Pre-holiday miscellany

In a few hours I will be in an internetless Cornish cottage. Assorted thoughts are buzzing about the front of my head that might otherwise have turned into blog posts.

Astro2010: the Hour Approacheth. The US Decadal Survey of Astrophysics has had its final committee meeting (see picture ) and they are beavering away writing the report. I hear the report will emerge during early to mid August. I think somebody even told me the date, but I’ve forgotten. Who wins, LSST or GSMT ? Which version of GSMT gets favoured ? The one ELT can interbreed with or the other one ?

CSR : are we dead or what ? The results of the Comprehensive Spending Review won’t be know for some time, but STFC are gearing up for the bad news, and asking for input to spending review plans. Possibly this news item isn’t blunt enough. So much of STFC’s money is tied up in subscriptions, operating major facilities like Diamond, and committed big projects, that a fairly spread 25% cut is basically impossible. Please choose between astronomy and particle physics.

Women in Science. There ain’t enough women in science, especially in the upper reaches. Its been puzzling many of us for years.This article in the Huffington Post describes some interesting new ideas that smell right. Its not that they ain’t smart enough. Its not that they get squeezed out by sexism. Its that they get put off by science being too ego driven and aggressive. Smells right to me. If we can fix that, the science workplace will be better for all of us.

Buttons. Buttons puzzle me. Not the sort that do coats up. The sort you press to take action. They seem so natural, but there ain’t none in nature. How can we have evolved to instinctively know to press buttons ? We love buttons. Desmond pushes the button every two hours to save the earth . We can’t resist pushing buttons even if we are told not to. People push placebo buttons. I found an interesting discussion at an anarchist philosophy forum which I shall quote from :

If you put a bird in a cage with a button that he has to peck in order to be fed, he’s gonna try pecking it and he’s gonna be fed. Birds don’t stumble on such buttons in nature: this is not hard-coded. But make the correlation more vague and the bird will develop superstitions, just like human beings do. They were not taught to be superstitious. There is no bird parent out there going “well, sometimes when I swirl around to the left five times, food magically appears.

There’s another PhD thesis for somebody. Well anyhoo. Time to do nothing for a week or so.

10 Responses to Pre-holiday miscellany

  1. “Women in Science”. This topic shows up on most blogs at some time or another. While one can’t criticise people for talking about (just) what they know, I think a science-specific explanation is rather unlikely, considering all the other fields with comparable differences. (Maybe there is a separate explanation for each, but I think Mr Occam can shave more closely than that.) Just off the top of my head: chess grand masters, chess players of any level, high-class chefs, criminals, mentally retarded, rock musicians, garbage collectors, lorry drivers. There are many fields dominated by men.

    On the one hand, rock music might be quite ego-driven, as exemplified by, say, David Lee Roth or Elton John. On the other hand, there are many low-profile rock musicians, and this is the area where women are most lacking. Can you think of a rock musician who is neither a singer nor related to nor romantically involved with any “boy in the band” nor part of a girl group? I can think of only one (at least among reasonably well known rock groups) and even this one example (let’s see how quickly someone else comes up with it before I reveal it) is borderline.

  2. mark says:

    ” are we dead or what ? The results of the Comprehensive Spending Review won’t be know for some time, but STFC are gearing up for the bad news, and asking for input to spending review plans. Possibly this news item isn’t blunt enough. So much of STFC’s money is tied up in subscriptions, operating major facilities like Diamond, and committed big projects, that a fairly spread 25% cut is basically impossible. Please choose between astronomy and particle physics.”

    Why is it a foregone conclusion grants take the hit? I think e.g Diamond should take its fair share of cuts too.

  3. Perry Petia says:

    Re buttons: I have an embarrassing story about this. My girlfriend (and future wife) took me to her parents’ house in London while they were away. She was showing me round and I saw a red light switch. I asked what is was as I went to push it. She yelled NO!

    Too late. It set off the alarm. It automatically called the police. We didn’t have the code to turn it off. It needed a call-out from the alarm company to turn it off. She had to phone her dad to sort this out while the alarm is going CLANG-CLANG-CLANG three feet away.

    So the first time I met my future father-in-law, I had to hand over a cheque for £50 for the call-out fee for the alarm company.

    The police never turned up, incidentally.

  4. Sarah says:

    Philip – rock musicians, interesting analogy. Why would a female rock musician’s being involved with or related to a “boy in the band” or part of a “girl group”, or singing, say anything about her value as a musician? I don’t understand the argument you’re making?

    • It doesn’t say anything about the quality. My point is that I can think of only one female rock musician who is not a singer, not in a girl group and not related to or romantically involved with a boy in the band. Turning to men, most are not singers, most are not related to or romantically involved with someone else in the band and most groups are not boy groups (i.e., in analogy to a girl group like the Bangles or the Gogos who don’t just happen to be all women but include this as part of their marketing). In other words, the average male rock musician fits the bill, and this is by far the majority, but “regular” female rock musicians are almost non-existent (at least among reasonably well known groups).

      Can you think of one?

      I mention this because, despite Brian May, the rock world is rather different from academic astronomy, yet here the field is even more male-dominated.

      • Sarah says:

        Umm I guess not but then I’m not thinking that hard… My point was that given the differences I don’t see how this relates to women in science. But it doesn’t really matter.

        The HuffPo article is interesting but adds nothing new as far as I can see. The institutional hurdles are not so high to women progressing in science careers, and real sexism is not at all common – so yeah, obviously, women are deselecting themselves.

      • Does it relate to women in science? My counterexamples were a reaction to the general sentiment “if there are fewer women than men in science then there must be something in the way science is organised which is the cause”. Possible, of course, and also possible for the many otherwise unrelated fields I mentioned, but it might be a more economical hypothesis that there is a common cause.

  5. Rob Ivison says:

    i don’t understand the argument either, nor would i find it difficult to name dozens of female artists with plenty of ego and talent… bizarre argument. and what on earth moved you to choose Elton John as one of your two archetypal ego-driven rock stars, Philip? that had me in stitches.

    • See my reply to Sarah.

      Yes, there are lots of female artists with ego and talent, but are there any which specify the criteria I mentioned? Using the same criteria, most male rock musicians meet my criteria. On the other hand, despite the fact that they are in the minority, I can think of several “regular” female astronomers.

      What about chess? I don’t think it’s prejudice, or difficulty of combining a career with a family, or whatever.

      I wouldn’t say that the former Reginald Kenneth Dwight is the archetypal ego-driven rock star, but I do think he has an enormous ego. (This is just an observation, not a judgment). While one can perhaps forgive him legally changing his name to Elton John, note that the full name is Elton Hercules John. 🙂

      • Sarah says:

        Maybe that’s because we’re astronomers… so we don’t know the rock stars that aren’t, you know, “stars”? Elton John may have heard of Carl Sagan, he almost certainly doesn’t know Sarah Kendrew. (but that would be *awesome*)

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