Friday, October 31, 2014

String theory – it’s a girl thing

My first international physics conference was in Turkey. It was memorable not only because smoking was still allowed on the plane. The conference was attended by many of the local students, and almost all of them were women.

I went out one evening with the Turkish students, a group of ten with only one man who sucked away on his waterpipe while one of the women read my future from tea leaves (she read that I was going to fly through the air in the soon future). I asked the guy how come there are so few male students in this group. It’s because theoretical physics isn’t manly, it’s not considered a guy thing in Turkey, he said. Real men work outdoors or with heavy machinery, they drive, they swing tools, they hunt bears, they do men’s stuff. They don’t wipe blackboards or spend their day in the library.

I’m not sure how much of his explanation was sarcasm, but I find it odd indeed that theoretical physics is so man-dominated when it’s mostly scribbling on paper, trying to coordinate collaborations and meetings, and staring out of the window waiting for an insight. It seems mostly a historical accident that the majority of physicists today are male.

From the desk in my home office I have a view onto our downstairs neighbor’s garden. Every couple of weeks a man trims her trees and bushes. He has a key to the gate and normally comes when she is away. He uses the smoking break to tan his tattoos in her recliner and to scratch his breast hair. Then he pees on the roses. The most disturbing thing about his behavior though isn’t the peeing, it’s that he knows I’m watching. He has to cut the bushes from the outside too, facing the house, so he can see me scribbling away on my desk. He’ll stand there on his ladder and swing the chainsaw to greet me. He’s a real man, oh yeah.

After I finished high school, I went to the employment center which offered a skill- and interest-questionnaire, based on which one then was recommended a profession. I came out as landscape architect. It made sense – when asked, I said I would like to do something creative that allows me to spend time outdoors and that wouldn’t require many interpersonal skills. I also really like trees.

Then I went and studied math because what the questionnaire didn’t take into account is that I get bored incredibly quickly. I wanted a job that wouldn’t run out of novelty any time soon. Math and theoretical physics sounded just right. I never spent much time thinking about gender stereotypes, it just wasn’t something I regarded relevant. Yes, I knew the numbers, but I honestly didn’t care. Every once in a while I would realize how oddly my voice stood out, look around and realize I was the only women in the room, or one of a few. I still find it an unnatural and slightly creepy situation. But no, I never thought about gender stereotypes.

Now I’m a mother of two daughters and I realized the other day I’ve gone pink-blind. Before I had children, I’d look at little girls thinking I’d never dress my daughters all in pink. But, needless to say, most of the twin’s wardrobe today is pink because it’s either racing cars and soccer players on blue, or flowers and butterflies on pink. Unless you want to spend a ridiculous amount of money on designer clothes your kids will wear maybe once.

The internet is full with upset about girl’s toys that discourage an interest in engineering, unrealistic female body images, the objectification of women in ads and video games, the lack of strong female characters in books and movies. The internet is full with sites encouraging women to accept their bodies, the bodies of mothers with the floppy bellies and the stretch marks, the bodies of real women with the big breasts and the small breasts and the freckles and the pimples – every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top. It’s full with Emma Watson and He for She. It’s full of high pitched voices.

But it isn’t only women who are confronted with stereotypical gender roles and social pressure. Somebody I think must stand up and tell the boys it’s totally okay to become a string theorist, even though they don’t get to swing a chainsaw - let that somebody be me. Science is neither a boy thing nor a girl thing.

So this one is for the boys. Be what you want to be, rise like a phoenix, and witness me discovering the awesomeness of multiband compression. Happy Halloween :)

32 comments:

Phillip Helbig said...

One can be both. I'm currently reading Dennis Overbye's excellent Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos. He describes David Schramm seriously considering whether to become a professional wrestler or a professional astrophysicist.

Phillip Helbig said...

In Italy there is a higher fraction of women in astronomy than in Germany. I once asked a German working in Italy why that is the case. He said that it is because astronomy jobs are so badly paid that no man can support a family from one, so many are occupied by women who have a husband who earns much more, often after their children are in school. This depends, of course, on the man-as-breadwinner model. Moral of the story: just because there is a higher fraction of women in a certain profession doesn't necessarily mean that the corresponding environment is less macho. (In this case, there are more women precisely because the environment is more macho.)

Phillip Helbig said...

"String theory – it’s a girl thing"

Ed Witten has a very high voice. :-)

Phillip Helbig said...

"String theory – it’s a girl thing"

It's socially more acceptable for women to wear strings than men. Not to mention any naked singularities.

Phillip Helbig said...

"I’m not sure how much of his explanation was sarcasm, but I find it odd indeed that theoretical physics is so man-dominated when it’s mostly scribbling on paper, trying to coordinate collaborations and meetings, and staring out of the window waiting for an insight. It seems mostly a historical accident that the majority of physicists today are male."

At the risk of being flamed out of existence, I don't think it is completely impossible that Larry Summers had a point.

Summers claimed that the standard deviation in male IQ is larger than that in female IQ. Even if the average is the same, one will find more men in fields which need a high IQ, such as natural science, playing rock music, chess, writing music etc. It's not just physics: it's 3-star (or 2-star or even 1-star) Michelin chefs, fashion designers, etc.

The skewed perception (mathematically incorrect, but linguistically appropriate) comes from the fact that people talk more about the high tail of the distribution than about the low one. There are also many more men than women who are mentally retarded, who are criminals, who work in badly paid but strenuous jobs and so on. No-one claims this is because of some prejudice against men in society.

ghonada said...

Larry Summers was talking nonsense and so are you because there is no meaningful answer to the following question: what does IQ measure? You are possibly using IQ and intelligence interchangably. Is there a proof that there is any connection between the two? To prove a connection you have to precisely define intelligence.

Another minor point though. A computer software in your computer can beat grandmasters in chess. So what is the IQ of the software?

Phillip Helbig said...

Whatever one thinks of Summers's ideas, the definitions of IQ and intelligence and their relation with one another are irrelevant. "IQ" here is just a placeholder for "whatever abilities one needs to excel in the field in question".

Yes, many men are at the top in society. But any simplistic feminist theory which imputes this to the patriarchy has to explain why there are even more men at the bottom of society.

Giotis said...

et preterea censeo carthago delenda est

ghonada said...

I am sorry, first you tried some cargo-cult science, and now you want to say exactly what? If I may hazard a guess, is your statement something like the following: Exceptionally good scientific ability is more likely to be found in men than women because that is how human beings are.? If yes, then I disagree with you. I believe intellectually there is no difference between men and women. The differences we now seem to see (for example there are more male scientists in physical sciences than female ones) are largely a product of social forces. There is no data to prove either way. Although there is quite a lot of evidence to show that present day society discriminates against women (and blacks and muslims and so on.)

Uncle Al said...

Intelligence is the ability to solve novel problems. Males typically do the heavy lifting because they are driven to create things of importance by being unable to have babies (and to know if that one is theirs).

Males are the majority of autists, bearers of scars, violent criminals, political monsters...violence, blood, compulsion, weapons. NMR would have been delayed many years if a rheostat dial had not been violently spun when the proton resonance for paraffin did not appear at the calculated frequency and magnetic field. The magnet's iron core had saturated.

Women tend do cry, men tend to put their fists through walls. Vengefully twist the firetrucking dial, get a Noble Prize. No problem.

L. Edgar Otto said...

My first impulse is to sit this one out, but deep down I do have a feeling (since newscientist reported women and children look for landmarks to navigate and men grow to rely on maps)... that women can understand the mess the string landscape is in much better than men. So, the career exam was not far from wrong, a landscaper, only it was not so much simply earth bound.

I like the scientific american article that stated it takes ten years to become an expert on anything like reading the great books. "We become the song we sing...) the ancients said and that the price we pay to the gods for a song." Senaca I think.

So our brains are connected differently. A profound result that at both ends of the boring middle- a good point Phillip...the parts of the brain are less connected or more connected bordering on synaethesia. A recent surprise bit of data. What this may mean is that off the mainstream where some people and thoughts are considered not normal that a person can get better or worse in terms of how intellect is used.

My test for career got Philosopher which I embarrassingly admit the councilor may have been right. But in these matters I remain about the individual, not these secondary characteristics.

If science is entering a sort of dark ages note that the work of scientists like monks in the middle ages on the coast of Ireland kept wisdom alive. It seems true women are the culture bearers in general. But for too long the great ladies of the world were known only in the religious orders doing great work.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip,

Yes, good point about the salary being able to support a family. I once talked to one of the few men we have here working at a daycare place and asked him why there are so few men in this profession, and he said it's because it's poorly paid. If you follow that argument further down though it turns out that it's okay for the women because they're either not expected to or don't aspire to being able to feed a family from their income. Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

About the Summers argument: IQ is vastly overrated for scientific success. I know many people who are extremely intelligent by all measures of IQ and yet don't make good scientists, or don't even try to, because they lack other important skills or interests, self-motivation and perseverance I'd think are the most relevant ones. Others are simply too creative or too impatient for academia. Yeah, you need a brain to succeed in science, but that's only a small part of the story.

Besides that, the Summers argument about the outliers makes sense by the numbers but not by cause. Men are much more driven by competition than women, which is likely to explain the longer tail. Yet why that is so and whether that's nature or nurture remains unclear. It is also unclear whether that is good for scientific progress to begin with. If you want to compete with somebody you have to run on the same path and make the same moves, it can greatly hinder innovation. Best,

B.

hush said...

1Alice,

Always a problem after childhood.

What do I do with all this brawn?
(Men)

What do I do with all these brains? (Women)

Those questions still remain
whether you reverse the gender or not.

Did Nature trick or treat you?

Big, bad, brawny, brainless,
Bob

Phillip Helbig said...

" If you follow that argument further down though it turns out that it's okay for the women because they're either not expected to or don't aspire to being able to feed a family from their income."

Right. And part of the blame for this goes to some women, because they avoid "dating down" (yes, there is a word for it). It is not uncommon for the male chief surgeon to marry a female nurse. It is very uncommon for the female chief surgeon to marry a male nurse. Why? Because many women do not want to marry a man who earns less than they do. I don't think the male nurse would object to being married to the female chief surgeon. If society were symmetric, it wouldn't be a problem for men if daycare jobs paid badly, because they could marry a woman earning more as a lawyer or whatever---just like women in daycare marry men who earn more. But the well earning women are not interested in marrying men who don't earn well. Many if not most men would not object to having a wife who earns more than they do.

If you are a man with little money who has a rich wife, you are often seen as being in the relationship just for the money. But, apart from the obvious gold diggers, this allegation is rarely aimed at women whose husband earns more.

Because of daycare and other things to make life with children better, it is easier to support a family as an astronomer than in Italy or Turkey, which ironically means that in Italy or Turkey there are more women in astronomy.

Phillip Helbig said...

"About the Summers argument: IQ is vastly overrated for scientific success. I know many people who are extremely intelligent by all measures of IQ and yet don't make good scientists, or don't even try to, because they lack other important skills or interests, self-motivation and perseverance I'd think are the most relevant ones. Others are simply too creative or too impatient for academia. Yeah, you need a brain to succeed in science, but that's only a small part of the story."

I agree. However, think of "IQ" as just a placeholder for "whatever it takes to succeed". The point is that the tails (on both sides) of this distribution might be wider in men than in women. Certainly it looks that way, and explaining the lack of women in the high tail via the patriarchy but explaining the lack of women in the low tail via genetic inferiority of men is not very convincing.

Women have two X chromosomes. Anything related to them will have wider tails in men because for men they have just one X chromosome, so a trait is there or it is not. With women, there are more possibilities.

I don't know if Summers's idea is the explanation, but anyone who doubts it needs to provide some supporting evidence. Of course, many doubt it because it is politically incorrect, but that is not a good argument in science.

I agree completely with your second paragraph, so I didn't quote it. :-) Just one point. Many argue that men are driven more by competition because they compete for women, whereas women don't need to compete for men. A man can father a thousand children a year until he dies, a woman can have maybe one baby every year or two for a few decades (assuming she lives that long) and in the old days most would not reach adulthood. Although our society is different now, our genes are the same and it would be surprising if this great asymmetry left no mark at all on our behaviour.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Exceptionally good scientific ability is more likely to be found in men than women because that is how human beings are.?"

That is a possibility. Note also the other side of the coin, which many people neglect: exceptionally bad scientific ability is more likely to be found in men than in women because that is how human beings are.

"If yes, then I disagree with you. I believe intellectually there is no difference between men and women."

You can believe whatever you want, but you have to have evidence to convince people that it is true.

"The differences we now seem to see (for example there are more male scientists in physical sciences than female ones) are largely a product of social forces."

There is certainly some evidence of social forces, but not as much as they were in the past, back when Max Planck told Lise Meitner that she couldn't work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because there were no women's toilets there. These days, all public buildings have male and female toilets ("separate but equal"), or have unisex toilets.

"There is no data to prove either way."

In that case, why do you believe what you do?

"Although there is quite a lot of evidence to show that present day society discriminates against women (and blacks and muslims and so on.)"

Certainly. No-one doubts this. This does not prove, however, that all differences are due to discrimination. If this is the explanation, why are there fewer female criminals? Fewer females in jobs which are not only badly paid but also extremely strenuous and/or boring? Why are there fewer women chess grand masters? Are chess players such macho dudes that they don't want any women around? Why are there practically no well known rock bands with female musicians who are not singers, not romantically involved with someone else in the band and not part of a "girl band"? (There is nothing wrong with any of these, but most male rock musicians are not singers, not romantically involved with anyone else in the band, and are not part of a "boy band".) Let's look at that macho profession of cooking: why are most famous chefs men? Because society is prejudiced against women in the kitchen?

And, while we're at it, why do female porno actresses earn much more than their male, err, counterparts?

L. Edgar Otto said...

Just was able to see the video. Another great addition to the growing album that appears to me a new genre.
Multi-compession, sounds like a comment on theory as much as technique.
I tend to see energy questions where they are the heart of things or part of it with the term Phoenix, vaguely.

Nature strives to work out differences but as to if they are asymmetric or equal it is a matter of perspective.

The outfit and expressions were good but I think the lyrics was the strongest part of the video. Nice to be surprised.

Zephir said...

String theory is a culmination of formal approach to physics, which takes theories as an occupation opportunity for mathematicians, not as a tool of experimental falsification. I believe never in future so many intelligent people will do so stupid thing again: to combine the Lorentz symmetry with extradimensions, which will violate it.

L. Edgar Otto said...

Zephir,

That about sums up your concerns and the position for many thinkers.

Not so much an "occupation opportunity" for mathematicians, but a form of archaeology and anthropology in the sense of past or future facts or speculation.

After the first 32 rows of Pascal's triangle do we say the structure of physics comes to an end? A great plateau in the general landscape until far away dimensions and energy is understood? Does it matter if there is a Big Bang or some idea of inflation which comes first in that proposed design? What comes to mind is a triangle with fractal holes that after 31 or 32 values (much like Tegmark's idea of a little console where we can tweak the 32 physical values, parameters) we begin the abstract dimensions of "three generations" of interactions, and so on...

Not one great emptiness in the landscape of physics and experiment but many little ones like the quasars and black holes perhaps. What we mean by Lorentz is the essential part of what forms the unity as physics distinguished in thought from simple arithmetical and built up algebras.

By itself the counting, of which we may no longer doubt we forgot in history can count for nothing really for the unitary view (and this way to see for complex space 3D is one dimensional as part of our understanding of "reality or TOE's".

Sometimes the lost cities our records hint at are really there after all and it makes for good drama and ways to limit groups or individuals to be part of the play. But it is a matter of choice, and a deep belief if your perceptions feel right so one dimensional as it is easy to falsify the landscape of great ideas if we choose to rest on such partial unity.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip:

Yes, maybe the wider tails are genetic, or maybe they are not. The thing is that whenever I look at the data, all I can conclude is that it is very difficult to distinguish between nature and nurture. I don't doubt there are genetic differences between men and women that affect their choices of profession, it would be surprising if it wasn't so. The question is though, how much of what we presently see is explained by this and what isn't. In the end I think we should just encourage everybody to follow their interests and talents regardless of what other people think, which is essentially the point of my video.

I'm not sure women look much at the salary when dating. It is pretty well established that women don't like dating down in terms of IQ, which is correlated with income. See how murky it gets already there.

Best,

B.

PS: And of course women compete for men, I think you have to overhaul your theory.

Phillip Helbig said...

"The question is though, how much of what we presently see is explained by this and what isn't. In the end I think we should just encourage everybody to follow their interests and talents regardless of what other people think, which is essentially the point of my video."

I couldn't agree more. Even if the tails are different, even if the averages were different, individuals should still be judged on individual performance. The average woman is shorter than the average man, but a particular woman might be taller than most men (or indeed all men, though that is not the case at the moment).

"And of course women compete for men, I think you have to overhaul your theory."

Yes, but in a different sense. It's not my theory, by the way. For what it's worth, most of my knowledge of psychology comes from Pinker. [Dons flame-proof suit]

As far as my personal sampling of the distribution goes, I once had a girlfriend who was a surveyor, a field probably even more male-dominated than physics. I also had one who was substantially taller than I am. Another was a millionaire (and I am not). Another was a photo model. 3 of 8 were older than I, some substantially so (8--10 years). But there were a couple of young nurses as well. I'm now married to a language teacher who is 9 years younger. Variety is the spice of life. :-)

Phillip Helbig said...

Should I have said "underlying distribution"? :-D

Remember, old statisticians never die---they are just broken down by age and sex.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Phillip,

Well, I'm happy we can have a reasonable exchange about this because unfortunately my experience has mostly been that I get shouted down by both the women and the men if I do as much as suggest that some of the gender imbalance we see has genetic roots.

Evolutionary psychology is a big pile of crap. It probably has some truth to it here and there, but I'm not interested enough to sift through Pinker's crap to find the coin he might have swallowed if you excuse the metaphor. I agree with Pinker though that one shouldn't discard scientific truths for ideological reasons.

If I sample over my boyfriends (men-I-slept-with would be more accurate though) they're all a) taller than me b) older than me and c) at least as intelligent as me, based on my own judgement. In other words, I've been dating the tail ;) In terms of salary, I think on the average they make more or less the same as me, some a little less, some more. I'm a millionaire in Sweden Krona ;) Best,

B.

Phillip Helbig said...

I haven't done the statistics on the women-I've-slept-with (though I suspect that the distribution is similar). Don't want to push the limits of the comment box. :-)

Uncle Al said...

http://news.sciencemag.org/social-sciences/2014/11/new-paper-asserting-sexism-science-over-stirs-pot
Note Comment

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boudica

Discrimination creates superior survivors joyful in conquest. Pressure makes diamonds. Mediocrity is a vice of the doomed.

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Too much information from Don Giovanni?

Phillip Helbig said...

"Evolutionary psychology is a big pile of crap."

I wouldn't go that far. There are many optical illusions which depend on people judging vertical lines as longer than horizontal lines when both are the same length. Explaining this as a survival tactic, erring on the side of caution when estimating heights, is an evolutionary-psychology explanation but, as far as I know, pretty much accepted. It makes sense, and there is, as far as I know, no other explanation. Ditto for red (blood) being often used to indicate danger. Of course, one can't prove them mathematically, or even test them as one would a hypothesis in physics, but that is true of much or even most of evolutionary theory and it is still a science.

Evolutionary-psychology explanations for the fact that polygyny is a more common form of polygamy than polyandry, again, seem to make sense and I am aware of no other explanation.

Many people might be familiar with a cartoon/cardboard idea of evolutionary psychology. If it's as inaccurate as, say, popular-science portrayals of quantum gravity, then the "pile of crap" impression is perhaps justified, but it applies to this popularized version, not the "real thing".

History shows that science has often been abused by those with an axe to grind, but one must evaluate the science itself, not what people make of it, which is perhaps severely distorted.

L. Edgar Otto said...

Phillip,

Every pile of crap has its marsh gas. Perhaps the illusion is that size does not matter after all. :-)

hush said...

Alice,

We are reintroducing facultative parthenogenesis in humans.

(Small wonder considering all the complaints brought up here.)

The beginning was ironically introduced from a woman in a men dominated field:

Dr. Elena Revazova


The gipfel of irony is a "discredited South Korean [MALE!!]scientist Hwang Woo-Suk [who]unknowingly produced the first human embryos resulting from parthenogenesis."

(Wiki quickie quote)

Which returns us back to the first sentence opening up this particular blog.

"One can be both." - Phillip Helbig

(Parsimonious entanglement)

From both,
Bob and Alice

Wes Hansen said...

So what are your thoughts on the "Breaking Bad" action figure, complete with bags of methamphetamine and cash, at the local Toys are Us? It's promoting chemistry or chemical engineering, right? California dreaming . . .

Phillip Helbig said...

"Evolutionary psychology is a big pile of crap. It probably has some truth to it here and there, but I'm not interested enough to sift through Pinker's crap to find the coin he might have swallowed if you excuse the metaphor. I agree with Pinker though that one shouldn't discard scientific truths for ideological reasons."

I think this summary provides a good overview. Even if some people draw some dubious conclusions from it, the field itself is no bunk.