Category Archives: outreach

Jenn’s Mom Does Science!

This is a quick one, but I thought I’d share with you, if only to illustrate something about where my love of inquiry came from.


That, my friends, is known as an ice spike, and apparently it’s a fairly rare phenomenon. Apparently, my mother managed to make one by refilling the ice tray at work. She snapped a picture of it, and started Googling. My mom loves to Google. When I was a summer intern, she Googled the group before “parents day” and managed to ask a couple really neat questions while I was showing her around. The point is, she doesn’t really care what she already knows; she wants to learn.

She’s the kind of person who, when faced with something unknown and kinda cool, will put her effort into figuring it out. She likes to explore new things, whether it’s foods or places or ideas. And that kind of inquiring mind is exactly what she gave me. And probably has something to do with my choice of career path.

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Explaining Physics to Zen Buddhists

In meditation group the other day, the leader did a brief reading from a book that included an aside about how the philosophy could be exemplified by particle physics. He chose to omit that aside from his reading but later passed the book around so we could take a look. Of course, someone eventually remembered that I am a physicist, so that’s how I ended up, in half-lotus on a zafu, explaining pions to a group of Zen Buddhists.

As a physicist and a meditator and yogini, I’ve encountered my fair share of non-scientists who like to try to use physics, particularly quantum and particle physics, to advance their spiritual worldview. In yoga, any time I mentioned quantum physics, I was told to see the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which was generally described as life-changing among my yoga friends and utterly ludicrous among my physics friends. The idea is that the principles of quantum mechanics prove that we are all interconnected and our intentions send energy out into the universe and affect things. It’s very woo.

So I was nervous, sitting here in front of a group of people with cushions and incense and talking about interactions among sub-atomic particles. But Zen seems a little more grounded in their understanding of physics. They were very smug about the discovery of sub-atomic particles because their cosmology states that the world can be divided into ever-smeller pieces. And that’s not untrue. It’s also true that, at the sub-atomic level, our bodies have little difference from any other matter in the world. And when we die, we just go back to that bank of raw material that the universe uses to build things. Except we don’t even have to die, really. No matter what state we are in, we are just particles.

But where the pions come in are when you talk about observation and interactions. The idea in the Zen reading was that we don’t ever observe a thing; we observe how it interacts with the world. Personally, I like to think of color, which isn’t an inherent property as much as a way of seeing the light an object doesn’t absorb. When you put green cellophane over a plant, it dies because the green light is the light it reflects, not the light it absorbs for photosynthesis. But the reading talked about the interactions between the constituent particles of protons, how they gain mass from these interactions. And it’s true. If you take two free up quarks and a free down quark, their masses don’t add up to the mass of a proton. However, quarks can interact and form two-quark mediating particles, and these could give the proton its mass. This is a rough explanation because I’m not a particle physicist, but I was glad that I happened to remember this from a college class I took.

When it comes down to it, I sit with a very educated, science-minded, intelligent group of people. I don’t know if the Zen conversations seem more grounded because there are a lot of scientists, or if Zen attracts scientists because it seems to have a more grounded cosmology. But talking about physics to the “layperson” is not always about classroom demonstrations and family gatherings.

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“More Than Just a Princess”

There’s a new toy, the commercial for which has been making the rounds. I actually first saw this as a Kickstarter linked from one of my favorite blogs, Epbot (Jen*’s are awesome). Honestly, I remember thinking “Gee, they’re trying to market something subversive against the pink-ification of girls’ toys, but they’ve managed to make a toy based on pink ribbons.” But it seems like the idea has evolved a little. Little Goldie certainly looks like the kind of kid I would want to play with when I was a kid (and the kind I’d want my kids to play with when I have those, but seriously, girls, stay away from anything too flammable).

This is a giant leap in the right direction. The difference between a pink engineering set (and it’s not all that pink) and a pink Lego set is that the Legos are also pigeonholing girls by making the sets build salons and the like, rather than castles and racetracks and Tie fighters. Honestly, the only model-building I did as a kid was a velociraptor. I preferred my building blocks a little less constricted by the idea of a kit.

But I was fortunate. I had parents who indulged any interests we had. When all my sister wanted for Christmas was a Tonka dumptruck, guess what she got? Even though my aunts gave my mom all sorts of guff for buying her a “boys'” toy. Yes, we had Barbies, but we also had lots of building toys, books, and numerous trips to museums downtown. When I was in kindergarten, I made a brilliant model of the solar system, complete with a guidebook based on notes I took at the National Air and Space Museum. No one believed I’d done it myself (to be fair, my dad had to cut the foam balls into irregular shapes to make Phobos and Deimos, and I’m pretty sure he hammered in the nails).

If Goldieblox helps some girl discover a love of engineering that she wouldn’t have discovered from a kit not explicitly directed at females, that’s great. If some well-meaning aunt has a gift option that still fits into her worldview of feminine, but still stimulates the creative-scientific mind of a future prodigy, great. The bottom line is, I wish we didn’t need Goldieblox, but I’m glad we have them because we do need them.

And my favorite part of the commercial? “Girls can code a new app.” Seriously, who writes a song intended to market a toy to <10-year-olds and mentions coding? Someone awesome, that’s who. Because there is so much about STEM that is cool, not just the stuff that makes the news, and this company recognizes that.

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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.

Allow Me To Mansplain…

In the wake of Rep. Akin’s egregious comments about rape and pregnancy, this blog post has started making the rounds.  My first reaction was, “Yeah, that’s terrible that that sort of thing happens to intelligent, capable women; I’m so glad I’ve never had to deal with something like that.”

Then I realized I have.  And I don’t think it’s entirely about being female.

See, I’m a grad student (for a couple weeks more, anyway), and I’m currently the only female grad student in my group.  I’m also the senior grad student in my group, so I have a fair amount of experience in the field.  When it comes to routine, annoying problems, I’ve seen a lot of it.  And I’ve thought about a lot of it.

Yet, for some reason, people in my group don’t always hear what I say.  On several occasions, I’ve made a suggestion to someone having a problem that was either discounted or flat-out ignored. No response. Like the person did not even hear that I had spoken.  And then, maybe later in the meeting, or later in the week, or even a couple weeks later, the same suggestion would be tossed out by one of the (male) principal investigators.  It bears mentioning here that the only female PI at the group meetings is also one of the youngest PIs in our institute.

When the PI brings up this suggestion, it’s considered and almost always agreed to be the best suggestion for the situation, and we’ll all reconvene when it’s been tested because it’s likely that this will fix the problem.  Wait… what?

I’m also not the only person who’s noticed this.  A couple of my friends in the group pointed it out to me after a particularly annoying group meeting where I actually repeated my suggestion a couple of times, only to have no one appear to hear me. I was glad to know someone had, even if they hadn’t made that known at the time. And even more irritating is the fact that at least one of the guys who brought up that “no one listens to Jenn” actually did just that after pointing out that no one listens to my good suggestions.

Okay, enough back story. Am I here to moan about how nobody listens to the poor little women?

Not at all. I will bet that, while this seems to happen to me a disproportionate amount, part of it is because I am a (mere) grad student and the PIs are (wise) PIs.  The thing about scientific discovery is that it is generally a collaboration, especially in experimental physics.  There is just so much going on that you often physically require at least one other person to run all the equipment.  At the very least, you always need to be training a new person for when the senior grad student graduates (or the post-doc finishes his or her appointment).  And often the one who knows the most about the specific experiment is a lowly grad student.

As I finish my graduate career and embark upon my first post doc, I’m trying to keep this in mind. I’ve had too many encounters with post docs who believe they know more than the senior grad student just because of that degree, when in fact, the grad student knows way more about the specific experiment than they do. Heck, at first, pretty much all the grad students know more about the specific experiment than a brand-new post doc. And it’s dangerous. At best, you end up with a post doc who waits for explanation from the PI for everything rather than accepting the word of a grad student; at worst, you have a post doc who breaks things because he or she disregards instructions from a grad student.

So it’s not just about women versus men. It’s about all situations in which one person goes in thinking he or she has more knowledge in an area and therefore doesn’t need to listen all that well to the lower orders. And it’s good that Solnit has put a voice to the phenomenon as it pertains to men correcting women incorrectly.  It’s just “the boring old gender wars.” It’s not you. But the same is true for people experiencing the same frustration due to their age. While it’s a good idea not to get a swelled head about your own importance (especially in grad school), sometimes you’ve been on an experiment for five [expletive] years and, yeah, you know more about the specific electronics used because you built them all (or oversaw them being built).

I guess my parting thought is that this kind of attitude affects the retention of grad students in the sciences.  And, yeah, it’s going to affect the retention of women in the sciences because they get the potential double-whammy of being ignored for gender as well as age. But regardless of either, be confident in your experience. Don’t be afraid to speak up loudly. And know that’s not always you; scientists are full of blind spots and biases just like everyone else.

Once Again Down the Women in Science Road

I know, I know!  I’ve written a lot about this recently, but the particular challenges that women in STEM fields face is something near to my heart.  With the recent death of Sally Ride, the achievements of women in science have been in the news, too.  But that’s not really what this post is about.  This post is about gymnastics, kind of.

from Piled Higher and Deeper, by Jorge Cham

Specifically, this post is about Gabby Douglas’ hair.  Except that it’s not.  There was a recent piece on NPR about the brouhaha over Douglas’ hair in which there was one sentiment that struck me:  The idea that she is representing all black women by her achievement.

Sorry, no.  Gabby Douglas is representing herself and the USA (only because she’s choosing to compete as part of the US Olympic team).  She doesn’t represent women, or black women, or 16-year-olds, or even 16-year-old women from Virginia.  She is representing herself.  Her achievement is HER achievement.  Yes, it’s wonderful to see some diversity in a sport with a lot of homogeneity in the US, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that her achievement is her own, and the only person she might make look bad if her ponytail is less than perfect is herself.  So, really, there’s no reason to even both with her hair unless you’re one of the judges and that sort of thing is important in scoring.

And this is a lesson that a lot of people could learn when in a situation where they are in the minority.  You are just yourself.  For women in technical fields, that specifically means that your ideas and experiences are your own and not necessarily related to how any other woman in the field might feel, just because they share the same gender identification as you.  One problem that female faculty face is that they end up on a lot more advisory boards and committees because their departments want to make sure there is “minority representation” for everything.  The result is often a committee that is a lot more diverse than the department itself.  And, no one female faculty member really represents women, in general.  Just like no one old, white, male faculty member represents all the other old, white, male faculty members.

So, I think it’s time to lay off of women, and other minorities in STEM fields, about this idea that they are representing their entire demographic by their single presence.  And it’s time for women to ease up on themselves, and realize that just because another person is female does not mean that person understands you any better.  So try to attract female STEM professionals to your institution or laboratory or company because it’s unfair that for decades women were treated like they were inherently less capable than men in science and math, but don’t do it because you think that having female representation will make your institution/lab/company more attractive because of diversity.

“So What’s All This Higgs Boson Stuff About?”

I’m sorry, I’m really not the best person to ask.

It’s not that I don’t understand the physics better than the average layperson.  No, that would be a lie.  But sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I understand what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read.  I probably have a little better understanding of the basic physics behind a lot of things.  But, really, particle physics is not my area of expertise, and I’d worry about misinforming you.

I can tell you that the term “god particle” is misleading.  In fact, it was originally a joke, something that got changed by the publishers to sound more meaningful that it was probably intended.  I can tell you about naming things in physics.  Seriously, it seems like sometimes, 75% of laboratory work is swearing at the problem until it decides to behave.  Or at least until the swearing makes you feel better.  The other 25% often involves a mop.  But maybe that’s just my experience.

Here’s the thing about experimental physics:  We don’t all sit in ivory towers and think about abstract physics concepts all day.  Maybe some theoretical physicists do that.  But the people doing the experiments don’t do all that much physics on any given day.  We fix leaks (vacuum, water, oil, etc.) and electronics.  We fight with vendors and wait expectantly for equipment to be delivered.  We might occasionally get to build or fix a really cool piece of lab equipment, like a laser.  But taking data?  Doing “physics?”  That’s astrological alignment territory.  And if even if we are running things and taking data, a lot of it might be a calibration or something that won’t lead to a major breakthrough, even on the scale of our particular specialty (something that will interest perhaps five people outside our lab, and one of those is a particularly doting parent).

So if you have a special someone in your life, someone who is a dear friend or relative, who happens to have more advanced physics knowledge than the average person, go ahead and ask “Hey, do you know anything about the Higgs boson?”  But don’t expect an in-depth lesson on the building blocks of particle physics and the standard model.  Heck, I have colleagues who think finding the Higgs is kind of boring, because it proves something, and it’s more fun to disprove things.  Perhaps expect a lot of discussion about statistics and sigmas.

But if you are a barista, or a telemarketer, or, well, any casually-encountered person, and the person with whom you are casually encountering mentions a career in physics, you should probably keep your questions about the latest popular science news to yourself.


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.

Maybe It’s a… Female Thing.

One of the best distillations with the problems facing people trying to bring woman into technical fields.

from SMBC

I live in a bit of a cave while I’m writing my dissertation, and haven’t been listening to my radio (almost permanently tuned to NPR) as often as I should, so I missed this segment on The World last week.  But the internet serves me well, and I managed to find the video myself.  I wish the term “pinkwashing” wasn’t already taken because, seriously, the pink-i-fication of STEM fields is getting ridiculous.

First of all, it’s pretty obvious to most people that first view this video that it is ridiculous.  That, in and of itself, should have caused its makers to step back and think “Hmmm, maybe making something blatantly silly isn’t the best way to prompt serious consideration of the problems of gender diversity in the sciences.”  Apart from that, there is the obvious traditional-feminist angle: it objectifies women by associating them with traditionally-gendered things like lipstick, pink, and high heels.  Even making the man take off his glasses and gawk at them promotes objectification.

But that’s not why it bothers me.  It is offensive to everyone.  Any woman should be offended that this is what the European Commission thinks it takes to get females interested in science.  Any man should be offended that the reaction of the sole male in the video is to stop working and gawk, as though men should be so floored by women in science that they can’t do anything.  Neither of these things bode well for the future of women in science.  First of all, if men are really going to be so distracted by females in the lab, that’s a problem.  That means we’ll have to have women’s labs and men’s labs.  Not really feasible, especially since it’s just a fact of life that the majority of established scientists are men and women need to be able to work with them if they want to progress in the field.  Second, if this kind of ad really does draw some girls into science, they are going to be sorely disappointed that there isn’t much pink, you probably don’t want to bring lipstick out in the lab (it gets on optics, or could get contaminated by chemicals), and those peep-toe stilettos will probably only bring stares from the safety officer before he cites you for inappropriate footwear.

And I say this as a woman who tries to embrace my femininity.  I dress nicely as often as I feel like, and even wore high heels in the lab regularly (closed toed).  I didn’t do this to attract a man, or even to provide a feminine role model to other females.  I did it because I liked feeling good about how I looked.  But the fact is, the people (the man included) in this video are not what the majority of scientists look like.  This also decreases the effectiveness of the video because no one is really going to identify with someone who’s obviously so far into the 1% of socially-desired physical attributes.  I mean, look at the Dove Real Women campaign — even beauty companies realize that using models does not necessarily convince consumers to buy your message.  People don’t want to know that Barbie can do science; they want to know that THEY can do science.

Also, do you want to know who might actually have fantasies of hot women doing science?  Men.  The idea of putting a hot woman in the lab is best exemplified by the controversial Edmund Optics “Red Hot Optics” campaign, which was obviously intended as a way to market optics to men they same way sports cars or repellent body spray might be marketed to men.  Unfortunately for Edmund Optics, scientists are smart and saw through this as the sexist drivel that it was.  They received a lot of backlash from all sides in the scientific community.  Too bad the European Commission didn’t know about this.  Ultimately, they produced a piece of [advertising] that would, at best, appeal to a narrow demographic of men who were too busy staring at leggy women in heels to consider the message of the piece, intended or otherwise.

The bottom line of closing the gender inequality gap in STEM fields comes down to, ultimately, de-gendering science.  Along the way, yes, it might make women feel better to have more female role models to whom to turn when facing a problem in the lab.  And we definitely need to address issues that specifically cause women problems in the research world (specifically, the disproportionate burden of starting a family on the time and energy a woman has available to otherwise pursue a research career).  But, ultimately, we need to teach young women that they can work with males, not because they have “girl power,” but because there isn’t a fundamental difference between a female with an inclination towards a technical field and a male with the same inclination.  We want to get to the point where, when asked, “How many women are in your program?,” we can honestly answer, “Hang on a second, I don’t really think about it that often.”

[yes, theatre nerds, the title is a reference to RENT]

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

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?