In her own words: honouring Hanna Neumann

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hanna Neumann (1914-1971, born Johanna von Caemmerer) was a German-born UK and Australian group theorist. She was the first woman Chair of Pure Mathematics in Australia. She had a fascinaging life story. With her husband Bernhard Neumann, they had five children, four of whom became mathematicians.

A new page on Facebook follows her story told in her own words, like a scrapbook of letters, documents and images – great use of facebook as a platform for telling oral history!

https://www.facebook.com/IHOWNeumann/posts/1103790999712245:0

if you are on Twitter, you can also follow this #NatSciWk, told in her own words (hashtags: #InHerOwnWords #AussieScientist).

The project is created by Women in Science Australia, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS), the NFSA, and The National Museum of Australia.

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Talking to crackpots, or how can we communicate science better?

It is widely acknowledged – by scientists at least – that today’s science has become so complex that it is no longer possible to be an encyclopaedic autodidact like it still was in the 17- 19 centuries. While there are still (very, very) few research scientists who have always worked outside academia, none of them are more active than scientists who are at least sometimes working within academia. Today almost all fields in 21st century physics and mathematics are very much community efforts. This does not only have to do with the need for laboratories, but with the sheer complexity of the knowledge accumulated to date even in the most theoretical fields. The stereotypical lone thinker is not only not the norm, but pretty much structurally impossible due to the complexity of what today counts as cutting-edge science.
Thanks to a friend, I came across a wonderful article about science communication written by Sabine Hossenfelder (Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Germany). She offers a sympathetic, sociological view on what many scientists tend to immediately dismiss as “big theory of everything science crackpots”, from the viewpoint of a professional physicist. 

“Sociologists have long tried and failed to draw a line between science and pseudoscience. In physics, though, that ‘demarcation problem’ is a non-problem, solved by the pragmatic observation that we can reliably tell an outsider when we see one. During a decade of education, we physicists learn more than the tools of the trade; we also learn the walk and talk of the community, shared through countless seminars and conferences, meetings, lectures and papers. After exchanging a few sentences, we can tell if you’re one of us. You can’t fake our community slang any more than you can fake a local accent in a foreign country.”

The problem is, she says, that science enthusiasts (both the “crazy” and the “non-crazy” varieties – though Foucault would tell you that the label “madness” reveals at least as much about the rules and structures of the society which surrounds a person, as about that person’s personality)

“know so little about current research in physics, they aren’t even aware they’re in a foreign country”.

So why do some [men] still persist in trying to offer their grand theories to society – from outside the “not-so-ivory towers” of contemporary universities?

 As for why they are (in Hossenfelder’s sample at least) all men: there is undoubtedly a link between what society thinks a scientist is, and does, a sort of warped folk-theoretical image of lone male geniuses in white lab coats. This is something that researchers of scientific masculity would be better able to analyse.

But I’d turn the question on its head and instead ask: why are we surprised that anybody else is interested in science? As scientists [I always use the word scientist to denote all fields of knowlege in English, like I would in Bulgarian or German, including the humanities] we know only too well that science is one of the most interesting things. So then the difference between “us” and then becomes one of access to the “right” kind of knowledge, which sociologically means access to the “right” kind of knowledge spaces and knowledge institutions. It is important to realise that not all crackpots are crackpots. Some, perhaps many, are curious minds who might have become scientists, had they taken another career track.

This has to do with the different possible purposes of the university: is it a Humboldtian institution aimed at creating public good and educating critical thinkers, or a factory producing skilled workers and commodified knowledge for the market? Of course, neither of these ideological forms exists in a pure way, but German universities are still closer to the form, and American ones to the latter. 

And indeed, as my autodidact friend commented, in Germany they don’t have such “crackpots” and his hypothesis as to why, is that Germany has widely available science libraries and a culture of using them. This should be changing with the advent of online science spaces, but hasn’t. Clearly, cultural change is lagging behind technological change, and there are still people interested in (and obsessed by) science who do not use the multiple and very useful online science forums.

 (Just to make it clear: I’m not at all claiming that German universities are intrinsically better, only that they are more public than market-oriented: they have a whole zoo of other interesting and frustrating problems, such as chronic underfunding, badly functioning internal stratification, inefficient bureaucracy, rigid professorial apparatus, no jobs between postdoc and professor, etc.)

Hossenfelder makes a pertinent observation about ways in which science communication can go wrong: 

“… in the absence of equations, they project literal meanings onto words such as ‘grains’ of space-time or particles ‘popping’ in and out of existence. Science writers should be more careful to point out when we are using metaphors. My clients read way too much into pictures, measuring every angle, scrutinising every colour, counting every dash. Illustrators should be more careful to point out what is relevant information and what is artistic freedom.

Her next point is a much less popular one but possible even more important. In my conversations with mathematicians, I’ve heard many frustrated mathematicians say similar things:

“…journalists are so successful at making physics seem not so complicated that many readers come away with the impression that they can easily do it themselves. How can we blame them for not knowing what it takes if we never tell them?”

So how should we communicate science better? 

First of all, we should communicate science much more. The public deserves to know if not the ins and outs of cutting-edge science, then at least be aware about its existence, and its significance. We must know where to get a map for the “countries” which we may one day (or never) want to visit in person.

Second, the public deserves to know that there are many different valuable types of knowledge, including very abstract or inapplicable fields. This cannot happen while even scientists on the same campus don’t know anything (or don’t even respect) the work done in other university departments.

Third, science must appear real, done by real humans of different genders, colours, classes, ages, voices, faces, talents, interests, family situations, bodily capacities, demeanours, etc. – as it really is, and not as it used to be in some imagined 18th century.

Fourth, science must be presented not simply as a ready product, but as the process and a journey that it is. If the public knew more about the blind alleys, difficulties and disputes along the way, people would not only see science as more real, but also would perhaps appreciate its value more. (Thanks to Marion for adding this point in the comments!) 

Fifth, science must appear fascinating,yet not easy: because it isn’t. It is damn difficult. And you need a group to do it with.

Sixth, and this will counterbalance some of the negative effects of number 4 above: we must get away with the pernicious ideas that difficult = undoable, or that failure = stupidity. In school, kids must learn to learn and to fall many times but never to give up; but also to be smart about finding the right sources to learn from. 

Then there will be more appreciation of science – and perhaps fewer “crackpots” who are curious but lost in the wilderness of unattained knowledge and seeking it in all the wrong places.

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Calculus is key for STEM gender gap: new research 

The pipeline that funnels women into careers in math and science is leaky all the way along along, but if one particular leak could be plugged, it might make a dramatic difference. Researchers have identified one change that would increase the number of women in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) by 75 percent.

http://www.vocativ.com/347023/the-calculus-confidence-gap-affects-women-in-stem-more/
(Cartoon: New Yorker)

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The Spectre of Maths Anxiety

What an anger-inducing report for a Monday morning. It is a good report, but the subject made me angry. Reading a full historical account of why there is such a thing as maths anxiety at all, and why it persists into the 21st century, and why it is especially more prevalent among women, is so depressing. Besides, I’m certain that things are better (or at least less bad) in countries other than the UK, especially in ex-state socialist education systems. The gender imbalance exists, but is far less horrible – and this is linked, I believe, with the far less rigid “class” structure of the societies. Also in places like Italy and Portugal. How come nobody bothers to look and steal the good ideas. 
 
The full report (very readable):
The Fear Factor: Maths Anxiety in girls and women, 2015, by Samantha Callan, a report commissioned by Maths Action.
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The founding mothers of Silicon Valley

It’s not entirely true that one can’t be what one can’t see, as this article argues. But it is almost true, much harder, and only exceptions will make it. Therefore, great idea: https://backchannel.com/a-womens-history-of-silicon-valley-feea9279d88a#.vkjefwu4b

How is a theorem born?

A nice short review of Cédric Villani’s book, Birth of A Theorem (by Stephen Muirhead, PhD student at UCL)

http://chalkdustmagazine.com/blog/review-of-birth-of-a-theorem/

 

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Money for nothing, research grants for free

This really is not some value-neutral fascinating social phenomenon such as the currently  en vogue “academic acceleration“: it is a bad use of academic time! Sure, some of the literature discussing “acceleration” is good, but I have a feeling it dance s around the subject a bit too much. Thanks to Jan Blommaert for calling the spade a spade (and apologies for the distasteful crib of Dire Straits lyrics in the title):

After submitting, we heard that a total of 147 applications had been received by the EU. And that the EU will eventually grant 2 – two – projects. In a rough calculation, this means that the chance of success in this funding line is 1,3%; it also means that 98,7% of the applications – 145 of them, to be accurate – will be rejected. And here is the problem.

[M]any millions’ worth of (usually) taxpayers’ money will have been used – wasted – in this massive and mass grantwriting effort. Several hundreds of researchers will have been involved, each spending dozens if not hundreds of their salaried working hours on preparing the application, and hundreds of university administrators will have been involved as well, also spending salaried working hours on the applications. These millions of Euros have not been used in creative and innovative research – they weren’t spent on doing fieldwork, experiments or tests, nor on writing papers and holding presentations in workshops and symposiums. They were spent on – nothing.”

Jan Blommaert, “Rationalizing the unreasonable: there are no good academics in the EU”, 10 June 2015, https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2015/06/10/rationalizing-the-unreasonable-there-are-no-good-academics-in-the-eu/


(Image: Milena Kremakova ®2007)

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The Perils of Maths

This would be funny if it weren’t real. When I read this story I first thought it was a remake of the old joke about Al-Gebra (check out the link for a detailed history of this dangerous terrorist movement):

“At New York’s Kennedy airport today, a person later discovered to be a public school teacher, was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a drafting triangle, a compass, and a calculator.

During a press conference the Attorney General said he believed the man was a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement and the FBI intends to charge him with transporting weapons of math instruction. […]”

(from Weapons of Math Instruction, http://daryld.com/weapons-of-math-instruction/)

And there was another joke, about a postdoc from Iran flying to a conference and working last minute on his paper about “blowing up points on a plain”.

But alas. This week, a real mathematician, Guido Menzio of the University of Pennsylvania, recipient of the 2015 Carlo Alberto Medal for best Italian economist under 40, was questioned and removed from a flight because a fellow passenger thought that his differential equations were “in Arabic”, he was concentrating too hard, and suspiciously avoiding questions, and the flight attendants had to investigate the complaint.

Dr Menzio was brought back with an apology and the 40-minute flight did leave, with a 2 hour delay.

The whole story (written up with some good humour): https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/rampage/wp/2016/05/07/ivy-league-economist-interrogated-for-doing-math-on-american-airlines-flight/

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