Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gender Parity: Ask a Scientist...

...but know that your answer will depend on the gender of said scientist:

Women are underrepresented in science in general, but the gender gap is bigger in some fields than others: physics, for instance, has a much lower percentage of women than biology. Researchers decided to ask scientists themselves why they thought this was — and male and female scientists turned out to have pretty different ideas.

The Boys Prep for Halloween

Marcus is wearing his favorite shirt, featuring the Mars Science Laboratory. It's a size small, but we had to cut about a foot off the bottom. Also, he insists on wearing it backwards so he can see the cool rover.  This is now day 4 wearing the shirt. Fortunately, I got two, so he's now wearing the backup shirt while we wash the primary.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mitt Zomney

Via Julia, this strong and compelling endorsement of Mitt Romney by Sci-Fi director Joss Whedon. This is very timely for the obvious reason that I'm way into The Walking Dead TV series right now.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Football head injuries are receiving a lot of attention lately. So are Headbrick injuries. The criticism stings since I enjoy watching football so much. It's quite a moral quandr---whoa, did you see that one-handed catch by Jason Witten?!

Marcus the Deer Hunter

We went on a Saturday afternoon family adventure up to Palomar Observatory yesterday. On our way up, we passed a couple of pickup trucks with several hunters in camouflage and guns milling about on the side of the road. Marcus and Owen had a lot of questions about the hunters and hunting. Erin was able to fill them in on the details since her father (Papi, as Owen and Marcus know him) and uncles are avid deer hunters. This morning, Marcus very authoritatively told me what he knows about deer hunting:

Friday, October 26, 2012

When life hands you an imfamous email...

...make good-advice lemonade. Or something.

Anyway, here's an excellent blog response by Lucianne Walkowicz, who is one of my favorite astronomers (picture at left). An excerpt:

"There’s been a lot of conversation about an email sent to students in a certain astronomy department, which originally appeared here:  
"While I certainly think the original email was problematic, with an eau d’ 'we walked uphill both ways in the snow' about it, I also think there were seeds of good advice buried in it– both for students and those further along. 
"In the following, I’ve tried to cultivate those seeds into some advice for being an astronomer, largely based on my own philosophy of course. I’m sure not everyone will agree with these points, and it should be noted that as I don’t have a permanent job yet, I don’t know whether these are “successful” strategies in the long term. Perhaps one day we will share a laugh over this post, just before I ask you if you want fries with that."
I'm still mulling things over myself. I think The Email was good for sparking discussion, and I've had many good conversations. I stand by my main point in my initial reaction, but I think that initial reaction was limited in scope. There's much more that I want to say about how communication is badly lacking in astronomy (as illustrated by the fact that there existed an email rather than an in-person conversation with the students), and how ironic that is given that science is supposed to be based on communication. I also want to address the way we treat each other in scientific meetings, classes, referee reports, etc. But I feel that I need to grapple with my own past hypocrisy first.

Anyway, until then, it's like what Lucianne said.

You cannot control how people interact with you, only how you interact with them. 
Being a jerk and being smart do not share a causal relationship. It is fine to challenge a speaker with a question, but keep it respectful– learning stops as soon as arrogance steps in. 
It’s also important to realize that we work in a field where various of our colleagues have difficulty picking up on social cues. Not everyone who seems like they are being a jerk is actually doing so on purpose. 
Dealing with aggressive questioning can be very challenging for students, as the ability to weather the storm relies on having enough confidence in the material to not become rattled. This is difficult, because the nature of being a student is for that information to be still fresh and malleable in one’s mind. For mentors, the challenge is to have a supportive enough environment in general such that the occasional difficult Q&A doesn’t seem like a personal attack. 
A simple step towards making these situations less charged is just to talk with students about strategies for dealing with questions, which will depend on the individual and their strengths. Although taking the learn-to-swim-via-a-swift-kick-into-the-deep-end approach seems it would teach students what to do in these situations, it doesn’t. It just models poor behavior that they then perpetrate on others.

Seriously, check out her full post.

Thursday, October 25, 2012



And Jesus said unto Peter: Shut up

More awesomeness from Dan Savage (toned down slightly for my blog). Don't read if your sensibilities are brittle. Here's the original. BTW, I believe that this is actually how Jesus rolled. Give up your wealth, help the poor, and if you act like a hypocritical whiner, tables are gonna get upturned and heads are gonna roll.
Peter LaBarbera is a conservative Christian, an anti-gay activist, and someone I follow on Twitter.

This tweet of Peter's inspired me a new play—just my second:

A new play by Dan Savage
Curtain. Jesus Christ is sitting in a garden in quiet contemplation. One of Jesus's many followers, Peter, approaches Jesus.
PETER: "Jesus?"
JESUS: "Yes, my son?"
PETER: "I want a Jimmy John's sandwich and a bag of chips."
JESUS: "So go get a sandwich and a bag of chips."
PETER: "I can't, Jesus."
JESUS: "Why not?"
PETER: "Because a Jimmy John's sandwich costs more now thanks to Obamacare, Jesus, so I can't afford to get a sandwich and a bag of chips."
JESUS: "You are an a-hole."
PETER: "Excuse me, Jesus?"
JESUS: "Are you deaf? I said, 'YOU ARE AN A-HOLE.' You're seriously standing there [whining] about having to pay a little bit more for a sandwich?"
PETER: "You don't understand, Jesus, why should I have to pay for—"
JESUS: "Shut up, Peter. I was crucified for your sins and all I asked in return was for you people to be nice to each other—"
PETER: "But—"
JESUS: "Shut up, Peter. All I asked was for your people to be nice to each other. And you're telling me that you're not willing to pay fifty cents more for a [damn] sandwich so that the guy who made it for you—and his kids—can go see a doctor? You're not a Christian."
PETER: "But I go to church, Jesus, and I hate gay people so hard!"
JESUS: "Not good enough, Peter, not nearly good enough. Stop bothering me and go worship Thor or Mars or Zeus instead, okay? I don't want you calling yourself a Christian. You're a dick."
PETER: "I can't believe Jesus just called me a dick."
JESUS: "Yeah, well, you are a dick. I sacrificed my life for you and you can't sacrifice a bag of chips for the sandwich guy? Or scrounge up the extra fifty cents? Dick."
PETER: "But Jesus!"
JESUS: "Love one another as I have loved you, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, take care of the poor, take care of the sick, give away all that you have and follow me—does any of this ring a bell, you stupid a-hole?"
PETER: "Okay! Okay! I'm sorry! I'll go worship Thor!"

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Solar Arcs

I totally stole this from one of my Ay20 students. Nice find, Daniel!

I find our star endlessly amazing...


Unconscious Bias Talk at JPL Oct 29

Science Division Seminar

Unconscious Bias in Hiring, Promotions, and Tenure

Presented by

Joan T. Schmelz
University of Memphis

Date:  Monday, October 29, 2012
Time:  12:00 p.m.
Location: von Karman Auditorium


We all have biases, and we are (for the most part) unaware of them. In general, men and women BOTH unconsciously devalue the contributions of women. This can have a detrimental effect on grant proposals, job applications, and performance reviews. Sociology is way ahead of astronomy in these studies. When evaluating identical application packages, for example, male and female University psychology professors preferred 2:1 to hire “Brian” over “Karen” as an assistant professor. When evaluating a more experienced record, at the point of promotion to tenure, reservations were expressed four times more often about Karen than about Brian. This unconscious bias has a repeated negative effect on Karen’s career (Steinpreis, Anders & Ritzke 1999, Sex Roles, 41, 509). In this talk, Joan will introduce the concept of unconscious bias and also give recommendations on how to address it using an example for a faculty search committee. The process of eliminating unconscious bias begins with awareness, then moves to policy and practice, and ends with accountability. For more information, please see the University of Michigan Advance STRIDE web site (http://sitemaker.umich.edu/advance/stride).

Dr. Joan T. Schmelz received her Ph.D. from Penn State University in Astronomy in 1987. She then worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center where she was part of the operations team for the Solar Maximum Mission Satellite. She is currently a professor in the Physics Department at the University of Memphis. Her research involves the investigation of properties and dynamics of the solar atmosphere, including coronal heating, using X-ray and EUV spectroscopic and image data. She has published papers on a variety of astronomical subjects including stars, galaxies, interstellar matter, and the Sun. Schmelz has been a member of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) since 2004 and is currently serving her second term as committee chair. She was an editor of CSWA’s weekly e-mail newsletter, AASWOMEN, from 2005-12, and is the current Acquisitions Editor for CSWA’s semi-annual magazine, STATUS. She has spoken on a variety of CSWA-related topics including Workplace Bullying in Astronomy, Designing a 21st Century Astronomy Career Track, Unconscious Bias, and What Men Can Do to Help Women Succeed in Astronomy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Happy Mole Day

From the makers of Pi Day, a day for Avogadro's number: 6.02 x 10^23 (6:02 on 10/23).

Monday, October 22, 2012

Prof. Jones denied tenure

From McSweeny's via Bri, this letter to Dr. Indiana Jones denying him tenure. An excerpt:

The committee concurred that Dr. Jones does seem to possess a nearly superhuman breadth of linguistic knowledge and an uncanny familiarity with the history and material culture of the occult. However, his understanding and practice of archaeology gave the committee the greatest cause for alarm. Criticisms of Dr. Jones ranged from “possessing a perceptible methodological deficiency” to “practicing archaeology with a complete lack of, disregard for, and colossal ignorance of current methodology, theory, and ethics” to “unabashed grave-robbing.” Given such appraisals, perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that several Central and South American countries recently assembled to enact legislation aimed at permanently prohibiting his entry. 
Moreover, no one on the committee can identify who or what instilled Dr. Jones with the belief that an archaeologist’s tool kit should consist solely of a bullwhip and a revolver.

Preacher speaks against gay marriage, gets caught reading from wrong script

Wait for it...wait. For. It...


Sunday, October 21, 2012


While watching Sunday Night Football:

Owen: Knock knock
Me: Who's there
Owen: Burrito
Me: Burrito who?
Owen: Burrrrr, this burrito is cold! I made that up.

Marcus: Knock knock
Erin: Who's there?
Marcus: Mr. Banana Head
Erin: Mr. Banana Head who?
Marcus: Wait. I mean...nachos!

Owen: Why is the letter B always so cold?
Me: I don't know. Why?
Owen: Because it's always next to the A/C! I made that up.

Owen: Knock knock
Me: Who's there?
Owen: Nachos
Me: Nachos who?
Owen: Yummmm, because they're delicious!

Owen: Why do footballs look so weird?
Me: Why?
Owen: Because they have feet on them! (cracks up)

Owen: Why is the team called the Bengals?
Me: Why?
Owen: Because everyone likes to eat bagels! Get it? Because bagel and bengal sounds the same. HA!

Erin: Who do you like more, Michael Knight or MacGyver?
Marcus: (chanting) Mi-chael Knight, M-ichael Knight!
Erin: Who do you like more, Michael Knight or B.A. Baracus?
Marcus: (chanting) B.A. Ba-ra-cus, B.A. Ba-ra-cus!

The art of passing

I used to get frustrated with my teammates for not passing when I play pick-up ball. I'm not saying I'm a particularly good player, it's just that the number of missed passes in a typical game is pretty astounding. Before I worked on the mechanics of my jump shot, passing used to be my go-to skill. It was a big revelation when it occurred to me one day that passing isn't easy. In fact, it's a skill to work on just like a jump shot or post move.

I think this sort of revelation has dawned on me in other areas of life. I used to think of myself as very average when it came to doing math in my head (I used to estimate our time to arrival every time my family traveled anywhere in the car), calculating odds at a poker table (cluster-counting poker chips!), estimating various quantities to an order of magnitude (let's see, could we make that observation?). Then I'd find out that, hey, not everyone can do that. These things are skills that I've acquired through practice and repetition. I was making assumptions about how other people find it easy, or that they could do these things at all. But while I was feeling insecure about my own abilities, by simply doing what I was doing, I was potentially impressing people around me.

Think on that the next time you're worried about how everyone seems so much better than you (if that thought ever occurs to you). Like I tell my students before they go out and give their first talks at other institutions: be the expert in the room. Don't assume that everyone in the audience has mastered what you mastered. It has taken you a lot of time and effort to get where you are, and it'll help the audience, and yourself, to just own your skills and tell people how it is!

So, um...yeah. All that to introduce this video of Lebron James' oft-overlooked passing skills. The dude is 6-foot-8, 260 pounds and passes like a damn point guard...

Friday, October 19, 2012

The academic 47 precent

Why are there so few women (and minority) professors?

From Dr. (and soon to be Prof) Cullen Blake:
I really liked your blog post about the Moss-Racusin PNAS discrimination paper. It's been really great to see how much attention this paper has generated for this super-important issue in our field. A few of these types of studies have been done before, including one by my wife Katy Milkman. The Moss-Racusin study had a very small sample, as well as non-representative participants who were informed that they were participating in a study, and the study considered discrimination by academics toward people applying for a non-academic position. Katy's study involves many thousands of representative faculty participants interacting naturally with prospective doctoral students, and it is able to look at relative rates of discrimination not only against women but also minorities across different departments and types of schools.
I'm very interested! This is an amazing study based on the rate at which emails from prospective students are ignored, and requests for meetings are denied. You should read the writeup in the link above, but here's the summary table of the results:
[When emailed one week in advance of a proposed meeting (N=3,241), rates at which professors ignored or declined prospective PhD students’ requests to meet as a function of student race and gender.]
Surprisingly, the bias here breaks down along racial/ethnic lines, with the strongest bias against Indian and Chinese students. I can't really speak to that bias very well, but the bias against black and hispanic students is a real bummer!

This denial of entry compounds other problems that black students encounter. The biggest barrier, in my experience, is with black students facing strong, rigid hierarchies within science. Unlike students from affluent, college-educated families, students from poorer, underrepresented groups typically grow up learning not to question authority. "Don't talk back!" is the most likely response to a black child correcting an adult on factual knowledge, or even attempting to express what they know. This means that black students tend to be very quite, shy and reserved when confronted with a rigid hierarchy or when surrounded by elders.

Fortunately, I had a mentor in college who simultaneously taught me to take ownership of my education and to speak up when I feel I'm right. He taught me how to use my "physics voice" in order to assert myself, and how to not back down when I feel I am correct, even if people "above" me disagree. He taught me how to introduce myself to others with a clear voice while looking people in the eye.

This helped me once the door was open. Until reading this study by Milkman and collaborators, I don't think I recognized how hard it was to open doors in the first place!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Inverting the Lecture, continued...

In response to my post on inverting the lecture, a reader alerted me to this NPR story on how physicists at Arizona State are ditching the lecture format:

The test has now been given to tens of thousands of students around the world and the results are virtually the same everywhere. The traditional lecture-based physics course produces little or no change in most students' fundamental understanding of how the physical world works.
"The classes only seem to be really working for about 10 percent of the students," Arizona State's Hestenes says. "And I maintain, I think all the evidence indicates, that these 10 percent are the students that would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on their own." 
He says that listening to someone talk is not an effective way to learn any subject.
Lectures are so 1400's! Follow the link to hear the audio, or read the transcript.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inverting the Lecture

I'm teaching Ay20: Introduction to Astronomy of the Galaxy again this year. Last year I prototyped a bunch of non-standard teaching techniques, and this year I've put the lessons learned to practice for my second time around. 

Lectures are a medieval form of teaching in which the knowledgeable individual (presumably, the instructor) conveys their knowledge through a one-way verbal communication to the students. This worked well back when only a handful of people in a village or church could read and rapidly acquire new knowledge. With the invention of the printing press, it's time to empty out the lecture hall.

Along with my excellent TAs Melodie and Trevor, we get the students out of their seats and into a more active, collaborative learning environment. I take the examples I would cover in a traditional lecture and lay them out in order of increasing complexity/difficulty on a worksheet. Students then form groups of 3-4 and work on the problems at the board. This is the technique used at the Missouri University of Science and Technology's Learning Centers, at the MIT TEAL centers and the UC Berkeley TALC astronomy homework sessions.

With the students working at the board, the instructors can hang back and watch for conceptual errors, providing us with a real-time assessment of student learning. Conceptual difficulties can then be addressed on an individual basis, with customized assistance. In the photo above, TA Trevor David carefully stands behind the group and avoids picking up the marker. He instead prompts the students to think about their work by using the Socratic method. After helping this group, the students started discussing their misunderstanding and corrected their work. Trevor was then free to assist another group.

Here, Melodie assists the group next to Trevor's. After helping the students, she referred them to the neighboring group so they could compare techniques and answers. Our collaborative policy is that students must collaborate!

Here's an artistic shot of two first-year graduate students working on an Ay20 problem related to blackbody radiation. They participate in the Ay20 class voluntarily in order to shore up their basic astro knowledge, which pays off later in the day in their graduate level Radiative Processes class. Their eager participation demonstrates their desire to learn the material deeply, and the collaborative environment puts them, as grad students, in close contact with the undergrads, providing them with opportunities to enhance interaction within the department. 

But do they learn? you might ask. Yes, yes they do. We know they learn because we can see and hear them learn in real time. We don't have to make assumptions about what the students know. We perform "rolling oral quizzes" throughout the week, taking students aside for one-on-one discussions of the key class concepts. These quizzes are evaluations of student learning and our teaching effectiveness. WE can make on-the-fly adjustments to our teaching methods and course material based on how well these quizzes go. 

We also had the students take a concept evaluation exam at the beginning of the term, which we can compare to their results from the end-of-term performance on the same exam. Stay tuned for the results!

For more, check out our course website:

Questions and comments welcome!

Marcus @ The Gold Line

From a sequence of images I took last night:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Two Faculty Members Named Packard Fellows

Two Caltech faculty members have been awarded Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering. Biologist Alexei Aravin and astronomer John Johnson each were awarded $875,000, to be distributed over five years.

"I'm very excited about this fellowship," says Aravin, an assistant professor of biology. "It will allow my lab to pursue new, ambitious goals that are difficult to fund using traditional sources."

Aravin studies RNA molecules, which encode the information contained in genes to help create proteins. His lab is probing the mechanisms that determine the stability and fate of RNA. He's also trying to figure out how noncoding RNA—which doesn't encode information but nevertheless plays crucial roles in the cell—functions and is produced.

Johnson's research focuses on discovering and characterizing planets around other stars. "My broad goals," he says, "are to gain a better understanding of planet formation, place our solar system in a broader galactic context, and eventually find places in the galaxy where other life forms might reside." He plans to use the money to help support postdocs in his research group and to start a visitor program in which scientists from other institutions are invited to brainstorm and collaborate.

Johnson, an assistant professor of astronomy, was meeting with a student when he got the phone call notifying him of the award. "I don't remember my exact reaction, but it certainly startled the poor student," he says. "I spent the rest of the day grinning like an idiot."

According to the Packard Foundation, the fellowships were established in 1988 to allow promising professors to pursue research early in their careers with few funding and reporting constraints. Each year, presidents from 50 universities each nominate two early-career professors for the fellowship. A panel of scientists and engineers then select 16 fellows. To date, there have been more than 400 professors who have received Packard Fellowships. Aravin and Johnson join 26 members of current and past Caltech faculty who have been named Packard Fellows.

Written by Marcus Woo
Caltech Media Relations