Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Pedometers Take Over

-I have this image in my head of wearing a pedometer during [marital activities].
-What, on your ankle?
-No, it wouldn’t move up and down enough.
-No, not there either!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Curiosity, Wires, Destruction

Kids are very curious. Whose kid hasn't taken something apart? Who hasn’t heard a two-year-old ask why? Why is the sky blue? Why do fish swim? Why is that car upside-down?

I have a theory (unsupported by facts, mind you): If kids are told ‘I don’t know’ too often, they lose some of their curiosity. They start to believe that answers can’t be found, or are too much trouble, or are ineffable. If parents say instead, ‘Let’s go find out!’, kids can learn that inquiry is worthwhile, that research can answer their questions, and that the answers are interesting.

My other theory is that everyone would love science if they were only shown it the right way. I’ve sat through a lot of lectures where the teacher clearly didn’t know the answer to ‘Why should my students care?’ And you know what? Those lectures were boring. But there should always be a convincing answer. Sometimes the answer is, so you can understand something else. Sometimes it’s, because it’s cool. Occasionally, it’s directly relevant to everyday life: why alpha particles only kill you when ingested, why allergy shots work, why you shouldn't get an antibiotic for your cold, why autism has nothing to do with vaccines. But I think science should always be presented as a framework for understanding the world. It’s not that knowing exactly how cells divide is so important, but it’s the ability to reason, to make connections, that lets you explain to your grandma why everyone she knows is getting cancer. (Age.)

A lot of chemistry and biology is presented as dogma rather than as ongoing questions. (Could we force every highschool teacher to read Kuhn and Popper? Please?) Gravity is written in stone, cells look just like those jello molds from the seventh grade, genetics are Mendelian, and chemotherapy kills cancer cells. I think this discourages inquiry. Maybe a kindergartener can’t handle it, but surely a highschool student can grasp the idea that data leads to theories, which are constantly evolving, and which are a best model for what has been observed so far, and that research is always ongoing. If kids- and then adults- know WHY science is interesting and relevant, they’ll have the knowledge to tackle questions on their own, and they’ll believe in their own ability to figure stuff out.

We had a microscope growing up. Pond scum, dog hairs, onion skins, dirt, leaves: you name it, we looked at it. Since my mom is a PA, bodily-function questions were referred to Gray’s Anatomy (now online! Free! Woo-hoo!); inquiries on what happens to potato starch in the microwave* and why were met with a potato, a bowl, and a knife. We took apart washers, computers, blenders, and cars. ‘Why?’ was always answered by ‘What do you think?’.

All three of us are scientists.

*It's amazing how many scholarly articles there are on microwaving potato starch. Who knew?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Weird Scientists

So good scientists usually have a boundless, random curiosity about things. 'Do you know how birds find their migration routes? I wonder what causes different drug reactions. Do you think if I heated this up more it would explode?' In our house, the dictionaries and encyclopedias sit next to the dining room table for easy access. Also, it's handy for crosswords. And my science trivia team in highschool won a lot.

A grad student in Mr S's lab just bought a pedometer. He's attaching it to everyone in lab for two days and taking readings every three hours, to see who moves the most and what patterns there are. Then he's going to chart it. I want a copy.

Still, so random!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Links of Love!

And! I and my mad HTML skillz (i.e., none) are slowly adding links. If I screw it up and this all vanishes, that's why.

It would have been a better trip back

without the state trooper blocking the left lane, next to two fellows standing on the very narrow divider with all their bags, leaving one lane and five hundred tired drivers backed up for miles. Why were they not on the shoulder? A mystery. Also, without the goose. Oh, look, honey, isn't it pretty? I've never seen one fly so low. What is it- oh my- THUMP. Splatter. Cloud of feathers. Happily, the tanker behind us following far too closely only came very very close to hitting us. And now I know one thing SUVs are good for: the one that hit the bird wasn't even dented.

Mom and Dad were hilarious as always. Dad gave us a sharpening steel and Mom made me an apron. The company, in the person of an uncle and two cousins, was excellent. Dad and the uncle ran around in boxing attire, drank a lot of whiskey, and jumped into the hot tub giggling, with beers and cigars; there was competetive sweating in the sauna; we ate well and spoiled the dog (who weighs 106 pounds and thinks he's a lapdog. Do not let your Lab puppy sit on your lap). My favorite cousin (likely because she visits the most often) kept us well entertained with stories of her mostly-Hispanic students in Philly, and of the fellow she's dating (this is the cousin who Dramatically Came Out to all of us after Thanksgiving dinner last year, upon which we all looked at each other, shrugged, and said "We thought so. Who wants more pie?" So heck if I know what's going on. It didn't seem polite to ask.) He's an editor and a banjo player and apparently more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and they go to shows all the time, so she introduced me to a couple more bluegrass bands. Hurrah!

Friday, November 17, 2006

And Happy Thanksgiving

We're setting out Sunday for the ritual eating of food and the ritual explosion of apples. So happy holidays to all three people reading this; if your families are lovely, best wishes for enjoyment; if they afflict you, best wishes for it being over soon.

Professional and professorial

I love science, I really do. I love figuring things out and explaining them and putting little pieces together. But the last several years, it’s been a little like an unfaithful spouse.

I feel so betrayed by science, the professoriate (in the abstract), and by my own expectations. I wanted to teach; I wanted to be a professor. I got here only to learn that I would have to make enormous sacrifices, many of which are not asked of my male colleagues- have you ever heard a young man say he can’t have kids because he might not get tenure then? No, I don’t think so. Not to speak of the overwhelming majority of female scientists whose partners are also scientists, and the underwhelming minority of male scientists who must deal with two-body job problems. Salaries for new female professors are still lower than for male profs with equal experience. I am amazed- and not in a good way- that women only make up fifteen percent of the professors in my field. It is 2006. Why has it taken thirty years to get to even this point? Do I have to wait for the whole last generation to die before I can expect real change? Why are we getting screwed over in so many ways? Why are we still told to choose between family and jobs? Why do people keep writing letters to Nature claiming that discrimination is all gone? Why do universities not realize they have to change?

So I won’t be a professor. I’ll get over it. And I will try not to quit, I will. I paid too much- emotionally and physically- to give up now. I can be tough. I can be wrong in a loud voice. I can keep my anger out of view. I will endure all this until one day when I can teach and serve and give back, and maybe, if I’m lucky, convince a few children that the world is a beautiful and fascinating place and that science is a wonderful way to understand it. And maybe, just maybe some of them will grow up both believing in equality and experiencing it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Honey, Guess What?

I used to run, back in high school: three miles a day, every day. I got up before sunrise to go running. Then I thought better of it. The last time I got up at sunrise, it was because being stuck in traffic in New Jersey is even worse.

My dear sweet spouse wants to run a marathon. A marathon! Twenty-six miles! He must be insane! But I’ve always thought marathoners must be touched in the head. So he gets up three times a week, at 6 AM, to go run ten miles.

It’s a little hard to have Superman for a partner. I feel rather a bit inferior, frankly. He’s a very energetic person; he gets up earlier, works harder and longer, does more. After work, he makes dinner and washes the dishes and balances the checkbook and then he dissertates. Me? I collapse on the couch and watch bad television. It's a little like what Phantom has just so eloquently said about kid-related responsibilities. There are all these people who are, honestly and truly, better than me at all this stuff.

Sometimes I try to delude myself: If only I really cared, I could totally work twelve hours a day, volunteer at the high school, pack nutritious and aesthetic lunches every day, sew that skirt that’s sitting in pieces on the floor, and exercise too! Absolutely! It’s just because I don’t care enough! Sure.

Maybe I do have more energy than I think. Maybe I use it up. Maybe it's sucked into a huge vortex off the coast. But I don't think I will ever have it in me to be as super as my darling husband.

I have real limits, hard edges where I run out of myself. One day, maybe I’ll be grown up enough to accept them, and stop being guilty about having nothing left to give. But not today.

Denying (More Anger)

“But things have gotten better. There are lots of female professors now!” – this was my lab’s response to the NSF and NAS reports. Yes, now it would be illegal to tell Lucy Shapiro (a very famous female scientist, now in her sixties) that she only gets half the award because her husband will support her. Yes, nowadays Mr. Nobel Laureate (I wish I could tell you who, but I’m sure it’s libel; it is only hearsay, after all) would get taken to court for propositioning his female grad students. Great! We’ve moved on from the Middle Ages! That doesn’t mean there’s equality, and every time someone denies the gap, it is that much harder to make progress.

I am angry that my experiences are denied every day. When I finally read “Lifting a Ton of Feathers,” I sat down and cried, because the first chapter was word-for-word my experiences. Real discrimination, condescension, being treated like an idiot, having to work really darn hard just to get recognition: yep, I’ve gotten that. I was once told, in response to my professional judgment, that I was “just being negative.” I have never once heard my advisor denigrate the scientific opinion of my male colleagues by telling them they were being emotional about it. My emotions have nothing to do with it.

[I am willing to admit that some of the obstacles I and many of my female compatriots have faced, especially here at Snooty U, do have to do with learned mannerisms in an entrenched culture grown up around a largely male professoriate. I did have to learn how to be assertive both personally and professionally, to always have an answer at the ready, to be willing to be wrong with confidence, to try not to be devastated by being wrong, to speak loudly and clearly and lean back in my seat. Also, to breathe fire.]

Friday, November 10, 2006

Writing Anger

I started writing here because I spend all day working in silence and I get home and I want to talk and talk and talk and talk and poor Mr. Scientist, who has real humans for co-workers instead of slaves of Cthulu, he has to listen. Plus, I go on about the same things over and over to him, and I’m sure he’s tired of hearing in how many ways our tech cannot draw a straight line between two points, how my Old White Guy Advisor is a stereotyping stereotype, how hard science is and how hard science is for me and why didn’t my experiment work and I want to quit, every day, and Dow Chemical has an opening, do you want to move back to Virginia TOMORROW? How about next week?

I looked back at what I’ve written so far about my least favorite misconceptions and so on, and I realized that what I am not writing about, because it is so hard for me to let it out, is my anger.

I am furious that American schools don’t teach science to their kids, that your average eighteen-year-old can’t tell you where his liver is or what ATP is, that my fellow citizens are largely unable to evaluate the spurious pseudoscientific claims being made to them every day, and they are being duped, and they lack the tools to understand their own medical treatment- and there’s a lot of medical treatment nowadays- and they should know better. Why have our schools failed so wretchedly?

Related question: why can I teach in a private school, but not a public school, with a PhD?

[More later.]

Thursday, November 09, 2006

No evidence

The other day, I was talking to Mr. Scientist about some experiments. “But what about Dr. Quack’s idea that geese are subconsciously attracted to willow trees?” he asked.

“There’s no evidence for that.”

I’ve noticed that sometimes, the rest of the world hears this phrase and thinks “There’s no evidence for it, so there’s no evidence against it. So who knows what the answer is?”

But here in the ivory tower, we usually mean “There’s no evidence for that.” When scientists say this about others’ work, theories, or papers, it’s an insult. [Although every so often, all we mean to say is: You haven’t done the experiment yet. That’s all speculation.] It’s a way to dismiss data as sloppy, insignificant, artefactual, irrelevant, or faked. It’s “I don’t believe it." Even in the most charitable cases, it means: I think your interpretation is weak. It usually also means: I have a better idea.

It’s a pity that it is heard as a lukewarm dismissal. It is a polite phrase to disguise the most profound mistrust.

And clearly I've been here too long: I've taken to using it as a stock phrase outside of lab, on the lines of "You can't prove it! I'm innocent, I tell you, innocent!" Why is the car unlocked, dear? No evidence. Did you eat the last brownie? No evidence!

Monday, November 06, 2006


Once a week or so, I go down to the law school here- which does one of the few truly good things at this place: it helps asylum applicants- and I work as an interpreter.

Since I’m translating French, most of the clients I work with are Africans. So think of the francophone countries that are currently unstable: Ivory Coast, Congo, Mali, Cameroon. Civil war, corruption, murder, families being vanished, houses seized, forced labor, secret prisons, the hopelessness of escaping only to see one’s family struggle in abject poverty 3000 miles away: these are the stories I translate. The lawyers have to ask terribly detailed questions: Why didn’t you take your birth certificate with you while fleeing across a river in the dead of night? How many of them were there? What exactly did they use to whip you? Why did no-one come when you screamed?

It is absolutely heart-wrenching. Without breaking anyone’s confidentiality, let me say that rape and murder are some of the nicer things the client have been through. I once had to translate, on the spot, a forty-page affidavit detailing exactly how someone had been tortured. I went to a court case that had been denied by INS the first time because the client could not remember exactly how many soldiers broke into her home and beat her.

I know it’s better- much, much, infinitely better- to translate it than to live it. I know I’m providing a needed service. I do what I can. But it is never, never enough.

I pray, God the All-Forgiving, may it be Your will to be a guide and a redeemer unto all who bring pain and suffering to their fellows beings on Your earth. Merciful One, may You grant peace to those who ache for consolation, and strengthen our hands and our wills as we strive to mend what we have broken. May You grant us mercy and comfort. May You bring a lasting peace, soon, swiftly, in our lifetimes. Amen.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Canards, Part I: You can’t prove a negative!

I love being a scientist; I’m very evangelical about it. I want to answer questions, explain things! I want to spread the gospel and love of science all around! (This is my only proselytizing; I’m Jewish.) I love when my artist friends ask me how cell division really works, or whether cell phones make your brain wonky.

The only question I really, really loathe* is “But you can’t prove a negative, can you?”

Yes; yes, you can.

I’ve seen this lead to many misunderstandings: that evolution is a'theory', that you can’t show mercury doesn't cause autism, that leukemia could too be from power lines. (A side note: Scientists never, never say we have ‘proven’ anything; we demonstrate, support, hypothesize, conclude, deduce. Only God has absolute proofs of anything, as far as I’m concerned, because you have to be omniscient to know there exist no counterexamples.)

So say you want to know if Phenomenon X is not caused by Thing Y. You need a large sample size, in case the incidence is low; a long enough observation time, in case the frequency is low; a sample as randomized as possible; a population with regular exposure to the variable; a reasonable assumption that things you know cause Phenomenon X have been minimized; and good controls. If you have all of these things, you can demonstrate to a low probability, say less than 0.1%, that there is no correlation. In plain English: with all these things, you can reasonably conclude that 0.1% of cases, at most, are caused by Thing Y. In the scientific world, that’s the same as It’s Not Happening: if you can’t observe it, it’s not happening.**

Controls are perhaps the most important thing in any experiment. If you don’t choose a good control, you can’t show what you think you’re showing. Controls have to tell you that the experiment worked, that you can observe a negative, that you can observe a positive, that Weird Stuff isn’t happening, that the numbers you get in Condition Y are different from in Conditions A-F. Here’s a great example: On this FDA sheet (pdf) for example, 5% of patients report fatigue, but so do 9% of placebo-receiving patients. Why? Because fatigue is a common effect of depression. So you have no idea if the drug 1) prevents fatigue 2) causes fatigue or 3) alleviates the disease, which removes some fatigue from some people. The right control is healthy volunteers, or people who didn’t experience fatigue from the disease and people who did. In this case, nobody really cares, so they didn’t do it. But the bottom line, is you can’t tell.

Finally, there was this famous study, in Sweden or Denmark or Finland, on cellphones and brain cancer.*** It had a graph: the rate of brain cancer and cellphone ownership went up at about the same rate. QED! But so did fast food consumption, and, say, mp3 player ownership. Do french fries cause brain cancer? Almost certainly not.

They didn’t do their controls. It’s a cardinal sin: that of sloth, indifference, and bad science.

*Okay, I don’t like “But why would anybody do basic science? Shouldn’t you just look for new drugs?” much either, but that’s a topic for another day.
**This is entirely separate from, say, faith. I happen to firmly believe in God, myself. But miracles and blessings are not subject to scientific proof.
***Which now I can’t find. If anyone sees it, please send it along; I loved it. Much better evidence summarized here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marital harmony

The Scientist household, 11pm last night.

JF: [in bed, sleepy] What was that noise??
Mr. Scientist: My ring! Down the sink! !?@#$?!!!
JF: Sigh. Get the wrench.

Happily, only a coat hanger and a foil pie pan had to die for the cause. And we got it back.

He says he'll go the jeweler today. I remain skeptical.


Antidepressants and Pregnancy
Ask a Scientist
Friday Library
Advice: Assertiveness Training
Advice: Choosing a Lab
Advice: Research On The Cheap
What Realistic Mentors Tell You (On Funding, Tenure, &c.)
From Lab to Nursery (a.k.a.: PhD quits fancy job, stays home with baby)