Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Category: science writing

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: http://www.glassmindtheatre.com/season/the-dum-dums/

But How Can It Be Science If They’re Wrong?

This comes up every so often, most recently in regards to global warming. I’ve discussed the fallibility of scientists in the past, but now I want to talk about scientists being wrong about their own scientific findings. Specifically, what do you do when science gets disproved? And what does that really mean anyway?

The most recent example I can think of is the faster-than-light neutrinos, and the popular articles declaring “Einstein was wrong!” because he said that the speed of light was the cosmic speed limit. And then, it was discovered that these faster-than-light neutrinos weren’t that fast after all. It was an error. In layman’s terms, “error” means “mistake.” “Error” means “scientists were wrong.” But the reality is more nuanced than that.

Science is a practice of inquiry, not of being right. The best experiments are those that can be reproduced by another group (Although that’s not a hard and fast rule, as there are plenty of large, complicated collaborations that aren’t getting reproduced anytime soon. The LHC comes to mind). And, when you’re on the cutting edge of science, sometimes you end up producing results that end up being disproven later. Anyone who followed the supersolid helium debates know about this. Science is a process by which we approach the truth, not a way to prove truth once and for all and get to just forget about it once you’re done.

And, yes, there are biases and opinions that pepper the scientific debate. Take advanced particle physics theories, for example. The Standard Model is one way to describe how sub-atomic particles combine to make the world we live in and observe everyday. But, even though it’s been very useful to a lot of people, there are those that believe it doesn’t describe everything. So what’s the better model? What’s the real science?

Well, the answer is, we don’t really know. But there are a lot of very smart people who have some ideas. Some beliefs. And, yes, they are beliefs because most of these theories have basically zero evidence to show that they are valid, just evidence that some other theory isn’t valid. So there is an element of belief, even among the most analytical of scientific minds. Heck, even Einstein tried to backpedal on the theory of quantum mechanics. The EPR paradox, which was originally conceived to critique quantum mechanics, gave rise to the theory of quantum entanglement, which has now been observed.

So now we’re back to “Einstein was wrong!” But it’s not about right and wrong. It’s about the journey.

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.

Telling the Story of Science

I came to a realization yesterday: I love reading history books, even though I hated history class.  I love reading the stories of historical figures.  Let’s face it; the people who made history mostly did so because they led extraordinary lives.  It doesn’t mean that everyone in the history books is fascinating, but it’s generally possible to find an historical figure or period that has fascinating stories. Usually several figures or periods.  And the reason I hated history class?  It seemed like it was more about memorization of dates and events than the study of the stories of an era.

Science education and writing can be a lot like this.  Most non-physicists hate science class because they feel like they just have to memorize a lot of formulas.  As a teaching assistant, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that I could not convince students that all the specific formulas they were trying to memorize could be derived from one master equation or law — e.g.,  the ideal gas law, or PV=nRT, for thermodynamics.  For those who thought like scientists, the derivation of a specific case from a general law was like the story behind what others simply memorized.

In a different vein, I had a quantum mechanics professor who inserted little stories about various famous physicists into his lectures about the origins of quantum mechanics.  On our final, one of the questions asked us to identify this man:

Image from nobelprize.org

That was the only problem I was absolutely certain I had gotten correct after finishing the exam, certainly because it was the only one that had a simple, black-and-white, correct answer, but also because I had really listened during those stories about famous physicists.  I found the context of physics almost as interesting as the actual physical concepts themselves.

While people like to think of science and math as pure fields, outside the influence of zeitgeist or prejudice, this simply isn’t true.  Learning the context of scientific discovery unveils a new level of understanding of the field itself.  When the laser was first invented, it was seen as a useless novelty; now they are ubiquitous in many fields of physics.  Some fields of physics stalled because the prejudice of the times simply wouldn’t allow for the strange new thought.

Popular science books do a good job of marrying history with technical detail to give a full contextual picture of a scientific discovery, and it is often something that science reporters must do.  Those writing about the supposed observation of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light brought the story back to Einstein and how he might have felt about being “proven wrong.”  These historical tidbits give a sense of importance of an event to someone who is not an expert in the field in which the event has the most meaning, thereby broadening the impact of discovery.  In a similar way, adding historical context to classroom education about science might be a way to bring different kinds of students into a love of scientific discovery.  By mating the love of historical discovery with science in the student’s mind, it might be possible to bring different kinds of interest to the sciences.

What do readers think?  Do you think that historical background could be interjected into the middle school or high school classroom to pique the interest of those students who haven’t already decided they want to be scientists or engineers?  How does the historical story of a scientific discovery relate cognitively to the scientific “story” told by a derivation?

Worth a Thousand Words

Monday, I went to one of the labs where they’re doing research about which I am writing for my institute’s website to take some photos and video. It was an interesting experience; while I’ve taken photos before, it was always either outside or for my food blog posts. Photographing scientific experiments is a completely different experience.

When I see presentations where the speaker shows a photograph of his or her lab, I’m always annoyed at how useless most of these photographs are.  It’s fairly impossible to get an idea of an experiment by looking at a photo of the optical table because it’s so cluttered that unless you know the experiment intimately, you’re going to need a while to trace out what’s actually happening.  Of course, you’re unlikely to do so during the minute or so it might be displayed in a talk, or in the few minutes you might glance at a photo accompanying an article.

But the general public might just think it’s cool to see a picture of all the stuff put together, even if they can’t understand what’s going on, in detail.  So there’s a fine line between a throwaway picture to just show “science” and a picture that might prove interesting to someone with a little more knowledge of the field.  Luckily, the photos I was taking were in a clean room, so there was less in the way of clutter, as they want to avoid having unnecessary things in the room.  That meant that I could get clean shots of optics and mechanics, without having to play focus tricks.

So far, I’ve finished the most recent round of edits for two pieces, and I’m excited to see them come together.  I’m finding I really enjoy writing about science, as it gives me a chance to stretch intellectual muscles I don’t often get to use as an experimentalist.  I like trying to find ways to explain things without the ability to resort to technical jargon.  The pieces on which I’ve been working have also added the layer of trying to illuminate the text with visual aids.  It’s been interesting to try to come up with efficient and interesting ways to enhance the text with pictures and video.

The Most Satisfying Thing

Last Wednesday, a review committee from the organization that funds my research visited the university.  I presented a poster, and also invited my father to come and see the lab and the poster.  It was interesting, since my dad is a mechanic and has little formal physics background beyond what he learned in high school, but his intelligence definitely leans towards the quantitative, so he’s very interested in what I do.  So I spent most of the time explaining what my research is, and some of the general physics concepts behind it.

One of the big ones was bosons versus fermions.  He kept thinking of them as specific subatomic particles, so I explained it again in terms of dogs and cats.  There are dogs and there are cats, but there are also different kinds of dogs and different kinds of cats.  So you wouldn’t say you have fermions and electrons, because electrons are a type of fermion.

Later on this weekend, I heard him on the phone with his sister, talking about seeing the lab, and I listened to him explain some of the things that I explained to him.  His sister is a scientists, a chemist, so she has a basic understanding of a lot of the general concepts.  Dad didn’t parrot back exactly what I had said, but he did give a pretty decent explanation of the general workings of the lab.  I felt kind of proud of myself that I had been able to explain things clearly enough that he felt comfortable explaining them back to someone with a higher level of physics knowledge than he has, and get things right.

I realized that listening to someone to whom I’d explained something re-explain it to someone else was one of the most satisfying things about explaining my work to a non-scientists.  It is not enough to see the utterly lost look leave someone’s face; it goes so much further when you realize that he’s actually gotten it enough to pass the information along.  I sometimes wonder how authors, both fiction and non-fiction, feel about book clubs.  If I ever did write a popular science book, I would want to tour around to book club groups discussing my book and just sit in a corner without telling them who I was, so that I could hear how the audience understood my work and communicated it to someone else.  If there are any authors reading this, do you feel the same way?

On Writing and Audiences

Lately, I’ve started taking on some projects writing about physics experiments for a broader audience.  One piece I’m writing is for the general news section of a website, and the other is for news shared with collaborators and colleagues who are not necessarily in the same field, but are probably scientists or engineers.  This has gotten me thinking about how to gauge the audience of a piece and how to alter my explanations for a given audience.  It’s harder than it seems; as I’ve mentioned before, different words have different meanings to scientists versus non-scientists.

The first thing to think about is just how much science education the reader is likely to have had.  This seems obvious, but I think a lot of scientists, myself included, forget that most people have never had a class that covers quantum mechanics.  Think about how much advanced physics involves a reference to quantum mechanics and then think about how you would explain it without that knowledge.  Yikes, right?  So the biggest difference between the audiences for my two writing pieces is that one audience will recognize various quantum mechanics concepts, and another may not.  Now, plenty of people, especially those browsing science news websites, will have heard of certain ideas before, but they will not have been in the context of a class.

In the absence of formal knowledge of the advanced concepts, I find I fall back on analogies a lot.  No, none of them are perfect, but they’re a good way to give the rough idea of a concept without getting into “well, the math works out that….”  And analogies work regardless of the type of audience, as long as you have an idea what will be familiar and resonant with them.  For example, today I explained bosons and fermions in terms of dogs and cats.  Bosons and fermions aren’t specific elementary particles, but instead a way of classifying them.  So maybe a proton is a Persian cat and an electron is a tabby.  But they’re both cats (fermions).  This analogy has the fun quality of being extended because cats are solitary (Fermi exclusion) and dogs travel in packs (Bose condensation).  You can use more technical analogies for more technical audiences, but the concept is the same.  Compare an unfamiliar thing to something that the audience finds familiar and non-threatening.

Finally, when I’m writing for or talking to a general audience, one whose background I don’t necessarily know, I like to think about something David Kestenbaum said in a talk he gave at my university.  He said that someone once told him to think of the audience as that weird uncle who corners you at Christmas.  He isn’t stupid, but he probably hasn’t had higher than high school physics and he might be a little drunk.  In general, people like to hear things they already know, so if you underestimate the level of your audience, you probably won’t be chastised for aiming less technical rather than more.