People Learn.

I am a big space nerd, but I happen to also be a bit of a Shakespeare nerd (I’m so well-rounded, you guys). In my Shakespeare class today, we were talking about Much Ado About Nothing. SPOILER ALERT for the next quote, but it’s a Shakespeare spoiler so you should probably just keep reading anyway. In the play (at II.i.275-278) , Beatrice describes her previous heartbreak, saying:

Indeed, my lord, he lent it me a while, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

That has all kinds of implications in the play, but for now I’m more interested in talking about the science of it. As my professor explained, in the Elizabethan era, people believed that when someone found their true love, the two physically exchanged hearts.  It’s unclear how strongly people believed this (probably less and less as time went on), but it was definitely a part of the culture. So, if, say, Beatrice falls in love with Benedick, and he spurns her, she ends up with no heart and he has two.

But once again, while the beliefs are fascinating, that’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is a throwaway comment my professor made after explaining this: something along the lines of “They don’t believe that anymore because, y’know, people learn.”

Science changes over time. Things we believe now, we may know to be totally untrue in 400 years or in 20 years or in 2 years. Up until relatively recently, we thought that continents were completely immovable and had been in the same position since Earth’s genesis – now we know that tectonic plates have caused vast, slow shifts. We thought that the universe was neither expanding or contracting – now we know that not only is it expanding, it’s accelerating outward. And just like those ideas that we formerly held to be fact, all that we know now may eventually reveal itself to be fiction.

This may sound a bit pessimistic, but in fact it’s the opposite. We will always have new information – we will never finish learning. Science will continue to forge forward for as long as humans are alive and curious and care about our universe. And, equally importantly, as far as science education goes there is no such thing as a lost cause. People learn. Our understanding of our world and our universe is constantly changing; that’s part of the beauty of it. As individual people learn and teach, science and society advance. The more we know about our universe, the more we can appreciate it and the better we can care for it.

People learn. It’s the best reason I know of for us to exist.

NOTE: I saw the aurora again tonight and it was super-bright and beautiful.

People Are Really Impressed… Responses

Last week I wrote my most popular blog post ever. It was about the awkwardness that happens when I tell people that I study physics. In that post, I asked people for their opinions and experiences on why people act impressed and then shut down when they ask what I do, and I got an overwhelming response from both physics students and some real-people physicists and professors. There’s a full-length follow-up about it over at That follow-up is mostly me pontificating though, and I wanted to share some of the specific responses I got because they were thoughtful and great. I won’t use names, because I don’t know who wants their comments associated with them and who would rather be anonymous. Some of the quotes are a little long, but I did abridge them and also I’m really fascinated by and grateful for everyone’s thoughts. HERE’S QUOTES NOW:

“She said that she would even go on dates and the minute the guys found out she did physics, like after half an hour of talking, it was like they couldn’t converse anymore. She said that she felt like it was an intimidation thing – men found it scary to talk to a woman in a demanding field. She also said something interesting about people not really knowing what physics means so it is difficult to respond to… So maybe it also has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what “doing physics” means. Although I’m not sure if that’s gendered or not.” – A physics student paraphrasing a professor

“From a lot of people… all responded with comments of disbelief. One stated that I was most likely smarter than she would ever be. These comments threw me off guard. How do you respond to that? Should I just say, “yeah”? When ever I declare that physics isn’t so bad, the individuals I am talking to refute the statement with stories regarding their arduous time in a simple physics 101 class. I try to just brushed those comments aside saying that I am just getting by, trying to bring the conversation back away from empty compliments and back to a meaningful discussion… I say that I am only using physics to learn to convey ideas and arguments.” – A physics student

“I don’t think being a physics major is such shocking news when it comes from a dude.” – A physics student

“[Physics is] abstract, and strange, and gets made fun of in the media. Moreover, its courses are hardly required of other majors so if you’re not a physics major, there’s a good chance you haven’t taken much physics at all. And then there’s the fear of math that just ties the noose on the neck of poor physics’ popularity.” – A physics student

“Is it regular physics or lady-physics?” – A stranger; “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s all about the mass of tampons.” – A physics aficionado; “I only study the fluid dynamics of lip gloss and how to effectively bedazzle a Soyuz.” – My response, which I’m actually kinda proud of

“As a male physicist, I get the same reaction – even as an adult!” – A physics professor

“Usually something like ‘wow physics is really hard,’ at which point I usually reply that yes, it is.” – A physics student

“Maybe we could improve this with better physics outreach and science communication.” – A physics professor

“I still sometimes get the awkward silence too. But I think outreach is already helping… I say ‘I love finding how things work’ or fake interest in their (obviously less interesting) job.” – A physicist and professor

“If I met a person studying physics, I would be impressed, and I would start a discussion with you about it, because I have not come into contact with a student of physics before.” – A stranger

“Not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. It bothers me more when people assume I’m the ditsy female who doesn’t belong than when they assume I’m a genius.” – A student

“But I also think this reaction is a symptom of something much larger and goes beyond gender in science. Frankly, physics and science in general don’t have a very good public image (though mathematicians have it so much worse. It’s almost cool to dislike math & proclaim how much you don’t understand math.) In my opinion, the main reason why [some] people seem so impressed by physicists & majors is because most people simply don’t understand what physics is… They don’t understand why physicists do what they do and why they enjoy it. I mean, you and I know that physics is the shit, but people don’t see it that way… Additionally, people seem to have this is idea that only certain people can be physicists. Leah, there aren’t very many things I hate in this world, but good God, do I hate stereotypes… You can do physics because physics is for everyone. The only thing it takes to study physics is to love it and have a lot of perseverance.” – A physics student

SO. Thank you for your responses, everyone, and if you have more thoughts or experiences to share, continue to get in touch with me and I’ll keep updating this post and keep the conversation going!


Science and Gender with Paul Grossi, Pt. 2

In my previous post I wrote about an interview I had with Paul Grossi, a teacher at an all-girls middle school. We talked about a lot of stuff, but last week I wrote about learning differences between boys and girls in the sciences, so this time I’ll write about the gender gap later on in the scientific community and why it’s important to reduce that gap.

In physics especially, there’s a huge gender gap – I won’t offer much evidence for that now, but there’s a lot of it out there and I’m sure it’ll be a topic that I write more about. For now, I’ll just give you this chart from the NSF (I found it in an article by Kate Sheppard):

  That’s pretty egregious. I can even see the gender gap in my twitter feed, where I try to follow as many scientists as possible, and yet I still end up reading mostly posts from men. Gender politics are a big deal in the sciences nowadays, and the gender gap is shrinking, but it still needs work. The thing that really opened Paul’s eyes about this issue was a talk with Cindy Blaha, a professor at Carleton College, wherein she talked about her grad school experience and how the people in charge of science programs tended to be “dinosaur old men.” I have a class with Cindy, an astrophysics class that happens to be all-girls, and she has mentioned in class that when she first got hired at Carleton, the chair of the department was wary of her because she is a woman (and an astronomer – there’s a bit of a feud between astronomers and astrophysics – it’s kinda like Australia vs. New Zealand).

As an aside, this also ties in with the story of Kiara Wilmot, a story I’ve been harping on because I think it’s a really important example. If a boy had been performing a science experiment in the school field and had caused a small explosion (with no damage and no injuries), would he have been arrested and expelled? Or would it just be a “boys will be boys, no harm no foul” kind of situation? I don’t know, but the fact that it’s even a viable question is concerning.

One of the main reasons that I find inspiring kids about science so important is that we definitely do not have enough female leaders in the hard sciences – honestly, when I think about scientists I know of, both current and historical, I can only come up with a few women. As Paul said, “female leaders in science stand out” – they are extraordinary, but male leaders are common. One of the reasons for this that Paul pointed out is that “it is a generational change, and generational changes take time.” Women are far more visible in science now than they were 10 years ago, and far more so than 20 years ago. So part of closing the gender gap is a waiting game, but that’s not the whole thing and it’s not a free pass.

Another issue that is slowly changing is that, as Paul said, “there is no complete life as a researcher.” It’s hard to comfortably have research and enough money and a family, even as an educator or a government-funded researcher. This is an issue for all scientists, but even more so for women, who have few female leaders and are still viewed with less respect in some circles (and it’s damn near impossible to take maternity leave in the middle of a project or most jobs in science). Again, this is an issue that’s slowly shrinking, but it needs more work – as scientists become more valued in society, it will be easier for a scientist to have a complete life, and that shift will extend to women. We need to value our scientists, male and female, equally, and giving them job security and comfort is a larger societal change without a simple answer.

Like I said in my earlier post, the first way to continue working on fixing these issues and closing the gender gap is by getting kids excited about science, so that they will grow up to be adults who value science and scientists. It’s not only about the gender gap, either – it’s about putting things into context, understanding our place in the world, and allowing that understanding to influence our everyday decisions.

I’ll end this post with a great quote from my interview with Paul:

Different ways of seeing problems come from cultural background, including gender; you need a wide range of views to bring all the possible solutions together.