Beauty and the Biased

A big thank you to Matin Durrani for the invitation to provide my thoughts on the Strumia saga — see “The Worm That (re)Turned” and “The Natural Order of Things?” for previous posts on this topic — for this month’s issue of Physics World. PW kindly allows me to make the pdf of the Opinion piece available here at Symptoms. The original version (with hyperlinks intact) is also below.

(And while I’m at it, an even bigger thank you to Matin, Tushna, and all at PW for this immensely flattering (and entirely undeserved, given the company I’m in) accolade…

From Physics World, Dec. 2018.

A recent talk at CERN about gender in physics highlights that biases remain widespread, Philip Moriarty says we need to do more to tackle such issues head on

When Physics World asked several physicists to name their favourite books for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, I knew immediately what I would choose (see October pp 74-78). My “must-read” pick was Sabine Hossenfelder’s exceptionally important Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which was released earlier this year.

Hossenfelder, a physicist based at the Frankfurt Institute of Technology, is an engaging and insightful writer who is funny, self-deprecating, and certainly not afraid to give umbrage. I enjoyed the book immensely, being taken on a journey through modern theoretical physics in which Hossenfelder attempts to make sense of her profession. If there is one chapter of the book that particularly resonated with me it’s the concluding Chapter 10, “Knowledge is Power”. This is a powerful closing statement that deserves to be widely read by all scientists, but especially by that especially irksome breed of physicist who believes — when all evidence points to the contrary — that they are somehow immune to the social and cognitive biases that affect every other human.

In “Knowledge is Power”, Hossenfelder adeptly outlines the primary biases that all good scientists have striven to avoid ever since the English philosopher Francis Bacon identified his “idols of the tribe” – i.e. the tendency of human nature to prefer certain types of incorrect conclusions. Her pithy single-line summary at the start of the chapter captures the key issue: “In which I conclude the world would be a better place if everyone listened to me”.

Lost in bias

Along with my colleague Omar Almaini from the University of Nottingham, I teach a final-year module entitled “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”. I say teach, but in fact, most of the module consists of seminars that introduce a topic for students to then debate, discuss and argue for the remaining time. We dissect Richard Feynman’s oft-quoted definition of science: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.  Disagreeing with Feynman is never a comfortable position to adopt, but I think he does science quite a disservice here. The ignorance, and sometimes even the knowledge, of experts underpins the entire scientific effort. After all, collaboration, competition and peer review are the lifeblood of what we do. With each of these come complex social interactions and dynamics and — no matter how hard we try — bias. For this and many other reasons, Lost In Math is now firmly on the module reading list.

At a CERN workshop on high-energy theory and gender at the end of September, theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia from the University of Pisa claimed that women with fewer citations were being hired over men with greater numbers of citations. Following the talk, Strumia faced an immediate backlash in which CERN suspended him pending an investigation, while some 4000 scientists signed a letter that called his talk “disgraceful”. Strumia’s talk was poorly researched, ideologically-driven, and an all-round embarrassingly biased tirade against women in physics. I suggest that Strumia needs to take a page — or many — out of Hossenfelder’s book. I was reminded of her final chapter time and time again when I read through Strumia’s cliché-ridden and credulous arguments, his reactionary pearl-clutching palpable from almost every slide of his presentation.

One criticism that has been levelled at Hossenfelder’s analysis is that it does not offer solutions to counter the type of biases that she argues are prevalent in the theoretical-physics community and beyond. Yet Hossenfelder does devote an appendix — admittedly rather short — to listing some pragmatic suggestions for tackling the issues discussed in the book. These include learning about, and thus tackling, social and cognitive biases.

This is all well and good, except that there are none so blind as those that will not see. The type of bias that Strumia’s presentation exemplified is deeply engrained. In my experience, his views are hardly fringe, either within or outside the physics community — one need only look to the social media furore over James Damore’s similarly pseudoscientific ‘analysis’ of gender differences in the context of his overwrought “Google Manifesto” last year. Just like Damore, Strumia is being held up by the usual suspects as the ever-so-courageous rational scientist speaking “The Truth”, when, of course, he’s entirely wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In a masterfully acerbic and exceptionally timely blog post published soon after the Strumia storm broke (“The Strumion. And On”), his fellow particle physicist Jon Butterworth (UCL) highlighted a number of the many fundamental flaws at the core of Strumia’s over-emotional polemic.   .

Returning to Hossenfelder’s closing chapter, she highlights there that the “mother of all biases” is the “bias blind spot”, or the insistence that we certainly are not biased:

“It’s the reason my colleagues only laugh when I tell them biases are a problem, and why they dismiss my ‘social arguments’, believing they are not relevant to scientific discourse,” she writes. “But the existence of those biases has been confirmed in countless studies. And there is no indication whatsoever that intelligence protects against them; research studies have found no links between cognitive ability and thinking biases.”

Strumia’s diatribe is the perfect example of this bias blind spot in action. His presentation is also a case study in confirmation bias. If only he had taken the time to read and absorb Hossenfelder’s writing, Strumia might well have saved himself the embarrassment of attempting to pass off pseudoscientific guff as credible analysis.

While the beauty of maths leads physics astray, it is ugly bias that will keep us in the dark.


The Natural Order of Things? Part III: The Song Remains The Same

It’s the same old story, same old song and dance, my friend…

Same Old Song and Dance, Aerosmith. Track 1, Side 1, “Get Your Wings” (1974). Perry/Tyler. Lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Zombie arguments are the lifeblood of the internet. Resistant to all counter-evidence, it doesn’t matter how often they’re shot down — they will arise (under a pale gray sky[i]) to live and breed again. The reason for their immortality is laid out in a classic post by David McRaney entitled The Backfire Effect[ii]:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Or, as McRaney puts it further down that post:

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party a valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

No, probably not.

The Backfire Effect in turn underpins Brandolini’s Law:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

aka The Bullshit Asymmetry Principle.

The wholly biased presentation on gender bias in science given by Alessandro Strumia at the end of last month featured a veritable army of zombie arguments. These were, of course, unblinkingly accepted by those who share Strumia’s ideological bias:

Without wanting to get too ‘meta’ here, Damore’s “I’ve not seen anyone address the points this put-upon man has raised” claim is itself a zombie argument.  Each time an aggrieved and over-emotional gentleman decides to put across personal opinion, bias, and methodologically-unsound analysis of gender differences as “The Truth” (unfailingly covered up by The Big Bad Establishment[iii]), their ‘arguments’ are addressed and rebutted. As just one example, Strumia’s pseudoscience was dissected and demolished very quickly by his fellow particle physicist Jon Butterworth in a masterful blend of snark, satire and sharp insight.

You might, therefore, quite reasonably ask just why I’m returning to this theme. Hasn’t Strumia had his 15 minutes of fame and shouldn’t we just ignore him now, given that, for one, his = <Ncitations> pseudoscientific nonsense has been thoroughly rebutted? I have quite some sympathy for that view, I must admit, but I’m exhuming the corpse of Strumia’s pseudostats, and returning to the zombie fray, in order to provide a direct response to David Allen, who left a series of comments and questions under my “The Worm That (re)Turned” post on Strumia. David’s questions and comments were made in a very polite and genuine manner. He deserves a considered response. I’ll address David directly from here on in.

DA: So what explains the tendency for nations that have traditionally less gender equality to have more women in science and technology than their gender-progressive counterparts do? That question is posed here:

Unless there is a consensus of credible proof that the reason for low women numbers n STEM is that they are being discriminated against in some way, I personally will elect to believe it is down to their free choice and agency rather than down to victimhood.

[David’s full comment is here.]

First, David, this is the third in a trilogy of posts entitled “The Natural Order of Things?” that I’ve written[iv]. (Parts I and II are here and here, respectively.) I’m therefore going to be repeating myself to some extent. Again. But such is the nature of zombie arguments. Let’s go through the points in your comments one by one.

Before dealing with the gender equality article you cite, and subsequently getting into the weeds of Strumia’s beliefs, let’s deal with that “proof” word you use repeatedly in your comments. Science is not about proof; any credible scientist knows this. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve quoted Carlo Rovelli on this point (but then his statement about scientific ‘proof’ bears repeating ad infinitum):

The very expression “scientifically proven” is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far; it’s mostly correct.
“Mostly correct.” In other words, we look for evidence to support a particular model but we should always have the humility and insight to realise that science is not about certainty; that our understanding is provisional. (Religion, on the other hand, is all about certainty: this is the natural order of things as ordained by God (or gods.))


Being aware of the nature of scientific evidence is especially important when it comes to arguments about gender balance where, even if we leave aside the issue of ideological bias (in both directions), there is a wealth of conflicting data out there. In “The Worm That (re-)Turned At CERN” I mentioned the Heterodox Academy analysis of Damore’s cherry-picking of data for his “Google manifesto”. (Strumia took that cherry-picking approach and added quite a few more punnets on top. More on that later). I would suggest that you carefully read that HA analysis, David. Note that the evidence is not incontrovertibly pointing one way or another: there is a great deal of controversy and debate in the literature regarding many aspects of gender differences.


Any good scientist — or, indeed, anyone who, like yourself, would claim to be an open-minded “fence-sitter”, only interested in where the data leads them[v] — must take into account this conflict in the literature. Any credible analysis must start from a position of recognising the lack of consensus in the literature. This is not what Strumia did. He instead made definitive statements on the basis of both cherry-picked arguments and shockingly weak suppositions (of a type I would not expect high school students, let alone a scientist of Strumia’s position, to make. We’ll get to those.)


So, let’s leave aside the naive and simplistic idea that there’s a definitive deductive “proof” one way or the other. The key issue is the extent to which the scientific evidence supports a given claim. If there is insufficient evidence and/or a lack of consensus in the studies the very best we can be is agnostic. Anything else would be unscientific. I hope we can at least agree on this.


That out of the way, let’s turn to the article in The Atlantic you cited…


Issues with the Global Gender Gap Index


One key problem with so much of the online debate on gender differences — and just about any other subject under the sun — is that there’s a very strong tendency to rely on secondary sources, eg. news articles about a particular study, rather than consult the original source. This is often understandable because the source can be trapped behind a paywall, as in this case. (I’ve, however, released the paper cited by The Atlantic article into the wild via this link.) Nonetheless, it’s essential not to credulously swallow headlines hook, line, and sinker (especially when a significant fraction of the internet population do nothing more than read the headline. [vi]) Even going beyond the headline to read the article itself is, of course, no guarantee that the study has been accurately reported or that its nuances (and/or deficiencies) have been highlighted.


So let’s take some time to explore exactly what the graph of “Global Gender Gap Index vs % women among STEM graduates” discussed in the article actually means. First, what is the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI)? How is it calculated, David? Do you know? I certainly didn’t until recently.




I have a deep mistrust of all rankings and league tables because the methodology used to produce these is so very often pseudoquantitative and pseudostatistical at best, and complete nonsense at worst. And, lo and behold, what do we find when we take even the most cursory look at the origin of the GGGI figures? “In short, the country rankings in the Global Gender Gap Report are misleading at best and completely meaningless at worst.” I urge you to to take the time to read the analysis at that link for yourself, David. The author considers the life expectancy metric as just one example:


As the Index is rewarding a greater ratio, lower development values are rewarded (i.e. lower healthy life expectancy). Consequently, since the gender gap was the same in Denmark and Rwanda in 2016, but Rwanda had a lower life expectancy, they performed better on the Index (13 places better than Denmark). This problem becomes more and more serious when the overall level of development decreases and the gender gap increases.
Always look beyond the headlines, David. Question the methodology. Be sceptical — or, if you must, be skeptical — and think critically, rather than blindly accept an analysis because it’s got lots of numbers, and graphs, and looks “sciencey”. (More on this soon.)


Taken in isolation, there’s a distinct absence of error bars on that graph above. How are we supposed to know whether any of those relative country placements are statistically significant? It’s clear from the distribution of ‘data’ on the graph that a ‘resolution’ down to the third decimal place has been used to place the points. How is that justified? Moreover, it’s exceptionally weak to just do a naive linear regression without showing (or knowing) the effective uncertainty in each of the points. (But how would we accurately determine an uncertainty for each point?) Even then, because the methodology in generating the index is flawed, the numerical analysis is always going to be suspect.


To quote Pauli just slightly out of context, if the methodology is incorrect and the uncertainties aren’t accounted for, then any assertions made are not even wrong. And, as Einstein is (most likely apocryphally) reported to have said: not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts. For example, here’s another set of reasons why you shouldn’t take the GGGI data at face value: Is gender inequality really so low in the Philippines? Or, if you want a broader discussion of why you shouldn’t place your faith in rankings in general, try this. (Or, in a higher education context, try this, this, or this).


Even, however, if we faithfully and naively take the GGGI data purely at face value (a la Strumia), then the Psychological Science paper to which you refer via that article in The Atlantic –you’ve read the original paper, right? — is hardly supportive of Strumia’s stance. To be clear, Strumia is arguing that there is an innate and immutable biological/genetic difference that underpins the difference in performance in physics for males and females. (He ludicrously use citation rates as an indication of mean IQ level and, thus, physics performance. Again, we’ll get back to that.)


You are making a slightly different, though related, argument to that Strumia attempts to put forward. Your focus in your comment above is on the question of discrimination vs “free agency”. It’s worth noting that Janet Shibley Hyde, to whom I refer at length in The Natural Order Of Things, and someone who is hardly ideologically aligned with Strumia’s beliefs, is quoted as follows in that article:


“Some would say that the gender stem gap occurs not because girls can’t do science, but because they have other alternatives, based on their strengths in verbal skills,” she said. “In wealthy nations, they believe that they have the freedom to pursue those alternatives and not worry so much that they pay less.”

Instead, this line of research, if it’s replicated, might hold useful takeaways for people who do want to see more Western women entering stem fields. In this study, the percentage of girls who did excel in science or math was still larger than the number of women who were graduating with stem degrees. That means there’s something in even the most liberal societies that’s nudging women away from math and science, even when those are their best subjects.


Like Shibley Hyde (and, indeed, the vast majority of those of us with interests in improving gender balance in STEM subjects), I am more than willing to accept that direct discrimination is not always necessary in order for women and girls to choose other career options or make non-STEM subject choices at school, respectively. (Or, to use your rather overwrought description instead, no “victimhood” is required.) However, just as it’s best to leave behind the naive idea that science provides us with definitive, deductive proofs, it’s also a good idea not to assume yes/no, black/white answers to everything. Uncomfortable, I know, but as Rovelli explains, science is not about certainty. (And before you assume that this is some new-fangled, social justice-enabled liberal definition of science, here’s the physicist’s physicist, Richard Feynman, on the same subject back in the seventies:


It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments.
So it’s not a binary state; there’s a spectrum of possibilities. And there is good evidence that discrimination occurs — as described here, here, and here, for example. (You could in turn, after a modicum of research, point me to the Ceci and Williams article that argued precisely the opposite. And I, in turn, could point you to the large number of deficiencies in Ceci and Williams’ work. Again, this is how scientific debate and discussion work.)


DA: So far, sitting on the fence in this matter, I’ve seen no point by point uniquivicable rebuttal of each of Strumia’s slides. Only supperfical attempts where someon interprets 1-3 slides differntly to Strunio and uses that interpretation to claim everything he said is fallacious.


Instead of a genine attempt at proving him wrong, what we see iare widespread claims of ‘poor arguments’, ‘shameful’ type comments followed by ad hominem attacks and the cherrypicking and vague assertions in the open letter itself. And of course suspension.


Strumia’s core premise is so flawed as to be laughable. His argument rests on the idea that citations scale directly not only with the quality of science but, remarkably, with intelligence. Let’s deal with the quality issue first. Citations are a measure of the popularity and “impact” of a paper; nothing more, nothing less. (How would you or Strumia “prove” otherwise, David? What’s your (normalised) metric for quality as distinct from impact?) A paper can attract a large number of citations for reasons other than the quality of the science (including the prestige of the group that produced the work). More worryingly, sometimes papers that are fundamentally methodologically flawed attract a large number of citations. (And before anyone suggests otherwise, let me state categorically that I am not suggesting that any of Strumia’s work is flawed, although he does seem to have spent quite some time fruitlessly developing explanations for what was a mundane noise blip (at 750 GeV), gaining many citations in the process.) Here are just two examples of which I’m especially familiar: stripy nanoparticles and nanoflares.


As Jon Butterworth alludes to, citations also need to be normalised to a particular (sub-)sub-field for them to be of any value at all. (And just how do we normalise to a particular field?) Citation patterns, and the scale of collaboration, vary dramatically across even just one discipline: solid state physicists tend to have much smaller numbers of co-authors on a paper as compared to the experimental particle physics community. Citation rates within the particle physics community (or, indeed, any community) alone will also depend on the “visibility” of a researcher in terms of their networking and collaborative activity. (Butterworth points to his involvement with the ATLAS and CMS collaborations). Moreover, the journal in which a paper is published makes a significant difference to the citation rate.


Attempts to balance quality and quantity of science for a given researcher via something called the h-index are similarly problematic. (See here for Philip Ball’s insightful critique of h-indices). I have referred in the past to this Popperian analysis of the h-index:




So, to cut a long story short (and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the issues with citation analyses), drawing a direct line from number of citations to scientific quality is clearly not a particularly scientific strategy to adopt. (If you’re going to argue otherwise, David, I’ll ask again: which metric do you use to disentangle impact from scientific quality in an entirely numerically and statistically robust manner? And what sort of measurement uncertainty would you place on that value?) As Jon Butterworth points out (see his footnote #2), Strumia’s “asymmetry parameter” re. citation rates also looks distinctly odd and far from evidence-based. (The definition Strumia uses does, however, helpfully align with his argument and ideology. Who’d have thunk it?)


That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that Strumia made an additional wild pseudoscientific leap to claim that there’s a direct link between IQ and the number of citations an individual scientist attracts. Even if we blindly accepted that citations and scientific quality go hand in hand — which we can’t; see above — Strumia drags out the classic zombie argument about the tails of the IQ distribution. This has already been critiqued by a number of authors — see my first The Natural Order Of Things post for just a few examples. More topically, however, shortly after Strumia’s mish-mash of stats, pseudostats, and groundless inferences made the headlines, the Institute of Physics published this. Here are the key points from the article of relevance to our exchange (although you should, of course, go to the primary source as well…):


The authors say that their study disproves the “variability hypothesis”, which suggests that male over-representation in STEM careers comes from a greater variability in grades among boys than girls (Nature Communications9 3777).


By analysing the grade distributions, the researchers found that the top 10% of grades in STEM subjects had an equal gender ratio, while non-STEM subjects were female-heavy. “Our results support greater male variability in academic performance, but they don’t support gender differences in variability as an explanation for gender differences in workforce participation because we find the smallest gender differences in variability in maths and science,” O’Dea told Physics World.
(Note that I dislike the use of the term “disproves” in the preceding quote for all of the reasons discussed above.)


Strumia not only runs with the “variability hypothesis”, he decides he’s going to arbitrarily cherry-pick the cut-off point he needs in order to “fit” his data. This is not, to put it mildly, credible analysis.


DA: If those in science are in the business of rebutting numbers and graphs (even ‘bad’ numbers and graphs) with insults, anger, and tears of hurt feelings, then it doesn’t engender confidence in the scientific commumity working dispassionatlely. It imples political bias rather than an honest quest for the truth – because what if that truth is ‘uncomfortable’? Scionce should not be concerned with feelings. What next – trigger warnings outside conferences?


Like you, I see hurt feelings, anger, and an overwrought, over-emotional, and unscientific analysis. We differ on the source, however. Strumia’s presentation was heavy on petulance, arrogance, and whining: “I’ve got more citations. Why wasn’t I given the job? Why? It’s just not fair. Physics was invented and built by men. Men, I tell you.” It is beyond unprofessional to use a conference presentation to make personal attacks and whine about failing to get a job. Strumia not only insulted a colleague, he insulted an entire gender. He’s clearly not on an “honest quest” for the truth. If he were, he’d have presented a much less biased and cherry-picked analysis, and spent rather more time thinking carefully about the (lack of) validity of nonsensical assertions like IQ scales with <Ncitations>.


On the other hand, I see in the community response a professional and sober rebuttal of Strumia’s claims. (But a bit of a naff URL, admittedly…)


It is rather naive, David, to claim that the scientific process isn’t concerned with “feelings”. I know that’s the myth but Strumia’s impassioned/overwrought (delete to taste) presentation was driven, at least in part, by his emotional reaction to being passed over for a job. Similarly, science is a social enterprise. We are not emotionless, wholly objective automatons free of all external and internal biases. Peer review, for one, is a messy, all-too-human process. To argue otherwise betrays a deep lack of understanding of just how science progresses. (See “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but…” for more on this.)


DA: Thank you for the link to David Smith. David is doing what we all do. He starts with an opinion, and sorts the millions of related facts into a hierarchy, with those at the top placed there to support his view. Then challenging any contrary opinions while accepting supporting ones.

…which is exactly what Strumia did. But somehow Strumia’s analysis is robust while Smith’s rebuttal isn’t? (Are you quite sure that you haven’t fallen off that fence, David…?) Strumia made assertions. Smith went through those assertions and provided counter-evidence. That’s how scientific debate works.

DA: For example point 6. “If you are interested in whether there are innate gender differences between male and female brains, then you must read neuropsychologist Lise Eliot, who refutes the dominance of biology concluding socialization is vital.”

So, Lisa Elliot is irrefutable? Are there no eminent biologists out there claiming the opposite?

Um, who said that Elliot is irrefutable, David? Point me to where David S has said that? I can’t speak for David Smith but I, for one, have been at pains before to highlight both sides of the argument. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading Baron-Cohen and Pinker (among others). I would, however, ask you in turn to do me the courtesy of reading Angela Saini’s “Inferior” and Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex” and “Delusions of Gender” before responding. I have done my homework for this post.

DA: I want you to know that I don’t agree with a lot of what Strumia says. But just because his reasoning on, say, IQ and number of citations is probably way off, it doesn’t mean that everything he says is way off.

Thanks for this, David. I’m a little confused, however. You argued above that Strumia produced a robust, quantitative analysis and that he should be listened to on that basis. Yet the entire premise of that ‘quantitative’ analysis was based on his faulty reasoning between IQ and citation numbers. If you agree that his reasoning was faulty, what is it that you think isn’t “way off”? And on what basis do you think that, given you feel his quantitative reasoning is “probably way off”?

DA: 1) I believe that someone’s race, sex, religion etc should not be a factor in what someone is allowed to say, or as a consideration in whether they get a job or not.

2) Therefore I do not believe in positive discrimation since it involves negative discrimination against others. If person A is using sex in their decision to hire someone, they are also using it not to hire somone else.

3) I do not believe in retaliation in the form of suspension or job loss, or verbal/written lynch mobs of 150 people against 1 person because that person (male or femail) challanges allowed norms. Apart from in extreme cases.

4) I do not believe in group A deciding what is moral and then conveniently claiming they are morally superior to group B. There are some exceptions of course.

5) I believe that femails have the same intelligence, (and in the West) the same potential and agency as males, and that in general if they are not in STEM it’s because they don’t want to be. There are more women than men in universities and unless someone can demonstrate the opposite, my presumption is that they are choosing the qualifications they are taking.

6) I don’t believe in witch hunts, trial by twitter, or labelling a person’s indentity as x or y because they said a few things. In the rational world there is big difference beween saying ‘that was a misogynist remark’ and ‘you are a misogynist’.

 1) Hmmm. So a fully committed, evanegelical creationist should be employed to teach cosmology and/or evolution? They disclose this at interview and say that they will teach science according to their belief system or not at all. Should they (a) be employed, and (b) have free rein over what they cover in that course? Or let’s say that, as admissions tutor, I am asked to give a talk to A-level students at a Catholic school and I decide to turn up there in a Slayer “God Hates Us All” T-shirt, or, worse, something emblazoned with a Cannibal Corpse album cover/title (or anything from this delightful list). Or I give a talk along the lines suggested here. I should be free to say whatever I want under whatever circumstances? Really?

2) Positive discrimination of the type you describe is unlawful in the UK.

3) I agree. See my original post. Dismissal helps foster that victimhood/martydom mentality for those like Strumia and Damore who will claim they were silenced for speaking “The Truth” despite their version of the truth being rather ideologically-skewed and easily rebutted. My suggestions for alternative strategies are outlined in this response to my colleague Anne Green.

4) This happens with any in-group vs out-group dynamic. “The right” is just as guilty of this as “the left”. See, for example, the moral outrage re. lampooning Trump, “taking the knee“, or the general patriotic correctness of the right.

5) But there are social biases everywhere. I, for one, would much rather see greater numbers of men involved in primary school teaching and in other so-called “nurturing” professions. On what basis are those decisions being made? If you say they’re genetically/biologically hard-wired to the extent that the sexually dimorphic signal outweighs the environmental (i.e. societal) influence, I will ask you — as I have asked so many others — to provide me with conclusive evidence that this is the case. Again, I would suggest you read Saini’s and Fine’s books, to which I refer above.

6) I agree.

I’m glad we could finish on a point of agreement, David. I already alluded to the point you make in the final paragraphs of “The Worm That (re-)Turned...“. There is often a rush to judgement and it is too easy to damn someone for a few hasty or misinterpreted comments. (I enjoyed Jon Ronson’s Shamed, which examines this social dynamic in a number of situations.) In Strumia’s case (and, before him, Damore), however, his were not a few hasty, off-the-cuff remarks. He designed an entire talk around an ideologically-biased and unscientific premise. We all make mistakes. To err is human. But it’s how we change our behaviour in the light of those mistakes that’s key.

Errare humanum est, sed in errare perseverare diabolicum…

[i] And today’s metal reference is*…
(*Aerosmith aren’t metal.)

[ii] I may have occasionally referred to this exceptionally important piece in previous posts.

[iii] See also #34 on this list. Oh, and #5. And #28. And #33. And #36.

[iv] Currently a trilogy of three. (This, in Adams-esque fashion, may well change…)

[v] Loaded terms like “victimhood” do not, however, lend credence to your claim to be totally unbiased.

[vi] …or do they?

Breaking Through the Barriers

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


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!



“The surface was invented by the devil” Nanoscience@Surfaces 2018


The title of this post is taken from an (in)famous statement from Wolfgang Pauli:

God made solids, but surfaces were the work of the devil!

That diabolical nature of surfaces is, however, exactly what makes them so intriguing, so fascinating, and so rich in physics and chemistry. And it’s also why surface science plays such an integral and ubiquitous role in so many areas of condensed matter physics and nanoscience. That ubiquity is reflected in the name of a UK summer school for PhD students, nanoscience@Surfaces 2018, held at the famed Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge last week, and at which I had the immense pleasure of speaking. More on that soon. Let’s first dig below the surface of surfaces just a little.

(In passing, it would be remiss of me not to note that the Cavendish houses a treasure trove of classic experimental “kit” and apparatus that underpinned many of the greatest discoveries in physics and chemistry. Make sure that you venture upstairs if you ever visit the lab. (Thanks for the advice to do just that, Giovanni!))


Although I could classify myself, in terms of research background, as a nanoscientist, a chemical physicist, or (whisper it) even a physical chemist at times, my first allegiance is, and always will be, with surface science. I’m fundamentally a surface scientist. For one thing, the title of my PhD thesis (from, gulp, 1994) nails my colours to the mast: A Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy Investigation of the Interaction of Sulphur with Semiconductor Surfaces. [1]

(There. I said it. For quite some time, surface science was targetted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as an area of funding whose slice of the public purse should be reduced, so not only was it unfashionable to admit to being a surface scientist, it could be downright damaging to one’s career. Thankfully we live in slightly more enlightened times. For now.)

Pauli’s damning indictment of surfaces stems fundamentally from the broken symmetry that the truncation of a solid represents. In the bulk, each atom is happily coordinated with its neighbours and, if we’re considering crystals (as we so very often do in condensed matter physics and chemistry), there’s a very well-defined periodicity and pattern established by the combination of the unit cell, the basis, and the lattice vectors. But all of that gets scrambled at the surface. Cut through a crystal to expose a particular surface — and not all surfaces are created equal by any means — and the symmetry of the bulk is broken; those atoms at the surface have lost their neighbours.

Atoms tend to be rather gregarious beasties so they end up in an agitated, high energy state when they lose their neighbours. Or, in slightly more technical (and rather less anthropomorphic) terms, creation of a surface is associated with a thermodynamic free energy cost; we have to put in work to break bonds. (If this wasn’t the case, objects all around us would spontaneously cleave to form surfaces. I’m writing (some of) this on a train back from London (after a fun evening at the LIYSF), having tremendous difficulty trying to drink coffee as the train rocks back and forth. A spontaneously cleaving cup would add to my difficulties quite substantially…)

In their drive to reduce that free energy, atoms and molecules at surfaces will form a bewildering array of different patterns and phases [2]. The classic example is the (7×7) reconstruction of the Si(111) surface, one of the more complicated atomic rearrangements there is. I’ve already lapsed into the surface science vernacular there, but don’t let the nomenclature put you off if you’re not used to it. “Reconstruction” is the rearranging of atoms at a surface to reduce its free energy; the (111) defines the direction in which we cut through the bulk crystal to expose the surface; and the (7×7) simply refers to the size of the unit cell (i.e. the basic repeating unit or “tile”) of the reconstructed surface as compared to the arrangement on the unreconstructed (111) plane. Here’s a schematic of the (7×7) unit cell [3] to give you an idea of the complexity involved…


The arrangements and behaviour of atoms and molecules at surfaces are very tricky indeed to understand and predict. There has thus been a vast effort over many decades, using ever more precise techniques (both experimental and theoretical), to pin down just how adsorbed atoms and molecules bond, vibrate, move, and desorb. And although surface science is now a rather mature area, it certainly isn’t free of surprises and remains a vibrant field of study. One reason for this vibrancy is that as we make particles smaller and smaller — a core activity in nanoscience — their surface-to-volume ratio increases substantially. The devilish behaviour of surfaces is thus at the very heart of nanoscience, as reflected time and again in the presentations at the nanoscience@Surfaces 2018 summer school.

Unfortunately, I could only attend the Wednesday and Thursday morning of the summer school. It was an honour to be invited to talk and I’d like to take this opportunity to repeat my thanks to the organising committee including, in particular, Andy Jardine (Cambridge), Andrew (Tom) Thomas (Manchester), Karen Syres and Joe Smerdon (UCLAN) who were the frontline organisers in terms of organising my accomodation, providing the necessary A/V requirements, and sorting out the scheduling logistics. My lecture, Scanning Probes Under The Microscope, was on the Wednesday morning and, alongside the technical details of the science, covered themes I’ve previously ranted about at this blog, including the pitfalls of image interpretation and the limitations of the peer review process.

Much more important, however, were the other talks during the school. I regretfully missed Monday’s and Tuesday’s presentations (including my Nottingham colleague Rob Jones’ intriguingly named “Getting it off and getting it on“) which had a theory and photoemission flavour, respectively. Wednesday, however, was devoted to my first love in research: scanning probe microscopy, and it was great to catch up on recent developments in the field from the perspective of colleagues who work on different materials systems to those we tend to study at Nottingham.

Thursday morning’s plenary lecture/tutorial was from Phil Woodruff (Warwick), one of not only the UK’s, but the world’s, foremost (surface) scientists and someone who has pioneered a number of  elegant techniques and tools for surface analysis (including, along with Rob Jones and other co-workers, the X-ray standing wave method described in the video at the foot of this post.)

Following Phil’s talk, there was a session dedicated to careers. Although I was not quite in the target demographic for this session, I nonetheless hung around for the introductions from those involved because I was keen to get an insight into just how the “careers outside academia” issue would be addressed. Academia is of course not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to careers. Of the 48 PhD researchers I counted — an impressive turn-out given that 50 were registered for the summer school — only 10 raised their hand when asked if they were planning on pursuing a career in academia.

Thirteen years ago, I was a member of the organising committee for an EPSRC-funded summer school in surface science held at the University of Nottingham. We also held a careers-related session during the school and, if memory serves (…and that’s definitely not a given), when a similar question was asked of the PhD researchers in attendance, a slightly higher percentage (maybe ~ 33%) were keen on the academic pathway. While academia certainly does not want to lose the brightest and the best, it’s encouraging that there’s a movement away from the archaic notion that to not secure a permanent academic post/tenure somehow represents failure.

It was also fun for me to compare and contrast the Nottingham and Cambridge summer schools from the comfortable perspective of a delegate rather than an organiser. Here’s the poster for the Nottingham school thirteen years ago…


…and here’s an overview of the talks and sessions that were held back in 2005:


A key advance in probe microscopy in the intervening thirteen year period has been the ultrahigh resolution force microscopy pioneered by the IBM Zurich research team (Leo Gross et al), as described here. This has revolutionised imaging, spectroscopy, and manipulation of matter at the atomic and (sub)molecular levels.

Another key difference between UK surface science back in 2005 and its 2018 counterpart is that the Diamond synchrotron produced “first light” (well, first user beam) in 2007. The Diamond Light Source is an exceptionally impressive facility. (The decision to construct DLS at the Harwell Campus outside Oxford was underscored by a great deal of bitter political debate back in the late nineties, but that’s a story for a whole other blog post. Or, indeed, series of blog posts.) The UK surface science (and nanoscience, and magnetism, and protein crystallography, and X-ray scattering, and…) community is rightly extremely proud of the facility. Chris Nicklin (DLS), Georg Held (Reading), Wendy Flavell (Manchester) and the aforementioned Prof. Woodruff (among others) each focussed on the exciting surface science that is made possible only via access to tunable synchrotron radiation of the type provided by DLS.

I was gutted to have missed Stephen Jenkins‘ review and tutorial on the application of density functional theory to surfaces. DFT is another area that has progressed quite considerably over the last thirteen years, with a particular evolution of methods to treat dispersion interactions (i.e. van der Waals/London forces). It’s not always the case that DFT calculations/predictions are treated with the type of healthy skepticism that is befitting a computational technique whereby the choice of functional makes all the difference but, again, that’s a topic for another day…

Having helped organise a PhD summer school myself, I know just how much effort is involved in running a successful event. I hope that all members of the organising committee — Tom, Joe, Andy, Karen, Neil, Holly, Kieran, and Giovanni — can now have a relaxing summer break, safe in the knowledge that they have helped to foster links and, indeed, friendships, among the next generation of surface scientists and nanoscientists.


[1](a) Sulphur. S.u.l.p.h.u.r. Not the frankly offensive sulfur that I had to use in the papers submitted to US journals. That made for painful proof-reading. (b) I have no idea why I didn’t include mention of photoemission in the title of the thesis, given that it forms the guts of Chapter 5. I have very fond memories of carrying out those experiments at the (now defunct) Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) just outside Warrington in the UK. Daresbury was superseded by the Diamond Light Source (DLS), discussed in this Sixty Symbols video.

[2] Assuming that there’s enough thermal energy to go around and that they’re not kinetically trapped in a particular state.

[3] Schematic taken from the PhD thesis of Mick Phillips, University of Nottingham (2004).

“If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it”

This a guest post from Jeremy Leaf, a third year PhD student in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.


It is one of our first electronics sessions. An Ethiopian teacher is learning how to use a multimeter and breadboard. Having measured the resistance of a number of discrete resistors using a multimeter, I suggest he try to measure them in series using the breadboard. He chooses two resistors and, on paper, calculates what the total resistance should be. He then carefully measures across both resistors in series. The teacher’s face lights up as he breaks into a wide smile. The theory is correct.

The process of learning a physical theory, and then observing it manifest itself in an experiment, is a vital pathway to understanding physics. It allows us to grasp difficult concepts and truly understand their nature. Unfortunately, in Ethiopia, physics education stops at the textbook. The education system has neither the funds nor expertise to employ physical experiments in their schools. Our assignment was to show how experimental physics could be taught using locally available materials. We also employed some more advanced apparatus, such as multimeters and breadboards, in the hope that they would be able to acquire these in time.

Simple apparatus and experimental concepts that we take for granted are often totally new to many physics teachers in Ethiopia.  This project was an exciting opportunity to make a small but meaningful impact on the futures of those who go to school here, as well as forge a link between our two countries. Education is key for this country to develop a generation of young Ethiopians that can think critically and creatively. I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of that process.

Getachew’s dream

This is a guest post by Tiago Gonçalves, a third year MSci Physics with Theoretical Physics student at the University of Nottingham and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.

While I was busy being born, Getachew was busy finishing his physics degree. Now, Getachew has a dream.

After graduating he became a teacher, but he is not content with the teaching of physics in his homeland – Ethiopia. He would like all children to have access to a good physics education: less textbooks, more hands-on.

He did not keep dreaming, but got cracking. Three years ago, he took part in a physics teachers’ training course (Bill (Poole) and Christine (Cleave) came here at the time). Now, he is himself an Ethiopian National Trainer, working for the Ministry of Education.  The National Trainers instruct Regional Trainers, handing on what they learnt from sessions like those we are delivering this week, in a “cascade” process. (This is interesting wording since we are here thanks to a Cascade Grant, part of the Impact Campaign and the University of Nottingham’s grants programme).

It’s not easy, though. There are many schools in the country, and it just can’t afford to import practical physics equipment for all of them. However, Getachew believes you don’t need to have expensive equipment – physics is all around and you can use locally available materials to build your own equipment. That’s exactly what he is hoping to develop together with the other national trainers and with our help.

A physics enthusiast, twenty years after his first degree Getachew is now specializing in nuclear physics and will be supporting the Ministry of Education for a further six years. He is aware that the cascade process has disadvantages as well as advantages, so he wants to improve the system to make sure all children will have a much better experience with physics.

And after the six years? He is not sure, “God knows”. Something is certain: he will keep striving to build, day by day, a better future for physics, for his country, for his children.

Working 9 to 5 (ain’t no way in academia?)

Science magazine has been giving some distinctly dodgy careers advice of late, with two articles in quick succession seemingly being written by authors who were cryogenically frozen in the fifties and revived in 2015 so as to give us the benefit of their views. This week’s Times Higher Education has an article on a letter written in protest about Science’s repeated use of damaging stereotypes and signed by hundreds of researchers, which is being sent to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Tuesday. (There’s still time to sign it).

The following paragraph, from the most recent article criticised in the letter to the AAAS, has been forensically dissected in a couple of blog posts I recommend — Bryan Gaensler‘s “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science” and Chad Orzel‘s “Scientists should work the hours when they work best“.

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

There’s a lot to wince at here, including the fact that the author’s wife “took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities” while he blazed a trail, the children spending “many Saturdays” playing in the company lobby while dad worked, and the idea that his wife “worked far less”. (On a day when the kids are bickering and being particularly fractious, I’d find 16 hours in the office/lab a piece of cake compared to the rigours of domesticity).

But here’s the rub. The “I worked 16 to 17 hours a day” bit resonates with me. And I am just a little bit uneasy about sending the message to early career researchers that a successful academic career — at least in the present system — doesn’t involve long hours. I think it’s misleading and naive to suggest otherwise. Before I get shot down in flames, I need to stress that this doesn’t mean that I am suggesting that students and postdocs should be encouraged to work themselves into the ground. Nor am I an advocate of the current system — things have to change. The following, which I contributed to an article entitled “Parenthood and academia: an impossible balance?” in the THE last year, might help to explain my perspective.

“Daddy, Niamh won’t give me the loom band maker. And she won’t stop singing Let It Go really loudly all the time. Tell her to stop.”

“OK, calm down. I’ll be with you in a second. Just let me finish this email.”

“Daddy! She still won’t give me the loom bands. And she still won’t stop singing.”

“OK. OK. With you in a second.”


Deep sigh. Close laptop lid.

“OK. Coming now.”

I’d foolishly broken my golden rule again: never attempt to work at weekends or before the kids go to bed. As a certain porcine mainstay of children’s television who is wise beyond her years (and species) would put it: “Silly Daddy!”

Niamh, our first child, was born in 2003, when I was a reader. Her sister, Saoirse, arrived in 2005, when I was promoted to a chair, and her brother, Fiachra, came along another three years later. So my career was rather firmly bedded in before, in our mid-thirties, my wife, Marie, and I decided to start a family.

It has still not been entirely straightforward for us to juggle Marie’s shifts as a nursing auxiliary at the Queen’s Medical Centre (next to the university) with the time and travel demands of my work in academic physics. But if the children had started arriving a few years earlier than they had, when I was a (relatively) fresh-faced new lecturer, I don’t quite know how I’d have coped.

I found the transition from postdoctoral researcher to lecturer something of a culture shock. As a postdoc, your focus is almost entirely on research. A lectureship requires that focus to shift rapidly between at least three separate roles: teaching, research supervision and the ever-present administrative demands of both. Add in the demand to produce “impact” and you end up with a role that amounts to at least two full-time jobs in one. As a lecturer, I regularly worked 70- or 80-hour weeks (including weekends, of course), and this is not at all unusual in physics. Clearly that is not compatible with parenthood.

Nowadays, although I do sometimes fail, I try my utmost to keep evenings and weekends free to spend with the family. I have got into the habit of getting up very early in the mornings – around 4am – to have a few hours to work before taking the children to school. They are easily the most productive hours of my day. I have also tried, as much as possible, to cut down on the amount of travel to conferences and workshops I do. Again, this is much easier to do at this stage of my career than it would have been 10 years ago. Nonetheless, I still spend too much time away; so much more could be done via videoconferencing.

The working culture of your school or department is, of course, an essential factor in how easy you find it to balance family and work commitments. In my experience – and I know that this holds true for many of my colleagues – the School of Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham, where I have been since I was a postdoc, has been exceptionally supportive. As a testament to this, it was this year awarded “champion” status in the Institute of Physics’ Project Juno for “taking action to address gender inequities across its student and staff body”. I am not the first to observe that the changes facilitated by that project have resulted in a working environment that is better for everyone.

Still, I’m going to have to end on a downbeat note. Because I know for a fact that the research outputs I had when I landed my lectureship in 1997 would be nowhere near enough to secure that position today. Indeed, I wouldn’t even be shortlisted. The bar for entry to the academy is being raised at an extraordinarily high rate. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the implications of this for the work-life balance of young scientists.

Let’s not beat around the bush, the competition for academic positions is intense. I’ve referred before to this letter in Physics World a couple of months back which makes the point especially well when it comes to my discipline.


In response to that careers advice column in Science, I’ve seen tweets and comments stating that long hours aren’t really necessary because we should “work smarter, not harder”. I’ve heard this argument quite a bit over the years. It’s rather trite advice in my opinion. Science simply doesn’t work to order — so much research involves going down blind alleys, reversing, inadvertently (or deliberately) taking a diversion, doing a U-turn, getting things wrong, getting things right only to find out that it doesn’t help solve the original problem, and in the end finding that Edison’s “one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration” appraisal really isn’t too far off the mark.

Working “smarter” simply isn’t an option in many cases — sheer bloody-minded tenacity is what’s required. This requires long and frustrating stints in the lab. Yet sometimes, when it works, the culmination of that effort is the most enjoyable aspect of the entire scientific process — we endure the pain and the long hours just to hit that (very) occasional high.

I’ll stress again that there is certainly no expectation from me that students and postdocs in the group here at Nottingham do long hours. I give them advice very similar to that offered by Chad Orzel in his blog post — do what works for you (and I certainly don’t dictate a required number of hours per week). But, similarly, I don’t feel embarrassed at all to say that I’ve enjoyed working long hours at times — lots of researchers border on the obsessive when it comes to their work and bouts of intense single-mindedness can often be an exciting, infuriating, and central element of the scientific process for some.

Orzel describes his far-from-traditional working pattern as a postdoc –including the obligatory late night visits to vending machines — as “a dumb thing I did”. As someone who has similarly regularly enjoyed the late night, mid-experiment caffeine injections provided by a machine-generated beverage which tasted “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” (or, indeed, any other caffeinated drink), I beg to differ. It worked for him — and for me — at the time. Whether it was dumb or not is entirely down to the circumstances of the individual researcher (as, to be fair, Orzel himself goes on to say in his post).

There’s also much more to academia than hands-on research. When you start as a new member of academic staff, you have to keep the research side going (and build up a new independent programme of work), start designing and giving lecture courses (and marking coursework/exams), get used to a whole new world of admin pain, and try to be the best tutor you can be. “Work smarter, not harder” doesn’t cut it — there are only a finite number of hours in the week and, as I describe in that THE article above, I couldn’t have kept my head above water in that first couple of years without burning quite a lot of midnight oil.

I’m not moaning about this (promise). I love my job and some of the key reasons I’m drawn to it are the diversity of the things I can do, the independence, and the large degree of flexibility in working patterns. Let’s not sell PhD students and postdocs a pup, however. Academia places large demands on our time and a 37.5 hour working week is simply not the norm. (Even if the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Research Councils UK assume that academics indeed work a 37.5 hour week. Apparently that’s a “fair and reasonable” figure. But that’s a story for another post…)