The One That Got Away…

This is a guest post from Mo Beshr, an undergraduate student at TU Dublin who’ll soon be starting the final year of his Science with Nanotechnology degree. As part of his third year programme, Mo spent six months — from March until August — in our group. [Note to group: we really need to update our website.] Mo’s thoughts on his internship are below. The best of luck with your final year, Mo!


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I knew from before even starting university that I wanted to pursue a career in research as it’s been a long-time dream of mine to make a difference in the world — what better way is there than being on the forefront of science discovering something new every day! All students in my course were given the opportunity to carry out their placement in Ireland or abroad through the Erasmus programme. It was always a goal of mine to travel abroad and experience what it would be like to live independently. So once my supervisor at TU Dublin approached me about placement opportunities, I made it clear to him that I was keen to travel abroad.

I was offered countless research opportunities in various universities across Europe such as Germany, Switzerland and France. I’m not much of a languages guy, however, so I thought I’d give living in Nottingham in England a go; sure, they’re our neighbours from across the pond. But if we’re going to be serious, I immediately jumped at the idea of carrying out my placement in the University of Nottingham as I knew a lot about it through watching Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, and Periodic Videos on YouTube, which are channels that include videos on various topics in science explained by staff members of the university. As well as that, I had known of the great work carried out by the Nanoscience Group at the University and I was very excited to see how all that I had studied as a Nanoscience undergrad was applied. Thankfully I was accepted to carry out my work placement in the University of Nottingham working directly with the Nanoscience Group under the supervision of Professor Philip Moriarty between March and August 2019.

My work was focused on the use of ultrahigh vacuum, low temperature ( 5 K and 77 K) scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM) for atomic resolution imaging of metal and semiconductor surfaces, spectroscopy and manipulation of single atoms and molecules. As you can imagine, going from being a goofy student who attended a handful of lectures everyday to being thrown into the big bad world of research was quite daunting. However, with some time and excellent help and advice by the PhD researchers I worked with and my supervisor I got into the swing of things quickly.

Initially, the toughest tasks were understanding how the STM system I would be using operated and how to analyse STM images and spectra. During my initial time in Nottingham I worked with a PhD researcher named Alex Allen on his project, which involved taking scanning tunnelling spectra (STS) of a C60/ Ag(100) sample using the Createc low temperature STM system. When I had first arrived, a sample of C60/Ag(100) had already been inside the Createc STM chamber and only ever removed for annealing and deposition purposes. During one of our weekly meetings, Phil noticed there were porphyrin contaminants on our sample and in order to fix this we had to remove the sample first from the STM and then from the ultrahigh vacuum chamber. While doing this we were, of course, always observing the movements of the STM tip using the live video from the camera. We then replaced the sample.

Once cleaning of the sample had been completed (by sputtering with ions and subsequent annealing), we would bring the sample back into the STM chamber and scan it in order to make sure it was clean and had an atomically flat surface; on the final sputter-anneal cycle, we achieved atomic resolution. Deposition of the desired molecules would then take place. The deposition process involved placing the sample over a crucible of C60. The crucible was then heated up with a high current which in turn sublimes the buckminsterfullerene molecules, thus allowing for the molecules to impinge on the surface of the sample. Once deposition was complete, we collected liquid nitrogen — following my health and safety induction — and then pumped it through the manipulator arm. This was done in order to cool the sample and control just how the fullerene molecules crystallised on the surface.

Finally, the sample was returned to the STM and scanning commenced once again. The  cryostat surrounding the STM was regularly filled with liquid nitrogen, which keeps the sample cooled throughout the scans…

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In quite a few cases the scans were quite blurry or appeared smeared due to the STM tip being in a bad state. Sometimes the tip wasn’t atomically sharp and/or add more than one molecule on its apex, leading to multiple tunnelling current centres and thus “blurring” the image. In that case, a method known technically as, err, “crashing” was implemented — a clean area was found, and the tip was pushed into the surface to modify its apex. Once a tip had been “sharpened” and clear images were produced, we could carry out scanning tunnelling spectroscopy (STS) of the surface at any specific point. The tip would be positioned above a molecule. The bias was then varied, and the tunnelling current was recorded, giving a plot of the current-voltage characteristic for a single molecule. Differentiating the I(V) spectrum gives us information on the density of states of the molecules.

As well as gaining valuable experience in operating STM systems, I also obtained training in so-called “soft” skills. Literature review topics were assigned to me prior to carrying out any experimental work so I would have a better understanding of the topic of investigation. This involved me writing a report summarising the literature on that topic. The reviews were an excellent opportunity for me to improve my academic writing skills; with every review I could see improvement, and this prepared me very well for my end-of-placement report. After each literature review, I presented what I had found during group meetings, which was very intimidating as I had never given a presentation before! However, I improved with every presentation and the practice gave me great confidence when I returned to Ireland to present my work placement experience to my peers and lecturers.

Completing my work placement with the Nanoscience Group at Nottingham has let me  apply what I have learned in my three years as an undergraduate student and really opened my eyes to a future in research and academia. I now understand what it takes to be a researcher and I believe that I am now capable of pursuing my dream of becoming a researcher and hopefully to make a positive impact in the world of science. I hope this blog inspires other students like me to consider research as a future career path, as there is truly so much still out there to learn and find out. One tends to learn something new every day, and you realise that you are indeed on the frontline of science.

Lightning Strikes Again: Spring Into Science 2019

I was delighted when a link to this video popped into my Outlook inbox a few days ago…

A big thank you to the video-maker, Tony Martin, who did such a wonderful job of capturing the enthusiasm, energy, and exuberance of the three hundred or so Year 8 students crowded into our largest lecture theatre for this year’s Spring Into Science. It’s the third year in a row that we’ve run this event, after it was inspired by my friend and colleague Ed Copeland during a Brian Cox lecture here in Nottingham in late 2016. As described in a University of Nottingham blog post covering the inaugural Spring Into Science,

Professor Copeland joined him on stage and spoke about the need for more young people to get involved in science: “Getting more young people enthusiastic about science is vital both to ensure progression and growth in the subject but also because science plays such an important role in society. We designed the content to be interactive and engaging, with the aim of showing how exciting science can be and to hopefully inspire the audience to consider it as a subject to pursue.”

I look forward eagerly to Spring Into Science every year. It’s a huge amount of fun to give the lecture because of the students’ reactions to the demonstrations and their willingness to engage with the science. But I’ve got the easy job — I just turn up and talk. There’s a heck of a lot more hard work involved for those who put in the effort (both behind the scenes and “up front” during the lecture) to organise everything and to ensure that the many demos not only work but grab the students’ attention year in, year out. There’s nothing quite like that “ohhhh” that echoes across the theatre each year as the Tesla coil is fired up…

As ever, it’s the unsung heroes of universities — the technical and support staff — who make events like Spring Into Science such a success. So a very big thank-you indeed to Ian Taylor, Denise Watt, Matt Young, and Paul Munday for their dedication and commitment in developing, testing, and supporting all of the demos we use (for not only Spring Into Science but the very many other outreach, public engagement, and schools events with which the School of Physics and Astronomy is involved.) I’ve also got to very gratefully acknowledge the hard work of Ed, Chris Staddon (our outreach coordinator), Aggie Gasiorowska (who liaises with all of the schools and has the unenviable task of ensuring that hundreds of thirteen year olds end up in the right places in the lecture theatre), and our colleagues involved in secondary education across Nottingham: Nadia Hussain, Frances Rowland, John Dexter, and Mick Evans, in particular, who make sure the word gets out to Notts schools. And, of course, I have to highlight the immense hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm of all of the Year 8 teachers who attended. (If I’ve forgotten anyone, it is most definitely not a deliberate slight. My memory ain’t what it once was…(and it’s never been that great.))

Hot on the heels of the Spring Into Science lecture there’s a Q&A session, with a panel comprising students and researchers in physics and astronomy at pretty much all career stages: undergrads, postgrads, postdoctoral researchers, lecturers, and professors. (Another big thank you, of course, to all those who contributed to the panel discussion.) It’s always fascinating (and instructive) to listen to the Year 8 audience quiz my colleagues. This year, in addition to the traditional questions about the origin of the Earth/universe (or is it multiverse…?), we had students keen to know about that incredible black hole image, whether the Earth is the only planet with four seasons (a great question), and what our panel thought about the flat Earth “controversy”. Dr. Meghan Gray’s answer to the latter question was a model of restraint, clarity, and compelling scientific argument: “There is no controversy. Here’s why…”

At about the 1:40 mark in the video above, one of the students explains that “We got to explore our imaginations a little more and figure out what we wanted to do when we’re older.” I was very pleased to hear this, as one message I try to get across during the Spring Into Science lecture is the importance of breaking down that irksome “Two Cultures” divide that continues to exist between STEM and the arts and humanities. Too often (particularly at secondary school level), science is viewed as a staid, static body of facts and techniques that need to be learned so as to “get the right answer”. The more we can highlight just how much creativity, imagination, and, indeed, artistry are involved in science, the better.

Vying with the viva

This week’s Times Higher Education‘s cover feature is “Lighting The Way“, on the theme of PhD supervision. Along with five other academics, across a range of disciplines, I was invited by Paul Jump to contribute my thoughts on the role of the PhD supervisor. The editorial (by John Gill) sums up my central point as “the fundamental responsibility [of the PhD supervisor] is still to nurture independence such that the doctoral candidate ceases to be a student and becomes a peer.” That’s a fair summary. I also reiterated my commitment to referring to PhD researchers, rather than PhD students, in line with Jeff Ollerton’s important suggestion.

I’ve had the “Vying with the Viva” title of this post stuck in my head for a little while now and the publication of the Times Higher article seems as timely a moment as any to jot down some tips for PhD students  researchers who are preparing for a viva voce examination. I should first say that just about everything you need to know about doing a PhD is covered in a wonderful book by an alumnus of the Nottingham Nanoscience Group, James Hayton, whose PhD it was my absolute pleasure to supervise. I cannot recommend that book highly enough (and not only because it demonstrates that Dr. Hayton managed to survive my supervision and come out the other side relatively unscathed, if perhaps swearing a little more often than is strictly necessary.) James also has a great blog, website, and series of videos on the many peaks and pitfalls of doing a PhD.

I thought, however, that it might be helpful for those about to undertake a viva to hear from someone who has examined PhD candidates (as both external and internal examiner) at the rate of about three or four per year (on average) over the last couple of decades. At this point in my career, I have also been primary supervisor for a total of twenty-six students. (Twenty-two have completed their thesis to date. The remaining four are in 1st year (Oli), 2nd year (Joe), and the final year (Alex and Filipe) of their PhD project, respectively.)*

I should stress that what I write below is UK- and Ireland-centric and is from the perspective of a condensed matter physicist/nanoscientist (although I could also just about get away with calling myself a chemical physicist/physical chemist, given the research we do.) The examples chosen obviously reflect my research background and examining experience but the advice is, I would say, broadly applicable for all disciplines.

My own viva, back on a snowy January morning in 1994 — with the wonderfully-monickered Iggy McGovern, physicist and poet, as my external examiner** — was very similar in style to those I’ve since attended as examiner rather than candidate. The PhD researcher sits on one side of a table, with the examiners — one from a different university (the external), the other from the same university as the candidate — seated opposite. Sometimes (though very, very rarely in my experience), the PhD supervisor will also attend, and in Ireland it’s more common to have a moderator in place to ensure that the candidate and examiners don’t come to blows. (Joke. Usually.)

OK, on with those tips for a successful viva (in no particular order)…

1. Have a practice viva.

2. Have a practice viva.

3. Have a practice viva. Excuse my hammering home the message quite as bluntly as this but if I were forced at gunpoint to give only one piece of advice it would be the following: ask your PhD supervisor to do a mock viva with you and do not take “no” for an answer. If there’s another academic member of staff or postdoc willing to be involved, all the better — they can take the role of the internal examiner and your PhD supervisor can pretend to be the external. They should aim to grill you mercilessly. And if it takes two or three attempts at the mock viva to fully prepare you for the real thing, so be it. (The mock need only take an hour or less. That’s enough, generally, to identify where there might be issues.)

We do this in our group at Nottingham for every PhD researcher (a couple of weeks before their actual viva) and we do not hold back. They leave the mock viva feeling somewhat shell-shocked but that’s entirely the point: it’s much better to come to terms with key gaps in knowledge or understanding before the actual viva. And in the end, most of our alumni find that the real viva was a piece of cake compared to the mock.

4. Every word in your thesis is examinable.  Do not simply rearrange the words in a textbook or a review article when it comes to writing the background material. Know what those words mean. For example, if you’re an experimentalist, don’t write about particular functionals used in density functional theory (DFT) if you have absolutely no idea what a functional is (and how it differs from a function). Or, if you’re a theorist, don’t wax lyrical about phase errors in a phase-locked loop if you haven’t a clue as to how a PLL does what it does. (These are both examples I’ve encountered when I’ve been external examiner.)  And it goes without saying that you don’t cut and paste from that article or textbook. That’s plagiarism. Even if it’s just one sentence. And, no, “I couldn’t word it better than it was written” isn’t an excuse. But you know that.

5. Don’t ramble. If you don’t know the answer, just say so. Obviously, try not to reply to each question you’re asked with “I haven’t a clue” but you are not expected to know the answer to everything. Indeed, the examiner is often asking because they don’t know.  If you start rambling you can very easily start digging yourself a hole out of which it’s sometimes difficult to crawl. I certainly did this in my own viva because I chatter when I’m nervous.

6. Don’t neglect the fundamentals. This is where most PhD candidates come unstuck. There seems to be a perception that the viva will focus on the minutiae of the most arcane technical detail in your research over which you have probably lost many nights of sleep. The overwhelming odds are that your examiner won’t even have noticed this aspect of your work. They’ll focus on the much bigger picture. (See also #7.)

If your PhD is on simulating intermolecular interactions, for example, be damn sure that you are completely au fait with those pair potentials due to Morse and Lennard-Jones that you covered all the way back in Year 1 or Year 2 of your undergraduate degree. Similarly, if you’ve been determining forces from a potential energy landscape measured by an atomic force microscope, ensure that you have slightly more than a passing familiarity with scalar and vector fields. Dig out those undergrad vector calculus notes and make sure you understand how force and potential are related, for one.

You can’t, of course, prepare for every question. But it’s worth thinking carefully about which key principles of physics/chemistry underpin your research. (We’ll take the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics as given. You can, of course, state the 1st and 2nd laws with confidence, right?) In the case of my viva, Prof. McGovern took me from vibration isolation for a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), to the eddy current damping exploited in most STMs, to Faraday’s law of induction. (Thanks for that, Iggy.)

7. Think big. I tend to start the vivas I do with a simple question along the lines of “Why did you do a PhD?” or “Which aspect of your work is the most important/you’re most proud of?” or “Explain your work in a few sentences and in language that a GCSE student could understand.” My aim is to try to put the candidate at their ease. This backfires sometimes, however, because the candidate clearly is not expecting a general question of this type. Sometimes they are completely flummoxed.

A key part of the viva process is to ascertain the extent to which you understand the broader context of your work. Why is it important? Why should anyone care? What value does it have in terms of pushing your field of study forward? You need to sweat the small stuff, to borrow a phrase from our friends across the pond, but you also need to be able to see the wood for the trees.

8. “My supervisor told me to do it” is never, ever, ever the right answer. You’re being examined to assess your ability to be an independent researcher. If you don’t know why you did a particular experiment or calculation the way you did, find out right now. And ask yourself whether that really was the best way to do things. (I should note that I’ve been given “My supervisor told me to do it” as a reply on significantly more than one occasion.)

9. Forewarned is forearmed. Look up your examiners’ group web pages and publications. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the research they’ve done. Unless something has gone badly astray in the examiner selection process, their research area is not going to be light years from yours. Do your homework and you might even be able to preempt a question or two.

10. We are almost always on your side. Yes, there are one or two complete bastards out there who are deeply insecure and unpleasant individuals; they’ll take pleasure in attempting to humiliate a candidate during a viva. I’ve not encountered one of these (thus far) but I’ve certainly heard from postdocs who have had to suffer arrogant, patronising, and, in the worst cases, bullying PhD examiners.

To put this in context, however I have now done somewhere between sixty and seventy vivas (as external or internal examiner) over the course of my career to date and I’ve not encountered this type of behaviour. I would also very much hope, of course, that I have not made any of the PhD candidates I have examined feel as if they were being patronised (or worse.) We examiners want you to pass!

11. Try to enjoy yourself. Despite receiving quite a grilling from Prof. McGovern, I enjoyed my viva. It’s nerve-wracking, of course, but when you’re talking about the research you love with someone who is genuinely interested in the work, it can also be exhilarating.

No, really. It can.

I’ll leave you with a wonderfully affecting Sixty Symbols video that follows my friend and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, James Clewett, through his viva experience…

To quote James,

“In the end…it was a very comfortable… very enjoyable experience. It was something that, in hindsight, I’d do it again.”

Oh, and that reminds me…

12Don’t wear shorts.

* Thank you Mike, Mick, Li, Rich, Fiona, Matt, Andy, Manu, James, Adam, Pete, Cong, Rosanna, Haya, Sam, Julian, Cristina, Ioannis, Morten, Jeremy, Simon, Alex, Filipe, Joe, and Oli.

** It was a lot of fun to work with Iggy seventeen years after my viva on this video:

 

“Science on Saturday” Goes to 11

This weekend I had the honour and privilege of being the first speaker for the 2019 Ronald E Hatcher Science on Saturday series of lectures held at, and organised by, Princeton’s PPL (Plasma Physics Laboratory).  I’ll let PPPL themselves explain what Science On Saturday is all about:

Science on Saturday is a series of lectures given by scientists, engineers, and other professionals involved in cutting-edge research. Held on Saturday mornings throughout winter, the lectures are geared toward high school students. The program draws more than 300 students, teachers, parents, and community members. Topics are selected from a variety of disciplines.

Named after the late Ronald E Hatcher, who ran and hosted the series for many years, Science on Saturday is a fun way to bring physics (and other lesser sciences) to the general public(s) and other scientists alike. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience, who braved a bracing Saturday morning to hear about the connections between Sabbath, Stryper, and Schrödinger.  (The free bagels and coffee before the talk were, I’m sure, not entirely incidental in attracting the audience. I certainly can vouch for the quality of the pre-lecture consumables.) The Q&A session at the end ran for over an hour, with many insightful questions from the audience, whose age range seemed to span ~ 9 to 90 years young!

A number of those who were in the audience e-mailed me after the talk to ask for a copy of the slides. I’ve uploaded them to SlideShare (sans videos, regrettably) to make them publicly available here:

 

Andrew Zwicker has been the energetic and entertaining host for Science on Saturday for, if I recall correctly, more years than he cares to remember. In parallel with his career in physics, Andrew has successfully forayed into politics, as outlined at his Wikipedia page. Before the lecture he told me about an exciting scheme to encourage more early career researchers into politics. I thoroughly understand the reticence of many scientists to get involved with the political sphere — my involvement with the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme a number of years ago was an eye-opener in terms of the mismatch that can exist between political and scientific mindsets — but we need to bite the bullet and dive in*, especially in an era when hard scientific evidence is so readily dismissed as “fake news”. (Apologies. Make that “FAKE NEWS” and add any number of exclamation marks to taste.)

On the day of my Science on Saturday lecture, a white supremacist march had been mooted to be held in Princeton (not the most likely of venues, it fortunately has to be said, for that type of hatemongering.) In the end, the basement dwellers never turned up — they claimed that it was a hoax. But the counter-protesters attended in their heart-warming hundreds…

I’d like to offer a very big thank you both to Andrew for the invitation to speak at “Science on Saturday” and to DeeDee Ortiz, the Program Manager for Science Education at PPPL, for organising the visit. A similarly massive thank you to Lori for all of her help and organisation, including providing the key musical “props” used during the lecture.


*Excuse the mixed metaphor. I love mixed metaphors. This, taken from Leon Lederman’s “The God Particle” as an example of writing by one of his PhD students, is my very favourite: “This field of physics is so virginal that no human eyeball has ever set foot in it.” (That quote tickles me so much that I use it as part of the introduction to the final year Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics  module here at Nottingham.)

Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

I’m reblogging this important post by Jeff Ollerton on retiring the description of postgraduate researchers as “PhD students”. This has been something of a bugbear of mine for quite some time now. We ask that PhD researchers produce a piece of work for their thesis that is original, scholarly, and makes a (preferably strong) contribution to the body of knowledge in a certain (sub-)field. Moreover, the majority of papers submitted to the REF (at least in physics) have a PhD candidate as lead author. Referring to these researchers as “students” seems to me to dramatically downplay their contributions and expertise. I’m going to follow Jeff’s example and use the term “postgraduate researchers” from now on. The comments section under the post is also worth reading (…and there’s something you don’t hear every day.)

Over to you, Jeff…

Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK.  That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva).  Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc.  Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?

Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly.  At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller…

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The Worm That (re-)Turned at CERN

“The dateline is 2012. England is in the grip of a new regime of terror. Traditionally a land of great heroes and brave statesmen — Nelson, Wellington, Disraeli, Churchill – Britain now laboured under the yoke of a power guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of all men. The country is now being run by women.”

That’s how The Two Ronnies mini-series The Worm That Turned kicked off all the way back in 1980. I realise, however, that this, um, lost gem of eighties British TV may have passed some of you by. Let me rectify that right now. Here’s the first episode. Sit back and enjoy (for want of a better term) this classic take on gender politics by those masters of subtle-as-a-sledgehammer satire…

The Two Ronnies was a firm favourite in our household as I grew up during the 70s and 80s. The Worm That Turned ran for eight consecutive weeks, although my memory ain’t what it once was and I assumed that it had gone on for much longer. It certainly seemed that way at the time…

Much more amusing than the series itself, however, is that, almost forty years after it was broadcast, there’s a certain type of gentleman for whom the premise of The Worm That Turned is less hackneyed eighties comedy and much more a chillingly accurate prediction of the sub-Orwellian dystopia that he and his poor, repressed, downtrodden mates now have to endure. The comments under that YouTube video are comedy gold…

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I was reminded, and not for the first time in recent years, of The Worm That Turned as I followed the reaction to Alessandro Strumia‘s overwrought, poorly-researched, and cliche-ridden diatribe about women in physics. For those of you who haven’t been following the story, in a nutshell this is what happened: Prof. Strumia stood up at the 1st Workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender  and delivered a talk bemoaning the drive towards greater gender balance in physics. He trotted out the same zombie arguments about male vs female ability/aptitude/preference for physics that have been addressed and/or debunked time and again. (More on this below but if you’re not aware of Angela Saini’s Inferior and/or Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, put down this blog post right now and go and do something less boring instead (as another staple of 80s British TV used to put it). Read Saini’s and Fine’s books).

Tellingly, and not entirely unexpectedly, Strumia’s slides (which are here) include mention of cultural Marxism so one might guess that a certain Canadian YouTube guru (and social scientist [1]) inspired at least a little of the “woe is men” pearl-clutching. Just like James Damore before him (another fan of the ubiquitous Canadian guru), Strumia wears the mantle of the ever-so-courageous rational scientist “speaking truth to power” and just “telling it like it is”, when, in fact, and despite his loud claims to the contrary, he’s wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In Strumia’s case, there’s also a pinch of seething resentment mixed in. (But again, that’s hardly new. Gentlemen of Strumia’s persuasion tend to get very distressed and emotional about women getting above their station; anything from a Ghostbusters movie to female superheroes featuring on tins of pasta can set them off…)

Molyneux

The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, the BBC, and the New York Times, among very many other august publications, have covered the Strumia story in depth. It’s worth reading those articles, of course, but I would also take the time to trawl the Twitter thread below for the lowlights of Strumia’s talk…

Moreover, you should read Jess Wade‘s article in New Scientist.

[Update 10:41 03/10/2018. See Joachim Kopp’s comment below (and my response) re. Jess’ initial tweet above.]

Strumia’s arguments are tediously predictable and totally derivative. Like Damore, his cherry-picking of the data is at astronomical levels. Heterodox Academy, not exactly a left-leaning organisation, laudably took a detailed overview of the literature on gender differences hot on the heels of the furore about Damore’s “manifesto”. I recommend that you take a look at those HA articles; note that the literature is very, very far from unequivocal on the matter of gender differences.

Strumia is clearly a well-cited scientist — he was not exactly shy about highlighting this during his talk — so he must know that any useful review of the literature should be well-balanced and cite both sides of any controversy. But he made no attempt to do this during his talk at the CERN workshop. Instead, he behaved like any tabloid hack, evangelical MRA YouTuber, or pseudoscientist keen to play to the gallery, and completely skewed his sampling of the literature so that he selected only those publications that aligned with his ideology. That’s not how we physicists do science. (Well, at least it’s not how we squalid state physicists do science…)

I’ve been down this road before. Many times. I wrote a post titled The Natural Order of Things a couple of years back to rebut the arguments of those, like Strumia, who misleadingly present the literature on gender differences as cut-and-dried in their favour.  And yet, instead of attempting to address the points I make in that post, those who contact me to complain about my views on gender balance instead trot out the received wisdom ad nauseum, with no attempt to revise their stance in the light of new data or evidence. (With that potent mix of arrogance and ignorance that is the signature characteristic of so much internet traffic, they cite The Blank Slate or Baron-Cohen’s work, assuming, on the basis of no evidence at all, that I have yet to read either.)  I’ll quote Philip Ball yet again: “It’s as if they’re damned if they are going to let your actual words deprive them of their right to air their preconceived notions.”

Apart from the cherry-picking, there’s also the inadvertent comedy of Strumia’s credulous and uncritical methodology to savour. He assumes — on the basis of what evidence? — that citations scale directly with IQ levels, assuming a nicely arbitrary “6 sigma among 10^9 persons” (why 6 sigma? why 10^9?) criterion to ‘fit’ his data. Leaving aside his plucked-from-thin air” assumptions here, there’s a rather more robust analysis of the “tails of the distribution” argument from Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz in their analysis of gender, culture, and mathematics performance.

Why would IQ be immutable? Or independent of environmental influences? And why would citations be solely dependent on IQ? Do prestige, track record, and/or serendipity not play a role? And this is before we even get to the question of the extent to which citations are a measure of scientific quality in the first place. Not everything that counts can be counted…

I’m not going to rehearse, (re-)repeat and rehash the arguments here. They’re covered at length in both The Natural Order Of Things and in a stream I did shortly after the furore about Damore’s manifesto hit:

The slides I used for the discussion in that stream are here. I’ll just highlight one slide in particular:

MathsPerformance.png

On the left hand side of that slide are the distributions of eighth grade girls’ and boys’ mathematics scores (in the traditional — well, recently traditional — blue and pink, respectively) for the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Unlike Strumia’s naive, unquestioning, and simplistic argument that males “universally” feature in the tails of IQ distributions, what we see here are strong geographical differences in maths ability [2]. While boys in Bahrain outperform girls in the tail of the distribution towards higher maths scores, in Tunisia the situation is reversed, whereas in the Czech republic the mark distributions overlap. So, far from having an innate, immutable, “hard-wired” distribution, there are strong geographical variations.

Similarly, and as discussed elsewhere in that stream above, there are distinct temporal variations when it comes to male vs female performance in maths over the years. It is rather difficult to reconcile these geographical and temporal variations with Strumia’s argument that everything can be reduced down to innate male vs female aptitudes and/or preferences. (That’s not to say that there aren’t real differences in male and female brains…)

Despite disagreeing entirely with Strumia’s lazy ‘analysis’, however, I have deep qualms about just how his comments and views are being addressed. Suspension (or, worse, dismissal) plays directly into the martyrdom mindset that underpins and strengthens the popularity of Peterson, Damore et al. (“Those feminazis are quashing free speech.”)  Strumia is in a much different position to Tim Hunt, for example. The latter — despite loud, uninformed protestations (that continue to this day) about a man “losing his livelihood” — was retired at the time he made his misjudged comments at a science journalism conference in Korea back in 2015. Hunt was, in fact, an honorary professor at UCL (and, by definition, was therefore not paid by the university). Strumia is not retired, although some are strongly of the opinion that he should be retired forthwith.

Instead of outright dismissing the man, Strumia’s views should be dissected and dismissed for what they are: hyperbolic, over-simplistic, cherry-picked polemic more befitting a politician than a scientist. His arguments, such as they are, should be taken apart and used as, for one, an example of the lazy lack of appreciation and/.or cherry-picking of the wider literature that is the hallmark of the “Men just are hard-wired to be better at science. Deal with it, ladies” mindset. Let’s not play directly into his and others’ hands by fuelling the narrative that they are oh-so-brave free speech warriors silenced by the “feminazi establishment”.  Their fevered imaginations can conjure up scenarios much worse than Messrs Barker and Corbett ever did…

Update 09:29 03/10/2018: Just been sent a link to Jon Butterworth’s biting and brilliant take on Strumia’s attack of the vapours. Thoroughly recommended.


 

[1] Yes, psychology is a social science. It’s always chuckle-worthy to hear fully paid-up members of the Cult of Peterson whine incessantly about the social sciences while simultaneously failing to appreciate just where psychology lies on the academic landscape. (And while we’re on the subject, psychology is hardly the most robust of the sciences in terms of reproducibility and credibility. Peterson really should follow his own teachings (and parables) and spend a little more time considering the beam in his own discipline’s eye before whining about the mote in others’…)

[2] I should note that, despite some physicists’ biases to the contrary, ability at math(s) is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to intelligence.

Breaking Through the Barriers

A colleague alerted me to this gloriously barbed Twitter exchange earlier today:

Jess-Cox.png

Jess Wade‘s razor-sharp riposte to Brian Cox was prompted by just how Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has chosen to spend the £2.3M [1] associated with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics she was awarded today. Here’s the citation for the Prize:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

In a remarkable act of generosity, Bell Burnell has donated the entire prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for, as described in a BBC news article, “women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.” 

Bell Burnell is quoted in The Guardian article to which Brian refers as follows: “A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student… increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.”

As an out-and-proud ‘social justice warrior’, [2] I of course agree entirely.

That rumbling you can hear in the distance, however, is the sound of 10,000 spittle-flecked, basement-bound keyboards being hammered in rage at the slightest suggestion that diversity in physics (or any other STEM subject) could ever be a good thing. Once again I find myself in full agreement with my erstwhile University of Nottingham colleague, Peter Coles:

[1] A nice crisp, round $3M for those on the other side of the pond.

[2] Thanks, Lori, for bringing those wonderful t-shirts to my attention!