Archive for the ‘Self-aggrandizement’ category

Tonight! ‘Net Radio: Me and Eileen Pollack on “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science”

March 12, 2014

That’d be my regular monthly gig co-hosting Virtually Speaking Science, tonight, Wednesday March 12, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT.

Eileen Pollack is now a professor at the University of Michigan, teaching in the creative writing M.F.A. program there.  She’s a celebrated novelist and writer of short fiction, essays, and what is called (alas, in my view — and not her fault) “creative” nonfiction.  You can get hold of her works here.  All in all, hers is an enormously impressive record of a life in letters, of worlds made in words.

Eileen Pollack in 1978 was someone quite different (weren’t we all…) That spring, she graduated from Yale with highest honors in physics — only the second woman in the history of the university to complete that major.  What happened to take someone who was, on the accolades, one of Yale’s most accomplished undergraduate physicists, and turn her to a radically different path?

Pollack answered that question and raised another one in her New York Times Magazine article “Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science?” published last October.  In her case, no one told her she might have a shot at a career in math or physics.  So, as conditioned by her context’s views on female capacity and the maleness of science as any of the male professors who never thought to encourage her, she gave up the joy she found in equations and the ideas they expressed, and moved on.

So far hers is a sorrowful but not unfamiliar story.  The history of barriers to entry in science is a miserable one, but not unknown.  But Pollack’s curiosity — and more — flared in 2005, when then Harvard president Larry Summers mused about a possible biological deficit — at least when it comes to the extremes of mathematical capacity — might explain why men so outnumber women in the physical sciences.  Pollack is gentle with Summers himself, whom she’s known for decades , but the controversy created a need to know the answer to the underlying issue.  It’s a fact that there are many more men than women hold positions in the upper echelons of scientific research.  But why?

Joseph_Wright_of_Derby_-_Experiment_with_the_Air_Pump_-_WGA25892

Pollack’s article, and the book that will emerge from her enquiry, engage that question, and the explanations she’s coming to are at once depressingly reminiscent of her own story, and extend them, to account for the persistence of cultural and social bias even when (a) formal discrimination is prohibited by law and (b) members of a community — like physics departments — pride themselves on their ability to separate emotion and unconscious impulses from the exercise of reason.

In other words:  being smart is no protection against hidden biases, or even against accepting the evidence of bias when rigorously documented…and the revolution isn’t won yet, not by a long shot.

Pollack and I will be talking about all that, the whys the wherefores, and some thought as to what it will take to turn formal commitments to gender equity (and by extension, equity for the whole host of relevant modifiers) into actual practice, the simple fabric of society.

Join us!  Live or later here.  Or, if you are virtually real, at the Exploratorium’s Second Life joint – 6 p.m. this evening, March 12, 2014.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Experiment with the Air Pumpc. 1768

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: March Mammal Madness Edition

February 18, 2014

That time of the month again:  tomorrow being the third Wednesday of February, I’ll be going on the ‘tubes at my usual gig with Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation with Katie Hinde — biologist at Harvard and major-domo of the world-class awesome blog, Mammals Suck…Milk!

You can listen live or as a podcast later here.  If you’re virtually real, you can join us in the live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life.  (I’ll get the SLURL up in an update and/or tomorrow’s reminder. We kick off at 6 p.m. ET.

Hinde is just a treat of an interview — fast, funny, and with incredibly rich and interesting science to discuss.  Here’s what she’s about:

Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy that sustains growth, but by also contributing to immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development.

Guided by evolutionary theory, we investigate how variation in mother’s milk and behavioral care influences infant outcomes from post-natal life into adulthood and subsequent generations.

Her research has centered on primates, but as Ed Yong discusses here, she’s a marvelously agile opportunist, and in one sweet move she managed to turn what has been a field developed on the back of very labor intensive, small sample size studies into something approaching big milk data.  Her trick?   Taking advantage of the detailed record keeping American dairy farmers perform for obvious reasons to acquire 2.4 million lactatation records from 1.4 million cows.  Now that’s some statistical power!

DAM120727

Technique is one thing — asking good questions of data is another, and that’s what makes Hinde such an interesting scholar.  She’s been looking at differences by gender of the offspring in the composition and delivery of milk.  The answer is (a) the details are all in all; different species with different evolutionary histories and behavioral landscapes exhibit different lactation patterns in the context of different behaviors exhibited by daughters and sons, and (b) seemingly obvious evolutionary stories often fail to fit what actually happens at the udder or the breast — and after, through the life of the nourished children.  You can get a sense of the field and a whiff of Hinde’s own work in her review chapter here. [PDF]

We’ll talk about all that — what the story is for cows, as compared with rhesus macaques, for example, and then we’ll talk about that research as it hits the wider world.    That’s in Hinde’s mind because of a very recent encounter with the inimitable (thankfully) Daily Mail.  We’ll talk about that monument to crap science writing, but with this twist:  a look at the importance of social media for contemporary scientists.  Hinde was able to mobilize correctives to the disastrous reporting on her research only because she has a robust presence across a number of networks — and we’ll use her experience over the last week to think about the shifting power structure in media.  A long way — but not really — from the milking shed.

And last, burying the lede as usual, we’ll get to Hinde’s annual mammalian extravaganza — her own bracket of mammals taking on each other in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw competition that makes the NCAAs look like toddlers in sandboxes.  Just to give you a taste, last year she pitted (inter much alia) the honey badgers against the wolverines.  Now, there is simply no mammal around that matches the wolverine for sheer, incomprehensible bad-assery (see, e.g., the tale of M3 Hinde often cites).  But Hinde is an honest bracket-builder, so home field matters.  Wolverine could wreck Honey Badger on any neutral field, but in HB’s home turf — Africa — the heat and  humidity negated the advantages of stamina and ferocity, leaving one of the  pre-tourney favorites a loser as the Madness played out.

Hinde will be running a new Mammal Madness this coming March — and that’s where the conversation tomorrow will come to rest.

As you may have gathered, I’m looking forward to this one.  Join in the conversation tomorrow.

Image:  Winslow Homer, Milking Time1875.

Winslow

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project

The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics*

November 20, 2013

It’s that time of the month again.

This afternoon at 5 ET I’ll be doing my internet science radio gig as one of three hosts on Virtually Speaking Science.  The others, btw, are Alan Boyle and Jennifer Ouellette.

My guest will by my MIT colleague Allan Adams.  Allan is a physicist — a string theorist, AKA someone who works on problems that have been famously twitted as having no rea world test or validation.

Jan_van_Bijlert_-_Musical_Company_-_WGA02182

That’s a misleading claim on a bunch of levels, some of which are implicated in some recent work Allan and several colleagues have done.  The latest, reported in a paper in Science last summer, uses math derived from string theory that’s been applied to the study of black hole dynamics to investigate what happens as a superfluid — a frictionless fluid whose behavior is described by quantum mechanics — displays turbulence.

That’s a mouthful, to be sure.  Here’s the nub:  a mathematical description of one kind of physical system — a black hole — turns out to explicate the behavior of a very different one, that, as it happens, can be produced, observed and analyzed right here at home.

Think on that for a second.

This is an instance of the most …

…miraculous is the wrong word for it, so perhaps better, astonishing fact about modern science:  it really, really works, and it does so through a path that mathematics opens up.  We can make sense of our surroundings because of what seems to be an invention of the human mind, a system of logic rigorously expressed that can describe and evolve the relations between ideas, concepts and things in the world.  But here’s the weird bit:   that tool, that invention of thousands of years of human culture, does so across every more disparate, ever more encompassing domains — from the lab bench to a collapsed star, for example.  Mathematics as a creation of fallible humans seems to be in some sense an intrinsic property of the universe, which is a much more banal statement than it appears, in one sense, since what it really says is that  mathematical accounts do what people were trying to do with the stuff:  find ways to construct   arguments in forms that can be checked for accuracy and internal consistency that satisfactorily describe, say, the flight of a cannonball or the path of a planet.

So Allan and I are going to talk about all that:  his recent work as an example of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics; about how physicists actually use math — what kind of thinking actually goes into doing this kind of work;  and about why string theory, for any paucity of new prediction or unique evidence in its favor is still such a fertile field of inquiry — and what that fact tells you about how science actually advances.

Heady stuff, I know, but I, with my physics degree from the school of having things fall on my head, will keep the conversation working as a way to see into what (a) physicist does.  Allan, you’ll find, is great value, that most fortunate of human who finds nothing but joy in the work he does. That’ll come through — the great pleasure of my work is to get to spend time with people who know cool stuff, find out more, and can’t stop talking about it. That’s what you’ll get in just a little while.

Tune in if you have a chance, or stop by the Second Life live studio experience, or catch it later as  a podcast.

*The phrase “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” was the title of an essay by Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner.  Highly recommended.  It’s concluding thought:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

Image: Jan van Bijlert, Musical Companybefore 1671.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes TODAY! — Sports, Genes, Human Potential edition

July 31, 2013

A reminder/follow up to Monday’s post.

This evening at 6 p.m. EDT I’ll be talking with author and Sports Illustrated Senior Writer David Epstein about his new book The Sports Gene.  You can listen to the show, Virtually Speaking Science live and later here – and  you can catch up on my episodes or those of other hosts (Alan Boyle, Jennifer Ouellette, PZ Myers) either by searching my name or Virtually Speaking Science at either Blog Talk Radio or on iTunes.

The show also goes up virtually live in Second Life (yes — it still exists!) at the Exploratorium’s in-world space.  If you’re into SL, or merely avatar-curious, come on down.  It’s weirdly fun doing this in front of a “live” studio audience.

Now to the substance. Let me get right out in front of it.  A book that looks at genes and human possibility — both physical and mental/emotional — is navigating a mine field of sloppy science, bad intentions, and terrible history.  David has managed to write a book that is smart, scientifically literate, clear and subtle.

Here’s the passage with which David begins his Epilogue:

Eero Mäntyranta’s life story is a paragon of a 10,000 hours tale.

Mäntyranta grew up in poverty and had to ski across a frozen lake to get to and from school each day.  As a young adult, he took up serious skiing as a way to improve his life station — to land a job as a border patrolman and escape the danger and drudgery of forest work.  The faintest taste of success was all Mäntyranta needed to embark on the furious training that forged one of the greatest Olympic athletes of a generation.  Who would deny his hard work or the lonely suffering he endured on algid winter nights? Swap skis for feet and the Arctic forest for the Rift Valley and Mäntyranta’s tale would fit snugly into the narrative template of a Kenyan marathoner.

If not for a batch of curious scientists who were familiar with Mäntyranta’s exploits and invited him to their lab twenty years after his retirement, his story might have remained a pure triumph of nurture.  But illuminated by the light of genetics, Mäntyranta’s life tale looks like something entirely different:  100 percent nature and 100 percent nurture….

And, a little later in this concluding essay:

In all likelihood, we over ascribe our skills and traits to either innate talent or training, depending on what fits our personal narratives.

One of the pleasures of the book is a proper debunking of the Gladwell version of the 10,000 hours story, and we’ll talk about that.  We’ll talk about genes, about the implications of genetic and human variation, on what use those of us who aren’t elite athletes can make of new scientific investigations into things like the genetics of brain trauma or injury, and much more.  I found this book deeply intriguing, a page turner, for all the complexity of some of the technical matters under scrutiny.  Most of all, for all its presentation as a sports book, or sports science book, I found it best read as an idiosyncratic doorway into an increasingly rich understanding of human possibility.  I didn’t need genetics to tell me that I never could have been an Olympic (or high school) sprinter.

Schiele_-_Laufende_-_1915_

It gives me a kind of joy to realize as a fifty something slowest-jogger-on-the-river that there is a growing body of knowledge that can help me think systematically about the best way to train the body I’ve got.  Cool stuff.

Last — a couple of factoids that turned up in my pre-interview with David that are too good not to share ahead of time.

For one, just for those who think we’re in post-racial America, David pointed out to me that the alleged inverse relationship between athletic prowess and intellectual skill only started to getting talked about in the US as African-American athletes gained access to previously all white or white dominated sports.  For another:  in the 30s, basketball, historically an urban sport, had a disproportionate number of Jews at high levels of the game.  So folks talked about a Jewish basketball gene, and you got some predictable crap about canny Jews knowing how to steal the ball and such like.

Oy — but fodder for some fascinating radio.

Tune in this afternoon or later as you get the chance.

Image:  Egon Schiele, Running Girl,  1915

For a Good Time on the Intertubes — Today!

May 22, 2013

It’s that time of the month again — the third (usually) Wednesday, when I do my Virtually Speaking Science gig.

This afternoon at 6 p.m. eastern time I’ll be talking again to Naomi Oreskes, historian of science and co-author of Merchants of Doubt,an account of how a small(ish) cadre of cold-war scientists became hired guns for Big Tobacco and the anti-climate change brigade.

Naomi and I spoke in 2011 about the threats posed by the spread of “scientistic” argument — the use of a science-like language, couched in the rhetoric of disinterested skepticism, to obscure critical knowledge for public audiences.

Well, flash forward a year and a half, and we come to an America in which we have experienced years of devastating drought, superstorm Sandy, this week’s tornado, and the breaching of the 400 ppm atmospheric carbon threshold, and it’s time to talk again about the cost of denialism and the misuse of perceived authority by our still-thriving doubt peddlars.

Brueghel,_Pieter_I_-_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee_-_1596

The tornado provides a great touchstone in fact — as Naomi and I have been emailing back and forth on the question.  What’s happening is that there is a growing body of increasingly firm research on the impact of climate change on all kinds of circumstances.  Changing and possibly deepening patterns of drought are pretty clearly on the table.  A boost in the number of severe hurricanes too.  Significant ice melt and sea level rise too. But what will happen to tornado patterns as climate change proceeds is still unclear.  So what to make of that lacuna?

Here’s my take (not to put any words in Naomi’s mouth):  If you are a rational person, you say we need more research on that particular concern, but the broad pattern is clear:  human-driven climate change is in progress and it is causing a host of changes that directly conflict with the way we’ve rely on our built environment and on all the things we do (grow cereals in the midwest, e.g.) needed to keep our societies going.  And we’ll get back to you on the twisters, asking you to bear this thought in mind:  if you are a betting person, how much do you want to wager on the possibility that increasing the amount of heat trapped in the lower atmosphere won’t kick up some extra nasty storms?

We won’t confine ourselves to climate and the weather, by the way.  Merchants of Doubt has given me a frame for looking at a lot of news, and I see the same desire to conceal useful knowledge the doubtists serve in the somewhat different technique of simply blocking research that might be used to produce inconvenient truths.  See, e.g. the NRA – led ban on research on gun violence and the  the recent Republican proposal to forbid the US Census from doing anything but a decennial count, thus eliminating, among other things, our ability to measure unemployment.

So come on down.  Listen live or later here.  Y’all can head over to the Exploratorium’s Second Life stage as well if you do that virtual world thing.

Image:  Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, c. 1596.

For A Good Time In London

May 7, 2013

Come Thursday week, I’ll be trying to keep my head about me when many before have lost theirs (though I doubt they blamed i on me).

Anne_Boleyn_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Which is to say, I’ll be talking Newton, the Mint, counterfeiters and all kinds of good stuff at the Tower of London at 6:30, May 16.  It’s not a free event, alas, but tickets for any geographically enabled Balloon Juicers can be booked here.  I believe the talk will go up at iTunes U at some point, and I’ll add details when I post a reminder next week.

I  know that I’m often kind of late with this sort of announcement.  This marks a conscious attempt at improvement.  I’m channeling my inner Charles Dreyfus:  “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”*

*It was a Pink Panther flick that introduced me to the phrase whose origins lie here.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Woman, inscribed in gold over red “Anna Bollein Queen,”  c. 1532-6. (Note:  there’s a fair amount of controversy over whether this or another drawing attributed to Holbein do in fact depict Henry VIII’s unfortunate second wife.

A Stray Thought, Plus, For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes, Really Scary Microbe Edition

April 24, 2013

Sad to say, but true, some folks have complained to me that I don’t give enough notice of all the good stuff.  So, as usual around here, the beatings continue until morale improves…

…which is something of an apology for the fact that I’m only now mentioning that at 5 p.m. Eastern time I’ll be talking to Maryn McKenna on my monthly science-radio-web/podcast, Virtually Speaking Science (where I’m one of several hosts as we inch our way to regular weekly episodes).  (You’ll be able to pick up the podcast later at that link, or on iTunes, having searched for Virtually Speaking Science.)

Maryn, for those of you who have for some odd reason not glued yourself to her blog Superbug, or immersed yourself in her book by the same name, is the leading journalist working in the US on problems of antibiotic resistance, infectious disease and similar sources of gnawing (and occasionally acute) anxiety.  She and I have talked before, but, sadly, there’s always more scary bug stuff to talk about.

Flea_Micrographia_Hooke

This time, our focus will be on an under-reported outbreak of (likely) Totally Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (TDR – TB) and on the H7N9 flu story out of China.  But we’ll no doubt talk about antibiotics in agriculture and the way agribusiness and the tocsin of cheap food is posing such a thread.  Should be, dare I say it, fun.  Or at least interesting.  Or perhaps just terrifying.

Oh — and as for that stray thought.  Am I the only one wondering whether The Pet Goat will have a place of honor in Wee Bush’s presidential library?

Thought not.

ETA: Here’s a nice  bit of reporting on potentially untreatable gonorrhea appearing in the US.  I’ll be asking Maryn about this too.

Image:  Robert Hooke, Flea, in Micrographia, 1665

On Fluorescent Fish, Pet Prosthetics, Roach Cyborgs, and the Ethics of Engineered Animals

March 20, 2013

Program notes, here. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, which means I’ll be talking to a guest on the Virtually Speaking Science Strand at Blog Talk Radio and in Second Life.

This month my interlocutor will be a first for me: 0ne of my former MIT Science Writing graduate students, Emily Anthes. Emily is (a) great — a fine writer, a ferocious reporter, and someone with a sharp-elbowed, quirky view of the world.

She’s just out with a new book, Frankenstein’s Cat, on what’s happening now — and what the implications may be — in a range of ways we’ve begun to modify our pets and other animals. The book treats of genetically modified fish that glow in the dark; dairy animals manipulated to produce therapeutically valuable proteins in their milk, the concept of editing the genomes of useful (and/or decorative) animals, cloning, brain hacking (that’s the roaches) and more.

Emily is an engaged reporter on all this; she has strong points of view. Broadly, she favors the side of intervention; in part, as she notes, because it’s hardly as if the history of selective breeding leaves us exactly virginal in the matter of using our fellow creatures as means, rather than ends in themselves.

Joannes_Fijt_-_Spaniels_Stalking_Rabbits_in_the_Dunes_-_WGA08353

The question isn’t whether we should manipulate animals, but how, and with what ethical lens — and that’s what we’ll talk about.

We’ll do so both as a live and listen-later audio cast, and in front of a virtually (and virtuously, I hope) live audience in Second Life, tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, 4 p.m on that far coast I used to call home.

Should be fun. Emily’s the real deal. Listen in; buy her book; make an old teacher happy.

Image: Jan Fyt, Spaniels Stalking Rabbits in the Dunes, 1658

I Sing The Body Electric: Program Notes — this afternoon at 5 EST 2 PST

February 20, 2013

It is once more that time of the month:  I’ll be doing another of my interviews on Virtually Speaking Science, live from the Exploratorium’s hall in Second Life!

My guest this month is Cynthia Graber.  Cynthia is a double-threat science journalist, working in both print and radio; she’s currently at MIT, as it happens, as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow.

Most recently, Cynthia’s been blazing trail in what is rapidly becoming a new genre for nonfiction — what I’ve been calling in my head the non-fiction novella, stories that explode the seams of even length-happy magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, but that do not require a full book’s level of engagement.  These e-book shorts appear now as Kindle Singles, TED books, Byliner projects and more. Perhaps the most discussed in the community I hang with has been the approach pioneered by The Atavist, which adds a fair amount of computing to the text in books sold both as e-texts and as apps.  The other eye-catcher in this domain recently has been the Matter project — a Kickstarter-funded start-up dedicated to original reported and investigative stories centered on science.

Cynthia wrote what became Matter’s second publication, Electric Shock: How Electricity Could Be The Key To Human RegenerationIt’s a story of a Tufts University researcher named Michael Levin, who believes he is on track to work out pathways through which humans could emulate the salamander and regenerate damaged or lost body parts0.

Hans_Canon_Der_Salamander

His approach is out of the mainstream for what begins as a kind of out-there body of research, as he focuses not on genetics or stem cell research, but on the electrical signalling functions of our biology.

It’s a wild subject, meticulously and carefully handled.  We’ll be talking about that — and about the perils of reporting on science when the line between the daring and the too-far-out-there isn’t always that easy to discern. That’ll cover most of the hour, but we will also save some time to talk about this brave new world of forms and genres emerging in the context of the new media ecosystem.  Should be fun; stop by if you have a chance.

Listen here.  The program will be available later as a podcast at that link to Blog Talk Radio and on iTunes — look for us under Virtually Speaking Science.

If you’re a virtual world type, you can join the live Second Life audience here.

Again timing:  5 p.m. today Eastern time; 10 p.m. in London; 2 p.m. in the land of my youth over there on the left coast.

Image: Hans Canon,  The Salamander, 1863.


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