Welcome to the Bear Pit: When Public Engagement Goes to Pot

The last time I wrote about the importance of academics engaging with the public, I finished on this upbeat and sweary note: “…you’re an academic, FFS, why aren’t you involved in public engagement?” (It’s perhaps worth reading the blog post in question to put that call to arms in context).

This post is going to be a rather more cautionary tale. That’s not to say that I’m suggesting we academics shouldn’t continue to engage — or at least attempt to engage — with a broader audience than just our students, peers and colleagues. Indeed, although I have been a long-standing critic of the research councils’ impact ‘agenda’, it’s resulted in more thought being paid to how we communicate our research outside our academic circles and that is clearly a very good thing.


Here’s a recent comment posted under a video I uploaded at my YouTube channel:


That particular piece of vicious libelous abuse — spinelessly issued under anonymous cover, of course — is admittedly rather nastier than what’s usually posted. Here’s another, in the discussion section for the channel, which is a rather more common type of juvenile slur:


I should stress that the levels of bile and vitriol I receive pale into insignificance against the torrents of abuse that many other YouTube video-makers — or, to use the jargon du jour, content creators — have to endure. I’ll get back to that very soon. First, however, I need to explain just why I’ve started to attract the type of comment above. (Regular readers of Symptoms… (both of you) will be well aware of the reasons underpinning the less-than-erudite feedback that has started to appear at my channel and here at the blog. Feel free to skip past the next section.)

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

If you haven’t yet encountered the pejorative “SJW” (social justice warrior) or its corresponding antiparticle, the “anti-SJW”, then count yourself very lucky indeed. There are battles raging across vast swathes of the internet where those who would identify as proponents of social justice (in the sense described by John Rawls, for example) are pitted against those who see progress towards social justice as being a direct infringement of their basic civil liberties — including, and especially, freedom of speech — that will ultimately result in the fall of western civilisation as we know it. Those who would classify themselves in this latter category tend to be incensed by the notion of political correctness.

I generalise, of course. And that type of sweeping generalisation is a major part of the problem. It’s exceptionally tribal out there. Many of those who claim – vociferously — that they’re independent, free thinkers too often gleefully succumb to mob mentality, labelling those who express opinions counter to theirs as The Other. (More on this towards the end of this post). Similarly, those who would claim that it’s the “left” who want to trample on free speech should pay attention to the opprobrium that Gary Lineker has attracted (including calls for him to be sacked) for this important tweet:

How did I get drawn into the “SJW vs anti-SJW” war of attrition?

I’ve been involved with making videos for YouTube since 2009 via Brady Haran’s channels (largely Sixty Symbols, but I’ve also enjoyed contributing to Numberphile and Computerphile. And I’ve even crossed the physics-chemistry trenches for an occasional Periodic Video).  That has led to quite a bit of online discussion in the comments sections for those videos, which, as I discussed in this Physics World article a couple of years ago, was largely intelligent, engaging, fun, and not infrequently made me reconsider just how I was teaching physics. More recently, public engagement via YouTube has even led to an undergraduate research project (with a publication to follow in hopefully the not-too-distant future).

Many of my colleagues (including postdoctoral and PhD researchers in the group here) thought I was mad for engaging in the comments sections of those videos. (They still do. But even more so now). For them, “below the line”, in just about any online forum, too often represents the condensed collective stupidity of humanity. No good can come of wading into those murky, and grammatically challenged, waters they tell me. But I’d in turn point out that I’ve gained quite a bit out of engaging online and have not had to tolerate any type of bile or abuse at all [1].

Until recently. Being involved with Sixty Symbols and Brady’s other channels has meant that I get invitations to different podcasts/events on a reasonably regular basis. One of these was something called the Magic Sandwich Show. A regular contributor to the MSS for a number of years was a certain Dr. Phil Mason (aka ‘thunderf00t’). On an episode of the MSS last year, he and I clashed on the question of the role of sexual dimorphism as a determinant in the gender balance in physics. I’m not about to revisit that lengthy saga here, you’ll be relieved to know. Here’s a summary.

That spat with Mason was my gateway to the Social Justice WarsTM . I’ve already spent too much time writing about the various YouTube channels which underpin a great deal of the bile and vitriol (see this blog, passim), so I’ll defer to Hank Green for a pithy summary of a key aspect of the problem:

Now, before the keyboards start a rattlin’ among a certain online ‘demographic’, am I saying that all who don’t identify with the social justice position are hate-filled teenage boys? No. Of course not. And I was at pains in this recent video to argue that we shouldn’t generalise:

But let’s not be silly here. There’s clearly a pattern of behaviour in certain online “communities” (and I use the term advisedly) that frequently results in certain channels being swamped by torrents of abuse. Let’s take a look at one prime example.

If you go down to the woods today…

There is a culture among subsets of the subscriber bases of certain YouTube content providers video-makers [2] of posting vicious bile and vitriol under particular videos. The videos in question tend, ever so coincidentally, to be those which that particular video-maker has recently targeted for critique. Here’s a particularly apposite case in point:


That cartoon is the avatar for a YouTuber called Bearing. I have no idea as to his real name. To the best of my knowledge he has not ever revealed his identity and prefers instead to conceal himself behind the cartoon bear shown above (which he’s borrowed, apparently without attribution, from a show called Total Drama ).  

This ‘Bearing’ person has a tendency to make videos critiquing and criticising (to use terms he would prefer) feminist channels. Here’s a recent example. And here’s another. And another. It turns out that there’s a rather strong correlation between the amount of abuse these feminist channels/videos receive and whether or not they’ve been recently critiqued by the guy behind the cartoon bear. The comment section of a video selected by ‘Bearing’ for critique tends to be flooded with abuse, to the point where the video maker either deletes the video entirely from the channel or makes it private. Like this. Or this.

The most recent target of ‘Bearing”s criticism is [EDIT 18/12/2016Removed name of YouTuber so as to ensure her channel does not receive more abuse via this blog post. Henceforth referred to as “Jane Doe”]. “Jane” has not taken down her video but has disabled comments and likes/dislikes. Just to give you an idea of how vicious and pathetically immature the behaviour of this online mob can get, here’s a sample of comments under one of the other videos at “Jane”‘s channel…


Note the response directly above from “032 Mendicant Bias”. They’re laudably trying to point out the despicable behaviour of the mob. One other person attempts to do this elsewhere in the comments. Note the response.


(…and that’s not the end of ‘Sarah Benton’s diatribe. But what I’ve included of the comments here is already dispiriting enough).

As “Overlord Penmaeda” points out above, the video under which this bile has been posted has got nothing to do with feminism. Yet the mob is so incensed, they target her in any way they can.

As if the viciousness of the comments wasn’t enough, there’s this galling and deeply hypocritical comment (note the number of “likes”):


A person cravenly hiding behind a pseudonym and an avatar, in common with the vast majority of those who post abuse, is whining about the perceived ‘cowardice’ of someone who uploaded a video where she doesn’t attempt to hide her identity in any way and speaks her mind. I think we can all see who the coward is in this case. [3]

It’s worth noting that the comment above wasn’t posted under one of “Jane”‘s videos. It was posted at ‘Bearing”s channel. Along with quite a lot of other vitriol along the lines of that above.

Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he is not responsible for what his subscribers do. He even laudably includes a disclaimer in the information under the videos he uploads.

First, having worked with Brady Haran for quite some time on YT videos, let’s just say that I’m not entirely convinced of the efficacy of including anything in the video information. In this video, for example, I misspoke towards the end. We included a correction in the video information. Yet I receive a steady stream of e-mails asking me about precisely that misspoken point.

But let’s give this ‘Bearing’ character the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he’s sincere in the intention given in his disclaimer. Yet, strangely enough, every time he uploads a video criticising a feminist channel or video, shortly afterwards spiteful and vicious abuse is posted by spineless, faceless idiots at that particular channel/video. Most of us would notice this rather strong correlation. This ‘Bearing’ chap is clearly not exceptionally stupid so I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he too has not noticed the correlation, particularly as it doesn’t take very long to find comments like the following posted under those particular videos before they’re taken down:


Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he’s not responsible for the behaviour of his subscribers. I agree. He can’t dictate what they should or should not do. But I, for one, would be appalled to think that any video critique I made would result in the subject of that criticism being targetted with vicious, spiteful abuse. I might be rather ashamed to have any type of connection between the critique I posted and that type of hateful behaviour. I would be particularly aghast to find that an especially cowardly and vicious subset of those who had subscribed to my channel were responsible for that anonymous abuse and that I was therefore indirectly the origin of the mob’s abusive comments.

But that’s just me.

Oh, and some others…

As for those hiding behind pseudonyms and avatars, lacking the courage and integrity to stand behind their slurs while they complain about others being “delicate flowers”, they shouldn’t think for one minute that “words on a screen” can’t have real world impact. Others might also want to bear that in mind.

Freeze Peach

I have long had a policy at my blog and YouTube channel that I wouldn’t moderate, censor, or edit comments in any way. I describe my motivations for this stance in the second half of this post. A recent article by Hank Green (yes, him again), Stop Screaming In My Home,  and discussions with friends and colleagues have made me reconsider that stance.

Just as for the feminist channels described above, I have recently seen a sharp increase in the number of dislikes for videos (posted years ago) that have nothing to do with my criticism of that certain clique of YouTubers and their views. Similarly, comments related to my spats with Philip Mason and others have been posted under entirely unrelated videos focussed on physics, or music, or both. This is juvenile behaviour.

I’d use a slightly different analogy to that Hank Green outlined in his article. To me, it’s like trying to give a lecture to undergraduates while there’s a bunch of particularly immature kids sitting in the corner of the lecture theatre shouting out “Hey Mr Poopy Head” every minute or so. They’re not there to give constructive criticism — they’re there simply to be disruptive. Free speech doesn’t come into it.

Moreover, I have long been a critic of reducing any type of activity down to simplistic numerical metrics. Usually I’m bemoaning the use of h-indices, impact factors and the like in academia, or the pseudostatistics of primary school assessment, but much the same arguments hold for likes vs dislikes for a video. Moreover, when a 37-minute-long video can receive a number of dislikes within a couple of minutes of being uploaded, one has got to start to question the validity of the “data”. And, sure, the number of likes far outweighed the dislikes in that case. But so what? Those figures reveal nothing about the quality — as opposed to the popularity — of the video. And if the data are being contaminated by noise, I’d be a pretty poor scientist to not attempt to remove that noise.

So from now on, I am shutting down the likes and dislikes for all videos which are not related to the themes discussed above, for the reasons discussed above. Similarly, if comments are posted under a physics-only video related to the themes discussed above, then I will screenshot that comment, remove it, and instead include the screenshot in a (continually updated) post here at the blog [Edit 09/11/2016 I decided instead to simply append the comments in question to this post. See below.] . That way I can sift out irrelevant comments and also have a rather helpful record of the, let’s say, less erudite feedback posted at the YouTube channel.

The Mob Rules

In the “Reacting to Reactions to Reasonable Questions…” video embedded above, I spend quite a bit of time responding to comments from Noel Plum. While Noel and I quibble about certain topics, on the subject of online bullying and posting bile/vitriol/abusive comments I think we’re broadly in agreement. Noel’s recent comments regarding psychological damage (in this recent video) would appear to chime rather closely with my thoughts on the issue. I look forward to having a discussion with Noel on this, and other, themes when he and I can both carve out some time for an online chat.

There’s another reason I wanted to bring up Noel’s recent video, however, and it relates to something I alluded to above: the mob mentality. In the comments section under Noel’s video there’s an hilarious thread which runs to, when I last looked, 75 comments debating whether or not I should be called a “social justice warrior”. The pathological need to label me and put me in either the “SJW” or the “anti-SJW” camp is farcical in the extreme (and Noel interjects at one point in the thread to point this out.)

“He’s definitely an SJW. Burn the heretic. Stone him. Run him out of town. He’s one of them, I tell you. One of them.”

And with that, I’ll leave you with a classic, and rather pertinent, Rush track…

[1] Actually, that’s a little bit of a fib. We did a video on the physics of a game called Portal 2 a while back where I pointed out that the momentum of the main character isn’t conserved. The morning after that video was uploaded I opened up my e-mail box to find a number of missives from rather irate Portal 2 players who castigated me in no uncertain terms for deigning to critique the game in the mildest possible way. And this was despite the fact that I had actually praised the game. The extreme sensitivity took me aback.

[2] My back is now hurting badly from having to bend over backwards to the extent I do here so as not to generalise.

[3] I find that even exceptionally mild criticism of anonymity tends to lead to a significant number of comments about “doxing“. For the record (and for the n^nth time), I am not suggesting for one second that anyone be “doxed”, nor that the apparently sacrosanct right to anonymity be in any way compromised. I am simply pointing out just how spinelessly hypocritical it is to hide behind cover of anonymity to slag off another person, while all the while whining about how much that person is a “delicate flower” because they decide they’d prefer not to read hateful anonymous abuse.

The Whining Wall

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

As noted in the post above, in the following section I’m going to append screenshots of the less ‘insightful’ and/or relevant and/or spam comments I receive.

My erudite pseudonymous friend Enkidu has the honour of the inaugural whine. They seem to have a rather weak understanding of just what is meant by censorship. Here are their words of wisdom for all the world – well, that infinitesimally small subset of the world that visits this blog – to see…



STEMming the tide

This is a guest post from Michea Bonilla on a particularly timely subject: the value of non-STEM subjects and disciplines. There’s been a great deal of furore over the last few days regarding the “culling” of A-level subjects such as art history and archaeology. As a physicist (which is about as STEM as it gets), I find the continual elevation of STEM subjects over the arts and humanities to be dispiriting and immensely worrying from a number of perspectives, some of which I described in a post last year.

What’s particularly irksome is that fundamental scientific research — i.e. work which is done without an eye on the bottom line or the potential for the next new widget — is rather closer in ethos to the arts and humanities than it is to, for example, engineering or near-market R&D. Michea’s post provides an engaging, personal and important insight into their experience of the STEM vs non-STEM divide…

(P.S. I’m responsible for the title above so if you feel it misrepresents the post it’s me that’s to blame, not Michea).


So I wanted to start this off by giving you all a bit of my background, especially since I will be dicussing STEM and non-STEM degrees and the disservice we are doing to our children (and ourselves!) with the constant push for STEM while sometimes outright shunning anything else.

I am a 34 year old who holds two degrees, a Masters of Divinity (a religion degree commonly posessed by clergy) and an Associate of the Arts Oregon Transfer Degree with a focus in Sociology. Why an AA instead of an AS? Long story short, I was out of financial aid money and I had already racked up $30k in student loans due to having to change majors because of health issues. It was the only degree available that I had “completed” all of the requirements to get.

I grew up in a house that praised both STEM and non-STEM fields. My mother is a microbiologist and veterinary technician and my father holds two degrees, one in fish and wildlife (a STEM degree) and the other in economics. I grew up spending many of my weekends with my mother in the lab at the VMTH at UC Davis and developed an outright love for the biological sciences. To this day the smell of the gram stain chemicals will almost instantly bring a smile to my face because of my memories in the lab.

I excelled in school in science and in music, but struggled in math and English. I even received awards of Honors in Biology and Recognition in Chemistry from the Golden State Exam. I completed the course work required for the basic computers course in under two months my senior year and transferred into the advanced class at the beginning of the second semester.

So why is all of this important?

Because growing up, even though I knew that both STEM and non-STEM fields were necessary for a well rounded society I still had to deal with the constant comments about “throw away degrees”. The Liberal Arts degree jokes were a dime a dozen, and if you considered going into a field that was considered a liberal art or humanities, you were teased to no end. I even bought into the hype about how if I wanted to earn a decent wage and not be a burger flipper or working a minimum wage job my whole life I would have to get a STEM degree.

I was already pretty burnt out on school by the time I graduated in 2000 due to the introduction of the senior project and the fact that I was actually taking extra classes on top of my already full class load. While most students had at least one open period, I had -1 open periods. I actually had two classes at the same time (senior project and computers). I took two English classes that year because the school wasn’t willing to let me count my British Literature course as my senior English credit and my World Literature course as my junior English credit. I took math applications that year and learned how to apply math to real world situations, which meant I had a lot of extra work outside of school.

While I had wanted to take a break and get my head on straight, my family pushed for me to enter college through Solano Community College since my grades and test scores (ACT, SAT II, ASVAB) weren’t “good enough” for the colleges I wanted to go to. Never mind that I scored in the top 90th percentile for my ACT and the top 99th percentile in almost everything on the ASVAB…my grades were what shot me in the foot.

I enrolled in the fall of 2000 with my major listed as undecided and did my best to make my parents proud. I wanted to get a degree in either micro or molecular biology, but I was also really wanting to get a degree in literature or history. I was too ashamed to tell anyone that I wanted a degree in a field that was the source of “Would you like fries with that?” jokes and ridicule.

I dropped out of college due to fatigue in 2001 and spent the next four years working various jobs, including cooking jobs for Xanterra National Parks and Resorts. I constantly looked back at my failures in college and friends and family kept urging me to go back to school so I could get a degree and make decent money. Every time I brought up a degree that wasn’t in one of the STEM fields I was met with reminders about how those sorts of degrees weren’t worth anything and I would just be wasting my time. I was told that all the “good jobs” were in STEM and I needed to focus on one of those fields.

Another big push was to work in a medical field, which I decided to go for in 2005 when I entered training to become a phlebotomist and lab assistant. I got to intern at Kaiser Regional Microbiology in Berkeley, California and on Travis Air Force Base. I was happiest when I was able to work in the lab, but I learned early on that unless I had a masters or higher I would be nothing more than a grunt wherever I worked.

I began work as a phlebotomist in 2006 and found myself getting paid only a dollar or so more than when I worked as a cook (with no certifications, training, or well…anything). Sure, I had a job, but it wasn’t anything like everyone had been promising me.

Fast forward to 2013 and I have just completed my M:Div and am also enrolled in college at Rogue Community College. I find myself joking about my “throw away degree” and how I’m trying to get a degree in a field where I can actually make money and have a steady job.

I feel shame whenever my M:Div is brought up.

My parents remind me from time to time that my father was able to complete his masters in 4-5 years, and that I really should apply myself better.

I wound up spending four years at RCC due to mental health issues and having to go from full time to half time. I racked up $30k in student loans just to survive and appealed multiple times to have my financial aid extended after having to change my major not once, but twice (Early Childhood Education → Criminology → AAOT). When I graduated in 2015 I didn’t feel pride, I felt disappointed and like I had let people down. Sure, I had my degree, but it was pretty much useless outside of transferring to a university.

So…what does all of this have to do with STEM v non-STEM degrees?

A couple of months ago I found an article that discusses how we are doing a disservice to our children by shunning non-STEM subjects, especially literature and the arts. After reading it I looked at what was going on with my own daughters and I felt my heart sink.

My eldest had gone off to Job Corps to learn a trade, but she had been told by her counselor before she left school that anything outside of a STEM degree would be a worthless degree and she should either learn a trade or get a STEM degree.  She told me a few years later that at the time she’d wanted to tell that person they were full of sh*t, but she’d kept her mouth shut.

Currently she’s unemployed with certifications in culinary arts. People want experience, not certifications, where we live, so she is stuck either getting a minimum wage job to gain experience, or find a job in a different field than the one she’s trained in.

My middle daughter is the one suffering the most from this push for STEM degrees. She is very skilled in art and loves music, but she has been told that if she gets a degree in either of those fields, she might as well just throw her money away. Before she’d been told that she had planned on going into the music field and possibly teaching music.

Now, she doesn’t know any more and is just sort of drifting about as she finishes her final year in high school.

Because of the push for STEM classes, the board of education in Oregon decided that students had to take three years of math, but only classes listed at Algebra 1 or higher would count. Both of my step daughters (the two oldest) were moved around constantly when they were younger so they were still in basic math when they entered high school. This gave them a year to go from having trouble with basic addition and subtraction, to learning the quadratic equation.

Needless to say, they failed horribly, even with extra math classes and assistance.

One would expect that if a child failed a class, that the next year they would repeat it so as to get a passing grade. In the case of my daughters, they were just pushed into the next level of math. So they went from basic math to Algebra 1. My eldest decided to change her diploma to one of the “alternative” diplomas due to this very issue, and wound up wasting an entire school year. She was receiving grades on things like watching movies! That was how little these people thought of the children who opted to go for one of the alternative diplomas (either due to special needs or due to just giving up). Anything to keep those graduation numbers up!

Oregon offers the standard diploma, a modified diploma (which has “lowered” requirements in the core classes and double the amount of electives), an extended diploma (which only requires half the credits of a regular degree AND has lowered requirements), and an alternative certificate (basically you’re just a warm body that gets counted to help bring in money and you get to walk across the stage at graduation). The reason for this is that with the push towards higher levels of STEM classes and the push for students to go into STEM fields, students began failing to meet requirements to graduate.  Instead of reevaluating the situation and possibly changing the graduation requirements to meet those of another state (each state has its own requirements for graduation! There is no “federal standard”!), they decided to create new diploma options, many of which are little more than a piece of paper.

With a modified diploma you cannot get into a four year university. You have a chance at getting into a community college, but you’re most likely going to be making up for lost time with remedial classes and thus wasting your financial aid and being forced to take out student loans. Trade school acceptance is a crap shoot. You cannot enlist in the military for the most part, and you will find yourself having difficulty finding work since it is a “lesser” diploma.

With an extended diploma or an alternative certificate….yeah. You might as well just go for your GED.

We are cutting music, literature, art, and humanities classes at a frightening rate in our high schools while continuing to push for our students to excel in math, science, and English. We are forgetting that while it is good to have a focus on STEM subjects, and that STEM fields are important, so are the non-STEM fields.

In Oregon, we lump foreign language, the arts, and career and technical education (CTE) into one category. Children need three credits (years) to graduate with a standard diploma, but the school pushes for students to either learn a foreign language or focus on the CTE classes. Math, social sciences, and science require three credits each, English requires four credits, health (another science class) requires one credit, and physical education requires one credit. Children also have to earn six credits of “electives”.

We need literature, music, art, and all of the other fields. We are beginning to suffer as a society due to our children not learning anything more than a cursory once over of these subjects. Many children don’t read outside of what is required for school since reading for pleasure is seen as a waste of time in many cases. If a child starts showing interest in music or art teachers begin to try to steer them towards a field with a “better future”.

We have the science to prove that we need these fields, and that children need to learn about and immerse themselves in these fields; yet we are continuing to cut them from our curriculum at an alarming rate, replacing them with “elective” classes. When a child sees that their favorite subject is an “elective” versus a “core” class, they begin to look down on it. It happened to me, it happened to my husband, and it has happened to my kids.

To this very day I still have to fight that the social sciences are valid options for a field of study. I get told that if it’s not a “natural science” then it’s worthless. I get told that my preferred fields of study (psychology and sociology) are bullsh*t. Heck, people even grade the social sciences as some being more “science” than others, just to justify their attacks on certain fields.

If people are doing this with the social sciences, you can just imagine what they are doing with the arts and humanities fields.

We need to stop treating STEM fields as the high lord and master and remember that we need ALL fields of study to be able to be a well rounded society. We need to stop shaming people who wish to go into the non-STEM fields, and we need to stop telling our children that they won’t be able to be successful unless they go into either a STEM field or into the medical field.

No cuts, no confidence at University of Leicester

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Coles, whose In The Dark blog I follow, highlighted worrying news about the “down-sizing” of the Maths department at the University of Leicester. Equally worryingly, the Condensed Matter Physics group at Leicester, which has a strong track record in nanoscience research, has been proposed for closure.

I would encourage you to sign the UCU’s petition against the cuts at the University of Leicester: No cuts, No confidence at University of Leicester



And so farewell. Leaving Labour.

I was going to write a post on my thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory at the weekend but in the reblogged post below Fr. Blackledge sums up a lot of what I’d wanted to say…and then some. I agree with his sound advice to Corbyn (although, unlike Fr. Blackledge, I’ll remain a member of the Labour Party).


So here’s my letter of farewell to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

I was an entryist, really. I hadn’t been a member of the Labour party for years, but I decided to put up the money in order to vote at this leaderhsip election. Like 40% of those who joined for this purpose, I voted to try and vote you out. We lost, as you probably know… I didn’t vote against you because of your policies. I voted against you because you are unelectable.

I think the Labour party is dead and gone for a generation at least, possibly for all time. But Jeremy, I wish the best for you, I really do, so for what it’s worth, here’s my advice as a concerned bystander.


Have a vision, not a complaint. The strategy of pointing out how horrible the Tories are, and mumbling about “hope” and hoping people will vote…

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Gender balance, one woman at a time

I’m reblogging this post by Debbie Hayton (@DebbieHayton) who has a very interesting perspective on the question of gender balance in physics.

Debbie Hayton

What can be done to increase the number of women in physics? This question keeps committees busy and researchers funded, but the solution seems as elusive as squaring the circle. Four years ago, however, I did my bit: I transitioned from male to female. As this also meant that the number of men in physics was simultaneously reduced by one, it was, as they say in football, a “six-pointer”.

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It’s so important to be disinterested in science

There was quite a lot of kerfuffle over the weekend about a lengthy piece from Daniel Sarewitz in The New Atlantis, entitled Saving ScienceHere’s the subhead from Sarewitz’s article, which might possibly help explain what all the fuss was about:

Science isn’t self-correcting, it’s self-destructing. To save the enterprise, argues Daniel Sarewitz, scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.

Them’s fighting words…

…and the gloves are off.

Actually, no, I’m not going to tear into Sarewitz (well, not too much) because, buried in the hyperbole, puffery, and wild overstatement, he in fact makes a few decent points, which, if somewhat less than ground-breaking in their insights, are helpful to bear in mind. Let’s deal with the less level-headed assertions first, however.

As And Then There’s Physics points out, the thrust of Sarewitz’s article would appear to be that science should be more like engineering, i.e. focussed on near-term (and near-market) goals. Sarewitz argues that the disinterest [1] that should be core to fundamental science, and to which scientists aspire, is a “beautiful lie” that has trapped the scientific enterprise “in a self-destructive vortex”, apparently insulated from the outside “real” world.  If only scientists would do what they’re told — by whom? (and therein lies the rub, of course)– then all would be right with the world.

I’m a physicist whose work is unashamedly, and firmly, focussed on the fundamental rather than the applied. (Nonetheless, I should stress that “ivory tower” stereotypes wind me up a great deal. Like very many of my colleagues, I spend a great deal of time on public engagement.) Sarewitz’s claims about the damage wrought by curiosity-driven science, as he perceives it, are frustratingly naive in the context of the university-industry complex. John Ziman, the physicist turned sociologist, rightly included disinterestedness as one of the core norms he laid out in characterising scientific culture and the scientific method. (It’s the “D” in his CUDOS set of norms). [EDIT Sept 2 2016:: In the comments section below, Jack Stilgoe makes the important point that the CUDOS norms were, of course (and as I state in the Nature Nanotech article also mentioned below) originally put forward by Merton, not Ziman. My apologies for not giving credit where credit is due.] If exploratory research — science for science’s sake, if you will — is driven out in favour of the type of intensely focussed R&D Sarewitz is championing, then we compromise the disinterestedness that has underpinned so many key advances. But, more importantly, we further erode public trust in science.

Back in 2008, when what’s now known in UK academia as the “impact agenda” was in its infancy, I wrote an opinion piece for Nature Nanotechnology — I’m a nanoscientist — focussed on the type of concerns that Jennifer Washburn had raised about the corporatisation of universities (in her exceptionally important book, “University Inc”). Sarewitz is a professor of science and society; I am confident that he is just as aware as I am of the very many ethical quandaries, at best, and entirely unethical behaviour at worst that have arisen from science being too close to, rather than cossetted from, the “real world”. Some of these issues are described in Washburn’s book (and in that Nature Nanotech article), but a cursory glance at Ben Goldacre’s work, or a browse through David Colquhoun‘s blog, or a visit to the website of Scientists For Global Responsibility will also help demonstrate that sometimes it’s rather important to ensure that scientists are detached from the real world of the corporate bottom line.

My colleague here at Nottingham, Brigitte Nerlich, has also written a critique of Sarewitz’s piece in which she quotes Richard Feynman’s musings on the value of science. (As a physicist, I am contractually obliged to quote Feynman at least twice daily so it’s great to see that sociologists are also getting in on the act!)

…it seems to be generally believed that if the scientists would only look at these very difficult social problems and not spend so much time fooling with the less vital scientific ones, great success would come of it.

It seems to me that we do think about these problems from time to time, but we don’t put full‑time effort on them – the reason being that we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving problems, that social problems are very much harder than scientific ones, and that we usually don’t get anywhere when we do think about them.

Sarewitz’s argument is that scientific research should be tethered to “real world” problems and that, in doing so, science will be saved. Yet there has been a strong drive worldwide over the last decade or so to make academic science more focussed on near-term and near-market research of exactly the type Sarewitz prefers. Has this led to dramatic improvements in the quality of scientific peer review? Has it led to a reduction of the publish-or-perish culture? Or has it instead driven the development of a patent-or-perish and IP-protection culture that impedes, rather than improves, public engagement with science?

Feynman’s point that “we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving problems, social problems are very much harder than scientific ones” is exceptionally important in the context of Sarewitz’s article. Without the disinterestedness that is the hallmark of good science — that we teach to our undergrad students from Day 1 in the 1st year laboratory — scientific data will be consciously or unconsciously skewed. Real world considerations need to be put aside when acquiring and interpreting experimental data.

ATTP notes that Sarewitz’s article is peppered with entirely unjustifed claims about the validity of science as a whole. For example, Richard Horton is quoted (on p.18 of the article):

The case against science is straight-forward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.

This is credulously quoted, with nary a citation in sight, as damning of the entire scientific enterprise. If I’m generous, the source of Horton’s “perhaps half” estimate is most likely John Ioannidis’ oft-cited paper, “Why most published research findings are false” (which Sarewitz also discusses in his article). The “clickbait” of the title of Ioannidis’ paper is unfortunate because his article, as described in this insightful blog post, is rather more nuanced than one might expect. In any case, Ioannidis was focused on biomedical science and, moreover, on a particular type of methodological approach to research that is not the norm in other areas of research including, in particular, physics (and, more broadly, many fields of the physical sciences). Horton’s “perhaps half” is entirely unjustified and it is remiss of Sarewitz to not at the very least qualify Horton’s claim and point out the lack of evidence to support it.

This is not to say, however, that Sarewitz, Ioannidis, and Horton haven’t got a point when it comes to the deficiencies in peer review. There are indeed many problems with peer review and, having been embroiled in a lengthy and exceptionally heated debate for a number of years regarding the interpretation of artefacts in scanning probe microscope data, I have a great deal of sympathy with Sarewitz’s concerns about the exceptionally poor quality control that allows some flawed (or, worse, fraudulent) papers through the net.

But Sarewitz’s claim that “In the absence of a technological application that can select for useful truths…there is often no “right” way to discriminate among or organise the mass of truths scientists create” is, without putting too fine a point on it, bollocks. Science rests on reproducibility of results. One can argue that this doesn’t happen enough and that the “reward” system in science is now so damaged that studies which involve attempts to reproduce results are seen as effectively worthless in our “high impact factor journal” culture.  But that doesn’t mean that a real world application is required to discriminate between competing theories or interpretations; the literature is awash with examples where scientific theories and intepretations rose to prominence via careful experimental work that was far removed from any real world application.

On a similar theme, Sarewitz goes on to state that “..we have the wrong expectations of science. Our common belief is that scientific truth is a unitary thing…“. This is an important point and I agree with Sarewitz that there is a naivete “out there” about just what scientific results demonstrate. Science proves nothing. Moreover, in a political context, it is important for scientists to be honest and to admit that interpretation of data is not always as cut-and-dried as it is often presented.

But to argue, as Sarewitz does in his closing line, that “Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to rediscover the path toward truth” is a remarkable leap of faith. Connection with “real world” imperatives too often produces science that is driven by the bottom line; science that is compromised; science that is biased. That’s the bottom line.

[1] “Disinterested” and “uninterested” are not synonymous. It’s a shame that I have to include this disclaimer, and I realise that for many it’s entirely superfluous, but I had to explain the distinction to a research council executive a number of years back.





The power of thought?

Ponder this…

How much energy is associated with information? With knowledge? With thought?

Could we extract power solely from information, from a state of knowing?

In other words, is there a thermodynamics of information? (Don’t click on that link just yet if you want to avoid spoilers..)

These are the types of weighty question Brady Haran and I explored in the most recent video for Sixty Symbols, which Brady uploaded today.

Each time I receive the e-mail from Brady telling me he’s uploaded a video to which I’ve contributed, I get that familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach stemming from the worry that I might have screwed up the explanation of the physics and potentially misled those who are watching.

In a short(ish) video, we necessarily have to gloss over and/or omit lots of detail and, as a physics lecturer, this is always uncomfortable. (Deeply, deeply uncomfortable). Indeed, and as I described in a Physics World article a couple of years ago, for some time I decided to withdraw from making Sixty Symbols videos for precisely this reason. But as also discussed in that article, the ability to connect with an audience who are enthralled by, and enthusiastic about, physics, the intellectual challenge of explaining difficult concepts, and the sheer fun of working with Brady (our occasional spats notwithstanding) meant that I quickly saw the error of my ways. (As, of course, Mr Haran had predicted.)

Nonetheless, if there’s one topic that I find exceptionally difficult to put across in the short, snappy, “bite-size” YouTube format, it’s entropy. I had sworn off trying to explain the intricacies off this particular thorny concept in the Sixty Symbols style, but I keep getting drawn back to it, almost against my will — because it’s so damn interesting. When it came to thinking about thoughts, entropy and energy, we had to bite the bullet because entropy is at the very core of the information-mass nexus.

“One of the most heavily quoted passages in physics”

I’ve always been fascinated and intrigued by the connections between information, computing, and physics. Indeed, during the first two years of my physics BSc at Dublin City University it was not too infrequently that I found myself thinking that I should have done a computer science degree instead. (I’ve never been the best of mathematicians but I was a reasonable coder; discrete and numerical methods always “clicked” a little more with me than analytical maths. My mantra throughout my undergrad degree was “If I can’t see how to code this, I don’t understand it”).

I pop into DCU any time I’m in Dublin and on one of those visits I spotted the book below on a friend’s bookshelves and asked him whether I could borrow it. It’s a real gem, which I recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in the intriguing and multi-facetted role that information plays in physics. (Tony, if you’re reading, I am hugely sorry that I’ve held onto the book for so long. I’ll return it next time I’m back home – promise!)


The contents of, and motivation for, this captivating book are best described by the blurb on its back cover:

About 120 years ago, James Clerk Maxwell introduced his now legendary hypothetical ‘demon’ as a challenge to the integrity of the second law of thermodynamics. Fascination with the demon persisted throughout the development of statistical and quantum physics, information theory and computer science – and links have been established between Maxwell’s demon and each of those disicplines. The demon’s seductive quality makes it appealing to physical scientists, engineer, computer scientists, biologists, psychologists, and historians and philosophers of science.

Maxwell’s Demon: Entropy, Information, Computing” is a collection of twenty-five reprints on the subject of Maxwell’s demon (and related themes) prefaced by an engaging overview by Harvey Leff and Andrew Rex that synopsises the key developments in our understanding of the links between information, entropy, energy, and computing stimulated by that eponymous beast.

The demon was birthed by Maxwell in his Theory of Heat (1871) and “in one of the most heavily quoted passages in physics”, as Leff and Rex put it, described thus:


The Sixty Symbols video embedded above describes how the demon works (with my daughter Saoirse’s Living Dead Doll assuming the role of the fiend) but Maxwell’s pithy description above tells you all you need to know in any case. The demon keeps a careful eye on molecules in a box which is separated into two chambers by a partition/door. He/she/it opens a door to allow fast-moving molecules to pass into chamber B, while those moving more slowly are allowed to pass to chamber A. The key point is as I’ve underlined above: the demon works without expending work, establishing a temperature difference that could potentially be exploited, and thus the second law of thermodynamics is violated. (More on work, in the physics sense of the word, below).

I’ll note in passing that Maxwell’s careful qualifier re. the faculties of the demon, i.e. “would be able to do what is at present impossible to us”, is remarkably prescient in the context of the invention of scanning probe microscopy (SPM) about a century after the Theory of Heat was published. Probe microscopes now routinely allow us to not only see individual atoms and molecules but to manipulate them one at a time, and the state of the art in the field involves resolving the internal bond architecture of single molecules. (It is also worth comparing and contrasting Maxwell’s considered use of the “at present” proviso with Schrodinger’s rather more gung-ho statement in 1952: “We never experiment with just one electron or atom or (small) molecule. In thought experiments we sometimes assume that we do; this invariably entails ridiculous consequences…In the first place it is fair to say that we cannot experiment with single particles, any more than we can raise ichtkyosauria in the zoo”)

This version of Maxwell’s demon, which sets up a temperature gradient in a gas of molecules, is but one of a family of little devils. Maxwell went on to envisage a rather more stupid demon which didn’t need to keep account of molecular speeds, but instead simply opened the partition for molecules travelling one way and not the other. As Maxwell put it (p. 6 of the 1st edition of Leff and Rex’s book): “This reduces the demon to a valve”.

Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler

It wasn’t, however, until Leo Szilard introduced the “spherical cow” version of the demon in 1929 that the links between information, entropy, and energy started to become clear. Physicists love to reduce a system down to its barest bones; some of us are rather simple-minded beasts so we prefer to cut out any extraneous complexity and get to the heart of the matter. Szilard got rid of all of the molecules in the demon’s purview…save for one, lonely particle.  In other words, he considered a single molecule gas.  (Another note in passing: I made this spherical cow point in the Sixty Symbols video only to subsequently find that Sean Carroll also includes mention of the bulbous bovine in his wonderfully clear and pithy description of Szilard’s demon here.  I thoroughly recommend Carroll’s blog and books. He’s a fantastic science communicator, as his videos for Sixty Symbols highlight very well. (I can’t say, however, that I share Sean’s unalloyed enthusiasm for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.))

Szilard reduces the information overload of the original Maxwellian demon to a very simple problem for his incarnation of the devil: which side of the container is the molecule on? As described in the video, if Szilard’s (rather lazier) demon knows on which side of the container the molecule is found then work can be extracted, without having to put any work into the system in the first place. Another free lunch.

Ultimately, and after decades of debate, these violations of the 2nd law were traced back to an aspect of the problem that was too often overlooked: the information that the demon, of whatever type, has acquired. In Szilard’s case, this is one bit of information: what side of the container is the molecule on? It’s a binary problem.

A bit of energy

What’s great is that the simplicity of Szilard’s model means that we can use 1st year thermodynamics (or A-level thermal physics) to work out a formula for the energy (or, alternatively, entropy) associated with this single bit of information. In the video I simply write this formula down (Ebit = kT ln 2) but we can derive it in just a few lines…

The infinitesimal [1] amount of work, dW, done by a gas on a piston — in other words, the infinitesimal amount of energy extracted from an expanding gas — is given by

dW = PdV

where P is the pressure of the gas and dV is the change in volume of the gas. [2]

For Szilard’s demon the volume occupied by the ‘gas’ (i.e. the single molecule) changes by a factor of 2 as it expands: the demon observes which half of the box contains the molecule and acts accordingly. The volume changes from Vbox/2 to Vbox as the single molecule gas expands, pushing back the piston.

Now, if we want to determine the total work done by the molecule during this process then we integrate up all those infinitesimal “chunks” of work within the limits of Vbox and Vbox/2:


Fine, you might say, but how can we do the integration if we don’t know how the pressure is related to the volume? Not a problem. We do know how the pressure and volume are related. It’s the ideal gas law you may have learned in secondary/high school science classes,

PV = nRT

Here, P and V are once again pressure and volume, R is the universal gas constant, T is temperature, and n is the number of moles of gas.

But we’re only dealing with one molecule for Szilard’s engine so the ideal gas law is even simpler. We don’t need to worry about moles, so we don’t need the universal gas constant, and we can instead write for a single molecule:


The k in that equation is Boltzmann’s constant – it’s the universal conversion factor between energy and temperature. [4]

We now have an expression for P in terms of V, namely P = kT/V

Let’s plug that into the integral above:


Now, kT is a constant (because the temperature is constant in Szilard’s model). That means we can take it out of the integral, like this:


The integral of 1/V is ln V (i.e. the natural log of V). If we evaluate that integral between the given limits then we get the following:


But in “Logland” subtraction is equivalent to division of the arguments, so we have:

W = kT ln 2

And there’s our formula for the energy associated with a single bit of information. (In terms of entropy, the formula for one bit is even simpler still: S = k ln 2).

(There have, of course, been objections to the type of reasoning above. (Here’s one example from my fellow scanning probe microscopist, Quanmin Guo). Leff and Rex’s book details the objections and describes how they were addressed.

It from bit

In the video, Brady and I – with tongues very firmly in cheeks – consider the energy content of a “thought” (and those scare quotes are very important indeed): a simple image, whose total number of bits can be determined from the pixel density, assuming 24 bits per pixel. We then compare that “information energy” with the nutritional energy value of a Mars bar. [5]

I can already hear the disgruntlement of certain factions complaining about “dumbing down” and “clickbait” [3] but Sixty Symbols videos were never meant to be tutorials – they’re about piquing interest. If someone (anyone!) comes away from the video thinking, like I do, “Wow, those links between information, energy, and entropy are fascinating. I’d like to find out more”, then I consider that to be job done.

In any case, to begin to do justice to the topic would require a lengthy series of videos (or a 30-hour-long single video). (Or, alternatively, those interested could read Leff and Rex’s book.) But, Brady willing, we’ll hopefully return in a Sixty Symbols video some time to a consideration of Wheeler’s famous “It from bit” statement, Landauer’s mantra of “Information is physical”, and the central importance of data erasure. On this latter point, it turns out that what’s really important is not storing information, but erasing/forgetting it. The demon needs to be just like a stereotypical physics professor: absent-minded.

And if you’ve made it this far in this long-winded post, I think you’d agree that it’s now a case of too much information…


[1] Smaller than the smallest thing ever, and then some. (Hat tip to Mr. Adams). James Grime did an engaging video on infinitesimals for Brady’s Numberphile channel.

[2] For the experts among you, yes we should be careful to note when we have an exact vs inexact differential; and, yes, we should be careful with + and – signs regarding the representation of whether work is done on, or by, the gas; and, yes, we should also in principle take care to explain the difference between irreversible and reversible processes. I know. Let it go. The goal here is to put across a broad concept to a broad audience, and the minutiae don’t matter when explaining that concept. [3]

[3] Tetchy? Me?

[4] If you’re wondering how we replaced R with k, note that R = NAk, where NA is Avogadro’s constant. In other words, R, the universal gas constant, is a “mole-full” of Boltzmann’s constants.

[5] Some have gone further and used E=mc2 to assign a mass to a bit of information. In that sense, we could even ask what’s the weight of a thought. We didn’t want to do this, however, because explaining mass-energy equivalence correctly requires a great deal of care, and the video was already too long to include that type of nuance.