Women and Strange Powers in Wallachia

September 27, 2013

If you are a British or American astronomer, you have done this many times. You are at a meeting and wander over to a table full of Italians. Or Germans. Or Brazilians, or whatever. They are happily chatting away, but as you sit down they switch seamlessly into English. We Brits radiate a strange field that induces a language phase transition as we approach. Germans do not have this power. Sometimes I am tempted to lean in and out and cause an oscillation. Anyway, we are privileged and rather lucky.

I am currently lecturing at the Opticon Awareness Conference in Bucharest, a kind of Euro-astro-summer-school. This year it is  specifically for students from South-Eastern Europe – Romania, Albania, Greece, Serbia, etc. Very fascinating. Anyway I spent my lunch preventing some Bulgarians and Macedonians speaking their own undoubtedly fine languages. As I walked back I caught up with fellow lecturers Francois Hammer and Alain Le Cavelier, and stopped them speaking French.

Although I have mentioned three male lecturers so far, there is actually a fair sprinkling of female lecturers at this summer school. Maybe not enough, but some. This contrasts rather starkly with the recent STFC summer school, where 0/18 lecturers were female. Well, Peter C already blogged that one. Anyway. I suppose its Rumania One UK Nil.

The female:male ratio varies widely from country to country. UK is better than it was but not so good. Germany is poor. France and Italy have lots of women astronomers. Some of this seems to have been due to strong role models over my lifetime – Suzy Collin, Jacqueline Bergeron, Laura Maraschi, etc. China has lots of female astronomers; Japan extremely few. Is there a pattern here? Whats going on?

There is  also large variation across sub-disciplines in astronomy, which I see in personal experience. When I go to cosmology conferences, women are pretty thin on the ground. When I go to AGN conferences, it’s almost 50:50. Whats that all about? Is it a historical accident? Or something about the way those questions are researched? Herd fashion for aggressive males? Got to be a clue. Some women I know do have a foot in both those camps, so if they happen to be reading, do feel free to comment.


American Language Traps

March 9, 2009

Apparently I embarassed my host this week. Old chum Martin Elvis, a regular on this blog, introduced me at the start of my colloquium at CfA, bringing out all sorts of biographical snippets. I thanked him for his fulsome introduction and everybody laughed awkwardly. Later Martin explained that although in the UK “fulsome” means “abundant and generous”, in the US it means “absurdly overdone”. Ooops.

The first time I went to the USA, experienced hands warned me of the language traps. “You will be puzzled”, they told me, “by the fact that you can see their pants, and that they wear their vests on top of their shirts.” More importantly, they explained, if I made a graphical error and wished to erase something, I must be most careful not to ask the secretary for a rubber. My intentions would be misunderstood.

This time around, my son got into trouble because he threw his textbook into the trash. Well the teacher said to put it in the bin, what was he supposed to do ?

Well.. I am sure there about eight thousand web page / blog entries discussing this kind of stuff, and I can’t even be bothered to look ’em up. But do feel free to chip in, and at least it does give me a chance to apologise to Martin.