Science

Readers Respond to the October 2020 Issue


POLITICAL NECESSITY

I do not think Scientific American should have endorsed Joe Biden for U.S. president in “From Fear to Hope” [Science Agenda]. I do strongly dislike Donald Trump as a president and understand and share the editors’ frustration with a leader whose focus is not on being scientifically correct but on being politically viable. The U.S. will be a better place without his reelection. Yet 175 years of political neutrality should have been more jealously protected. Losing it further divides the country. Trump’s supporters will conclude that Scientific American is unfairly partisan. If there are no institutions where those supporters and detractors can interact without reminders of their differences, both sides will self-segregate. And unnecessarily ostracizing Trump’s supporters amplifies the cohesiveness of his base.

BRENDAN RAFFERTY Philadelphia

As far back as I can remember, my father was an avid reader of your magazine, although he allowed his subscription to lapse a few years ago. Dad has always been conservative. I never have been. We have fun coming up with arguments to convince each other.

It is confounding how so many otherwise intelligent people stubbornly continue to support our so-called president, no matter how much science he dismisses. I suspect Dad began consuming conservative media. Alarmingly, he trusts just about anything it tells him.

When you issued your first endorsement ever for a political candidate, I forwarded the announcement to my father. He soon called and sounded a bit shaken. Thanks to your bold choice to support Biden, Trump got one fewer vote in Arizona. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The world seems a little brighter now.

REBECCA THOMPSON
South Pasadena, Calif.

In one fell swoop, you trashed an admirable tradition of political neutrality and became a propaganda agent of the progressive movement. The willingness of the editors to break that 175-year policy indicates they are not just biased but obsessed with progressive political views.

RICHARD GRUMM Arcadia, Calif.

I am thankful that you stepped away from your norm of not endorsing a political figure because you realized that it was critical for us to understand the significance of this year’s election. As a physician with both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in biophysics, I would hope that a majority of those in science and medicine already came to the same conclusions, but this was a wonderful summary of the important points. Sometimes it is critical to take a different path so that what is obvious to some may become obvious to most.

ROBERT HOOTKINS Georgetown, Tex.

THE EDITORS REPLY: We received hundreds of letters expressing strong approval or dismay in response to our decision to endorse Joe Biden. It was not made lightly. This was an extraordinary election, with a clear choice between a candidate who supports science and evidence and one who has consistently rejected it to promote dangerous policies that hurt people. We hope we will not find it necessary to endorse a political candidate again. But we do intend to be even more engaged in the most urgent social issues of the day.

INTERSTELLAR VISITOR

In “Interstellar Interlopers,” David Jewitt and Amaya Moro-Martín write that the shape of 1I/’Oumuamua, the first interstellar object ever observed, was inferred from its light curve, or the plot of how the sunlight it reflected to Earth changed. But could that light curve have instead been produced by a more rounded object with a nonuniform albedo? Are there known or hypothesized mechanisms that could leave an asteroid significantly more reflective on one side than the other?

MARTIN SCHULMAN Herndon, Va.

Reading the article, I was reminded of author Larry Niven’s 1966 science-fiction story “Neutron Star.” Have astronomers considered tidal forces as a possible explanation for ‘Oumuamua’s elongated shape? Could it first have become plastic from the heat from a close encounter with a gravitationally dense object and then passed near enough to a body such as a neutron star for the tidal effects of the strong gravitational field to stretch it out?

DAN GRAIFER Fairfax, Va.

THE AUTHORS REPLY: Schulman’s suggestion is possible, but based on observations of thousands of solar system asteroids, we think it’s unlikely. While small albedo differences do exist on asteroids, they are typically variations of a few percent, not 1,000 percent. Only Saturn’s moon Iapetus has very different albedos from one side to the other, and that is a special case likely caused by pollution from another moon hitting a single side of the body. In interstellar space, all sides of ‘Oumuamua would be bathed uniformly in starlight and cosmic rays, and it is hard to see why any asymmetry would exist.

Interestingly, an idea like Graifer’s was suggested by researchers Yun Zhang and Douglas N. C. Lin in the September 2020 issue of Nature Astronomy. They posited that a planet passing close to a dense star could be shredded and stretched into pieces, one of which became ‘Oumuamua. This scenario would require a close approach to the star but not so close as to vaporize all the water ice, which would be needed to supply the nongravitational acceleration detected in ‘Oumuamua. As with all such speculative models, the question is “How can it be tested?

STOPPING SYSTEMIC DISCRIMINATION

I could not agree more with Naomi Oreskes’s conclusions in “Sexism and Racism Persist in Science” [Observatory]. I am a retired part-time professor who taught chemical engineering, materials science and engineering science for 13 years. Many of my best students in these difficult and demanding classes were women and people of color. I have no doubt that we are not utilizing such individuals of talent in the sciences and engineering. I strongly believe that these fields should be free of sexism and racism and that our country will be better served if we spend more time and effort in encouraging scientific talent free of such discrimination.

A. G. TOBIN via e-mail

SIRI, CAN YOU HEAR ME?

“Siri Is a Biased Listener,” by Claudia Lopez-Lloreda [Forum], notes that speech-recognition software more frequently misunderstands people who do not have a “standard” accent. Programs such as Siri share the problem with many of us who have high-frequency hearing loss. Because spoken consonants are mostly high-frequency sounds in the range where we have reduced hearing, we depend more on vowels to understand a speaker. But differences in accents occur mainly in vowel sounds, which makes unfamiliar ones much more difficult for us to understand.

Hearing aids can compensate for this issue by enhancing the high-frequency sounds we hear. I wonder if they could also broaden the vowel frequencies. A similar enhancement of Siri’s listening apparatus might help ameliorate its listening bias.

EDGAR W. MILLS Chateaugay, N.Y.


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