Old School

Jun. 19th, 2009 08:41 am
There are some things I really love, like when scientists put old-school methods to new and interesting purposes.

In that vein, I just heard about a group in Japan that is using emulsions to do dark matter detection. (paper here) This is basically the physics equivalent of saying you're going to fire up your vacuum tubes to surf the internet. It's Steampunk Science.

An emulsion detector is essentially a type of photographic plate (well...cube, really) in which some material is exposed to some particles and the particles interact with the material and leave tracks which can be reconstructed after development of the emulsion. Now, emulsions were popular in the middle of the last century to do collider and nuclear physics; you could track the stuff coming out of a collision. They got outmoded as electronics got more sophisticated and as speed of reconstruction became a bigger deal.

However, because dark matter events are rare (by, you know, definition) emulsions are a reasonable way to look for these things. And so this group has revived this old technology and improved it by increasing the granularity of the detector and developing an automatic scanning technique so they can detect the short tracks from dark matter and reconstruct the direction. And a cool thing about dark matter is that there is a prediction for a preferred direction for dark matter recoils; because of the rotation of the galaxy, dark matter should look like a wind blowing in one direction. So if you can reconstruct the direction, you get a much, much better handle on whether what you're seeing in the is dark matter.

Now, who knows if this'll work out in the long run. There are several other directional experiments in the works. But I do love and respect how this group has learned from the past and repurposed it for the future.
Via Slate comes this article, again about the gender gap in science.

In a study at the United States Air Force Academy, they studied the effect of professor gender on student achievement. USAFA is a great place to study this because it controls for many effects: the students are assigned to sections randomly, the syllabus is standard and set, and all students take the same exam at the end of the term.

The authors found that simply having a female professor essentially erased the gender gap, especially for high-performing students, as well as substantially increasing the probability that women would go on to advanced courses and science degrees.

This is not at all surprising to me. The role of mentor is an extraordinarily important one in the development of the proto-scientist. What I did find interesting is that certain male professors also erase the gender gap between male and female students. I would be extraordinarily interested in the qualities that those professors have. I have some suspicions about those already: calm in temper, casual, reasonably good social skills, fair, empathetic, and with a strong understanding and valuing of a well-rounded student. Or, pretty much, my undergraduate mentor.

My undergrad mentor managed to attract a disproportionate number of female students, both graduate and undergraduate students. Both of his grad students while I knew him were female, and 75% of his undergrads. I don't know how the cluster got started, but I do know how it perpetuated itself: he actually listened to and respected female students. They knew they had a voice in the group and other women saw that when they looked into joining the group. My group now perpetuates itself in the same way: there are a number of women, who are well respected, and that encourages other women to join. This was no small issue for me in joining a group—I felt sure that a group that was welcoming to women would be understanding of my transition. Furthermore, I believe that this cluster is good for those of us who are male students in the group. We're learning now how to become the seeds for when we are postdocs and professors.

The big question for me, then, is how to plant the seeds—my undergrad mentor, my graduate advisors—that nurture the clusters that draw women into physics. Can we plant them now? Can we retrain men to be those exceptional ones? Or do we just have to wait until the old ones die out?
...is nearly gone, at least in the US, so says a new study. (Abstract linked, full article behind a pay wall, summary blog post)

In short, the study finds that boys and girls score the same on math standardized exams through graduation from high school, and that they are taking calculus classes at the same rate. The study then goes on to test the hypothesis that the averages are the same, but that men have a larger standard deviation, and so there are more math geniuses that are men, and finds that, while there are more men than women above the 95th and 99th percentile, that ratio has changed with time and with culture of origin, indicating that this is likely a culturally derived factor.

I find this to jive strongly with my experience. I work in physics, a STEM field with a poor reputation for gender equality, and currently at an institution that is below average, even for our field, even while it is a top-ranked department.

As both a graduate student and as an undergraduate student, I earned a reputation among my peers for being at the top of my class. But I noticed a marked difference between undergrad (when I lived as a woman) and grad (when I live as a man) in how my peers treated that reputation. As a grad student, it was treated matter-of-fact: someone's got to be at the top, eh, it's him. As an undergrad, it was treated as a bit of a challenge to the boys in my class. Not all of them, but some.

I will say, with some relief, that this isn't true for my research groups. I talk more, and have more responsibility now, but I attribute that to being a grad student, rather than an undergrad. I'm supposed to have more responsibility. I think part of the reason for this is that I've worked in two extremely female-friendly groups. My current group has 50% female professors, which is unheard of in my field. My undergrad group was 75% female grad students. With numbers like those, you don't get anywhere if you don't respect and listen to the contributions of women.

All of which is to say that both the numbers and my personal experience uphold the idea that it is cultural factors holding women back from numerical equivalency in STEM fields, both cultural ideas about what women can do and "lifestyle factors" (the ever-popular euphemism for, "hey, some people want to have kids and a life AND do science").

Now, this isn't a new thought for a trans man to have; Ben Barres has advocated this view for a long time. But I feel that it's worth repeating, because while the plural of anecdote isn't data, we're far enough apart in academic careers and fields that I'm adding more perspective.
I spent some time trying out names for this place, mainly while I was sitting around waiting for code to compile or run. I wanted something that reflected my love of physics and something about gender/trans identity. I finally settled on "twostatesystem" because the two state system is something that is incredibly important in both physics and gender in Euro-derived cultures*. And yet, in both cases, the two state system is at best an approximation and at worst a lie.

A two state system in physics is one in which the Hamiltonian (a construct which describes the dynamics of the system, including the energy of the system) gives rise to two different energy levels. This is one of the few systems in quantum physics that can be solved exactly and gives us insight into many problems in physics, including (and notable for me), oscillation between two neutrino flavors. Using the two state system approach, an incredible amount of progress was made in understanding neutrinos and their oscillatory behavior. Nevertheless, the complete picture of the neutrino sector is not a two state system. It's a three (or possibly more!) state system with more complicated (and interesting) dynamics.

I feel much the same about the binary system of gender we experience in Euro-derived cultures. We divide ourselves up into two states, men and women, and analyze so much of our experience through the lens of that two state system that we forget that it's at best an approximation. Cultural analysis by feminists and other people interested in gender has done well under this approximation. We cannot understand the full impact of gender on ourselves and our culture by clinging to these two states, even as we recognize that sometimes, yeah, we can use that lens.

Furthermore, I think that one of the most important things I've learned from studying physics is that it is absolutely vital to know the boundaries of where your approximation is valid—after all, as one of my undergraduate professors once said, "Well, we're physicists. When confronted with an intractable problem, we only do one thing: approximate." I think that you can replace "physicists" in that sentence with "people" and it still contains a whole lot of truth. But, I don't think that as a community of gender thinkers, we've learned how to understand those boundaries of approximation yet. I think we're still struggling to understand, and failing in a whole lot of cases. And it's a whole lot more risky to approximate with human lives; if your assumptions exclude people of color, that causes way more suffering than if your assumptions exclude a fourth neutrino species.

I don't know yet if understanding and being explicit about underlying assumptions and boundaries of approximations will result in progress (for some unspecified definition of progress) . I only know that it feels right and necessary, coming out of my academic tradition, and that it's something I would like to see a whole lot more of. Now, if only I knew how to do it.


*a better term, I feel, than "Western". I'm talking here about cultures where the primary historical influence is Europe. This is not to say, of course, that what I'm saying applies in whole to ALL those cultures, nor that it doesn't apply to non-Euro-derived cultures. But my lived expertise is in dominant US culture and parts of European culture, so that's what I'll talk about.
Probably not.

However, I've noticed a dearth of blogs by a) trans men b) trans scientists c) physicists anywhere in the BTGL* community. Being all three, and "be the change", blah blah blah, here I am.

So, who am I?

I am a graduate student in physics, studying neutrinos and dark matter at a major American university. I'm interested in the matter of the universe that takes up quite a bit of the energy budget of the universe, but is invisible to us thus far. I am also an experimentalist, which means that I'm doing actual experiments—I go out with actual objects and look at actual signals. Together, these things mean that I spend the vast majority of my time measuring zero, debugging my software, and trying to figure out where my light leaks are.

I am also a trans man. I spent the first 22-ish years of my life living as a woman in America; I now live as a man. Beyond that, I'm unwilling to divulge details of my gender and sex, even in the relative anonymity of the internet.

I do not think these two facts of my life are necessarily related or should be related, but they, in some ways, are. First of all, physics (and especially my university) has a gender problem, and I'm interested in the way my experience interacts with that problem. Less talked about is the fact that I know very, very few physicists that id as LBGQ. I'm also interested in the interaction there, though as a straight guy, I may have less to say about that. So, I'm hoping to post about the interaction between the scientific establishment and gender and sexuality.

However, I also want to post about things that are one or the other, interesting new results, trans issues in general, gender issues in general, and so on. My aim is to have one major post a week, with other small posts to supplement that. We'll see how it goes.

*I have problems with this terminology and grouping. Nevertheless...hardly anyone.

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