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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Cat Vacuuming

A bit of a template shake-up, with a bunch of links being culled, and some others added to more accurately reflect my reading these days. This was, of course, carried out with all the scientific precision you would expect from a Chateau Steelypips production, so it's entirely possible that I broke something in the process.

Also, I apologize in advance to those I've added to the blogroll, as my sidebar links are often some sort of jinx on new blogs-- I've probably added a dozen blogs at various points, only to have them go belly-up within a couple of weeks. So, if something happens in the next week or two to make you stop blogging, well, I'm sorry.

If you're outraged that I removed a link to your favorite site, or that I failed to add a link to your favorite site, well, you know where the comments are. I'm always happy to hear recommendations of new and interesting things to read.

Posted at 10:10 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Great Moments in Parenting

Dave Munger's wife and daughter have left town, leaving him free to pursue daft ideas. The last such excursion apparently inspired Super Size Me. This time out? Vidsanity!:

We will rise at 5 a.m. tomorrow and will play video games without rest until 5 a.m. Sunday morning. There are those who will claim that a 38-year-old man is not equipped for the task. There are others who will argue that a 13-year-old boy shouldn’t be allowed such an extended stretch of unmitigated adrenaline rush. However,


It's an ambitious project, and I salute Dave for having the, um, courage to discuss it in public. And let me just note that this interacts oddly with this Making Light post...

Posted at 7:47 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Gods Are Not Mocked

The lack of comments are the previous posts is actually a positive thing, as it doesn't make me feel obliged to keep talking about the gender bias thing. Which is good, because it's getting close to the "A pox on both your houses" point over at Preposterous Universe. The whole thing is faintly depressing.

The lack of reader interest leaves me free to post about something else that I'm sure will draw comments in droves. Yes, that's right: basketball.

Of course, hoops isn't actually all that much less depressing than gender bias at the moment. My teams are afflicted with some sort of multiple personality disorder: there are times when they look like championship material, and times when they look like the second string of a high school JV team. And there doesn't appear to be any way to predict which you'll get.

Syracuse is on a faster cycle than Maryland in this respect, and it's served them better. They usually switch between eigenstates during a single game-- They managed to drop behind Rutgers by twenty points in the first half, and then blew them out in the second half. They built a big lead against Pitt, before becoming completely befuddled by the idea that somebody might want to box out Chevon Troutman, and wound up losing big. It's a rare game against a bad team (say, St. John's last night) when they play consistently enough to lead from start to finish.

But their fast cycle is nothing compared to Maryland's. They beat Duke twice, the first team in ten years to pull that off, and they looked like a great team in doing so. Then they turn around and require two overtimes to beat a reeling Virginia team, and then get dominated by Clemson. At home, no less.

To cop a phrase from Neal Stephenson, sages, seers, and theoretical physicists can only speculate on what the hell is up with this team. It's certainly beyond the comprehension of mere mortals and sportswriters.

At a very primal level, though, I think I may have an explanation: I'm being punished for my good deeds. I decided to be responsible, and not buy ESPN's college basketball pay-per-view package this year, because I have too many other things going on (and anyway, who wants to watch that many Big Ten games?). I passed it up, even though that meant I'd have very few opportunities to see Maryland play this year.

And as punishment for daring to defy my addiction, the Gods of Hoop have arranged for the Terps to roll over and play dead against Clemson. Clemson fer Chrissakes...

OK, fine, it's not a terribly scientific explanation for their inconsistent play. But have you got anything better?

Posted at 7:43 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Gender Bias Update

The fun never ends in the gender bias in science discussions. Now, though, there's some actual evidence: the AIP has released a report on women in physics that studied the proportion of women in physics at various levels, from high school students up through full tenured professorships. I was originally steered to it via an article in the Chronicle (temporary URL only) that was forwarded to my work account, but Sean Carroll has comments as well.

The main finding is actually fairly positive, at least as far as bias in academia is concerned: women at each post-baccalaureate career step are represented in roughly the proportions you would expect, based on the prior step. Or, to choose one example from the report itself:

If there is no disproportionately leaky pipeline for women, then we should expect about the same percentage of entering graduate students to be women as the percentage of bachelor’s degrees earned by women. In the academic year ending in 2003, women earned 22% of bachelor’s degrees in physics. The next academic year, the entering class of physics graduate students was 21% female.

So, it looks like the problem is not that physics as a profession is horribly biased in terms of hiring and accepting women: women who get bachelor's degrees go on to get PhD's at the same rate as their male counterparts, and those who get doctorates advance to tenure-track faculty jobs at about the same rate as their male counterparts.

(As an aside, Sean copies a graph from the report (Figure 11) that attempts to display the relevant data. I hate, hate, hate that graph. It creates a false impression of temporal flow, when they're really comparing data sets from drastically different eras. This is a case where the tabular format (Table 8 of the report) is infinitely superior to the graphical presentation. The table makes clear not only what is being reported, but how the "expected" values are calculated.)

Of course, the small fraction of women at the upper levels still needs to be explained, and it turns out that there is one "disproportionately leaky pipeline" step in the process. It's the step from high school to college: 47% of high school physics students are female, while only 23% of bachelors degrees go to women.

Sadly, this piece of data doesn't really do anything to resolve the chicken-and-egg question of why there are so few women in physics. It might be that there's gender bias in high school or in college (data on the number of women enrolling in major-track physics classes would be helpful, but aren't in the report). Or it might be that this reflects a natural disinclination-- college is the first point where students are really free to choose their own academic path. (Even though physics is not required for graduation in most states, a very large fraction of college-bound students take physics, because it's believed to improve their application.)

The depressingly predictable results of this can be seen in Sean's comments: those who believe it's all sex bias are just shifting the argument to a lower academic level, while those who believe it's all a matter of innate ability are trying to claim victory. And the endless pissing contest continues.

Still, it's nice to have some actual data, and on balance, I think this report is a very positive development.

Posted at 2:39 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Mars and Venus at the Colloquium Series

The gender bias argument kicked off by Larry Summers's comments continues to simmer in the blogosphere, with Mark Kleiman and Brad DeLong posting recently on gender issues regarding tenure, and Kevin Drum getting ripped apart for some unwise comments on the perceived lack of top-rank female bloggers (good thing those people weren't at Friday's weblog panel...).

I'm always uncomfortable with this sort of discussion, partly because I suffer from just enough liberal guilt that I feel awkward, as a white male heterosexual, offering any opinion at all about race, gender, or sexual orientation. At the same time, though, I'm ornery enough to find some of the things that get said in these discussions really annoying, and have to bite my tongue to stop from commenting.

There's a piece in the latest issue of Physics Today that serves as a nice demonstration of the sort of tension I feel about these questions. I'll talk about that, rather than wading into one of the pre-existing arguments, in the vain hope that this will be less likely to get me into trouble.

The article in question is an opinion piece by Heidi Newberg of RPI (OBUselessDisclaimer: she gave a colloquium here once, and I met her. I recall basically nothing about her talk.), titled "The Woman Physicist's Guide to Speaking." As you have no doubt guessed, it's a collection of suggestions about giving research talks, aimed at female physicists.

The article isn't available to non-subscribers, alas, so I'll excerpt and summarize what I saw as the main points:

That's ten major pieces of advice, all of them good. Out of those ten, I count one item that is necessarily gender-specific: the bit about choosing clothes to accommodate a microphone (she points out that some clip-on mikes can only be clipped on to shirts that button in the direction that men's shirts button, and that women's clothes won't necessarily provide pockets or a belt for the battery pack that most such mikes have). And that's only partially gender-specific-- the bit about choosing comfortable and non-distracting clothes is good general advice.

The problem I have with the article is that the last six items (starting with the advice to use a microphone) are all presented as being specific to women. Some of these are halfway reasonable-- for example, in the microphone section, she notes that "Women typically do not have deep booming voices that carry over lecture halls." That's true as far as it goes, but the least audible colloquium I've ever (barely) heard was given by a man. And even those of us who do have deep booming voices are well-advised to use a microphone in a large lecture hall, just to remove the need to, well, boom deeply, which gets tiring after a while.

But I find some of the gender-specific framing to be borderline insulting. For example, the advice about giving credit is preceded by this sentence: "As women, we tend to see scientific endeavor as a web of activity, and to work in groups to accomplish a common goal."

We have a term for men who don't see scientific endeavor that way: they're called "Assholes." Scientific endeavor is a web of activity, with pretty much everyone working in groups to accomplish a common goal. I can think of only one single-author experimental paper in my field since I've started following the literature, and even theory papers tend to involve multiple authors. And there's no better way to start a fight among scientists than to fail to give proper credit, and that really doesn't depend on the genital configuration of the people involved.

Every bit of the advice that follows on from that is equally valid for male and female speakers alike: Give credit, but make sure you put yourself forward. Do your best to remain confident, and project that in your talk. Answer questions fully and honestly, and don't apologize for things you don't know. Those are things I tell all my students before they give talks, and they're as important for the male students as for the female students.

As Kate is fond of saying, "Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it." Good public speaking practice is not gender-specific, and I find the implication that male students don't need to hear this advice faintly insulting. (It's roughly analogous to a statement like "You're Asian, you must be good at math." The character traits assumed to exist are vaguely positive, but the fact that the assumption has no real basis puts it in the realm of prejudice.)

But then, the liberal guilt kicks in. Because, as she writes, "If a woman shows through her words and manner that even she does not believe in her own abilities, then a man will find it quite reasonable that he should not believe in them either." To the extent that there is gender bias within the field (and you'd have to be an idiot to claim that there's no bias at all), those items really are more important for women than for men. And that's deplorable.

(Of course, from there, I go right back to being annoyed at the implication that all the men in the audience are necessarily predisposed to thinking ill of their female colleagues, which really gets my back up. And then I go back to feeling guilty about being annoyed, because women really have faced some serious problems. And then I go back to being annoyed, because I personally don't think any less of a female speaker who bobbles the answers to questions than I do of a male speaker who does the same thing, and how dare she imply that I do. And then the guilt starts up again, and I throw the magazine away, and go watch some basketball...)

Posted at 8:36 PM | link | follow-ups | 15 comments

Monday, February 21, 2005

What I Did at the SF Convention

A quick recap of the panels I was on at Boskone this past weekend:

"Weblogs-- Addiction or Force for Social Change". I tend to come down more on the side of "Addiction," but I was outvoted. Most of the other panelists spoke passionately about the role of blogs in the Presidential campaign last year, but I don't really see that as anything to do with blogging-- what it amounted to was a set of really good campaign web sites.

The really distinctive element of weblogs is that they let ordinary people throw stuff out on the web for the entire world to read. To the extent that I do believe that blogs will change society, I think it will be a different kind of change than readers of political blogs are looking for. Political blogs aren't a new kind of journalism, they're a new kind of punditry-- they're talk radio with lower barriers to entry.

More importantly, the vast majority of blogs and LiveJournals and all the other functional equivalents are not remotely political-- they're concerned with the hotness of Orlando Bloom and the meanness of the owner's sixth-period English teacher, and which of nine varieties of avocado the owner would be, according to a six-question personality test. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not exactly something that the New York Times needs to be worried about.

If anything is going to change as a result of the rise of weblogs (as opposed to the Internet in general), it will come in the form of a more connected and marginally more literate society. The biggest effect this is going to have on society will be in getting the people writing and reading those blogs more accustomed to exchanging information via words and text (however badly spelled). What the ultimate effect of that will be is hard to say.

But that rant aside, it was fun (I was serious about nominating Fafblog for a Hugo, though), and a nice way to ease into the whole panel-member thing.

"Einstein" at 9:00 was originally scheduled to be me and Robert Metzger (another physicist, who did some funny panels at Worldcon) talking about the centennial of Einstein's big year in 1905, with Mark Olson moderating. Apparently Metzger had something come up, though, because he was dropped from all the panels that he'd been listed on. Which meant that this wound up being just me and Mark.

I was a little uneasy about that, but it wound up being a lot of fun. We went through a discussion of Einstein's 1905 papers, starting with the Brownian motion paper. That was a little awkward, because I don't actually know that much about it, but Mark thought it was really fascinating, and I was able to come up with enough to talk about (with frequent references to Dan Kleppner's very nice piece about Einstein's 1917 paper on the quantum theory of light, which I managed to drag in on the grounds that they're both statistical).

Next up was the Photoelectric Effect, where I'm on more solid ground. It's a lecture I've given at least once each of the last three years, and it's a great story. I'll probably write it up as an explanatory physics post here later on. Lots of fun stuff about photons and light and more 1917 references (the Kleppner article is excellent, but not available to non-subscribers).

The last half hour or so was on Relativity, where I got to recycle my 1=0 analogy, and give a less mathematical version of a lecture I gave two weeks ago in class. It wound up being a little rushed, but I thought it went pretty well.

All in all, it was very well received. I had three or four people come up to me later in the con and tell me that they had really enjoyed it, and that they liked my explanations, which was a kick. As I said, I'll probably write a couple of them up here, as I've been terrible about posting physics content of late.

The next afternoon, I had to moderate a panel on "Coming Catastrophes", which was a little awkward, as none of us on the panel had any really strong opinions on the subject. One of the panelists (Alistair Reynolds, who was a very nice guy-- I'll have to read one of his books one of these days) even said that he doesn't really care for disaster fiction.

Happily, the audience was pretty much unfazed by this, and I was able to moderate just by directing traffic. Pretty much everybody got a chance to talk about whatever particular sort of global disaster they found most fascinating, and everybody seemed happy with that. Which was fine by me.

I was a little shaky heading into "The Joy of Space Opera" Sunday morning, not so much because I was nervous about being on a Space Opera panel with David Hartwell (who co-wrote a definitive piece on the subject, and has edited more highly-regarded books than I've read books, period), but because I had eaten something the night before that didn't agree with me, and got about two hours of uneasy sleep while trying not to throw up. I was running on one croissant, adrenaline, and a couple of weak cups of tea when I got there, and I had a bottle of Pepto-Bismol caplets hidden behind my name sign, just in case.

Happily, I didn't end up needing them. Hartwell and Allen Steele (Fred Pohl didn't make it) discussed the evolution of space opera at great and interesting length, and I was able to quietly nurse my tea. I got in a few comments here and there, and got laughs with a couple of them. I also took the opportunity to plug Glen Cook's The Dragon Never Sleeps (which I'm re-reading at the moment, and had brought with me), and second David Hartwell's recommendation of Scott Westerfeld's Succession (I read The Risen Empire back before Worldcon, and The Killing of Worlds is finally out in paperback (I recommend buying both, because the first ends just about in mid-sentence...). I thought it was pretty successful, especially for a 10 am Sunday panel.

Taken as a whole, it was a lot of fun. I'm enough of a ham that I liked being on panels, and I'll be happy to do it again in the future. Comments on non-me panels and the con in general will follow in a separate post. Kate's also working on a con report as I type this, and I'll probably link to that when she's done.

Posted at 6:24 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Ten Things

So, we're back from Boskone, which was even more exhausting than usual. Not because it was hard being on panels, or anything like that-- that part was fun. The exhausting part was the bit where I either had a bad reaction to some food, or came down with a rotten stomach bug, and spent most of Saturday night awake and trying not to throw up.

I'll comment on the actual con later, but I'm running on about four hours of sleep (two last night, two in the car on the way home this afternoon), and I'm just too fried to say anything all that coherent. I'm not quite ready to go to sleep yet, though, so I bring you the following puffery, via just about every LiveJournal in the world.

Ten things that I've done that you probably haven't (in no particular order):

1) Skipped out on one day of a conference to visit the Grand Dune de Pilat.

2) Played video games in a bar in the South Bronx after an extra-innings game at Yankee Stadium (I was maybe twelve at the time).

3) Sung "Strangers in the Night" in a karaoke bar the size of a college dorm room.

4) Done a semester's worth of problem sets in three nights.

5) Any number of stories that start with "We were drunk, and playing with fire," and fail to end in greivous bodily harm or serious property damage.

6) Spent a night on a football field somewhere in Kingston, Ontario.

7) Eaten raw horse meat.

8) Won an amherst rugby jersey.

9) Wound up in a picture hanging on the wall of a restaurant in Islamorada, Florida.

10) Played soccer with a Nobel laureate.

(Stories available upon request.)

Posted at 9:23 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

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