Preposterous Universe

Monday, January 31, 2005
Running the numbers

In the wake of Larry Summers' provocations, it's hard not to notice something: people really like talking about innate cognitive differences between men and women. Regardless of what they think about them, it's an irresistible topic on which to spin grand conclusions from sparse scraps of evidence. The more obvious and important fact, that systematic biases are turning women away from becoming scientists, is more mundane and depressing, not nearly as much fun to debate about.

Here's a little bit of actual data. (Mentioned by Meghan O'Rourke in Slate; this table from an article by Sue Serjeantson, quoting a paper by Lynne Billard, in turn quoting results from a 1983 study by Paludi & Bauer.) This is the mathematical equivalent of the well-known fact that women musicians are more likely to be hired by orchestras if auditions are blind (pdf). Paludi and Bauer gave the same mathematics paper to various experts and asked for their opinion on its quality. The only difference was the name on the paper: some were told that the author's first name was "John," some were told "Joan," and some were merely given the initial "J." Here are the ratings the paper was given.

Mean Rating Score (%) of Article

Article Authored By

Article reviewed by

John T. McKay

J.T. McKay

Joan T. McKay









A substantial effect: the paper was rated significantly higher if the reader thought that the author was male. Even women rated the male-authored paper higher! And I'm sure that every one of the subjects in the study would swear that they personally can be completely objective in evaluating mathematical performance, regardless of the sex of the individual.

Study innate differences all you like. But don't use them as an excuse to hide from reality.

Sunday, January 30, 2005
The most important questions in physics

Over at Quantum Diaries, John Ellis reports on a colloquium given by David Gross, where he lists his version of the twenty-five most important questions in physics. Here is Ellis' transcription of Gross' list:

1 - The origin of the Universe:

Was there a Big Bang, was it preceded by a Big Crunch, ....

2 - The nature of Dark Matter:

Is it composed of some unknown elementary particle, if so, what ....

3 - The nature of Dark Energy:

What is its microphysical origin, is it constant or varying ....

4 - The formation of structures in the Universe:

Testing the standard Cold Dark Matter paradigm, formation of stars ..

5 - The validity of General Relativity:

Does it work at all scales, in strong fields, ....

6 - The validity of Quantum Mechanics:

Is it modified at short distances, for large systems, in the Universe ...

7 - The problems not solved by the Standard Model of particles:

Particle types, masses and mixing, unification of forces ....

8 - The existence of supersymmetry:

Does this framework for new physics appear at accessible energies ....

9 - The solution of QCD:

Can it be solved analytically, e.g., via a string model ....

10 - The nature of string theory:

What is it ....

11 - The nature of space and time:

Are they fundamental or emergent phenomena ....

12 - Whether the laws of physics are unique:

Perhaps they are statistical accidents ....

13 - Can kinematics, dynamics and initial conditions be separated:

Perhaps they cannot be disentangled ....

14 - Are there new states of condensed matter:

Not just the usual Fermi liquids ....

15 - The understanding of complexity in computing:

Is there something beyond the artefacts of approximations ....

16 - The construction of a quantum computer:

One with 10,000 qbits would be useful ....

17 - The existence of a room-temperature superconductor:

It would make a technological revolution ....

18 - The existence of a theory of biology:

Does it have an underlying conceptual structure, like physics ....

19 - Deducing physical form from genomics:

Can one deduce the shape of an organism from its DNA sequence ....

20 - The physical basis of consciousness:

New physics, emergent phenomenon, or ....

21 - Could a computer become a creative physicist:

Would we train it starting from Newton and Einstein ....

22 - How to avoid the balkanization of physics:

People from different fields should understand each other ....

23 - The scope of reductionism:

Is it universal, or do new laws emerge in complex systems ....

24 - The role of theory:

Does it lead or follow experiment ....

25 - How to avoid depending on unrealizable big physics projects:

They cannot continue for ever growing in size, cost and time-scale ....

I think it's a pretty good list, but then again my research proclivities aren't that far away from David's, as these things go. The list falters near the end, when he takes up meta-questions like "The role of theory." These things are fun to talk about over coffee, but they don't have right answers in the way that "Does supersymmetry exist?" does. Progress on them happens via practice, not via contemplation. Scientists try to understand how the universe works in a quantitative, empirical way; the best strategies for getting there will change with time in response to circumstances, and deciding ahead of time what (e.g.) the role of theory should be is a hopeless endeavor.

Saturday, January 29, 2005
Election weekend

Voting has already started in the Iraqi elections, with expatriates voting over the weekend ahead of the main event tomorrow. Regardless of anyone's opinion about whether we should have gone to war, or what the ultimate outcome will be, we can all join in the hope that things go as well as possible, and that history will remember this weekend as a step toward democracy.

Having an election doesn't make you a democracy, of course; Saddam Hussein had plenty of elections. Even having a contested election isn't nearly enough. You can't claim to have a working democracy until you have an election in which the ruling party actually loses and hands over power; Iraq has a very long way to go. It's not easy even under fairly peaceful circumstances, as people in Ukraine will attest; but it can happen. Sometimes it never does, as people in Russia can attest; if you have elections in which the ruling party can't lose, that's nothing more than a conventional strongman regime.

Nobody knows what Iraq will look like ten years from now, and anyone who claims to is just whistling in the dark. It might be a struggling but maturing democracy, or a repressive dictatorship, or have broken into pieces, or simply be a chaotic mess roiled by perpetual civil war. It may even be an Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, pursuing a vigorous program to develop weapons of mass destruction. That would be kind of ironic. But this is not a case where anyone should hope for the worst just so they can say "I told you so."

In the short term, the fix is in -- we pretty much know who will come out as the winners. Enough so that George Bush can say with confidence that we will withdraw American troops if the new government requests it, secure in the knowledge that it would never happen. I don't mean "the fix is in" in the sense of actual fraud, just the conventional power that incumbents wield; I suspect candidates from Iraq's current ruling parties will enjoy at least as much of an advantage as incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives, who typically win about 95% of the time.

The long term is less rosy. There is plenty of reason to be skeptical that the elections will lead smoothly into a functioning democratic system, as argued in this study from the Project on Defense Alternatives (via Eric Alterman). They're certainly taking place under trying conditions. Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber reminds us about the Lancet study that found that the war caused somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000 Iraqi deaths that wouldn't have occurred if we hadn't invaded (see also his earlier posts here and here). It's a sobering finding, which didn't receive nearly as much media attention as you might expect, because of a sort of anti-October-surprise effect: because it was rushed into print just before the Presidential elections, media outlets were wary of hyping it for fear of appearing unbalanced. People can argue about the numbers all they like, but the undeniable fact is that Iraqi citizens have been living amidst terrible acts of violence (intentional and unintentional) for a long time now. (Update: via Majikthise, read this Sy Hersh speech at tingilinde.) It's not the best environment in which to nurture a democracy.

But we can hope.

Friday, January 28, 2005
When You Are Old

Will Baude reminds us that W.B. Yeats died 65 years ago today.
When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Such a lovely poem, and yet so sneaky. Basically Yeats is saying to someone who dumped him for someone else, "Someday you'll understand that I was the only one who truly understood you." Which is a nice way to compliment yourself while seeming to compliment the other. W.B., maybe she just wasn't that into you.

Thursday, January 27, 2005
The best anagram ever

Is over at Alas, a Blog. And it involves Jack the Ripper, so you know it has to be good.

Truth serum

Juan Cole reconstructs the speech that he wishes George W. Bush had given to Congress in 2002, to present the case for the war in Iraq.
Then, this Iraq War that I want you to authorize as part of the War on Terror is going to be costly in American lives. By the time of my second inaugural, over 1,300 brave women and men of the US armed forces will be dead as a result of this Iraq war, and 10,371 will have been maimed and wounded, many of them for life. America's streets and homeless shelters will likely be flooded, down the line, with some of these wounded vets. They will have problems finding work, with one or two limbs gone and often significant psychological damage. They will have even more trouble keeping any jobs they find. They will be mentally traumatized the rest of their lives by the horror they are going to see, and sometimes commit, in Iraq. But, well we've got a saying in Texas. I think you've got in over in Arkansas, too. You can't make an omelette without . . . you gotta break some eggs to wrassle up some breakfast.

I know Dick Cheney and Condi Rice have gone around scaring your kids with wild talk of Iraqi nukes. I have to confess to you that my CIA director, George Tenet, tells me that the evidence for that kind of thing just doesn't exist. In fact, I have to be frank and say that the Intelligence and Research Division of the State Department doesn't think Saddam has much of anything left even from his chemical weapons program. Maybe he destroyed the stuff and doesn't want to admit it because he's afraid the Shiites and Kurds will rise up against him without it. Anyway, Iraq just doesn't pose any immediate threat to the United States and probably doesn't have anything useful left of their weapons programs of the 1980s.

There also isn't any operational link between a secular Arab nationalist like Saddam and the religious loonies of al-Qaeda. They're scared of one another and hate each other more than each hates us. In fact, I have to be perfectly honest and admit that if we overthrow Saddam's secular Arab nationalist government, Iraq's Sunni Arabs will be disillusioned and full of despair. They are likely to turn to al-Qaeda as an alternative. So, folks, what I'm about to do could deliver 5 million Iraqis into the hands of people who are insisting they join some al-Qaeda offshoot immediately. Or else.
Apparently, Cole wants to live in a world where people are forced to tell the truth. Wasn't that a bad Jim Carrey movie?

Spoon-bending and sound science

Speaking of Johnny Carson, one of his great moments was when he made a fool of Uri Geller. Not by mocking him in any straightforward way, but simply by asking him very politely to do some of the tricks he was famous for doing, but in a controlled setting where Geller couldn't mess with the objects. Of course he wasn't able to demonstrate any of his celebrated psychic abilities, and this incident dealt a huge blow to Geller's credibility. Majikthise points to a short video at OneGoodMove of Geller's confrontation with Carson.

Geller's best-known stunt, of course, was spoon-bending. It's a simple enough trick for anyone to learn, and has been discredited so long ago that nobody can possibly take it seriously. Except, I guess, climate-change debunker and occasional novelist Michael Crichton. Good thing we have people like Crichton to make fun of those silly "rationalists."

Wednesday, January 26, 2005
We get letters

Not everyone is appreciative of our efforts to explain dark energy to a wider audience.
From: [redacted]@aol.com

Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005 14:19:00 EST
Subject: dark junk hoax
To: carroll@theory.uchicago.edu

i am amazed you morons are trying to keep this crap alive...along with
'inflation'....hawking as i do thinks it is junk.....why cant you acknowledge that
hoyle, narlikar, and burbridge are right with their ideas published 3-4 yrs
ago...i know that none of you can admit that halton arp is dead right with
his postulate that redshift is not solely distance related.....the whole of us
and british scientific punditry have so much reputations at stake that they
will never accord hoyle, arp and others the recognition due......and you fools
have wasted 30 yrs and billions of dollars in an obscece 'cover-your-ass'
endeavor...you make me sick
If anyone's interested, Ned Wright has done a thorough job of explaining why some "alternatives" to the Big Bang are all miserable failures. My own intemperate thoughts are here. Amazing to me how emotional people get about this.

Proselytizing for Dark Energy

Longtime Preposterous readers know that there's nothing that excites me quite like dark energy. It is, after all, about seventy percent of the energy of the universe, so there's a lot to be excited about. Not to mention that we understand very little about it, and it might provide crucial clues to the ultimate reconciliation of gravity and quantum mechanics, so it's worth paying attention to.

(click for larger version -- credit Sky & Telescope)

Still, dark energy (a nearly-uniform energy density in every cubic centimeter of space, practically constant through time) is a tricky concept, so it's worth taking every opportunity we have to explain what we know about it and what we're still trying to learn. I have an article in the March issue of Sky & Telescope that attempts to survey just that. (Not available online, I'm afraid.) The article, unimaginatively titled "Dark Energy and the Preposterous Universe," is basically a written version of the talk that I often give to popular audiences. Some day I will get around to writing an entire book that fleshes out these ideas even more. In my spare time.

If you'd like to actually hear a popular talk on dark energy live and in person, book your tickets now to Aspen, where I'll be giving a public lecture on February 16th, in association with the winter conference on particle physics. Nobody ever said that physicists didn't know how to live. Even more exclusively, I'm organizing a dark energy symposium at the upcoming meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. It's a great line-up of speakers: Adam Riess talking about supernova measurements of the expansion of the universe, Licia Verde talking about how we can use the CMB and large-scale structure to constrain dark energy, John Carlstrom on building new telescopes to observe the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect in clusters of galaxies as a novel handle on the evolution of the universe, Lenny Susskind on the string theory landscape and the anthropic principle, and Gia Dvali on brane worlds and modified gravity. Of course, you have to register for the meeting, so it's not easy to actually go to the symposium. But there should be a good selection of journalists in attendance, so hopefully the message will be spread far and wide.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Carnival time

I'm not sure how "carnival" became chosen to describe a collection of self-submitted blog posts. Seems like "pot luck" would be a more accurate description. Nevertheless, get your favorite science posts ready for the next Tangled Bank, to be hosted at JasmineCola. The deadline is tomorrow (Weds), so don't delay; submit your entries to host@tangledbank.net.

Tangled Bank is by now practically an old-timer as these things go. A newcomer on the block is the Carnival of the Godless, to be hosted for the first time at Unscrewing the Inscrutable. They are looking for posts about religion/philosophy/atheism "from a godless perspective," although you yourself don't have to be godless. The deadline is Friday the 28th, so submit to cotg-submission@brentrasmussen.com if you have something godless to say.

Finally, check out the latest Carnival of the Commies over at TigerHawk. A righty takes a deep breath and surveys the lefty blogosphere. Jack does a good job, and is susceptible to flattery. Preposterous gets a mention for our lament about the decision not to service the Hubble Space Telescope; to be sure, the decision would have been equally lamentable if it had been made by a liberal, and I would think many conservatives are just as disappointed as I am.

Update: Tangled Bank is here.

Monday, January 24, 2005
Carson and Sagan

James Wolcott raises an interesting point about Johnny Carson:
In retirement, Carson became appalled by the degeneration of cable news coverage and political discourse post 9/11. I received a wonderful note from him a few years ago--a note from Johnny Carson! I've never opened an envelope more gingerly--in which he lamented the dying out of voices of reason such as astronomer Carl Sagan, a frequent guest on his show. An astronomy buff himself, Carson prized science and reason. In his latter years he must have felt even more estranged from a country embracing its own hysteria.
David Letterman, of course, does occasionally have scientists on; Brian Greene did a yeomanlike job trying to explain string theory, and Sir Martin Rees was spectacular at talking about astronomy. But Letterman is ultimately too nihilistic to care too obviously about the state of the public discourse or any such thing. In that sense, the closest we have to Carson's true heir is probably Jon Stewart.


Congratulations to the handsome and powerful Philadelphia Eagles, who vanquished some pretenders from Atlanta to win the NFC Championship (after three straight unsuccessful tries) and book their tickets to the Super Bowl. There they will face the New England Patriots, who will be favored by about a touchdown. Which will make the ultimate victory by our men in green all the more sweet. I'm calling it 24-13 for the Iggles. (Lost in the fuss about receiver Terrell Owens' injury and coach Andy Reid's decision to sit all the starters in meaningless games at the end of the season is the fact that the Eagles' defense has become scary good.) No doubt Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts will enjoy eating cheesesteaks after his team's inevitable defeat.

As a nice sidelight to the story, the Eagles are led by Irish-American quarterback Donovan McNabb, pictured at right. In previous years, certain misguided pundits have questioned whether athletes of Irish extraction had the necessary mental abilities (to go along with their obvious physical gifts) to lead a football team to ultimate success. Happily, by now Irish quarterbacks have become so commonplace that only the most Neanderthal of commentators continue to question their effectiveness.

Sunday, January 23, 2005
It would be funny if it weren't

If it weren't, you know, important. So, the Second Inaugural Address was the "freedom speech," in which the President harped on the theme of spreading freedom throughout the world. (Some transcripts, in the hands of trained readers, came out differently.) Much tough talk about democracy being good, tyranny being bad, stuff like that.

Of course, the educated blog-reading public understands that it's all hypocritical nonsense. The President is supposed to say things like that; what's he going to say, that our support for repressive dictatorships will be strictly limited to those cases when it seems to serve our immediate interests? But apparently some nervous folks in faraway lands actually thought he might be serious about cracking down on tyranny. Hysterical, no? So an aide was trotted out (anonymously, of course -- this isn't a gig you want on your resume) to explain to the innocent foreigners that the speech didn't actually represent a policy of the United States -- at least, not in the sense that the actual words in the speech were to be taken at face value. It was just business as usual, a little pep talk for the brave 51% that gave our President his mandate. Next thing you know, someone will actually think that tax cuts are the best way to eliminate the budget deficit.

Update: Apparently Giblets made the same mistake. We have to watch what we say, people.

Saturday, January 22, 2005
White House kills Hubble servicing plans

In yet another example where the Administration ignores the advice of the National Academy of Sciences, the 2006 budget request will apparently not include any funds to service the Hubble Space Telescope.
WASHINGTON – The White House has eliminated funding for a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope from its 2006 budget request and directed NASA to focus solely on de-orbiting the popular spacecraft at the end of its life, according to government and industry sources.

NASA is debating when and how to announce the change of plans. Sources told Space News that outgoing NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe likely will make the announcement Feb. 7 during the public presentation of the U.S. space agency’s 2006 budget request.

That budget request, according to government and industry sources, will not include any money for Hubble servicing but will include some money for a mission to attach a propulsion module to Hubble needed to safely de-orbit the spacecraft with a controlled re-entry into the Pacific Ocean. NASA would not need to launch such a mission before the end of the decade to guide the massive telescope safely into the ocean.
The decision came as a surprise to astronomers, who had been hopeful that a servicing mission would be launched.

Of course, the ultimate budget decision is in the hands of Congress, not the White House; it might be time for some letters to your Senators and Representatives.

Update: Here's the National Academy study, if you're interested: summary, full report.

Seven hundred billion dollars

Take all of the money currently in circulation in any given currency, and add it all up. You'd probably imagine that the currency with the greatest value is the US dollar, although the Euro is catching up. But now the dollar has been surpassed! But not by the Euro, after all. Can you guess?

The currency with the greatest value in circulation in the world today is -- frequent flyer miles. About seven hundred billion dollars. They are often sold to credit-card companies at a valuation of two cents per mile. Perhaps not surprising to me, as I certainly have greater value in my miles than in actual cash money, but I didn't think I was typical. Hopefully United won't go out of business and leave me in the poor house. (Thanks to Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me.)

Friday, January 21, 2005
Other countries

Promoted from the comments -- a graph of the percentage of female physics faculty by country. (Note added: a dated one, obviously; I'm guessing 80's.)
Do we see evidence here of universal behavior explained by innate cognitive differences, or simply the effects of contingent cultural factors? We report, you decide.

Derridean unification

An honest-to-God story at CNN, from archy:
Poll: Nation split on Bush as uniter or divider

Forty-nine percent of 1,007 adult Americans said in phone interviews they believe Bush is a "uniter," according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday. Another 49 percent called him a "divider," and 2 percent had no opinion.

The results nearly match those of a poll taken in October 2004, which showed 48 percent considered Bush a "uniter" and 48 percent called him a "divider," with 4 percent having no opinion.
Did a uniting actually happen?

The Friends of Heraclitus

By Charles Simic.
Your friend has died, with whom
You roamed the streets,
At all hours, talking philosophy.
So, today you went alone,
Stopping often to change places
With your imaginary companion,
And argue back against yourself
On the subject of appearances:
The world we see in our heads
And the world we see daily,
So difficult to tell apart
When grief and sorrow bow us over.

You two often got so carried away
You found yourselves in strange neighborhoods
Lost among unfriendly folk,
Having to ask for directions
While on the verge of a supreme insight,
Repeating your question
To an old woman or a child
Both of whom may have been deaf and dumb.

What was that fragment of Heraclitus
You were trying to remember
As you stepped on the butcher's cat?
Meantime, you yourself were lost
Between someone's new black shoe
Left on the sidewalk
And the sudden terror and exhilaration
At the sight of a girl
Dressed up for a night of dancing
Speeding by on roller skates.

Thursday, January 20, 2005
Sex and science!

Hey, have you heard? Apparently Harvard President Lawrence Summers has made some sort of remarks about underrepresentation of women in science being attributable in part to innate cognitive differences, rather than some sort of discrimination. And it started a bit of a kerfuffle! Who would have guessed?

I mentioned the incident briefly, and others in the blogosphere have not been shy about offering their opinions: see Mark Graber, Bitch, Ph.D., Kriston, Unrequited Narcissism, Lubos Motl (don't miss Ann Nelson's comment), Michael Bérubé, Matthew Yglesias, Barb Mattson, Becky Stanek, Juan Non-Volokh, PZ Myers, Universal Acid, Kristy Elesko. A nice review of the actual research on cognitive differences is given by Mixing Memory. Summers has been scolded by the Harvard faculty, defended by Steven Pinker, corrected by the sociologists he quoted, and has issued a slightly more contrite apology than was originally squeezed out of him.

Perhaps more commentary isn't really necessary. But it's hard to miss the fact that Summers' defenders and critics are mostly talking past each other. As one of the critics, I'm especially baffled/annoyed at the tack taken by most of the defenders. The basic line seems to be that Summers was simply offering a scientific hypothesis, one that is worth investigating, and if you are in any way offended you must be letting political correctness compromise your interest in finding the truth. This seems to miss the point entirely, so perhaps it's worth just a little more blather on the subject.

Men and women are indeed different. I've noticed differences, anyway, and thank goodness. Biological differences are obvious, and I'm someone who believes that the mind is completely tied to the brain, which is part of the body, so it's certainly possible in principle to imagine that there are innate cognitive differences. I know that some people disagree, and deny even the possibility of cognitive differences, but I think they are unreasonably extreme.

So, except for the fact that "scientific ability" is something hopelessly hard to quantify, I'm happy to contemplate the possibility that men have some tiny innate superiority to women when it comes to science. I am equally happy to contemplate the possibility that women have some tiny innate superiority to men when it comes to science. The point is that we have no strong evidence one way or another. It's impossible, given the current state of the art, to reliably measure "innate ability" in a way that isn't hopelessly noisy and compromised by cultural factors. It's perfectly clear that the differences between individual people are typically much larger than the difference between some hypothetical average man and average woman, just as it is perfectly obvious that the expression of innate ability is tremendously affected by social and cultural factors.

Don't these people read any history at all? Whenever some group is discriminated against by some other group, people inevitably suggest that the differences in situation can be traced to innate features distinguishing between the groups, and they are never right! If you would like to suggest that innate differences are responsible for some current discrepancies in people's fortunes, the minimal burden you face is to acknowledge that such explanations have been spectacular failures in similar circumstances throughout history, and explain why we have compelling reasons to think the situation is different this time. Maybe it is, but the presumption is strongly against you.

Systematic biases against women in science are real. I've talked about this before, so didn't think it was worth rehearsing, but apparently there are a lot of folks who don't quite see it. They must not be looking. It might be better to refer to "systematic biases" rather than "discrimination," because many of the pressures that work against women are brought to bear by men who have no idea that they are discriminating, and could even be said to have the best of intentions. The truth is that girls are dissuaded from pursuing science from almost the moment they are born, and the pressures are equally real at the university level. If the current differences in representation between men and women were due to innate differences, the U.S. wouldn't have such low numbers compared to other countries, and the numbers wouldn't actually be gradually but steadily increasing (as they are). There are very few role models for talented women students. There is a culture within science that stretches from offputting to downright misogynist. There are teachers in elementary and secondary schools that steer girls away from math and science. There are societal stereotypes that discourage women from pursuing scientific careers. There are many male professors who deep down just don't think that women are cut out for the job. The list of biases goes on and on, and only someone willfully blind or extraordinarily simplistic could miss them.

Summers, of course, casually dismisses the idea that differences between the representation of men and women in science can be traced to systematic biases. His argument is based on rational markets: if there were a lot of talented women out there who were being discriminated against, a clever university could dominate the competition by hiring them all up, but this doesn't happen. This is the kind of idea so dumb that it could only be entertained by a professional economist. By similar logic, shouldn't smart baseball executives in the first half of the twentieth century been able to win multiple World Series by simply scooping up all of the African-American players that their racist colleagues were reluctant to hire? Somehow that didn't happen. When the biases are widespread, subtle, and diffuse, they affect all institutions. This is especially true (and obvious) in the case of women scientists, where the pressures working against them stretch from preschool to university departments (and administrations!). No one person or institution can undo the damage, which is one of the reasons why it's so important to acknowledge that the damage is real.

Entertaining hypotheses can, in context, be offensive. Summers' own defense was that he was simply offering an hypothesis, and even hoped that he would be proven wrong. How can innocent scientific inquiry upset people so much? We should be devoted to the truth, right?

Okay, imagine you like to play chess, but the only person you know with a chess set is your friend (let's call him "Larry"), so you have to play with him over and over. You believe that the two of you are evenly matched, so the games should be competitive. Except that, while you are an extremely polite and considerate player, Larry is consistently obnoxious. When it is your turn to move, Larry likes to take out his trumpet and practice scales (he's a terrible trumpet player). Also, he tends to flick the light switch on and off while you are thinking. And he is consistently jiggling the chessboard slightly, so that the pieces are vibrating around. Occasionally, at crucial points during the game, he will poke you in the side with a sharp stick. And more than once, when it looked like you were about to win the game, he would "accidentally" spill his coffee on the board, knocking over the pieces, and declare the game a draw by forfeit.

You put up with this behavior (he does, after all, own the chess set), but you are only able to win about ten percent of the games. Eventually, in frustration, you complain that his behavior is unfair and he should cut it out. "Well," says Larry, "let's entertain the hypothesis that you usually lose because you just aren't as good a chess player as I am. I suggest that you are just a sore loser with inferior cognitive capacity, although I'd love to be wrong about this."

Perhaps he is correct -- but in context, you have every right to slap him. Nobody should be against seeking the truth and exploring different hypotheses. But when systematic biases are widespread and perfectly obvious, and these biases are strongly affecting the representation of a group such as women, people have every right to be offended when the president of the most famous university in the world suggests that discrimination is imaginary, and it's women's own fault that there aren't more female scientists. Of course psychologists and sociologists should continue to do research on all sorts of hypotheses, and perhaps some day we will have a playing field that is sufficiently level that any remaining differences in the numbers of working scientists can be plausibly attributed to innate capacities. But in the meantime, we should be focused on overcoming the ridiculous biases that plague our field, not in pretending that they don't exist.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Both sides now

One thing on which I'm sure we can all agree: there are too many damn blogs. Even if we stick with the ones that we actually think are good, there's no way to keep up with them all. So forget about responsibly checking, for example, blogs on the other side of the political spectrum than where one places one's self -- maybe we spot-check a few here and there, but being a regular visitor is a job best left to masochists.

Fortunately, braver souls are out there to pick out the choicest cuts from either side of the political cow. Well, with a certain imbalance, I must admit. From the Right, we have TigerHawk presenting the Carnival of the Commies. Mildly amusing label notwithstanding, he actually makes a good-faith effort to identify what he thinks are interesting trends within the lefty blogosphere. Worth checking out.

In return, the forces of progressive goodness turn to The Poor Man, who dips his finger into the righty blogosphere to come up with Wingnut Butter. Equally edifying, although somewhat less of a -- how should we put it? -- good-faith effort.
We will plunge headlong into the spiritual wasteland of theocrats, crypto-fascists, asexuals, militiamen, torture apologists, Millenialists, Bush idolators, racists, Randians, flat Earthers, Likudniks, hypocrites, liars, and the many other sour, brittle old harpies and doughy, bowtied chronic masturbators of the Right, and return with such victuals as can be scrounged from this unforgiving soil.
Apparently the Editors were unable to identify all that many worthwhile strands over on the right side of web-land. Maybe next week?

We shall overcome

Last night we went to a concert by the Chicago Sinfonietta in honor of Martin Luther King Day. The Sinfonietta is not the international powerhouse that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is, but is an exciting and talented ensemble in its own right. A focus of the Sinfonietta is on diversity, both in terms of the musicians and in terms of the works performed. Last night's program was a typical mix of new works and classics, with two pieces by contemporary composers specifically in honor of King, and two old favorites by Schubert and Tchaikovsky. My favorite was Michael Abels' Dance for Martin's Dream, which moved engagingly between folk melodies, African rhythms, and traditional classical structures. The whole idea of the Sinfonietta is a great way to bring classical music to audiences that don't normally get to experience it.

The best part was the finale, which wrapped up the evening in an appropriate fashion: everyone in the audience joined hands and sang We Shall Overcome. Okay, not a professional performance, but enthusiasm counts for something; it was a very moving moment. I was at first concerned that I didn't know the words, but it turns out that we only sang the first verse, which is not so hard:
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.

Monday, January 17, 2005
The content of their character

The University of Chicago doesn't take the day off for Martin Luther King Day, but here at Preposterous we are an independent outfit and can take off whenever we please. So today we celebrate MLK's legacy by just quoting from other blogs.

Pharyngula, via feministing, points to an article in the Boston Globe about the opinions of the President of the World's Greatest University.
CAMBRIDGE -- The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.

Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers' talk, saying later that if she hadn't left, ''I would've either blacked out or thrown up."
Among the highly rigorous studies quoted by Summers were his own observations of his daughter, who named her toy trucks "daddy truck" and "baby truck." That pretty much cinches the case for genetic determinism as far as I'm concerned.

Elsewhere, Wonkette fills us in on how they celebrate in Mississippi.
We are honoring Martin Luther King Day as we always do, by staying in bed until noon and starting drinking at one. In fact, we like to think of every day as Martin Luther King Day. The folks in Mississippi, on the other hand, prefer not to think about MLK day much at all! If you -- as reader J. did -- call the Mississippi tax commission today (601-923-7000), you'll find that the office is closed " in observance of Robert E Lee's and Martin Luther King's birthdays." We love this. We imagine it was floated as a way to get the bigots to observe a federal holiday and avoid being targeted by Chuck D -- a compromise about as meaningful as the Missouri one, really. If this is the case, we wonder what other kinds of intrastate racial tit-for-tat deals might be in the works. What about, "you can date our daughters as long as we can whip you for it after?"

NOTE: Really, no shit: That is the number of the Mississippi tax commission.
Okay. Well. Let's give the Reverend the last word:
We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Saturday, January 15, 2005
Those poor traveling salesmen

Eugene Volokh points to some useful advice from Microsoft's MapPoint: driving directions from Haugesund, Norway to Trondheim, Norway.

Total Distance:
1685.9 Miles Estimated Total Time: 47 hours, 31 minute. But the scenery is very relaxing.

Friday, January 14, 2005
Far away, so close

Dispatches from the scientific frontiers. At Unscrewing the Inscrutable, Brent Rasmussen is blogging about the landing of the Cassini-Huygens probe on Saturn's moon Titan. (He was liveblogging, but it's a little too late to actually get it live, unless you have a time machine, in which case contact me. On second thought, don't.) "Cassini" is the NASA spacecraft, "Huygens" is the ESA probe that actually went to the surface. Fantastic science, not to mention cool pictures, all for quite a bit less than the $500 billion it will cost to send people to Mars.

Meanwhile, in association with the World Year of Physics, we have something Einstein couldn't have anticipated: Quantum Diaries (also noted by Peter Woit) is a collection of year-long blogs by particle physicists, giving you a glimpse into their sexy and exciting daily lives. They are mostly experimentalists, so those of you who hang out at blogs like this one can see how the other half lives. I will give a shout-out to Stephon Alexander, who is on record as saying that my GR book is "off the hook."

Overlapping magisteria

A lot of well-meaning people want to accept the successes of science as well as the comforts of religion. There is some obvious tension here, since religions typically seem to make strong claims about the way the world works, and these claims tend to be incompatible with the lessons of science. In the face of this tension, a common strategy is to declare that science and religion simply exist in separate spheres, and cannot in principle come into conflict. This is the move made by Jesse at Pandagon, not to mention Stephen Jay Gould in Rocks of Ages. Gould even invented a clunky acronym to encompass this position: the Principle of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria.

The problem with this position is that it is manifestly incorrect. Or at least, to make it correct, one needs to distort the definition of "religion" beyond recognition. Religion has a number of components: ethical ones, spiritual ones, social ones. But without a doubt it has a cosmological component -- making certain definite claims about the nature of reality. These claims differ from religion to religion, but typically involve the existence of supernatural forces, some notion of an afterlife, a creation myth, and so on. All of these topics fall squarely under the scope of scientific investigation (and the science story never agrees with the religion story). How to wriggle out of this? By limiting "religion" to some very thin ideas about ethics and spirituality. Gould makes it through half of his book before he comes clean and gives a definition of what he means by religion, at which point we discover it is what most of us would call "moral philosophy." At which point, why call it "religion" at all? Does anyone believe that the folks who invented these religions felt that they had nothing to say about the deep workings of the universe? That's just a later interpretation, designed to cover up the dramatic failure of scripture to tell us anything correct about how the world really works. Why not just admit that the lessons we learn by reading the Bible are on precisely the same footing as those we learn from reading Homer or Shakespeare, and enjoy them for the messy fallible things they are, rather than insisting on some special metaphysical status?

Of course you can be both religious and scientific, plenty of people are. But if so, you should face up to those bits of both which tend to disagree. Pretending that they don't exist is a cop-out.

Thursday, January 13, 2005
A quantitative comparison

We're all done looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; apparently it was all some sort of misunderstanding. The bigger story, of course, is that CBS news has completed its investigation of the memogate scandal. If anyone's keeping track, the (newly enaged!) Poor Man has a scorecard.

Koufax awards

The staff here at Preposterous is holding our breath -- in another month and a half, we will have successfully passed through an entire year of existence without being nominated for any blog awards of any type. ("It's" breath? Should "staff" plural or singular? See, this is why we never get nominated for anything.) That's okay. Our position in Maslow's hierarchy of needs is sufficiently lofty that we don't depend on such tokens of external recognition.

But the awards can be a great idea, since let's face it, there are a lot of blogs out there and we can't read them all. It's nice to be pointed to the ones that are most amusing or useful. But one problem is the weird (although diminishing) domination of the blogosphere by conservatives, who tend to walk away with awards handed out by popular vote. So the Koufax awards are aimed at the lefty faction of the blogosphere. (Sandy Koufax was a lefty, get it?) They are administered by the selfless folks over at Wampum, and are well worth checking out and participating in. (See, we end sentences with prepositions, too. Amazing we are still allowed to publish at all.)

The voting procedure is a little chaotic, and the lists of nominees in various categories are scattered around different posts. As far as I can tell, voting is now open in the categories of Most Humorous Post, Most Deserving Wider Recognition, Best Writing, Best New Blog, Best Expert, and Best Single Issue Blog. Whether you vote or not, have fun clicking on the nominees; there's some great stuff there.

Einstein mugged by press release

This week the American Astronomical Society is meeting in San Diego. (No, I'm still here in Chicago, thank goodness.) The AAS meetings are huge, impersonal affairs, very different in character from a smaller conference devoted to a particular specialty. But they serve at least one important purpose -- to provide a forum where astronomers can announce newsworthy findings, knowing that there will be a healthy collection of journalists available to tell their stories.

That's why the second week in January is always filled with fun astronomy stories in the news. Interesting results this week include a claim that the Chandra X-ray satellite observatory has found evidence for thousands of black holes near the center of the Milky Way, and that ripples in the large-scale distribution of galaxies -- predicted to result from the same acoustic oscillations that give rise to preferred scales in microwave background temperature anisotropies -- have been reliably measured in data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. And many more.

Sometimes, sadly, people get carried away. Here for example is an extremely cool result: evidence for spacetime dragging around a spinning black hole, from X-rays observed with the Rossi satellite. If you did nothing but read the nice story just linked to (by Robert Roy Britt, describing research by Jeroen Homan and Jon Miller), you'd be impressed at how much astronomers are able to learn about black holes. (The picture is an artist's impression by Dana Berry, not an actual image of the source!) If on the other hand you chased down the press release for this work, you'd be surprised to hear the claim that the result, if confirmed, "would represent a new phenomenon that goes beyond Einstein's general relativity." Because it wouldn't, actually. It's a nice confirmation of a precise prediction of general relativity, in fact. Happily, the journalist for the above article either didn't read the press release, or knew better than to write about the fake overthrow of Einstein. Sadly, not every journalist was so fortunate. This article from USA Today would have you believe not only that the black hole is "changing the dimensions of space," but that the very possibility of a spinning black hole is "something never considered in Einstein's theory of gravity." Eeek. (Although I have a nice textbook he should buy.)

I'm usually reluctant to criticize science journalists and press officers, as they have a hard job and get little credit (at least compared to the glamorous life of the research scientist). But it's important to get it right, and just takes a little extra effort. Lost in the confusion is the crucial point: that observations like these represent the first steps towards what will be a major project over the next couple of decades, mapping out the spacetime in the vicinity of black holes. Plans are in the works for ultra-high resolution X-ray satellites like Constellation X that will directly image the inner edge of accretion disks near black holes, and gravitational-wave observatories like LISA will open an incredibly precise new window on the way in which black holes curve spacetime. At least, if we can somehow find the money -- and really good science stories have an important role in making that possible.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Tangled Bank

Speaking of the dissemination of scientific information, the latest edition of Tangled Bank is now up at Science and Politics. It's full of scientific information. (Although I understand that the total entropy of the universe was increased in the process of bringing it together).

Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Scientific information

Besides Steve Hsu, another physicist-blogger I noticed at Crooked Timber is fellow cosmologist Andrew Jaffe. He has a couple of posts up about science publishing on the web. Of course, physicists have historically been in the vanguard of electronic dissemination of information, beginning spectacularly with the invention of the World-Wide-Web at CERN. In the particular case of scientific papers, Paul Ginsparg's arxiv.org (originally based at Los Alamos, now at Cornell) had a revolutionary impact. Each morning you can read the titles and abstracts of every paper submitted the previous day, and download and print the full text of those that strike your interest. The increase in speed and convenience over ordinary journals seems slight, but the impact is huge. It used to be that researchers that were "in the loop" would receive preprints from their colleagues, giving them a noticeable advantage over more isolated workers who had to wait months for the journals to appear.

Equally important, although rarely mentioned, is the straightforward advantage of one-stop shopping -- rather than leafing through a dozen journals, and still possibly missing some interesting papers, every paper worth reading goes to a single site. It is so convenient that plenty of people (myself included) will often go to arxiv.org to print out a copy of their own paper, rather than go through the effort of digging it up in a file. The convenience is enhanced considerably by the citation service of the SPIRES database in high-energy physics (and the similar NASA Astrophysics Data System), which tells you which papers have been cited by which other papers, constructing an instantly searchable network of references. (And, something also convenient but less obviously beneficial, a way to rate one's worth as a scientist. [Which gives me a nice way to smoothly insert a link to the Hot Paper by Mark Hoffman, Mark Trodden, and me.])

One of the reason why these systems sprung up most easily in high-energy physics and astrophysics is because those subfields have very little commercial application! The stakes are (mostly) intellectual, and millions of dollars are not at risk if someone reads your paper before it is peer-reviewed. Indeed, workers in these fields are becoming increasingly convinced that peer review is kind of a nuisance, since the only people who care about these results are fellow researchers who can judge for themselves whether a paper is interesting or not. That's why the Bogdanov affair (in which some French demi-celebrities were accused, incorrectly, of "spoofing" physicists by publishing nonsense papers) was more interesting to outsiders than physicists -- bad papers get published all the time, we just ignore them. In other fields, it's more important that non-experts can assume that published work has been vetted by reliable researchers; putting every paper out on a free preprint server is a dicier proposition. Nevertheless, efforts like the Public Library of Science are attempting to make scientific and medical results freely accessible, even if not quite as quickly and conveniently as the arxiv does for physics.

Interestingly, the blog model has found physicists lagging behind the rest of the world; just look how the list of academic blogs at Crooked Timber or Bitch, Ph.D. are dominated by the social sciences and humanities. Jacques Distler is one of the few physicists who actually uses his blog to talk about research-level questions with fellow string theorists, and the String Coffee Table is a way to allow anyone to join in. More recently there have been a couple of couple of other attempts along these lines: Physics Comments gathers papers from the arxiv and provides a space to discuss them, while CosmoCoffee is aimed more narrowly at cosmology, and makes some effort to limit membership to working cosmologists.

We'll see how these new efforts work. I'm hopeful but somewhat skeptical. At some point, more communication isn't what the field needs; it needs more results to communicate about, or at least more good results, or at least more quiet time to think about getting some results. I think that the current lines of communication between professional physicists are pretty good; papers are disseminated rapidly, most institutions have frequent seminars, and nobody is complaining that there aren't enough conferences. Compared to talking to someone in person, chatting about technical results on the Web is necessarily clumsy, even if (as Jacques and others have done) some effort is put into allowing equations to be displayed nicely.

On the other hand, the lines of communication between professional scientists and interested non-scientists could use a great deal of improvement, and there might be a future for blogs in this capacity. If I were a more public-spirited person, I would resist the temptation to clutter this blog with politics and philosophy, and make a real effort to stick to explaining physics and cosmology to non-experts. But it wouldn't be as much fun.

Monday, January 10, 2005
Tom DeLay is right (or at least consistent)

From DemWatch, Atrios, Volokh, and a million other places, we hear about the uplifting piece of scripture that Tom DeLay chose to read at the Congressional Prayer Service on January 5th:
A reading of the Gospel, in Matthew 7:21 through 27.

Not every one who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven; but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?"

Then I will declare to them solemnly, "I never knew you: depart from me, you evil doers."

Everyone who listens to these words of mine, and acts on them, will be like a wise man, who built his house on a rock:

The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew, and buffeted the house, but it did not collapse; it has been set solidly on rock.

And everyone who listens to these words of mine, but does not act on them, will be like a fool who built his house on sand:

The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew, and buffeted the house, and it collapsed and was completely ruined.
The poor Congressman is taking some grief for his choice of text, due to what some perceive as insensitivity towards the victims of the actual tsunami that knocked down quite a few houses.

The problem seems to be that DeLay is blaming the victims for this terrible catastrophe -- if they had listened to Jesus, this never would have happened. I should point out that, well, that's because it's true, at least if you believe that God is in charge of the natural world. God (or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, I can't always keep track) could easily have prevented this disaster, but chose not to. And for an all-powerful being, it's hard to distinguish between "chose not to prevent" and "caused." So it would be equally legitimate (and less dependent on theological fine points) to say that DeLay's choice of text puts the blame squarely on God's shoulders, for having such a maliciously petty approach to being omnipotent.

On Morning Edition this morning, Barbara Bradley Hagerty spoke to representatives from various faiths about the meaning of this disaster in the light of God. I only heard snippets, but the commentators were at least admirably consistent, choosing not to weasel out of the obvious conclusion. The Muslim agreed that, yes, the fact that Allah chose to do this meant that there was some very good reason why those people had to suffer and die; we might not know what it is, but presumably they did something bad. The Protestant was more in the Enlightenment tradition of egocentric individuality, choosing to interpret the tsunami as God's way of telling him, personally, to shape up. Not a comforting thought to the actual victims, but at least intellectually honest.

Of course, it is also true that DeLay is an insensitive jerk. Just because his God is petulant and vindictive doesn't mean he has to rub it in our faces.

Thursday, January 06, 2005
Torture dance

In case you aren't listening to NPR or watching C-SPAN (or reading Human Rights First), Pandagon provides a nice paraphrase (N.B.: just a paraphrase, not a transcript!) of Patrick Leahy's noble attempts to squeeze a straight answer out of future Attorney General Alberto Gonzales:
LEAHY: "Does U.S. law allow for torture, in your opinion?"

GONZALES: "Bush has already said there won't be any torture."

LEAHY: "That's not what I asked. In your opinion, does U.S. law allow for torture?"

GONZALES: "That's a hypothetical question that I won't answer."

LEAHY: "U.S. law. Torture."

GONZALES: "That involves a lot of complex law that I don't know."
Joe Biden also said something sensible (you're nominated for Attorney General, not the Supreme Court, so you can't actually weasel out of giving us your opinions), but is such a pompous jerk that he does more harm than good to his own case.

Update: This guy claims not to have a view about whether Senate filibusters are constitutional. And he wants to be Attorney General?

It's funny to hear the Republicans throw softballs. "Judge, do you think terrorism is bad?" Or course, for most nominees, "Do you think torture is bad?" would qualify as a softball.

Update again: Gonzales slipped for a moment and actually answered a question. Asked if he thought the President had the right to ignore a law that he personally suspected was unconstitutional, he said "Yes." Nobody asked the obvious follow-up, whether we should consider changing the title "President" to "God-Emperor."

Last update: I hadn't realized that the Justice department finally backed off its classification of torture as unacceptable only when the interrogator intentionally inflicted pain on the order of major organ failure or death. A new memo has been issued that takes a wider view of what is unacceptable. Of course, it came out last week, which is more than two years after the original memo. But just in time for the Gonzales hearings!

If you want info on the new FBI reports expressing shock at the torture going on at Guantanamo Bay, see articles at Newsweek and the ACLU.

In the Comments, Kriston very naturally wonders whether I was perhaps exaggerating about the President's divine right to declare laws unconstitutional. Nope. I haven't found a transcript, but Gonzales repeated this belief again later, so it wasn't a slip. Here a quote from the Human Rights First site, which is not the most clear but gives you the gist:
Gonzales - The Executive branch should always look with great care at a law before it decides that law is unconstitutional and should not be followed.
Many of us had thought that was the Judicial branch's job. But hey, if they look with great care, what more can we ask?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Should you become a scientist?

I was happy to notice via Crooked Timber that Steve Hsu, I physicist I know from way back, has begun to blog. He's in the physics department at the University of Oregon, although many of his posts are about economics and finance.

Steve links with approval to an article entitled Don't Become a Scientist!, by Jonathan Katz. Professor Katz is pretty straightforward about what he means by this dramatic statement:
Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!

Science is fun and exciting. The thrill of discovery is unique. If you are smart, ambitious and hard working you should major in science as an undergraduate. But that is as far as you should take it. After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means that you should not even consider going to graduate school in science. Do something else instead: medical school, law school, computers or engineering, or something else which appeals to you.

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.
That must be depressing to read for a young person who is considering embarking on the long and difficult road to becoming a professional scientist. A brief perusal of his web page reveals that Professor Katz is something of a nutcake, with other essays like In Defense of Homophobia and Diversity is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel. Nevertheless, is there anything to his career advice?

The facts of the case are not in dispute: there are many more people who would like to become scientists, even among those who have made it as far as graduate school, than there are jobs for them as professional scientists. (Really here we are thinking of jobs as professors at universities, not working for industry, and the problem is equal or worse in other areas of academia.) The numbers will depend sensitively on how you define the problem, but I've heard that perhaps one in four people who get a Ph.D. will eventually become a professor, and that seems plausible.

Why would anyone go through years of extremely hard work (four years of undergrad, perhaps five of grad school, about four or five of postdoc on average, not to mention another six before you come up for tenure) just to have such a small chance of winning what appears to be a somewhat modest prize? It's like aiming to become a professional athlete, except without the lavish riches, celebrity status, or the esteem of the opposite sex. One must conclude that people only embark on this path because they care deeply about doing science. Should we really be telling those people that they should hang it up, their efforts are a waste of time?

No. Of course we should tell them the truth -- there aren't many positions available, even for people with doctorates from prestigious graduate schools. But in my experience that is hardly a secret -- the lesson is driven home again and again, in conversations with other students as well as with faculty. Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't heard any professors spinning tales of how easy it is to get a faculty job. There is some tension, of course, because we do try to recruit students to come to our own schools, or to join our groups rather than some other one. But as far as I can tell, such a student would have to live in an especially well-sealed cave to achieve a Ph.D. without having heard about how bad the job market is. And if they do understand how difficult it is, and want to try anyway, then more power to them.

In the face of an unfortunate situation, it's nice to be able to blame somebody. Who can we blame for the fact that there are fewer jobs than people who get Ph.D.'s? Perhaps there should be more jobs. That would be great, but runs into the fairly prosaic problem of how to pay for it. Double college tuitions? The number of faculty positions is slowly growing, but I don't see any way to make it grow so fast that it outstrips the number of people who would like to have one.

Maybe we can blame graduate schools, for accepting all of these students even though there aren't guaranteed jobs waiting for them? I've actually heard people express this view in all seriousness. But let's think about it. What is actually being suggested is to simply accept far fewer applicants to grad school, i.e. to reject half or more of the students we currently take. And this is supposed to benefit these students? "Yes, we understand that you wanted to go to graduate school, but for your own good we've decided not to let you get a Ph.D. It's true, you might have been one of the fortunate ones to get a job, or you might have led a fulfilling life outside of academia, but in our judgment the odds are against you. Someday you'll thank us."

It's hard to get a job as a science professor, or just about any other kind of professor. And it's heartbreaking to go through years of effort and not achieve that goal. But not letting people try is not the answer. Nor is discouraging anyone who might want to pursue the dream of being a scientist. We should be relentlessly honest -- it's a hard road, and many will ultimately not succeed. But in my experience, this fact is pretty obvious, not at all hidden. And if someone understands this and wants to try anyway, they should be encouraged as much as possible. I have the best job in the world, and it wouldn't be right to tell someone else they shouldn't pursue the same path if that's where their passion leads them.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Okay, so you have some really important, super-secret data you want to store. This stuff is so good (maybe illegally good) that you worry about it being compromised by the snoopy government or voracious competitors. Where can you keep your data where it will be completely safe? I suggest the principality of Sealand. (Photo copyright Kim Gilmour.)

During WWII, Britain constructed "sea forts" as a way of protecting the coast line against German air attacks. After the war they were abandoned, and eventually torn down, except for one -- Fort Roughs Tower. It was (and is) basically a platform situated on two huge pillars, that sat there slowly rusting. At least, until 1967, when radio pirate Paddy Roy Bates and his friends occupied the structure as a base from which to broadcast to the UK. Never one to think small, Bates declared the fort an independent country, dubbed it Sealand, and named himself Prince. (See history at Wikipedia and an article at Wired.)

Sealand has had a colorful history, including an attempted coup and a small war. But the radio piracy business isn't what it used to be, and the primary venture on Sealand is now HavenCo, a manager of "secure servers." Basically, the Sealand government makes very few awkward demands on the HavenCo management, as they are essentially identical.

The entrepreneurs claim that they don't want to get involved with truly outlandish illegal activities, child pornography and the like. But if you'd like to manage a few anonymous transactions, HavenCo might be the way to go. I'll be sure to look into it once I get Preposterous Universe to turn a profit.

Monday, January 03, 2005

To answer a question I had some time back (although probably not just because of that), the text of David Politzer's Nobel Lecture is now up on his web page. The provocative title is "The Dilemma of Attribution," but the lecture itself isn't by any means outrageous. It's a look at the history of the ideas of QCD and asymptotic freedom from Politzer's personal perspective, with a strong emphasis on giving credit to absolutely everyone. It's an important task, as the actual history is inevitably messy, and there is an irresistible temptation to clean them up in the retelling.
As teachers of the next generation of scientists, we always seek to compress and simplify all the developments that have come before. We want to bring our students as quickly as possible to the frontier of current understanding. From this perspective, the actual history, which involves many variants and many missteps, is only a hindrance. And the neat, linear progress, as outlined by the sequence of gleaming gems recognized by Nobel prizes, is a useful fiction. But a fiction it is. The truth is often far more complicated. Of course, there are the oft-told priority disputes, bickering over who is responsible for some particular idea. But those questions are not only often unresolvable, they are often rather meaningless. Genuinely independent discovery is not only possible, it occurs all the time. Sometimes a yet harder problem in the prize selection process is to identify what is the essential or most important idea in some particular, broader context. So it's not just a question of who did it, i.e., who is responsible for the work, but what ``it" is. I.e., what is the significant ``it" that should stand as a symbol for a particularly important advance.
Politzer explains vividly the diverse contributions that went into the discovery of asymptotic freedom. But he also believes, I think correctly, that the final result from him and Gross and Wilczek really was the event that deserved the Prize, even if it was "just getting a minus sign right" (the strong force grows weaker at short distances rather than stronger), and indeed a sign that some other people already had calculated. Putting it into the right context, and appreciating its fundamental significance, created the moment in which people finally understood that QCD was the correct theory of the strong interactions.

Update: Another line worth quoting --
I must say that I do regard theoretical physics as a fundamentally parasitic profession, living off the labors of the real physicists.

Saturday, January 01, 2005
Don't mess with time

Happy New Year!

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

Preposterous Home
Atom Site Feed (xml)
RSS Feed
Technorati Profile
Bloglines Citations
Blogroll Me

About Last Night
Alas, a Blog
The American Sector
Asymmetrical Information
Big Brass Blog
Bitch, Ph.D.
Body and Soul
Brad DeLong
Chris C Mooney
Collision Detection
Creek Running North
Crescat Sententia
Crooked Timber
Daily Kos
Daniel Drezner
Deepen the Mystery
Dispatches from the Culture Wars
Dynamics of Cats
Electron Blue
Ezra Klein
The Fulcrum
Girls Are Pretty
Jacques Distler
James Wolcott
John and Belle
Julie Saltman
Lawyers, Guns and Money
Leiter Reports
The Loom
Matt McIrvin
Matthew Yglesias
Michael Bérubé
Michael Nielsen
Mixing Memory
Mr. Sun
Not Even Wrong
Obsidian Wings
Orange Quark
Paige's Page
Panda's Thumb
Playing School, Irreverently
Political Animal
The Poor Man
Quantum Diaries
Quark Soup
Real Climate
Roger Ailes
Rox Populi
Shakespeare's Sister
Simple Stories
Sisyphus Shrugged
Smijer & Buck
TPM Cafe
Uncertain Principles
Volokh Conspiracy

Powered by Blogger
Comments by Haloscan
RSS Feed by 2RSS.com

February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005