STEM Keynote

keynote_at_stem_divide_cvjAs I mentioned, a couple of Saturdays ago I gave the keynote address at a one-day conference designed to introduce STEM Careers to underrepresented students from various neighboring schools. The event* was co-sponsored by the Level Playing Field Institute, but sadly the details of it seem to have vanished from their site now that the event has passed, which is unfortunate. It was good to see a room full of enthusiastic students wanting to learn more about such careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and I tried to give some thoughts about some of the reasons that there’s such poor representation by people of color (the group I was asked to focus on, although I mentioned that many of my remarks also extended to women to some extent) in such fields, and what can be done about it. Much of my focus, as you can guess from the issues I bring up here from time to time, was on battling the Culture: The perception people have of who “belongs” and who does not, and how that perception makes people act, consciously or otherwise, the images we as a society present and perpetuate in our media and in our conversations and conventions throughout everyday life, and so on. I used my own experience as an example at various points, which may or may not have been helpful – I don’t know.

My experience, in part and in brief, is this: I went a long way into being excited […] Click to continue reading this post

Harmonics Can Make Metals Flux

I’m sitting on the bus, on my way to the LA Times Festival of Books. I’ve opened my notebook to maybe sketch a face or two, but then I spot an algebraic error on a page from a few days ago, so I set about correcting it….(you know, either for those historians who will argue about my intentions while poring over these once-lost manuscripts…. Or more likely for me in a few weeks, likely to get confused by my own blunder-in-haste with a kindergarten level variation.)

20140412-122335.jpgA bearded fellow had boarded the bus and sat next to me while I was doing this. He eventually glances my way, then away, then he does a double take. I’ve been watching him out of the corner of my eye. He starts to speak to me.

Calc or Trig?
Excuse me?
Calc or trig?
Er…. Physics.
What are you studying?
I’m not…studying. It is my research.

Silence from him for a few beats, then:

Into what?
Charged black holes.

I should say at this point that I get this a lot. No matter who I meet out there in the random world, or what they see me writing, the assumption is always that I am taking a class in high school mathematics. Why is that? People, at least guess for some of the time that I might be at least teaching it, even if you can’t imagine people doing research in this area. The grey hairs in my beard are a guide to your assumptions.

Another gripe: if you see someone writing words, and want to engage them in conversation about it, you don’t assume they are practicing the basic structures… Imagine the analogous exchange: Are you practicing joined-up writing madam, or spelling? Neither, I’m writing poetry.

Anyway, back to the conversation. So, as you recall, I said Charged black […] Click to continue reading this post

No, That’s the Other Guy…

sam_jackson_tvNo, I’m not Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yes, we both talk about science on TV. Yes, we both happen to be black… but no, we are not the same guy. Also: No, I am not Jim Gates. He also sometimes shows up on TV talking about physics, and he is also black.. but no, he isn’t either me (Clifford) or Neil… He’s Jim.

This attempt at humour is inspired (in part) by real conversations I’ve had (less so in recent years, thank goodness – people are maybe better about googling first?). But mostly it is inspired by this (familiar) sad, funny, and stunningly awkward conversation from Monday* (the first 2 minutes 10 seconds): […] Click to continue reading this post

Hurdles

I noticed that over on Backreaction, Bee talks about a letter she wrote to Time Magazine to respond to a spectacularly uninformed remark by Jeffrey Kluger about women in physics. It was made in one of the “Person of the Year” runner-up articles surrounding a description of Fabiola Gianotti, one of the physicists who presented the Higgs particle discovery announcement at CERN last year. The spectacularly uninformed remark? Here it is:

Physics is a male-dominated field, and the assumption is that a woman has to overcome hurdles and face down biases that men don’t.

But that just isn’t so. Women in physics are familiar with this misconception and acknowledge it mostly with jokes.

I should say that it is nice to see an article about physics in this context (Time, person of the year, etc) since it gets the general public interested, but it is dismaying to see such a hugely important issue brushed over. I don’t think it helps the younger people trying to get into the field, and it certainly is frustrating and unhelpful for people already in the field who are having to deal with all the preconceptions and […] Click to continue reading this post

Becoming Engaged…

It turns out that a really great way of passing the time when listening to someone give a talk is to do some sketch practice. [… wait, what? The post title? Oh! No, no, don’t be silly. Ok., let me continue …] If the subject matter is right, it’s a good thing to do while you focus on what’s being said. This last couple of days I’ve been in Aspen, Colorado, and I’m starting out my visit here with a three day conference entitled “Becoming Engaged: Initiatives That Can Change Science Education”. You can see more about it on a dedicated website hosted by ICAM. One of the people behind it is David Pines, and we’ve had many conversations about science outreach and science education over the years, and so he invited me to participate. I’m supposed to be here at Aspen for my visit to the Aspen Center for Physics, and so I’m only partially attending, opting to to listen to some talks, and take part in some discussions… then going back over to the center to hear some LHC and Higgs chatter on the LHC workshop that is starting up this week.

There are a lot of interesting people talking about science education, and science outreach, many describing their various approaches and projects in short talks and presentations. (I will tell you about some of them in future posts.) It is great to meet several people who are passionate about outreach too, and see what others are up to and share ideas… so this is a valuable time. Hopefully, some action ideas will come of this meeting that […] Click to continue reading this post

Inspiration and Dedication

jaime_escalante_by_robert_gauthierYou might not have heard of him, so I thought I’d mark the passing, on Tuesday, of the mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante. (Photo on right by Robert Gauthier.) He was an extraordinary teacher who passionately believed in the abilities of the many East Los Angeles students from disadvantaged and traditionally ignored backgrounds he taught, enduring the ridicule of his colleagues to press on with the job of teaching them as well as he could, challenging them to reach impressive heights of mathematical ability, especially considering given the circumstances. Some people might know some […] Click to continue reading this post

Not Entirely Alone

Does this description seem familiar?

Black scientist, born in 1968. Born in London to immigrant parents. Spent a fair amount of time in their school years convincing teachers to not assume that they are supposed to be in the “B” group in all their subjects by default. Did a physics degree at Imperial College, London University. Now a successful practicing scientist. Doing a lot of science/education outreach as well (was on the radio twice in the last week or so, for example).

All familiar so far, right? Ok, a bit more…

Was on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island discs last week talking about their life and selecting eight favourite pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item they’d like to have on said island (chose telescope).

About to have a daughter.

Oh! […] Click to continue reading this post

Back on the Trail

griffith_park_hike_2So have you been to Griffith Park recently? I went for a short hike there this morning for the first time in a month or so. The first time this year. (I’ve not been hiking much the last month due to several things, including waiting for a full recovery from my mysterious vertigo which still pops up from time to time…)

Well, I had a nice hike, and cleared away some cobwebs in my head, which was nice to do. I’m in the middle of writing two research papers, and reading a great deal of material for a search committee I’m on (meeting imminent) and so a bit of clearance is good.

The thing is this. The park was with teeming with people, of a broader range than is usual for the park, in those numbers. Not sure why, but it was good to see. Is it all those New Year’s resolutions? People resolving to use the city’s wonderful park areas […] Click to continue reading this post

Michael Jackson and D-Branes

A D-braneWell, I bet you have not read any articles connecting Michael Jackson and research in string theory before. No, even though I spend a lot of time and effort trying to bring science into everyday conversations people have about the broader culture, I cannot claim credit for this one. I was reading an excellent article* in the Village Voice written by Greg Tate, and to my surprise, there it was. It is by far the most thoughtful and insightful of any of the articles on Michael Jackson that I’ve read, and I’d already concluded that before noticing any mention of physics. I strongly recommend it, especially if you don’t know what all the fuss is about, or if you think that the fuss is only about some pop music.

Tate examines not just the impact of Jackson on the culture, and where he sits in the pantheon of black people who have made such impact (he’s mostly focusing on America), but also the role of adversity and struggle in focusing talent in a way that produces people who create at such a high level and which such seismic effect. He […] Click to continue reading this post

Apollo

I’ve been running around so much today I forgot to actually mention the event for which I’ll be acting as host tonight, here at USC. This is how I quickly described it to my colleagues, but bear in mind that it is open to all:

apollo poster
I’d like to remind you one last time about the Apollo Visions and Voices event today. Whether it interests you or not, please encourage your students to go. It is the College Dean’s V+V event for the semester, and was chosen to have a focus that would attract science and engineering students and faculty to sit with our friends and colleagues from the arts and humanities. It is at 7:30 pm in Bovard, with a reception at the end. I think that it will be very interesting and enjoyable.

Information about it is here.

It should be fun!

-cvj

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When Worlds Collide IV: The Verdict is…

casino royale shootSo you’ll recall the shoot last year, right? Casino Royale theme? Where I got all dressed up in a Tuxedo at a club in New York that was kitted out as a Casino playing blackjack and so forth (click right) and getting very cosy with Ms Moneypenny? (Wait, that last bit didn’t happen.) Along with some actual stars, from entertainment, sport, fashion, etc? You don’t recall? Well, that’ll teach you not to use the blog’s archives more during your coffee breaks…

To recap (but please read properly about the background here), it was a photo spread with short bios for an annual piece called “Coming Kings” for a men’s magazine called “King”. I’d got the call out of the blue from them, and decided to do it since it’s an opportunity to do something a little different. To put some awareness of science and scientists in places where you normally don’t find much (if any) of it, rather than only targeting the more traditional crowds. It’s all about, as I said: […] Click to continue reading this post

Haitch

There was a sweet, sweet moment during the afternoon Cosmology, Gravity, and Relativity session on Friday. (See here.) I don’t think I’ll be able to convey its full intensity to you, but I cannot let it go unmarked. The background comes from a personal place. In addition to my being, for many years, somewhat of a relative anomaly in being a black theoretical (high energy) physicist, there’s another component to that rare situation. My parentage is West Indian (or “Caribbean”, I might say, since in my experience the other term often does not register with many people from the USA), and until recently, I’ve not really known (m)any other such people in theoretical physics*. What struck me on Friday was a single syllable.

chanda prescod-weinsteinChanda Prescod-Weinstein (left), a graduate student at Waterloo/Perimeter, who has commented on this blog from time to time, and who I met for the first time on Thursday, was giving an excellent overview of her project to begin research on Doubly Special Relativity. Some of the motivating remarks involved simultaneously taking Newton’s constant, G and Planck’s constant \hbar to zero (the idea is that quantum gravity’s Planck length might remain finite in this limit, and thus remain in the physics as a new scale that breaks Lorentz invariance at […] Click to continue reading this post

DC Crossover

I find myself in Washington DC for two and a half days, attending an interesting conference. It’s the annual meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists* (NSBP), and I’ve been invited to give a talk (which I gave a few hours ago, entitled “The Dynamics of Flavour in Gauge/Gravity duals”, with a focus on what we can learn about experiments and observations of strongly interacting nuclear systems using string theory. Post about that here). I’m here for more just the talk, however. I also want to talk – in the sense of converse. Basically, it is of interest to me to get a feeling for what’s going on with the issues of underrepresented minorities (in this case, people of African descent) in Physics. As you know, the numbers are vanishingly small, and as you also know from reading my writings, I am very interested in this issue, and of course, how to make it not an issue, by helping more people find their way into the field and have as much opportunity to do well as the next person.

    nsbp banquet nsbp banquet

(Scene from the opening banquet on Thursday night. The featured speaker (no, not on stage in photo) was 2006 Physics Nobel Laureate, John C. Mather. Click for larger.)

It has been years since I came to one of these, and I must say it is a real pleasure to be here. There seems to be a lot of contrast to how I remember things from the […] Click to continue reading this post