Bleats

The Term 'Scientist' Was Invented When This Woman's Epic Science Skills Couldn't Be Adequately Defined

Yes queen.

Here’s a fun fact: the term ‘scientist’ didn’t exist until a woman named Mary Somerville turned up and had way more skills than the men in her field.

Mary Somerville was a Scottish science writer, polymath and all-round badass female who was born in the late 1700s. She was almost entirely self-taught and studied everything from math to astronomy and geology.

Mary Somerville. Credit: National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images

Somerville was an expert in so many different fields, the people around her *literally* got to the point where they were asking, ‘what do we refer to this person as?’ Until 1834, the only term that existed to describe someone who specialised in science was a “man of science,” and obviously this wasn’t going to work for Somerville.

Scientific historian William Whewell was writing a glowing review of Somerville’s book On The Connexion of the Physical Sciences, when he reached the same conundrum and coined the term “scientist” to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of Somerville’s work. 

Credit: Wikipedia

Being the first ‘scientist’ isn’t Somerville’s only feat, either. In 1868, she was the first signature on John Stuart’s unsuccessful petition to Parliament proposing votes for women, and she was one of the first two women to become members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

In her book Personal Recollections Somerville expressed that “from my earliest years my mind revolved against oppression and tyranny, and I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men.”

When Somerville passed away in 1872, The Morning Post wrote in her obituary, “whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.” What a queen she was. 

All Your Area 51 Questions, Answered By An Actual Astronomy Expert

A real life scientist on aliens. You're welcome.

By now, you’d be well aware that the Internet is really, really obsessed with aliens and finding an extraterrestrial soulmate at Area 51. 

Could it be love? Credit: Giphy

It all started when some random dude created a Facebook event to ‘Storm Area 51,’ which now has almost 2 MILLION attendees and has even influenced our searches on adult websites.

So, what’s the big deal? Are aliens real? Are they waiting for us at Area 51? What is the meaning of life? 

Are these guys even real? Credit: Giphy

Instead of trying to get the answers by looking at the thousands of UFO memes infiltrating social media right now, we thought it’s probably best to speak to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

I sat down with Dr. Rebecca Allen, who has a PhD in Astronomy and works at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology, to ask her these very important questions and it’s safe to say, my mind is blown.

Can you explain the connection of Area 51 to UFOs?

“During World War II, the Manhattan Project sparked the need for government facilities, where newer, more dangerous and powerful weapons and technology could be tested. Area 51 was established in Nevada in the 50s, and being out in the desert, it was the perfect place to test aircraft technology.

A billboard near Area 51. Credit: David Becker/Getty Images

“The desert in nearby California has a long history of testing airforce technology. In Roswell, New Mexico there have been several sightings of unidentified flying objects (now commonly referred to as UFOs). In mid-1947, a farmer in Roswell found material in his field and what got people really excited is that the government flat-out lied to that guy. They told him it was a weather balloon, but it turned out to be a nuclear test surveillance balloon for the top secret Project Mogul.

“As a species, when we realise that information is being kept from us and then we hear about sightings of unidentified objects, our imaginations run wild.”

Why do you think people are so convinced there are aliens at Area 51?

“There’s a whole idea that aliens are here, that they’ve been captured, and they’re being held at Roswell (or in this case, Area 51).”

“People want to know the truth – they think the government is lying and they’re not to be trusted… and they had lied, that’s on the record. Also, don’t forget, this is a government facility, paid for and supported by taxpayer’s dollars, so we want to know what’s really going on.

At least there’s parking. Credit: David Becker/Getty Images

“Somebody just created this as a Facebook prank, but it’s that sense of something being ‘hidden’ from us. Especially in the era of Trump and fake news, we want to know what is our government is hiding.”

If the 2M people attending the Facebook event do storm Area 51, what is the likelihood that they will come in contact with UFOs?

“Not to kill the vibe, but the probability of highly intelligent species being here is small. They would have to be way beyond our capabilities to travel here undetected, and land.

“It’s not laughable, and I don’t want to sound like an elitist, but you have to think of distances and time scales. Even in our solar neighbourhood, the nearest star is five light years away. Light, which is the fastest moving thing we know, has no mass and it still takes five years. So, it would probably take us something like 50 years to reach it.

They’d have to be light years ahead of us. Credit: Giphy

“There’s just such a small chance that there is a civilisation that has evolved anywhere near the same time scale as us. Also, think of all the mass extinctions that have happened on Earth. Add to that the way we treat each other, even on our very own planet, and it’s very easy to have life wiped out. It’s a lot of factors combined. “

So, is there other life out there?

“I can say with 100% confidence that there is other life out there. There’s probably some form of microbial life – whether it’s on Mars, or under one of the ice surfaces,” Dr. Allen said.

“We originally thought that the moons of Saturn and Jupiter were just giant ice rocks, but we’ve since seen activity which alludes to the fact that they could have deep oceans under their surfaces. We think that was a way that life could have started on Earth. You could have this primordial life, even out there, in our own solar system.

Saturn’s moon, Mimas.
Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“I absolutely think there is other intelligent life out there, we’ll just never overlap. As for communicating with other life, if you look at our means of communication, the signals that we’re sending, they would be so weak. It would be very hard for anyone else to pick them up.”

What do we know so far about these ‘aliens’?

“We’re the only example of intelligent life as highly evolved as we are. We just got lucky, that we stemmed from a species that had arms, fingers and toes that are capable of using tools that help us get a leg up to live more comfortably.

Evolution is wild. Credit: Giphy

“We are DNA, carbon-based life forms. Carbon is a common element, so it seems highly likely that it would be a building block for the creation of life, even in another solar system. But maybe they wouldn’t even be DNA-based, we really don’t know, because we’re the only example.

Mons volcano on Mars. Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

“What’s going to be amazing within our lifetimes, is that we will find microbial life – even just relics of it – on Mars that may not resemble anything like what we’ve seen before. Or it could be very similar and tie into the idea of Panspermia: that life started on Mars when it was far more habitable, and that something like an asteroid impact brought those seeds of life to Earth.”

Flying saucers are the mode of transport for UFOs you see in pop culture references. Would this actually work as a means of transportation to Earth from another planet?

“They would have to travel in a completely different way. It would be closer to a Star Trek teleportation.

Beats catching the bus. Credit: Giphy

“We know, thanks to Einstein, that there is a relationship between mass and energy. To go faster requires more energy, and that’s just impossible for things with as much mass as us. Look at the rockets we’re sending up, and how much energy it takes just to get off the surface of our planet. These are massive structures, so it would certainly take a technology which is beyond our current understanding to make it possible.

Getting this guy off the ground isn’t easy.
Credit: Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Images

“It would have to be a civilisation that was so advanced that they were using something like teleportation, but then you come back to the question: Why the heck would they care about little old Earth?

“Forget Area 51, look at the conspiracy theories about ancient aliens – that our most amazing achievements early on in civilisation, such as the pyramids, are attributed to aliens coming to give us technology. It’s like – OK, wouldn’t they have better things to do than show us how to build a pyramid?”

What about space and astronomy blows your mind the most?

“We live in the Milky Way which is one galaxy, but our universe is almost 14 billion years old. The thing that really stuns me is that we live in such a vast and old universe, and that these numbers we can’t even really comprehend.

Think about it. Credit: Giphy

“Also, that we as human beings have learned so much and we have eyes, and brains, and we’ve evolved. We’ve been lucky enough to evolve to this point, from the very beginning of what life was. I find it incredible that we have the ability to appreciate that, and we continue to develop technology so we can study it even more.”

Any final thoughts on storming Area 51?

“These stories, which might seem a bit ridiculous and fantastical, end up making people curious and inspired,” Dr. Allen said. “Maybe the Area 51 story doesn’t have as much merit, but it stems from something that really does. We live in such a cool place and space is great.”

Space IS cool. Credit: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So, perhaps storming Area 51 isn’t going to give you many answers, but you can find more about space and see Dr. Rebecca Allen in person at Swinburne University of Technology’s Open Day this Sunday the 28th of July from 10am-4pm at the Hawthorn Campus. 

The truth is out there! 

Study Finds That Crappy Canned Laughter Makes Jokes Funnier

Cue the dad jokes.

Ah, canned laughter. For many, it’s nauseating background noise that comes part and parcel with most daytime TV shows and re-runs, but for me, it offers a level of childhood comfort and apparently, it actually makes jokes funnier.

According to a study conducted by Professor Sophie Scott from University College London, “adding laughter to a joke increases the humour value, no matter how funny or unfunny the joke is.”

Dads, we’re looking at you.

Gotcha! Credit: Giphy

During the study, researchers asked 72 volunteers to rate how funny they found 40 jokes accompanied by no laughter, short canned laughter, and short real-life laughter. Believe me when I tell you, these jokes were intentionally awful. For example, one of them was: “What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?” (answer: a carrot…ba-dum tish!)

What a punchline. Credit: Giphy

Turns out all groups of people gave higher “funniness ratings” to jokes paired with canned laughter than with no laughter at all. 

“Historically, TV and radio programmes were always recorded in front of a live studio audience: this allowed those watching and listening to feel part of the performance,” Professor Scott told The Independent.

“However, as audience reaction was natural, certain ‘comedy’ programmes which weren’t overtly funny wouldn’t get a long laugh, so TV and radio producers increasingly added canned laughter to prompt an audience reaction.”

HA HA HA HA. Credit: Giphy

Ultimately, the study found that spontaneous laughter got the highest “funniness rating,” but there is now proof that canned laughter still gets a giggle. So next time you find your ribs tickled by a cringeworthy scene in The Big Bang Theory, don’t feel too guilty.  

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