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Showing posts from December, 2013

Closing Time at the “Astronomy Nightclub”

Today's guest post is from an astronomer friend of mine who moved to the states relatively recently. Her story is not her's alone. I have heard the types of stories she will describe below from many independent sources over the years (dozens, sadly). I have found it increasingly disturbing that certain serial harassers are free to ply their disgusting trade freely within our community. They are not reprimanded because they are highly skilled at covering their tracks and intimidating their victims. Also, universities tend to protect their high-profile professors much quicker than they are to back their younger employees. 
Readers: no matter how you might perceive the interactions described below, the key thing to consider is not whether you feel it's right or wrong. Human interactions involve two people, and two sets of experiences and opinions. So please avoid the simple-minded response of, "Jeez, I don't see why this is such a big deal!" in your comments. Tha…

Viral post: Is science is in the eye of the beholder? [Hint: NO]

December has proven to be an extremely busy month for me, so with my monthly Women In Astronomy blog post due, I again turned to my friend and colleague Renee Hlozek, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, to write a guest post in my stead. And damn if her post didn't go instantly viral, taking the #4 most-read spot among WIA blog posts by garnering 3600 reads in the past week. So I figured I'd repost it here just in case any of my readers missed it. 

Take it away, Renee!
Side note: The past couple months haven't been great for women in science and science journalism. This postlinks to all the stories of racism and sexism as as experienced by Danielle Lee (#standingwithdnlee!!) and the sexual harassment allegations made by Monica Byrne and Hannah Waters. To be honest, I am pretty overcome by the stories of late. I (like a surprisingly large number of female scientists I know) have experienced sexual harassment, albeit of a rather different kind to that discussed …

The Transformative Power of Lying to Yourself

Sarah Rugheimer is a truly amazing person who I've had the great privilege of getting to know better since moving to Harvard. She climbs mountains, collects pond water to teach kids about astrobiology, performs traditional Irish dance, and she also happens to be an outstanding graduate student in the Harvard Astronomy Department working on the remote detection of biomarkers in terrestrial exoplanets.Outside of the department, she is the Director of Communications and Senior Editor of the policylab.org blog. We recently had a conversation about the power of the brain to fool itself into going beyond its limitations, and I asked her to write her experiences with this for a guest post. 
I hated my hornpipe dance. I hated everything about it. I hated its music. I hated its rhythm. I hated the dance choreography. But I had to dance it at the qualifier in eight months for the World Irish dance championships. But even the most passionate hate can be transformed to love and success…by lyi…

The NBA's top towel-waver

Every NBA roster has that last dude on the bench. When you think about it, it's not that bad of a job. You get to practice basketball with the best players in the world, you get to travel with the team to various cities, you have one of the best seats in the house, and all without any media pressure and a pretty nice paycheck to boot.

Of course, it's unlikely that many NBA players see things this way. You don't make it to the NBA based on your humility, and the NBA has some of the largest egos in the sports world this side of the NFL.

This is exactly why Kent Bazemore is one of my favorite NBA players. Hailing from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, Bazemore is the backup, backup, backup point guard on the Golden State Warriors (in Oakland, CA), behind Steph Curry, Tony Douglas and Nemanja frikkin' Nedovic. The last time I saw him play was in garbage time with 7 seconds left on the clock, after all of the starters were pulled off the court to standing ovations af…

Snow Shovels

It snowed last night here in Cambridge, MA. It snowed quite a bit. I mean, in a relative sense it snowed infinitely compared to a typical Pasadena, CA snow day, so I might be overreacting a bit. But, wow, there's about a metric shload of snow out there right now.
Thanks to Erin's forethought, we were prepared with two snow shovels, and a scraper for our car windows. We also have a nice metal garden shovel and an old broom. We used all of these implements to ensure compliance with the city's Snow and Ice Removal Ordinance.
On a related note, my back is as old as I am, making my back a 36-year-old back. That's a pretty old back. You know what else? My 36-year-old back hurts quite a bit after shoveling snow all morning. So did Erin's 3N-year-old back (where N is an integer between 0 and 9).
These simple facts inspired us to look into snow-shoveling ergonomics. It turns out that there are, in fact, ergonomic snow shovels, much like the one our neighbor was using this …

2013 NBA Countdown: #3 Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant (from Texas-Austin) is a scoring monster. He's a two-guard stuck in a small forward's body with the strength of a power forward and the wingspan of a center. He also does it all. He plays smothering defense, rebounds, handles the ball, passes and he's one of the most consistent 20-point scorers in the league.

Owen says (and actually typed this time!), Kevin Durant
Does tuff 2'sBuries 3's Does layupsPuts lots of effort into the gameEven #10 in his top 10 is goodSometimes dunksWhen he does...WATCH OUT!!!

Kevin is also quite stylish


Intelligence in Astronomy: The Growth of My Intelligence

When I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley, I had a very rough first year. I started astronomy graduate school with a B.S. in physics from a small mid-western school and zero preparation in astronomy. I didn't use a telescope until I was 21 years old, I hadn't taken an astronomy course as an undergrad, and upon my arrival at Berkeley I couldn't tell you why the moon went through phases. Seriously. I learned moon phases as a TA of Astro 10.
I remember very clearly heading down to the sixth floor of Campbell Hall for my Stellar Structure class, taught by Prof. Frank Shu. As I walked down the stairs with the other students, two of the second-years, Jason Wright and Erik Rosolowsky, were engaged in an intense discussion the likes of which I had never heard before from students. They were discussing whether the forward-scattering of light is the same as inverse Compton scattering, and under which conditions one description is better than the other (or at least this is how I r…

The simple power of presence in even modest numbers

Upon arriving in Cambridge I've had the pleasure of getting to know Prof. Chris Rose, who is an engineering professor at Rutgers, currently visiting MIT as an MLK Scholar. We've been talking about diversity in the sciences, with a particular focus on increasing the footprint of what Chris refers to as "the Greater Us," referring to the small community of Black folk among the American science professoriate. Sadly, "small" in this case means epsilon-small. 
Even in 2013, there are only of order 10 Black professors at top-40 astronomy institutions according to this poll taken circa 2007. That's about 1% of all astronomy professors in the US, compared to the 12.6% representation of Blacks in the US population. The same order-of-magnitude discrepancy in representation persists across all science disciplines, from physics to chemistry to comp sci. Decades after the Civil Rights era, the overwhelming majority of all US science professors are white (and male).…

Intelligence in Astronomy: Compendium Thus Far

I realize now that I should have referenced previous posts in my Intelligence in Astronomy series in some of my more recent posts. Read in isolation, I suppose my past couple posts would be confusing otherwise. Here is a list of posts so far:

Intelligence: Nature or Nurture? Both, together!
Preview 1 (with some motivation for what follows)
What you think and why it matters
What is Intelligence (Part 1)?
What is Intelligence (Part 2)?
The Growth of my Intelligence
John Cleese on Creativity

Stay tuned for more to come!


Intelligence in Astronomy: The Fixed Mindset and the Cult of Smart

(For my previous posts in this series see this handy compendium. In particular, if you missed it you should check out this post on fixed vs. growth mindsets)

The key feature of a fixed mindset is that intelligence is a fixed, inborn property that does not change in time for a given individual. Those with fixed mindsets tend to see outcomes such as success and failure as a result of these fixed, personal traits. "He didn't get the job because he's not smart" or "I didn't pass the test because I'm not smart" or "she's not a good scientist because she's not smart." I'm sure there are other personal qualities that people could focus on other than smartness, but in the realm of science for many people with fixed mindsets it comes down to who is and is not "smart."

I like to refer to this fixation on smartness as the Cult of Smart. Somewhat pejorative? Yes, indeed. Apropos? Big-time. Primarily because this stance is based …

Intelligence in Astronomy: What Is Intelligence? (Part 2)

One night in Cambridge, England in the late 1970's, two astrophysics postdocs were sitting at a table outside of the Ft. Saint George Pub. One of the astrophysicists was Ed Turner (Princeton) and the other was Scott Tremaine (Institute for Advanced Study). As my good friend, Ed Turner, tells the story At some point we fell to debating which of our famous senior colleagues was the best scientist.  Ostriker, Rees, Peebles, Lynden-Bell and others appeared in the conversation. We failed to find a compelling case for any one of them or even for comparing any two of them; generally there were arguments for many or both alternatives re who was the best.  I can't recall whether we discussed only theorists or also some observers.  Anyway, at some point we noticed that while it was very hard to say whether X was better than Y or vice versa as an overall scientist, it was often relatively easy to say which was better at some particular aspect of science...like who had the most extensive…

Intelligence in Astronomy: What Is Intelligence? (Part 1)

In my previous post we saw how you, the readers of this blog, see intelligence as a key to success. The vast majority of you also see intelligence as something that can increase in time. But a question was left lingering: What do we mean by intelligence?

Is intelligence encapsulated in standardized tests? How about the IQ test? Here's what a famous psychologist, Alfred Binet, had to say about the IQ test:
“The scale [the IQ test], properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.”"With practice, training, and above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgement and literally become more intelligent than we were before."

Jason Wright on Waste Heat and Avoiding Malthus' Prediction

Prof. Jason Wright (PSU) is searching for evidence of galaxy-wide alien civilizations who have avoided Malthusian catastrophes by constructing circumstellar swarms solar arrays. Here's an excellent, TED-style talk of how he and his group are doing it. For more, check out his series of blog posts on his SETI project.

If you're looking for a well-delivered, through-provoking colloquium talk for next year, you should drop Jason a line.

Things are looking up. Really, they are!

Prof. Turner sent a link to this article that gives 23 plots that you should find encouraging. Things are looking up compared to the past. Science is improving and lengthening our lives while decreasing the likelihood of dying from things such as malaria. Speaking of, here's one of the 23 encouraging plots:


When governments spend money on research, the investment pays off. Money in leads to more money out in the form of decreased spending on treating, e.g. malaria. Science FTW!

Intelligence in Astronomy: What You Think and Why It Matters

In astronomy we are acutely aware of the importance of intelligence for success in science. Last week I posted a poll to gauge the opinions on intelligence of the readers of this blog, and most of you are current or former astronomers/physicist or other scientists, or know astronomers/physicists or other scientists. The first question (statement):
The vast majority of you strongly agree with the notion that intelligence is important for success in science. But what do I mean by intelligence? That's a hugely important question, but I left the definition out of this question for a reason. Back to this in a bit.

The next statement:

This is rather remarkable to me. However you readers define intelligence, the majority of you feel that it is a mutable quality of an individual. More specifically, you all feel that it is something that is not a fixed trait. Can it increase in time?
The readers of this blog not only believe that intelligence can change over the course of a person's li…