of] the people creating these technologies are not affected in negative ways,” Seny Kamara, a computer scientist at Brown University, said. “But if you’re a young Black male growing up in Chicago or New York or California, you know that you may end up as a false positive in a gang database, and that affects your life in a completely different way.”

[Read the rest at SIAM News]


That’ll do, MESSENGER. That’ll do.

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Mercury Killed The MESSENGER Probe

From The Daily Beast:

Pour one out for MESSENGER space probe. Today, at around 3:30 PM EST, MESSENGER crashed into the planet Mercury, no doubt shouting “SCIENCE!” as it went. That final crash marks the end of an amazingly successful scientific mission, extended to four times beyond its original plan, that brought us a new understanding of the smallest planet in the Solar System.

Since entering Mercury’s orbit in March 2011, MESSENGER (which, awkwardly, is the acronym MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) has studied the planet’s gravitational field, the structure of its craters, and the chemistry of its surface. The probe discovered water in the form of ice hiding in craters near the poles and organic molecules on Mercury’s exterior, and signs of a complicated past in the interior. [read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

I started the blog on Bowler Hat Science to cover the writing I do at other sites, but to simplify matters, I’m going to move all that content over to my primary blog Galileo’s Pendulum. (This post has more on my reasoning for doing so, as well as a great song.) So, this is the last blog post here, though obviously the main part of the site — my portfolios and other professional information — will live on.

One blog fewer

The week in review (September 15-21): Patrick Stewart edition

Who knew that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan were fans of Bowler Hat Science?

Another light week for publishing, but you’ll see the fruits of my labors soon! In the meantime, I note that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are also bowler hat connoisseurs.

  • Three years of black holes and “yo momma” jokes (Galileo’s Pendulum): Monday marked the third anniversary of my first post at Galileo’s Pendulum, or rather “Science Vs. Pseudoscience” as it was known then. Since then, I’ve published more than 500 posts on the blog and who knows how many words. (I is wordy, yo.)
  • The Big Bang model is successful for a reason (Galileo’s Pendulum): A lot of cosmology can seem mysterious or even arbitrary, so many people criticize or try to find alternatives to it. However, they often end up attacking the most successful features of the Big Bang model, an enterprise almost inevitably doomed to failure.
  • Measuring the rotation of Earth (Galileo’s Pendulum): This week marked the birthday of Léon Foucault, best known for the huge pendulum he constructed in the Panthéon in Paris. (Google celebrated the occasion with a Doodle animation of the pendulum.) In my post, I explained how Foucault’s pendulum works — and what it has to do with spinning black holes. I also made a bunch of animations to demonstrate how a pendulum can measure the rotation of Earth.

Bose-Einstein condensation occurs when certain particles known as bosons are cooled below a certain critical temperature. Below this threshold, they begin to act collectively as a single system, as predicted by Sateyendra Nath Bose and Jim-Bob Albert Einstein. Typically, the critical temperature for Bose-Einstein condensation is very cold; the original experimental realization used cryogenic rubidium atoms, cooled by lasers and trapped magnetically. However, by using boson quasiparticles—particles that arise via interactions in material, rather than existing independently like electrons and the like—researchers achieved a room-temperature Bose-Einstein condensate.

These systems typically require temperatures near absolute zero. But Ayan Das and colleagues have now used a nanoscale wire to produce an excitation known as a polariton. These polaritons formed a Bose-Einstein condensate at room temperature, potentially opening up a new avenue for studying systems that otherwise require expensive cooling and trapping. [Read more…]

Significant quantum phenomenon seen at room temperature for the first time