Math, medicine, and research: It’s the news from Britain–and elsewhere

Martin Hairer won the \$3 million 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics for explaining the math involved in stirring a cup of tea, which is also the math involved in several other things that don’t sound as silly. It’s complicated stuff–180 pages worth of complicated, involving regularity structures.

Never heard of them? Neither has anyone else. That’s what’s so impressive. They tame the randomness that throws disorder into equations involving the way forest fires grow, the way a drop of water spreads on a tissue, or the way that cup of tea you’re stirring–

Would you stop that stirring? You’re upsetting an otherwise ordered univer–

Damn. Now see what you’ve done.

Regularity structures may be the genuinely impressive element of his work, but if you want an impressive phrase to use when you’re pretending to explain this to someone who’ll understand it even less than you do and isn’t listening anyway, the phrase you want is stochastic analysis. Or better yet, stochastic partial differential equations. From those words on, everything you say will be nothing but a background hum to whatever’s going on inside your alleged listener’s own head.

If you want complicated math, though, you could try explaining why a bunch of mathematicians are giving out a 2021 prize in 2020.

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Irrelevant photo: Wind-carved rocks at the top of Rough Tor, which is pronounced Ruff Tor. No, don’t ask me.

If you’re British inflected instead of American inflected (yes, there’s an L in there: infLected), that’ll be maths, not math. I can only assume that the British are better with numbers than the Americans, since they wrestle with them in the plural  and we only have one to fight with.

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The Breakthrough Prize is also awarded in the sciences, and Catherine Dulac won one for showing that the neural circuits that govern the behaviors involved in both male-specific and female-specific parenting are present in both sexes. I have no idea what the implications of that will turn out to be, but they should upset a few apple carts. I look forward to hearing more.

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As long as we’re on the subject of medicine and male/female differences, Rebecca Shanksy, a neurologist from Boston University (no, it’s not in Britain, but never mind) is calling for stricter requirements for medical research to include both female and male animals.

For decades, researchers have used both male animals and male human subjects on the grounds that the fluctuations of female hormones would–forgive me if I use complicated scientific language here–fuck up their results.

They did that even when they were studying conditions that mostly affected women. Because you know what women are like. Hormonal. Unstable. Unpredictable. Lots of un- words.

It turns out, according to Shanksy, that male rodents–the go-to subject of many experiments–are less stable in terms of both hormones and behavior than females.

Shanksy is, by way of full disclosure, a female and therefore likely to be biased and unstable. Unlike males researchers, who are entirely objective and don’t have hormones.

The result of the male bias in research subjects is that drugs are likely not to work as well on women as on men. Ambien, which did its trials using both male mice and male humans, turned out to be metabolized  more slowly by women, and therefore (don’t ask me) more powerful in them.

Women tend to experience more side effects and overdoses for all drugs.

The U.S. and Canada now require female test subjects to be included (Britain doesn’t yet), but experiments are often done first on male subjects, with female subjects used later, treating the female subject as a deviation from the male standard. The article I read didn’t go into whether or how that biases the results, but I can see that if the first set of tests establish a standard, you could easily close off avenues that might be open if you worked differently.

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Were we talking about sexism? The Musee d’Orsay in Paris–a museum with walls full of nudes–wouldn’t let a woman in because an official decided her dress was cut too low.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, they followed up their decision by telling her, “Calm down, madam.”

So she did what any good citizen of the twenty-first century would do: She went online and called them out on their double standards and sexism. The museum has apologized, both by tweet and by telephone, but it’s not the first time the museum’s had a problem with women’s real-life flesh as opposed to the artistic depiction of it. It called the cops on a performance artist who posed nude next to a nude painting. She was in jail for two days before a judge threw out a charge of public indecency.

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An eighty-year-old hiker who’d been missing for three nights turned up not at his own funeral but at a press conference, held in a pub, where his family was about to appeal for help finding him.

Harry Harvey got separated from an organized walking group during a heavy hailstorm and spent three nights wild camping. He had camping gear with him but ran short on food. He described the area where he lost the group as desolate..

He eventually spotted a wildlife photographer, who called a rescue team and they brought him to the pub just in time for a dramatic reunion.

The quotes from his family make them sound a bit on the crabby side about it all.

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A research trial that put robots into care homes has been defended on the grounds that the robots aren’t intended to replace humans, only to help fill times when, because the care system’s overstretched, staff don’t have time to spend with residents.

Which is commonly known as replacing humans with robots, only the humans were taken out before the robots were put in and no one had any intention of filling the gap they left–not even with robots.

The robots have wheels and a name, which they all share–Pepper. Also arms and hands. With a bit of programming, they could hold basic conversations with the residents, learn what they’re interested in, play them music, teach them languages, and remind them to take their medicine.

This could go wrong in so many ways. In Japan and Singapore robots are more widely accepted and have been hacked to intercept phone calls or let the hacker use the robot’s camera and microphone. I don’t find any mention of medication reminders going wrong, but I doubt many of us suffer from the delusion that technology is flawless.

The two-week trial found that residents’ loneliness levels decreased–not hugely, but a bit.

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Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, called Extinction Rebellion “criminals who disrupt our free society and must be stopped.” Other cogs in the government chaos have talked about classifying it as an organized crime group, which takes a bit of mental mechanics, since XR is decentralized and I suspect you’d be hard put to find an overall organization.

The police, interestingly enough, see XR as nonviolent and committed to civil disobedience.

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We’ll end with some more science awards, the Ig Nobels. This year’s include an one for determining that many entomologists–those are the folks who study insects–are afraid of spiders. Which aren’t insects, so it seems fair. Another went to a study that tried to spot narcissists by the shape of their eyebrows. A third went to a study that looked for a correlation between a nation’s income inequality and the prevalence of mouth-to-mouth kissing.

92 thoughts on “Math, medicine, and research: It’s the news from Britain–and elsewhere”

1. My first thought about robots in care homes was that it is nice that they are being looked after, but that it didn’t seem entirely necessary…

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• That the robots are being looked after? Yeah, I see your point.

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• I feel like care homes for robots are just about as sensible as anything else that is going on at the moment tbh

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• Y’know, I do believe you have a point. As usual.

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• they would probably be easier to care for than people too… and in some cases better company.

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• And if you decided to park them all in a closet, you could talk yourself out of feeling guilty. Probably.

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• Oh, groan. I did notice it but the less I thought about it, the happier I was. However, since you’ve brought it up you have no one to blame but yourself. I seem to remember that the research was inspired by a novel: The researcher wondered if what the author had written was possible. Speaking as a fiction writer for a minute, I’d like to remind that world that we’re not an entirely reliable guide to reality. Take us too seriously on some issues and you can find yourself in a freezer trying playing with frozen shit and trying to cut with it.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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• Next thing you’ll be telling me Santa Claus and his poop knife aren’t real. ;-)

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• Maybe when you’re older… For the moment, no, they’re real.

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• I’m pretty sure that would help. We should all try it. Ready, crew? On the count of three.

One.

Two.

—Anybody remember what comes after two?

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• Or as Emily Dickinson wrote, presciently:

I stirred my tea–and changed the world–
Mathematicians may explain–
Round and round the Spoon was swirled–
My Country–down the Drain–

More Sugar, Cream, to Dump–
And gripped my Spoon–reverse Direction
And Vanquished–‘Donald Trump!

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• That one made me laugh. Thank you. I had no idea that Emily Dickinson foresaw Trump. i knew I should’ve read all those biographies of her.

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• They discovered another verse:

And then I made to stir again–
My Noontime Tea ensconced in–
Till Tories fell–all simple men–
And Down went Boris Johnson!

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• Those researchers must’ve found a real treasure trove!

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• Yes, the release from jail of the nude artist!

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2. Good one Ellen. The news has been so unrelentingly awful (and I’m a pessimist anyhow and expect bad news but now I’d like to have a different character structure, thank you very much) that anything intelligent and funny is just SO welcome. I’ve read this, I laughed which is good for you (there are studies) so now with another cup of tea, on to the daily paper. At which point I won’t feel good so I hope you’re busy with your next blog.

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• Go back to the comments and look for two comments by Jane Whitledge–Emily Dickinson (convincingly) on tea and Donald Trump.

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3. The 80 year old hiker warned my heart. How healthy and strong he is.

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• Really. I could wish him a less grumpy family, though.

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• I’m glad I could do that.

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4. I applaud Shanksy for her bravery! And for pushing on a topic of keen importance. In midlife, I’m always amazed at how little we know about women’s bodies–from hormones to heart. Long overdue for a change!

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• When even researchers into conditions that affect women most rely on men’s bodies to show them the way, no wonder we know so little! It’s a wonder they haven’t used men to study pregnancy.

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5. “partial differential equations” now I miss my DEs! Though I never learned the stochastic ones!
Still, took two days to let the artist out of jail?!

“Les” français, “sont comment des coch…”

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• I never learned the multiplication tables, so I have to stay away from–well, pretty much any equations. And yes, two days–and I expect they were a long two days.

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6. Stirring with a figure-8 motion mimics the way a hummingbird’s wings move .And that butterfly in the Amazon (rain forest – not the company) flapping its wings and starting a monsoon seems to figure in.
Now that Ig-Nobels are announced, are the Darwin Awards waiting for the American election ?

Hurrah for Emily Dickinson !

Yes, the medical research equating women to an inferior species of men indicates how far we haven’t come.

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7. The Break-Through write-up on tea stirring sounds like a fascinating read. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’d understand it even though I took a college course entitled Stochastic Processes. Perhaps my hormonal fluctuations have prevented me from remembering much more than the course name. Or, perhaps my deficiency can be explained by the roughly 40 years that have transpired since I cracked the textbook. I never liked that professor anyway who had thickly joined eyebrows–no doubt a narcissist.

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• It all comes together, doesn’t it? You may have sunk your teeth into the hem of a unified theory of everything. Which is going to make it difficult to eat, so you’re going to have to decide which, in the short run at least, matters more.

I don’t even understand the name of the course. I suppose I could ask Lord Google, but I have no faith that I’d understand the answer.

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• Stochastic=random. I just remember there were a lot of exercises about predicting the behaviors of queues. People (or things) arrive at random but you can still predict things about the wait time. Important stuff if you work at Disneyland.

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• Whew. That was painless–even understandable. Thank you, even though I’ve never worked at Disneyland. I have this thing about rodents…

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8. Stay tuned for next year when we find out who wins the 2098 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. It should be a doozie! Something like explaining the math behind how a country can elect a dolt who received fewer than 2.9 million votes than his opponent while claiming any future elections that said dolt are involved in must be rigged if he loses.😂

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• The explanation falls off the edge of mathematical possibility and into–

Wait. Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, wasn’t he? I yield. You may be onto something.

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9. Ha ! With the candidates over Here you would not even make the list !
The news just showed an ongoing Dear Leader rally in Florida – no distancing or masks- and the commentator referred to him as “Typhoid Trump.” So BoJo still has a ways to sink.

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• I guess that’s good. Everyone needs a goal in life.

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10. The important question is, does Shanksy have a pony?

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11. When I worked in the Pain Medicine Department, I discovered that men who take opioid medication on a long-term basis also suffer hot flushes associated with menopause. This is because opioids reduce the amount of testosterone if men take them for a long time. Therefore some men can be just as hormonal as women and also go through a kind of menopause, which of course in itself is associated with low hormone levels.

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• Interesting. The article I was drawing from talked about male mice vying for spots in the hierarchy, and their testosterone levels fluctuating in response to that stress.

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• Hot flushes happen in both males and females whenever there are low hormone levels. The brain tries to kick-start hormone production again.

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• I had no idea, although I did wonder what possible purpose they could serve.

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12. On Rebecca Shanksy – I’ve been enjoying Caroline Criado Perez’s book “Invisible Women” on data bias and the male default (well, enjoying the research and writing of, rather than the information, which goes from annoying to appalling). One example is the difference in symptoms of a heart attack in males and females, which leads doctors to misdiagnose a woman with a heart attack (at rates of around 50% of misdiagnosis in research from UK), accordingly leading to poorer outcomes. Genuinely frightening.

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• Yes indeed, and even though that business about the heart attacks has been known for years, it continues to happen.

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13. okay, what I would like to know – why did they take the hiker to a pub? Is that where English healthcare is handled now? When I was in Search & Rescue we took people directly to the hospital for evaluation. Silly us.

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• By that time, they’d sorted out, I think, that his family and the press conference were there. It sounds odd, but it may well have been the only public building in the village. The rescue people would’ve been capable of evaluating whether he needed a hospital or not.

Okay, they would’ve been capable of deciding whether he needed a hospital or a beer. They came down on the side of beer. I’m sure he was grateful.

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14. As a Brit myself who was taught from an early age that it’s ‘maths’, I often wonder where the US descriptor comes from. Do they study ‘mathematic’, I wonder?

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• Yup. The full word is plural. Shorten it and it’s singular, probably because the H is followed by an E instead of an S.

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• Colour me stupid, but I don’t see how a word that stands for an entire field of human study can change from being plural to singular by abbreviation.

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• Why not? The numbers work the same way. The meaning stays the same.

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• I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that point :)

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• This was actually talked about in a grammar podcast I listed to (yes, ended with a preposition, deal with it…opps, did it again). The whole thing dates bad to a fad in the 17th C. when people started adding an ‘s’ to the end of sciences: physics, acrostics, economics, as opposed to the Greek versions of the words (which don’t end in ‘s’).

In 1890 ‘math.’ entered the lexicon as an abbreviation in the U.S. for mathematics (not maths.), American English adopted this spelling and dropped the period. In 1911 British English adopted maths. as the abbreviation.

This continued in America for other sciences, for example the abbreviation for economics is either eco. or econ. Do Brits abbreviate it econs or ecos?

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• Oh, yeah, I forgot something about the 17th C. fad, prior to then sciences tended to end in an ‘a’: mathematica, econmica, etc., the ‘a’ was dropped and the ‘s’ added. When the ‘a’ ending began I could not find out, the original spelling for math was mathemateke. Language is a living, breathing, mutating disease.

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• It still is, in spite of all efforts to systematize it. That’s its beauty

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• I like the spellings. Prior to the 1700’s words were spelled (somewhat) phonetically, though everyone’s idea of how it sounded varied. Benjamin Franklin’s spelling morphed over the years. Shakespeare rarely spelled his name the same way twice, going back and forth on how he spelled it. When a dictionary was finally created God only knows why they spelled things the way they did, almost nothing is close to how it is pronounced.

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• I’m told by people who sound like they know what they’re talking about that English was systematized too early and that’s why the spelling and pronunciation don’t match. If they’d held back a bit, the two might be within speaking distance.

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• Interesting question, which I won’t try to answer. But I will toss this observation into the conversation: Why would the Americans and the British agree on the abbreviation of mathematics when we can’t agree on how much is in a cup or a ton?

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• Cup? Ton (Tonne)? Minor issues. The real question is why we can’t agree on how much is in a mug of beer, or if it should be served warm or cold! THATS the question that stymies the world!

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• Since I don’t drink the stuff anymore, warm or cold, I can’t claim to have an opinion, never mind anything that would pass for knowledge. But as far as I understand it, a mug of beer should be filled to the top.

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• You remind me of how hard my father worked to convince us that there was nothing after infinity. I imagined it as a wooden wall. So how could there be a wall with only one side?

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• Well, if you believe in the multi-verse theory, then the other side of the wall is either another universe, or inter-universal space.

While I have no problem with the concept of other universes, I have a difficult time with the preposition that every action in this universe creates another universe with the opposite action. That would mean every micro-nano-second billions of universes are being created.

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• All of that makes me very, very dizzy.

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• I don’t recall being taught to put a period (full stop) after ‘maths’. Nor do I recall being taught to abbreviate ‘economics’ to anything. (In fact abbreviating it to ‘eco’ would to my mind be pretty silly since it would clash with ‘ecology’.)

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• Back when all boys took woodworking (called shop in my school, at least) and all girls took home economics, it was abbreviated as home ec. That didn’t carry over to economics, all though college-level (read university-level for that) class catalogs abbreviated it as econ. But abbreviation probably isn’t the right word for either math/ maths or home ec. They were–well, more along the lines of nicknames: just what the thing was called. So no, no period/full stop.

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• You appear to be justifying your argument on an ex post facto basis. But I don’t judge you for it :)

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• I’m pretty much saying anything that comes to mind. Feel free to judge.

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15. Ellen, a very interesting post! Love how you ferret out the absurdities in the news. :)

I find the use of robots in nuursing homes quetionable. The residents often don’t have enough human contact already! And there are unemployed people who need jobs.

I am not against robotics in industry, as long as replaced workers are being retrained. But in nursing homes, we’re not making cars! These are human beings who need love and care.

All the best! Cheryl

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• I suspect they’ve kind of lost track of the idea that they’re not making cars. The robots are cute looking, and I can see where if one of them talked to you you’d feel odd ignoring it, so it would probably bend your send of reality a bit.

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• Stop that. You’ll give me nightmares. Being back in math class is one of the worst–

Well, no. Given what’s happening in the world, it’s not actually the worst thing I can think of. Far from it. Okay, go study as many maths as you like. I won’t complain as long as you don’t make me do it with you.

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16. I did not know that women experienced more side effect from medication than me, this bias in testing goes a long way to explain that. I know that in medical trials they mostly use men (I knew men who did it as students to make some cash) . I always thought it was because they worried about birth defect is women were pregnant when they took part (if they didn’t know it, that is).

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• That may have come into it, and at least it’s worth taking seriously, but it’s not the reason that keeps popping up–and I have read more than just the one article on it over the yeas.

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17. Infinity doesn’t end; nothing can be beyond it. That’s not my real comment this however is perplexing. Will the robots have to wash their hands after doing all the taking care of patients stuff?

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• To the first part–the non-comment part of your comment: No matter how many times my father tried to explain that to me when I was a kid, my mind couldn’t take the idea in. I’m sure it frustrated him as much as it baffled me. For the rest, um, probably. Until someone realizes that they’d be more efficient if they find a shortcut and reprograms them.

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18. Do you think it ever occurred to the male scientists that a large part of the reason women behave differently from men is the way that men interact with women?

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• Um, no. I doubt it. But the exclusion’s justified on the basis of hormonal fluctuations, not behavior. And that’s probably done without any serious study of male hormonal fluctuations.

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