Friday, August 27, 2010

The Big Within the Small

I was talking with a co-worker today after attending one of her hikes about...physics.

Specifically how to communicate the physics in nature as something awe-inspiring and interesting, without calling it physics.  Just...large-scale natural laws as they create smaller-scale systems.  Maybe the whole ecology is applied biology is applied chemistry is applied physics thing I mentioned yesterday.  There does exist a tiny branch of study called eco-physics, and it is easy enough to see plants and animals adapting to physical forces.  Some of the things plants and animals do to adapt are darn neat and innovative.

She called it the Big Within the Small, and she wanted me to make my ranger program about that physics-ecology connection.  (Ranger program, you ask?  I'm interning in a National Park for a very short while.)

The problem is sometimes I think too much in big-picture amorphous concepts instead of hard, concrete ones, at least when I'm first forming an idea.  So I can't tell if we are onto something that would be poweful and interesting to other people, or if I'm just trying to grasp at straws within that general sense of "wow the world is so darn cool" that I have long carried with me from ecology over to physics and now back to ecology again.

I mean, I think the world is so darn cool, but my darn cool world isn't exactly the same as somebody else's darn cool world, or at least it's not darn cool for exactly the same reasons.

So this is going to be a project, and I'm not sure if it will be a successful one.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stamp Collecting

'Twas Earnest Rutherford who said, "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."

I don't think he was meaning to say that physics rules and every other science drools.  I think he was meaning to say that you can do physics, or you can do some other applied science that eventually boils down to...physics.  Because chemisry is molecules interacting based on rules of chemistry that come from...physics.  Biology is life doing life things based on rules of biology that come from rules of chemistry that come from rules of...physics.  Ecology is the individual biology of things in concert, which is in tern a bunch of chemisry in concert....etc. 

Or maybe he was meaning to say that nothing is worthwhile but physics...and in that case I do not agree.

Well today, I did a fair bit of something an awful lot like stamp collecting.  I "collected" the following wildflowers, meaning I saw them on my hike and keyed them out in my Newcomb's wildflower guide:

Jerusalem Artichoke
Green Coneflower
Pink Lady
Wild Violet
Cardinal Flower
Pale Sunflower

There were of course about a zillion more that I couldn't or didn't stop to identify cause I was worried about making loud noises and seeming large and scary to the black bears.  And yes, I did see a bear scamper off. 

I also collected the following new trees.  I thought I was already fairly experienced at trees so the very prevalent ones aren't listed, though I can't separate out all the sub-red or sub-white oak species of blackjack and post and river and hybridized-monkey-fist--okay I made the lats one up just to show you there are a LOT of oak species out there.

Basswood, American or other?
Mountain Maple (an uncommon species very distinct from red and sugar maple)
Sugar Maple (not so present in southern Appalachians, but quite abundant here)
Black Walnut (that one I am re-remembering)

I don't know what it is about identifying the species of the plants and animals you encounter that is so compulsively fun.  It is kind of like building a collection.  Okay, got bobcat, got black bear, got skunk, what's next!  Maybe delineating out all those oak species.  The thing you learn when you get into plant ID and keying out wildflowers, trees, and shurbs is, well, I used to think tree ID was simple.  A white oak is a white oak, just like a black bear is, you know, a black bear.

Oh, but black bears actually comprise sixteen, sixteen subspecies in North America.  And I already mentioned the long list of oaks that doesn't even count when one species hybridizes with another.  Plus, some species, rather like people, have a variety of phenotypes, or, shapes and sizes, so that one particular leaf shape or set of leaf shapes per species is nowhere near all you need to know.

Like any new thing that one tries to learn, you start off thinking it is simple and that, having the basics, the rest is well within your grasp.  It is only when you being to glimpse the actual complexity that you can consider yourself something slightly past novice in any subject. 

In short:  Nature is multifaceted, complex, environmentally dependent and constantly changing.  Kind of like the real world.  This is advanced stamp collecting.

Why Physics?

This is a final post of something I drafted in late July, so if you are following closely then you'll notice that the description of what I was doing at that point no longer matches what I'm currently doing.  What am I currently doing, you ask?  Maybe I'll explain more later.

Original date 7/28/2010

I came to realize yesterday, while I was tutoring the non-calculus based summer session of physics 2 and wishing I could just say "cyclotron magnetic force is equal to qvB because it's the cross product at 90 degrees" and have that be enough to explain it, and later while I was pouring over a green building design book's section on weatherization in order to study for my hopeful second round of job interview...

For all that I want to do other things and not lock myself in a lab until I'm thirty-five:  I'd rather write about science, do photovoltaic or energy efficiency or weatherization work because that helps real people and makes a real difference, for all that I even want to go stick myself in the woods and read/watch/write about evolutionary biology or else just strap people in to fun playgrounds in the trees, I'm a physicist.

That means I know how to look at things and understand the principles of how they work.  And I look at things from that perspective all the time, giving me the confidence to do things like super-insulate my parents' house, change my transmission fluid in their garage, feel confident in the safety of a hydraulic-breaking zip-line, without having to sit through training on each.  Training would make that knowledge better, sure, and experience even better than that--so now I've seen a 75 pound kid do the zip-line and a 275 pound man do it and decided that anybody much heavier or lighter is not going to have a safe experience--what do you know, the factory weight limits happen to be 60 to 300 pounds.

For somebody who grew up like I did, a young woman who wanted to be creative and imaginative, not necessarily technical, who didn't work on cars or build robots but who did build weird things with an erector set and make her own plans for her treehouse on graph paper, who struggled endlessly with ratios and proportions but who excelled at learning foreign languages...this has been really empowering.  Because it turns out that triple integrals are kind of like grammatical sentences that you can spatially think about, taking percents is why God invented calculators, and specific numbers for specific situations can be looked up in tables.

That means when you hand me an equation, it's just not good enough.  Just like my tutee, I have to know why, and since she has that attitude maybe she should have taken the calculus-based version and spared herself the trouble of "sorry it's too technical to tell you the truth" explanations.

That's why when my research continues to yield no quantum-mechanically predicted line for no reason that we can figure out, I just can't let it go and I end up thinking that staring at temperature verses frequency plots between 9.2 and 10.6 GHz for four different planetary nebula in search of one particular bump among the many other bumps is actually interesting, why I find tutoring physics a fun nostalgic chance to do the kinds of problems that used to drive me crazy before I had all the tools to do them, why I thought my foray into an environmental studies major was too easy because it glossed over details.

It doesn't matter what else I end up doing, and I fully intend to eventually succeed at employing myself in the energy efficiency or renewable energy field because I am smart and technical and have great interpersonal skills to boot and I can write and speak Spanish fluently...

I'm always going to be a physicist.

Fission Cost-Benefit

Nuclear energy is "cleaner" in the carbon emissions sense, is heckof energy dense, is damn expensive, is here now and growing, is a viable and practical solution to climate change.

There are many ways to do it better:  it is theoretically possible to separate the really nasty million-year-half-life stuff and recycle it into a few hundred-year-nasty stuff, getting more energy out in the process.  You can better safeguard and better safeguard, and I bet we have the ability to get our safeguards pretty darn goon.

But I am reminded, over and over again, of the phrase "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."  And nuclear, just being what it is, can go pretty darn wrong.  Yes, there are safeguards upon safeguards.  Yes, waste can be managed--although we are not doing a particularly great job at the moment, due purely to political limitations.  We're a heck of a lot better at overcoming technical limitations than we are at overcoming political limitations.

But you know, that Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer was not supposed to be able to fail, either.  Something going terrible wrong is always within the realm of physical possibility, and in the case of nuclear the consequences for life on earth are really serious business.

Right now, this burning of fossil fuels thing is potentially going wrong for us, and we're gonna run out eventually anyway.   So in a cost-benefit analysis between a climate that is definitely warming up and changing even if we still don't know how much, and a remotely possible local but who knows maybe worldwide radiation induced horror, which would I choose?

Honestly, I'd choose a warmer climate.

(But Science! is still good at what it does, so let's keep doing it re: nuclear fission processes that are safe.  Keep the physicists employed!)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Alone But Not Usually Lonely

What does it mean to be a functionally outgoing introvert?

It means you joke and make small talk with strangers and co-workers and genuinely enjoy it--but when you go home you can't wait to curl up on the couch with a book.

It means you are recharged by treating yourself to a nice breakfast alone in a restaurant;  you sip your coffee and write, you make small talk with the waiter, you feel so calm and alive.

It makes two days alone in a national park--where I am now, in a complete and total change of gears, doing a "volunteer" stint--into utter heaven--but when you think about your SigFig far away, you feel that sharp edge of sadness and wish he could just be there too.  Or your best friend who lives in Australia.

You love doing things by yourself and you love having one or two people you love to do them with, too.  Very often you do crave, seek out and enjoy social interaction, (and you know very well how to successfully seek it out and enjoy it, contrary to popular belief about introverts) but in a choice between a noisy bar or a quiet book, book usually wins even when you remember those handful of times you had chosen bar instead and had much fun and met new, interesting people.  Doing things by yourself is in general infinitely preferable to doing things with large groups of people you don't know, but doing things with a small group that includes one or two new people can be a wonderful way to make new friends.

People tell you there's no way you're an introvert, you're too social, because they just don't realize that you're happy and and socially functioning because you just spent all day hiking by yourself.

People try to say that being an extrovert is somehow better.  I think those people just aren't listening.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How It Is, Not How You Want It To Be

I'd like to try to spend an entire day entertaining the, idea? can I go as far as conviction? that the planet isn't actually warming and/or planet warming isn't something to be alarmed about because it's not related to anthropogenic greenhouse gases.  What if it all really is a hoax, really just incorrect?

(I'm working this week at Climate Science Camp, so expect a slue of Climate themed posts)

It is profound to contemplate this.  Because that would be...better.  We could focus our attention on other things, happily optimistically solvable things.

We'd still have to deal with peak oil (what are we gonna do when we run out?) and dependence on foreign oil and air pollution, which have some of the same solutions.  But maybe we could afford take our time about it.

It's nice to contemplate, but I am pretty darn sure of my climate science, and the moral imperative of "well, the possibility of climate change is very plausible, the physics of climate change is pretty indisputable" is pretty serious.  So for me it is only a happy thought experiment.

I have learned a great deal in my past six month stint as a research scientist on a project where the results we expected were just not what we got, and perhaps because I'm just a newcomer to the field of radio astronomy everything was just so hard to interpret.

You stare at graphs, at plots of independent variable vs dependent variable, and you try to understand what it means.  You know what you want it to mean because that would mean it's easy or that's what your hypothesis says or that is what would make some frikkin' sense.

But you cannot, cannot, cannot allow what you want it to mean to influence what you can honestly defend with carefully considered application of verifiable knowledge.   And even when you do your best you can't always explain everything, so you do your best to lay out plausible reasons for discrepancies while making very clear that you are only laying out the possibilities that you can rationally acknowledge in all of their limitations.

What happened for us is that we did not find evidence of quantum fine-structure electron energy transitions in ionized hydrogen, even though darn-it we should have, we got our resolution five times greater than necessary to see them, and we didn't for four different radio sources.  We came up with explanation after explanation:  dust which allows the conditions for the transitions isn't as dense as we thought, the hydrogen ions themselves are more dense than we thought, electric fields (which make electrons superimpose between levels) create a superposition which destroys the effect...yet we can get bounds on all of these things based on evidence and theory, and those bound still don't explain it.  Sure, maybe the evidence or theory that gave us those bounds is wrong, but finding that isn't within the scope of what we're doing, so we just communicate the theories we proposed and why they don't explain it and leave it at that.

Even though we want to see the lines.  But they don't really matter that much to us, and they don't matter at all (that we know of...) to the fate of planet Earth.

I'm sure some climate scientists interpret the graphs as C02 driven global warming because they want it to say that:  career and funding depend on it, they like being alarmists (though I really can't understand why someone would like admitting a very unhappy possibility and having to convince happy people to be unhappy about it to), whatever.  Certainly nobody likes being wrong, especially not so publicly and especially not after crying out in alarm.

Just like many climate skeptics don't accept climate change because, you know, that would just suck if it were true, and/or they've spent a good amount of work trying to say that it's not true and they don't want to be wrong either. 

I am very glad I am in the position, somewhat, of not having to be just told things.  The skeptics are lying to you because they want to spread doubt because they have stakes in the status quo and don't want to give up burning fossil fuels.  (you know what, I don't much want to give up burning fossil fuels, all externalities removed).  The global warming fraternity is little more than a religion, lying to you because of the established political interest and money in climate science and fear mongering for the sake of controlling others.

It's all noise.  The facts are the charts.  CO2, and temperature, some physics of molecules, some physics of the sun, some physics of weather.  And how you interpret it.  And buddy, you can interpret a chart all kinds of ways, yet one way is right in the sense that there is only one physical reality (or is there?) and it is certainly very nuanced and multi-faceted--and all the others are wrong.

So I could, be wrong.  Climate change may not be man-made.  It may not be catastrophic.  The world for my children may not be a whole lot hotter than it is today, and my god, the world may really have a lot about it that is totally, happily, awesomely fine.

Nothing the skeptics have said have convinced me, however, that their interpretation is more correct than the interpretation the majority of scientists have come to, the interpretation that I have come to, is wrong.  All the things they give me saying that the man-made warming interpretation is incorrect can be satisfactorily refuted.

But in the interest of full disclosure I'm a phyiscal scientist trained and trying to get a green job in renewable energy, I was raised a liberal-leaning (but very much center-reverting, at times) environmentalist, and I'm agnostic.  (Because some kid this week asked when deciding how much to trust our statements.)  So before you diss my opinion based on those data points, howabout you disclose yours.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Another strong language post.  Sorry, it's just how I work.

When walking down the street, biking, appearing in public in general, etc, as a lone female or even in a small group of females, and being approached or followed in a wholly unfriendly, inpolite, aggressive and creepy manner by a male, what should you do?

Conventional wisdom:  Ignore.  Because getting pissed off could provoke him to be pissed-off-violent (and when you are walking and he is driving a car, I do actually think this is at least decent advice), being friendly is of course just being a slut (and I'm sorry, in that kind of situation my first inclination is NOT to be friendly), and saying no in any form is especially frowned on because to him it might just be an "actually I want you to try harder" head game.  Even giving the finger, which is what I want to do, can be taken as a provocation for more aggressive action, because "fuck you" in the minds of some people means, literally, "you know, I want to fuck you."

There have been two times in my life when some random stranger aggressively displayed sexual interest in me.  A third times was about wanting money, not sex, so I gave him my slice of pizza and when he kept following me I told him very pointedly to "have a nice evening."  A fourth time I was in Spain, and went down the Wrong Street, and some serious hippie types started shouting profanity in every language they could think of trying to get a reaction by hitting on whatever language we spoke--I reacted in Spanish so they ignored me, but my two companions reacted in English, so they followed us for about three blocks shouting "Fuck you fuck you" in English, Spanish, and German the whole way.  I suspect meth was involved, and I doubt it was about sex.

Anyway.  The two times the approach has been genuinely oh-my-god-creepy, I have tried two approaches.  The first time the guy was in his car and I was walking.  I ignored.  He followed me for a while.  I ignored vigorously. His slurs escalated, my vigorous ignoring escalated, and let me tell you, I was Scared and trying to form a coherent strategy in my plan for effective and non-provoking-him-further escape. He eventually shouted profanity and drove away.

The second time I was by myself in a normally-not-shady-but-I-could-see-Cosmo-telling-me-never-to-go-there parking lot, approaching my car.  A staggering man approached me very close, said some slurs, invited me to have a drink with him.  Somehow, gut feeling said Ignore would be a very bad idea.  So I met his eyes, I was polite but I was firm in my rejection, and kept my hands in front of me and my mace where I could reach it.  To my utmost surprise, the politeness diffused him.  He sort of nodded awkwardly and scampered off.  He was clearly drunk, which is why Ignore Ignore might have just made him go violent.  Or it might have made him just lackadaisical with following through on threats.

Sometimes I wonder if "no, thank you," would have kept the first situation from escalating, as well.  It's hard to say.  The truth is I have absolutely no desire to be polite to this kind of fuckwad.  They do not deserve civility.  But, at the same time, when you think you have no weapons, if you treat them firmly but somewhat humanely, especially if they are the kind who just Hates Those Stuck Up Bitches and is taking that out on you, you might diffuse that anger a little bit.

Enough to to reassure yourself that your conceal carry in still in place, or to get a good surveying of the surroudings and recognize multiple possibilities for what you could improvise as a weapon and how you could put something between the two of you, because politenes as a weapon is, come on, pathetic.  The fact that firm politenes worked once makes me feel better, and I'd rather the world got along through peace and non-conflict and all that...but I don't live in a dream world.  Situations like that make me want to conceal carry.  They make me want self-defense training, the kind that requires years and money and a long period of having your ass handed to you in a controlled setting until you get to the point where you genuinely do have the ablity to hand someone else's to them if they cross you.

And then you can be polite all you want.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Participant Archetypes

I'm working on a physics post, but it's a monster so it'll take a while.

In the meantime, here's some fun anecdotes from my many varied experiences working with many groups of children.  You start to see patterns, you see.  My job is to recognize the scared from the merely quiet and the safety-rule breakers from the merely loud ones, and engage everyone accordingly.

Some Kid Archetypes:

Know It All Kid.  This kid, as I've encountered him, has been exclusively male.  He claims to know all sorts of things about rock climbing or high ropes course, by virtue of having done it maybe once before in his life or of some other obscure thing like "climbing hay bales"--and is going to make a comment on everything you do.  He's going to want to do it himself, is often not going to trust YOU to do it, and furthermore is going to push every single boundary of safety that you set just because he "knows it already" and the rules don't apply to someone who already knows.  The one I've dealt with recently combined Know It All with Doesn't Actually Know Anything, so that he'd try to tie his own knot or clip himself in without actually knowing how, we'd correct him and he would claim that "no, I've got it!" and physically resist any attempts at correcting him, and we'd have to pull out our extreme sternness and generally watch him like a hawk to make sure he didn't do something ridiculous like untie himself halfway up the climbing tower.

Know It All Kid is a close cousin of Annoying Question Kid.  Annoying Question Kid is also pretty much exclusively male, is usually prepubescent (because having a high pitched voice increases the annoying factor, unfortunately), and generally likes to glue himself to female instructors and, you guessed, Ask.Annoying.Questions.  "What's this rope for?" "What do we have for lunch?"  "What do you do that for?" "When do is it my turn?" "What does that thing do?", etc.  Not that asking some of those things are bad, but Annoying Question Kid is usually so busy asking questions that he can't focus on what you are telling him to do vis a vis safety.  He walks under ropes even after we've told him not to a handful of times, he runs up to climb without a helmet or even tying himself in...he's just in his own little world.

The I'm Way Too Cool For This Kid comes in both male and female varieties, usually more male in middle school than female, and often encompassing a large swath of high-school-aged participants.  Personally, I can handle me some I'm Way Too Cool For This Kids, because they're not, and I have no problem goading them despite being Automatically Sooo Uncool for trying.  A whole batch of them does make the day more frustrating, though.  Note:  there is also sometimes a Smart Ass Kid, who usually makes "haha, gay" jokes about everything you say, and he is usually very much in this category.

There is fairly often an I Hate Nature Girl, who spends pretty much the entire time decrying about how she is sooo not a nature person.  Sometimes she is the same person as Scream At Every Little Thing Girl, who, when I'm trying to distinguish between genuinely-freaking-out verses just screaming because that's what girls are supposed to do, right? (giggle) really really gets on my nerves.

I've dealt with Excuses Kid of both genders, who, rather than, you know, being afraid, or having difficulty climbing something that is difficult, just has a rock in his or her shoe, or forgot to drink some water before climbing, or didn't sleep well last night, or suddenly has a cramp or a stomachache, or, oh, well, helmet's too loose, shoes are too big, etc.  It's always a reason to just come down, and maybe try later, only when trying later, now has another weird cramp, or just remembered that he or she has a cut on his or her hand and shouldn't use it, know.

There are Ultraquiet Ones who just don't say much, even when you are belaying them and they just stop somewhere and you try to ask them what is going on. They don't communicate what the problem is, they don't communicate what they want, they just sit there waiting for input from others.  Since extremely freaked out people can go quiet like this, these kids are tough because it is hard to determine if and when they really need rescue.

Then there are the Adults, who are even worse at pushing themselves past things that challenge them than kids, whose teamwork is often marred by long-set behavior patterns they have the utmost difficulty noticing and changing, and who are appalingly bad about thinking that safety rules don't apply to them.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why I Shaved

Today I shaved my legs for the first time in...a while.  Six years? Holey cow.  Feels really weird.

Why?  Because I grew out of saying "down with the patriarchy" with my body, and all that? (I was never really trying to do that.)

Well, mostly because this week I'm working every day at the high ropes course, and it's hot, and staff get free outdoor pool access and darn it I want to go swimming after work, and since its a YMCA kinda conservative-ish location I just don't feel like making waves by freaking people out with hippie female unshaved leg-ness.  I'd really rather just enjoy swimming after a long day's work in the hot sun without worrying about causing consternation or disgust.  I do think it is sad that that is true, but I'd be more sad if I didn't go swimming.

Which leads me into a discussion of why I don't usually shave to begin with.

There are two main reasons--and they aren't very much into the "down with the patriarchy" reason people assume women don't shave, at least not directly, because the truth is that like a Good Woman I'd really rather not draw that much attention to myself amid strangers.  I remember when I was little I used to spend tons of time outside.  In the summer that meant my legs were a maze of histamine-filled welts, scabs, and scratches, and to this day I am usually the preferred meal in any given group of humans for those female mosquitoes who don't actually eat your blood but take it to help them lay eggs.  Interesting fact.

When I first began shaving, my father once made the comment that "you know I think having hair on your legs helps with the mosquitoes."  He said it almost accusingly, like, see, if you didn't shave your legs you wouldn't have this problem, like I actually had a choice in the matter.  And of course, as I've demonstrated for the past six years, I do indeed have a choice in the matter.  But it has never been a choice without tradeoffs.

When I started working at a Boy Scout camp, I started weighing and choosing the tradeoffs.  At Boy Scout camp, my job involved a lot of woods time, which meant a lot of mosquito time.  It was summer, yet Boy Scout camp has strict uniform rules, with the choice of heavy cotton shorts or heavy cotton long pants.  Since the heat index in that good ole Small Town, NC rises up past 100 for a fair portion of the summer, I was not thrilled about the heavy cotton long pants.  Nor was I thrilled about constant itching misery.   So I remembered my dad, and I made a choice, and I stopped shaving my legs.

Oh my gosh, I got all kinds of hell for it.  Not from the bosses, I doubt they even noticed.  But yeah.  Boy Scout Camp.  Some of the staff were shall we say not so into that fact of my existence--though in hindsight they probably would not have been no matter what I did, and I wasn't so thrilled with them either so life goes on.  I got given an absolutely horrible, demeaning nickname that I still will not share with people who never learned it but are curious and that still really, deeply hurts me even though I know it shouldn't.  Some of the guys I taught were also weirded out.

Yet some openly told me they thought it was totally awesome and brave.

Honestly, too, if I wasn't going to get made fun of for my hairy legs, I'd just be made fun of for my pock-marked mosquito scabbed legs instead, as it went in high school.  So I'd rather take the teasing with more comfort and less itchiness.

And after that it was just easy to stay that way. But I want to go swimming and the mosquitos for whatever reason aren't as bad here, so for today there was no reason not to.

I promise, more physics or otherwise science content, and stuff that isn't angry!, will happen soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Nature, Mate Choice, and Bullshit

Warning:  If you couldn't tell from the title, this post has strong language 'cause I don't feel like filtering it out.  Also, it borders on sexual content and for both reasons may not be appropriate for younger readers.

Stumbled across an angering and puzzling site today, and ending up taking a test which described my dating market value.  Pointless, because I'm not currently on the market in a realistic way and I never cared about conventional marketability re: dating anyway, being a hopeless "beta" and all--but the ways of the timesuck are never straightforward.

When I was taking this test the first time, I really, honestly thought it was being snarky and ironic, having gotten it from this blog (is in general not safe for public-setting computing, being about the sex life of a woman who has LOTS of deviant sex but writes so damn well about that and other things that I've become a regular reader), thought it was all in good oh-my-god-look-how-messed-up-this-is humor.  In re-reading the test I actually think there is a bit of snark involved...but not a lot.

The author really thinks this way, down to the "I'm going to go on an underrate all female scores by 10 cause they just can't handle the emotional shock of rejection" caveat at the bottom.  There is a whole culture of people who really think this way.

Pardon my use of language here (a trait which docked me a point on the test, but not as many as wearing sandals, while, for perpsective, being arrested for child pornography, if male, is an equal point dock), but this and the identical male test are among the most fucked up things I have seen lately.  (That's not actually true, probably, but now isn't really the time to be all literal-picky about things.)  Not really the test in itself, per-say, but the test combined with the attitude of "it's your biology, (bitch)" combined with this whole philosophy of To Get Women (Who Count) You Must Be an Asshole.  Cause those bitches will play mind games if you don't serve her what she has coming.

My score was a 20, but I guessed a lot, since pages were devoted to rating female beauty and I don't know if you'd consider my eyes big saucers or small and beady, or how long my jawline is, or whatever, so I just put "average" pretty much anywhere.  Go on and knock that down by 10 cause women just can't be trusted to evaluate themselves objectively without overrating their worth (but men apparently can) and I'm in the range of classic beta.  I'm no looker, but I could apparently snag a guy outside of my category if I "tramped it up."

I took the male test on account of my SigFig (he would never allow himself to be timesucked by such silliness, so I had to guess at it for him) and he got beta too, so look at us being two peas in a pod. As a beta he is a far, far cry from the the Stereotypical Sexually Frustrated Blame The Women Who Fuck All the Alphas Nice Guy and was way before I met him--but the part of this that passes itself off as Science! is about reductionist trends, not individual anecdotes.

To be fair, I labeled this as pseudoscience not because of the "woman want high-status-men men want eye-candy-women" underpinnings, rather because this site and others like it claim to share to sexually frustrated males the Science Of Finding Women to Date Fuck: Try Treating Those Bitches Like the Exchangeable Stupid Commodities They Are And See Your Magic Results You Poor Frustrated Sots.  I won't deny that "game" works on some women, and if those women aren't me then what do I know I'm just a beta and all my friends are probably just betas too--but when "game" also includes things like belittling a woman's boundaries, assuming "no I don't like you" is really just a test saying "try harder" while at the same time never daring to look too interested in her even when she is blatantly interested in you (see the behavioral section of the male test)--that's a recipe for not much happiness for all and is even delving into that rape-culture-no-means-yes stuff.  (Sidenote:  "no" means "no." Got it?) Seeing head-games in the behavior of the opposite sex is like seeing UFOS: if you want to see them, you'll see them. Does that mean there are really UFOS and you saw one?  Maybe there is a simpler explanation.

All that being said, I do indeed take some issue with "science-backed" statements like "women are hard-wired to want men of status and dominance while men are hard-wired to want sex with many women of maximum visual attractiveness," which I first ran into while trying to become a participator on the site (perhaps ironically named?) Overcoming Bias.

I'm not saying that this could not possibly be true or isn't even a reasonable assumption in its reductionist, forgetting-for-the-moment-that-we-are-people-not-monkeys-with-brains-and-emotions-and-rationality sense--but this "science" is too-often purveyed with varying hints from the subtle to the blatant of "yeah bitch, I know what you want better than you do" (although, to be fair, perhaps the idea is just perverted by some loud jerks) so that I must say, If you really believe this, give me links to scientific journals.  Biology, psychology or sociology.  Show me the proof that women invariable want alpha males aka jerks*, and if they can't have that will find a beta male to boss around and manipulate**.  I'm sure some women do this, just like some men hit their wives or rape acquaintances or just call anything that sleeps with someone-but-not-them a whore.  I'm sure if I start digging too deeply into the cesspool of lower human nature I am not going to much like what I find.  But are we looking at a true, widespread social problem that can be clearly and tied in an un-confounded way to actual biological evidence?  I don't want anecdotes, I don't want your life experience, I want solid, discussed, peer-reviewed sociology.

It comes down once again to the nature/nurture debate.  I don't much think that nature disentangled from everything else is that singular a player in mate choice, because culture is to huge a variable to just handily remove from the equation, and sites like the one I am criticizing are feeding a sub-culture of sexual one-upping that I do not think would be such a battle between the sexes if it's participants did not seek to practice it as such.  But even if nature did have a strong hand in all of this, I am equally doubtful of our inability to use things likes like Brain and Emotion and Learning Hard Lessons By Screwing Up to overcome it, to the point where "what women want" and "what men want" is not some alien fact you'll never understand but something you should just try asking a person.

*There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some women date jerks.

**I don't know that much anecdotal evidence of the bossing and manipulating aspect of this situation, but that may reflect on the circle in which I operate.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Teaching Physics, Communicating Complexity in Science

Physics is math-y.  That's just how it is.

But it isn't just math.  It's actually much more logical problem solving.  And the kind of math a high level physicist needs is less how to do percents in your head (cause by god, I suck at that), but how to do algebra and calculus, even more fundamentally, how to look at equations as representative symbols, rather than what numbers they are, and how those symbols can be changed around, substituted for each other, and put into statements that say things about the world.

There are many ways to approach the subject of teaching or communicating physics.  The most obvious approach is just to teach it, the students who can do the problems will, the ones who stumble over logic or algebra or trigonometry will struggle, the ones who are scared away by the "calculus" requirement will just be scared away.  There must be integrity within the discipline, after all.  Another approach is to take the math of out it, or at least the scary word "calculus", teach the laws of physics as sort of factoids that you should know--and in the process remove a good bit of what it means to actually do physics.  For people who aren't concerned with eventually doing physics, that is probably fine.  For people who just want to learn about it or need to sort of know what is going on, this is fine too.

But it is harder to really know things this way, because you're just being handed something, and easy to think that those physicists are just crazy smart cause they figured this stuff out.  Well, they did figure things out that weren't obvious, but they had tools.

Some physics you can dance around just fine.  Introductory physics is usually that, although still, students have a hard time figuring out which iteration of which equation to use in which situation because they were just handed some equations and have no bearing on how the symbols relate to reality. You can figure it out pretty easily when you are leaning about objects falling and forces pushing blocks across ice, because you've spent a great deal of your life watching objects fall and forces pushing things, but when you start to get into eletroweirdness charged particle land this gets harder, and by the time you start falling down the relativity-->quantum--->wtf eightfold way particle physics-->cosmology rabbit hole, math is utterly indispensable to *true* understanding.  The factoids are just too weird:  magnetic force felt by a particle in a magnetic field is perpendicular to the direction of the field.  Uh...okay.  The Higgs boson will reveal how particles get their mass. Wait, what? Why would it?  How will that work?  Why should that conclusion be in any way obvious to me?  Well it shouldn't, because I haven't ever had reason to observer anything to do with that, and it has no discernible bearing on the world I occupy.  People who say they understand quantum mechanics perfectly, they just don't get the math, are full of male cow excretion.  Quantum mechanics IS math, with when done correctly has revealed things to us about the universe that have been experimentally verified.  You can buy that what the experiments reveal to you is true, (and you should!) but unless you had the kind of imagination that would suggest well *obviously* an electron has this amorphous property called spin and that only two electrons and with opposite spin at that can occupy one amorphous concept called an "orbital, which will obviously be shaped like either a sphere, dumbbell, coverleaf, or several other complicated iterations of lobed blobs, unless all of those conclusions could have been deduced from empirical observation then you don't understand why it is did that without math.  Max Planck first noticed that light is a particle because an equation he was tweaking to try to describe light worked out that way, and he thought, "That can't be right, I've done something wrong!" Because light being a wave and a particle too was nonsensical.  (But true, and you are also a wave.  More on this in a later entry.)

When teachers or science writers try to make that kind of stuff accessible to the layman, they are spouting factoids, not processes. The factoids are interesting, but the process, in the case of something as math-y is physics, is largely inaccessible to those without a couple of years of college level math.  So if you read a sensational string theory article or hear a physics lecture and go "wtf", that's an acceptable reaction that by itself has no bearing on your lack of intelligence compared to the people presenting the information to you.  You lack the tool that brought the discoverers of this information to the information, that tool being advanced mathematics. If you are a biology student or a layman who is just interested in this stuff, you may not have time, resources, or intest enough to spend a couple of years aquiring that math. People who studied physics heard this stuff and went "wtf" too--they were just so intrigued they dedicated years of their life to acquiring the tools to make sense of it.

When communicating science, is communicating the process important?  I think it is, even if it can only be a sense of the process, a small slice of the sense of wonder that kept the perpetrators of new information interested.  If that process involves a great deal of math--I postulated yesterday that math angst is a large factor in math ability and thus tolerance of being told mathematical concepts. I'm not proposing that science writers teach calculus in the process of explaining physics, because that would take way too much time and wordspace, and you'd be re-inventing the wheel anew if you did it every time.  Readers aren't interested in that, anyway. So you are going to have to sacrifice on details and process to get the meat across.  Describing math in qualitative terms is also, in my opinion, dangerous territory, because some brains (mine, anyway) find wading through sentences a heck of a lot more difficult than just looking at an equation, which says the same thing.  I already have the tools though, but even if I didn't, wordy-math is confusing.

But if you can give a glimmer of the process, somehow, an accesible glimmer of the underlying logic or complexity (and be correct, not mis-interpreting sutblety, which is a common error in reporting things like quantum mechanics which is rife with mathematical subtlety)... you've accomplished a great feat of science writing or of teaching.  You have invited your listener to be a participator, in a sense, not just a consumer of information.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Limits to Cognative Ability

In my experience in tutoring math and physics, and in my own experience in learning these subjects, there is something to be said for a disbelief in one's own ability as a prominent limiting factor in performance.

My high school math teacher once commented that "girls only think they are stupid at math because we spent two decades telling them them were stupid in it." And on some level I think he's right, of both girls and boys.
Think about the angst associated, among the general population, with the word "calculus." Yet I've watched people take the class and learn things and realized after all that it's not so bad.

About half the time, I would estimate, that I've tutored anyone who was decently intelligent and even people who were less so, it wasn't so much an innate inability to do a problem or grasp a concept that got in the way. It was more a thought, possessed by said person, that he or she just could not do the problem. If someone perceives that the problem is not doable, or that the work required to do the problem is too overwhelming, he or she won't do it. We're lazy, a bit. There is a requirement for some cognitive ability, but I think what counts even more is mental fortitude. That is the ability to push past the barriers of "wow this will be hard", or "I don't know where to start", and just starting, just trying something, just summing up what you do know and taking it a step at a time.

You've got to ignore the forest and look at the trees.

So of course, if you're told by your parents or your educators or society at large, that math is too hard for you and that you don't need it, you're going to get overwhelmed when you look at something and don't know where to start, and just assume it's you. If you don't see the importance of math, it's easy to stay stuck that way.

I wasn't a math person. And maybe I'm still not. There was a point in time after I graduated where I kept taking and re-taking the math section of the GRE, hoping to score high enough to score (pardon the pun) a part time teaching/tutoring job with Kaplan learning.  And even though I'm a math minor, I kept failing to get what I needed, because of the combination of not remembering a few math concepts adequately, making arithmetic mistakes because I hate it and can't focus on it, mis-reading a few problems here and there, and not finishing on time.  Over and over, my score improved but was still held back from the required 90% by one or two of each thing every time.  Those are limitations, perhaps on cognitive speed if not ability, of human error I can't seem to overcome, and of not having learned all the math concepts or to not remembering them well enough. Only two of those, lack of speed and propensity to human error, may be intrinsic to me, but can still to some degree be overcome with practice.
I am up 300 points from what I scored on the high school SAT in math.  I came to college seeing math as a subject I wasn't good at and didn't need, and I emerged a physics major.  Because of the physics major, I don't get overwhelmed by the forest anymore. It taught me to ignore that inner voice that worries about ability, (at least when it comes to academics) to ignore the arduous nature of the work, to pick out the things I do know and just start. I've tried to teach my tutees that process, and always the thing that sets the light bulb off is the observation that you know, there's a logic to it, a pattern, it's not really so bad if you just do it.

Organize, prioritize, and start.  That's what you have to do to "get" math and physics, at least enough to wade into it and determine if you really have what it takes. I am convinced that as many as half of college-material people who think they aren't good at math are limiting their full potential just because they think they can't do it.  Math angst denies math performance.  Another third of math trouble comes from being out of practice or never having gotten into the practice of thinking mathematically in the first place.   Plenty of people have trouble with calculus because they took pre-calculus multiple years ago.  So only one sixth of it is sheer talent, sheer cognitive ability. Of course, the ability to ignore the forest and look at the trees may be be a personality thing, associated with inherent ability. But the brain is very, very plastic, able to get good at difficult things through practice. Confidence in mathematics is a freeing process, that needs to take place for more individuals. The widest gulf separating people who are good at, and consequently, like math, from people who don't, is confidence.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Is never simple.

I was going to wrap up today on the Green Bank project.  Like, have the results, which consist of upper and lower bounds to what we confidently feel we can narrow our lack-of-observation-of-the-predicted-phenomenon to, but even that is fraught with random complications.

Things are never as simple as they seem.  Especially when you don't have a Ph.D.  There are always factors that you don't even realize you have to consider.

I also want to add that my research advisor is seriously 10^awesome.  He never disdains questions, even eleventh-hour oh-my-god-I-just-realized-I-don't-understand-this-one-thing questions, he always answers them thoroughly and clearly, and most important, he answers what I actually asked, and not what I didn't.

Sometimes, I think that is the quality difference between a "teaching university" and a "research university."   The quality of your ability to know, because someone bothers to work with you to get there.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Ain't got much for you today.  I stared at spectra tell my head went silly.  In about...several years, I'll be a published astrophysicist for doing that, albeit the third author, but not, sadly, today.

I don't want to talk about the whole not-astrophysics-but-physics-or-not-future whirling around in my head, there's just too much there.  Only one professor of all the ones I've had and talked to about it has been supportive of my "you know what I would rather go into industry or at least get work experience first" stance.  I know exactly why:  academic physics is a status-seeking political bloodbath and taking time off or in any way deviating from The Path To PhD--which I already do a little bit by having two x chromisones but nevermind that--will reduce my chances of ever cutting it, and thus their professorial investment in me as Default Pre-Graduate School Undergrad (although I paid them, so it's my investment to blow if I want) is wasted.   That's the exact reason I have little desire to go to physics graduate school anyway.  That, and the whole gamut of Oh-God-Gender-And-STEM-freakfests, from the blatant-but-still-quite-present "women don't have logic why are they here" to the trying-but-failing-to-be-helpful "women can succeed too! (so if you're doing badly you are making Woman look bad)" and the feminists-would-kill-me notion that no, actually, I don't want to leave my Serious Love Interest because I don't want to and not because I'm conforming to the patriarchy or am afraid of being alone or want to spend my life making babies or whatever external reason people who don't know me might want to say.  So, enthisuam for spending six years in pursuit of a physics Ph.D is just not there.

Until I crack open a physics textbook, that is, and then I think damn it I love this stuff.

You know, I didn't start this draft intending to write about physics and physics graduate school at all. 

What I meant to do was list the personal-development type of things I'm working on, because when recently asked, in a job interview, what keeps my morale up, the honest-to-god answer to that is making lists and micromanaging my day with google calendar.  None of these things are things I should say in a job interview.

So, Things I'm Working On:

  • Not saying sorry when I don't really need to
  • Not getting defensive when Love Interest points out some detail I forgot/failed to notice/think he's being nitpicky for caring about
  • Trying to notice the details before he points them out and I get defensive, because they matter to him even though it's hard to make them matter to me otherwise
  • formulating intellectual arguments of my own and rebutting those of others
  • running
  • befriending my neighbors
  • making connection with the people of this town re: applying that physics degree to community-bettering, fulfilling, and gainful employment
  • gardening
  • cutting back on stylistic run-on sentences used in subtle ways to make various points (okay, not really so much cause this ain't English class, but I am aware)
  • not getting timesucked by other people's blogs (but I sooo want to!)