December 6th, 2016

Every December 6th I sit down and work, and reflect on the voices missing from the scientific community. I generally work in public, and this is the first year I’ve worked in public in an non-academic space. I have no academic space in this city, and soon will have no academic space at all; I have still not quite adjusted to that. Somehow sitting in a coffee shop with a laptop and half a dozen terminal windows open is a poor substitute for sitting in my office, or the library, or the table at the end of the fourth floor hallway where I started this ritual over a decade ago.

In 1989, it was nearly unthinkable that someone would walk into a school and start murdering people in cold blood. But 27 years and hundreds of school shootings later (largely in the US), it’s still heartbreaking but somehow no-one’s really surprised anymore. Violence aimed at women has always, always been a thread running through society, but in the nearly three decades since the École Polytechnique massacre, that violence is increasingly in public eye. Much of this is due to the tireless and brave work of women and feminists to hold abusers to account, to speak up when they are harrassed in the work place, and to work towards a society where violence against women is not accepted or acceptable. I cannot emphasize how grateful I am to the women who came before me, and how important that work continues to be.

The other reason violence against women is more visible is because the perpetrators are increasingly public about their actions. One glance at the Twitter mentions of any prominent, outspoken woman will likely turn up rape threats, death threats, and a stream of harassment. Being a woman in public on the internet is to be subject to a steady grind of violence. And when the American president-elect is publicly gloating about sexually assaulting women, suddenly all those men forming the Greek chorus of harassment and violence feel like they have permission to act with impunity.

Violence isn’t always as stark and overwhelming as the École Polytechnique massacre, but mass murder sits at the very end of a long continuum of violence against women, and that violence is far from eradicated from the scientific community. In the past year, multiple cases of sexual harassment and abuse have surfaced from science departments, and there are surely dozens and dozens more cases that haven’t made it to national media. Scientific departments are still male dominated and still operate in sexist ways, even if there isn’t a serial abuser or three operating with few repercussions to their actions. That low-level hum of violence and the constant resistance to push back against it just to stay in the same place is draining, disheartening, and ultimately leads to a lot of women and other underrepresented people to leave science. Sometimes this is voluntary, sometimes it’s not, and blessedly rarely it’s at the end of a gun.

I have mostly accepted my decision to leave academia as being the right choice for me. I didn’t leave because of harassment or violence, I left because I realized I would be happy doing other things, and the notion of hopping from contract to contract around the world filled me with dread rather than excitement. I am not leaving science, just the academy. I have the capacity to fight, the bandwidth to push for inclusion and acceptance, the strength to pull people up the ladder behind me, and the conviction to follow through on that. I continue to fight, but outside the academy rather than from within, and I worry that that’s not enough. I know I don’t carry The Weight Of All Women in Science alone, and I know that burning out helps precisely no-one. But on days like today, the weight is heavy.

As a closing note for this admittedly scattered post, this piece from two years ago reflecting on how the women murdered in the École Polytechnique massacre were portrayed remains a very important read.

Science in the Time of Trump

First and foremost, I want to state baldly that the election of Trump is the beginning of a fascist state. Hitler gets bandied about a lot, but Trump is behaving exactly how decades of totalitarians and dictators have when they are put in power: gaslight the population, concentrate power in their immediate circles, appoint sycophants with plans to destroy the institutions they are asked to administer, fueling hate crimes and hate speech. Lots of people didn’t think it would happen in Germany (or Romania, or Yugoslavia, or Iraq, or ….) But then it does, and it has, and appallingly there are lots of people and press outlets bending over backwards to normalize Trump and his election. White supremacists are literally throwing parades for Trump. THIS IS NOT NORMAL OR TOLERABLE.

Obviously this is a disaster for pretty much American who isn’t an affluent, cisgender heterosexual able-bodied white male, and it’ll be a disaster for plenty of them too. There’s a straight line between social justice and environmental justice, and as much as I am fearful for what will happen to marginalized people in the US, Trump’s election has pretty much sealed our collective fate to a dangerously overheated planet. There are some things that can be fixed with improved policy after a disasterous president, but we as a planet will not be able to fully recover from four years of decimated environmental protections and measures, four years of unchecked oil and gas exploration and extraction, four years of inaction at best and harmful actions at worst. We barely had time to fix this mess as it was.


The role for Canada and Canadian science community is straightforward: HOLD THE FORT. Be the beacon of progressive, expansive, tolerant inclusion that we like to think exemplifies Canada. Be the unwavering voice that stands up for human rights and civil liberties. Be the leader pushing for stronger environmental standards, reduced emissions, a carbon tax. Be the squeaky wheel on the international stage. Keep reporting, keep talking, keep the lights on. Do not capitulate.

Here, specifically, is what I think the Canadian scientific community should do:

  • Actively look out for our colleagues, here and abroad. Check in, ask how they’re faring, listen. Behave in such a way that your colleagues will answer honestly when you ask how they are rather than reply with platitudes and niceties. Actively intervene when people say racist / sexist / homophobic / transphobic / ableist / etc things, and not just when someone’s looking. Press your professional organizations to actively support human and civil rights movements. When organizing conferences or meetings, make sure that they are inclusive, and make that clear in the conference paperwork. Don’t hold meetings in places that are actively hostile to minority scientists. Science is a challenging enough profession without having to fight tooth and nail to assert your full humanity. This is already hard for many scientists, and is about to get a lot harder: as people not living in a soon-to-be fascist state, we non-minority Canadian scientists need to make it easier to be a minority scientist in our (international) professional circles.
  • As teachers, talk about this in the classroom. Draw the connections between civil rights and environmental activism. Don’t ignore this. Science does not occur in a vacuum, and Trump’s election will have a very real and very harmful impact on how science is conducted in the US and possibly abroad. Teaching science effectively means teaching how it fits into a broader social context, and the many hidden ways in which basic, applied, and regulatory science make our lives safer and more productive. Actively make your classroom and office an open and welcoming place for your students, and reach out to the organizations on campus who’re providing support for marginalized students.
  • Start talking about your science with the public, or at least actively support those who do. Climate change is putting science squarely in the middle of discussions about economics, foreign policy, international trade, and public health, and for those discussions to be effective we need a basic level of science literacy amongst the populous. I’ve seen a lot of sniffy attitude directed towards people who take the time to talk about science to non-scientists, and this needs to stop. There are increasing resources and platforms for scientists to build their non-expert communication skills, including Science Borealis. Support your colleagues who are undertaking this important work, rather than denigrating their efforts.
  • We finally have a government that at least acknowledges that science is important. We now know not to take that for granted, and we need to continue to press for evidence-informed policy. It will be easy to ignore science in favour of stability and good relations, and we need to push back hard against that urge. The scientific community learned a bitter lesson under the Harper governments, and we cannot become complacent because now the Prime Minister reels off a prepared bit about string theory. We’ve marched on Parliament Hill before, we should be prepared to do it again (and again, and again) as necessary. Climate agreements don’t magically ratify themselves.
  • Support the organizations that are on the front lines fighting for marginalized folks. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Mother Jones, Planned Parenthood, etc will need all the help they can get.
  • Read the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s report and recommendations. Part of stepping up to the international plate to lead is getting our own house in order, and there is a distressingly long way to go towards reconciliation with indigenous peoples. As the Dakota Access Pipeline shows, indigenous communities bear much of the brunt of environmental harm, and lack the lobbying power of settler communities and resource extraction corporations. Indigenous peoples are dramatically underrepresented in the scientific community, and the scientific community has much to answer for how we have historically treated indigenous peoples. More scholars are engaging with traditional knowledge, but the scientific community as a whole needs to be very careful not to treat traditional knowledge as another resource to be extracted for settler use. Reading the TRC is a way to start to understand the context for settler – indigenous relations.

We as scientists should be doing much of this already, but it will become far more difficult for our American colleagues to be outspoken. As Canadians, however, we must keep pushing for sound science, environmental justice, and human rights, here, in the US, and around the world.

Maybe Not Everything is Terrible?

Here’s four quick things that have floated by on the internet recently that offer a smidge of optimism that we are not wholly and entirely doomed. (Of course, the usual caveats that half of these are still in the research stage, lab conditions are not real world conditions, etc etc.)

1.) Someone figured out how to turn CO2 into ethanol. The researchers found that by applying a voltage to a solution of water and carbon dioxide in the presence of plates covered in nano-scale spikes, the CO2 is converted into ethanol. The spikes on the electrode constrain the reaction so that only ethanol is produced. The notion that the waste product of carbon-based fuels can then be converted back into fuel (to be burnt, to be converted to fuel, …) is amazing and promising. Here’s hoping it works when scaled up.

2.) Someone else figured out how to kill antibiotic resistant bacteria by busting up their cell membranes. Other than climate change, the thing I lose the most sleep worrying about is antibiotic resistance: it’s staggering and distressing to think that in the span of one life time, we’ve entered the antibiotic era and the post-antibiotic era. We found a way to avoid dying from an infected scratch, and we collectively mismanaged that gift so egregiously in a race to make chicken cheaper than socks that scrapes may well be potentially lethal again soon. Drug companies aren’t spending much money to go looking for new antibiotics, and even if they were, we need to overhaul how we use antibiotics for that to do anything other than push the end of the antibiotic era back a decade or two. However, these polymers kill the bacteria by physically ripping it apart, rather than poisoning it, and so it does not carry the same resistance issues as traditional bacteria do. I slept soundly the night after I read this.

(Also, while we’re on the subject, phage therapy is fascinating and I’m baffled that the West has largely ignored it.)

3.) Tasmanian devils are developing resistance to the contagious cancer that is devastating their population. The contagious face tumor was thought to be lethal in all cases (with the devils starving as a result of the tumor interfering with jaw mobility), though some individuals have developed ways to fight the cancer and survive. Since 80% of the devil population is infected, they are in serious danger of becoming extinct. If a significant portion of the population develops resistance, hopefully the species will be able to stabilize.

4.) Renewable energy methods now provide more global energy than coal. This is excellent news, and we need to keep it up. It may be possible to convert CO2 into ethanol in a lab, but we’re a very long way from being able to scrub our emissions effectively, and ultimately the only way we’re going to at least slow climate change is by pumping drastically less CO2 into the atmosphere.

Another argument for overhauling the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prizes were announced last week, and the physics prize went to three scientists for “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” (I admit that even as a physicist that I have only a vague idea what that actually means, so I’m not going into it.) The Nobels are the premier award for science, but the scientific context in which they were conceived is vastly different than how science is done in the modern world: Alfred Nobel’s will (which sets out the framework for the prizes) was drawn up in 1895, two years before J.J. Thomson discovered the electron. (He got a Nobel for this in 1906.) The science world is fundamentally different today than it was around the turn of the 20th century.

This is not to say that the turn of the 20th century was a dull time in science: on the contrary, science was exploding with activity, and whole new fields were opening up. In physics alone, x-rays, radioactivity, the electron, and black body radiation were all discovered within five years (1895-1900). But the model of the scientist at this time was still very much the solitary figure toiling in a lab, perhaps with assistants or a collaborator or two, but not with the highly collaborative lab system that is ubiquitous today. To borrow a phrase from historiography, the traditional model of science is very much a Great Man model, where individual men (and only men, even though there have always been women doing extraordinary scientific work with little to no support or acknowledgement) profoundly shape the scientific era through their work and influence. The Nobels, then, are modelled in this same fashion: no more than three winners can be named, it cannot be awarded to groups or posthumously, and the award must be given for a specific contribution to science.

This is no longer a viable framework by which to reward excellence in science. There have been criticisms levelled at the Nobels for decades, and certainly there are many pieces of extraordinary science that have been overlooked for the prize. Women and people of colour have been drastically underrepresented: only two women have won Nobels in physics (Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963) and about 10% of physics laureates are people (men) of colour, although who is racialized has certainly not been constant throughout the history of the Nobels. No-one from Africa or South America has won the physics Nobel.

Lots of people have made these arguments before, and made specific note of people whose work has been overlooked (*cough*VeraRubin*cough*). These are all robust arguments and I feel I have little to add to those: the structure of the Nobels heavily favours Western men in prestigious facilities, and making the Nobels more inclusive requires a lot of work from a lot of levels of the scientific realm. However, even if the prize is awarded to a more diverse group of laureates in coming years, it still operates under the premise that extraordinary science is done by individuals rather than groups, and one look at the author list of any big paper from CERN or TRIUMF should tell you that that’s not the case.

Focusing on individuals rather than grounds means that work that is rewarded is somewhat misrepresented. While science in the early 1900’s was growing by the sorts of leaps and bounds that the Nobel was designed to reward, even the groundbreaking work of today is in some senses incremental. There were decades of work put in in understanding gravitational waves computationally, theoretically, and analytically, and all that work was necessary to both build LIGO and be able to intepret data from it. While the discovery of GW150914 was a singular shift in our ability to understand the universe, that discovery was the culmination of a mountain of scientific research and literally thousands of peoples’ contribution. Isolating only the final discovery from the context of preceding work makes no sense, and is a fundamentally inaccurate narrative to write about the scientific process.

It also, incidentally, reinforces the traditional model of Scientist as Devoted Monastic Scholar, where science is a calling only accessible to the most brilliant and devoted among us. This is nonsense: insisting that the Proper Way To Do Science a) exists in the singular b) is in isolation and drudgery and c) is imperatively all-consuming is a protocol for burnout. This model is regressive, extremely exclusionary, conducive to bad science and worse mental health, and a terrible yardstick by which to evaluate scientists and their work.

As well as failing to recognize the contributions of labs and collaborations, the focus on singular discoveries has lead to whole swaths of physics are un(der)represented in the Nobels. I’ve tallied up the fields listed with each Nobel physics laureate, and plotted the data below. For each prize awarded, multiple categories listed are considered individually, but if two or three scientists split the prize for the same work, each category is counted only once. Categories that were used to describe only one Nobel are applied electromagnetism, applied mechanics, applied optical physics, cosmic radiation, cosmology, critical phenomena, electron optics, electronics technology, fiber technology, interferometry, mechanics, metals, neutrino astrophysics, plasma physics, quantum optics, space physics, and theoretical physics; none of these are included in the plot for brevity.

Number of Nobels awarded for each subfield of physics.  Categories with only one Nobel listed are not included for brevity.

Number of Nobels awarded for each subfield of physics. Categories with only one Nobel listed are not included for brevity.

I’m surprised that there is so few awards given for work in the astrophysics / cosmological / gravitational physics, ie, work concerning the huge scales of the universe. Instead, the significant majority of the Nobels have been given for discoveries at the atomic level or smaller. The defining frameworks for the study of the universe at the largest scales (general relativity) and smallest scales (quantum mechanics) have been developed since the Nobels have been awarded, so both areas of physics have been rich with discoveries and breakthroughs throughout the past hundred years.

There’s also a dearth of Nobels given for research that falls in the range of scales where classical mechanics are sufficient: aside from a few prizes awarded for superfluidity, there have been no Nobels awarded for fluid mechanics. There’s nothing relating to environmental, planetary, geological, solar, or atmospheric physics, and nothing that can be considered interdisciplinary beyond the overlap with chemistry. Applied physics is almost entirely ignored, and the prizes listed as being experimental physics are largely also categorized as atomic or particle physics.

Here’s my theory about why this is the case: the Nobels are set up to reward single, defining discoveries, and the nature of small scale physics (especially particle physics) meshes better with that focus than many other fields. It’s straightforward to point to “we discovered a new particle” as a groundbreaking discovery, but it’s a little fuzzier to say “we figured out how to measure cosmological distances” and fuzzier yet to say “we understand the structure and circulation of the atmosphere.” There is a lot of work that leads to the discovery of a new particle, certainly, but one day there was no J/psi meson and then the next day there was. But describing the structure of the atmosphere was (and is) done in incremental pieces: there’s no clear single instance in time when the discovery happened. Understanding the structure of the atmosphere is extremely important, but it is difficult to point to a single prominent discovery or development that stands above the rest of the body of work.

(Also, the physics of the extremely small is tantalizing, since it is frequently weird and entirely inaccessible in everyday life. Since this is also the case for the physics of the extremely large, I have no satisfying explanation for why astrophysics and cosmology are so underrepresented.)

Ultimately, I think this is why we should overhaul the Nobels: clearcut discoveries typically involve hundreds or thousands of people, and individual people typically push the frontier of science by increments rather than by revolution. I have no knowledge whatsoever of Swedish law, and so I have no idea how legally entrenched the award criteria are; obviously it’s not nothing to overhaul a prominent international award rooted in a legal will. It’s quite possible that there is no legal way to adjust the number of possible laureates, and it’s quite possible that there is no legal way to permanently cease awarding the prize. But I think it’s time that those options are considered in depth by the Nobel Foundation, because the model of the Nobels is fundamentally incompatible with how scientific progress is made today. The most prestigious prize in science should reflect the collaboration and continuous progress woven into the ecology of the modern scientific world, and it should reflect the diversity of both scientists and scientific endeavours undertaken.

I am unconvinced that a single prize for all of physics makes much sense anymore, and there are critically important areas of physics that deserve recognition as well as the traditional fields. I believe that the prestige of the Nobels can be maintained while expanding the number of prizes awarded and increasing the diversity of work considered for recognition. Science is becoming more inclusive and collaborative, and though there is substantial work to be done at all levels of the scientific community, modernizing the Nobels is one way for the highest echelons of the scientific community to lead the way.

It’s been a while…

At lot can happen in 10 months! Long story short, I was up to my eyes in finishing the PhD, and blogging just kept getting shoved on the backburner. But! I finally finished and defended! This is a great relief and I’ve been slowly returning to world since I got the final revisions in.

In the ensuing few months, I did publish a few things at Science Borealis, and a piece at Hakai Magazine!

  • The Climate Anxiety Doctor is In: I interviewed a poet and professor about her climate counselling project, where she sets up a booth in a park in Providence, RI and talks with people about what worry about in a changing climate.
  • An obituary for Ursula Franklin: Ursula Franklin was an extraordinary scientist and activist, and her death is a great loss even if she had, as my grandfather would’ve put it, “a good innings.”
  • A New Wave of Astronomy: A basic intro to gravitational waves, posted shortly after the first GW detection event was publicized.
  • Why all the fuss about neutrinos?: An editorial on neutrinos, for some context around Arthur Macdonald’s Nobel win in 2015.

Now that I don’t have a thesis looming over my head, I’m hoping to get back into writing somewhat regularly — here’s hoping that pans out.

Some Housekeeping

Well that was a longer hiatus than anticipated! Theses are like gases that fill to expand a grad student’s life, and once I stopped blogging it was far easier to not blog than start up again. (I think there’s a law along that line…) But the End Of Thesis is within sight and I finally have a little more breathing room, so I’m aiming to get back to blogging here with a non-zero frequency. Even though I’ve not been writing here for some time, I’ve written a few things elsewhere, mostly editorials for Science Borealis:

I saw both The Martian and (finally) Interstellar recently, so it may be time for another round of Steph Overthinks Science Fiction Movies With Questionable Physics. (Previously in that series: Pacific Rim.) Though I actually thought The Martian did a good job with the science! I was very pleasantly surprised! I was substantially less impressed with Interstellar.

In short, more soon, and hopefully with more regularity.

Science Borealis Carnival: National NMR Facility Faces Closure

To celebrate our one year anniversary, Science Borealis is having a blog carnival! While the theme is “The Most Important Science News in My Field in 2014,” I’m interpreting this somewhat loosely. I think the biggest on-going story in Canadian science is the sustained active cuts and passive underfunding of scientific research from the Harper government; however, this is by no means contained to this year, and to some extent, physics and astronomy has not borne the brunt of these cuts the way environmental science has. This is not to say that the state of Canadian physics, astronomy, and space science is uniformly rosy and healthy: lots of programs and institutions have weathered funding cuts and grant programs that have been allowed to lapse, and, notably, the Canadian Space Agency got a failing grade in Evidence for Democracy’s Can Scientists Speak? report. (Environment Canada, which has been one of the most visible sources of frustrated scientists unable to speak about their work, got a C-.)

The 21 T magnet at the National Ultrahigh Field NMR Facility for Solids

Possibly the most unassuming looking world-class physics lab in the nation. Source:

But to the best of my knowledge, no physics or astronomy facility that can be described as “the only one of its kind in Canada” has yet had to shut its doors as a result of the war on science. (If you know of one, please let me know!) However, this may change early next year, as the National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids is in peril of closing permanently in March 2015. (The lab announced in late November that barring immediate reprieve it would be closing on December 1, but emergency funding was found, and the lab will remain open until March.) The NUF-NMR facility houses a 21 Tesla magnet, which is used to probe into the atomic structures of biological samples and novel materials. This magnetic is the strongest magnet in Canada, and the strongest magnet in the world dedicated to studying solids. All NMR work requires a strong magnetic to resolve the fine differences in nuclear emission spectra, but the stronger the magnetic the higher the resolution of the emission spectra, and the more elements that can be analyzed in the apparatus. Since this is the strongest magnet in the nation, if this lab closes there will be no facility in Canada that can analyze materials with magnesium, gallium, germanium, zirconium, indium, barium, or lanthium. Note that these are not all rare elements: it’s not just research into rare and exotic materials that would be curtailed by closing this lab.

The facility’s funding woes started in 2012, when scientific infrastructure funding was frozen for a year, and the NRC was overhauled to be a business-oriented lab for hire rather than a public research institute. The facility is housed in an NRC building, and received funding and support from the NRC before the restructuring. However, after the restructuring, the support was not renewed, and the funding the NRC had already committed ran out this year. The lease on the space from the NRC is $100,00 per year, and the directors estimate that another $160,000 is needed to cover operational costs.

While this sounds like a lot of money, this is not that much. The facility cost $11.8M to build, and for the want of $0.26 M, may close because all the grant programs they previously applied to (successfully, presumably) are now shuttered or restructured. Not that my research is comparable, but when I got my notification of resource allocation from Compute Canada last year, they included an estimate of how much my allocation would cost (were I paying it out of pocket, which I’m not, obviously). My modest allocation, for one grad student’s work, cost ~$75,000 per year. Obviously the funding sources are wildly different, but for the price of four modest supercomputer allocations, you could keep a unique Canadian facility open for another year. That is not even close to an outlandish sum of money for the substantial scientific payoff it provides.

This has been a theme of the war on science: while the budget cuts are presented in terms of efficiency and fiscal responsibility, many of the casualties have had modest budgets and outsized scientific impact. The fisheries library in New Brunswick that was shut (along with several others) comes to mind: the government spend several million dollars renovating an updating the library, and then closed it months later to save a few thousand dollars. I chalked that up to an ideological motivation, given the sustained hampering of environmental science work, but now it seems like there’s at least some haphazard slash-and-burning going on too.

I’m surprised that the NMR facility is facing such a funding crunch in part because this facility seems to be exactly the sort of lab that the government is supposedly trying to foster: NMR is used in a lot of applied and industrial science, especially materials science and biological physics. That they qualify for not a single grant program is baffling — surely with all this focus on funding industrial and applied science, there would be expanded funding programs for facilities that do that work? Much of the scientific community has said that this “refocussing on applied and industrial science” rhetoric is empty at best, and the NUF-NMR’s situation is good evidence that that’s not just dark or bitter speculation. None of the work listed on the facility’s research page has obvious political ramifications the way say the ELA’s publication list does. A lot of it sounds very useful, and much of it (particularly the pharmaceutical section) looks like it could easily be economically profitable. That a world-class facility like this is facing imminent closure, shuttering multiple research programs at universities across the country, is a clear indication that all science is under attack in Canada, not just the science with potential political ramifications.

Since the facility’s situation has come to light, the NRC has agreed to waive the lease temporarily (read: until this is safely out of the news), and from the sounds of the lab’s news page, there are negotiations in the works to secure some measure of stability. That’s good, but it’s only a matter of time until the next funding crisis comes around, and that’s likely to be sooner rather than later.

Looking for Women in the History of Astronomy and Physics

There’s a new physics and astronomy editorial up on Science Borealis, now written with my co-editor Jared Strang. Since it was Marie Curie’s birthday last week, we wrote about the general lack of historical role models for physics-minded girls, and how having only one titanic role model in a field is hard to aspire to. Not everyone’s going to win two Nobel prizes and revolutionize physics, after all.

So to make a point, we compiled a list of historical (roughly pre WWII) women who studied physics or astronomy, and we wound up a list of about 50 women. Jared and I both went looking for historical female astronomers and physicists, and in the first go round we had very similar lists. I found all the relatively well known women (Emmy Noether, Chien-Shiung Wu,,Lise Meitner, Hypatia, etc) and a handful of other lesser known figures within an hour or so. But I looked at the list, and almost all the figures were Western, and most lived in the 19th or 20th centuries. There were a couple from antiquity, and a couple from outside Europe or North America, but it was a pretty uninclusive list.

So I went looking for more women, particularly astronomers, as the history of astronomy is longer than the history of physics, and it is in many ways more accessible than physics. You don’t need any equipment to stand outside and look at the stars, so it’s hard to believe that over a millienia and a half, no women anywhere in the world sat down and wrote about the heavens.

You really have to go looking for hints of these women, though. Over a few days, I spent probably between 10 and 12 hours combing the internet and looking through history textbooks. I found a few more women, and a number of Renaissance salonists and teachers. Even though they didn’t necessarily do original research, I included them in the list because due to the exclusionary policies of universities, salons were one of the few ways that women could participate in the scientific culture of the day.

But most of the women were still European, which didn’t make sense. There was a huge revolution in mathematics in the Islamic Golden Age (9th – 12th centuries), and lots of the innovations Islamic scholars developed relied on Indian texts. There are lots of documents showing that the Malinese empire had advanced math and science. What about the Polynesian islanders, who must have had excellent knowledge of astronomy to travel the Pacific? There’s lots of evidence of excellent astronomical knowledge in Mesoamerica! It’s not like astronomy and physics are the sole domain of Western thinkers, so surely someone on the internet, repository for all things meticulously enumerated, would have some evidence of female astronomers from around the world.

Here’s who I found from outside of the Western world pre-1900:

  • Hypatia (Egypt), the titan of math, astronomy, and philosophy
  • Ban Zhao (China), who was not properly an astronomer but a renowned scholar of many topics, who wrote a treatise on astronomy
  • Queen Seondeok (Korea), who built the first observatory in East Asia (but I found no evidence that she herself was an astronomer)
  • Maryam al-Ijiliya (Syria), who was renowned for building innovative astrolabes
  • Fatima of Madrid (Spain, but had Arabic heritage), who worked on compiling tables of astronomical data
  • Wang Zhenyi (China), who wrote multiple astronomical treatises on equinoxes, planetary motion, and eclipses.

That’s six women, spread over 1800 years, one or two of whom weren’t themselves astronomers. If ever you need some evidence that women have been effectively written out of the history of science, there’s some evidence for you. I couldn’t find a single named female astronomer from India, Polynesia, non-Egyptian Africa, Mesoamerica, Japan, southeast Asia, Australia, etc in 2000 years of history.

I should note that names of non-Western male astronomers weren’t plentiful either, much to my irritation. Rather than trying to wade through a sea of names and fish out the one or two who belong to women, I spent those hours craning my metaphorical neck going “where is everyone?!”

It’s frustrating to be confronted with a thoroughly Western-centric history of one of the most universal fields of science. There is ample evidence that plenty of cultures developed sophisticated calendars that required precise astronomical knowledge, and it’s patently ludicrous to think that no women, and few men outside of Europe, were ever involved in that sort of work.

It’s worth noting that the majority of the earlier Western women on the list worked with their husbands, brothers, and fathers, often starting as transcribers or assistants. How many more historical women in science are hidden away out of sight of the history books? How many women’s contributions were roundly ignored by the scientific establishment, and discarded? I shouldn’t need to be a historian of science to find enough non-Western female astronomers in 2000 years to enumerate with more than one hand.

Here’s a somewhat unrelated anecdote that I failed to shoehorn in elsewhere: I first heard of Noether’s theorem in, I think, second year of undergrad physics. Noether’s theorem states that a symmetry in a non-dissipative system corresponds to a conserved quantity in that system. (It’s technically a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.) This theorem underpins most of classical mechanics and greatly clarifies what “energy” means in general relativity, so to say it’s an important theorem is a pretty big understatement. Since every other named theorem, law, lemma, algorithm, equation, or unit that I’d come across in math or physics up to that point had belonged to a man (exception: Marie Curie), I naturally assumed that Noether was male. It wasn’t until two years later, in my last year of undergrad, when I came across the name Emmy Noether, and was genuinely astonished that she was a woman.

Astronomy as a Gateway Science

Earlier this week, I wrote an editorial for Science Borealis on Cosmos, science communication, and astronomy as a gateway science. It turned out pretty well, I think.

Happy (?) Earth Day 2014

It’s Earth Day, when politicians wave their environmental flag and we’re all encouraged to make a token effort at reducing our enormous environmental footprint. I think Earth Day has in a number of respects, outlived its usefulness. When it was first celebrated in 1970, the notion of an environmental movement was still very new: Silent Spring was only eight years old, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor Environment Canada were established (the EPA would be by the end of the year, and EC the next), and it would be at least ten years before municipal recycling programs started to appear. Having a single day around which to promote environmental causes made sense when environmental issues aren’t very visible, but with climate change consistently on our collective radar, I think the focus of Earth Day needs to shift.

Maybe my impression of Earth Day leans too heavily on the “go clean up a patch of river with your class” sort of effort from grade school, but Earth Day is the original in a collection of one-off, isolated efforts designed to raise awareness and, to a lesser extent, make a dent in our collective carbon footprint. I’m dubious of anything whose primarily purpose is to nebulously “raise awareness” rather than actually doing anything [1] — especially considering that environmental issues aren’t exactly obscure these days. Earth Hour (which is of course distinct from Earth Day) is a perfect example of this: having a smattering of people turn off their lights for one hour does bupkis for actually reducing emissions, and the principal awareness it raises is remembering where you put the emergency candles (which is important but not the point).

This model is ineffective and, I’d argue, counterproductive: it proposes a model of small, discrete individual efforts to reduce emissions rather than the sustained, concerted, and substantial efforts actually needed to effectively combat climate change. It drastically undersells the level to which we need to collectively reorganize our lives to make a substantial change in emissions level, and, perhaps most importantly, it puts the onus of dealing with climate change on us as individuals and ignores both industrial and commercial sources of emissions as well as the need for good public policy to encourage those choices.

Let’s consider take the breakdown of Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2012 which I found in this report from Environment Canada: (see also this report [PDF])

Source Emissions in Mt CO2 equiv. Proportion
Oil and gas 173 25%
Transportation 165 24%
Electricity 86 12%
Buildings 80 11%
Emissions Intensive and Trade-Exposed 78 11%
Agriculture 69 10%
Waste and Others 47 7%

Most of these are not things that can be effective tackled solely by individuals acting en masse. The oil and gas industry is the single largest contributor of GHG in Canada, and considering the number and scale of pipelines being proposed for transporting and exporting tar sands oil, it seems wildly unlikely that this number will go down in the foreseeable future. Buildings includes homes, but also businesses, skyscrapers, and all sorts of infrastructure that individuals have minimal power to change. It’s unclear whether constructed structures other than buildings are also included in this number, though I suspect they are, and if that’s the case, there’s an even tinier amount of influence that individuals can wield to change this number. Emissions intensive and trade-exposed includes “metal and non-metal mining activities, smelting and refining, and the production and processing of industrial goods such as chemicals, fertilizers, paper and cement,” and while individuals can reduce their general consumption, I suspect it’s hard for citizens to make much of a dent in this sector.

So that’s 54% of Canada’s GHGs which are highly resistant to change by individuals, and electricity, transportation, agriculture, and waste and other still to consider. It’s straightforward for individuals to reduce their electricity usage, by using energy efficient goods and lightbulbs, not leaving lights and appliances on when not in use, and efficiently insulating their houses to reduce heat loss. However, it’s unclear how much electricity is used by individuals as opposed to the industrial, commercial, and public users, and other efforts need to be enacted to deal with those sectors. Transportation breaks down similarly: it’s straightforward for individuals to drive less (if your city has an efficient, robust, and accessible public transit system, which is not a given), but this number includes commercial and industrial transportation as well, and I don’t know how the number divides. GHG emmisions from agriculture can be reduced in part by people eating less or no meat, but plant crops also emit GHG (via machinery rather than ruminants), and many people are very resistant to becoming vegetarian, let alone vegan. Waste and other includes emissions from landfills, so by consuming less, composting, and recycling, individuals can make a dent in this number too.

So out of the sectors that can be impacted by groups of individuals, which represents about 46% of the total GHG emissions, not one source of emissions is due solely to individual consumption. All are split between individual, industrial, and commercial uses, and most require systemic factors to be favourable before large numbers of individuals can make substantial efforts over a sustained period of time to reduce the amount of GHG they directly or indirectly generate. It’s much easier to get people to retrofit their houses when there are subsidies and public policy supporting them. People are much more likely to leave their cars at home if there is a robust, safe, efficient, and (economically and physically) accessible public transit network. Without appropriate public policy to make environmentally conscious choices realistically accessible to broad sectors of citizens, few people will make those choices on a daily basis.

But even if we all, as citizens, consistently reduce our transportation and electricity usage and start eating tofu instead of steak, we’re shaving off parts of a small part of GHG emissions pie. Pushing individual reductions while ignoring that well over half our GHG emissions are due to industrial and commercial sources of various stripes is a spectacularly ineffective way to deal with climate change. To enact any sort of meaningful change in the oil and gas sector in particular will require concerted and sustained political vision and willpower. To effectively address our outsized GHG emissions (Canada has one of the highest emission rates per capita in the world), we need to drastically reduce not only our individual, but especially our industrial emissions, and that won’t change without public policy, legislation, and a drastically different vision of economic prosperity in Canada. It’s up to us as individuals to do what we can, but we need our politicians and civil servants to set policy that ensures that industry and commercial interests put in their share of the work too.

Happy Earth Day 2014. Let’s go protest some pipelines.

  1. Top of the list of offenders: the pinkwashers “raising awareness” about breast cancer.