Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Month: July, 2012

“So What’s All This Higgs Boson Stuff About?”

I’m sorry, I’m really not the best person to ask.

It’s not that I don’t understand the physics better than the average layperson.  No, that would be a lie.  But sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I understand what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read.  I probably have a little better understanding of the basic physics behind a lot of things.  But, really, particle physics is not my area of expertise, and I’d worry about misinforming you.

I can tell you that the term “god particle” is misleading.  In fact, it was originally a joke, something that got changed by the publishers to sound more meaningful that it was probably intended.  I can tell you about naming things in physics.  Seriously, it seems like sometimes, 75% of laboratory work is swearing at the problem until it decides to behave.  Or at least until the swearing makes you feel better.  The other 25% often involves a mop.  But maybe that’s just my experience.

Here’s the thing about experimental physics:  We don’t all sit in ivory towers and think about abstract physics concepts all day.  Maybe some theoretical physicists do that.  But the people doing the experiments don’t do all that much physics on any given day.  We fix leaks (vacuum, water, oil, etc.) and electronics.  We fight with vendors and wait expectantly for equipment to be delivered.  We might occasionally get to build or fix a really cool piece of lab equipment, like a laser.  But taking data?  Doing “physics?”  That’s astrological alignment territory.  And if even if we are running things and taking data, a lot of it might be a calibration or something that won’t lead to a major breakthrough, even on the scale of our particular specialty (something that will interest perhaps five people outside our lab, and one of those is a particularly doting parent).

So if you have a special someone in your life, someone who is a dear friend or relative, who happens to have more advanced physics knowledge than the average person, go ahead and ask “Hey, do you know anything about the Higgs boson?”  But don’t expect an in-depth lesson on the building blocks of particle physics and the standard model.  Heck, I have colleagues who think finding the Higgs is kind of boring, because it proves something, and it’s more fun to disprove things.  Perhaps expect a lot of discussion about statistics and sigmas.

But if you are a barista, or a telemarketer, or, well, any casually-encountered person, and the person with whom you are casually encountering mentions a career in physics, you should probably keep your questions about the latest popular science news to yourself.

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Science and Fiction

Well, my last two posts have been rant-y things whining about the lot of women in the sciences.  So today I’m going to write something funner*.  Partially inspired by a conversation with a coworker outside a thesis defense-in-progress, and partially inspired by my college friend Lisa’s birthday cake, I’m going to discuss depictions of physical phenomena in fiction.

Lisa’s cake reminded me of the conversation, which was also about the depictions of things/people “falling” into black holes.  Okay, it’s become pretty well-known that black holes don’t actually suck; they do attract things due to massive gravity, but they follow laws of gravitation, and objects can actually orbit a black hole, the same way they would orbit any massive body.  But what happens if you get perilously close to the event horizon?  Do you fall in and disappear?  What about that spaghetti thing?

The conversation went like this:  Supposedly (according to coworker’s general relativity professor), objects crossing the event horizon appear to slow to a near-stop due to the effects of a black hole on the perception of time.  So, to an outside observer, it would just look like the object was perpetually, and ever-more-slowly approaching the event horizon, all the while having its emitted light shifting red, and fading away to the observer.  This is a far cry from most depictions of black holes, which show the unfortunate victim accelerating into the void, perhaps stretching and distorting in some gruesome way.

Think about that, though.  How heartbreaking a sci-fi scene could some director make if s/he, instead of showing someone get sucked into a black hole, showed a victim appear to be slowly drifting away, as perhaps a reddish cast overtakes his features.  The crossing of the event horizon is inevitable, but he’s still there, still apparent to the observers (future mourners).  What can they do?  It might not even be his real facial expression or form, since there’s a difference in their perception from his, due to the massive difference in the fabric of space-time for each.

And what other physical phenomena could actually be made more dramatic by trying to represent them accurately?  I bet one could do something spooky with entanglement (pun intended).  Any other ideas?  Anyone from TV want to hire me as a science consultant?  That could be fun…

*Note that at this point I was utterly confused by the WordPress word processor’s failure to flag this as a misspelled word.  Which is made more amusing by the fact that “WordPress” is flagged.

On Femaleness and Aggressiveness

I was directed to this article by a Facebook post by a friend of mine for college, and I found it really interesting.  I was interested in the subject’s descriptions of actual physical changes that occurred when he went through the gender-changing process, like the fact that he found he could now read maps more easily.  And the social changes, like finding that he got cut off in conversation much less often.  But the discussion of how an aggressive and competitive spirit in science seems to hold women back really intrigued me.

A couple years ago, I visited a friend while at a conference and his wife, who is a professor of physics, was commenting about her recent experience serving on a faculty search committee.  It turned out that they had two candidates that almost everyone agreed were the top two, one male and one female, but it seemed that a lot of the male faculty on the committee tended to rank the male candidate above the female one.  Now, this, in itself wouldn’t be unusual, but apparently she thought the female candidate seemed more suited to the position, so she asked some of her colleagues why they chose the male candidate and they said that they thought the female candidate wouldn’t be aggressive enough to be a professor.

This comment provoked a thoughtful conversation between the two of us over breakfast about whether or not the female candidate was perceived as less aggressive simply due to her gender, and what this might mean for female candidates for faculty positions.  I don’t remember what we decided, except that she was adamant that I consider continuing on an academic track after getting my PhD, because apparently no one would accuse me of not being aggressive enough, but it bears considering.

Because I had a liberal arts education, I had to take a bunch of humanities and social sciences classes, including one about the perceptions of sex and gender across cultures.  And it was generally agreed that the Euro-centric idea of “womanhood” or “femaleness” involved a certain amount of yielding and non-aggression.  I think that the prevalence of feminist movements to assert their power actually supports this — if you want to know the norm, take the opposite of what counter-culture is trying to be.  So there could definitely be the idea that women are not supposed to be aggressive and competitive.

There might be some biological support for this, what with testosterone or something, but I’m not a biologist.  Even a person who doesn’t think women are delicate flowers might still be more likely to help a woman with a particularly heavy load, so most people have some ingrained amount of differentiation in their perception of the abilities of a woman.

But there are strong, assertive, aggressive women.  These women are called “bitches.”

Unfortunately, having that handy pejorative allows people an easy out when disagreeing with a woman who, in their opinion, is coming on a little strong.  So are women less aggressive, or are they holding their aggressive nature in check to avoid this nasty double-standard?

It turns out, that doesn’t work.  So what’s a girl to do?

This dilemma is something I’ve had to consider a little more closely, as I’ve recently defended my PhD thesis and have to consider what shape I want my career path to take.  Do I want to go into academia?  Well, I’ll have to make sure search committees not only think I’m good enough at the science, but also that I’ll be aggressive enough to further my own career (and, by extension, the reputation of the institution), apparently.  Do I want to be a contractor?  Well, I’ll definitely be dealing with government/defense types, so that will mean battling a whole lot of “little-lady”-labeling guys who might not take my intelligence seriously.  Do I want to go into industry?  Well, that could even mean being grabbed as a diversity show-and-tell or marketing tool, a la Edmund Optics girls.

Personally, I’m hoping that my grad school strategy will continue to serve me:  I just don’t think about the gender difference unless I feel an explicit situation has arisen.  How do others deal with this issue?  Have you had to struggle with minor digs at your competence because of your gender?  Or perhaps you’re male and have noticed subtle differences in the treatment of men and women in your group/lab culture.