The Super Bowl of Science

Are you a high school senior with an interest in math or science? Then you owe it to yourself to check out the Intel Science Talent Search, an annual competition for young scientists. Older readers like myself may know the program better by its former name, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search -- the competition has been running annually for 68 years, though Intel has sponsored it since 1999. In his 1991 speech to STS finalists, President George H.W. Bush famously called the competition the "Super Bowl of science."

STS winners get scholarships, a trip to Washington to network with other finalists (including a meet-and-greet that generally features the President, Vice President, and/or First Lady), laptops, and a chance to work directly with scientist mentors on their projects. This year's top winner (who received a $100,000 scholarship) was Erika DeBenedictis of New Mexico, whose project was described thusly:

Working at home and building on existing research, Erika developed an original optimizing search algorithm that discovers energy minimizing routes in specified regions of space and would allow a spacecraft to adjust its flight path en route. She believes her novel single-step method of repeated orbit refinement could work with essentially autonomous spacecraft, and may be a practical step forward in space exploration.

Not bad for a high school student, right? DeBenedictis's home page reads like a CV already.

Here's the "highlight reel" from this year's awards ceremony:

After the jump: updates on past winners, and a bit more about the history of the competition.

What Past Winners Have Done

Many STS winners have gone on to illustrious careers in science. 1950 finalist Sheldon Glashow, best known for predicting the charm quark and creating the first grand unified theory, went on to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. You can see him in this adorable slideshow of the STS through the years. According to Intel, "Seven have gone on to win the Nobel Prize; others have been awarded the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science, and the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship." The STS has also been called the "Baby Nobels," and for good reason -- it's an incubator for young scientists, and has awarded nearly $4 million in scholarships over its roughly seven-decade history.

Intel has also published a nice by the numbers comparison, which includes these fun stats:

2 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists who are varsity athletes

6 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists with perfect SAT scores

10 - Number of MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants awarded to Science Talent Search finalists

70 - Percentage of Science Talent Search finalists who go on to complete an M.D. or Ph.D.

History of the STS

Founded in 1942 in partnership with Westinghouse, the STS is the most prestigious science competition for high schoolers in the US. The Society for Science & the Public gives us some perspective on the scope of this competition:

Over six decades, more than 130,000 students from U.S. high schools in all 50 states and territories have completed independent science research projects and submitted entries. Each completed entry consists of a written description of the student's independent research, plus an entry form that elicits evidence of the student's excellence and accomplishments. Over 2,600 Finalists have received more than $3.8 million in awards to support their college educations, and 18,000 Semifinalists have received millions more.

Here's a video slideshow about the STS, going back to 1942. Lots of US Presidents show up here, including Eisenhower, Nixon (when he was a congressman), Obama, and more. Bonus points for the shot near the end showing STS finalists at the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Sciences (sadly, Einstein's statue is not sticking its tongue out).

How to Enter

Check out the Compete in the Intel Science Talent Search page for more info, or try the STS homepage for more, including sample submission forms for 2010. While 2010's competition is closed, 2011 is wide open....

If you're not in high school, check out this competition for middle schoolers. It appears to be on hold at the moment, seeking a sponsor, but the site suggests a possible restart in 2011.

For much more: check out the Society for Science & the Public's YouTube channel.

Cyrus Read, Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey
Hear the First Recording of Volcanic Thunder
Cyrus Read, Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey
Cyrus Read, Alaska Volcano Observatory/U.S. Geological Survey

Researchers at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage have managed to record the sound of volcanic thunder for the first time, Smithsonian magazine and The Guardian report. It's extremely difficult to differentiate the sound of thunder from the sounds of the eruption itself, which has made conclusively identifying the sonic phenomenon on tape impossible until now.

"It's something that people who've been at eruptions have certainly seen and heard before, but this is the first time we've definitively caught it and identified it in scientific data," Alaska Volcano Observatory seismologist Matt Haney explained in a press release. He and his colleagues published their observations in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Using a microphone array almost 40 miles away, Haney's team picked up the sounds of volcanic thunder in March and June 2017 in the midst of two explosive eruptions of the Bogoslof volcano, a mostly submarine volcano in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. (Only about 300 feet of the approximately 6000-foot-tall volcano is above sea level.) The eruptions resulted in huge plumes of ash, a prime environment for volcanic lightning to occur. The volcano continued to generate ash plumes long after the eruptions ended, so the researchers could compare the post-eruption lightning with the timing and volume of the sounds they picked up on the microphones, and positively identified the volcanic thunder. They found that the intensity of the lightning was about the same as the intensity of the thunder's noise.

The technique could allow scientists to study volcanic lightning more easily by using the sound of thunder as an approximation, which may indicate how big the ash plume could grow. That information could reveal dangers for nearby aircraft.

You can hear the thunder for yourself in the audio tracks below. The recordings are sped up, and the thunder sounds clicks and pops. The whirring sounds in the first recording are the eruptions themselves.

[h/t Smithsonian]

There’s an Upside to Being Sad and Lonely: A Talent for Reading People

Do you have a more somber, isolated take on life? Here's a reason to cheer up: According to a new study published in the journal Social Psychology, you may be more insightful about human nature. Anton Gollwitzer and John Bargh, Yale psychologists and the co-authors of the study, report that introverted people prone to melancholy are better at inferring how others react in social situations than their more extroverted peers.

For the study, the researchers asked more than 1000 volunteers about how the average person thinks, feels, and acts in various social contexts. The survey, which is publicly available on Yale's website, includes questions like "People are usually overly confident in the accuracy of their judgments: true or false?" and "Do people feel more responsible for their behavior when surround by other people doing the same action?" (The answers are, generally speaking, true and no.)

Following the questionnaire, the authors conducted a series of psychological tests on the highest-scoring individuals to see which traits they had in common. Respondents who made accurate judgments about social psychology were more likely to be intelligent and curious about complex problems. What was less expected was those same subjects also reported being more lonely and introverted, and having lower self-esteem.

"It could be that the melancholic, introverted people are spending more time observing human nature than those who are busy interacting with others, or they are more accurate at introspection because they have fewer motivational biases," Gollwitzer said in a press release. "They don't view the world through rose-colored glasses as jovial and extroverted people do."

Despite their innate strengths, the authors emphasize that introverts without formal training still don't have the knowledge necessary to compete with professional psychologists. So if you think psychology may be your calling, you won't be able to substitute your personality type for a degree.


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