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.”