Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Transparent solar cells: cool, but not world-changing

I've been seeing a lot of buzz about the visibly transparent photovoltaic cells developed at UCLA. The press release is here, and the ACS Nano paper is here (behind a paywall, sorry). This is very cool technology with some really interesting and useful applications, but some of the superlatives I've seen to describe it, like "this could change the world," make me think that people may not quite understand the capabilities of this technology.

Quite simply, you will not be able to put this on your windows and power your house. The efficiency, ~4%, is just too low, though it is typical of organic polymer PV. (For photovoltaic technology, the efficiency is the proportion of electric energy delivered by the system to the optical energy that was incident on the system.) For comparison, conventional flat panel silicon is usually around 15-20% efficient. On the low cost side of things, thin film panels are around 8-12% efficient, and on the high-cost side, multijunction cells are >40% You can see the record efficiencies in the chart below. (To be clear, these are the world records for various technologies, and only include the cell itself, not any other losses in a complete system. Commercial units have lower performance.)
(Image from National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

Why is the efficiency of the UCLA technology so low? Most of the reason is obvious: the cells are transparent. The paper cites the transparency in the visible spectrum as 61-66%, depending on wavelength. In other words, almost two-thirds of visible light is passing directly through the photovoltaic. This light cannot possibly be converted into electrical energy.

Furthermore, not all photons are created equal. The energy of a photon is proportional to its frequency. So, high-frequency ultraviolet light has more energy than visible light, which has more energy than infrared light. The IR light being targeted by this photovoltaic simply has very low energy, though the UV light also being converted is high-energy.

Of course, the energy from one photon doesn't give you the whole picture. You also care about the total number of photons in order to get the total power. So what is the distribution of power across the solar spectrum?

(Image from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab)

The highest intensity is in the visible range, which makes sense. Our eyes evolved to be most sensitive to the highest intensity light emitted from the sun. Now, you might point out that there is a lot of energy in the infrared range. While the power for a given wavelength isn't that high, the range of infrared wavelengths adds up to a lot of energy. But according to the paper, this cell can't convert light over 900 nm*. So even if the cell gets more efficient, the total power it could possibly deliver is limited.

I should add here that the researchers obviously are aware that transparent phovoltaics won't have high efficiency. There are some great applications driving this kind of technology. While windows from these cells won't eliminate your energy bill, they will lower it. Plus, since they're absorbing IR light, your house will heat up less, and you'll need less air-conditioning. Integrating this technology with electronics is even more interesting. Think of the typical solar-powered calculator. Instead of having that little strip of PV cells, the actual display can serve as the power source, freeing up real estate on the front of the device. And just imagine using this on a cell phone! You could use the screen of your phone to help keep it charged during the day.

In the end, this is some very clever technology that will have a number of useful applications, but don't expect to see your windows powering your whole house.

*Changing the materials in order to accept longer wavelength, lower frequency light will reduce the amount of energy captured from higher frequency light. I'll have a post later just on this concept, but for now, you'll have to trust me.

(Edited to use a different image of the solar spectrum. The first one I used had some outdated information on it.)

"Big boobs" hidden in code

Lousy Canuck has a post up about some rather immature behavior from programmers at Microsoft. A constant in some Linux code was defined as 0xB16B00B5, which means "Big Boobs."

Is this juvenile and silly? Yes. Is it also harmful? Yes. This is just another papercut contributing to a chilly culture for women in STEM. The brogrammer culture actually makes me wonder if women in computer science have one of the toughest environments to deal with.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Goodbye, Sally Ride

There are precious few women in STEM fields who have truly achieved icon status, and now we have one fewer. Sally Ride has passed away from cancer at the age of 61. In addition to her own impressive achievements as an astronaut, she did so much to encourage girls to be interested in science. The world is truly worse off to no longer have her in it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pamela Gay is amazing

I'll write up more about my experience at TAM later, but I have to direct your attention to the outstanding talk given by Pamela Gay. She has posted the text here: http://www.starstryder.com/2012/07/15/make-the-world-better/

This talk received the loudest and longest standing ovation of any talk that I attended at TAM. I was in tears, as were many others in the crowd. I went to thank her after the speech, and started crying again. She gave me a big hug.

This was so incredibly brave. While the crowd was overwhelmingly in support of her talk, I know she also pissed off people. I know she pissed off powerful people. I know she risked a lot to do this, and she did it for me.

Not like, me individually, but all the women like me: young women in science and skepticism who don't have the connections or support to be able to fight back. She is genuinely fighting to make the world a better place for those of us with less power than her. She is absolutely amazing.

I am writing this post while wearing my brand-new "Stopping harassment starts here " shirt. You can get your own by emailing Pamela. 

And however we choose to do it, we can all make the world a better place. Whenever you have the chance to stand up for those less powerful than yourself, do it.

I promise, it will mean the world to them.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Defense Date!

I have officially set my PhD defense date for the first week of September. I have a date for becoming Eskeptrical Engineer, PhD.

It's weird to have five years of graduate school drawing to a close, but I don't have much time to think about because, oh god, I have so much to do!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Affordable Care Act is upheld!

Oh, thank goodness. In a vote of 5-4, with Roberts surprisingly going left and Kennedy going right, the US Supreme Court has upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The decision is here.

As someone with a pre-existing condition, this is such a relief.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Women in Secularism 2!

Melody Hensley announced today that the second Women in Secularism conference will be May 17-19th, and held again in the DC area.

I'm really going to try to make it to this one. I followed all the coverage of last year's conference, and it sounded amazing. Ashley Miller listed the highlights here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Light posting this week

I'm currently in that phase of job-hunting where I'm actually interviewing, which is great! But preparing my talk and so forth is taking up a lot of time, so I don't expect much of substance this week.

I do plan to start my science posts off with a multi-part series on solar power, which should next week or the week after.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

On privilege

"Privileged" is not an insult.

When someone points out that you are privileged in some way, they are not calling you a bad person. They are not calling you unintelligent or uncaring. They are not saying that you have had an easy life, or even that you have had an easier life than every member of the marginalized population being discussed.

What they are saying is that there are certain things you've simply never had to think about because of you are. These are things that other people have to think about because of who they are.

Let me give you an example.

I was a campus tour guide in college. One day, I had a prospective student in my group who used a wheelchair. The tour started off normally. But something went wrong just after we passed the Student Health Center. The end of a long sidewalk didn't have a slope. There was no way for the high schooler in the wheelchair to get down from the sidewalk to cross the street. He had to travel all the way back along the sidewalk to the side that did have a slope, then come back down the street to rejoin the group.

I was mortified. It was such an obvious sign of the campus not being fully wheelchair-accessible, and right by the Student Health Center of all places. This student could have been embarrassed to have everyone have to wait for him, and he couldn't have had a great impression of the school.

But you know what? I had probably crossed the street at that location hundreds of times prior to this incident. And I had never noticed the lack of a slope in the sidewalk.

That is my able-bodied privilege.

Since I don't have mobility concerns, I simply did not register that the sidewalk at that particular intersection wasn't wheelchair-accessible. I just stepped over it without thinking.

So when someone calls you out on your privilege, something like this is what they're talking about. The curb that you've metaphorically stepped over without realizing it is a much bigger problem to someone else. The very best thing that you can do is to realize that things exist that you don't notice simply because you don't need to, but that other people do. Just listen to them.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Phenomenauts are with Neil!

I've been really excited to see one of my favorite NorCal bands, the Phenomenauts, get attention all over the Internet with their music video ode to Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Neil himself seems somewhat bemused by the tribute.

They put on a hell of a live show, so I strongly recommend seeing them perform if you have the chance. Any skeptic has to be a fan of "Science and Honor," and who doesn't want to sing along to "Earth is the Best."

How humanities and social sciences benefit STEM

I'm sure everyone saw the terrible video posted yesterday promoting the "Science; it's a girl thing!" campaign. Deborah Blum has a thorough collection of the responses here, and I'm not sure I have anything to add on why the video is so problematic. (The video has been taken down, by the way.)

I thought it was really interesting to see this the same day: stories from girls at Stuyvesant High School, where all students are required to take a year of computer science coursework. I noticed a really interesting trend. Many of the girls described themselves as being equally interested in both the humanities and STEM, and don't want to have to choose. However, Victoria Stempel, who had always considered herself more interested in the humanities, describes the problem:
 "Now that I know about the potenial of comp sci, I am considering taking it in college. However, I do not want to abandon the path I have been interested in pursuing for a long time. Ideally, this would mean double majoring in English and computer science. Unfortunately, some universities with muliple colleges house these two subjects in different schools (ex: UPenn, Binghamton), making double majoring in a liberal arts course and an engineering course almost impossible. Due to this issue, I am very conflicted as to which path to take in life—or even which specific colleges to apply to within larger universities!"
I hate that girls (and boys too, for that matter) feel like they have to decide between the humanities/social sciences and STEM. I suspect this partly contributes to why girls don't see themselves going into science and engineering. Not a single girl featured in this piece said anything about high heels or makeup, but they did talk about their interests in English and art. I strongly believe that not only are the humanities and social sciences compatible with STEM, they can make you better at it. And I say that as an electrical engineer who also did a minor in Communications and spent all of college in various music ensembles.

I don't mean for this to be exhaustive, but here are some of the ways that a background in other areas can help you as an engineer:

Communications/English/Literature: Okay, every high school student who thinks that you don't have to pay attention in English class because you're going to be an engineer and you won't need it? You are wrong. You are so, unbelievably, wrong. Engineers write constantly. They write for other engineers, and they write for lay audiences. If you want to be an engineering professor, I think you will write more than you will do anything else. You need to be able to write well. And more generally, you need to be able to communicate well. Engineers present their work in conferences and meetings, so you need to be able to describe your work effectively and concisely. Anything you can study that will improve your writing or communication skills will benefit you as an engineer.

Foreign languages/International Relations/Cultural Studies: It is a global market these days. If you have fluency in another language, you will be very marketable as an engineer. Even without being bilingual, understanding other cultures will help you understand how technology might be used in other countries, or at least how to approach the problems.

Art/Design: A lot of engineers physically make things. If you can make your devices, whether prototypes or commercial products, look nice, you will have a huge leg up on people like me who make functional but ugly devices. People will be more impressed with a technology when it looks polished and finessed. Plus, many skills you'll learn in doing art will simply help you make products. I did some plastic-forming for a prototype, and a lot of the resources I used for learning this process were for artists. Even if you don't do fabrication, a strong sense of design will help you with posters and presentations about your work, which brings us back to the first point: effective communication.

Psychology/Sociology: You can't just make the best technology to be successful. You have to make technology that people want to buy. Understanding how people use technology is crucial. This also gets into business and marketing types of decisions, but I think any areas of social science that help you understand people better will help you understand how to make better technology.

History: I wrote a whole post on how a history class helped me really understand science. Having a background in  history can give you a much broader look at technology: how it's changed society and how it hasn't. A long-term perspective lets you see better where technology is headed. My current institution has an excellent History of Science program, and it's fascinating to hear about these students' work.

Again, this isn't exhaustive, but I wanted to give a few examples of how compatible humanities, social sciences, and STEM really are.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Learning to be wrong

My department had our recruitment weekend a couple of months ago, where admitted students to the PhD program could visit labs, interview with faculty, chat with current graduate students, and generally get a feel for the campus and the city. One prospective student asked several of us to list our best, worst, and most surprising moments of graduate school. I was interested to find that all of us had basically the same answer for worst moment: the project that went wrong.

My story fit the theme. I worked on an experiment for the better part of a year that ultimately didn't work. Couldn't work actually. I eventually was able to prove that the approach would never work.

This seriously threw me for a loop. I had a really hard time recovering and moving on to the next project. Maybe that seems silly to you, but almost all of my colleagues had a similar story. We can all speak about the project that simply failed.

Students in a PhD program typically excelled in both high school and college coursework. But a PhD is something completely different. You are doing original research. There are no longer answers in the back of the book. Your advisor can't tell you what's going to happen. Nor can other experts.

You just have to try it, and sometimes, you're going to be wrong.

It's in many ways the hardest thing to learn as a PhD student, but I think it's also one of the most important. It seems that Silicon Valley feels the same way, to the point that there even exists a conference specifically on failed ventures.

Ultimately, there's not much reward without risk. Sometimes, that means you fail. But sometimes, it works as well or even better than you predicted.

And that is the best part of a PhD.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Has everyone seen this adorable video of a duckling running?

Holy crap, it is adorable.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Science is a verb now

When I think back to my favorite classes I took in college, I could mention those that I got the most useful information from or that I had the most fun in. But I always think of one class in particular that changed the way I see science: Science in the Renaissance.

Part of my freshman honors program, this class covered the scientific breakthroughs of the Renaissance, but also covered scientific beliefs of the classical era in order to show the progression to Renaissance discoveries.

This was the first time I had a class that presented science as a process: not just a list of laws and equations, but the stories behind them. Who figured these concepts out? What experiments proved them? What did everyone believe before then? What other theories existed?

Science isn't a bunch of static equations. It's a way of trying to understand the world around us. It can be messy or frustrating or sometimes lead us in wrong directions, but it's still the best way we have of finding the truth.

The process is what really makes up science, not the results.

(Title is referencing this.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What do you want to know about optics?

Hello readers!

I'd like to start writing some more background science and technology posts. Specifically, I'll be writing about topics in optics and photonics. (Generally, light and light--based technology.)

This is where you come in! What topics are you interested in hearing about? Do you have any specific topics you'd like to read about or questions you want answered?

Some possibilities are solar power, lasers, fiber optics, lenses and prisms, or basic properties of light. I can also take on other topics from physics and electrical engineering if you have questions about those.

So please let me know what you want to know! Leave a comment, shoot me an email, or send me a tweet (@EskeptricalEng).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

My first election

I turned eighteen in the winter of my senior year of high school. My civics teacher kept a stack of voter registration forms in his classroom, and I proudly filled one out the week of my birthday, even though it would be several months until the next election, a gubernatorial primary.

I remember getting that first election booklet in the mail. I remember scrutinizing all the candidates' statements and carefully marking up my sample ballot.

I went with my dad to the polls the evening of the election. He proudly told the poll worker that this was my first time voting. She gave me her congratulations.

I copied my choices from my sample ballot onto the real one and turned it in. I wore my cheerful "I voted!" sticker the rest of the night.

Ten years later, I have never missed an election.

My parents still check in with me to see if I voted. My politics are quite different from theirs and, quite honestly, my dad and I could both stay home on election day for the same net effect. But we all believe that it's so important to go out and vote.

And it is important.

Gary Kreep, an extreme right-wing attorney and birther extraordinaire, ran this year for a position as a superior court judge in California. At the end of election day, he was winning over his opponent Garland Peed by 56 votes. With fewer than half of the absentee votes counted, Peed now leads Kreep by just over a thousand votes, 50.18% to 49.83%.

It is still too close to call the race.

A few tenths of a percent will decide this race. On election day, it was less than a hundred votes difference.

Your vote matters. Use it.

(Ed blogged about the Kreep/Peed race, though he mistook election day results as final.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Goodbye, Ray Bradbury

io9 is reporting that Ray Bradbury has passed away at the age of 91.

Inspired by my favorite Bradbury book, Dandelion Wine, I think I'll take a moment to remember that I'm alive.

“I’m ALIVE. Thinking about it, noticing it, is new. You do things and don’t watch. Then all of a sudden you look and see what you’re doing and it’s the first time, really.”

Sunday, May 27, 2012


I scoured the biography sections of my local used bookstores today in search of a copy of David Leavitt's The Man who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer, this month's Skepchick Book Club selection. (I ended up special-ordering it.)

One local store has an entire section of science biographies, which is awesome! I did notice something disappointing though. Out of all the science biographies, only two were about women, and both (Galileo's Daughter and Einstein's Daughter) were certainly framed to be about their famous fathers rather than their own contributions to science. I'll acknowledge that I haven't read either book, but the titles alone reveal something about how the reader is supposed to view the subject.

There's certainly nothing wrong with writing about Sagan or Feynman or Einstein. They're all interesting and complex men who made major contributions to science. But there's also no shortage of interesting women scientists. Off the top of my head: Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Lise Meitner, Hypatia, and I could keep going for a while*.

The point is, there's not a lack of biographies about women in science due to a lack of interesting subjects.  But when we don't tell the stories of women in science, we undervalue women in science generally. It's part of why people don't think of women "Champions of Reason." It's part of why girls have trouble thinking of themselves as scientists. It's part of a culture that generally just doesn't value the stories of women.

Women do much more in science than simply have famous fathers, and we need to start telling their stories more.

*I do seem to have a physical science bias here, just due to my own interests!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not just skepticism/atheism

So at the completely awesome-sounding Women in Skepticism conference (I was unable to attend, but I'll echo the call that I hope there's another one), Jen McCreight mentioned in a panel that women attendees at other conferences had taken her aside and mentioned prominent speakers who she, as a young woman, should steer clear of.

This is now being discussed all over the place. Stephanie Zvan has a couple of great posts, and I've been following the discussions at Pharyngula and Greta Christina's blog as well. It seems like many commenters, and well, they mostly seem to be men, are absolutely shocked to hear that such conversations happen. It seems to be a combination of not expecting atheist speakers to be sleazy and not understanding why women don't publicly name offenders.

While I haven't had this particular conversation (TAM this year will be my first skeptic con), I am not surprised to hear that it happens.

Because I've heard it elsewhere.

When I was looking at graduate programs*, I definitely remember female grad students getting a moment alone with me to quietly say "Hey, as a woman, you really don't want to be in Dr. XYZ's lab."

This problem is not limited to atheism/skepticism.

Now, were these unproven accusations? From my perspective, sure. I wasn't given a sworn statement on what had happened for that kind of message to get out. But I can't imagine that people would be demanding incontrovertible proof for graduates students quietly letting prospects know that "Dr. Jones is a total workhouse; prepare to be in lab every weekend" or "Dr. Smith has had problems with consistent funding" or even "Dr. Brown has a reputation for being less than honest with data collection." Maybe those things aren't true either, but it's generally unlikely that grad students would have an incentive to lie here. This kind of honest feedback is half the point of visiting campuses. And a graduate student has an incredibly hard time making any kind of complaint against their advisor. I can easily see why women would simply grit their teeth, get through the degree, and quietly warn any other women away from the lab.

So for everyone who has been astonished to find about these quiet warnings, please realize that this isn't the only context where this happens. I'd imagine that it's actually sadly common given the prevalent sexism in our society that some men with power will take advantage of their status and women without power will perceive little recourse other than this: make sure other women know to stay away from this person.

This is not a problem unique to the secular community. It's problem with sexism that the skeptic/atheist community simply isn't immune from.

But I'd love to see real solutions for this come from the secular community. Make sure to read all the links up top to see great suggestions for future cons.

*Just to be clear, no one had this conversation with me in my current program, I haven't experienced any harassment from faculty in my current program, and I haven't heard of any other woman who has. I have never needed to be the instigator of this conversation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


The new Oatmeal comic reminded me of this conversation from an outreach event to get girls interested in science:

Girl 1: "Who's your favorite scientist?"
Me: "I would say Nikola Tesla"
Girl 2: "Didn't he marry a pigeon?"

Also, no one can beat Hark, A Vagrant for Tesla comics.

#MadPicLab Day 14: Surly

Here is a surly hound dog, howling because he wants a walk. ROOO!!!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 9: Conductor

This slide is coated in indium tin oxide, one of my favorite materials! It's both optically transparent and electrically conductive. Well, it's not perfectly transparent or conductive, but it's pretty darn good at both, which is still rare to find.

Monday, May 7, 2012

#MdPicLab Day 7: Lemons

The best use of lemons: in a drink! Two whiskey sours, or maybe whiskeys sour. I'm not quite sure how to pluralize that.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 5: Dancing

This is my beagle mix, dancing like Snoopy. There may have been treats involved.

Long Hair in the Lab

A few weeks ago, I arrived in lab planning to do some chemical processing, but realized I'd forgotten a key part of my safety equipment. I already needed to go by the chemistry stock room for some other supplies, but while one could find all manner of gloves, goggles, masks, and labcoats, my missing piece of safety equipment wasn't there.

I was able to find what I needed at the campus general store for a mere two dollars: a pack of hair ties.

Why aren't hair ties included with safety gear like gloves and goggles? For those of us with long hair, that little band of elastic is crucial for lab safety. While I'm certainly aware that there are men with long hair and women with short hair, I can't help but think that the pattern I've noticed of the failure of lab equipment to accommodate long hair is related to the low number of women in STEM.

And it is definitely a pattern.

My old lab required everyone to wear laser safety glasses whenever a high-powered laser was on (known as the lab going "eye-unsafe"). I was one of three female students in lab, and we would race for the one pair of laser glasses with a plastic clasp in the back. All the other glasses has a metal clasp that would tangle in long hair. The lab was initially all men, none of whom had long hair, and I don't think it ever occurred to whoever purchased the glasses that metal clasps would be a problem.

I sometimes work in a cleanroom. I have yet to figure out how to get my hair inside the so-called bunny suit comfortably. The hood has to tuck into the suit itself, and I always have a weird lump wherever I try putting my bun. I can't just leave my hair down because I have to have a hairnet on under the hood. Whoever designed these cleanroom suits clearly did not account for users with long hair.

I wrote before that "[w]here sexism in STEM was once a stab in the back, it’s now more like death by a thousand papercuts. It’s these countless tiny messages that seem like nothing to worry about when taken individually, but add up to clearly tell women that we don’t belong."

When lab equipment doesn't accommodate long hair, that's yet another papercut telling women that we don't belong in the lab.

Friday, May 4, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 4: Patina

My husband bought me this necklace on our honeymoon. It's my most worn piece of jewelry other than my wedding/engagement rings. It's much less shiny than it used to be, but I actually think the patina gives it a cool look.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 3: Paint

This is a picture of titanium dioxide nanoparticles suspended in alcohol on a glass slide. The alcohol evaporates quickly, so it's pretty effective paint. Titanium dioxide particles are actually a fairly common ingredient in white paint as well as toothpaste, sunscreen, and a number of other common household products.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 2: Element

The first of all the elements: hydrogen!

Yes, you do use algebra.

I like today's xkcd for sticking up for math, but it does bring up one of my pet peeves: people who claim that most adults don't ever use algebra.

If you are reading this post right now, you almost certainly use algebra regularly. It may not look like the "solve for 'x'" problems you saw in high school, but you use it.

Have you ever split bills with roommates? "Amanda paid the cable/Internet bill, Sara paid the power bill, and I paid the phone bill. How do we split up rent to get back to even?" Yeah, that's totally algebra.

How about splitting up a restaurant bill? "I split the artichoke dip with four other people and a bottle of wine with two other people, I had the pasta dish for an entree, and I split a dessert with one other person. My share with tax and tip comes to..."

Have you ever compared prices at a store? "The package with 6 rolls of paper towels is $3, but the package with 10 rolls is $4, so that one is a better price per roll."

This is all algebra. It's a crucial part of mathematical literacy, and it's simply not true that most people won't use it. And if you know anyone currently taking algebra, help them realize how important it is to learn!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 1: Spectrum

Well, here's a way to get me to post more!  Mad Art Lab has a very cool group project for the month of May. Every day, you share a photo based on a set theme (#MadPicLab). Today is "Spectrum."

Here is how the world looks through a prism:

It had to be done.

Guess what day today is?

(Definitely not safe for work.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Really, University of Florida?

I'm still job-hunting, hence the continued lack of content. But I can't let this story pass by without comment.

University of Florida is closing down its computer science department, at a savings to the university of $1.7 million. In what I'm sure is entirely unrelated news, the university's athletics budget has been increased by $2 million.

And here I thought this piece in the Onion was satire. Instead, it was just ahead of its time.

As it happens, I actually love college sports. But funding them at the expense of academic departments is completely counter to the mission of universities. And while a department can certainly have run its course, there is absolutely no way that this is true for any computer science department right now.

Computer science is in that wonderful academic sweet spot of fast-paced, ground-breaking research combined with ample job opportunities. Many jobs outside the area of software engineer are increasingly requiring programming skills. And have you looked at the job market lately? I recently attended an engineering career fair at my school, and let me tell you who's hiring. Facebook. Hulu. Pixar. Microsoft. Apple. Google. The list goes on. While I'm searching for one of the few and far between hardware jobs, the computer science students have it made.

And University of Florida, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that they don't need a CS department.

This is atrocious. You can follow the students' struggle to save their department here.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Why no new posts?

I haven't completely given up on blogging after a couple of months. I'm just focusing a lot of time into my job hunt, since I plan to graduate this year, while still getting enough lab work done to actually graduate this year. Blogging ranks pretty low in the priority list.

I have a few posts in the works, and I plan to post more regularly in the near future.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Weekly Links

3D printing used to replace woman's jaw
This is really cool. Doctors were able to create a titanium jaw using a 3d printer to replace a woman's infected one.

Ten-year-old Clara Lazen built a model of a never-before-seen molecule in a science class. Her teacher passed it along to a chemist at Humboldt State. It turns out to be similar to nitroglycerin, but with a different structure. Clara is a co-author on the paper.

Science depends on engineering
I touched on this concept in Is engineering science? Scientific progress is made possible through engineering advancements.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hell yes!

Proposition 8 has been ruled unconstitutional!

This decision is limited in scope to California, and will likely be appealed, but it's nice to get a win!

I'll be watching Poliglot today for all the legal details.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Is engineering science?

Science, technology, engineering, and math get mashed together into “STEM” pretty often.
But they are separate fields. And while some engineers identify themselves as scientists, others say outright that engineering isn’t science.

So do I think that engineering is science?


I know; that’s a cheater answer.

In their pure, Platonic forms, Science and Engineering do have somewhat different purposes. Science is fundamentally about answering a question, while Engineering is fundamentally about solving a problem.

Even in these pure, separate forms though, the two areas necessarily interact.

Scientists use technology to conduct experiments in order to figure out how the world works. Engineers use scientific principles in order to create better technology. I almost feel like you can’t even have one without the other. There’s only so many gedankenexperiments you can do before you have perform a physical experiment using, say, a microscope, a spectrometer, or a position sensor. And engineers are going to have a hard time making any technological advancements without concepts from science directing them.

But the line between science and engineering is lot blurrier than even this explanation makes it sound.

Take nanowires as an example. Keeping up with Moore’s Law requires us to make circuitry smaller and smaller, to the point where we’re now looking at transistors that are about 20 nanometers and wires only a couple of nanometers wide. This seems like it’s obviously engineering. It’s new, cutting-edge technology.

But we’re still figuring out how physics works for components this small. You have to start worrying about quantum effects. Heck, you even need to confirm if Ohm’s Law works at this scale.

You can’t study this technology without studying the physics, and you can’t study the physics without studying the technology. I don’t see a clear division between the science and the engineering.

It’s true that the typical engineer working in industry probably doesn’t do what we would call science. But I don’t think that the typical chemist working in industry is necessarily doing science either. And I think any academic research in engineering is almost always science, since it’s nearly impossible to do that kind of cutting edge work without being at the edge of what we know about how things work.

So, as a field, is engineering science?

At the very least, there’s a whole lot of overlap.

I apologize for the paywalls. I'll try to find some good open access sources on nanowires to update this post.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shame on you, Susan G. Komen Foundation

The Susan G. Komen Foundation has halted all grants to Planned Parenthood totaling well over half a million dollars. These grants were used for breast cancer screenings.

Shame on SGK for putting politics ahead of their stated mission of fighting breast cancer.

Here are some suggestions of what you can do.

I just made a donation to Planned Parenthood, and I'm a starving grad student. What can you do to help?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Weekly Links

Hooray for science!

Coughs, colds, and the "appealing but mistaken concept of boosting the immune system"
Erik Davis explains how there is no evidence that it's possible to generally boost your immune system. (Vaccinations, of course, can specifically boost your immune system's ability to fight off a particular virus.)

Five shots against global warming denialism
Phil Plait goes over current events in the fight against climate change denialism.

Why blocking roads can speed up traffic
Jesse Galef demonstrates the incredibly counterintuitive Braess' Paradox. It's actually possible to reduce traffic by closing off a connecting road. The math looks sound!

Okay, but how do touch screens actually work?
Great explanation of the various mechanisms for touch screen technology. I actually hadn't heard of the frustrated total internal reflection design, which allow for much larger touch screens.

FYI: How long-running is the longest-running lab experiment?
Eighty-five years as it turns out. A professor at University of Queensland set up a funnel of tar pitch to prove to his students that it was a liquid. So far, nine drops have fallen.

Aw, man

You may have read about how the Wall Street Journal published a climate change denial editorial signed by 16 scientists, while rejecting a climate change editorial signed by 255 members of the National Academy of Scientists.

Roy Grubb reveals the backgrounds of those 16 scientists who signed the WSJ letter.

You probably know where I'm going with this.

Yes, there are two electrical engineers, as well as an aerospace engineer on the list. Plus, one of the physicists works in optics, which actually makes him the one I'm most likely to come across at a conference.

Needless to say, the typical EE does not have any particular expertise in climate science. Aside from being a logical fallacy, I'm not even sure how the argument from authority is supposed to work when you quite clearly aren't an authority in the area. 

Friday, January 27, 2012


I, along with over 700,000 other people, follow George Takei on Facebook, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him repost this picture. Takei is a Buddhist, not an atheist, but it's still nice to see someone who's a fairly beloved public figure be willing to say something critical of religion.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lena: A follow-up

The images in the post on Lena were from USC's Signal and Image Processing Institute's Database, which has most of the commonly used images for image processing work. Check out the miscellaneous section, where has images of people.

Notice anything?

There is one picture of a man, named "Man."

There is one picture of a man and a woman, labeled "Couple."

There are six pictures of women, three named "Girl" and three called "Girl (first name)." You can choose to work with Lena, Elaine, or Tiffany*.

So not only are we directly juxtaposing the word girl with the word man while talking about adults, but the gender ratio is quite skewed. The people doing the image processing are mostly men, and the subjects of the images are mostly women.

It really does give the impression that for a woman, it's easier to make a name for yourself in image processing by posing for a picture than by writing an algorithm.

*Looking at the Tiffany image also makes me think that Lena is not the only centerfold used in image processing examples.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Weekly Links

This story is too bootylicious for me
An Australian scientist names a "bootylicious" fly after Beyonce. Elle explains why this is messed up.

Ellen gives brilliant homeless girl totally deserved scholarship
If you read about Samantha Garvey, the Intel Science Fair semi-finalist who's currently living in a shelter, you'll be happy to know Ellen and AT&T have pitched in $50,000 for her college education.

Evil Little Shirts
Speaking of awesome teenagers, support the Jessica Ahlquist Scholarship Fund by buying your very own "Evil Little Thing" shirt!

Saturday, January 21, 2012


When you take an image processing class, you are likely to come across a few standard test images. This image of peppers is extremely common for basic processing.

It has nice bright colors and big blocky features, so it’s pretty easy to work with.

Then you’ll probably want to move on to something with much finer detail, like this baboon.

The high frequency components (small features) make this an excellent contrast to the peppers image. You’ll see how different filters and whatnot work when applied to small details as compared to the large objects.

But in real life, an awful lot of photographs are of people. So you’ll undoubtedly want to try these techniques you’re learning on an image of a person. And you will very likely use this one.

This is a great image in terms of trying different techniques. There are a variety of colors and textures. There are high spatial frequency components with the feathers in her hat and her hair. There are large objects (low spatial frequency components) with her face and her exposed shoulder.

But in the complete original image, she has a whole lot more exposed.

You are looking at Playboy’s Miss November of 1972, Lena Soderberg.

That’s right: a couple of researchers at USC back in the ‘70s were tired of the available test images and so scanned a recent centerfold. This image is now one of the most common images used in both image processing coursework and research. The industry, as I imagine you’re aware, is still predominantly men.

Let that sink in for a minute.

A female student taking an image processing class, surrounded mostly by male classmates and most likely being taught by a male professor, will learn how to do basic manipulations on an image taken from Playboy.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the use of this image is sexist in itself. For one thing, it’s not like it’s immediately obvious where the image came from, and you may be effectively forced to use the image if you’re trying to directly compare your work to someone else’s, and they used that image.

But that fact remains that a male-dominated field uses a Playboy centerfold as one of its standard images, and I find that to be incredibly problematic.

Women in STEM fields have made enormous progress in the last few decades. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have further to go. Where sexism in STEM was once a stab in the back, it’s now more like death by a thousand papercuts. It’s these countless tiny messages that seem like nothing to worry about when taken individually, but add up to clearly tell women that we don’t belong.

The Guerilla Girls have a poster that asks “Do women have to be naked to get into US museums? Less than 3% of the artists in the Met. Museum are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.”

It would seem that image processing has a similar problem.

Read more:

Images are from:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Weekly Links


Stephanie Zvan discusses compliments, intimacy, and negotiating boundaries.

How to read a scientific paper

Chad Orzel does a great job laying out the format of a journal paper, as well as the different types of papers. I really wish I could have read this when I started grad school.

Mary Ellen Avery, premature babies’ savior, dies at 84

An awesome woman I had never heard of passed away recently. Dr. Mary Ellen Avery made a crucial discovery on why so many premature infants die from respiratory distress: their bodies don’t always produce the surfactant that full term babies do, causing their lungs to fill with foam. Her work is estimated to have saved hundreds of thousands of babies’ lives.

Hop, skip and a jump: remembering Hedy Lamarr

Another awesome woman was even more awesome than you might have realized. I actually was aware that Hedy Lamarr had a couple of patents for frequency hopping communications systems, but I never knew the whole story.

That Christian compassion
A fundraiser for Jessica Ahlquist

This story is really important. Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old high school student from Cranston Rhode Island, sued her school over the presence of a prayer banner. She recently won her case, but is sadly facing enormous backlash from both her local community and the Internet at large. Please consider contributing to college scholarship fund for Ahlquist, linked above. Her bravery at such a young age astounds me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The surprising significance of a restroom

The student machine shop at my undergrad institution had only one bathroom. For a very long time, it was a men’s room.

One of the career staff who ran the shop had a big problem with this. It bothered him tremendously that his male students could use the bathroom right there in the shop while female students had to go out into the hall and use the regular building restroom.

He himself was an older Japanese-American man, and said outright “As a part of a group that’s been discriminated against, I didn’t like having to tell the girls that they had to go out in the hall to use the bathroom.”

He went to the university to change the shop restroom to be unisex. After all, it would only need a lock and a new sign. But, as with anything involving a university and change, there were problems. The red tape wouldn’t end. One of the largest stumbling blocks was the presence of a urinal in the restroom. He eventually convinced the administration that the women using the machine shop were unlikely to come down with the vapors at the sight of a urinal, and eventually, the restroom was made unisex.

This is one of my favorite examples of being a strong ally. He saw discrimination against women, even if many people would have considered it a small issue, and he corrected it. He ensured that he was doing everything possible to make women feel like they belonged in the shop just as much as men did.

I can assure you that it made a lasting impression on this particular female student.


We have a bag of cuties (clementine or murcott mandarins) sitting in the fridge right now, and I crack up every time I see the tagline “Nature’s perfect fruit.”

Because, of course, we have Nature alone to thank for a small, sweet, easy to peel, and seedless orange.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Thoughts on a vaccine reaction

After experiencing a very unpleasant reaction to the pneumonia vaccine last week, I find myself with a little bit more understanding of where anti-vax parents may be coming from.

That is absolutely not to say that I agree with them or that I’m even a little fine with their decision not to vaccinate their children. But ultimately, we’re not just trying to win an argument. We’re trying to figure out how to get these parents to make the decision to vaccinate, and I think understanding why they’re reluctant to do so is crucial to attaining that goal.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The Student Health Center was deserted last week since undergraduates were still on break. I figured this was the perfect time to go in and get caught up on my vaccinations. I needed a Tdap booster as well as a pneumonia vaccine (PPSV) (recommended due to asthma).

The next day, the PPSV injection site went from normal “I just got a shot” pain to a small, red tender area. By the morning after that, the back of my arm was largely swollen, red, and painful to the point I couldn’t really use that arm. And on a fever and chills, and I was absolutely miserable. I had to miss two days of lab.

I like to think I’m a fairly rational adult. I can look at this situation and say, hey, although this hurts, it hurts a whole lot less than pneumonia. Vaccines always have a slight risk of side effects and I happened to be one of the unlucky few this time. But it was never life-threatening, which a case of pneumonia could be to someone with respiratory illness.

I imagine the whole situation would feel very different if I were a small child with a worried parent. Or if I were that worried parent, watching my child in pain because of a shot I made them get.

This is about the illusion of control. If you or your kid gets sick, it might seem like it was something that just randomly happened, and you had no control over it. If you or your kid gets sick because of a direct action you took, like getting a vaccine, it seems more like your fault. As though you personally caused that pain.

What I want these parents to understand is this: choosing not to vaccinate is an action as much as choosing to vaccinate is. If your unvaccinated child catches or spreads a vaccine-preventable illness, it was due to your actions just as much as if they had a reaction to a vaccine you made them get.

I don’t have the magic answers on how to translate this concept into an argument that will win over reluctant parents. But I do feel like I understand just a little bit more why they are so reluctant to start with.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Weekly Links

Here are a few links you might enjoy:

Suit against UCLA in fatal lab fire raises question of who is responsible for safety.
A UCLA chemistry professor is up on criminal charges following the death of a research assistant due to a lab accident. Janet Stemwedel always does a fantastic job discussing the ethics of science, and here she discusses the ethics of lab safety and the responsibility of a PI.

Male explorer revealed to be a female two centuries after being awesome
Eighteenth century French botanist Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a man to explore the world. A new plant is being named for her.

Call to censor flu studies draws fire
The controversy over whether the papers on creating "superflu" viruses should be published with full methodology sections calls attention to how we balance academic freedom and the spread of scientific information with public health and safety.

Anatomy of a winter break
It's so true.

In which I admit to bias
It's impossible to be perfectly rational and skeptical on all issues all the time. I agree with K.O. Myers that in situations with conflicting information, I'd prefer to err on the side of supporting a marginalized group.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why EEs are often creationists: Part 1

If you followed the link from my last post, you'll know that the Salem Hypothesis states in part that
In any Evolution vs. Creation debate, A person who claims scientific credentials and sides with Creation will most likely have an Engineering degree.
Further, this behavior is noticed most of all in electrical engineers (EEs). Why is this? There are a number of reasons, but I think one in particular is pretty significant.

EEs don't generally take biology. Personally, as a PhD student close to completion, I haven't taken an actual biology class since freshman year of high school. I took two course related to life sciences in undergrad (a geology class on dinosaurs and a class on human sexuality), but both were purely for fun. Neither fulfilled a single degree requirement.

This is quite common. A thorough survey would be a bit excessive for a blog post, but let's look at the undergrad requirements of three top EE programs:  MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.

UC Berkeley: EEs need 30 (semester) units of natural science, mathematics, and statistics. This must include 16 units of math, 4 units of a CS course on probability, and 8 units of physics. This leaves one more course, which could be biology, but I imagine is much more likely to be chemistry or the completion of the physics series. ("Electromagnetic waves, optics, relativity, and quantum physics" is actually quite important for EEs, to the point I'm astonished it's not a required part of the curriculum). I don't see anywhere else that biology can fit in.

Stanford: EEs must take 45 (quarter) units of math and science, specifically including about 28 units of math (with a few options on coursework) and 8 units of physics (with another 4 strongly recommended for some tracks: Reflection and refraction, lenses and lens systems; polarization, interference, and diffraction; temperature, properties of matter and thermodynamics, introduction to kinetic theory of matter." Once again, what's up with not requiring optics for EEs?) That leaves a few units to play with, which could be filled by biology, though I notice that none of the sample schedules, including that for the Bioelectronics and Bioimaging track, list it.

MIT: MIT is an exception. It appears that the University requires a biology class, so a specific requirement from the department is unnecessary. I suspect that very few other institutions have such a requirement, and this also implies that a person with any degree from MIT has had a course in biology.

Do I think all schools should be like MIT and require biology of all engineers? Not necessarily. The number of worthwhile fields to study is enormous and undergraduate engineering curriculums tend to be jam-packed with units already. A biology course isn't necessary to understand upper-divison EE courses, and general education requirements should rightfully focus more on arts, humanities, and social sciences.

My point is simply this: when some idiot claims to be a scientist supporting creationism and it comes out that they have a EE degree, know that they most likely did not take any coursework in biology. A degree in EE gives you no more inherent training in biology than a degree in English does.



I hope to use this blog as a counter-example to the Salem Hypothesis. It concerns me that my field in particular (electrical engineering) is known on the Internet as being particularly prone to creationism and other anti-science positions.

Who am I? I am a PhD student in Electrical Engineering, as well as a progressive feminist skeptic. I plan to write on topics related to engineering, science, feminism, and skepticism.