Thursday, November 19, 2015

Continued: Why Colorblindness Needs the No-Racism Axiom

I came up with the title for my last post before I started writing the text. When I finished writing I ended on a different point than the one I had set out to make. I concluded with a description of how "colorblindness" becomes racism. And while the reason that the No-Racism (false) axiom is necessary can be inferred from what I wrote, I never explicitly described why a denial of systemic racism is necessary for colorblindness.

Now that I've established "colorblindness" as racism, I can circle back make my original point. First, I'll note that racism is not accidental nor is it random in its occurrence. Rather, racism has always been used for the purpose of benefitting one racial group at the expense of another through the use of unequal access to political, legal and socioeconomic power. In our country, the group with the power to subjugate is and has always been white. The aim of racism is to maintain this supremacy of the white race at the expense of non-white people, with Blackness and Black people serving as the anti-white, the "fulcrum of white supremacy." 

The flip side of oppression is privilege. Not the privilege that comes from the wages of hard work (although the upper class definitely enjoy their own set of privileges). Rather, it's the set of opportunities, advantages and exemptions from disadvantage that are handed to people by virtue of belonging to the normative group. Through this lens, being of the white race is more than a census category. It becomes Whiteness, a system of beliefs, a specific view of history, an entitlement to justice, and an overwhelming availability of power—the ability to shape the life choices and outcomes of other groups of people. There can, nay, should be no denying that privilege is sweet, and it should be unsurprising that people resist giving it up. The first step of giving up something unearned is admitting that you don't deserve it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why "Colorblindness" Needs the No-Racism Axiom

In my last post I highlighted the No-Racism "Axiom" of modern "colorblindness." The axiom states that "systemic racism is not a thing," and upon this axiom proponents of colorblindness build a worldview in which the racial ills of our world can be cured by individuals making the decision not to engage in interpersonal racism, or recognizing that race even matters in the world. "I don't see color, I only see people," the colorblind individual asserts.

Colorblind people generally know that race has no biological basis. Perhaps they've read The Myth of Race or The Mismeasure of Man. Since science has proven race irrelevant, colorblindness seems to be an obvious and proper response. This is seemingly in line not only with a general sense of morality and personal goodness, but it also appears to echo the famous line from Martin Luther King Jr's I Have A Dream speech in which he envisions a day when "[people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." What could be more admirable than living by the words of the American hero MLK?!

I'll admit that this view seems, at first glance, very appealing. However, the No-Racism Axiom is demonstrably false. And as I'll argue here, without this false axiom colorblindness not only proves to be useless in solving racial problems, it actually becomes a form of racism.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Yale Protests and the No-Racism Axiom

Yale is one of several universities in the US currently being forced to deal with racism on its campus. Sadly, it is also one of several universities completely ill-equipped to do so, due to an apparent willful ignorance of its history, and also because of the effects of modern "colorblindness." I've written about this before in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but it's important to take a look at it now that Yale's and Mizzou's race problems are out in the open.

Calhoun College at Yale, named after John C. Calhoun, an outspoken advocate of slavery.

The Protection of Certain Speech

If you'd like to get a clear view of how modern racism in the US works, just read the various think pieces, op-eds and blog posts about the protests at Yale. Take for instance this one by a free-speech advocate in the Washington Post, who writes 
Readers may not realize that Halloween has become a season of campus controversy. For years, college administrators have been issuing stern warnings to students not to wear “offensive” costumes. I’d always assumed students were privately rolling their eyes at these often overbearing instructions from authority figures on how to dress.
Silly PC police, always meddling in the affairs of good people who are just trying to enjoy a holiday! Of course WaPo is far from a progressive publication, but this take on the Yale controversy is not dissimilar to this piece at Slate, in which the author writes 
I was shocked to watch students treat their professors and administrators with such disrespect. But horrified emotional responses aside, it’s troubling to see the Christakises scapegoated for defending the crucial liberal tradition of free speech.
Or check out this piece at The Atlantic, with a title and subtitle that say it all: "The New Intolerance of Student Activism: A fight over Halloween costumes at Yale has devolved into an effort to censor dissenting views." 

Freedom of speech, censoring dissenting views, students treating administrators with disrespect—surely this is all a sign of spoiled kids at an Ivy League institution running amok with political correctness, right? Shouldn't people have the freedom to express themselves however they see fit? Shouldn't there be an open marketplace of ideas? 

The problem is that these authors present a perspective that ignores societal power dynamics. They and many others like them ignore the history of race in this country, and the actual circumstances faced students of color on a predominantly white campus. In other words, we're seeing a clear failure of "colorblindness"—or a key feature, depending on ones vantage point. By ignoring systemic power structures, everyone ends up on an even playing field where all views are valid and should be protected. However, this notion is totally specious. In reality these authors are writing from the perspective of huge racial advantage (see below), and as such they are, perhaps unknowingly, equating "freedom of speech" with "freedom to discriminate." 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What a just response to oppression can look like

Guest post by Sarah Ballard

“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” – Audre Lorde

I’m writing this piece to say things women of color have already said, and better than I could have. Please read their work. 

Our community has suffered a traumatic upheaval this month. I won’t attempt to link to even a representative sample of the articles, think pieces, and anti-harassment policy documents that circulated among astronomers. Trusted colleagues and friends urged folks to care for themselves. The groundswell gave rise to a “widespread ripple of PTSD (or something close to it) through women in the field,” as Lucianne Walkowicz put it. I saw other male astronomers I deeply esteem publicly grappling with feelings of complicity. Every day brought fresh distress as the extent of harassment, and the secrecy and protection of it, became apparent at every level within our academic institutions. 

Colleagues had urged me to prepare, before the publication of the Buzzfeed story (both emotionally and with respect to my internet presence), for a GamerGate-like backlash.  

I am relieved to report that the number of supportive letters, phone calls, and text messages outnumbered the trolls (whom I did not know personally) by between 2 and 3 orders of magnitude. Even the tiny handful of critical messages I received were toothless (my friends roundly and joyfully mocked a letter I received asking me if I’d “even heard of Susan B. Anthony?!”). I was honored with the most gracious language about my “courage” and “leadership,” some of it from leaders within our field themselves. Many astronomers vowed to support me in their notes, and listed the concrete actions they would take to prevent harassment within their own departments. Other messages contained only the two words: “Thank you.” I was so overwhelmed that I responded to only the tiniest handful. Please know that I read them all, and they often brought me to tears of gratitude and relief. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Data-Driven Solution to the Stellar "Mass Mess"

Guest post by Dr. Luan Ghezzi. Luan was a postdoctoral researcher in the Harvard Exolab from 2013-2015, funded by CAPES under the Brazilian federal program Science Without Borders. This past summer he returned home to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to continue his research into the physical properties of stars as measured from high-resolution spectroscopy. In addition to doing research at the Harvard CfA, he was also a research advisor in the 2015 Banneker Institute. 

The detection of the first extrasolar planet around a solar-type star intrigued astronomers all around the world. The newly discovered system had a planet with almost half the mass of Jupiter orbiting its star at approximately 12% the average distance between Mercury and the Sun, a configuration that is radically different from the one we observe in our own Solar System. In the following twenty years, almost 2000 other extrasolar planets were discovered and confirmed, and nearly 4000 candidates await further confirmation/validation. However, these impressive numbers don’t mean that we know everything about the planetary systems out there. New exciting results dazzle us every day, like the hot friends of Hot Jupiters or the disintegrating planet around the cosmic death star.

Devising a model that accounts for the formation and evolution of all the discovered systems so far is one of the biggest challenges in Astronomy nowadays. One key ingredient involves a little bit of cosmic "genetics." When a child is conceived, genetics is able to tell us the probabilities that the individual will have certain characteristics (for example, the color of the eyes) based on the parents’ characteristics. It seems so far that the same holds for the parent stars of extrasolar planets. 

We now know that a star with a higher abundance of metals (which means, for astronomers, every element heavier than H and He) has higher probability of hosting a giant planet (with a mass similar to that of Jupiter). The repeated confirmation of this link by independent research groups was a big step because it established that the formation of a specific class of planet is tied to one of the properties that mainly determine the evolution and fate of stars: the chemical composition. But how about the other key parameter for stellar evolution: the mass? 

The key plot from Johnson et al. 2010 showing that the
likelihood of a star hosting a Jupiter-mass planet appears
to increase with stellar mass. 
Building up on earlier contributions, John Johnson and collaborators published a paper in 2010 to further explore the role of stellar mass in the formation of giant planets. The analysis of a sample of roughly a thousand stars from the California Planet Survey revealed that the probability of hosting giant planets increases linearly with stellar mass, going from 3% for M dwarfs to 8.5% for FGK dwarfs and finally to 14% for the retired A stars. This was a striking result since there was now stronger evidence that both of the fundamental properties that mainly govern the lives of stars also affected the formation of planets around them. 

However, as often happens in science, additional analyses have muddied the waters a bit. Recently there have suggestions that the masses of the retired A stars could have been overestimated, thus creating an artificial correlation with the probability of hosting giant planets. Despite some back and forth in the literature in the following years, the controversy has remained open due to a lack of empirical results (theory can only take us so far after all). I like to think of this situation as the stellar mass mess

It doesn't do this in Rio de Janeiro!
Upon my arrival at the CfA in January 2014, during a typical really cold New England winter (seriously, it gets really cold!), John and I decided that tackling this mass mess was a good start for my post-doc there. By that time, John and collaborators were finishing a paper in which they use model-independent measurements to confirm that HD 185351 is indeed a typical retired A star (blog post here). In a perfect world, we would just simply extend this analysis to the other 243 retired A stars. But in reality, this would be demand too much time on too many telescopes, so we needed an alternative for my two-year postdoc.

The solution was to gather data from the largest database that was not fully explored: the literature! We conducted an extensive search for benchmark evolved stars which had masses determined independently from stellar evolution models. After reading about a couple of hundred papers, we were able to compile of list of 59 benchmark stars: 26 members of binary systems (in the Milky Way as well as Small and Large Magellanic Clouds) with dynamical masses and 33 isolated stars with asteroseismology-based masses. We then determined model-dependent masses for this same sample using very heterogeneous input parameters collected from the literature, the PARAM code kindly provided by Leo Girardi and PARSEC grid of evolutionary tracks.

The comparison between model-independent (y axis) and model-dependent (x axis) is shown in the figure below. We can see a very good agreement for a relatively large mass interval (~0.7 - 4.5 solar masses), even though heterogeneous data was used to derive the results. The percentage difference between the two sets of masses (in the sense Evolutionary Tracks - Reference) is -1.30 +/- 2.42% and no trends were observed in the residuals relative to the input parameters. Similar good agreements were observed in the comparisons for the radii (-4.81 +/- 1.32%) and surface gravities (0.71 +/- 0.51%). We have also found a good consistency between independently determined ages for members of the same binary systems.
I learned that this is what Americans refer to as a "money plot." It shows that
model-based masses for evolved stars match the true masses measured by
empirical methods. The masses of our evolved "benchmark" stars are not
overestimated by the models!
Put together, our results show that the determination of evolutionary parameters using the PARSEC models and the PARAM code is capable of providing reliable masses, radii, surface gravities and ages. In particular, the masses do not seem to be significantly affected by systematic errors that would end up overestimating them. This conclusion is really important because it corroborates many studies involving topics that range from extrasolar planets to Galactic evolution. If you are interested in more details, check out our ApJ Paper, Ghezzi & Johnson (2015).
The stars in Ghezzi & Johnson (2015) occupy the so-called giant
branch of the H-R diagram, illustrated above. Specifically, our
"benchmark" stars are in stages 8-10, mostly with R > 10 R☉.
It's impossible for our masses to be correct according to the
models while incorrect at and near stage 8, where the
Johnson et al. "retired A stars" are. 

One concern might be that we studied stars that are more evolved than those in the study of Johnson et al. However, since stars follow a single evolutionary sequence that varies smoothly in time and has no discontinuities, it is impossible for the model grids to be correct in the more evolved part of the giant branch while simultaneously being erroneous by as much as 50% a bit further down. (That is, unless we're willing to throw out everything we know about stellar evolution! Ed.)

Although our most recent study was a big step to solve the mass mess, much work remains to be done. That’s why myself, John and our collaborators are coordinating multiple efforts to improve the precision of observed parameters, providing better input to the stellar evolution models. For instance, John and I are revisiting the retired A star sample with new analyzes. Spoiler Alert! Preliminary results do confirm that the correlation between occurrence of giant planets and stellar mass holds. Stay tuned for these new exciting results!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Close Friends of Hot Jupiters: The WASP-47 system

Ever since a mechanical failure caused the end of the original Kepler mission in 2013, the Kepler spacecraft has been conducting a survey of new stars, searching for planets across the ecliptic plane in its new K2 mission. The K2 dataset is a goldmine of fascinating science results. One such result is the recent discovery of two new planets in the WASP-47 system.

Until a few months ago, everyone knew that hot Jupiter planets don’t have “friends”, or nearby small planets in close orbits to the host star. These other planets had been searched for extensively, through radial velocity measurements, analysis of the transit times of the hot Jupiters, and even through transits by Kepler during its original mission. All of these searches turned up nothing.

This all changed one day last July, when Hans Martin Schwengeler, a citizen scientist who enjoys poring over Kepler and K2 data searching for new transiting planets by eye, came across the telltale signatures of two extra transiting planets in the hot Jupiter system WASP-47. WASP 47b was, by all indications, a perfectly normal hot Jupiter -- in the discovery paper, Coel Hellier wrote “With an orbital period of 4.16 days, a mass of 1.14 Jupiter masses, and a radius of 1.15 Jupiter radii, WASP-47b is an entirely typical hot Jupiter”. The discovery of additional transiting planets dramatically changed the narrative.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Guest post: We must unseat Research as the sole god king of our field

This is a guest post submitted by Betsy Mills, a postdoc at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, NM. FYI, I welcome guest posts that promote social justice and advance the conversations we badly need in our field of science, and in our greater society. However, I will retain sole discretion over the content of this blog, so not all submissions of guest posts will be published. Have something you'd like to share here? Send me a proposal, outline or full draft! Y'all know how to reach me. 

I am supposed to be writing job applications right now. But it is difficult when I am having such a complicated relationship with the field in which I am trying to get permanent employment. It is not just a feeling of having lesser value as a woman in this field, seeing how poorly my female peers have been treated and disrespected for decades at Berkeley.  And I am not feeling conflicted wondering how much of this really happened (I sadly believe it all) or what sanctions for Marcy or Berkeley are appropriate (bring them on).  Rather, much of much of my internal discomfort stems from the role played in this saga by aspects of an academic culture that are not unique to Berkeley, and that allowed the behavior of a serial predator to go on for so long unchecked. 

In our profession as astronomers, research is King. And I do not wholly object to that: research is after all our primary job function: we are here to explore the universe. And I love it.  But research alone does not make our field: we cannot also keep this profession sustained in today's society without also having excellent teachers to pass on the stores of knowledge that we have built up, excellent mentors to steer new researchers in the pursuit of new knowledge, excellent outreach that conveys the value of this exploration to the public, and the inclusion and support of excellent researchers from all underrepresented backgrounds of race, gender, disability and sexuality. I believe that this truth is well recognizedbut I also believe that it is not well rewarded.  An anecdote that sticks with me is about a faculty member who received tenure decades ago at a school where tenure was based on success in 2 out of 3 aspects of academic life: research, teaching, and service. And this faculty member received tenure because even though his teaching was abysmal, and his service was nonexistent, his research was so good that it counted as a service to the department.