Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Month: March, 2015

Women in Science in Science Fiction Theater: The Dum Dums by Glass Mind Theatre

So this isn’t really a theater review. Except it is. I recently had the chance to go up to Baltimore to see The Dum Dums, a play presented by Glass Mind Theatre at Gallery 788 in Baltimore. It’s a really fun show, but what struck me was the intense portrayal of the experience of being a woman in science. The play takes themes like toxic female competition, impostor’s syndrome, and depression and weaves it into a hilarious and touching show.

Better people than I have actually reviewed this show. Read this review for a pretty accurate idea of what I thought about it as well (although, do yourself a favor and don’t read past the second photo). The show opens with three astronauts embarking on a mission to Tau Ceti E. Right off, I have to give props to the playwright for actually choosing some real planets in the habitable zone of a known star. It lends gravitas to the struggle between the women on board the ship because it makes their training seem more real than fiction

The main characters are Captain Meghan Schill and Navigator Jennifer Traeger, along with Medic Debra Lambert, whose actor also plays a variety of other characters. Traeger embarks on the journey with a severe case of nerves and a horror that she’s made a terrible mistake with the star charts. The other two crewmates ensure her that she’s being silly and that she’s really brilliant. But it turns out, she’s right.

They end up on the wrong planet, hundreds of thousands of years off schedule. The portrayal of the ultimate impostor’s-syndrome-proved-right scenario struck me. It’s a feeling that I’ve struggled with (and I’m sure plenty of others have struggled with) and it was striking to see it up on stage. And yet, not until the end did anyone think to say to Traeger that this was her fault (a statement which is almost instantly regretted).

And yet, Traeger spends more of the stay on the wrong planet consumed with a kind of depressive lethargy that isn’t helped by the excessive gravity of a super-Earth. She flops around the ship, binge eating and binge watching reality shows on her tablet. The sheer honesty of the experience of depression is a far cry from the portrayal of scientists as nerds who have nerd tastes in all things. She watches reality shows about women catfighting at parties, not Star Trek. She is unapologetically “female” in her tastes, despite being an MIT graduate. There are so many more moments in the play that deal with depression, the main theme, that I would just say go see the show if you want to know more.

But the moment that spoke to me the most was a flashback when Traeger meets her future boyfriend in a bar. He’s asking what she does and she responds that she’s an astronaut. And then it comes. That line that I’ve gotten so many times before. “Oh, you must be so smart.” I literally rolled my eyes while sitting in my seat watching that. It’s just such a truth that I instantly identified with Traeger. And the guy in question ultimately proves himself unsuited to dating someone with a high-stress job.

All I can say is that The Dum Dums does a brilliant job of capturing the feeling of being a woman in science. There are also themes of both female competition and the commoditization of female competition. The portrayal of impostor’s syndrome and depression are among the most spot-on that I’ve ever seen. And Traeger is, if not likeable all the time, a very real character. I highly recommend you try to go see it before it closes in April. More information here:

On Terry Pratchett, Discworld’s Scientists, and Profound Silliness

Terry Pratchett passed away today. He will be missed. In a way, he prepared his readers for this, both through interviews in which he expressed his wishes to die at a time of his choosing, and in his writing, where he never shied away from Death. In fact, Death was one of his best characters.

I always found his books enjoyable on many levels. On one level, I was utterly absorbed in his characters. On another level, his fantasy world was huge and comprehensive. It was explorable, like a video game. If you had enough of his books, it felt like you had traveled Discworld. And on another level, there was his depiction of academic sciences in the guise of the wizards. These academics — sorry, wizards — sat in their towers feeling vaguely superior and protecting their secrets. They had hierarchy and woe betide any who felt like messing with that. Pratchett outright said that magic is analogous to technology on Discworld in interviews, and the feelings of the general public towards the wizards is pretty similar to how much of the general public feels towards science.

So it was fun to see my own demesne mocked in a good-natured way. It reminded me to stay connected to the rest of the world, to learn how not to be a scientist-in-a-tower, but instead know how to bring this magic, even just a little bit of it, to anyone who was interested. And it reminded me that there is nothing inherently better or worse about a person because he or she chooses to pursue one career over another. Scientists aren’t smarter than other people, just different. Sometimes very different.

But it was Pratchett’s Death character that spoke to me the most. He took an archetypical character, one that is the epitome of fear, and humanized him. It’s like learning that the menacing shape in your closet is really just a sweater hanging from a chair. He didn’t make Death absurd, but rather turned him into a relatable character. In this way, Pratchett brought even Death into the fold of things that were familiar and not-scary.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t silly. He could be very silly at times. Just the names of many of his characters are extremely silly. He uses silly characters in absurd, exaggerated situations to prove the most profound of points. He speaks to human conditions left and right in his books. Beyond death, he covers workers’ rights and cultural prejudice. He explores government corruption and the plight of the common man (or woman). He even flirts with gender politics. But it never comes off as heavy handed or preachy (unlike some fantasy writers I’ve read) because it’s all sublimely silly. He makes a serious point palatable by seeming like he’s not serious. So you read through, but when you get to the end, you think, huh, that’s a good point.

And that’s important in the world. It’s important to have craftsmen of words who can make a profound point in a silly form so that the silliness coats the pill for swallowing. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a writer who has Pratchett’s gift with profound silliness, but I hope that someday I will.

Good Enough and the Tyranny of Perfection in Science

In science, perfect is attractive. We talk about errors and deviations, but we always want to know that our equipment is working ideally. We spend our younger years in classes where we study concepts in a perfect world, and then we have the shock of going to a lab where things are decidedly messy. We may have an experiment held together with cable ties and electrical tape, but we want peak power out of it all the time.

When I was in graduate school, one of the banes of my existence was the frequency doubling cavity that gave me one of the laser colors I needed. I would take all my pump laser power, put it into this cavity, and get out a tenth of that in the color that I wanted. And that was on a good day. I probably spent at least a third of my graduate life fighting with the doubler power. There was always an elusive benchmark that if I could hit it, that would be enough power. In order to actually graduate, I had to step back and look at what I had, maybe do a couple rough calculations, and realize that I didn’t need optimal power, I just needed it to be good enough.

“Good enough” has become my rallying cry since then. Good enough means that you run your experiment as soon as it’s good enough to get a result. Because the result doesn’t really care if you had optimal power. The result cares that it was good enough to see an effect. And let’s face it, we’re probably not going to use the first data we take. We’re going to use that initial data to guide our experiments, refine it. So maybe along the way, we’ll see we need a smidge more power, an ounce more stability, and few more atoms in our trap. And maybe one day that will add up to “well, we need to overhaul the experiment.” But, in general, it’s best to save the obsessive perfectionism for those times when you’re waiting for your paper to be accepted for publication and have some down time to make big repairs. Which doesn’t actually happen that often.

Because let’s be clear, it’s really easy to get bogged down in the details. And the details are sometimes not even that interesting. Sometimes they’re even a bit depressing. Sometimes you’re turning two knobs back and forth, seemingly doing the same thing, but somehow getting a slow, steady improvement. And it’s boring and doesn’t have a lot to do with science. Or maybe you’re debugging code because you forgot to capitalize that ancient subroutine you called in the 268th line and also there might be a semicolon missing somewhere. It’s not adding to our understanding of the beauty of the universe, but it has to be done because things don’t work without it.

So why not let the things that don’t prevent forward momentum go? If you’re making steady forward progress, maybe it doesn’t matter that you’re operating on the edge of usefulness, just this once. It helps you keep sight of the big picture, of why you got into science in the first place. Because that’s important. Nothing kills dreams quicker than losing sight of them. And it’s especially important in graduate school because the tunnel gets really dark before you see the light at the end. So don’t linger in the dark places any longer than you have to, and listen to the adage: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

A Bone to Pick with Bones

So it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that one of my favorite genres of TV is the crime drama. Criminal Minds, Bones, and even good old Law and Order. I watch them in hotel rooms and at home, and I’ve recently discovered them on Netflix. Bones is actually one of my favorites. Despite the caricature-like portrayal of Dr. Brennan at times, I find it a great representation of diversity in science. But the episode I watched the other night gave me pause. I apologize for writing about an episode that’s a year and a half old, but it’s new to me.

In “The Lady on the List,” the intern Dr. Wells returns. Now, I have a problem with him in general because he’s a perfect representation of the idea on TV that all science-y people know all science. I guess it’s good that they at least try to make it apparent that his expertise in multiple scientific fields is unusual, but it still galls me that this perception exists. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is that he’s a belittling jerk. And he is pretty exclusively a belittling jerk to Brennan, Cam, and Angela. That is to say, the women. And they don’t really ever call him on it. Brennan seems to buy his “I’m smarter than you” attitude and tries harder to impress him. At one point, she almost puts him in his place by bristling at him complimenting her for figuring something out and then asking her on a date, but it was just that she doesn’t like him. Not that he’s belittling her as a scientist with way more experience in this field than he has. Angela is the best at dealing with him, quietly showing him that he’s misjudged her, but doesn’t press it when he attributes her skill to luck. Cam tries to get him to behave with “respect” but makes it more about rank.

And everyone makes it about him being “likeable,” not about that fact that, even given the chance, he doesn’t pull any of this crap on Hodgins. Kind of fishy, that.

I was the most disappointed with the portrayal of Cam’s character in this situation because she’s been outspoken about insidious prejudices before. In fact, earlier that same season, she gets indignant about her boyfriend getting pulled over for “driving while brown.” Good for her for calling that out. But when she’s faced with an intern who is profoundly rude, condescending, and interrupts his superiors (yes, people who are your boss are your superiors), she can only come up with lame comebacks about how he’s not likeable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the likeability burden foisted on a male character for once. But the punchline of the whole episode is that Dr. Wells ends up making friends with a computer program because it’s the only mind in the lab whose intelligence he respects. Apart from being a really lazy and stereotyping way of dealing with this character, this isn’t really a situation that demands humor.

This is a situation another entitled brat of a scientist who looks down on his female colleagues needs to be taught that that’s not okay, and it has nothing to do with whether or not someone wants to have a drink with you after work. It has to do with discounting the expertise of your colleagues, particularly those who actually have more expertise than you do. While this is a lesson that anyone, regardless of gender, must learn, it is particularly damaging in situations like this, where the male colleagues don’t get the kind of condescending attitude that the females see. Because we’re dealing with that sort of crap daily and don’t need yet another example of it. Particularly when it’s someone with whom we need to work to get things done.

Why Gender Still Matters

Yesterday, I heard a news piece about how Marissa Mayer doesn’t think gender matters in the tech industry. Now, the pull quote in the segment didn’t really make it clear what she meant by that, but the news source where I heard it was presenting it as Mayer saying she didn’t think gender was an issue in the advancement of people in the tech industry. It called to mind this question sent to “Dear Prudence” a few weeks ago, where a woman was complaining about feminists in her workplace getting all upset when she said she didn’t experience any different treatment based on her gender. It might have been heartwarming except that the young woman asking the question titled her question “Excessive Feminists” and seemed to think that because she was too young to get passed over for senior positions and hadn’t had anyone make sexual overtures towards her that that meant she wasn’t treated differently because of her gender.

There was also a generally dismissive tone, as if she felt like these “excessive feminists” were making a big deal out of nothing to foster a false sense of camaraderie. Don’t even get me started on Prudence’s reply. The idea that a 20-something who hasn’t experienced what fits into her narrow definition of gender discrimination should not invalidate the other women as “obsessive grievance-mongering” feminists. And it’s almost funny how naively the writer brings up that there just happens to be “too few [female] candidates” without really reflecting on why that is. It’s like just because we’ve made progress in the treatment of women in the workplace, people think it’s fixed. It’s not like it’s the 60s anymore, right? You should be happy your boss doesn’t pinch your ass and call you a hot tomato, darling. And that’s the problem.

The problem is that women are constantly being told to lighten up when they experience something that leaves them with a bad taste in their mouths, professionally. I’ve found that, particularly in experimental science, people tend to being a little looser with the rules of professionalism. People will make off-color jokes in a lab that you wouldn’t make in an office setting, perhaps because the fact that we’re wearing jeans and a polo shirt makes this less of a professional setting than those suits in their corner offices. It’s not sexual advances, or even flirting, but it’s not appropriate.

But we are professionals. And it matters that what a male colleague might find hilarious a female colleague will file away in her mental file with a note that you find something deeply disturbing to her to be funny and maybe she wants to avoid being in a private, vulnerable situation with you. Or it matters that when you call your younger female colleague “sweetie,” you’re telling her you think of her as below you, in part because of her gender. Or when you say you’re “always happy to help out a pretty young girl,” you’re implying she’s less than capable or that you’re giving her special treatment that has nothing to do with the job you’re both hired to do.

Because the thing is that we’re getting this all the time. And it really hurts to get it from the people we respect and work with well. When someone I like makes a sexist comment without even knowing it, it just reminds me how far we have to go. It reminds me that even though I have a PhD in physics, if the people who know me make gendered assumptions about me, how am I ever going to get to a point where I’m not assumed to be the secretary by the sales rep at the company I’m contacting? Or how is that engineer who mansplains my own project’s requirements back to me (incorrectly) ever going to learn that that’s just not okay? And it grates.

The Real Katie is right: it’s a million barbs. It’s like nettles or crumbs in the bed. Not always dangerous, but damned annoying. And cumulative. It gets to the point where you end up snapping at the person who you like and respect because they happened to be the most recent in a string of offenses. And, yes, you know they were “only joking,” but, no, you’re not going to “lighten up.” Sorry, not sorry.