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Zeynep Isvan | Brookhaven | USA

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Is bad science bad for you?

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Yesterday I was flipping through Spirit magazine, the Southwest Airlines publication you find in the seatbackpocketinfrontofyou, waiting for my 6am flight to depart. One headline among the many I skimmed mindlessly woke me up: “A solar powered bikini emits 5 volts of energy.” No, I’m not in the market for a solar powered bikini, which is apparently designed to allow its wearer to charge her iGadgets on the beach. I am, however, an over-traveling, over-educated overly picky scientist who allows herself the mundane pet peeve of incorrect science in media. I wanted to grab the flight attendant and point “energy is not measured in units of volts!!” I decided against it since he had been influential in finding me a prime overhead bin spot earlier, and he probably didn’t edit their magazine. I shook my head and kept reading. An article titled “Life Science” intrigued me a few pages later, and I decided against reading it in case it contained similar errors and would ruin my day. Let me repeat that. I couldn’t find the courage in me to read an article for fear that it contains inaccurate scientific language.

I spent the rest of the flight thinking if I’m justified in my sensitivity to accuracy in the language of science, or if I’m just being arrogant. I’m afraid it’s very much the latter. I know bad science is one of the worst things in the world, not because science is sacred or anything, but because it is a dangerously effective marketing tool and scams people. (I implore everyone to read Ben Goldcare’s brilliant book and listen to his TED talk.) Every scientist and otherwise sensible citizen has the right, even duty, to oppose bad science. It’s a form of lying to the public, usually for monetary gain. It’s wrong on every level – no question about that.

But is it reasonable to take out my frustration with scammers’ using words such as “quantum” incorrectly to market nonsense on an innocent article with an honest error in wording? Am I helping anyone to learn, write and speak better science or merely reinforcing the painfully accurate Ivory Tower stereotype? Would the world be a better place if every article that has as minor a science flaw as this were never written? Would people be more informed about science and math and engineering in that world? It’s clear that most writers, unless they’re specifically trained as science writers, which fashion writers usually aren’t (and need not be!) will not get every SI unit right. So? Would incoming freshmen in your Phys 101 class have fewer misconceptions if it weren’t for the solar powered bikini article? That’s hard to believe. I would like to argue that any article on bikinis that has a connection to something scientific, even if mildly flawed in its wording, is more likely to get people interested in science than the well written science articles that people can’t access for free or can’t follow past paragraph two.

Tonight on my flight back I will read the life science article I was scared of. Maybe it will have something in it that sounds off. Maybe, since I’m not a biologist, I won’t notice this mistake and proceed to have an iota of incorrect information in my brain. I suspect it will not be the end of the world. I also hereby take a pledge to be a little more accepting and a little less judgmental. I realize that its only purpose is reinforcing my self righteousness and justifying the decade (and counting) I devoted to learning physics. It’s not the writers’ fault that I did that! 🙂

I deliberately avoided attempting to explain the difference between voltage and energy until now. I quote below the few lines from the Wikipedia article on Voltage.

Voltage, otherwise known as electrical potential difference or electric tension (denoted ∆V and measured in volts, or joules per coulomb) is the potential difference between two points — or the difference in electric potential energy per unit charge between two points.[1]

So voltage is energy per charge. That was what all the fuss was about?? I know, it sounds silly. I still want to keep teaching physics and hope that more and more people realize the seemingly subtle difference between potential difference and energy. I also know that many people won’t, and my mother will keep using heat and temperature interchangeably. Again, not the end of the world. It’s really easy communicating science to those already attuned to these subtleties. The challenge is to deliver the correct concepts, if not the correct units of every physical quantity, to everyone else. Only if we accept that challenge will we be able to break a very real communication barrier. We have to be able to speak everyone else’s language first, before we can improve it, if they even choose to improve it – it is not mandatory. It’s analogous to learning a new language. If no native English speaker spoke to me when I had difficulty with irregular verbs twenty years ago, I would have never learned to speak it better. Unintentional ‘bad science’ is not bad for science, it might even be good.


Whose data is it, anyway?

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

When I was in elementary school we read a story that went something like this. The protagonist’s grandmother was baking a cake for his tenth birthday. Before the big day she told him that she had a surprise: she was going to serve a cake prepared by a thousand people! The kid could hardly wait to see this enormous cake, baked by all those people in honor of his coming of age. When the family arrived grandma brought out the cake – a nine inch layer cake with ten candles. Disappointed, the kid protested that this was not the thousand-baker cake he was led to expect. Then comes the moral of the story, where grandma explains that indeed a thousand people contributed to the making of this cake. Someone had to grow the wheat, another had to mill it into flour. Then there was the milk and the butter and the sugar. Then the people who built the mixer and the oven and the cookware. You get the idea.

This is partly the reason why high energy physics collaborations’ publications have author lists with as many as thousands of people. There is usually over a decade’s worth of work by hundreds of people from conception to the beginning of an experiment. Then these experiments run anywhere from a few to tens of years. Generations of graduate students complete their dissertation work on an experiment. Each has a few people in the control room 24/7 monitoring the operation of every component. Countless technicians maintain the hardware. There are vast computing resources at labs and universities. Each of the groups and people I listed who contributes to the experiment is an author on publications; he gets to comment on what said publications state and how it’s phrased. (This last part is no fun. Perhaps more on that later when the paper I’m writing is submitted.)

The tradition of high energy physics, you’ll say, is very admirable since it credits all of these individuals who collaborate on the science. True, HEP (and science in general) has a very strict understanding of giving credit where it’s due and respecting intellectual property. However, we also have a very strong sense of possession when it comes to our data. We, the thousand some collaborators, designed, built, ran this experiment. We will analyze every last bit of data and publish the results with our names on it. We might even calculate what not to publish so that other scientists don’t read our journal article and proceed to do an analysis that we haven’t yet done but intend to do in the future.

This is not entirely analogous to the cake story above, but I’ll try to draw the parallel that I find interesting. In HEP, the thousand collaborators are the one baking grandma. And they all get credit, always. The unnamed contributors whose roles are indirect and difficult to quantify are the rest of us. Universities are knowledge and research hubs that enhance science as a whole, independent of the actual number of professors and students working on one particular experiment. Without the rest of the university community, the handful of people in one field in one department, such as high energy physics, wouldn’t really exist. Same goes for national labs. It further applies to smaller universities overseas who produce quite a lot of the researchers that work on these large experiments. We’re a large community in the knowledge-making business whose boundaries are blurry. So whose is the vast amount of data we generate everyday?

This is a somewhat controversial subject (one which an un-tenured scientist wiser than myself might avoid), but I find it necessary to debate the ownership of data. All of these experiments are funded by the government, therefore by the taxpayer. Science benefits from scrutiny and from transparency. On the other hand, science values being the first to discover something above all else. And science needs expertise, something which those who designed and ran an experiment for years will have a lot more of than a distant colleague looking at an unfamiliar set of data.

What do we do then? Do we want to be the best baker in town with the most sought after cake at all cost? Do we take no interest in who bakes the cake as long as it’s the best cake possible? Is a compromise possible? I think the metric should be the quality of science itself and the speed with which it progresses, and while familiarity with and expertise of an experiment are highly important, ownership shouldn’t be.


Getting out

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

I wrote this while I was working on my thesis, and never got a chance to polish and post it. Since then, I’ve survived my interviews, defended my thesis, accepted a postdoc, and started working on two new exciting experiments. I got to travel to China for one of them! This week I’m finishing my relocation and moving from the lab dorms to an actual apartment. Complete normalcy finally resumes.

When you type ‘getting in to’ in the Google search bar, one of the four auto-complete recommendations you get is ‘grad school.’ It’s appropriate considering it’s quite a big deal, both in terms of its significance – you’re starting the next stage of life – and in terms of how much effort it takes. It’s stressful because there is (almost) one and only one way to do it. There are strict deadlines; there are a set of tests you need to take offered on one of two days; there are a set number of recommendation letters, and even a word or page limit on the application essay. To make it even more structured, this all takes place over the same few months each year, with applications submitted around winter break and offers made mid-spring for the term starting the following fall. It’s a lot to do in a short time and challenging for an undergraduate, so they tell you exactly how to do it. Professors, research advisors and graduate students are full of advice, sometimes unsolicited. There is an industry devoted to applying to graduate school from test prep to rankings of different departments.

Getting out of graduate school is no smaller feat. This time, though, there is no one way to do it. “When should I start writing my thesis?” you ask, or “when should I start applying for postdocs?” and you get the same answer: “It’s never too early.” Right. For more specific questions everyone has a unique answer based on their experience. It only leaves you wondering what your answer will be in a couple of years when grad students are asking you.

It’s a game of scheduling finalizing the analysis, writing and defending a thesis and getting a job for when you’re done. These all overlap and are correlated, of course. You need to apply and interview for jobs, which involves giving a seminar. The analysis needs to be almost finalized and approved by the collaboration for publicizing before you can give a seminar. Applications take a negligible amount of time but if you get an interview, which is what you want to happen, you have to make time to prepare and often travel for it, all with short notice.

If you get an offer you need to respond within a few weeks, but most likely there are other offers and interviews with non-overlapping response deadlines. You want to wait for other options but worry you’ll miss the one, and at the time only, job offer you have. While everyone’s telling you to make your own decision and choose what you really want to work on, the same people are also offering their opinion or pressing you to decide on their own offer. You frequently find yourself about to make a major career decision out of exhaustion.

If and when you accept an offer, it poses a hard deadline for when you must be finished. If, like me, you need a visa for the job, they require that you have your degree before they can obtain the visa. A bit of a cyclical problem, one I’ve yet to solve. The employer wants you to start as soon as possible, their detector is taking data. The university wants you to allow ample time for the defense committee to read the manuscript. The advisor wants you to write the best document possible. Add to all of this up to two intercontinental moves – one from your overseas experiment to your university, another for your next job – and you suffer a minor anxiety attack. (This last one is not the case for me, but the decision to only apply to local jobs was a deliberate one with pros and cons).

I’m only partly done with all of this, and maybe my relaxation is the result of getting too used to being stressed, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t fret it. I’ll work hard and stop worrying about things outside my control. I’ll even allow myself to dream about two months from now, with a fresh title and a new experiment. Stepping away from the computer and going for a run (or a pint depending on time of day) has been the best solution to my temporary misery throughout the process of getting out. If you’ve made it this far, you’ll make it all the way. It turns out there is no right way to do it, but there’s no wrong way either.

Type ‘getting out of’ into Google and it autocompletes with ‘debt’! Ironically, this is never too low on a 7th year graduate students’ to-do list. 🙂


Domestic science

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

We physicists are a very international crowd, and proud of it! The opening slide of conference talks typically has a list of institutions and their home countries, frequently pinned on a Google map. This kind of international collaboration is imperative to advancing science. I can’t think of any scientist who would have it any other way. Is it unreasonable, then, to push for domestic science? Is it insignificant whether an experiment is based in one’s home country (i.e. the primary country in which you have a job as a scientist) or elsewhere in the world, as long as it is somewhere?

I think not.

The more we discover, the more effort it requires to uncover the next unknown. An astounding number of scientific discoveries have taken place over the last several decades. The remaining ‘known unknowns’ are hard to reach and require expensive machinery. The ‘unknown unknowns’ require even more investment. This is one reason most large experiments are international collaborations funded primarily by the governments of the host countries, with financial and scientific contributions from all their members. Scientists have access to common computing resources and data, hold meetings by video conference, and travel a few times a year to meet face to face. It works perfectly well, and I would say hardly any physicist really minds in what country their experiment is based – at least not for science reasons.

So why do I think that it is not quite enough to join foreign collaborations when a nation has the means to do science at its labs, when it can be home to an international experiment? Given the varied government structures and labor costs, it really is possible that the same science will get done for a smaller financial investment elsewhere. Private companies outsource for similar reasons, why does it make a difference in science?

Here’s why. I worked at two national labs so far. At Fermilab, not a week goes by that there isn’t a school bus parked outside Wilson Hall, the main building. Every Saturday morning we have high school students visit for that week’s installment of a lecture series. The science center is open five days a week for visitors from the public; every Wednesday morning there are guided tours. Every third Sunday afternoon we have a program where anyone from the public can come listen to a lecture, tour the facilities and ask questions of scientists over cookies and juice. I personally received additional safety training so I can take visitors to my experimental hall 300ft underground. University groups visited frequently, and as cliché as it sounds, 19-year-old physics majors’ eyes do widen when you take them on an elevator into the Earth and show them a thousand-ton neutrino detector. I’ve only been at my latest position at Brookhaven for a few months, but I’ve already received invitations to judge a science fair, guide visiting children while they walk around the synchrotron ring, and to attend an undergraduate poster session. This summer I will mentor an undergraduate intern, one of three my department will host to work on experiments both within and outside the country. These are only outreach and education programs I personally took part in; there are a plethora of others across the country at labs and universities.

Domestic science gives these young people and any interested member of the public the opportunity to visit running experiments. It lets college students build parts of state-of-the-art detectors. It connects the people to the science they are collectively funding. They get to educate their children; they get to listen to public lectures from Nobel laureate physicists. I strongly believe that the most important job we do as scientists is to train future generations and enlighten the public. We will travel and collaborate internationally to do the science, but 15-year-old high schoolers can only be inspired by seeing it in action.

Don’t get me wrong – international collaborations provide plenty of projects for students and scientists all over the world. It’s never an all-or-nothing situation. But it is clear that local students and residents will benefit the most, that local educators and scientists will have access to most of the teaching opportunities. Not every nation has the resources to build a multinational high-end science experiment within its borders. Those who do would be doing their educators, students, scientists and their public a great service by keeping domestic science active, competitive and inspiring.



Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

There has been a wave of advice posts recently, for new graduate students making their decisions by the April 15 deadline, and for graduating PhDs who are receiving their degrees by the end of the semester. Congratulations to both groups! What I have to say today is most relevant to first or second year students ready to make an exclusive commitment to a research group.

Last Wednesday morning my alarm went off at 4:30 so I can catch my 7:30 flight. Four phone calls, six emails and seven hours later I was back at my desk, having moved my 36 hour trip to the following day since my plane had mechanical problems. The first email I read was from the lab’s travel office, wondering if I knew that the way I have arranged my summer travel right now meant I had a round trip each to China and Japan within two weeks. “Yes,” I responded, “I planned it that way.” The trips are three days apart and it’s cheaper to fly back and forth than to book a complicated itinerary with a stopover and three unnecessary nights at a hotel. In exchange for jetlag I collect miles.

Travel is very much a fact of life in high energy physics. Most people, including myself, consider it a perk. At least most of the time. It’s an opportunity to see new places all expenses paid. But it’s not without its drawbacks, and I recommend that any grad student find out about travel and moving before they sign up for it. Some of these you can ask your future adviser directly, some you might be better off finding out through more senior grad students.

Where will you need to travel, how often, for how long? Do you have to move long term (months to years) or is it an option to live near your university and travel for shifts/meetings? This is especially important for those with significant others, families or plans to start a family. Or even pets.

Is there enough funding for all the mandatory travel? This is a good one to ask more senior grad students. You want to be able to travel to a summer school and a couple of conferences throughout your few years in addition to mandatory travel. It wouldn’t hurt to find out about the typical accommodation.

If you’re an international student and need to travel internationally – do you need a visa to travel to and from your destination? This is extremely important, since it can mean being allowed or denied reentry to the US, and very few (if any) people in your department will have reliable information on it. Talk to the equivalent of the “Office of International Students” in your university, as soon as possible. Lots of arrangements are possible, but happen on bureaucratic timescales.

Another one possibly important for international travel is dietary preferences or restrictions. I now have to travel to China frequently, and my second favorite sight, after the Forbidden City in Beijing, was shelves of Skippy peanut butter at a grocery store.

Finally, once it’s time to go, make sure you talk to those who have traveled before you about their experiences. Small things like a restaurant recommendation or advice on navigating public transportation in a language you don’t speak can make your experience significantly better. If possible for your first trip, plan your travel to coincide with someone who’s done it before.

Bon voyage!


A short break from physics

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

I’ve been writing my thesis full time for the past six weeks or so.  With the exception of traveling for job interviews, I’ve spent every day, including weekends, in an almost identical way.  I wake up, read blogs and news and social media for an hour until my coffee kicks in.  Then I write until I can’t anymore, with a few breaks for food, phone calls and the occasional online TV show.  I was beginning to get a bit worried that I usually had no intuition for what day of the week it is.

That’s why today was special.  I knew exactly what day it was, it was the day I get to spend at least eight waking hours away from the computer.  I was going to go to Chicago to join tens of thousands of people for my Saturday morning run. I woke up to my alarm at 4am.  I drove myself to the train station for the hour ride to Chicago from the suburbs where I live. A whole hour of reading before the sun even came up, bliss!  I killed time at a Starbucks which was filled almost entirely with other runners.  By the time I was at the start line I was fully awake and giddy with anticipation.  After spending six weeks mostly sitting in a chair, I was going to be moving, surrounded by people, with adrenalin-filled music and not a care in the world.

This race has one of the best courses of all Chicago races.  If you’re a runner and happen to be in the area one November, check it out. Over the river and under the El and past iconic highrises.  It was extra special considering it will be my last Chicago race in a while; I’m moving to take a postdoc soon.  It was a lovely way to say goodbye.

This race also has the best perks, which may have more to do with my desire to get out of bed before sunrise than I’m willing to admit.  Unlike the usual light lager and pizza I find hard to stomach after running at most races, this one serves thousands of pounds of chocolate fondue!

Now it’s time to go back to writing after a longer break than initially planned.  My next (second, ever) post will have more on thesis-writing and the broader experience of the graduation process, which is proving to be a tad more challenging than racking up miles but at least as satisfying.