A one-act play about a study in hiring practices in STEM

Scene: A table at Starbucks

Man #1, a wealthy benefactor
Man #2, an enlightened guy

Man #1: Let me ask you a hypothetical question: given the choice, would you rather have world peace or a billion dollars?

Man #2: Oh, world peace, of course!  It would end the suffering of so many.

Man #1: Well, it turns out that I have a billion dollars on hand.  I can either give it to you, or I can spend that billion on world peace initiatives.  What do you think?

Man #2: Hmm… give me the money.  I trust myself to make better “world peace” decisions than you would.



A recent study, published in PNAS, suggests that sexism in science and engineering hiring is over, or even reversed, with women favored over men.  From the abstract:

National randomized experiments and validation studies were conducted on 873 tenure-track faculty (439 male, 434 female) from biology, engineering, economics, and psychology at 371 universities/colleges from 50 US states and the District of Columbia. In the main experiment, 363 faculty members evaluated narrative summaries describing hypothetical female and male applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships who shared the same lifestyle (e.g., single without children, married with children).

The problem, for me: if you question people on their hypothetical preferences for hiring, it seems obvious to me that you’ll get very different answers than what you’d get in an actual hiring process.  Hence the one-act play above.

In a hypothetical, a person can give whatever answer makes them or others perceive them in the best light, since there are no real-world consequences for the choice.

A nice detailed discussion of perceived problems with this study is given at Other Sociologist.

Posted in ... the Hell?, General science, Women in science | 1 Comment

One more anecdote about Kathleen Lonsdale

My last post hardly scratched the surface of Kathleen Lonsdale’s amazing life & career. Before moving on to other topics, I can’t help but share one more cool story about her from her biographical memoir, which incidentally is free to read online after a free registration.  I have noted that Lonsdale was an anti-war activist, and that she traveled the world in her lifetime both for work and activism.  From the memoir:

In no country that she visited did she receive a more moving welcome than in Japan.  She found when she arrived that so many flowers had been sent to her they filled every room in the small hotel in which she was staying.  She discovered that it had been reported in the papers that she had gone to prison rather than work on the atomic bomb.  This incorrect statement naturally worried her.  She immediately had the report corrected saying that, of course, she would have gone to prison rather than work on the atomic bomb, but nobody had, in fact, asked her to do so.  The result of this announcement was that more flowers came in than ever.  They had to be stood in buckets all down the street.

And with that, I’ll leave Kathleen Lonsdale alone and move on to other topics!

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Kathleen Lonsdale: Master of Crystallography

In recent years, there has been a wonderful explosion of interest in the often-neglected historical women of science, and more information is available than ever before about the lives and achievements of these women.  Nevertheless, there are still some truly accomplished women of science who have not received as much attention as they deserve. This post is a small attempt to rectify this in the case of Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), an Irish crystallographer who made fundamental contributions in her field and had influence far beyond, including socially and politically.

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Posted in History of science, Women in science | 1 Comment

My favorite “classic” horror stories

Even though I blog about horror fiction of all eras, regular readers of this blog know that I particularly love older stuff.  There’s something about the ghost and horror stories of the late 1800s and early 1900s that is particularly compelling, and so many classic and timeless tales came out of that era.  I was recently pondering those classic stories, and thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of my favorites, as far as I can remember.

Such a list is necessarily incomplete, and constantly changing: I’m sure I’ll remember a handful of other stories as soon as I post this!  I limit myself to stories that are readily available to read online, so that I’m not a terrible tease.

I’ll start with a simple list of the stories, with links, and then say a bit more about each of them with significant spoilers afterwards.  IF YOU DON’T WANT THINGS SPOILED, READ THE STORIES BEFORE READING MY DESCRIPTIONS! I’ve put the earliest definite date of publication for each story, though several of them may have first appeared several years earlier.

  1. The Upper Berth, F. Marion Crawford (1894).
  2. How Love Came to Professor Guildea, Robert Hichens (1900).
  3. Lukundoo, Edward Lucas White (1927).
  4. Confession, Algernon Blackwood (1921).
  5. The Whisperer in Darkness, H.P. Lovecraft (1931).
  6. Afterward, Edith Wharton (1910).
  7. Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, M.R. James (1904).
  8. The Dead Valley, Ralph Adams Cram (1895).
  9. Mysterious Maisie, Wirt Gerarre (1895).
  10. The Shadows on the Wall, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1903).
  11. The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe (1842).
  12. The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs (1902).
  13. A Night at an Inn, Lord Dunsany (1916).

Hey — that’s 13 total! A good number!

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Posted in Horror | 2 Comments

#365 papers, part 4!

I’ve joined a group of folks on Twitter who have vowed to read roughly a paper a day for an entire year, and will summarize my reading here occasionally.  Part 1 can be read here, part 2 can be read here, and part 3 can be read here.  Links are provided for those with university access who are interested in reading more.  These posts are a bit more technical than my usual fare, so feel free to ignore if you’re not an optics enthusiast! More fun stuff to come soon.

2/23: Circularly symmetric operation of a concentric‐circle‐grating, surface‐ emitting, AlGaAs/GaAs quantum‐well semiconductor laser, T. Erdogan, O. King, G.W. Wicks, D.G. Hall, E.H. Anderson and M.J. Rooks (1992).  I’ve been reading a lot about “vector beams” these past few weeks, in which the polarization of light either points radially from the center of the beam or circulates azimuthally around it.  This paper, which describes a new laser design with azimuthal polarized light, sparked the modern interest in such beams.

2/24: Focusing of high numerical aperture cylindrical vector beams, K.S. Youngworth and T.G. Brown (2000).  So what good are “vector beams,” that possess unusual polarization? This paper, combining theory and experiment, noted how radial beams produce a strong longitudinal electric field at focus, which can be used to accelerate charged particles.

2/25: The electric and magnetic polarization singularities of paraxial waves, M.V. Berry (2004).  I’ve been extensively studying the “polarization singularities” of light for my chapter on the subject in my singular optics book.  Basically, points in a field where light is circularly polarized may be considered “singular” and distinct from other points.  This paper is one in a long set of articles studying the properties of such singularities.

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A.M. Burrage’s Waxwork and Other Stories

I’ve long been a fan of the work of A.M. Burrage — that little of it that I’ve been able to find, that is.  His ghost stories, originally published in six volumes from the 1920s to the 1960s, have been rarely in print since then and used copies are only available at exorbitant prices.  I was therefore delighted a month ago or so when I found, during one of my regular searches*, that all of his works have been reprinted in a series of volumes!


There look to be at least 9 volumes — like I said, Burrage was a busy writer — and I have three of them.  I’ve only read the first so far, so I’ll have more thoughts in future posts.

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Posted in Horror | 2 Comments

Michael Faraday and the waterspouts (1814)

This week, one of the most fascinating/frightening videos to be posted online was of a waterspout that ran aground on a Brazilian beach, hurling debris and terrifying vacationers.  Weaker than the similar-looking tornadoes that appear over land, most waterspouts have speeds no greater than 50 miles per hour, though that is certainly fast enough to hurl debris and cause damage, injury, and possibly death.

Waterspouts on the beach of Kijkduin near The Hague, the Netherlands on 2006 August 27.  Photo by Skatebiker, released into public domain & available on Wikipedia.

Waterspouts on the beach of Kijkduin near The Hague, the Netherlands on 2006 August 27. Photo by Skatebiker, released into public domain & available on Wikipedia.

The video reminded me again of an event from the life of Michael Faraday, one of the most important researchers in the history of physics.  Faraday would make a number of fundamental contributions to science, including the discovery of electromagnetic induction as well as the link between magnetism and light.  Long before his fame, however, he wrote about waterspouts that he observed while traveling in Italy. I thought I would share his remarks, providing a little context as to his circumstances at the time.

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