In which outrage finds focus: petition about the Daily Mail Peiris/Aderin-Pocock affair

Most of you have probably heard about the crass article that appeared in everyone’s favorite working mum- and immigrant-bashing rag (that’s me firmly in its sights, then, for embodying both evils simultaneously), the Daily Mail.

Which one, you ask? Because there are so many.

I’m referring, dear reader, to the columnist who took issue with BBC Newsnight having had as their guests two (gasp) women scientists, neither of which were (shocked double-take) white. Although chosen for their expertise, the columnist stated that it was only their gender and race that had scored them the high-profile punditry stint commenting on the big gravitational wave discovery.

Or in journalist Ephraim Hardcastle’s own charming words:

So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.

The whole gaff has been amply covered elsewhere, and in an open letter, the scientists’ university (my own academic home, UCL) reminded the Mail about the scientists’ legitimate credentials:

[Peiris] is a world expert on the study of the cosmic microwave background…[and] Aderin-Pocock is a highly-qualified scientist and engineer with an exceptional talent for communicating complex scientific concepts in an accessible way.

This whole thing is a bit of joke. The number of women and people of color who appear in broadcast and print media as science pundits is vanishingly tiny. Having two at once may well be conspicuous because of how incredibly unusual it is, but to imply that they were chosen solely for these attributes is just silly considering how every other time, it’s almost always white guys in the chair. If it had been deliberate, we’d see more of it, and we just don’t.

Besides, it’s obviously very insulting to the scientists in question, no doubt having spoiled for them what should have been a deeply exciting moment. It’s also insulting to the women and non-white members of the gravitation wave teams whose work contributed to the discovery – to have the Mail just airbrush them from the picture is astonishing. (Has good old-fashioned fact checking gone out the window along with any semblance of respect or human dignity?)

Anyway, I just wanted to alert you all to a petition that’s gone live from University College Union member and fellow UCL colleague Dr. Rachele De Felice, demanding that the Mail issue a formal apology to the two scientists. I just had a peek and it’s got over 1500 signatures already, which is great for its first day. If you feel as strongly about this as I do, sign the petition and spread the word!

Posted in The profession of science, Women in science | 6 Comments

In which satellite models trump circumspection: the case of MH370

The strange disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH340 has captivated the world, myself included. In an era of instant information, it’s sobering that an entire Boeing 777 could just vanish. I am sure I am not the only one who will be uneasy the next time I board a plane for a routine journey – especially if its itinerary lies over water. Such a tragedy could literally happen to any of us, at any time.

In the course of the last few days, the main protagonists in the search effort have been the multinational ad hoc fleet of aircraft and ships scouring the surface of the vast oceans for telltale flotsam. We have been gripped by grainy images of white, green and orange objects as the search parameters narrowed inward towards the southern corridor of the Indian Ocean some 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia.

But yesterday, UK science took center stage, when the Malaysian authorities announced that the plane was shown to have crashed into the sea leaving no survivors, with the airline adding that it was beyond any reasonable doubt.

I assumed, on seeing this headline, that a bit of flotsam had finally been positively ID’d. But no – it turned out that the authorities had pinned their certainties on a cutting-edge model based on the interpolation of satellite imagery by Inmarsat and information from the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Not just data, but a computer model – and one that apparently has never been used in this way before.

At first, I was baffled that everyone seemed to accept this verdict – even the relatives, one of whom was quoted as saying, “We accept the news of the tragedy. It is fate.” Such is the power of being blinded by science – and perhaps, by the gravitas of a high-profile press conference. This morning, however, there’s been a backlash that I find a bit more understandable, and the relatives are again engaging in protests. How rigorous is this model, and on what is it based? Is it truly solid enough to draw such a firm conclusion about something that is so very important to the victims’ relatives? From my own work with computer models, I know that they can give good indications but are seldom “beyond reasonable doubt”. With the stakes as high as they are, and the tempers as frayed, I am surprised that the authorities had so much faith in science that they felt able to draw such definitive conclusions.

Posted in Scientific method, Scientific thinking | 10 Comments

In which we feel the force

It’s amazing what you can buy off the internet these days.

Posted in Silliness | 5 Comments

In which I admire their honesty

Kudos to Mateja Erdani Kreft of the University of Ljubljana and Horst Robenek from the University of Münster for telling it like it is:

You don’t often see such candor in the methods section of your local journal article – so much so that recently, the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag went viral on Twitter.

Jokes aside, this got me to thinking: how much of our knowledge of biology is influenced by the distinctly unbiological 5-days-on, 2-days-off rhythm of our investigative patterns (assuming that turbo-gunner 24/7 lab commando types are in the distinct minority amongst boffins)? If cell culture experiments were fed every day, would a different outcome result? How much does periodicity matter? Is it a phenomenon worth studying in its own right?

The mind boggles. Except, of course, on Saturdays and Sundays.

Posted in Scientific method, Scientific papers, Scientific thinking, Silliness, The profession of science | 5 Comments

In which we discover a new song

After months of relentless rain and wind, today London felt suddenly and inexorably whalloped over the head by spring. Complete with Disney-style stars and birds orbiting its head.

Our garden has gone ballistic with spring bulbs. Normally for every ten bulbs I plant in the autumn, the squirrels extract a tithe of about nine. Perhaps they were distracted this year trying to break into Richard’s ever-more-complicated bird feeder defense system, but for whatever reason, we’ve got dozens of blooms brightening the muddy-green lawn, and many more shoots pushing through the rain-softened earth awaiting their turn.

As we walked Joshua in the park this morning, we heard an unusual birdcall: definitely tit-like, but not the Peter-peter or Knee-deep, knee-deep of a great tit nor the more complicated CHEE-chee-chee bee-dee-dee-dee-dee of the blue tit. It was more like TEA-for me, TEA-for-me, TEA-for-me: plaintive, insistent, seeking.

The culprit was a blue tit, high up in an ash tree giving it his all, with the message, I imagine, roughly translating as, Fancy a shag? Fancy a shag? Fancy a shag?

I think it’s wonderful that after so many years, a blue tit can still surprise me.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening | 5 Comments

In which sexism leaves me speechless

There’s a lot of talk about sexism in science these days – blogposts, op-eds and tweets roll out on a daily basis, and even Parliamentary committees get worked up about it. It’s no longer a minority of isolated people concerned about the problem: it’s entirely mainstream and legitimate.

Despite this awareness, there are still plenty of problems being reported, so much so that all of the anecdotes about sexism in my profession leave me immune enough not to get really pissed off.

Most of the time.

Today I read something truly shocking. Many of you have probably heard about how chemists are calling for a boycott of the The International Congress of Quantum Chemistry for its glaring lack of female speakers in a preliminary list, despite hundreds of possible options. So far, so par for the course in this day and age, when bias and discrimination are quite rightly pointed out and criticized – against a largely supportive background.

But in an article on Salon entitled “Sexism plagues major chemistry conference: Boycott emerges amid growing outrage” (which for some bizarre reason, at the time of this post going to press, is not viewable outside of the United States), an instance of repugnance has reared its head above my normal threshold. As some of you can’t read the article in full, I reproduce here the key material (with thanks to Professor Virginia Valian for providing access to the text via email). The following is a message from one James Kress, who according to Salon is “a member of the Worldwide Who’s Who for Excellence in Science and Engineering, a nonprofit dedicated to cancer treatment research”. This is what he is reported to have written on a chemistry forum called CCL (which I think is this one, though I’m not a member so can’t check). I leave you with it – with no further commentary  – and invite you to draw your own conclusions.

Has anyone bothered to ask the organizers of the “evil” ICQC about their supposed “gender inequality” issues? Has anyone asked about the speaker selection criteria? Has anyone allowed, or asked, the “evil” organizers of the ICQC to provide a response so the members of the community can get BOTH SIDES of the story?

Has anyone determined the number of black/ Hispanic/ Asian/ American Indian etc. speakers to ensure there is no “racial inequality”? How about the number of speakers from every country on the planet to ensure these is no ”ethnic inequality”? How about the height of the speakers? Has any ensured there is no “vertical inequality” by making sure that people of all stature are “properly” represented. What about weight? We wouldn’t want to promote “Girth Inequality”, now would we? What about age? Hair color? Shoe size? Marital status? Claimed sexual orientation? Eye color? Nose length? Ability to hear? Ability to see? Ability to walk? Ability to talk? Every other “disability” status?

As one can see, once CCL starts down this path there is no end to the amount of whining and complaining that the list will have to endure. It will render CCL a wasteland of “Political Correctness”. Perhaps CCL should dedicate a part of their platform to related social issues such as these.”

Nonsense.

If people want to discuss “gender inequality” they should start a forum on LinkedIn or Facebook or any of the many Social Media sites; or a WWMWICCL (We Want More Women I Computational Chemistry List) email list to which interested people may subscribe.

If you INSIST on discussing this on CCL, the please place an identifying header on all your emails so that those of us who care about SCIENCE, as opposed to trendy whining about supposed “gender inequality” and other fashionable modes of Political Correctness can at least have a hope of filtering out all of the nonsensical content and peruse the SCIENTIFIC content.

Posted in The profession of science, Women in science | Tagged , | 12 Comments

In which we are inundated: the #ukstorm lingers on

Britain is as soggy as a crumpet dunked in tea.

(No Brits I know actually dunk their crumpets in tea, but it sounds suitably British, doesn’t it?)

Even for a wet, rainy country used to wet, rainy winters, it’s been pretty darned wet here in the UK. Thousands of homes are still flooded and without power, beach fronts have been destroyed by monster tides, and the Thames Barrier has seen 25% of its lifetime action in the past two months alone, even though it was built more than thirty years ago. Fierce winds have brought down trees and power lines, flipped cars, forced entire train lines to a standstill and even killed a taxi driver via a massive chunk of dislodged mortar in Holborn Circus. Historically masters of the civilized world, we Brits have had to turn to the Dutch (yet again), this time for extra pumps. They might want to redesign the entire county of Surrey while they’re at it.


The Thames, looking deceptively tame last week

Although weather carnage has been going on for weeks in the rest of the UK, the Prime Minister’s decision to act at last correlated suspiciously with the moment the mansions of the Home Counties (presumably full of rich Tory occupants) finally started succumbing to high waters last week. It’s hard not to be cynical hearing him trumpet, so very late, how we’re all in this together and money is no object. Try telling that to the Cornish.


Destroyed huts on Cromer East Beach, about a fortnight ago


Richard and Joshua inspect a casualty of wind in the park. Another felled tree missed our block of flats by a few feet this past weekend.

Predictably, there’s been a lot of wibbling about climate change, mostly from Labour politicians trying to score points. We don’t have anything as cool-sounding as a Polar Vortex here, though, and the flooding of flood plains may not actually be that unusual. And certainly not as sexy. Proving definitively that the crazy weather this winter on either side of the Pond is anthropogenic is probably quite tricky from a scientific standpoint. But it did all remind me of Kim Stanley Robinson‘s excellent lab lit fiction trilogy about climate change, kicking off with Forty Signs of Rain. Do check them out if you want to get into global warming’s equivalent of the Blitz spirit.

Posted in LabLit, Politics | 10 Comments

In which baking imitates science

It’s Friday, and Richard and I couldn’t help noticing that this croissant looked as if it were about to extravasate and transmigrate to the bottom of the oven, in search of…invading micro-organisms? Damaged tissue?

Jam?

We’ll never know, but check out that gorgeous lamellipodium.

Posted in Scientific thinking, Silliness | 1 Comment

In which I multitask

Less than two weeks remain until my big fellowship application is due – the one I’m banking on to rescue me from the dwindling life of my latest short-term contract. If I get the fellowship, my position should finally be secure. If not, I’ll need to scrabble together another fellowship or short-term contract, or try to find a different position altogether. All of this is happening in the context of the mind-blowingly large number of pounds I have just set up as a monthly standing order to Joshua’s new nursery starting in February, and the stark fact that after childcare fees, the mortgage and the other household bills, there are only a few pence left to rub together for anything else. An interruption in salary, no matter how short, is simply not an option.

No pressure, then.

I’ve been thinking a lot, first, about how much work I’ve been able to get done on maternity leave and second, whether in fact that’s actually been a good thing. The answer to the first question is: quite a bit. I’ve seen two papers through to publication, and I’m working on a third, fiddling with figures, tweaking text, and liaising with a few researchers who are finalizing the data. I’ve sat on a study section for the Swiss National Science Foundation. And every day this month, I’ve chipped away at the fellowship, both on my computer at home, and during the occasional jaunt into town to chat with my PhD student and various collaborators (pram and all).

But is this really a positive thing, with a new baby to look after?


Grant vs grant

Given my musings, this article by Dr Rebecca Braun, published last week in the Times Higher, was pretty timely. Briefly, she describes an academic’s view of maternity leave, how the work itself doesn’t stop even when it probably should, and how that makes her feel. One passage in particular really got to me:

Each time I have sat at my computer over the past seven months, I have thoroughly resented the demands my job continues to make on me. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of carrying out the tasks nevertheless. This has of course led to feelings of extreme guilt, as my older children have asked why they have to go to after-school club when I am on “eternity leave”, and my youngest has been left to grumble in her cot for longer than was fair. I have not had time to go for coffee with other mothers at the school gate, and I have completely failed to be any better at staying in touch with friends and family. My work, by contrast, keeps on demanding and attracting my attention.

The “grumbling in the cot” bit resonated with me especially strongly. Now don’t get me wrong: I spend an enormous amount of time with Joshua. I feed him every three hours, change his nappies, read and sing to him, take him for long walks in the woods, lie on the carpet batting his hanging toys towards him and making his mobile spin. But when he naps, I leap to the computer and crunch out as much as humanly possible until he starts to stir again. I sneak around the house on tiptoe, hardly daring to breathe, so that I won’t wake him up. And sometimes, just sometimes, I let him grizzle a bit while I finish up a particularly troublesome sentence or image manipulation.

Does this make me a bad mother? I hope not. I also let him stew sometimes so I can prepare my lunch, do the laundry, tidy the kitchen or take a shower. It’s all about maintaining a balance between being a mum and retaining my sanity. I won’t deny that sometimes childcare gets a little boring: the other day, I caught myself trying to liven up proceedings by working out how to play Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana on Joshua’s squeaky toys. But other times, especially after a long day, I will gladly sit on the sofa for an hour or more, absolutely content while he snores gently, a heavy, warm and miraculous weight on my chest, the light fading and the rain pattering against the window glass. I could probably be scribbling notes for a Gantt chart or proofing text at the same time, but I don’t need or want to. I know he won’t be so small forever, and I don’t want to let it slip away.

Posted in Careers, Domestic bliss, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Women in science | 16 Comments

In which I yearn for retro lab chic

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Or at least, they don’t name ‘em.

Harry and I recently stumbled across this beauty when we were clearing out some of the side rooms in our new lab space.

Allow me to present the Labofuge 6000. Lab-o-fuuuuuuuge. Six thousand, baby. Making it sound as if 5,999 previous models had culminated in this one specimen of spinning, thrumming perfection. Exactly the sort of silly name I was lampooning in my second novel when I named a fictitious bit of kit the “Interactrex 3000″.

What leaps out at you about the Labofuge 6000? It’s big. It’s solid. It’s no-nonsense. It’s got an awesome 180-degree analogue dial thingie, so you know exactly where you stand – none of this digital nonsense. It was made, I am reliably informed by the internets, back in the early ‘Eighties. 1981, to be precise. In 1981, the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” was number one in the UK for five straight weeks; across the Pond, the longest running number-one single on Billboard‘s Hot 100 was “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John. Yes, when the Labofuge was in its prime, I was wearing leg-warmers and rah-rah skirts, getting snubbed by boys who didn’t like girls who knew the answers in class, and was consoling my hurt feelings by losing myself in all the amazing things I was learning in my first serious biology class. I believe it was also the year I was voted by my classmates “Most Likely To Become A Scientist” (which I’m pretty sure was not meant to be a compliment).

But back to the present. As with all the other crap Harry and I have found lying around under decades of dust, we plugged it in and gave it a spin. (Sorry.) We’re not flush with cash, and neither are we proud. But alas, the Labofuge 6000 was not destined to join our fleet of ancient, second-hand workhorses. When we switched it on, the rotor shuddered into life without us having touched any of the dials and began spinning so fast that the entire body rattled and quaked and slowly started to inch its way off the bench. Fortunately, Harry managed to yank the plug, HAL-like, before it crashed onto the floor. Yes, like all the other clapped out fridges, incubators and miscellaneous apparati we’d inherited, the poor Labofuge 6000 had been abandoned for good reason.

Shame. I have a thing about old lab equipment. The new stuff can be downright annoying. Take our brand-spanking-new shaking incubator. If you want to change the rotation speed, instead of simply turning a dial up or down to the desired setting, you have to press five different buttons in the right sequence and then enter a three-digit code. The people who design these things obviously don’t have to use them on a daily basis. I wish I’d had a chance to see the Labofuge in action more than thirty years ago. I’m sure she left all her competition in the dust.

Posted in Nostalgia, Silliness | 13 Comments