Majority of MIT engineering heads are now women, hand dryers are indeed very loud, what should we say to aliens?

MIT engineering
MIT majority: left to right are Asu Ozdaglar, Paula Hammond, Anne White, Angela Belcher and Evelyn Wang (Courtesy: MIT).

Earlier this week the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) tweeted that, for the first time the majority of its heads of engineering departments are women. Pictured above are the five (out of a total of eight) heads. They are Asu Ozdaglar of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Paula Hammond of Chemical Engineering; Anne White of Nuclear Science and Engineering; Angela Belcher of Biological Engineering; and Evelyn Wang of Mechanical Engineering. MIT is an eminent institution when it comes to engineering so let’s hope that universities worldwide will follow its example of equality and diversity.

If you have ever used one of those automated hand-dryers in public toilets you will know just how loud they are. While previous research touched on how they operate at dangerously loud levels for adults, no-one has tested how bad they are for children’s hearing, particularly given that they tend to be installed at head level for a child. That is, however, until nine-year old Nora Keegan took a sound meter and tested 44 different dryers around Calgary, Canada. Now 13, she has just published her work in Paediatrics & Child Health, reporting that many exceed 100 dBA – the top limit allowed for children’s toys in Canada.

Keegan measured sound levels where children stand and found that some dryers even touch an ear-busting 121 dBA (I hope she was wearing ear plugs). Not content with just a paper, Keegan has even invented a prototype air diverter that reduces the noise level for shorter users by around 11 dBA and is thinking about taking it to manufacturers. Hopefully, it won’t fall on deaf ears.

How should humanity respond if contacted by an alien civilization? Some, including Stephen Hawking, believe that we shouldn’t say anything lest a response elicits an alien invasion. Others advocate a friendlier approach, but who gets to decide – and furthermore, would it be possible to co-ordinate a single response? The Guardian’s science editor Ian Sample has spoken to members of the UK SETI Research Network, who are about to launch a survey of public attitudes towards alien contact. As well as pointing out that there is nothing in international law about alien contact, the scientists also concede that deciding on a response should not be left to just the scientific community.

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