Thursday, February 24, 2005

February Poem

With thanks to Carol, who gave me the book Sound and Sense (by Laurence Perrine) in which I found this -- short, since last month's was so long:

There's the wonderful love of a beautiful maid,
And the love of a staunch true man,
And the love a baby that's unafraid--
All have existed since time bean.
Bust the most wondeful love, the Love of all loves,
Even greater than the love for a Mother,
Is the infinite, tenderest, passionate love
Of one dead drunk for another.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Be Afraid!

Via GirlHacker I discover "The Truth About Splenda"- it's made with chlorine!

Wanna hear an even bigger scandal? Table salt is made with chlorine too. That's right. The food industry has been covering up the dark truth - salt is sodium chloride. Worse, unlike the Splenda molecule, the salt molecule ionizes easily, separating into sodium and cloride ions, both viciously reactive. Sodium in its pure form is explosive - we work with it in the lab (industrial uses!) And clorine is deadly.

This reminds me of the dihydrogen monoxide scare. (Everything on that website is true, and yet your government is doing nothing to protect you from DHMO.)

Similar scares about canola oil abound (refuted here) along with soy products, and all kinds of over-the-counter medicines.

And because I haven't linked to them yet, here are snopes and the alt.folklore.urban archive, which are worth a visit whenever something on the internet makes you scared of your food, or anything else that used to seem harmless.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Something to Prove

UPDATE: Several of my favorite bloggers have, not surprisingly, said things that I agree with on this subject.

Physicist Michael Nielsen points out that even if women were on average "worse" (a poorly defined concept) at math and science, it wouldn't preclude the possibility of there being more highly qualified women than men -- and vice versa, of course. His point is that we all have lousy statistical models in mind.

Historian Tim Burke makes the related point that Harvard, in particular, could easily achieve gender balance without compromising standards at all. It needs only a few brilliant women to do so, and they surely exist, and Harvard could surely recruit them. If it wanted to.

Physicist Chad Orzel comments that most of the advice given to women about career success applies to men too, and as a veteran of many seminars, I can confirm it. This includes the advice about blending career and family, which is never easy for anyone.

And artist/physics student "Pyracantha" has two somewhat sad posts about her own reaction to comments like this (last month and this month) which is mostly a deeply rooted fear that they are true, and she is doomed to failure. And that in itself accounts in large part for the shortage of female physicists.


I never know exactly what to say about the whole issue of women in physics. Usually when I do say something, I regret it later. But now I have a couple of links I really want to publicize.

So as long as I'm blogging about it, let me just summarize a couple of thoughts briefly.

1) I admit part of me fears it's true, that women really do suck at math and science and computers.

2) But I've mostly been able to convince myself that's crap by getting this far.

3) Lawrence Summers is not courageous for saying that women may be bad at math, and it is not censorship or thought policing to disagree with him. What he says is what most people seem to believe, and have believed for a long, long time, including many women. And someone says it to the press every couple of years. So the best description isn't "courage," it's "conventional wisdom."

(And lots of things that people believed for a long, long time aren't true.)

4) My main theory about why there are so few women in my discipline is that women have more to lose from being nerdy and antisocial than men. This is more the fault of their mothers and their magazines and their female friends than of men. I blame the feminine subculture, and the fact that women mostly believe they can't do it, so why try?

5) Which is not to say that there's no discrimination of any kind. For the most part nowadays, it's just male physicists being condescending. (Historically, it was more about forbidding women access to education outright.)

I really don't believe in any theories of biological inferiority. First of all, because I believe that math and science and logic really are universal. I think aliens would have to discover the same laws we do. If aliens can understand, then women, with really insignificant biological differences, certainly ought to be able to. And secondly because I don't believe biology is destiny anyway. I think hormones influence moods, but I think moods are irrelevant to math. And finally, see above re: "getting this far." I can understand math, and I'm female, so it's not biological. QED, as far as I'm concerned. (Although I've heard everyone's favorite response to this, about statistical outliers. It so happens I know I am not exceptional. I remember what it felt like to hate math and fail at it.)

Now, the links:

Why aren't there more women in physics? For most of the same, complex reasons that there aren't more women in computer science.

If it were really biological, wouldn't it be the same in other countries? (That graph seems hard to argue with, to me.)

But then how can we account for the difference in test scores? Easily. This month's Scientific American shows that stereotypes are almost always self-fulfilling prophesies. (Which is just another reason standardized tests are meaningless, in my opinion.)

Links like that really cheer me up, some days.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Parking and Property Rights

The hot topic on the blogs I read these days is the ethics of claiming parking spots you dug out of the snow.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden points out an Ebay auction (look quick) selling an authetic parking control system. And Tim Burke ruminates on the role of government in our daily lives.

Usually, he says, government doesn't recognize these spontaneous social contracts.

Chicago's Mayor Daley is an exception, however. See commentary by Tribune columnist and blogger Eric Zorn and the University of Chicago Law Department.

I myself just dug out my very first parking spot a few weeks ago. It was Ken's car, but I had missed my work out, and after all, I ride around in it all the time. I felt compelled to earn my place in the passenger seat. And after I was done (it took an hour, in the cold and blowing snow), I felt entitled to claim that place on the street, as well.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Physics Fantasia

I told Ken to find me something to blog about, and he told me I ought to share the glories of Falstad's physics applets with my readers.

Paul Falstead appears to be a California software developer with too much time on his hands. He's written little programs to help scientists visualize the systems that they frequently describe mathematically. Ken is such a nerd that he thinks this is really cool.

The only problem with showing these to a non-physics audience is that there is no explanation included with the applets. If you don't know what a wave function is, how are you supposed to appreciate the full beauty of the breathtakingly complex hyrodgen atom wavefunctions?

I suppose he left off the explanations because they're hard, but let me try, a little. A hydrogen atom is the simplest kind, a heavy, positively charged "proton" with an electron "orbitting" it. Most people have seen pictures that show something like a baseball going in a circle around something like a basketball, but the truth is, the electron is more like the ripple from a rock dropped in a pond, than it is like a baseball. It is a wave pattern, which we call a wavefunction because we're usually describing the pattern mathematically, rather than looking at pictures of it. If I shine light on the atom, I can distort the pattern... The applet shows all of the different patterns I can have, all of the intricate, stunning shapes. Here are the things you should try. First, select "complex orbitals" from the top drop down menu. Go to a high "n" -- like 14. Then give it a big "l" -- like 11. Now look at the different "m" values... Zero and 3 and 4 are pretty cool, but so are some of the less symmetrical shapes you get at the higher numbers. Make sure to turn the resolution up. Now click and hold on the image to drag it around and look at it from different angles. Try turning up the simulation speed or stopping it. Now try to remember, as you're doing this, that these are probably the most accurate depictions of real atoms that you've ever seen. That these shapes occur in nature. That you yourself are nothing but the sum of seven billion billion billion overlapping, ghostly clouds, just like this.

Try making less symmetrical patterns by choosing "complex combos" off of the top drop down menu, and then picking two or three of the circles which appear at the bottom of the picture. (Make sure you have the simulation speed somewhere in the middle of the slider, and don't have it stopped.) Try clicking on the top left circle from each block of circles, and then click on the image again and drag it around. Clear it, and try other combinations. Hypnotic, isn't it? These are real too.

Now try going back to the main page and picking the atomic dipole transitions applet. This shows an animated picture of how light transforms one of these patterns into another. This is what we study all day. These are the pictures in our minds, as we try to provoke atoms into moving and glowing and interacting in the ways we want. Sometimes we even have a specific shape in mind, a specific wavefunction, that we try to prod the atoms into with lasers beams and magnetic fields, vaccuum chambers and heating coils and cavities. When I look at these pictures, I love my job.

There's a lot more there -- the vector field and Fresnel diffraction toys are especially fun to play with if you know what you're looking at... Only I am not up to the challenge of explaining those right now, without using math.

But they're gorgeous, aren't they? Perhaps later I'll attempt to write a poem about them, like the ones Andrew discovered by James Clerk Maxwell... (Or maybe I'll just post that one, as next month's poetry post.)

Physics is beautiful.