Monday, February 28, 2005

A call to repair the Hubble Space Telescope

Congress Can Keep Our Eye on the Universe Open

This article represents the consensus of the scientific community (more or less). The Hubble is one of the most significant pieces of scientific equipment ever developed, at least in terms of its power to inspire. To leave it to die an early death would be a scandal.

learning experience

I learned a bunch of stuff this weekend.

  1. It takes 35 minutes to walk to the train station from my place. (I thought it would take 30 minutes. Instead of arriving at 4 48, in time to scamper onto the train, I arrived at 4 53, just as the train was pulling away from the platform with leviathan-like inexorability.)
  2. It is impossible to not drink when I'm with T-regina and Her Husband.
  3. Even squiffy, I still got it when it comes to Settlers. (We play the game by very friendly rules, motivated mainly by H.H.'s desire to not have to sleep on the couch, but I don't need to steal their resource cards to whoop their asses.)
  4. It is a Very Bad Idea to forget about the "no alcohol" label on medication. Bleurgh. (How does something like that slip one's mind?)
  5. Bride and Prejudice is a fabulous movie. H.H. and T-Regina usually watch different movies when they go to the theatre, since H.H. likes cerebral and/or action movies while T is unabashed about her love for weepy chick flicks, but both of them loved this movie--although H.H.'s enthusiasm decreased when T started claiming that she was going to make him put dance routines to the silly songs he habitually sings for her, in order to make her own life more like a Bollywood musical.

What an educational weekend I've been having!

Thursday, February 24, 2005

It's the dream

It's the dream we carry
that something wondrous will happen
that it must happen--
time will open
hearts will open
doors will open
mountains will open
spring will gush forth from the ground--
that the dream itself will open
that one morning we'll quietly drift
into a harbour we didn't know was there.

--Olav H. Hauge, translated from the Norwegian by Robert Hadin

Yahoo! News - Canada Says Will Stay Out of U.S. Missile Defense

Yahoo! News - Canada Says Will Stay Out of U.S. Missile Defense

Hurray! This is the best news I've heard in a while. The missile defence "shield" is scientifically, er, indefensible (rimshot), an utter waste of money, and almost certain to lead to worse international relations. Hurray for Paul Martin for standing up for reason and common sense.

More good news, sans link: Connecticut is getting closer to a civil-unions law. I saw this on the headlines on a newspaper box on the street and almost started crying right there. It's possible that not all is lost when it comes to politics around here.


Posted by Hello
My mother e-mailed me a little while ago to make sure she had my address correct in her palm pilot, because she wanted to mail me some socks she had finished knitting for me. Quite aside from it being wonderful to have people I love make things for me, this was an e-mail that pleased me greatly: the combination of high and low tech was just too delicious.

And of course the socks themselves are lovely. The pattern is extremely intricate, and they're one of my favourite colours of blue.

As I write, my feet are both warm and happy. (yes, feet have feelings too.)
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

--Philippians 4:8 (NRSV, New Oxford Annotated Bible)

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

a new folk idiom

"As conflicted as a cat in a sushi restaurant full of rocking chairs."

Use it wisely.

Monday, February 21, 2005

article title

"Particle Emission in the Light Heavy-Ion Fusion Reactions."

um. So these are light heavy ions you're talking about...and they're fusion reactions but you're studying the particle emission....riiiiight.

And people say physics is logical., here's a good one. "Broken Symmetries and Chaotic Behavior in 26Al." It's a soap opera in the making.

heh. this one just sounds dirty. "Forbidden (p, d) Pickup to Stretched States of 26Al."

I am having way too much fun with this literature search.

Wow. A typo in the indexed categories means that this article is about not shell model calculations but smell model calculations. How come I've never gotten to do smell model calculations?

"Study of the Hard Part of Neutron Spectra in (p, n) Reactions." I guess someone already published on the easy part. Huh. Sucks to be them.


Go see Hotel Rwanda.

I went to see it last night with some friends. I brought a bunch of Kleenexes because (a) it's about genocide and (b) I cry even at phone commercials. I barely needed them. Instead, half an hour in, I started shaking, and didn't stop until an hour after the movie was over.

By a wonderful coincidence, Paul Rusesabagina, the man on whose experiences the movie is based, is coming to speak here tomorrow. Can't wait.

And online-friend-of-online-friends Quinn has spent time at the tribunal that is trying to sort out this whole mess. Read her story.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Bodhisattva vow

The passions of delusion are inexhaustible. I vow to extinguish them.

The number of beings is endless. I vow to save them.

The Truth cannot be told. I vow to tell it.

The Way which cannot be followed is unattainable. I vow to attain it.

Friday, February 18, 2005

We do stuff.

...and speaking of consulting....

The hardest thing I've ever done

A year and a half ago, I went to a job interview.

--and yes, that is what the title of this entry refers to.

The interview was for a professorship at a small college in Halifax. I was one of three on the short list. Each of us spent a couple of days at the department, giving a talk about our research and being grilled by each of the faculty members in turn about our qualifications and interests.

Applying for the job was up there on the list of the hardest things I've ever done. I had to really think about what I was doing with my life and why, and whether this whole physics thing was such a good idea after all. At that time I was also considering applying for a job as a consultant with McKinsey or some other evil company like that. Clearly I eventually decided against that option; but the process of deciding was one of real soul-searching: all the different options I was considering would be very rewarding, but in very different ways, and I had to decide what kinds of rewards I wanted to chase. The conclusion I came to then was along the lines of, "Well, I'm not entirely sure that I'm A Physicist--but I seem to be pretty good at it, and I love the idea of being a professor...and although I have my doubts about this sometimes, there's nothing else that appeals to me in the same way." Maybe not the most ringing endorsement, but it's a lot more clarity than I usually have about most things. So I put together a decent talk, and a plausible line about future research interests, and put all my worldly posessions in a red spotted handkerchief and set out to seek my fortune in Halifax.

I spent the next two days beating my fists against an invisible wall.

I talked to each professor in turn. From all but one of them I got the impression that they weren't even really sure why they were talking to me: that they had already decided that I wasn't who they were looking for. Having convinced myself, at least, that my proposed research nicely filled a gap in their department's offerings, I was baffled. I wanted to reach across the desks and shake them by the shoulders and shout "Why aren't you listening?"--but I ultimately decided that that would be counterproductive. Coming out of yet another office, I would become aware of the contraction between my shoulder blades and spend a minute breathing into it --open, open, open -- before walking into the next office. [side note: is it ludicrous for a would-be physics professor to talk about the heart chakra?]

I'm about to do the same thing again. A similar position is being advertised at a university in Vancouver, and I'm a shoo-in for an interview, if not for the job itself.

I keep coming back to what Georgia O'Keeffe once said: "I've been terrified every single day of my life. And it's never stopped me from doing one goddamn thing I wanted to do."

This is what I have to do. It scares me half to death, and sometimes it takes all my strength to keep putting one foot in front of another. But I'm going to keep on walking until there's a compelling reason to stop.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


How to make Haystacks

2 c white sugar
1/2 c butter
1/2 c milk
1/2 c cocoa

Boil, stirring, for 5 minutes (or 3 minutes for gooey cookies).


1 T vanilla
1/2 t salt
3 c oats
1 c coconut

Mix well. Drop by the teaspoon onto waxed paper. Cool. Eat. Eat more. Put in an airtight container before you eat yourself sick. Try not to lick out the pot while it's still hot--that stuff is sticky and can really burn.

How to make disgusting, vile, horrifyingly, traumatically nasty Haystacks

substitute Splenda for as little as half of the sugar.


"Hmm. I'm almost out of sugar," I think. "But here's some Splenda. They talk up how good this stuff is for baking," I think. "How bad can it be?" I think.

You'd think I'd have learned from my brother's Tequila Suicide experience (I'll tell you about it some other time) that if you find yourself asking "How bad can it be?" you usually don't want to know the answer.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

gender gap in science, take two

At coffee today I counted the faces around the table and realized there was a huge gender imbalance. There were fifteen women there and only five men. If you count all of the academics (i.e. leave out the support staff, who are all male, but count faculty, postdocs, graduate and undergrad students) who work in this building (three research groups), there are 16 men and 20 women. If you count only the people under 40, we're even more woman-dominated.

This is something of an anomaly. Another group at another lab, the one I'm considering working with when I start my post-doc, has only two women, a grad student and an undergrad, among 16. But it's not completely unheard-of. Nuclear physics and astronomy have historically had higher proportions of women than many other sub-fields in physics.

Still, pretty cool, eh? And even cooler, of course, is the fact that most of the women in my lab are smokin'-hot babes. Who says all scientists are homely and geeky?

The purpose of Lent is not only expiation, to satisfy the divine justice, but above all a preparation to rejoice in God's love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of God's mercy - a gift which we receive in so far as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.

Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. If we were terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await God's mercy, or approach God trustfully in prayer. Our peace, our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace.

- Thomas Merton, in "Seasons of Celebration"

(lifted from this week's "Sojourners" e-mail newsletter)

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


This week we're doing our first experiment in a few months. It was the first "hard" setup we'd had to do in 16 months--this was the first time since then that we'd used more than one detector at a time, and I'm the only one who remembers how to set up the silicon detectors. And by "remember" I mean "have a vague inkling of what to do most of the time" combined with "have the new home phone number of the post-doc who designed the system".

The setup was labour-intensive. We started installing and testing stuff last Wednesday, worked all day Thursday and Friday, and did some stuff Saturday afternoon. The other students then decided that they would rather watch the Super Bowl than finish the setup before we got beam on Monday, and it was maybe not smart of me to let them get away with that...what that meant was eighteen hours straight on Monday, debugging and making phone calls and bringing the lab sysadmin back to the lab after he'd gone home for dinner.

The whole thing was a lot of fun, though. I realized that, yeah, I have picked up a few things in the past ...oh dear... six and a half years. And that's one of my favourite feelings. This is work that I find interesting, and I'm pretty good at it, and that's a good thing. For another thing, it's nice to do something other than stare at my computer all day, for a change. Putting things together is fun. Figuring things out in groups is fun, as long as the group members are people I respect, and in this case the group is my fellow grad students, all of whom are smart and congenial, so that's another good thing. And taking the lead in a group is something that actually comes pretty naturally, once I think I know what I'm doing. And of course the thing that made the setup most pleasant is that it's not my own experiment that I'm working on, so it's easier for me to stay equanimous when we hit snags. (There's a lesson there, somewhere, I just know it...something about non-self and impermanence and dukkha. I know I've heard something like that somewhere before.....)

Oh, and of course there's another good thing: working for twenty out of twenty-six hours makes me feel incredibly tough. I like feeling tough.

Sexism in science

I'm going to re-post here an article written by a woman in the physics department here--or rather, the tenured woman in physics here. The part of the article that made me laugh most was the bit where someone accused her of having a difficult personality. She's one of the sweetest, kindest, most helpful people you'll ever meet. ... I suppose I also have a soft spot for her because she made a point of coming to one of my recitals, and brought one of her daughters. But that's typical Meg. Anyway. Brilliant article by a brilliant scientist.

Diminished By Discrimination We Scarcely See

By Meg Urry

I came of age when discrimination was a thing of the past, or so I thought. True, there were not many women in my college physics classes, but I figured that was just a matter of time. And although we had all heard horror stories about women being excluded because they were women, those predated the feminist movement of the '60s and the anti-discrimination legislation of the '70s. None of my peers or professors in the early '80s would ever have said out loud, "Women can't do physics as well as men" even though some think it and Harvard University President Larry Summers suggested as much last month.

Still, I can remember a few uncomfortable moments. As a physics grad student 25 years ago at Johns Hopkins University, I once found pictures of naked men on my desk. As one of the few women at professional meetings when I was a grad student, and then a postdoc, the attention I got from male colleagues wasn't always about science. One professor used to address the graduate quantum mechanics class as "gentlemen and Meg." So I knew that my gender identified me. I just didn't think the distinction amounted to discrimination. It wasn't until a few years ago, after I became a tenured professor at one of the world's top universities, that I finally realized it was discrimination all along.

That's the thing: Discrimination isn't a thunderbolt, it isn't an abrupt slap in the face. It's the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success. These subtle distinctions help make women feel out of place.

And some are not so subtle! When I was a young astrophysics postdoc at MIT (and the only female postdoc), one weekly colloquium speaker began his talk about the importance of high resolution in optical imaging with a badly out-of-focus slide. As he sharpened the focus to make his point, a topless woman in a grass skirt on a Hawaiian beach gradually appeared. The male students laughed, while the one other woman in the room shared an appalled look with me before standing up and walking out.

No one ever told this speaker that his choice of slide was inappropriate. I intended to talk to him afterward, but I left the talk after about 20 minutes, having realized that I hadn't heard a word he'd said. Ironically, a few years later the speaker won the Tinsley prize from the American Astronomical Society, named in honor of a brilliant late-20th-century woman astronomer at Yale University.

I loved MIT, but it could be a harsh environment for women 20 years ago. (It's changed a lot!) I remember two professors having a dinner conversation in my presence about the inferiority of women scientists who had been hired because of affirmative action. (When I mentioned this to the man who'd hired me, he hastened to assure me that it didn't apply to me.) My ambition to be an academic was sometimes met with encouragement, but one male professor told me, "Oh, we would never hire you." And discouragement always makes a bigger impression than encouragement.During my postdoc career, I started wondering why women weren't getting hired into faculty positions. I'd been told, from graduate school on, that I'd have no trouble getting ahead: I was a woman, people would come after me. When they didn't, I subliminally absorbed the idea that I wasn't good enough. But was it possible that all the women getting physics and astronomy degrees from top institutions weren't good enough? I saw precious few being hired into faculty jobs.

For some reason, I hung in there. Maybe it was the strong support from my parents and from the fellow physicist I married, who took on half (and sometimes more than half) the responsibilities of child rearing. He doesn't "help" -- we share. Our two daughters, Amelia (nearly 14) and Sophia (11) carry both our last names, as their middle and last names, but in alternate order. We made it equal, start to finish.

But work was never equal. When I told my thesis adviser I was pregnant, he said, "So, you want to have it all!" I smiled but later thought, Wait a minute, isn't that what all you guys have? Why is it "all" for me and "normal" for you?Over the years, I saw women in the scientific world treated badly, being marginalized, mistreated, harassed. One woman manager I know was second-guessed, unlike any of the male managers, and when she pointed this out, was told she was depressed and should get professional help. Another told me it had become routine for her to cry while driving home from work. Every woman I know has had her suggestions ignored in a mainly male meeting, only to hear the same idea praised when later raised by a man.Hey, bad things happen. But feeling out of place over and over again eventually soaks in; it did for me. About a decade ago, frustrated and alienated, I approached the director of my institution to ask about special management training for women: Maybe there were tips that would help me navigate the foreign waters in which I found myself. He didn't seem to understand. I said, "You know, it's like being the red fish in the sea of blue fish -- I want to understand the blue-fish rules." "Oh," he answered. "Maybe it's not your lack of training, Meg, maybe it's just your difficult personality."

After enough of this kind of thing, women feel beaten down and underappreciated, or worse, they feel incapable. That's the most insidious thing. After years of being passed over, ignored, and insulted, we start wondering what we are doing wrong. Maybe if I had made the suggestion differently, it would have been heard. Maybe if I lowered my voice and spoke more slowly, I would get more respect. Maybe -- even though I published many papers, did seminal work in more than one field, brought in big grants, had successful students and postdocs -- maybe I wasn't a good enough scientist.

It was easier to see what was happening to other women than to me. My good friend Anne Kinney (now "Director of the Universe" at NASA -- how's that for a title?) said in an after-dinner speech to a conference on women in astronomy that she'd never had a five-year plan because there were no women five years ahead of her. Her speech was very funny and I laughed a lot, but I didn't think it applied to me, exactly. Weeks later, it dawned on me that I'd never had a five-year plan either -- and for much the same reason.

I watched women around me, especially young women, who were smart and keen to work hard, but who, after a few years in grad school or after a discouraging spell as a postdoc, decided maybe they weren't cut out for science, or maybe they would find a non-academic job, or maybe they'd get married and have a family rather than a research career.

I have no problem with any of these choices. What troubles me, though, is that I rarely saw men making them, especially the choice to stay home with kids. I think some women use "family" as an excuse to leave science when science actually drives them away.

This is a huge loss for our country -- these women PhDs are some of the best scientists we train. We need their talent.

In my field, physics and astronomy, women still make up a small percentage of active scientists -- about 7 percent of physics faculty are female and about 12 percent of astronomers. Those percentages are increasing, but slowly. So I grew up with almost no women professors. When I first heard of Beatrice Tinsley -- who came to the United States in 1964 from New Zealand with a master's in physics, created an entire sub-field of astronomy, finished her thesis under adverse circumstances and by all accounts was an incredible person -- I felt the kind of relief that a child raised by wolves must feel when she first sees a human being.

Physics has fewer women than other scientific disciplines. I think it may be because physics is more hierarchical, more aggressive than other areas. ("Combat physics," a friend of mine calls it.) Physicists act as if they are better and smarter than everyone else. The standard for excellence is to be the best in the world -- and that seems pretty boastful to polite girls raised not to brag.

When I expressed ambition, though, I sometimes got put back down. I suggested I was ready to be tenured -- "Be patient, Meg, it's too early for you." I mentioned I was interested in a high-level national committee -- "Isn't that a bit ambitious, Meg?" I expressed interest in a promotion: "You're not a leader, no one would follow you."

Social scientists like Virginia Valian of Hunter College have developed a lot of evidence showing that women and men are treated and evaluated differently. Yet physicists reject the possibility that scientists are not objective. I learned about the lack of objectivity the hard way -- through experience.

On hiring committees or tenure and promotion committees I served on, we'd evaluate men and women, and somehow the women seldom came out on top. They were "good," even "very good" but the men were always better. Some of this was caused by letters of recommendation. Every woman was always compared to other women, as if every woman scientist is female first and a scientist second. Also, women's letters were somehow more pedestrian -- the candidate "works hard" and she "has a nice personality," "gets along well with others." Once you see the patterns, you realize that these evaluations reflect people's expectations more than reality.

As I got more educated about the abundant social science research, I got more frustrated: The answers were there, if only physicists and astronomers would read the literature. So I made it easier. I organized conferences to talk about these issues. We held that first conference on Women in Astronomy in 1992 and wrote the Baltimore Charter, a kind of manifesto for change. In 2003 we organized a second meeting, from which the Pasadena Recommendations have just been produced.

It's been slow, but we've made progress, and we're making a difference. More young women are flocking to science every year. It's a great life, after all, doing something you love, having control of your time, being paid pretty well.

And, however slowly, the barriers women face are being abraded. The American Astronomical Society and American Physical Society, my professional organizations, have been immensely forward thinking. As for me, Yale hired me with tenure four years ago and treats me wonderfully. My science has never been better. I bet some people say I got this job because I'm female. But now that I've been around awhile, I'm finally able to say, confidently, that I'm really great at this job. I'm lucky to be here at Yale, yes, but even more, they are really lucky to have me. The doubt is finally going away.

Author's e-mail:

Meg Urry is a professor of physics and the director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Monday, February 07, 2005


Oggetto: Rinvio decorrenza borse di studio per stranieri

In riferimento a quanto richiesto nella nota del 16 dicembre 2004, su conforme parere della Giunta Esecutiva, si consente di postcipare al 1 marzo 2005 la data di inizio della borsa di studio assegnata con Disposizione del Presidente...

Si fa presente che il mancato inizio dell'attivita di studio e ricerca presso i Laboratori Nazionali del Sud, alla data su indicata, comportera la decadenza dal diritto ad usufruire della borsa stessa.
Translation: Extension? You want an extension? Sure--be here in a month. Otherwise, sucks to be you. Ha ha ha.

...or something like that. It sounds more polite when you say it in Italian.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

All the world's a stage

I spent this afternoon helping the other students line up the collimators for next week's experiments. The process involves one person peering through a telescope and another person fiddling with the collimators themselves, trying to get them lined up with the beam axis. And the telescope is out of sight of the target area (behind a large magnet) so you have to communicate by shouting over the background noise of pumps and fans and whatnot. It sounded something like this:

After half an hour of this, I realized, my life is a play. And not just any play. My life is a Samuel Beckett play.

I find this uplifting, in some perverse way.

This pretty much sums up how I feel about Orkut these days. Darn those darned wombats. Posted by Hello