Friday, 27 July 2012

Speed Meet a Scientist/Hero/Loser?

I've been at a meeting Galactic Archaeology for the week, and so have been busy at the Sydney Masonic Centre (note, however, being at a conference in your home city is not good, as you are only a few miles from "work"). Anyway, grumpy post. Major grump.

In the past, I've taken part in an event during National Science Week called "Speed Meet a Geek".

I think science week is a great idea, where scientists (who love to rabbit about their work) get an audience who really seems to enjoying it. I've loved doing it, chatting with children about cosmology, telescopes, being an astronomer, while on the table next to me was explaining the intricacies of quantum mechanics and the future of computers.

It is great stuff.

Except the name. I don't like "Speed meet a geek".

I know I have written about this before, but it has come to the fore as again, last week, I received an invite to take part in an event at Science Week. This was marketed to me as "Speed Meet a Scientist", and, of course, I am keen to take part. Until I looked at the public page for the event.

It's not "Speed Meet a Scientist", it's marketed as "Speed Meet a Geek".

I wrote to the organizers (the ABC), and told them that I (again) found the term "geek" insulting and derogatory. I said that, in this time where we gripe about children not being interested in science, labeling scientists as "geeks" (or nerds), is not particularly beneficial.

Apparently every Olympian is a hero, while a scientist is a "geek". Sheesh. What kid would want to think about the mysteries of the universe (and be labelled a geek) when you could plod up and down a pool all day and be lauded as a hero?

Anyway, my response was as expected. It's not an insult, it's a term of endearment!

It's always the name caller that sees no problem in the name.

The thing that pricked up my years was that out of the 120 scientists who have taken part in "Meet a Geek", only roughly five have complained about the word "geek". Apparently, it OK that "only" five people complained about being insulted when taking part in an event they have freely given up their time to take part in. Surely one complaint is enough?

Maybe I am being too sensitive, as some like to wear "geek-chic" on their sleeve. But I'd like to meet a scientist who likes to be called "geek" to their face.

The result. I am not taking part in "Speed Meet a Scientist/Geek" this year, and won't again until scientists are given a little more respect.

I will give my time freely, I will talk about the universe until I am hoarse, I will try to answer any question from a child or a centenarian with fairness and with reference to the evidence, I will go the extra-mile to show the wonder of science to everyone - at any time - and anywhere.

Just don't insult me, and call me a "geek", for doing so.


Thursday, 19 July 2012

"When you have eliminated the (im)possible...

... whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" - A slight paraphrasing of Sherlock Holmes, but very apt for science. I've been back in Sydney for almost a week, and so have post-holiday blues, so time for a rant.

The subject of today's post, the Pioneer anomaly.

First, a little background. The Pioneer probes where launched in the 1970s to undertake grand tours of the Solar System. They have been trundling for almost as long as I have been on the planet, and are now well beyond the orbit of Pluto.
 Out there, gas is extremely tenuous, and we would expect the Pioneers to be simply test particles, whose paths are completely due to the influence of gravity, mainly the Sun, but also the planets.

Now, we can predict the locations of the planets extremely accurately, so you'd think with the mathematics of gravity in hand, we should be able to do the same with the Pioneers, and we can.

But there is a problem. The Pioneer probes are not behaving exactly as predicted. There is a tiny, and I mean tiny, residual acceleration that is not inline with the gravitational expectations. The fact that we can measure this 0.9 nanometers per second squared is testament to the accuracy of the observations of the two space craft.

But what's the source of the residual acceleration? I have been following this from the 1990s, and the web has been full of radical claims that the Pioneer anomaly is due to new physics, due to Newton and Einstein being wrong, that modifications to general relativity are needed. Heck, it's even been used to support creationist cosmologies.

And of course, the web loved it. Stupid scientists, to blind to see that their universe is built on a house of cards. but in the background, there continued to be story that the acceleration is potentially due to a much more mundane source, such as a little leaky fuel, or non-uniform heating. However, that was not as exciting as physics being wrong.

Studying the heating and cooling of spacecraft is not easy. They ain't spherical cows! And so it takes a lot of work to get it right. But, surprise, surprise, after almost a decades worth of work, NASA has shown that Study Finds Heat is Source of ‘Pioneer Anomaly’ (taken from Bryan's twitter).

How dull! All those fantastic ideas struck down by simple facts! (well, actually complex observations and modelling etc). I am sure there will be claims that this is a NASA conspiracy to keep the colourful crayon brigade suppressed.

But wake up shashdotters - this is the way science goes. Seeing something weird in your data can be the start of a road to a revolution in science. But you must convince yourself that you have not fooled yourself, that the "thing" you see in your data really is something new, and is not the result of something boring and mundane that you have forgotten. You must check, and check again. And this is what NASA has done. And what OPERA did, and many other "Oh wow!!" science results

Yes, it is great (and important) to play "what ifs" over in your head, but before you claim your Nobel prize (or just publish), then remember, the motto of the scientist should be a rewriting of Sherlock Holmes:
"Before you publish "the truth", however, improbable it may seem, be sure that you have fully eliminated all of the possibles, no matter how dull and mundane they may be"



Sunday, 15 July 2012

Was I ever really away?

I'm back in Sydney after a holiday out in the Pacific. It was a good week, with warm weather providing a nice escape from the chill in Sydney (it does get cold here, and the notion of insulation appears to be beyond Australian house builders). I won't harp on about the holiday, but here's a picture of me snapped by my wife.
It should not take a detective to work out where I went, (and sorry to Bryan for sporting a CAASTRO shirt while not actually a member). But also note that I am on my phone, and I am dealing with work issues (both research and admin), while enjoying a tusker.

I wrote a little about this a while ago when I attended the Early Career Research meeting, and the notion of work-life balance.

For me, I don't separate the two. I don't have work over here and life over there, and battle to keep them separate. I just have one large amorphous blob of life, and all aspects are intermingled. This reflects the comments by Kate Brooks on the topic.

What I learnt at the ECR meeting is that some people seriously frown upon such an approach, and that there must clearly be a break between work and life (and that they sometimes battle to keep these separate).

Sorry, but that does not work for me. Research is fun, interesting and is always on my mind. I can happily sit by the side of the pool and think about measuring the properties of dark matter. Sure, the university side of things has stuff to do which is not fun, but is par of the course, and so to keep doing my research, I am happy to plod along with the "admin"-side of things.

Is my life diminished because I don't separate work and life? I don't think so. I think my life is pretty good with lots of fun activities with my children etc. Not sure where this post is going, so I am going to wrap up and take mini-me to rugby. As ever, I will not be really away :)