Calling Shenanigans 

I hadn’t realized that I knew some of the journalists who were at the event at which Tim Hunt made his negative-stereotype-strengthening remarks. I trust their opinion and integrity quite a bit, and so I’m glad to hear reports from them about what they witnessed. This includes Deborah Blum, who was speaking in the same session as Hunt that day, and who was at the luncheon. She spoke with Hunt about his views and intentions. Thanks, Deborah for calling shenanigans on the “I was only joking” defense so often used to hide behind the old “political correctness gone mad” trope. Read her article here, and further here.


(Spoof poster imaged is by Jen Golbeck) Click to continue reading this post

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

Outstanding in Their Fields…

In case you missed it, Maryam Mirzakhani has been awarded the Fields Medal! This is regarded as the most prestigious prize in mathematics. Here’s a Guardian article covering it at a general level, and here is the page on all the award winners, with more detail on each, at the International Mathematical Union website. The reason this is a big deal (and why it is newsworthy) is because it is the first time the prize has been awarded to a woman. In a world where, despite the number of excellent women mathematicians out there, there is still a perception problem in the general populace about who (or more to the point, what gender) is associated with achievement in mathematics, it is important to note and celebrate such landmarks.

I also note that one of the other 2014 awardees, Artur Avila, is from Brazil! While not covered as much in the press as far as I can see, this is another big […] Click to continue reading this post

In Motion…

subway_sketch_5th_august_2014_smallBack in Aspen. I went back to LA for a long weekend, and my travel back to Aspen today gave me a lot of good thinking time. Also, I got a few very quick drawings done, such as the one on the right of a cooperative fellow (looking at his phone) on the subway on my way to Union station to take the LAX Flyaway bus.

I’ve been thinking about two projects, one physics and the other about physics, going back and forth between the one and the other, trying to not let them interfere with each other. The “about physics” one is of course the graphic physics book project. In itself it is in two parts. I’m adding more pages from time to time – drawing, inking, and painting/colouring when I can – and I’m also having the odd conversation with potential publishers from time to time, and sending off proposal packages to appropriate places that accept them… trying to explain the nature of the project to those who are willing to listen to something new and exciting. As I’ve said before, “new and exciting” are not words that most publishers want to […] Click to continue reading this post

Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day

Apparently it was Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day yesterday, so some might say I missed it. But as you know, I think that every day should be Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, so it is not too late! Have a look a website for it I found (here). What can you do? You don’t have to organise a huge event (although feel free to). It can all start small. Maybe for that next gift, consider (if you don’t already) buying your little girl (or someone else’s) a set of LEGO or an electronics kit (or other hands on building toys) instead of the (fill-in-the-blank-standard-girl-toy) everyone else is getting her. Go ahead and make it a pink kit, if you want, since that’s what society seems to want. Who cares what colour it is? Apart from buying, even just chatting a bit with a child about engineering in our lives, and all the people who can (and do) contribute to it would be a great thing to do.

Here’s a short film from our own Viterbi school of engineering:

[…] Click to continue reading this post

Hands On

Did you hear about the “takeover” of Seventeen Magazine’s Manicure Mondays? Hearing about it really made my morning*. I read about it in Slate. Go and look at some of the photos on twitter (you don’t need an account to do so) – It is a great variety of images showing hands (male and female) doing things, including scientific activities from field work to lab work. A rather excellent enhancement of the intended scope of just having nail-art.

Jason Bittel, who wrote the Slate piece, says at one point: […] Click to continue reading this post


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

Valerie Weiss on Women, Science, and Film

You’ll recall me mentioning filmmaker Valerie Weiss from earlier posts this year about her debut feature film “Losing Control”. Well, she wrote a guest post* for the website Women and Hollywood this week. It was about a recent film made for the European Commission to encourage girls to go into science. Apparently it was awful. (I’d heard about it from someone else too, but did not get to see it.) Valerie shares some thoughts […] Click to continue reading this post

She Blinded Me With Science…

The funny video below* is good for a bit of nostalgia for the time of the Thomas Dolby song, the song itself, and perhaps for the X-Files TV show (but not for me, I saw only a few episodes). Scully fans will love this, and although I never regularly watched the show, I did appreciate her character. Strong skepticism, insistence on using the scientific method, etc. Excellent. Good character overall, and broke a lot of ground as a female lead with these characteristics too.

chloe_obrian_24Now here’s an idea. Would someone please do such a video for 24’s Chloe O’Brian? (Pictured left.) She’s definitely one of my favourite technical expert engineer/scientist types on a major show, and Mary Lynn Rajskub does an excellent job giving her life, depth and likeability even though she’s fighting against all the geek/nerd stereotype characteristics they’ve endowed her with. In essence, she does it by embracing them. Her attention to detail regularly saves the day (world, city, state, whatever), and the lives of her colleagues, and in the last episode they even had her supposedly determining that light in a video was daylight by […] Click to continue reading this post

Why So Few?

I’d like to pass on a link (sent to me in email*) to the New York Times article about the new NSF-sponsored study and report (links to it are within) on the under-representation of Women in science and mathematics. Reporter Tamar Levin summarizes it there and quotes a number of interviewees. Sample extract:

The report found ample evidence of continuing cultural bias. One study of postdoctoral applicants, for example, found that women had to publish 3 more papers in prestigious journals, or 20 more in less-known publications, to be judged as productive as male applicants.

Making judgments about an individual’s abilities based on his or her sex is a classic form of discrimination, said Nancy Hopkins, an M.I.T. biology professor who created an academic stir in the 1990s by documenting pervasive, but largely unintentional, discrimination against women at the university.

Have a look.

I note that an email in my inbox just half an hour after the one telling me about the above link was news […] Click to continue reading this post


Not a big surprise, but a notable event nonetheless – the top Siemens Mathematics, Science and Technology annual prizes were all taken by girls this year. From the New York Times*:

Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff, both 17 and seniors at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School on Long Island, split the first prize — a $100,000 scholarship — in the team category for creating a molecule that helps block the reproduction of drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria.

Isha Himani Jain, 16, a senior at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa., placed first in the individual category for her studies of bone growth in zebra fish, whose tail fins grow in spurts, similar to the way children’s bones do. She will get a $100,000 scholarship.

Congratulations to them – and all the winners and finalists, male or female – for their achievements!!

On another note, I was reading the project descriptions of the rather well-resourced […] Click to continue reading this post

Some of What Matters

Below I’ve reproduced the text of the approximately 20 minutes of that which I presented at the What Matters to Me and Why event on Wednesday. I mentioned my preparations for it in a previous post. The event was well attended, in an excellent setting (a hidden campus cafe I’d somehow not known about before, Ground Zero). There were students, faculty, staff, alumni, and several others. I chose to give a structured address to start so as to make sure that I did not go on for too long, as I might in a more off-the-cuff delivery. I very much wanted to leave plenty of time to interact with the audience through their observations and questions. I delivered it partly from memory and partly from reading, and wanted it to have a bit of a feel of being read a story, rather than a formal speech. I don’t know how successful that was, but it was fun for me. I think I might try that approach again some time.

Overall, I think the event worked well, and I had a great time. A number of people (kindly) said at the end that they had a good time, and I hope everyone else did too!

Hello Everyone.

First let me say that it is an honour to be here. I’d like to thank everyone concerned for inviting me to speak in this series. I imagine that everyone starts their piece by saying that they struggled to find a way of saying What Matters to them and Why in a short time. So I won’t dwell on that, except to say that it’s especially hard when, the day before preparing, you realize that it’s not going to be that hour long presentation you were expecting to squeeze your essence into, but 20 minutes!

Some time ago, when people started mentioning that they’d seen that I was a guest in this event, and that they were looking forward to hearing what I will say (!), I’d respond that I too was curious about what I was going to say, and would also try to show up and find out. This was actually true. The other thing that I (half-)joked was […] Click to continue reading this post

What Matters?

palm flower frondsI’ll let you know.

Huh? Today, I’ve to think about two things I have to talk about over the next couple of days. I’ve to give a physics seminar on Thursday at UCSB, but more urgently, I have to think about What Matters To Me and Why. Why? This is because in the Spring I agreed to be one of the presenters of the four-times-a-semester USC event of the same title, hosted by the Center for Religious Life. This excellent series is run by Rabbi Susan Laemmle, the Dean of Religious Life, with a committee of students. Here’s how it is supposed to work (extract from their site):

At each WMMW session, the featured guest spends about twenty minutes addressing the topic “What Matters to Me and Why,” and then the floor is opened to informal dialogue for the remainder of the hour. Just as there is no one way to address the topic, so there will be no one direction in which dialogue will proceed. The student contact from the WMMW committee introduces the speaker and makes sure that the session goes forward in a professional yet friendly manner. An indirect purpose of WMMW is to maintain an arena in which people can talk about important, personally charged questions in an open, mutually respectful way.

A typical session is described here. This is going to be a tough one. Not because nothing matters to me but because everything seems to matter, and I cannot effectively rank these things to say what matters most in any way. I only learned yesterday that I only have about 20 minutes to say what it is that matters. This either makes things harder or easier, I can’t decide yet. Probably harder. Now I really have to think.

I jokingly thought a few months ago that I ought to just look at my last few blog posts the day before and just talk about what’s in those. What can I see… Well, there’s public transport, community and the environment, composting and gardening, science and television (and scientific honesty). Not bad. (Good thing I did not do that post on dating. Probably not a good topic for WMMW…) I can probably weave something out of those. Do I blog about those things by accident, or because there are some themes there that are being brought out? What are the big themes in those then? Random scattered thoughts follow…. […] Click to continue reading this post

ScienceWoman’s New Digs

Just thought I’d let you know that the blog of ScienceWoman (that I talked about in an earlier post) has now moved. Her blogging about her day to day experiences and thoughts as an early career woman scientist will be getting a whole lot more attention now that it is under the ScienceBlogs umbrella. Go and have a look at her new digs. She’s already started off nicely with a post asking readers to name their favourite woman scientist, with the resulting interesting contributions and discussions you’d expect in the comments. Go and add your two cents.

While I was over at ScienceBlogs (haven’t been in a long while) I spotted a rather […] Click to continue reading this post

Home School

simpsons schoolThis is very interesting to me. I just heard a story (by Nancy Mullane) on NPR’s Weekend Edition about home schooling. (The link is here, and audio will be available at that page shortly). It focuses on the issue that African Americans are the fastest growing group of adopters among minorities in the US. I was also not aware that homeschooling is on a rapid rise.

This raises all sorts of questions for me. Very basic ones. How well does homeschooling work? Does the “product” – an educated person – perform well afterwards, once they’ve rejoined educational settings with the more traditional social environments (colleges and universities). Does the reduced level of social interaction during those homeschooling years have an adverse effect, or is it compensated for by social interaction that presumably takes place after school? Perhaps there are arguments that the reduction in social interaction even helps in some ways? I really don’t know much about this. Do you? I presume there’s all sorts of statistics on this, but I’d be curious to hear a bit of anecdotal discussion in the comments. Perhaps you were homeschooled? Have friends who were? Are homeschooling someone now? Are being homeschooled now? Tell us what you think!

I wonder about this since I’m curious as to whether this results in a different (better, […] Click to continue reading this post

Good Luck Brittney Exline!

Just spotted this AP article (by Kathy Matheson) about Brittney Exline:

brittney exline[…] at the age of just 15 she is beginning her Ivy League career Wednesday when classes start at the University of Pennsylvania.

Which is very good indeed, but I was especially pleased to see:

She excels at math and science and is really interested in politics, so she enrolled in a Penn program that will award her degrees from both the engineering and liberal arts schools when she graduates in 2011.


Have a look at the AP story for quotes, information about her background, other […] Click to continue reading this post

Still So Far To Go

Sometimes one deludes oneself into thinking that progress has been made on some important social issue, and then out of the blue, there’s a reminder of just how far things still have to go. Check out this post – supposedly a report on the contents of a physics seminar given by a woman – on the blog “A Quantum Diaries Survivor”, and get a reminder of what women in physics are up against. Near the beginning of the post he spends one of the longest paragraphs of the piece talking about how her hair was done, how fit and attractive he thinks she looks, wondering whether she works out…(!) It’s so completely awful to do this sort of thing and he does it so spectacularly completely that I actually thought it was meant to be a parody of some sort! From his comments in response to people pointing out the inappropriateness of it, it turns out that he really does not get it at all. Not a bit.

It is really sad. It is so embarrassing too, when anyone female shows up in a physics context and guys just start behaving like they’ve never seen a woman before. That silliness alone is simply embarrassing, but this is quite a bit worse I would say, since it is damaging to the cause of women in the field.

I really shouldn’t go on, and I will risk sounding preachy and self-righteous (and I’ll just get yelled at and nobody will learn anything) but it’s important, so I will try some words:

Of course there are contexts in which we can discuss things about each other that take note of (even celebrate) our differences in gender, race, and so forth. I’ll be so bold as to say that with appropriate care, we can even legitimately talk about whether we […] Click to continue reading this post

Showing a Different Way

danica mckellar from and AP articleDanica McKellar (the actress who played the girl “Winnie” in that show “The Wonder Years” that many of you might remember) has been working to try to encourage young girls to go more for “Cute and Smart”, as opposed to “Cute and Dumb”. Bottom line: Less Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton, and more…. well, Danica. (I’m sure there are other Tinseltown examples here… can I have some help?).

Danica sets an excellent example of why the two (being considered attractive on the one hand, and smart on the other) are not mutually exclusive, while not suffering from the “geek” or “nerd” label that is attached by the entertainment industry to certain groups of people who enjoy using their brains a lot. She trained as a mathematician, in fact, doing her undergraduate work at UCLA so well that she did rather good published research work (NPR piece here – Update: It is actually more of a theoretical physics problem, it appears). This is from someone who struggled with the subject in sixth grade. Why is she in the news? She’s written a new book “Math Doesn’t Suck”, the aim being to encourage girls to avoid the (social) barriers to getting into mathematics. Excellent title. (I wonder if they’ll change it to “Maths Doesn’t Suck” if they publish it in Britain? “Suck” British kids have adopted from the USA cultural juggernaut, but “Math”? Not yet.)

danica mckellar math doesn't suckActually, looking at her site, I see that the full title appears to be “Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail”, which is more of a mouthful, a bit less zippy, but oh well. It’s all very Clueless, in a good way. Here’s a link to the book’s site, and it is due out tomorrow.

There’s an article1 on her recent Newsweek quote at CNN, from which I grabbed this:

“When girls see the antics of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, they think that being fun and glamorous also means being dumb and irresponsible,” the 32-year-old McKellar told Newsweek for editions to hit newsstands Monday.

“But I want to show them that being smart is cool,” she said. “Being good at math is cool. And not only that, it can help them get what they want out of life.”

but you should go and read the whole thing, by clicking here. [Update: Much better article here, by Corey Binns in Good Magazine. Extract:

“The book hones in on middle school’s trickiest points-––like fractions, ratios, and percentages—and presents them in a style that’s appropriate for the cool kids’ lunch table. Figure out your “type” in boys and you’ll understand greatest common factors. All of those iced lattes celebrities drink make multiplying fractions tasty. Plus, savvy shopping requires killer decimal skills.”


Go Danica!

In other news, I learned2 that particle physicist Lisa Randall (author of the popular book with the curious title “Warped Passages”) appears in Vogue this month. Lisa […] Click to continue reading this post

Is there a Perfect Pitch?

And the immediate followup question is “Should there be?” I’m referring to the story on NPR’s Marketplace the other day about the effects that some women’s voices have on whether they are taken seriously in the workplace. The audio is here, along with a transcript. The article, entitled “Professional women? With little-girl voices?”, is by Ashley Milne-Tyte.

The piece begins with a clip from the recent news, of Monica Goodling (Former Justice Department White House liaison) speaking in her defense during the hearings over the Justice Department firings. She has a noticeably “little-girl”-pitched voice. (I’m sure you remember hearing her during the news or the live broadcasts, and possibly your first instinct was to ask yourself why – in the political feeding frenzy aimed at bringing down Alberto Gonzales from the Attorney General position – the Congressional Democrats were now rounding up and grilling small children. (Or at least that was how it was for me for a split second since I mostly don’t watch television news – I find it too slow and otherwise annoying – and so I heard her on the radio.) It was then announced in the news piece who it was and I thought nothing more of it at the time…)

My own take on this is that it does not matter. You just learn, and move on. Since coming to the USA long ago, I adjusted my expectations about what are […] Click to continue reading this post

Candace Partridge: Women in Physics at USC

Rather than just sit around and wring our hands about the severe underrepresentation of women and minorities in science and engineering, it’s worth getting out there and trying to do things to help make a change. Here at Asymptotia, I describe things of that nature from time to time. At other times, I like to just shut up and listen, since (for example) it is also important to hear about the opinions and experiences of a range of different people who are trying to make their way in some aspect of these fields.

candace partridgeToday we have a guest post from Asymptotia regular commenter Candace Partridge (clickable image on right). Candace is doing an undergraduate degree in Physics at the University of London (Birkbeck College), having come to study the subject at this level rather later than is traditional, and having studied other subjects, and worked professionally in another career. This gives her an unusual perspective, and one that is of considerable value. Candace attended the Women in Physics conference that was held at USC in January, and of which I spoke earlier. She tells us a bit about it below, along with some thoughts about her own path in Physics. There is some overlap with an article she wrote for Inkling, but Candace has expanded on several aspects for her post here.



Ahhh…what’s better than a trip to LA? How about a travel grant to get to LA to attend the 2nd annual Undergraduate Women in Physics conference held at USC? Most students view MLK Day as a sort of bonus extension the to holidays, a way to ease back into the usual routine. However, for 50-odd physics students, this long weekend was a chance to make the journey to USC to meet other female (and a few male) physics students.

Of course, where I’m now from (London), we don’t get MLK day off. In fact, I was only on native soil because I had cleverly timed a three-week trip to visit my parents in Mississippi to coincide with this conference. After all, once I’ve flown 5000 miles, what’s a couple of thousand more? No problem! I landed in LAX to bright and sunny weather but with a cold wind blowing out of the north, heralding the arrival of that cold wave that destroyed the citrus crops and brought snow flurries to Malibu. It was far colder in LA than in London that weekend.

This was my first trip to a physics-related conference, and I was a wee bit out of the target demographic. See, I am still a lowly undergrad — I say ‘still’ because here I am a woman pushing thirty who is barely halfway through her BSc as opposed to the young striplings a full decade younger than myself. Also, I was the only attendee from overseas…kind of. But I am happy to mix with people of all sorts, especially other women like me who are studying physics because, let’s face it, some of us are still feeling a little alone over here.

So I’m a female mature student, which in undergrad physics makes me a bit of an […] Click to continue reading this post

Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration

Sabine HossenfelderToday, a guest post. I’m excited, because it’s from one of my favourite bloggers, Sabine Hossenfelder, or “Bee” as you may know her from her comments here, and of course her blog Backreaction.

Bee giving a guest post here on Asymptotia originated in a suggestion I made in the comments of an earlier post of mine. Bee had asked me to do a post on her blog as part of her excellent series of guest posts about what made her guest choose to go into physics. Pressed for time, and not sure whether I’d really have anything new or interesting to say about myself, I stalled for time (I thought) by saying I’d do it in exchange for her doing a post here on a similar subject. She rapidly came up with the post. And of course it’s a great one. I’m so on the spot now.

Anyway, here’s Bee! -cvj

I just sat down with the best intention to write a lengthy blah on Clifford’s question what inspires me. Now that I sit here, hands above the keyboard, I am facing a problem. It’s not that the question is too difficult, it’s too easy to answer. I get inspiration everywhere. Reading books, seeing movies, taking a walk – ah yes, also from scrolling through blogs. Most of all by talking to my friends and colleagues. The problem is now that I’m too inspired not to shamelessly use the opportunity of writing a guest post for Clifford ;-) So let me redirect the question to your opportunity to use your inspiration.

Had you been born some thousand years ago, your life […] Click to continue reading this post

Conference in Progress

Well, I checked in on the Women in Physics conference today, and it seems to be going very well. I went to lunch and sat with a number of the students (and some faculty) and I also chatted to some in private about their interests, current stages in their careers, etc. It’s always so wonderful to hear people so enthusiastic about physics, and listen to them wondering what their part in the great story of science will be.

Here are a couple of shots of the delegates at lunch – it is a sort of panorama (click each component for larger view): […] Click to continue reading this post