Saturday 25 July 2009

Interesting Science Quiz Results

David Bradley of Sciencebase tweeted a quiz on science in the news and asked his followers if we know more science than the average American:

Test Your News IQ

It would appear that I do know more science than the average American (and, I suspect, the average Brit) as I got 12/12. Now, you'll have to do the quiz to see the demographic results, but I thought this was interesting:

I apologise for the lack of labelling - the number column on the far right indicates the percentage of female respondees who answered correctly for each question. The number column immediately to the left indicates the percentage of male respondees. On nine of the questions, men scored more highly than women, but on three questions women did better than men:
  • Which over-the-counter drug do doctors recommend that people take to help prevent heart attacks?
  • How are stem cells different from other cells?
  • True or false: Antibiotics will kill viruses as well as bacteria.
These are the three biology/medicine/life science type questions - the other being geology/chemistry/physics/astronomy based. Now, I can't obviously say whether this is statistically significant, although maybe the Pew Research Center will follow up on this. However, when I was at university, physics classes were made up mainly of men and biology classes were made up mainly of women - even at the University Of Cambridge. Gender stereotypes manifesting themselves even among adults? Biology is "nice" and "soft" and you can go along and work with flowers and cute fuzzy animals, young lady, but leave the "serious" physics and astronomy to the more mathematically-minded men. They will solve our real problems. Is this a case that women are more educated in life sciences and less so in physical sciences than the men? Or, being in the vast majority the primary care-givers, do they simply pay attention mainly to the science news that directly affects the health of their family and ignore the rest (remember that awful exchange on The View about whether the Earth was flat)? Conversely is this support for the commonly-held view that men tend to ignore their health? Do they ignore it because they're uninformed or are they uninformed because they've ignored it? So, what do you think? I've used sweeping generalisations here with only that number table to back up my thoughts, but I wonder if there is a real signal there and what the reason might be.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Scientists Not Involved In Policy

It probably comes as no surprise to most scientists that they have been excluded from scientific policy decisions by the Government, according to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Parliamentary Committee (IUSS Committee hereafter):

Scientists "kept at arm's length"

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Parliamentary Committee is a cross-party committee whose official remit is:
To examine the administration, expenditure and policy of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, including further education, higher education, skills and the Government Office for Science which has responsibility for science across all Government departments.
Of course, now that DIUS has been disbanded and mostly shifted over to DBIS one assumes this will be updated soon enough.

On the subject of this, one of the IUSS Committee's main concerns is the way that the Government Office for Science has been passed around departments like a hot potato (maybe I should be in science policy...), which gives the impression that it doesn't give a pair of foetid dingoes' kidneys about science.

And here's something that American scientists have had to put up with for the duration of the Bush Administration (possibly before that? Grateful for any further information from the Old Guard), which has been suspected for some time in the UK, but which looks damn scary written down:
The committee said that too often advisers came under intense pressure to agree with the government's stance on an issue.
It's things like this that make me very glad I work in a discipline that is unlikely to need to have a major input on Government policy. I don't know whether this "intense pressure" is merely that senior officials in institutions like the Royal Society are leaned upon to make statements that fit with policy, or whether (as reported in the USA in Top Scientists Want Research Free From Politics in February 2008):
"Government scientists have had their findings subjected to censorship and misrepresentation," said Kurt Gottfried, professor of physics at Cornell University and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The public and Congress have often been deprived of accurate and candid scientific information."
Perhaps the IUSS Committee should check whether British scientists are having Research Council funding cut for "inconvenient" research projects. I really hope they're not; I have a very high opinion of the Research Councils and the work they do in the face of having their own budgets cut. I fear if there is such funding pressure it's happening in agencies such as FERA, which, given their research areas, could be quite detrimental to public health and the environment.

Friday 17 July 2009

Female Performance On Fieldwork

I read this article on the F-Word blog: "Women, confidence and fear of male judgment", and thought about my own performance in certain activities in front of men. The obvious one for me was fieldwork, so I commented:
I'm a palaeontologist, which involves a lot of fieldwork. I assisted on an undergraduate fieldtrip, driving one of the minivans. Although there were three female drivers I was the only one who didn't opt out as soon as they could, so I found myself "competing" with male drivers. Despite being a competent driver (I have never had a problem with manoeuvres), with all the other drivers watching I managed to burn out the clutch, earning myself the nickname of "Clutch Lady" for the whole fortnight.

I'm also fairly nimble on my feet and pretty good at bouldering (although I don't pretend to be any good at actual climbing). A 6-ft scramble would have been very little trouble for me if I'd been on my own or in a group of girls. But faced with two men offering a hand to help me up I stumbled, lost my footing and had to be hauled up. I beat myself up about it for the rest of the day, because I knew I should have been able to make the climb.

I don't know if we're so caught up in worrying about what the men might think that we fail to concentrate on our activity, or whether we subconsciously act how the men are expecting us to act. I am expected to be a bad driver because I am a woman. I am expected to not be able to scramble up a rock face because I am a woman.
Not to take away comments from the F-Word, but I'd be interested to know what my readers think, male and female. Is it just having an audience that does it? Am I imagining my perceived competence with a female audience and incompetence with a male audience? Anyone want to share their fieldtrip shame?

Interestingly enough, I have never underperformed when giving presentations at SVP. I don't know whether it's that women are not expected to suck at public speaking, or whether it's only really physical performance (something easy to assess objectively), or whether it really is all in my imagination (and presumably the original article's writer...).

Wednesday 15 July 2009

The Lot Of A Palaeontology Spouse

My former advisor used to spout an awful lot of drivel, but one thing I believed: he always said that geologists had the highest divorce rates of all the scientific professions. I'd love to see some statistics, but I think it comes down to a few key things - fieldwork, conferences and downright nerdiness.

And it can be hard on the spouses. So I thought it might be helpful for the other palaeo-spouses to see how my own husband deals with these issues.


He has never been on fieldwork with me. He has only ever spent one night under canvas, and that was in a friend's back garden five years ago. When I did the Ainsa fieldtrip, I left him with three frozen meals, and after that he decamped to his parents' house for the rest of the week. Since we've been holidaying together, he's had pretty much no input on location as it's either close to an SVP conference location or it's one of my field areas, and let's just say that the Peak District in December is an acquired taste:

Nevertheless, I have always managed to find something to keep him happy, and that's the key to success - make sure you take time out each day to do something your spouse really enjoys...


Paul has accompanied me to all but one SVP conference - he even went to a GSA once. This is A Good Thing as it's always nice to have someone who signed up for the whole "in sickness and in health" thing to hold one's hair back after an evening of "socialising".

Now, because most palaeontologists are old and male, most spouse activities planned by conference organisers are with old women in mind. You should have seen the look on Paul's face when I suggested he might like to go on the spouse visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Garden in Austin in 2007.

No, his needs are simple: coffee and wi-fi. He probably decimates the coffee supplies outside the conference halls each morning, and I think SVP will be able to use him as an instant indicator of whether their internet is working or not. And after hours he fits in so well with my friends:

He gets his social registration each year, so he gets a name badge and he loves to swap it at the end of the last night. He has been "Paul Anderson: Not the shit movie director", "Paulmela Anderson" "Paul AndersonUpchurch: ask me about Euhelopus" (the year my own supervisor didn't go to SVP) and frequently amends his institution to be the Kansas City Creationist College of Jeebus Studies. So including him in drinks and meals, allowing him to mock us a little bit and giving him something to do while I'm at talks has meant he looks forward to SVP each year.


Poor thing. He has to cope with so much. The lounge is full of dinosaurs, rocks, fossils and the like. One whole bookshelf is pretty much palaeontology books. Even the plants have to be dinosaur-related. How does he respond? Utter disdain. And a healthy interest in gargoyles.

I even walked in to "Theme from Jurassic Park" when we got married. On this front he just had to suck it up and accept that he was not going to change me.

Happy wedding anniversary darling. You're rawrsome.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Summer Reading

I'm spending the summer mainly unemployed (boo hiss), which does have some advantages: I can plan all my lessons for the start of the school year, I can do some fieldwork, I can garden all I want, and I can finally read for pleasure! ReBecca has her summer reading list, so as the meme is going round I thought I'd tell you what I'm planning to read (and what I've already made a start on this summer):

Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham

This was the last I had of the republished Wyndham books, and I think it might actually be my favourite. In contrast to the other Wyndham books, it has a strong female lead character in Diana Brackley, a successful biochemist. Surprisingly, the Wikipedia entry (plot spoilers there, click with caution!) says the book is "not generally regarded as one of Wyndham's best novels". I suspect Paul and Chris favour The Kraken Wakes as the best (and possibly The Day Of The Triffids a close second?).

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Paul was given this as a birthday present. I had to read it...

I did enjoy it, but (perhaps this was the point) found myself wanting to go back and read the original story without zombies! I read P&P as a teenager trying to make her GCSE English reading list look pretentious and intellectual, and didn't actually enjoy it at all. So, being twice the age now and with a significantly longer attention span (and the joy of being able to envisage Matthew McFadyen as Mr Darcy - he was so much more Darcyish than Colin Firth...), I'll be re-reading:

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

I commented last week that I had never read Silent Spring, and I feel as though it's one of those books that I need to have read, one of those compulsory reads. I visited Love Canal when I was 17, and the friend we were with told us the whole story (we were not allowed to get out of the vehicle, as our friend said the area was still pretty contaminated).

I'm sure there'll be many more (and don't even get me started on the sheer number of papers, books and memoirs I have to read for my PhD!!) but I'd be interested to hear opinions from people who've read these books, and given the few examples, anyone who has any suggestions for further reading.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

GCSE Biology And Creationism

(An aside to non-UK readers - GCSEs are qualifications that high school students sit at age 15-16, and the last compulsory education British children have.)

I saw this headline: "Creationism question 'misleading'" on the BBC News website. The AQA exam board has received a number of complaints after a question appeared on this summer's GCSE Biology paper asking students how the Bible's theory of creation seeks to explain the origins of life. I'm afraid the original wording isn't included in the news article, so we can't have a proper discussion on its significance, nor on how it might have been answered.

AQA said:
"Merely asking a question about creationism and intelligent design does not imply support for these ideas. Neither idea is included in our specification and AQA does not support the teaching of these ideas as scientific."
All fair enough, perhaps, but then the BBC went on to say:
Nonetheless, the candidates were expected to have some understanding of it. A spokeswoman explained that pupils had been asked to match up several theories, including the Biblical theory of creation, with descriptions of them. She said pupils were not taught creationism as a valid scientific theory but that it would be strange not to mention it when discussing Darwinism.
But this is a GCSE Biology class, and "[matching] up several theories, including the Biblical theory of creation, with descriptions of them" sounds awfully like a GCSE Religious Studies class.

This is all very relevant to me. In September I will begin teaching Biology at GCSE and A level (the 17-18 qualification). The college uses Edexcel rather than AQA, but evolution is still very much a topic on the syllabus. According to my teacher notes, higher tier students will be expected to:
Discuss why Charles Darwin experienced difficulty in getting his theory of evolution through natural selection accepted by the scientific community in the 19th century.
This is a world of difference to matching up theories of creation, and something I would be very happy discussing in a science class.

GCSE Science for Edexcel

This is the textbook I'll be using, and on page 29 (do not read page 28 if you're a palaeontologist who suffers from high blood pressure) it reads:
Most people recognise nowadays that evolution explains the development of life on our planet and the extinction of the dinosaurs. However, when Charles Darwin published his book, The Origin of Species, in 1859, it created a huge controversy. Some said it contradicted the Bible's account of creation. The power of the established church was so great at the time that some scientists were frightened to support Darwin. The theory of evolution also drew on a number of different areas of study (biology, chemistry, geology, geography) and scientists did not tend to cooperate across disciplines in those days. Nowadays the vast majority of serious scientists, and many Christians, accept the theory of evolution as the best explanation we currently have. The original antagonism to the idea may have been because it was so shocking. Even today in some parts of the USA, science teachers have to be very careful to explain that evolution is just a theory (which is true for almost everything in science lessons!) to avoid criticism from fundamentalist believers.
So, blogosphere, what do you think of that? Is that okay for an explanation for a 16-year-old? How could I improve that in my lessons? Given that Christianity is unlikely to be the majority religion of my students, what else might I need to consider?

Monday 6 July 2009

How We Map

At last, here is what I produced after six weeks in the Lake District back in 2000:

You can see in the south of the mapping area the contact metamorphism and aureole in green and blue, the oranges, browns and pinks of the Skiddaw Slates in the centre of my area, and the purples and greys of the Eycott Volcanic Group to the north.

The more observant of you will also have noticed that, to the west of my area I had a hill delightfully named Great Cockup, which I sometimes felt was wholly appropriate.

I suspect I may have been one of the last year groups to draw their maps by hand. We used light tables and tracing paper, bought incredibly expensive pens with 0.1, 0.3, 0.5 and 0.7 mm nibs, used green ink to draw round outcrops (with such little exposure you can see why we needed to highlight that we'd actually found an outcrop), used blue to indicate ridges, hollows and breaks in slope, and recorded the quaternary deposits on top of all that. We used Letraset machines to generate text, and painstakingly attempted to stick them on straight. And when all that was done we had to go down to the local printers and get copies made up on paper so we could colour them in.

The lucky students who draw them in Adobe Illustrator or whatever it is the kids use nowadays, and simply send them to the departmental plotter for printing don't know they're born.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Women Scientists

I know, I promised you some geological maps a week ago didn't I? All in good time. In the meantime, New Scientist magazine has revealed the most inspirational woman scientist of all time. I could probably have guessed that Marie Curie would win the title. I'm delighted to see that Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall are on the list (I need to read "Silent Spring" as to my shame I never have).

But one of the commenters pointed out, and I noticed as I read through, that four of the winners, Rosalind Franklin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Ada Lovelace and Lise Meitner, carried out important work for which their male colleagues received most, if not all, of the credit.

Fortunately, that is all in the past now, and no woman scientist has had her male colleagues taking the credit for her work since 1960 at least, right?
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