Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Feynman and my "Beautiful Stars" quote….

My blog name was inspired by a quote from Feynman.
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? - Feynman
From this it is perhaps obvious that I own his Lectures in Physics. I also own (and memorably read during a summer I spent working at the Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore) "The Please of Finding things Out", by Feynman.

I recall reading about his "adventures" with women - definitely not my favourite part of that book. I actually have a strong  (and hopefully accurate!) memory of sitting on a wall in the Inner Harbour in Baltimore reading about him choosing to study Portguese because the class had more pretty women than the Spanish class. When I think about it now it's obvious he wouldn't have seen me (as a then 19 year old reading his book) as a physicist, and that does make me uncomfortable.

Honestly, I don't have a lot to add to the recent online controversy over Feyman as a sexual predator. Other people have written much more thoughtful and eloquent posts than I could, and I have not looked into this personally. You might like to read these two blogs:

Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon - originally on Scientific American Blogs, now reposted by the author on their personal blog. 

The Problem with Feynman, Galileo's Pendulum

However it's made me sufficiently uncomfortable to want to change the quote on my personal blog. Funny thing is I was recently reading Dava Sobel's book on Copernicus: "A more perfect heaven", and noticed that Copernicus has been recorded as having a similar sentiment. I took the book back to the library already, so don't have the exact version in that text, but I found the below (from here) which is similar in sentiment:
The strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects. This is the discipline that deals with the universe's divine revolutions, the stars' motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings . . . for what is more beautiful than heaven? - Nicolas Copernicus

So I have a new quote.  I like it better.

Factors which affect the physical science career interest of female students.

 I recently read this paper about the interest level of girls in physical sciences and was fascinated by the conclusion. They tested the impact of five different experiences on the level of interest (US) high school girls expressed in physical sciences careers. 


 The experiences were: 

* Single-sex class
* Women scientist guest speaker
* Female teacher
* Discussion of the work of women scientists
* Discussion of the underrepresentation of women in STEM

 They found that by quite a margin the biggest impact was found by girls having had the last experience (with a mild effect from the second to last). The first three were found to have no significant impact (although female teachers were found to be more likely to run the last two experiences). 



 Anyway I thought it was neat to see this kind of evidence based analysis of the effect of different experiences, so I wanted to share. 

(Full disclose I knew Zahra Hazari when we were both working at CfA in Boston and attended science education group meetings there) 



Friday, June 6, 2014

Talking about Colliding Galaxies on the Sky at Night


I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in filming for this month's Sky at Night. The theme of the show is Impacts, and I was invited to talk with Chris Lintott about colliding galaxies.

We filmed in Oxford in a back room at the Natural History Museum. It was a really fun experience for me, and fascinating to hang around and watch them film other segments for the show around the museum.

HST image of merging galaxies Arp274


The show will air on BBC4 this Sunday 8th June, at 10pm, and be repeated three further times on BBC. It will also be available to download via the BBC iPlayer. For more details on how to watch visit the BBC Website for Sky at Night: Impacts

Forty Years of Women at Wadham

I had a lovely experience as an undergraduate at Oxford University, and my college was Wadham College (founded by Dorothy Wadham in 1610). Wadham was proud of having been amongst he first Oxford colleges to admit women in 1974, and this year is celebrating 40 years of women at Wadham.

I was invited to participate in these celebrations, and you might spot me profiled among the women on the news item about Forty Years of Women at Wadham.

There's a page of Wadham Women's Voices , with an entry from me about studying Physics at Wadham in 1997-2000 (shockingly - for me - not too long after the halfway point of the history of women at Wadham).

As I was in touch with the alumni office, they also invited me to do a longer interview about my involvement with the Galaxy Zoo project, which is led out of the Oxford Physics Department. I guess they couldn't resist the pun: Masters of the Galaxies.

They also took this nice photo of me in the Wadham back quad during my visit.



Sadly Physics at Wadham is still struggling to attract women, with none listed in the recent yearbook I was sent. I hope 20 years from now I'll be able to tell a different story.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Happy 450th Birthday to Galileo

Today, Feb 15th 2014 is 450 years since the birth of Galileo Galilei.

By chance, last week I had the opportunity to visit the house Galileo lived in in the last years of his life near Arcetri Observatory in Florence.

I was actually visiting the Observatory where I had been invited to give a seminar.


Here's the explanation (in English) of the historic nature of the site. 


From the roof of the observatory you can see across the valley to the Villa il Gioiello where Galileo lived from 1631-1642. It's the yellowish building just left of centre.

Simone Bianchi was my host at Arcetri, and was kind enough to offer to take me over to the house. The house is not regularly open to the public, and the details of its future use are still being debated. 

A famous number by the front door. 



Here's an 18th century monument to Galileo from when the house was first becoming famous.


A plaque above the door from the time the University of Florence bought the house. The house has been under renovation for some time and is currently very nicely kept (but almost completely empty). 


Here's me in the room which is believed to have been Galileo's study during the time he was working on the proofs of his last book "Discourse and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences"


Here's the view from the upper balcony. This level was through to house the household staff at the time of Galileo. 


The walk between the observatory and the house was partly along a beautiful planet walk installed by the observatory. They host regular public tours when visitors can explore this walk, as well as the historic telescope and other instruments on the site (although unfortunately not the Galileo house). 


It was a nice visit, and has inspired me to re-read Dava Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter" which is about his time in this house, and well worth a read. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

British Astronomers

I had cause to Google "British Astronomers" yesterday, and was so horrified by the result I felt I needed to post it. Actually once I think about it it's not a surprise at all, but the raw numbers still shocked me.

The top line is a list (with images) of the results "most mentioned on the web". I did a screen shot of that below.

It's William Herschel, Patrick Moore, Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, John Flamsteed, Caroline Herschel, George Airy, John Herschel, James Bradley (?), Arthur Stanley Eddington, Jeremiah Horrocks, Nevil Maskelyne, John Adams (?), Fred Hoyle, Richard van der Riet Woolley (?), Frank Watson Dyson (?), William Parsons, Martin Rees, Harold Spencer Jones (?) and Jocelyn Bell.



Only two out of the 20 (10%) are alive, only two (10%) are women.

I put question marks above on names which were not immediately recognisable to me (this I take as my failing not Google's, but I was curious why they're there). It turns out that most of them are former Astronomer Royals whose wikipedia article begins "XX is an English Astronomer who was Astronomer Royal from XX-XX". John Adams I should have known - he's the person who (a the same time as but independently of Le Verrier) predicted the existence of Neptune from deviations in Uranus's orbit.

Is it time to add some more recent British astronomers to the list? Perhaps some more women (where is Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin in this?). It seems we can help to do this by editing Wikipedia which is a good thing to do anyway.

Curiously Googling either "English Astronomers" or "American Astronomers" does not return the series of images ("Italian Astronomers" does - but missing Galileo!).


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Media Training with Sandi Toksvig

The lovely Sandi Toksvig is the Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth. In her tenure so far she has been a very active Chancellor, meeting many members of the University and really trying to help as much as she can. She decided that one thing she could offer would be a day of media training for six lucky members of the University academic staff.

I had the great privilege of being invited along to attend that day, which happened yesterday. I took my place along with Nick Pamment from the Institute of Criminal Justice who specialised in Youth Crime and Wildlife Crime (no link); Bridget Waller, a Evolutionary Psychologist who specialises in how animals communicate socially; Tamsin Bradly, a Sociologist who studies gender based violence, especially in India and Africa; and Stephen Williams from the Portsmouth Business School who is an expert in workplace rights (and my apologies to any of them if I've mangled their expertise!).

It was a wonderfully diverse group of people, and an amazing day to be part of.

In the morning we each did two radio style interviews with Sandi, followed by two TV interviews (one a talking head style, the other a "conversation on the sofa" style). It was fascinating to see Sandi in action, taking on the role of interviewers with different agendas or personalities (from bored, to combative).

I learned some interesting things about preparing for interviews (take notes, but don't look at them), how to relax (e.g. to sit in an open position, with arms on the table in front of you, or on the arms of your chair), and the games people sometimes play (e.g. how can I drop a reference to Rugby into a conversation about Cricket). It was also a wonderful confidence building exercise.

I also learned that in astronomy/cosmology we really have it easy with media interviews. There's nothing controversial about what I am likely to talk about (except why it's funded, but I've been asked that so much I really have the answer down). The most challenging this is likely to be remembering to mention the name of your University in the interview.

Anyway it was a fantastic day, and I encourage anyone offered a similar experience to invest the time.

A photo the press office Tweeted of Sandi interviewing me on camera.
The whole group in the UoP TV studio (including our technical assistants from CCi).