Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On Planck’s Law, Blackbodies and the Physics of Diversity

Dr. Jedidah Isler
Reproduced from the June 2014 Issue of STATUS: A Report on Women in Astronomy.  The article below is written by Dr. Jedidah Isler, Syracuse University, Department of Physics.

Diversity and inclusion are important, yet vexing, issues that we struggle with in every arena. Academia and, more specifically, astronomy are not exempt. Many interpretations of the experiences of diverse people have been offered, but unfortunately, many have fallen short in pivotal ways.

As an astrophysicist, I see the beauty and logic that physics allows us to impose on the cosmos, but also on a broader array of issues. Sociophysics, for example, “uses concepts from the physics of disordered matter to describe some aspects of social and political behavior.” [1] I would like, then, to describe a few diversity issues in terms of a physical concept that astronomers are familiar with, namely Planck’s Law. This analogy is not perfect, but it affords us a mechanism to address some of the complexity of diversity conversations and direct us towards more globally beneficial diversity practices.

Even before I begin, I acknowledge that I cannot address all aspects of diversity, which includes the full spectrum of ethnicity, class and sexual expression. I focus on the diverse experiences of women (broadly defined), but these principles can generally be extended to other dimensions of diversity. Still, I encourage expansion of our colloquial definitions of diversity, even as social psychologists grapple with characterizing our behavior surrounding it. My goal is not to establish who suffers most, but to suggest that different groups suffer differently and in profoundly complicated ways. Thus, this article is for all of us. It is an attempt to provide a familiar framework for this complex issue.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Spatial Skills, STEM, and the Gender Gap*

Most engineering faculty have highly developed 3-D spatial skills and may not understand that others can struggle with a topic they find so easy. Furthermore, they may not believe that spatial skills can be improved through practice, falsely believing that this particular skill is one that a person is either “born with” or not. They don’t understand that they probably developed these skills over many years.                             
 —Sheryl Sorby
One of the most persistent gender gaps in cognitive skills is found in the area of spatial skills, specifically on measures of mental rotation, where researchers consistently find that men outscore women by a medium to large margin (Linn & Petersen, 1985; Voyer et al., 1995). While no definitive evidence proves that strong spatial abilities are required for achievement in STEM careers (Ceci et al., 2009), many people, including science and engineering professors, view them as important for success in fields like engineering and classes like organic chemistry. The National Academy of Sciences states that “spatial thinking is at the heart of many great discoveries in science, that it underpins many of the activities of the modern workforce, and that it pervades the everyday activities of modern life” (National Research Council, Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially, 2006, p.1).
Sheryl Sorby, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering mechanics at Michigan Technological University, has studied the role of spatial-skills training in the retention of female students in engineering since the early 1990s. She finds that individuals can dramatically improve their 3-D spatial-visualization skills within a short time with training, and female engineering students with poorly developed spatial skills who receive spatial visualization training are more likely to stay in engineering than are their peers who do not receive training.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

It's Not About That Damn Shirt

The following was submitted to the Women in Astronomy Blog by a female astronomer who wishes to use the pseudonym Kerri Benjamin.

The next sentence is the most important thing in this whole post:  

I am posting this under a pseudonym because I am afraid to post it on my own blog or Twitter.

I am afraid. 

The snafu known as ShirtGate or ShirtStorm is complicated, nuanced, and exhausting. 

The below is not comprehensive. I'm going to talk about the things I consider to be the most important or most misunderstood. I'm doing bullet points because I am too damn tired to make this narratively pretty. And I don't mean physically exhausted. I am tired of THIS. THIS is sexism, in the world, in science, and on the Internet. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why I think diversity is good, but the wrong target

There have been many posts on this blog and elsewhere calling for increased diversity in astronomy. I've written about it. My student has written about it. Diversity has many benefits, and we're missing out on those benefits by not having a more diverse field of science. However, I'm becoming less and less enamored with diversity as a target or goal in and of itself.
This stock photo shows more diversity than exists in astronomy today, but illustrates
what counts as diversity in most campus discussions. The out-of-focus Black person
is particularly apropos to this discussion.
Short Version

If we only focus on diversity, we'll be like a CEO saying that her goal is to "make money." Ohhh-kay. But how, specifically? By what strategy and mechanisms will the CEO make money? 

It'd be like a coach of a sports team saying, "Our goal is to score more points than our opponents!" By what strategy? What offensive and defensive approach will you use? "Nope, we're just focused on scoring points!"

Diversity is something we should strive for. But how will we get there? I contend that we'll only get to diversity by attacking the power structures that hold us back and stand in the way of diversity. For gender diversity, the roadblock is sexism. For racial diversity, the roadblock is racism

So rather than focusing on diversity as a target, we should instead aim at equal opportunity. Sexism and racism aim to deny equal opportunities to those outside of the white-male power structure. White women have made gains by directly attacking sexist power structures. But this process has left women of color behind. Gains for women (and men) of color will only be made once organizations such as the CSWA start taking an intersectional approach that recognizes that women of color face not only sexism, but racism as well in their daily lives (note how this direct attack on power structures contrasts with "multiculturalism"). 

Long Version

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How to Apologize

The astronomy community has been reeling this past week from the aftermath of the Rosetta #ShirtStorm incident. The scientist who made this mistake has apologized -- which is very difficult to do -- and I applaud him for doing that.  Even people with the best intentions mess up and make mistakes; it is a great opportunity to reflect and learn. Here is a video by Franchesca Ramsey on how to apologize when you've been called out.  She uses an example from her own life where she was transphobic, got called out, and how she responded.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Full STEAM Ahead! The Adler Planetarium’s 2nd Annual Girls do Hack Day

Choo choo! I am full STEAM ahead on the STEM + art/design train. This past Saturday, at our 2nd annual Girls do Hack Day at the Adler Planetarium, I saw first-hand how well it works to use the creativity and fun of art/design to hook girls into STEM. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

AASWOMEN Newsletter for November 14, 2014

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of November 14, 2014
eds: Daryl Haggard, Nicolle Zellner, Meredith Hughes, & Elysse Voyer

This week's issues:

Astronomical Sexism: Rosetta #ShirtStorm and Everyday Sexism in STEM

This post was originally published by STEM Women.

The world has been abuzz with news that the Rosetta spacecraft landed on a comet 500 million kilometres from Earth, in an attempt to collect vital data about the origins of our solar system. The aim is to benefit humanity. Unfortunately, this event is also marred for women in STEM and our allies due to the pervasive power of sexism. Rosetta Project scientist Matt Taylor chose to wear a shirt with semi-nude women, effectively telling the world and our next generation of STEM workers that sexism is still very much part of our professional culture.

By the way, this is not the first time he’s publicly worn this shirt. He tweeted that he received the shirt as a present in early October and none of his 2,700 followers on Twitter paid attention. Most worrying is that he is photographed in an office – which suggests he may have worn this shirt to work and none of his management nor colleagues pointed out the inappropriate attire.

This comes only a couple of weeks since The New York Times declared that sexism in academia is dead (as we noted, this claim was based on a highly flawed study). What this wardrobe choice says is that some male scientists in strategic positions for major science organisations do not see equality as a serious issue. Taylor works for the European Space Agency and he is prominently featured on a NASA website.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Best Part of My Week

Two years ago I made the transition from academic science to data science. There are many aspects of industry that mesh better with my working style. However one very important industry practice that I feel is lacking in academia (at least for many of the people I have spoken to) are mechanisms for regular evaluation and feedback  especially for graduate students and postdocs.

Lately I've been facilitating workshops on the Impostor Syndrome and having many conversations with people about my process of dealing with and overcoming my own impostor feelings. For me a huge problem with my experience in graduate school was a constant nagging fear that I wasn't performing at an adequate level. There are so few metrics by which to measure success; if I didn't published N papers, make any major discoveries, or win any prizes or grants  how was I to know if I was ‘cutting it?’ And even if I did accomplish some of these milestones, there were always stories of other people who did it more, better, and faster. This was the perfect breeding ground for my impostor thoughts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sappho and the Origins of Ancient Greek Astronomy

Terracotta head from a statue
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1922 (
Today's guest blogger is Stuart Dean. Stuart has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.
Until now you could not find the name of the ancient Greek poet Sappho in any discussion in print or online regarding ancient Greek astronomy.  Such a discussion is long overdue and I think it is best to let Sappho herself begin it: 
“As when down goes the sun/the rosyfingered moon”
Line final ‘sun’ followed by line final ‘moon’ is in effect a ‘visual rhyme,’ implying a scan of the evening sky, looking west then east, with the knowledge that the moon reflects the sun’s light.  Her characterization of the moon as ‘rosyfingered,’ a word otherwise frequently used to describe the sun at dawn, further buttresses the ‘moonlight reflecting sunlight’ reading.
Evening Star/Morning Star
“Evening Star, carrying all that was scattered by the dazzling Dawn Star”
Here again, word position is key, only in this case within a single line.  Line initial ‘evening star’ and line final ‘dawn star’ implies an underlying unity.  It is thus possible that what Sappho evinces here is her recognition that the two stars are the same celestial object (Venus) and that she is referring to the 584-day cycle of Venus.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

Queer Eye for the Straight Marriage

The Women in Astronomy blog is committed to representing diverse perspectives on women in astronomy.  The below post is a response from the AAS Committee on the Status for Women in Astronomy (CSWA) reaching out to AAS Working Group for LGBTIQ Equality (WGLE) for guest contributions, specifically contributions from the LBGQTI perspective.  If you are interested in contributing a guest post to this blog, please contact Jessica Kirkpatrick

Today's guest post is by Dr. Jane Rigby. Jane Rigby is an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, a contributor to Astrobetter, and a member of the AAS’s Working Group for LGBTIQ Equality (WGLE).

The other day after work, my wife and I were sprawled on the playroom floor, watching our toddler run in circles. I picked a strewn section of the paper and scanned this article.

Confused, I read it more carefully. Was this news? I could have titled the article “Man gets chores, work done”? Why was it leading the local section? To me, the most interesting facet of the article was that the attorney had deliberately chosen a lower-paying job with reasonable hours and a short commute. The rest -- “He cooks! He does laundry!” seemed so quotidian. I was boiling water for pasta, and planned to do laundry after the kid’s bedtime. Is it still newsworthy to profile a straight couple that shares household duties?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Top Five Tips for Men
There's so much to write about this week on the topic of gender equity, I hardly know where to start.  I'll back up two weeks to when a well-known male supporter of women in science wrote me and several others on behalf of a male colleague in the UK who sought advice on how to improve the representation of women and minorities in physics departments.  He was frustrated that his colleagues didn't understand the problem and were resistant to change, and wondered how some US departments had made real progress.  This opened a fascinating small-group email discussion about what works and what doesn't work.  Despite the important efforts to make academic culture change a science, it is still primarily an art, and the conversation arising in the network of practitioners feels to me like the gathering of Impressionist painters whose creativity was rejected by the Salon de Paris.  We share tips and hone arguments in a creative online atelier before presenting our works in exhibitions.  We need our own Salons for mutual support and exchange of ideas - Salons that explicitly welcome men to become full partners in advancing gender equity.

Having been asked many times why and how I became an advocate for diversity, I would like to share a secret: people asked me to do it.  Female graduate students and faculty told me this was important.  But that was not enough; I doubt there are any men in science who have not heard someone say that diversity and inclusion are important.  The real clincher for me was what they said next: "We think you can make a difference, we expect you to make a difference, and we will help you."  I was being held accountable.  If I wanted to succeed as a leader, I had to make this a priority.

To the men in the audience: you can make a difference, your colleagues want you to make a difference, and our new Salons (starting with CSWA) will help you.

With that background, here are my top 5 tips for men advocating real change:
  1. Avoid mansplaining, and speak up when you see others doing it.  If this is the first time you're reading the word, see this or this.  (I have another secret to share: I've mansplained, much to my embarrassment.  Someone called me out on it.  Thank you!)
  2.  Listen to women, to minorities, and to others unlike you. Recognize that their experiences are as varied as the experiences of white men, so don't overgeneralize.  And certainly don't conclude that gender equity has been achieved just because some people think Academic Science isn't Sexist.  Others (including us at CSWA) disagree for good reasons.
  3. Read.  Good starting points are Why So Slow? by Virginia Valian and Why So Few? by the American Association of University Women.
  4. Talk with other men and women committed to equity and inclusion.  You'll find some of them at this blog.  It's important that we realize that gender equity is not a women's issue, and racial equity is not a minority issue.  It's an issue for those in leadership positions, who in most of our fields are overwhelmingly white male.
  5. Commit to making a difference.  Join one of our Salons, for example the Association for Women in Science.  Several years ago I timidly asked the AWIS Executive Director if I could join despite being a man.  The AWIS President replied, "We are an association FOR women in science not OF women in science and we welcome all members who want to support our mission."  I couldn't agree more, and have long since dropped my timidity.  AWIS has helped me enormously to learn and grow as a leader.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. (r) Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
-- Margaret Mead, with permission

Monday, November 3, 2014

No Women Physics Nobel Prizes in 50 Years

The number of women who have received Nobel prizes in all fields is shockingly low, particularly in physics where the only two prizes ever awarded were Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.  There have been no physics Nobel prizes in 50 years!  I recently read an interesting article on the statistics and possible reasons written by Matt Petronzio in US & World on-line.

Before discussing reasons, let's look at the facts.  The figure below shows the number of women and men receiving the Nobel prize in the various categories between 1901 and 2014.  The ratio of men to women is amazingly small, ranging from 1% in physics to 17% in peace.  In physics, this can be compared to about 20% women receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees.