Archive for: June, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson isn't the only black astronomer

I have noticed a tendency recently for people to mention Neil deGrasse Tyson when talking about black people doing science, and doing astronomy in particular. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this; deGrasse Tyson is, in fact, black, and is, in fact, an astronomer. Indeed, as somebody who's caught the attention of the media and who evidently has the charisma to hold it, he's the closest thing we have to a modern-day Carl Sagan. So, go on celebrating him!

However, I am brought to mind this XKCD comic, in which Zombie Marie Curie comes back to take people to task for always mentioning her, and only her, when trying to convince people that women can do science.

There are actually lots of black astronomers out there, and I don't know who most of them are. (Just because I don't know who most of all astronomers are.) Yes, blacks do remain an underrepresented minority in astronomy, but that shouldn't take anything away from the individuals out there who are doing solid astronomy. I will mention two I have personally worked with. (There are more famous ones than these two, but my point is just to give a shout-out to a couple of good folks.)

Lou Strolger is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University. I met him in 1999 when I was a post-doc at LBNL and he was a graduate student at Michegan (although in residence in Chile) working with Chris Smith. In fact, Lou was a member of the other team; I was in Saul Perlmutter's supernova cosmology project, and Lou was in Brian Schmidt's team. However, in 1999, Saul's gang collaborated with Chris and Lou (and some others) on a search for "nearby" supernova. (Things less than a billion light-years away. You know, backyard stuff.) Lou went on to be a post-doc working with Adam Reiss (the third guy to share the Nobel Prize with Saul and Brian), and after that to WKU. Had I stayed at Vanderbilt, almost certainly I'd be collaborating with him now. My post-doc, Rachel Gibbons, and I talked to Lou about some collaborative ideas a year or so before I left Vanderbilt. Lou still works on supernovae and cosmology.

Jedidah Isler is a graduate student in astronomy at Yale— or, at least, she was last time I checked. It's possible she's graduated in the last year. I knew her when she was a master's student at Fisk University in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program. Although I wasn't her advisor, I did interact with her, and worked with her on one project (that, sadly, didn't end up going anywhere, although she did come along to Chile with me and another graduate student on an observing run). Instead of continuing on at Vanderbilt, Jedidah had the opportunity to go work with Meg Urry at Yale; Meg Urry is one of the uberpundits of active galactic nuclei. (In an example of "small world" syndrome, one of Meg's post-docs, Erin Bonning, is going to be teaching physical science at Quest this coming year.) Last I talked to Jedidah, she was not sure she was going to continue in astronomy after graduating, but was considering going into public policy. We'll see what happens!

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Comments on old posts disabled (with an aside about plasma cosmology)

Fairly frequently I get an e-mail message letting me know that there's a new comment, a screed from somebody who is put off by my telling the world the truth about the nature of Plasma Cosmology in my post How I Know Plasma Cosmology Is Wrong. This is an ancient post, and the truth is that I don't really have the time or inclination to engage with the true believers on the matter; this is why I haven't been approving those comments. (They weren't ones I wanted to let pass without comment.) However, rather than just disable comments on that post, I realized it made sense to disbale comments on all old posts that I wasn't going to engage on any more.

I left all posts from 2012 still able to comment. It's kind of depressing how few there are.

By the way, in case you thought you were missing something, the comments on the "Plasma Cosmology" that I didn't approve for the most part made one of two points:

  • I was unprofssional and behaving badly by calling Plasma Cosmology a crackpot theory. Why can't I just engage the theory on its own merits? My tone was perhaps a little bit to dickish; I'll apologize to Phil Plait, at least, if not to the actual plasma cosmologists themselves. Because, the actual truth is that Plasma Cosmology is a crackpot fringe theory, and to call it anything else would be little different from saying that creationism or intelligent design are "viable scientific alternatives" to evolution. The widespread acceptance of standard cosmology is not because those of us in the mainstream are too afraid to look at the evidence and speak out against the unthinking consensus. The widespread acceptance of standard cosmology is because there is a lot of evidence for it, and there's not evidence for the alternative proposed by the plasma cosmologists.
  • There is no good evidence for the Big Bang model, Dark Matter, etc. These statements are just flatly incorrect. There is a tremendous amount of evidence for dark matter. I have covered that elsewhere, and a casual browse through Ethan Siegel's blog, among several others, can give you an introduction to all of that. (Humorously, the "bullet cluster" is one thing that can be identified as the "smoking gun", but it's just one piece of evidence amongst a large number of pieces of evidnece.) As for the Big Bang itself, I point you to my podcast at 365 Days of Astronomy from last year entitled On the success of Big Bang Cosmology.

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Same Old Story : Too Many Graduate Students

Via Slashdot, I saw this report from the NIH advisory committee. The summary of the problem: there are too many graduate studnets produced in biomedical fields for the number of academic positions that will be available for them in the future. Quotes include:

NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period.

Of course, earlier there is the statement of purpose:

Attract and retain the best and most diverse scientists, engineers and physicians from around the world to conduct biomedical research as well as increase the number of domestic students from diverse backgrounds who excel in science and become a part of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce

This is a decades-old story at this point. I remember my junior or senior year of college (back in 1989 or thereabouts) hearing news stories about how there was going to be a "shortage of scientists", because all of those who rushed into science after Sputnik were going to be retiring. BS, of course, because during the intervening decades they all groomed multiple replacements for themselves, but they're only retiring once.

In my very early years of graduate school (1990-1992 or thereabouts), there was a statistical continuum of letters to the editor to Physics Today talking about the sea of physics post-docs out there: PhDs who could get a temporary post-doc position, or two, or three, but who couldn't find permanent positions. The astronomy journal club (I believe it was) at Caltech dedicated one of their meetings to talking about this issue. And, the professors there all gave lip service to "training students so that they can go into other careers." But I could practically hear each and every professor there thinking "but not my students— they will be the ones who get the coveted academic positions." (Some may even have been generous enough to think "Caltech" students.)

The sad truth is that those professors were probably mostly right, although not entirely. Of the three PhD students who worked with my advisor, Tom Soifer, when I was there, we're all in faculty positions. James Larkin is at UCLA and Tom Murphy is at UCSD. I'm the odd one out, teaching at a teaching-focused small liberal arts college rather than at a prestigious research Unviersity, but still I've got one of those rare and coveted professor positions. In Physics, professor positions everywhere are heavily dominated people with degrees from the top handfull of schools... yet they are all themselves still training graduate students, with graduate training programs designed to produce more academic researchers.

Socieites and meetings and focus groups will meet every so often and wring their hands about the problem, and give lip service either to increasing the number of staff scientists and decreasing the number of graduate students, or give lip service to "training graduate students for other careers". But little has changed despite this hand-wringing in the last twenty years, and I don't expect it to change any time soon. The professors, the ones in position of power, are the rare few who got the desired positions, so they aren't feeling the pain, and thus have little incentive to change it. Meanwhile, funding agencies keep talking about "attracting the best scientists", which leads to university administrations talking about "improving the graduate program", which inevitably leads to trying to attract more graduate students. It's a vicious cycle that's not going to end.

(And even if you do get into a scientific research position, you're still screwed. At least in astronomy, funding has gone completely into the toilet. Last I heard, NSF astronomy was granting only about 1/8 of the proposals it received, which is even worse than when I was failing to get NSF grants in the 00's. Also, national observatory facilities are being eviscerated on the altar of ausperity and gigantic projects. Not only are there too few research science positions for the graduate students we're producing, there are too many research science positions for the amount of science that our society is willing to support! It's bad all around.)

What you should do about it is be open and honest to any young people you know. Warn them that going into an academic PhD program is a trap. You will be enticed with the promise of an intellectually fulfilling job as a research scientist, once you put up with the years of hazing you undergo as a grad student. Only, at the other end, statistically you won't be able to find a job. I wrote about this back in January in my post Why go to graduate school in Physics?. The short version is that there's only one reason: because you want to be a physics graduate student for six years, and it's worth it to you to take six years out of your life to do that. Yes, if you want to be a professor, you have to get a PhD. Similarly, if you want to win the lottery, you have to buy lottery tickets. but the competition is intense.

You will also spend much of your graduate school career frustrated as you will see that everybody around you knows that the system is broken, that academic PhDs are being vastly overproduced... but that nobody is willing to do anything about it.

So do something about it yourself. Don't let yourself into the trap unless it's not a trap for you, but an interesting diversion for your life.

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