If you’ve ever heard the term “alpha wolf,” you might imagine snapping fangs and fights to the death for dominance. The idea that wolf packs are led by a merciless dictator is pervasive, lending itself to a shorthand for a kind of dominant masculinity.
But it turns out that this is a myth, and in recent years wildlife biologists have largely dropped the term “alpha.” In the wild, researchers have found that most wolf packs are simply families, led by a breeding pair, and bloody duels for supremacy are rare.
Mech, like many wildlife biologists, once used terms such as alpha and beta to describe the pecking order in wolf packs. But now they are decades out of date, he says. This terminology arose from research done on captive wolf packs in the mid-20th century—but captive packs are nothing like wild ones, Mech says.
When keeping wolves in captivity, humans typically throw together adult animals with no shared kinship. In these cases, a dominance hierarchy arises, Mech adds, but it’s the animal equivalent of what might happen in a human prison, not the way wolves behave when they are left to their own devices.
Space elevators are often dismissed as a science fiction dream, but I believe they will exist soon—perhaps in two or three decades. Throughout my career as an aerospace engineer and physics professor, I keep coming back to the concept of a cable stretching from Earth to space, along which people and cargo can easily travel.
In recent years, I and other researchers have found new ways to tinker with designs and answer questions about how space elevators could work. There are many reasons to build a space elevator. The obvious one is the major energy and cost savings; it’s a much more practical way to get to orbit than rockets.
Another reason that is often overlooked is accessibility. The word “space mission” would be replaced by “transit,” as trips to space become routine and mostly independent of weather conditions. Transits involving humans would be safer than current practices, whereby astronauts must accept a nonnegligible risk to their lives with each launch. A space elevator becomes a bridge to the entire solar system. Release a payload in the lower portion, and you orbit Earth, but do so in the upper portion, and you orbit the sun; all without fuel.
There’s a test that we at Lost Women of Science seem to fail again and again: the Finkbeiner Test. Named for the science writer, Ann Finkbeiner, the Finkbeiner Test is a checklist for writing profiles of female scientists without being sexist.
It includes rules like not mentioning her husband’s job, or her childcare arrangements, or how she was the “first woman to…”—all rules we break regularly on this show. In this episode, Katie Hafner talks to Christie Aschwanden, the science writer who created the test, and Ann Finkbeiner, who inspired it, to find out how they came up with these rules, and to see if there might be hope yet for our series. She reports her findings to Carol Sutton Lewis, who has a whole other set of rules for telling these stories.
Disrupted sleep, lower life satisfaction and poor self-esteem are just a few of the negative mental health consequences that research has linked to social media.
Somehow the same platforms that can help people feel more connected and knowledgeable also contribute to loneliness and disinformation.
What succeeds and fails, computer scientists argue, is a function of how these platforms are designed.
Amanda Baughan, a graduate student specializing in human-computer interaction, a subfield of computer science, at the University of Washington, believes that interdisciplinary research could inform better social platforms and apps. At the 2022 Association for Computing Machinery Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in May, she presented findings from a recent project that explored how social media triggers what psychologists call “dissociation,” or a state of reduced self-reflection and narrowed attention.
Baughan spoke with Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas to explain how and why apps need to change to give the people who use them greater power.
The white supremacist who drove 200 miles to a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket and opened fire, killing 10 people, had posted a screed.
Most of the people he killed were Black. The document’s 180 pages cited not only racist conspiracy theories, but also scientific research on behavioral genetics. The research focused on finding heritable differences in IQ and propensity to violence between racial groups.
There’s no reason to believe, on the basis of his screed, that the Buffalo shooter understood, or even read, the scientific papers. It’s more likely that he collected them, like the racist tropes he reproduced in the document, from message boards and social media channels whose users latch on to titles that seem to promise scientific support for white supremacy.
Scientists who research genetic bases for complex behavioral traits using genome-wide association studies have urged care in the conclusions drawn from population means, and especially in how their scientific results are communicated to general audiences.
But there is compelling evidence that research on the evolution of sociobehavioral traits finds an eager audience among white nationalists.
How fast is the universe expanding? How much does matter clump up in our cosmic neighborhood? Different methods of answering these two questions—either by observing the early cosmos and extrapolating to present times, or by making direct observations of the nearby universe—are yielding consistently different answers.
The simplest explanation for these discrepancies is merely that our measurements are somehow erroneous, but researchers are increasingly entertaining another, more breathtaking possibility: These twin tensions—between expectation and observation, between the early and late universe—may reflect some deep flaw in the standard model of cosmology, which encapsulates our knowledge and assumptions about the universe.
Finding and fixing that flaw, then, could profoundly transform our understanding of the cosmos.
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