Author Archives: Helen Czerski

Progress

March 24th is Ada Lovelace day.   For more information, see http://www.pledgebank.com/AdaLovelaceDay

Here is my Ada Lovelace post:
I really struggled to come up with a woman in technology to write about here.   I was never supervised by or with another female for the whole of my four-year physics degree from 1997-2001, although there were a few female lecturers.   To be fair to my college in Cambridge, my year was an exception and they were quite shocked (as I was) when I pointed it out just before I graduated.   I thought about it then because of the conversation I was having with one of my tutors, but it hadn’t occurred to me at any point along the way.   And it didn’t bother me.   I just studied, like everyone else.   And I did well.   It never crossed my mind, or the minds of any of us, that I should be treated differently.   And I think that this is very common among women of my age (I’m 30).   We have never experienced any direct sexism at all.   Maybe we’re approaching the more difficult stage now, after we have dealt a first firm blow to the gender stereotypes.   Soon we might be the ones needing flexible jobs so that we can take maternity leave and collect poorly kids from school to nurse them at home.   But hopefully, our partners will be sharing equally in things like that and so we won’t be seen as a drag on an organisation solely because of our gender.    But it is still true that we don’t have many females ahead of us in the system to look up to.

I don’t think about role models very much to start with, but when I tried to identify a female role model in the area of science and technology I drew almost a complete blank.   I know a few more senior female researchers, but they weren’t highlighted in my mind specifically as female role-models.     After thinking about it for a bit longer, I started to wonder what had happened to the other females who are my age that I’d worked with or known well along the way.   So I googled the ones I could think of, and they all seem to be doing fantastically well.   They’re still in science, and they are working in some great institutions and that’s inspiring to me.   All of us struggle at times, and mostly it’s not anything to do with gender – it’s things like job stress, dealing with uncertainty and the insecurities of being a postdoc, and men are struggling with the same things.   But still, you don’t want to be the only female scientist that you know.   And I really like the feeling of there being a group of us female scientists, all going forward together.  If something does come up that is more likely to bother a woman than a man, we have each other to talk to.    We are all scientists by nature, and the most important thing is that circumstances in life (be they social or cultural or practical) don’t stop us being who we are and doing our bit for society in the way we know best – as scientists and university teachers and technologists.

So the females in technology that I want to highlight are those who are in my own age group, the ones who are blazing their own path in academia even though no-one has given them a role-model to follow.   My friend Paula is now a senior research associate in Cambridge, doing amazing research into computational linguistics.   The first time I met Paula we were both 18 and it was our first day at university.   She told me that she wanted to be an astronaut and then was so grateful that I didn’t laugh at her (something that others had apparently done).    She changed her mind about what she wanted to be, but she found the path she wanted to take and is very enthusiastic about it.    Aldona and Debra were starting out as PhD students in the group I joined for six months at the University of Toronto.    They are both now postdoctoral researchers in atmospheric science, having won fellowships to fund themselves.    They were very aware of the issues surrounding being a woman in science, because we were all working for a female PI.   Out of a group of 11 people, 10 were female.   There was definitely a different group dynamic, but it worked.    And Laura, who I worked with at Los Alamos.   She had a young child running around, but it didn’t seem to hold her back.   And she was all about the science.

I can’t finish without a mention of a  technology role model that I didn’t have.   My mum is a role model for me in many ways, but science and technology was one of the areas that she never really got a chance at.  She’s good at maths, and she went to university in the late 60s to study physics.   But she was the only woman in the whole of the physics department, and the male environment got to her so much that she left.   She then worked as a computer programmer, but she was still very aware of the all-male environment  around her.    I remember her ranting when I was a kid about the pictures of naked women that were all over the office she worked in.   When she pointed out that she found them offensive, she was ignored.    I have a suspicion that she might have put some of those pictures in the shredder at some point.    Good for her.   After being a stay-at-home mum for me and my sister, she took up a career as a horticulturalist.   Eventually she worked out that in spite of all the qualifications she had in that field, she’d make more money temping.   And now she works in database management and general computer administration.    I think she still struggles a bit because no-one really thinks that a woman of her age (and she’s not old!) might be capable of running computer systems and programming competently.    So even though we are both in the workforce at the same time, she probably experiences more gender discrimination than me, even now.   But she sticks with it.    She knows what she’s good at.    Maybe that’s the sort of role model we all really need from time to time – someone to remind us that even though we can still complain about the way things are, in general the treatment of women in science is really improving very quickly.   And we all have to stick with it and do our best, and one day all this discrimination rubbish will just be a footnote in the history books.

Physics and the Earth

As I delve deeper into the context of the physics I’m doing at the moment, all I seem to find is more and more information about the really serious state that the oceans are in.   I’m not sure whether this is just because I automatically hear much more about it now that I work in this field, or because it’s finally getting the much-needed press and so this stuff is being found out in the public sphere more and more.

In one way, I’m lucky because at least the physics I do is contributing to knowledge of the way the earth’s systems work, and in that sense I feel that I’m at least doing something positive about this issue on a daily basis.   Bubbles are at a crucial place on the boundary of the ocean and atmosphere and better knowledge of how many there are and where they are can only improve our understanding of the exchanges between these two great reservoirs of air and water.    On the other hand, all this will have a benefit a long way in the future (it’ll probably be ten years before models that incorporate this sort of data are really being used regularly), it seems that there is less I can do on a daily basis.   I choose stuff in the shops that has travelled as short a distance as possible to get there, I limit travel by car as much as possible, I don’t buy stuff I don’t need (like silly plastic toys that are only going to get thrown away), and I try to be aware of the consequences of my choices in life as much as possible.   I truely believe that all of those are important things to do.   And many people could do more of them and I could do better – it’s all dependent on the availability of information and the availability of real options.

However, I also feel that as a scientist, there should be more I can do.   After all, I understand the issues better than most people, because it’s part of my job to do so.   I understand how science works and how the evidence leads to these conclusions.   I have spent time in the oceans, and I’ve seen some of the effects of environmental changes (and I can imagine more).   Maybe I need to have more patience, and I’ll see places to do something extra soon.   But I feel that one of the biggest motivations for really changing your life to at least stop the problems getting worse, if not to start to reverse the recent trends, is knowledge and understanding of what is happening.   Really understanding it, not just looking at a picture of an ice floe and thinking “well, that won’t be there in the Arctic in the summer in ten years time”.    People really need to understand what it is that has been done, and then very quickly get over most of the anger and sadness that this knowledge causes and move on to actual changes that can be made.   Many of them are personal and they start with better informed consumers and voters.

Some days, when physics is a hard thing to do, when there are tough deadlines and a lot of responsibility for creating my own projects and direction, and when I’m floundering in new understanding of something, I wonder why I do what I do.     And then I realise that I’m one of the few people that really has a unique role here, to communicate what is happening from direct scientific knowledge and to convince people that these changes to their outlook and lifestyles really are important, and that they do make a difference.   There needs to be a connection between the scientific facts and the individuals whose actions have caused those facts.   And that divide should be bridged by a scientist.  Maybe people don’t really think about physicists as being those who are working in this area, but there is as much physics in all this as biology and ecology and chemistry.   I think that all scientists should do what they can here.   Just understanding how science works is something that you can try to share with other people, which may help them digest the information about the environment in the news.

If you’re interested, a great place to start informing yourself about ocean-related issues is the Shifting Baselines project and also the blog below:

http://www.shiftingbaselines.org/index.php

http://scienceblogs.com/shiftingbaselines/

And number one thing (in my opinion) on the list of “things that you could change but you probably don’t really know about” is to think very hard about any fish you may eat.   Overfishing is causing tremendous damage to the ocean, not just because of the removal of fish but because of the massive habitat destruction that dredging causes.   There are some fish that are still sustainably harvested, and try to find that out.   In the UK, I’m not sure about the best sources, but the Monterrey Bay Aquarium has  a great website with recommended alternatives to some of the fish that are found in the US:

http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_sushi.aspx

I think that physicists really have a role to play here…   I took a course called “Systems” in the third year of my undergraduate degree, and the much of same thinking really applies to environmental phenomena.     We may feel that because our academic work doesn’t relate directly to environmental stuff, we are not in a position to talk about it.   But sharing our understanding of science itself is really invaluable.

A wave is more than its equation

When I first started at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography a year ago, I was a complete novice when it came to ocean-related activities.   California thrives on these things and I stuck out as a rather puzzled (and pale) foreigner from an industrial town in the north of England.   “We don’t ‘av sea up thur, lad.   In’t that where them fish down at chip shop come from?”     So I thought I’d at least better learn to surf, so as not to look quite so out of place.

I went to some classes organised by the university.   I did all right, considering that I had never actually seen anyone surfing in real life and so I genuinely had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.   It’s amazing how hard it is for a proper Californian to understand that concept.  ” No, I really don’t know… where does catching a wave actually happen and how do I make it happen?”    I did enjoy it as well, except for the class with really high surf when I swallowed more ocean than anyone could possibly have intended and consequently felt like vomiting for most of the last 20 minutes.     I didn’t give up though and I did learn to surf.

Mostly, I learned that surfing is an amazing example of physics in action.   You have all these wavepackets coming along, steepening as it gets shallower and all travelling at a speed which depends on their wavelength.   You see waves interfering and you see when the waves start to become non-linear as the assumptions of the simple wave equation break down.   And you are in the middle of this, frequently (at least in my case) upside-down a metre or so beneath the breaking wave crest, experiencing turbulence in a very personal way.   I thought back then of writing a piece for a physics magazine at home about how all 1st year undergraduate students should be taken off to a beach and taught to surf, so that they could experience wave physics first-hand, and appreciate what all the equations really mean in practice.

And now I discover from the video below, that someone actually teaches this class at Scripps and I never knew.   Good for them, but boo hiss that I didn’t find out until now.    I really think that this sort of class should be offered to all physics undergrads, so that they don’t forget that it all connects to the real world.    I wish that I’d known – I’d have asked for a copy of the course material so that I could see how it was presented.   I’m going to push for things like this to be more common when I get back to the UK.   I admit that surfing in the UK might not seem as attractive, and indeed might put off those fainter of heart, but so what?

Go forth, physicists of the world, and surf…

it seems that embedded video won’t work on this site so here’s the link:

http://www.scivee.tv/node/6057

Physics education from unexpected sources

I’m currently spending my time earning a “Scientific Scuba Diver” certification.   For those not in the know, this is a professional qualification, proving that you can collect data and rescue scientists and cope with setting up equipment in cloudy water and navigate and so on.   It’s a 100 hour course and I’m doing it over two weeks, here in San Diego.   It’s fun – both classroom stuff and lots of tasks to complete on various dives.   It is possibly the last place that I expected to learn anything about physics.

Even recreational dive courses contain sections on the physics of diving.   It’s fairly important to understand at least the gas laws and the effect of pressure on solubility, since you breathe air at the pressure of the water around you, thereby ensuring that your lungs don’t collapse when you’re at depth.    I didn’t know that before I started to dive and it’s really pretty cool.    It causes all sorts of problems if you go down deep for long periods of time… but I digress.    The first scuba manuals were written in the fifties and sixties, back when imperial units were especially popular.   And so the dive manual states “There are four temperature scales:  Farenheit, Celsius, Kelvin and Rankine”.   Rankine?   As I rather arrogantly pointed out at some point (although I really didn’t intend it that way), I have 3 degrees in physics and I have never heard of the Rankine scale of temperature.      It turns out that it’s the absolute temperature scale for farenheit.   -459.67 degrees F is 0 R.   I suppose it’s a perfectly obvious analogy, but it had genuinely never occurred to me that it might exist.   Has anyone out there heard of it?

I think that the long-term aim should definitely to be to convert all the dive manuals (and diver thinking) to Centigrade, but I accept that this takes time and that an extra conversion stage when teaching ideal gas laws might confuse some people.   Most people in the US think in farenheit when it comes to practical experience and diving in 50 degrees F water is definitely an experience.  However, I have to give the course credit for having taught me something that I did not know from the history of my subject.

Transforming Hilbert into an ocean wave

I have a new job.  I have advanced from the trivial consideration of a single bubble or even two bubbles at once (although that was only every other Thursday, when I’d been good) to a better place.   At my new level, which is physically in Rhode Island although mentally stranded out in an Atlantic storm,  cogitation and comprehension of millions of bubbles at once are required.     Cogitation is rather my thing, and I have been happily absorbing information on storms and bubbles and particulates and a mysterious thing called Langmuir circulation.   It’s amazing how quantitative you can make all this stuff, but it’s really only background for the main project, which is counting and sizing millions of bubbles at once by looking at their effect on the acoustic resonances between two circular plates.     You put radio hiss (a.k.a. white noise) into one plate, let it pass through the bubbles caused by the storm overhead and then watch with interest and popcorn while the other plate responds to all this fuss.  And then science is supposed to occur.

In learning the background for all of this, I have read a lot about turbulence.   The best thing to do with turbulence, according to the clever people who make a living out of this, is to measure eddies and make a Hilbert transform.    But what does Hilbert transform into?   And what is it of Eddy’s that is being measured anyway and does he know about it?   These are important questions for the tired mind.   Perhaps Hilbert is a small blue confused-looking animal with a skill for hiding in car glove compartments.   The day he transforms into something with sharp teeth and a taste for fingernails, you’d better watch out.    I don’t even want to think about Eddy and his potential measurements.

It is possible that although I’ve only been in Rhode Island for a week, I’ve already got cabin fever.  After a whole year I’ll probably be stalked by a small pack consisting of a Fourier (like a terrier but with more fur), two Laplaces (these are definitely blue, but only half of them exists) a few Hartleys (more sharp teeth, I’m afraid) and a small Identity (who has a monobrow and a permanently puzzled expression).    This sounds terrifying (or should that be Fourifying?).

If you happen to see my mind lurking about under the sofa, please post it back to me…

Get over it, America. Teabreaks do not inhibit science.

A few weeks ago, while I was in a discussion about young academics and why they choose to stay in science or not, I made a point which I think is perfectly obvious, but which was snorted at by the older academics present.   I said that when a postdoc looks at the people ahead of them in the system, they see stressed tired people who regularly work evenings and weekends, who have to fight continually for their funding (i.e. their job security), and who not make a lot of money for their effort.   This is not something that most people want to look forward to.    The people my age in the group remained quiet and listened to the older ones there pooh-pooh the idea.   The more senior academics asked me, “do you personally see that problem ahead of you?”.  And I said “yes”, and described the unhealthy work ethic that I sometimes see around me.   And the discussion stopped there.   Because the loudest snorter of them all actually said “well, you’re from Britain – you’re not used to working as hard as we do here.    You don’t have money for the really big projects.   And you stop for tea three times a day!”.   I pointed out that it’s only twice a day, but my serious point about the work was no longer taken seriously.

This annoyed me.   So when I went back to my office, I looked a few things up.   Thomson (the academic publishers) publish tables every year of the total number of scientific papers published by each country and also the “Total papers among the one per cent most cited in all fields”.   I then looked up the current populations of each country and so got to the numbers of papers per capita.   Here are the results:

Total papers per capita:    USA:  9.6 per thousand people per year     UK:   10.9 per thousand people per year.

Papers in the top 1%:  USA:   0.18 per thousand people per year.   UK:   0.17 per thousand people per year.

Now, I’m happy to admit that simple statistics may not tell the whole story.   But I’m also pretty confident that this is a strong indication that taking two 15 minutes breaks a day to consume cups of tea and eat biscuits is not doing us any harm at all, thank you very much.   And next time anyone tries to snort at my view of working hours on that basis, I will politely share these data with them and offer to induct them into the world of the tea break.   If they’re nice, I might even give them a biscuit.

Bubble Bath

I had a Eureka moment this week. Fortunately I was not sitting in a bath at the time and so I did not have to decide whether to suppress the urge (apparently written into the laws of physics for moments like this) to run around the streets naked, shouting happily about my discovery. Thinking about it though, if I’m ever going to try that, it should be while I live in southern California near the beach. In my neighbourhood, such behaviour would probably just count as part of the social background noise rather than anything significant.

The Eureka itself was to do with how bubbles behave acoustically when fragmenting in turbulence (for example underneath a breaking wave). It turns out that some bubbles are disguising themselves acoustically as other bubbles (because the dominant resonance is not at their natural frequency). This explains a gap in the data which was previously unexplained, and I am very happy because my model matches the data pretty well. Or, it matches it pretty well up to now. There are still lots of things to be tested, but the fact that it explains this major feature is very encouraging. So I worked all this out, plotted most of the relevant stuff and hopefully this is sufficient for the time being to exorcise the bubbles-on-the-brain demons. Just before I worked out what was going on, piles of ideas were sitting untidily round in my head, overflowing into corners that they really didn’t belong in (for example, the ones associated with eating yogurt and inventing cocktails). They jostled each other and squeaked and squawked and squeezed and generally wouldn’t leave me alone. So now they’ve been put in order and I can get on with some other things. Good ideas. Sit. Stay…

Making the tea

I went to a discussion about women in science last week. I don’t normally do things like that, since such events have been known to bring on side effects such as the Horrified Hiccups and mysterious aches in the Being Patronised (or should it be Matronised) Brain Cell. When compared to women throughout the ages, I am very privileged in the attitude that my co-workers have to my gender, i.e. that it is a non-issue. I recognise that there are not as many women doing science as men (for reasons which are many and complicated), but I really don’t think that it’s due to prejudice any longer. There may well be isolated cases when this is true, but I can’t quite believe that they are at all representative. However, this change in attitudes is still newly hatched, and this is my only explanation for the persistance of “Women In Science” workshops when I was a teenager. I felt patronised at all of them. And I felt that women were almost being told to have problems, when really the issues being discussed could apply just to much to men as women. Not all men are assertive and confident and they will have problems when dealing with over-assertive and excessively confident co-workers, just as shyer females might. The problem is with the way people are, not their gender.

So. I have not been to any of these events since, and I thought it was about time to see how things have changed. And it was very interesting. The women there found it extremely difficult to come up with instances where they had been discriminated against, even though they were being actively encouraged to talk about them. Now, there is obviously one very important difference between men and women. Women can bear children and men, however much they want to help, do not have to go through the physical process associated with this. The point where the number of women in science really drops off is at the point where they have a family and have tended not to come back to science aftewards. I believe that this is the only time period that really matters in the gender debate. I also have a theory on this, based on talking to other female scientists. Institutions no longer stand in the way of new mothers coming back to work as they once did. But science itself has problems for researchers at that stage that apply both to men and women. Ask any postdoc. We look at the PIs in our departments and we see very stressed people, who work far too many hours on weekdays and on weekends, who have to struggle for funding, fight for lab space and also deal with teaching responsibilities and committees and so on. It’s not just women who look at this mess and question whether their love of science is enough for them to carry on. Men do too. No-one wants a permanently stressed lifestyle and a guaranteed heart attack at 55. But I think that partly because of having some time off to have children and getting some perspective on it all, and partly because they are used to talking about problems more than men, women look at it and decide to do something else. Men still have a bit of a macho attitude to problems and tend to deny them and just keep struggling along, feeling as though it would be failing to admit to the struggle. Women tend to be a bit better about admitting problems. And science shouldn’t be like this. The system should not punish enthusiastic and intelligent people for being enthusiastic and intelligent. So I think that the gender split during the postdoc years has more to do with
the big problems in how science works and the unfair pressure that researchers are often under, at least until they get tenure. This is not to do with prejudice against women in science. This has to do with women identifying the problems in science and refusing to play by those rules. You only have one life. Why should you be miserable in it, just because someone else defines that misery as success?

So I think that women here are in a position to help both themselves and the men in science. Let’s face up to it and sort it out. Let’s change this system where the only security comes with tenure, when the best years of your life are behind you. It’s not a “gender” issue. It’s right at the core of how science is organised. We should find ways to fix it. Systems are huge, but their rules are not written in stone. There is hope.

Right, I’ve made my political point. Back to the cheerful flippancy next time….

Unclear physics

I was reading a book called “The Revenge of Anguished English”, and although the content doesn’t live up to the promise suggested by the title, there was a nice physics typo mentioned near the end: “He got his degree in unclear physics”. The question is whether that tiny letter substitution makes that much difference to most people who might be reading a newspaper biography of someone. Are nuclear and unclear synonyms to everyone who doesn’t have a physics degree? I would guess that for all practical purposes they could often be interchanged. I don’t want to be snobbish about it – I’m sure that I wouldn’t blink at an article about”More sculpture” when it was meant to be about “Moore sculpture”. Perhaps nuclear physicists should be upfront about it and just go with it. An “unclear power station” sounds quite aesthetically pleasing, as if it faded into the background on sunny days. And at least G.W. Bush could talk about such an entity without inducing a snigger from every science graduate (and indeed every literate person) in the English-speaking world.

The immodesty of physics

Well, I suppose that I should take Dave up on his invitation to reveal all about “the saddest missed opportunity in science popularization, ever. “ .   And he was indeed very sad at the time.    Almost in tears, in fact.

Our story begins almost three years ago in 2005, labelled the “International Year of Physics”.   I was involved in a bmx stunt to launch this year  (the Einstein Flip) and so for a while my name was in the media a lot, and if you’d been looking for a random physicist you’d have found me.     A month afterwards, my office mate took a phone message for me from “the PR company for Cirque du Soleil”, which was a respectable start.   I phoned them back, and spoke to someone who wanted a physicist to get involved in publicising a performance.   They were a bit cagey about exactly what sort of performance it was, so I told them that I’d need to know more about what it was before I committed to getting involved.     They said that they’d send me an e-mail, rather reluctantly.   The e-mail finally arrived.   They wanted to publicise Immodesty Blaize, a burlesque dancer.    You can look her up – I’ve since heard her on the radio, talking about the serious side of her act (to do with how women are perceived in society).    I think that the act itself might have involved a reverse strip-tease (putting clothes on in a sensual way, rather than taking them off).  Anyway.   The e-mail said that one of the major features of her act was that she could make her nipple tassles rotate in opposite directions at the same time.   In order to promote her act in the newspapers, they wanted a physicist to “do some experiments” associated with the physics of this process, and then splash this story across all the papers in the UK.   The papers that they mentioned were the sort of newspapers that go in for sensation and headlines that take up half the page.   The e-mail finished with an offer of ten free tickets to one of her shows and an invitation to come and meet her and “get a feel for what’s going on”.   I kid you not.  Those were the words used.     The e-mail also included a picture of Immodesty and her sidekick Walter (who was wearing a very fetching bowler hat).

So.   I have talked about a lot of physics to a lot of people.   I believe that you can’t dictate to people what they should and shouldn’t want to pay attention to – you have to engage them with something that genuinely interests them.   Physics is never mentioned in this sort of newspaper.     On one hand, it would be a great opportunity to show readers of such papers that there are female physicists out there and to demonstrate how relevant physics is to everyday life (not that I counter-rotate my nipple tassles every day, cough)  On the other hand, it’s very much just cheap publicity without any real substance, very frivolous.    It’s not that physics can’t be fun, but you don’t want to cheapen it.

The way the e-mail was written was a little bit odd.   I still wonder whether it was a practical joke – if so, it was an exceptionally good one.  On balance, I think not – I think it’s just that the person who wrote it only scraped a pass in their English exams.   Immodesty’s website did have a cartoon of her with nipple tassles, and when you moved the computer mouse over them, they rotated faster and faster (and in opposite directions, of course).    Male friends of mine were amazingly fascinated by this – it’s in the top ten best ways I have ever seen of keeping a bloke quiet.   I spoke to the PR people on the phone again.   In the end, I told them that if they wanted to do spoof physics, they should get a spoof scientist.    Dave cried because he was not going to get one of the free ten tickets to her show (and I had a lot of male friends who altruistically volunteered to help me make use of those tickets).

But the whole story raises some interesting questions.   Was I too shy or too stuffy?   Should I have seized this opportunity to get physics and physicists some free publicity and to show that we’re not all non-human nerds in white coats?   It wouldn’t really have done me any harm, although I suppose it would have been a joke among all my friends for a very long time to come.   Physicists have to be approachable.   Nipples are apparently very approachable.    What do you think I should have done?

p.s.   Something interesting that came out of this is that when you tell this story to females and you look very carefully, you can quite often see them moving their shoulders a bit, as they’re subconsciously wondering how the counter-rotating nipple feat is achieved.