Thursday, 22 March 2007

I'm going to just take a page out of the Cosmic Variance book and just quote this other blog:

Discussion at a faculty meeting:

Department Chair: Some of you may be interested in an upcoming visit to the university by a group from University A to share information about their program to increase the participation of women in science, engineering, and math. [hands around an informational memo, including the list of names of the visitors]

Young Male Colleague: Hey, I know X! [mentions name of one of the visitors]. What is HE doing going around talking about women’s issues? He’s a real scientist! And a guy!

Me: Men can be involved in helping solve the problem of the underrepresentation of women in science, engineering, and math.

Young Male Colleague: No, I mean, this guy isn’t effeminate or anything. He’s really a.. a.. a.. a guy!

Senior Female Colleague: Perhaps he is transgendered.

Young Male Colleague, missing the obvious sarcasm, and offended on behalf of the Real Guy: I can assure you that he is nothing of the sort.

Me: He must be a eunuch then.

[Chair steps in and changes the subject]

I've mentioned gender before, in the context of the history of science, and although I should know better, I must admit that I am always surprised when I hear of occurrences like this. Without reminders like this, I tend to assume that whatever remaining gender iniquities we have are hidden, systemic, and slowly being squeezed out. This despite my undergraduate experience as an electrical and computer engineer with about 50 other men and 3 women in my cohort. I assume that much of my naiveté is due to my, well, being a man.

After a recent philosophy of science colloquium at my department, several of us found ourselves sitting around a table wondering why there were no women among us. Could it be that we were all secretly misogynists? That we were androphiles? Our collective impression was that roughly half the students in our department are women (the other half are men, for those slow at math or unwilling to make assumptions about the entrance requirements of my institution). A majority of the women are historians, we thought, while more men must be philosophers. For this reason, then, along with a flu that struck low two of our outstanding philosophical women, and not for some hidden misogyny, were we all male sans fe-.

For numeroholics, it turns out that our department actually has 27 women and 18 men. Many of us describe ourselves as both historians and philosophers. Philosophy is the primary interest of just 12 of the 45. Proportionally, about 1/3 of men are philosophers while 1/5 of the women are. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to draw conclusions from this.

As for me, I will continue to insist that "women's issues" are generally "human issues"--although not always. After overhearing my central role in a conversation about women's jeans sizes, Sex and the City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and exfoliation, a friend told me I ought to hang out with guys more. He may be right. But then, I was the one sitting around the table with six women.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

got paradigms?

Seed has a map of current scientific paradigms:

This map was constructed by sorting roughly 800,000 published papers into 776 different scientific paradigms (shown as pale circular nodes) based on how often the papers were cited together by authors of other papers. Links (curved black lines) were made between the paradigms that shared papers, then treated as rubber bands, holding similar paradigms nearer one another when a physical simulation forced every paradigm to repel every other; thus the layout derives directly from the data.
I wonder what paradigms exist in the philosophy of science?

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

YouTube + science

YouTube has a 3-minute clip of Lives of a Cell, David Bolinsky's 3-D animation of the interior of a white blood cell (via Wired). Three points worth mentioning:
  1. the full version will be featured on PBSs 22nd Century
  2. word has it, the Wachowski brothers want to feature some of the animation in a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  3. although the cells are abustle with activity, 90-95% of molecules are (visually) left out of the animation
It's unfortunate that journals can't show us animations like this--science might be much more popular.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

How many bits is that tree?

Brian Cantwell Smith, rumored inventor of recursion, tells me a colleague at Xerox PARC once wondered, "How many bits is that tree?" The question is striking for being posed at all--it requires an unusual metaphysical commitment, to say the least--but moreover because it was posed seriously, as though it was a meaningful question.

There is a notion being bandied about in virtually every discipline which, in its own way, makes similarly overreaching claims on ontology. That notion is information. It is not clear just what information is. Perhaps St. Augustine would have said, “What is [information]? If no one asks me, I know; but if I wanted to explain it to one who asks me, I plainly do not know.”

But how many bits is that tree? Those of us with a computational bent are likely to think that there might be a minimal description of any given element of the universe (such as a tree), and this minimal description can be measured in bits. Wolfram certainly thinks so, and Greg Chaitin's algorithmic independence seems just suited for drawing lines around objects like trees. Nevertheless, the tree is more than its description. How many bits are in that tree seems a different question than how many bits is that tree.

Sounds painful

Physicists say nerves use sound, not electricity. I'm surprised this isn't bigger news. It seems like this is something someone should have noticed before. I have no idea whether Heimburg and Jackson are right, of course--but the fact that they have published results leads me to conclude that matters are far less settled in this area of nerves than I assumed.

I pay closer attention to science than most people. That's both a cause and a function of my vocation. I learn about new developments in science from the internet, from conversation and from newsmedia. I used to subscribe to popular science magazines, but now I just read Slashdot headlines and follow up when the story surprises me--as in the case above. It takes a lot of work to keep up with even the narrowest of scientific fields, and without being a specialist, it is often impossible to evaluate the significance of what you read (or, for that matter, to recognize that the titles of scientific articles are written in English).

Mainstream media, with its capitalistic/competitive mechanism for choosing stories, makes some curious decisions when it comes to science stories. We read about invisibility cloaks and Star-Trek-style transporter devices (capable of transporting a quarter for the cost of just a few million dollars!). To what standards should we hold the mainstream media when it comes to science stories?

Al Gore blames the media for the lack of political will to motivate action over climate change. In the past few decades, he says, the media has carefully avoided taking a strong stance on climate change. Even in strongly worded articles, room is always left for opposing viewpoints. Indeed, the whole issue is invariably framed as a "debate." Is this a legitimate position? Gore argues that sometimes there is just a matter of fact about the status of a theory--it has been accepted. By insisting on avoiding bias, journalists have systematically misled the public into believing in a debate that in fact exists only in the coverage.

Of course, if scientists can be wrong about whether Pluto is a planet, or how nerves conduct signals, journalistic skepticism is suddenly a whole lot more understandable.