Archive for: September, 2007

If you thought Physics was misogynistic, try open source software!

There are days when I want to stand on the rooftops and scream like Zuska.

I'm no longer in academia, but as those who are longtime readers of my blog know, I became painfully aware of how sexist the culture of Physics is and how amazingly unequal the playing field is for women— not just, or not even primarily, because of differential standards, but because of the atmosphere that is created by that culture. I also became painfully aware how amazingly in denial a lot of men (and even a few women) are about the pervasive and sinister effects of that atmosphere.

One would often see borderline open misogyny hiding behind protestations that Physics needed to maintain their "meritocracy" — the existence of which I have argued previously is a myth. (And before you get all huffy and point out that I'm just sour grapes because I "wasn't good enough" to stay in academia myself, bear in mind that not only did I win multiple awards for my research, including one from Vanderbilt itself, before Vanderbilt made it clear that I wasn't going to get tenure, but also that I held these opinions back when things were still looking promising for my future at that place.)

In Free Software, however it's far worse.

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NPR's Science Friday with a (Second) Live Studio Audience

If you listened to Science Friday on NPR's Talk of the Nation today, you may have heard Ira Flatow mention a question from "Prospero Linden"— that was me. I was there, live, along with a 30 or 40 other people in the studio audience:


For the last several weeks, Science Friday has been simulcasting over NPR and in Second Life, using Nashville's WPLN audio stream for the purpose. (I had nothing to do with that!) Meanwhile, Ira Flatley, the 2nd life avatar of Ira Flatow (and his extensive staff), together with hosts, listen to and repeat on air the occasional question that comes from the sundry people present. Meanwhile, all of us carry on a text conversation about what we're hearing on the radio, sometimes with various tangents.

If you're interested in this drop by next week. Science Friday is hosted in the Science School region in Second Life.

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Answering Objections to the Big Bang

Every so often you will come across somebody who has a "killer" list
of "problems" with the Big Bang. While there remain unknowns and
questions about the Big Bang— just as there do with biological
evolution— the basic picture of the Big Bang is rock
solid— just like evolution.

Nearly two months ago, I received a query from somebody who found my
name through the
Letter Project "expert database"
regarding one of the websites that
lists these objects. I've been through quite a number of life changes
in the last 6-8 weeks, and my blogging rate has suffered as a result.
However, I'm finally getting to it. Nearly all of the things I will
respond to here are generic responses, as these "objections" to the
Big Bang are frequently brought up, but for reference I will link to
the site that was given to
me: Dr. Tom
van Flandern's Top 30 Problems with the Big Bang
. Nearly all of
these objects are either a misunderstanding of the Big Bang, or
an objection that is out of date. I won't address all 30
individually, but I will hit some of the highlights. The fact
that I don't address a given objection should not be taken as
evidence that I'm ceding the point!

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The Gruber Prize Ceremony

Hello from England! Last night was the award ceremony for the 2007 Gruber Prizer in Cosmology. It was good to meet up with the members of the SCP again, many of whom I haven't seen in several years. Picture below is the members of the collaboration who were present, underneath one of the many trees labelled as "Newton's Apple Tree" in the UK; this one is at Trinity college, and apparently is a descendant of the original tree from the apocryphal story about the apple falling on Newton's head. Here we are all looking for apples of our own, but evidently these apples are made of dark energy and as such are not falling into gravitational potential wells....


At the awards ceremony, a number of people spoke. I want to comment on three things that people said. First, Jim Peebles, one of the previous winners of this award, thanked the awardees for two things. First, for solving one problem: the mass density of the Universe, and fixing the cosmological "age crisis" through the measurement of a positive cosmological constant. Second, for the introduction of a new conundrum: just what is this cosmological constant or dark energy stuff? There's nothing scientists like better than a good conundrum.

The two individual winners of the award, Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt, each spoke, and each had similar themes to what they said. Saul started by noting that there is this popular image of the lone scientist working on brilliant discoveries all himself, but often it doesn't work that way. He then went through a serious of snapshot images he has in his head of the process of discovering the acceleration of the Universe, mentioning the names of each of the rest of his team who were present. (About me, he said that I type and program faster than he talks... and if you've heard Saul talk, that's saying something!)

Brian Schmidt, likewise, came up and said that he wasn't speaking for him, but he was speaking as the representative of the High-Z team. He said that a lot of the problems that are present in science today can not besolved be individuals, despite the fact that many prizes are still given to individuals. Rather, they are solved by teams.

It is significant to me that half of this award went to not individuals, but to the teams of which Saul and Brian were leaders. There were many, many contributions all worthy of recognition.

If I were more cynical I might say that Saul and Brian were just saying what they were supposed to say, facing the fact that about 1/3 of the people in the audience were the other team members.... However, I am not that cynical. I really believe that what Saul and Brian said was heartfelt. I appreciate both of them and the Gruber Foundation for so publically recognizing that this discovery did require teams, and that those teams were worth of honor.

I close with just one picture from the dinner later last evening. Alex Kim, who is pictured, was a graduate student at UC Berkeley when I and Peter Nugent arrived as post-docs in 1996. Ironically, Alex Kim defended his thesis in late 1996, but both Peter and I defended our theses in early spring 1997... for a while, the post-docs didn't exactly yet have their PhDs, but the grad student did! You can see that Alex (now a permanent staff member at LBNL, after a stint as a post-doc in Paris) has done well, for he seems to have located a new standard candle....


Photograph by Nelson Nunes

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Offline for a few more days

Sep 05 2007 Published by under About the Blog

I"m sorry the blog's been so quiet recently. With my new job, and my trip out to SF getting started at Linden these last two weeks, I've been quite busy! Things won't settle down until next week, as I'm off to the UK for the next for days for the Gruber Prize award ceremony. I'll be back next week and trying to settle into a routine, after which hopefully I'll be getting to some of my mentally queued posts including one on the Coriolis Effect, one answering common criticisms you may see about the Big Bang, and hopefully one on the bigass void that some of you have read about.

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Is the result about the subjects, or about the test?

Sep 05 2007 Published by under Culture

I haven't read the study— it would take some digging to find, after all!— only the CNN Article, but the title sums up half of the results: "Men want hot women, study confirms."

In a nutshell, the study found that in a speed-dating test, men, despite what they said they were looking for, almost always went for the most physically attractive women (measured I am not sure how). Women, meanwhile, went for a man whose "desirability" (again, measured I am not sure how) matched their own assessment of how attractive they are.

The conclusion the article claims is that humans, despite high-minded language about looking for people who share their interests and values, seek out mates based primarily on physical attractiveness.

I want to suggest an alternate hypothesis. That is, "speed dating" is a shallow process that leads people to making judgments based on shallow criteria. Seems possible, no? I mean, even after an intense 3 minutes of conversation, can you really do a whole lot better judging how interested you are in a person than you can viewing a photograph?

It always bothers me to see news stories making (or just accepting) facile conclusions that come from studies where there are obvious potential biases built in to the methodology of the study without even acknowledging that that is something that one should think about.

Update: There is some analysis of what makes a face attractive, inspired by this same news story, at The Anterior Commissure. Hat tip: Cognitive Daily.

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Book review : Storm World by Chris Mooney

Read this book.

First and formost for a book review: Storm World is a good
read. You will not find yourself bogged down or forcing yourself to
push through a book that's "good for you." You will keep reading
because you will want to know more.

As for the book itself: Mooney clearly has a point of view in the
book, and does not hide it. However, that point of view is considered
based on the evidence, and he also admits that it is not exactly the
same as the point of view he expected to have when starting research for
the book. This is not a polemic, it is not a "the sky is falling, we're
all gonna die!" rant about hurricans and global warming. Even if you
are one who is inclined to doubt all of that, I strongly encourge you to
consider reading this book.

The book is really about two things. First, it's a historical and
present account of our increasing understanding of just what hurricanes
are, including that there still is a lot about them that we don't
understand. Second, it's an examination of the scientific process which
is in many ways more honest and true to reality than many of the
sugar-coated versions of the scientific process that we hear.

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