Strange waves rippled around the world, and nobody knows why


Instruments picked up the seismic waves more than 10,000 miles away—but bizarrely, nobody felt them.

On the morning of November 11, just before 9:30 UT, a mysterious rumble rolled around the world.

The seismic waves began roughly 15 miles off the shores of Mayotte, a French island sandwiched between Africa and the northern tip of Madagascar. The waves buzzed across Africa, ringing sensors in Zambia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. They traversed vast oceans, humming across Chile, New Zealand, Canada, and even Hawaii nearly 11,000 miles away.

© NGP, Content may not reflect National Geographic’s current map policy.

These waves didn’t just zip by; they rang for more than 20 minutes. And yet, it seems, no human felt them.

Only one person noticed the odd signal on the U.S. Geological Survey’s real-time seismogram displays. An earthquake enthusiast who uses the handle @matarikipax saw the curious zigzags and posted images of them to Twitter. That small action kicked off another ripple of sorts, as researchers around the world attempted to suss out the source of the waves. Was it a meteor strike? A submarine volcano eruption? An ancient sea monster rising from the deep?

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it,” says Göran Ekström, a seismologist at Columbia University who specializes in unusual earthquakes.

“It doesn’t mean that, in the end, the cause of them is that exotic,” he notes. Yet many features of the waves are remarkably weird—from their surprisingly monotone, low-frequency “ring” to their global spread. And researchers are still chasing down the geologic conundrum.

Why are the low-frequency waves so weird?

In a normal earthquake, the built-up tensions in Earth’s crust release with a jolt in mere seconds. This sends out a series of waves known as a “wave train” that radiates from the point of the rupture, explains Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at the University of Southampton.

The fastest-traveling signals are Primary waves, or P-waves, which are compression waves that move in bunches, like what happens to an extended slinky that gets suddenly pushed at one end. Next come the secondary waves, or S-waves, which have more of a side-to-side motion. Both of these so-called body waves have relatively high frequencies, Hicks says, “a sort of ping rather than a rumbling.”

Earthquakes 101 Earthquakes are unpredictable and can strike with enough force to bring buildings down. Find out what causes  earthquakes, why they’re so deadly, and what’s being done to help buildings sustain their hits.

Finally, chugging along at the end come slow, long-period surface waves, which are similar to the strange signals that rolled out from Mayotte. For intense earthquakes, these surface waves can zip around the planet multiple times, ringing Earth like a bell, Hicks says.

However, there was no big earthquake kicking off the recent slow waves. Adding to the weirdness, Mayotte’s mystery waves are what scientists call monochromatic. Most earthquakes send out waves with a slew of different frequencies, but Mayotte’s signal was a clean zigzag dominated by one type of wave that took a steady 17 seconds to repeat.

“It’s like you have colored glasses and [are] just seeing red or something,” says Anthony Lomax, an independent seismology consultant.

Mayotte’s volcanic roots

Based on the scientific sleuthing done so far, the tremors seem to be related to a seismic swarm that’s gripped Mayotte since last May. Hundreds of quakes have rattled the small nation during that time, most radiating from around 31 miles offshore, just east of the odd ringing. The majority were minor trembles, but the largest clocked in at magnitude 5.8 on May 15, the mightiest in the island’s recorded history. Yet the frequency of these shakes has declined in recent months—and no traditional quakes rumbled there when the mystery waves began on November 11.

The French Geological Survey (BRGM) is closely monitoring the recent shaking, and it suggests that a new center of volcanic activity may be developing off the coast. Mayotte was formed from volcanism, but its geologic beasts haven’t erupted in over 4,000 years. Instead, BRGM’s analysis suggests that this new activity may point to magmatic movement offshore—miles from the coast under thousands of feet of water. Though this is good news for the island inhabitants, it’s irksome for geologists, since it’s an area that hasn’t been studied in detail.

“The location of the swarm is on the edge of the [geological] maps we have,” says Nicolas Taillefer, head of the seismic and volcanic risk unit at BRGM. “There are a lot things we don’t know.” And as for the November 11 mystery wave, he says, “it’s something quite new in the signals on our stations.”

Motion in the ocean

Since mid-July, GPS stations on the island have tracked it sliding more than 2.4 inches to the east and 1.2 inches to the south, according data from Institut National de L’information Géographique et Forestière. Using these measurements, Pierre Briole of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris estimated that a magma body that measures about a third of a cubic mile is squishing its way through the subsurface near Mayotte.

The early period of rumbling was also overprinted with what seemed to be the P- and S- waves of tiny tremors, explains Lomax, who spotted the faint pings by filtering out the low-frequency signals. Such pings are commonly associated with magma moving and fracturing rock as it squirts through the crust. But even those signals were a little strange, says Helen Robinson, a Ph.D. candidate in applied volcanology at the University of Glasgow.

“They’re too nice; they’re too perfect to be nature,” she jokes, although she quickly adds that an industrial source is impossible, since no wind farms or drilling are taking place in the deep waters off Mayotte’s shores.

Ekström thinks that the events on the morning of November 11 actually did begin with an earthquake of sorts equivalent to a magnitude 5 temblor. It passed by largely unnoticed, he suggests, because it was what’s known as a slow earthquake. These quakes are quieter than their speedy cousins since they come from a gradual release of stress that can stretch over minutes, hours, or even days.

“The same deformation happens, but it doesn’t happen as a jolt,” Ekström says.

These slow types of quakes are often associated with volcanic activity. At the Mount Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a similar slow earthquake and low-frequency waves were linked with a magma chamber collapsing. Slow quakes were also stunningly frequent during the most recent fiery run of Kilauea in Hawaii, which produced nearly 60 of these events between May and the end of July, sending seismic waves around the world.

Assembling the geologic puzzle

So what is actually causing the super-slow vibrations at Mayotte? A submarine eruption could produce these low rumblings, but evidence for such an event has yet to materialize.

Most current guesses revolve around resonance in a magma chamber, triggered by some type of subsurface shift or chamber collapse. The resonance itself can be any type of rhythmic motion, like sloshing of the molten rock, or a pressure wave ricocheting through the magma body, Ekström explains. Studying the intricate features of the seismic waves could yield clues to the size and shape of the molten material lurking below.

It is very difficult, really, to say what the cause is and whether anyone’s theories are correct.

Helen Robinson, University of Glasgow

“It’s like a music instrument,” says Jean-Paul Ampuero, a seismologist at the Université Côte d’Azur in France. “The notes of a music instrument—whether it’s grave or very pitchy—depends on the size of the instrument.”

The signal’s odd uniformity could be due, in part, to the surrounding rocks and sediments, Lomax adds. Perhaps the local geology is filtering the sounds and only letting this single 17-second wave period escape.

Robinson agrees with this idea, noting that the geology here is extremely complex. Mayotte sits in a region crisscrossed by ancient faults—including fracture zones from the final breakup of the southern supercontinent Gondwana. What’s more, the underlying crust is somewhat transitional, shifting between the thick continental crusts and the thinner oceanic crusts. Perhaps this complexity drives the simplicity of the escaping waves, Robinson says.

Secrets of the sea

For now, though, the lack of data makes it tough to say more about the wiggly forms. Hicks’ preliminary models hinted that the waves emanated from subsurface inflation, rather than a magma chamber draining or collapsing. But with a little additional data, the model flipped and pointed to chamber deflation instead.

It also could be a bit of both, notes Robinson: “Some collapse mechanisms, you can get inflation and deflation occurring at the same time,” she says. Or sometimes they can alternate, pumping up and down like Earth’s fiery lungs.

“It is very difficult, really, to say what the cause is and whether anyone’s theories are correct—whether even what I’m saying has any relevance to the outcome of what’s going on,” Robinson says.

BRGM plans to do ocean bottom surveys to get more detailed information about the region and investigate the possibility of a submarine eruption. In the meantime, the seismic sleuthing continues with the data that’s available. Whether the cause is ordinary or extraordinary remains to be seen, Lomax says, but the science—and the fun—is in the chase.

“Depending on what field and what time in history, 99.9 percent of the time, it’s ordinary, or noise, or a mistake, and 0.1 percent, it’s something” he says. “But that’s just the way it goes. That’s the way it should go. That’s scientific advance.”

 

Here’s How New Zealand Survived A 7.1 Magnitude Earthquake With Zero Casualties


New Zealand just experienced a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that rattled the coast of its North Island on Friday. However, no damages were reported. Quite evidently, an earthquake as high as this one would have severe repercussions and it did trigger a tsunami in the region. However, no harm was done to the people, except a little damage to property.

In New Zealand where earthquakes are common, the Civil Defence authorities hold a practice of having regular drills in order to ensure that the people know how to react in a situation like this.

Pat Seymour, a local council politician in the Gisborne area, informed that the earthquake was quite vigorous, but implementation of quick techniques saved the people.

In Te Araroa, the entire population of 600 left their homes for higher grounds, away from the tides. A lot of people instantly reacted to the sirens that hit the town, alerting them about the earthquake, and immediately left for a safer place along with their families.

Gisborne, the nearest town from the earthquake-prone area has a population of 45,000 people. Yet no one was hurt, leaving a big lesson for the entire world. Almost every nation, regardless of how technically advanced or monetarily sound they are, loses some of its people during quakes. Like when a 7.8-magnitude quake jolted Kathmandu, Nepal, the entire city was covered in rubble:

Homes, buildings and temples had flattened, causing widespread damage across the region, killing more than 1,800 people in Nepal.

Nepal

 

The world could learn a lesson or many from New Zealand’s management of the earthquake.

Writing Can Help Injuries Heal Faster: Scientific American


Expressive writing is known to help assuage psychological trauma and improve mood. Now studies suggest that such writing, characterized by descriptions of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings, also benefits physical health.

Researchers in New Zealand investigated whether expressive writing could help older adults heal faster after a medically necessary biopsy. In the study, 49 healthy adults aged 64 to 97 years wrote about either upsetting events or daily activities for 20 minutes, three days in a row. After a time lag of two weeks, to make sure any initial negative feelings stirred up by recalling upsetting events had passed, all the subjects had a biopsy on the arm, and photographs over the next 21 days tracked its healing. On the 11th day, 76 percent of the group that did expressive writing had fully healed as compared with 42 percent of the control group.

boy writing in hospital bed

“We think writing about distressing events helped participants make sense of the events and reduce distress,” says Elizabeth Broadbent, professor of medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and co-author of the study, published in July in Psychosomatic Medicine. Long-term emotional upset can increase the body’s levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which impedes the immune system. A paper in September in the British Journal of Health Psychology indeed found that writing about an emotional topic lowered participants’ cortisol levels.

The writing in Broadbent’s study may have also sped recovery by improving sleep. Participants who slept more in the week before the biopsy healed faster, perhaps because sleep ramps up many bodily processes involved in healing.

‘Sugar gel’ helps premature babies.


A dose of sugar given as a gel rubbed into the inside of the cheek is a cheap and effective way to protect premature babies against brain damage, say experts.

premature baby

Dangerously low blood sugar affects about one in 10 babies born too early. Untreated, it can cause permanent harm.

Researchers from New Zealand tested the gel therapy in 242 babies under their care and, based on the results, say it should now be a first-line treatment.

Their work is published in The Lancet.

Sugar dose

Dextrose gel treatment costs just over £1 per baby and is simpler to administer than glucose via a drip, say Prof Jane Harding and her team at the University of Auckland.

“Start Quote

This is a cost effective treatment and could reduce admissions to intensive care services which are already working at high capacity levels”

Andy Cole Bliss

Current treatment typically involves extra feeding and repeated blood tests to measure blood sugar levels.

But many babies are admitted to intensive care and given intravenous glucose because their blood sugar remains low – a condition doctors call hypoglycaemia.

The study assessed whether treatment with dextrose gel was more effective than feeding alone at reversing hypoglycaemia.

Neil Marlow, from the Institute for Women’s Health at University College London, said that although dextrose gel had fallen into disuse, these findings suggested it should be resurrected as a treatment.

We now had high-quality evidence that it was of value, he said.

Andy Cole, chief executive of premature baby charity Bliss, said: “This is a very interesting piece of new research and we always welcome anything that has the potential to improve outcomes for babies born premature or sick.

“This is a cost-effective treatment and could reduce admissions to intensive care services, which are already working at high capacity levels.

“While the early results of this research show benefits to babies born with low blood sugars, it is clear there is more research to be done to implement this treatment.”

Dyson Award for wearable robotic arm


A battery-powered robotic arm that boosts human strength has won the 2013 James Dyson award.

The Titan Arm, designed by four mechanical engineering students from the University of Pennsylvania, could help people with back injuries rebuild and regain control of muscles.

Man wearing Titan Arm raised aloft

It can also be used by people to lift heavy objects as part of their work.

The team, who spent eight months creating the exoskeleton, will share a prize of £30,000 ($48,000).

“Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team’s use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling,” said Sir James Dyson.

“We are ecstatic,” team member Nick Parrotta told the BBC. “It was totally unexpected – just incredible.”

‘Inexpensive aluminium’

Team wearing titan arm
The University of Pennsylvania team shows off its award-winning Titan Arm

The team produced its prototype for £1,200, which they say is a 50th of the typical cost of similar exoskeletons currently on the market.

“We wanted Titan Arm to be affordable, as exoskeletons are rarely covered by health insurance,” said Mr Parrotta, 23, currently studying for a masters in mechanical engineering.

“This informed our design decisions and the materials we used. Most structural components are machined from inexpensive aluminium.”

Academic and commercial interest in wearable robotics is growing according to Conor Walsh, Professor of of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

But costs will have to continue falling if robotics are to feature more often in daily life, he said.

“Reducing cost will be critical for commercial systems, however the total cost is not just the cost of the hardware but also the added cost associated with research and development, quality assurance and regulatory compliance.”

The Titan arm incorporates a rigid back brace to maintain posture, a shoulder featuring rotational joints, and sensors that can track motion and relay data back to doctors for remote prognosis.

It can augment human weight-lifting strength by 40lbs (18kg), say the inventors, while the batteries can last for up to eight hours, depending on intensity of usage and workload.

Electrical signals

The current prototype is operated by a separate joystick, but future versions may incorporate electromyography technology, said Mr Parrotta, which picks up electrical signals produced by muscle tissue, thus allowing users to operate such prosthetics almost without thinking.

Photo of prosthetic hand
Handie, a prosthetic hand with sensors that can read brain signals, won second place

All of the inventors who took part in the competition used 3D-printing to develop and produce their prototypes much more cheaply than would have been possible before.

“Prototyping technology, previously reserved only for companies with big research and development budgets, is enabling young inventors to develop sophisticated concepts at university,” said Sir James.

“They can revitalise industries on a small budget – it is a good time to be an inventor.”

The second prize went to a Japanese team who created Handie, a prosthetic hand with sensors that can read brain signals.

A 3D-printed plastic cast for broken limbs, invented by a team from New Zealand, took the third prize.

The James Dyson Foundation runs the annual award across 18 countries with the aim of encouraging problem-solving inventions.

Vitamin D pills’ effect on healthy bones queried.


Supplements

Healthy adults do not need to take vitamin D supplements, suggests a study in The Lancet which found they had no beneficial effect on bone density, a sign of osteoporosis.

But experts say many other factors could be at play and people should not stop taking supplements.

University of Auckland researchers analysed 23 studies involving more than 4,000 healthy people.

The UK government recommends children and over-65s take a daily supplement.

The New Zealand research team conducted a meta-analysis of all randomised trials examining the effects of vitamin D supplementation on bone mineral density in healthy adults up to July 2012.

The supplements were taken for an average of two years by the study participants.

“Start Quote

I’m not surprised they didn’t find any evidence of the effects of vitamin D on bone density because there are so many other factors involved…”

Dr Laura Tripkovic University of Surrey

Bone mineral density is a measure of bone strength and measures the amount of bone mineral present at different sites in the body. It is often seen as an indicator for the risk of osteoporosis, which can lead to an increased risk of fracture.

The trials took place in a number of different countries including the UK, the US, Australia, Holland, Finland and Norway.

Although the results did not identify any benefits for people who took vitamin D, they did find a small but statistically significant increase in bone density at the neck of the femur near the hip joint.

According to the authors, this effect is unlikely to be clinically significant.

Free up resources

Prof Ian Reid, lead study author, from the University of Auckland, said the findings showed that healthy adults did not need to take vitamin D supplements.

“Our data suggest that the targeting of low-dose vitamin D supplements only to individuals who are likely to be deficient could free up substantial resources that could be better used elsewhere in healthcare.”

Writing about the study in The Lancet, Clifford J Rosen from the Maine Medical Research Institute agrees that science’s understanding of vitamin D supports the findings for healthy adults, but not for everyone.

“Supplementation to prevent osteoporosis in healthy adults is not warranted. However, maintenance of vitamin D stores in the elderly combined with sufficient dietary calcium intake remains an effective approach for prevention of hip fractures.”

The Department of Health currently recommends that a daily supplement of vitamin D of 10 micrograms (0.01mg) should be taken by pregnant and breastfeeding women and people over 65, while babies aged six months to five years should take vitamin drops containing 7 to 8.5 micrograms (0.007-0.0085mg) per day.

Additional factors

Dr Laura Tripkovic, research fellow in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Surrey, said the study was important but very specific.

“I’m not surprised they didn’t find any evidence of the effects of vitamin D on bone density because there are so many other factors involved in osteoporosis, like genes, diet and environment.

“To pin it all on vitamin D… it’s difficult to do that.”

Dr Tripkovic said it was no good taking vitamin D supplements if people didn’t also maintain a healthy, balanced diet containing calcium and take plenty of exercise.

She said most healthy people should be able to absorb enough vitamin D naturally, through sunshine and diet.

“But if people are worried about their vitamin D levels then a multi-vitamin tablet would do. If you have bone pain and muscle aches then you should go and see your GP and discuss it.”

We get most of our vitamin D from sunlight on our skin, but it is also found in certain foods like oily fish, eggs and breakfast cereals.

However, taking too much vitamin D in the form of supplements can be harmful because calcium can build up and damage the kidneys.

Experts advise taking no more than 25 micrograms (0.025mg) a day.

The UK guidance is currently being reviewed.

‘Sugar gel’ helps premature babies


A dose of sugar given as a gel rubbed into the inside of the cheek is a cheap and effective way to protect premature babies against brain damage, say experts.

Dangerously low blood sugar affects about one in 10 babies born too early. Untreated, it can cause permanent harm.

Researchers from New Zealand tested the gel therapy in 242 babies under their care and, based on the results, say it should now be a first-line treatment.

Their work is published in The Lancet.

Sugar dose

Dextrose gel treatment costs just over £1 per baby and is simpler to administer than glucose via a drip, say Prof Jane Harding and her team at the University of Auckland.

 “Start Quote

This is a cost effective treatment and could reduce admissions to intensive care services which are already working at high capacity levels”

Andy ColeBliss

Current treatment typically involves extra feeding and repeated blood tests to measure blood sugar levels.

But many babies are admitted to intensive care and given intravenous glucose because their blood sugar remains low – a condition doctors call hypoglycaemia.

The study assessed whether treatment with dextrose gel was more effective than feeding alone at reversing hypoglycaemia.

_70094382_premature_baby-spl-2

Neil Marlow, from the Institute for Women’s Health at University College London, said that although dextrose gel had fallen into disuse, these findings suggested it should be resurrected as a treatment.

We now had high-quality evidence that it was of value, he said.

Andy Cole, chief executive of premature baby charity Bliss, said: “This is a very interesting piece of new research and we always welcome anything that has the potential to improve outcomes for babies born premature or sick.

“This is a cost-effective treatment and could reduce admissions to intensive care services, which are already working at high capacity levels.

“While the early results of this research show benefits to babies born with low blood sugars, it is clear there is more research to be done to implement this treatment.”

Source: BBC

The TomTato: Plant which produces both potatoes and tomatoes launched in UK.


Plant can grow sweet cherry tomatoes while producing white potatoes.

A plant which produces both potatoes and tomatoes, described as a “veg plot in a pot”, has been launched in the UK.

The TomTato can grow more than 500 sweet cherry tomatoes while producing white potatoes.

Horticultural mail order company Thompson & Morgan, which is selling the plants for £14.99 each, said the hybrid plants were individually hand-crafted and not a product of genetic engineering.

Grafted potato-tomato plants have already been produced in the UK, but Thompson & Morgan says this is the first time they have been successfully produced commercially.

The company says the tomatoes are far sweeter than those available in supermarkets.

Paul Hansord, horticultural director at the company, said he first had the idea for the plant 15 years ago in the US, when he visited a garden where someone had planted a potato under a tomato as a joke.

He said: “The TomTato has been trialled for several years and the end result is far superior than anything I could have hoped for, trusses full of tomatoes which have a flavour that makes shop tomatoes inedible, as well as, a good hearty crop of potatoes for late in the season.

“It has been very difficult to achieve the TomTato because the tomato stem and the potato stem have to be the same thickness for the graft to work, it is a very highly skilled operation.

“We have seen similar products, however on closer inspection the potato is planted in a pot with a tomato planted in the same pot – our plant is one plant and produces no potato foliage.”

The plants can be grown either outside or inside, as long as they are in a large pot or bag.

A similar product, dubbed the “Potato Tom”, was launched in garden centres in New Zealand this week.

Brain fertility control unraveled..


In a landmark discovery, the final piece in the puzzle of understanding how the brain circuitry vital to normal fertility in humans and other mammals operates has been put together by University of Otago researchers.

Their new findings, which appear in the leading international journal Nature Communications, will be critical to enabling the design of novel therapies for infertile couples as well as new forms of contraception.

Sebastian_Kaulitzki_Fertility_shutterstock

The research team, led by Otago neuroscientist Professor Allan Herbison, has discovered the key cellular location of signalling between a small protein known as kisspeptin and its receptor, called Gpr54. Kisspeptin had earlier been found to be crucial for fertility in humans, and in a subsequent major breakthrough Professor Herbison showed that this molecule was also vital for ovulation to occur.

In the latest research, Professor Herbison and colleagues at Otago and Heidelberg University, Germany, provide conclusive evidence that the kisspeptin-Gpr54 signalling occurs in a small population of nerve cells in the brain called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons.

Using state-of-the-art techniques, the researchers studied mice that lacked Gpr54 receptors in only their GnRH neurons and found that these did not undergo puberty and were infertile. They then showed that infertile mice could be rescued back to completely normal fertility by inserting the Gpr54 gene into just the GnRH neurons.

Professor Herbison says the findings represent a substantial step forward in enabling new treatments for infertility and new classes of contraceptives to be developed.

Infertility is a major issue affecting millions of people worldwide. It’s currently estimated that up to 20 per cent of New Zealand couples are infertile, and it is thought that up to one-third of all cases of infertility in women involve disorders in the area of brain circuitry we are studying.

“Our new understanding of the exact mechanism by which kisspeptin acts as a master controller of reproduction is an exciting breakthrough which opens up avenues for tackling what is often a very heart-breaking health issue. Through detailing this mechanism we now have a key chemical switch to which drugs can be precisely targeted,” Professor Herbison says.

As well as the findings’ benefits for advancing new therapies for infertility and approaches to controlling fertility, they suggest that targeting kisspeptin may be valuable in treating diseases such as prostate cancer that are influenced by sex steroid hormone levels in the blood, he says.

Professor Herbison noted that the research findings represent a long-standing collaborative effort with the laboratory of Professor Gunther Schutz at Heidelberg University, Germany.

The work was supported by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the former Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Professor Herbison is Director of the University’s Centre for Neuroendocrinology, the world-leading research centre investigating how the brain controls fertility.

“We are delighted to have published this work in one of the top scientific journals and also to be able to maintain the leading role of New Zealand researchers in understanding fertility control,” he says.

 

Source: http://www.sciencealert.com.au

 

Is the STEM skills shortage overblown or even non-existent?


With the rising emphasis on tech across the business landscape, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills appear to be in high demand. Yet, one analysis finds the alleged shortfall of these skills isn’t all it appears to be.

Robert Charette, writing in IEEE Spectrum,  says that despite the handwringing, “there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs.” He points to a study by the Economic Policy Institute that found that wages for U.S. IT and mathematics-related professionals have not grown appreciably over the past decade, and that they, too, have had difficulty finding jobs in the past five years. He lists a number of studies that refute the presence of a global STEM skills shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for one, estimates that there was a net loss of  370 000 science and engineering jobs in the U.S. in 2011.

There isn’t even agreement on what STEM jobs are, Charette points out. Even agencies of the U.S. government don’t agree. The U.S. Department of Commerce puts the number of STEM jobs at7.6 million, which “includes professional and technical support occupations in the fields of computer science and mathematics, engineering, and life and physical sciences as well as management,” he relates. The National Science Foundation, on the other hand, estimates there are 12.4 million STEM jobs, taking in health-care workers,  psychologists and social scientists. Other data from Georgetown University finds that a majority of STEM graduates actually leave the STEM field altogether after ten years.

Perhaps what is needed is more polymath skills — blending STEM with other disciplines such as business, law, or even the arts — to drive innovation and entrepreneurship. Building a software company takes more than programming abilities — it takes business savvy and vision.

STEM skills do have an important role in economic growth, Charette opines. “There is indeed a shortage — a STEM knowledge shortage.” While a STEM-based university degree isn’t necessary, “improving everyone’s STEM skills would clearly be good for the workforce and for people’s employment prospects, for public policy debates, and for everyday tasks like balancing checkbooks and calculating risks.”

Ironically, while many non-STEM jobs require some level of STEM skills, many STEM jobs themselves are being displaced. Many of the skills needed in today’s marketplace — from auto repair to graphic arts to accounting — call for computer proficiency, as they now entail work built on software. At the same time, many functions that may have required engineers and mathematicians are being automated — algorithms have replaced many high-level mental tasks and processes. Even computer programmers and operators are finding their jobs are being automated. Perhaps non-STEM professionals need more STEM, but STEM professionals need more liberal arts.