Wednesday, 8 December 2010

"Public" Reviews of Science: Arsenic and Old Congressmen

Are there enough jokes that can be made with arsenic? No.
Two topics in the news recently have really caught my attention. The first being the "discovery" of the microbe that utilises arsenic in it's development instead of phosphorous. The second being a project called "YouCut" being run by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor which is currently soliciting a public review of NSF grants. When is it appropriate for the public to comment on scientific findings? Obvious answer: if you are a scientist. That's the summary... discussion below.

Unless you happen to be a bacteria living in an arsenic-riddled lake in California, it is unlikely that you missed this. There are fantastic responses and discussions going on that have certainly stolen my attention span over the last few days.

The first being the eloquent and professional (as professional as a blog can get) rebuttal by Rosie Redfield at her blog RRResearch. Though my knowledge of micro-biology stops at the freshmen university level, anyone with an understanding of the scientific method and research practises will find her comments interesting and insightful.

Alex Bradley added an interesting scientific contribution about arsenic compounds' propensity to fall apart when immersed in water. He guest-posted on the Science Blog "We, Beasties" with an interesting, well-presented argument.

I read Carl Zimmer's rebuttal posted on Slate and also found it to be well-written, insightful and worth reading.

There is discussion and speculation about the hype that NASA concocted in the lead-up to the publication. I, personally, felt mislead by the lauding as an astrobiological find. Frankly, this has nothing to do with astrobiology, but instead has implications on the field. This is all very interesting and I really cannot add anything any more eloquent than what has already been stated.

NASA refuses to comment on the web-based criticisms and says that this sort of critique should be conducted in professional publications. No one is arguing with that, and Dr Redfield is forming her blog post into a formal letter for Science.

This arsenic debacle has showed that opening up research to the "public" can lead to thoughtful criticisms and critiques of scientific practices. However, the "public" who are insightfully leading the charge against the "finding" of microbes hopped up on arsenic happen to be well-educated scientists. These people may not be an expert in this particular field, but they understand the basics as well as the importance of good research practices. Through their experiences in laboratories, they are able to spot flawed findings and isolate issues.

This, however, ties to the new project in the US Congress where Eric Cantor (R) is launching his new "YouCut" Campaign. The first objective of this project is to review National Science Foundation grants and isolate projects deemed to be "wasteful". Oh, wait, here's the catch, anyone can take part in this project. Anyone. Go there yourself; you can submit the grant numbers of projects you think are a waste of time.

There is a gigantic smear campaign against science in America. Scientists are lauded as the "bad guys" because we give evidence for scary things, like climate change, solar flares, asteroids, diseases. There is also a (unsurprising) correlation between atheists and scientists due to our need for evidence and rational thought. The conservatives christians do not like that. No sir.

This just opens the floodgates for the conservative anti-scientists to have a voice in a field where they do not belong. They do not conduct scientific research and are unlikely to see the broader impact that projects may have.

There is no form for people like me to go and say which projects should get more money. Probably right, too, as that would turn into an all out war between research groups, PhD students, post-docs and departments trying to flood the interwebs to get more money. Projects like this are a waste of internet space (if such a thing is possible) and definitely a waste of congress.

Leave science to the scientists.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Sex and math: You can integrate my curves any day

I just read an article on the Guardian CiF titled "Sexing up mathematics does not compute" and it made me irrationally angry. Okay, now maybe I should not take stuff like this so seriously, and one man's opinion is fair enough, but I am tired of generalisations made about an entire field of study. I'm going to pick apart some specifics then get to my general response. Let's start with this paragraph:
In truth, graduate students in mathematics are more concerned with prime numbers than they are with primal instincts. I did not even kiss a girl until a full two years after I got my doctorate... Mathematics, though a predominantly male endeavour for whatever reason – is definitely not testosterone-fuelled.
Let's break this apart, bottom to top. Can't the last sentence read "is definitely not hormone-fuelled" or something of the like? True, it is predominately male, but that's not to say that the sex drive of mathematicians has to be driven by testosterone. Women have just as much of a right to be crazy sex-monkeys as men and initiate whatever the hell they want. 

I am sorry, but "did not kiss a girl until a full two years after I got my doctorate"?! Please do not associate the fact that you are a mathematician with that. You just possibly destroyed a whole future generation of potentially brilliant mathematicians who now think that if they study mathematics, they will not kiss a girl until their late-20s. Not really selling the whole "Math is cool" concept, now are we? We want to encourage young, hormonal teenagers into studying mathematics, not scaring the hell out of them.

The line "...graduate students in mathematics are more concerned with prime numbers than they are with primal instincts" really drives me nuts. Okay, now I am not a graduate student in mathematics (astrophysics is my master!); my degree in mathematics may only be at a Bachelor's level, but man, did I live up the title of "Bachelor degree". My primal instincts ruled most of my decisions during those years and yes, I found complex analysis and the male persuasion equally sexy (though that would fluctuate depending on the time of day). Let me tell you, the day I learned about Cauchy's Integral Theorem, I went straight home and showed my boyfriend exactly how to integrate my curves! 

Right, let us discuss this bit:
There is a noble lineage of brilliant mathematicians who probably never dated and who never married... 
Fair enough, but here is a logical statement: Some brilliant mathematicians hated sex and never married. This does not imply that all mathematicians hate sex, nor that if you hate sex you will be a brilliant mathematician. Imagine some young, impressionable, intelligent boy or girl read this and think to themselves, "Oh no! I am attracted to that hot, young thing in my English class, that must mean that I will never be a brilliant mathematician." That is not the impression we want to be giving. 

True, mathematical brilliance may not necessitate an understanding of passion or love, in the same way lyrical brilliance might, but that does not mean it is mutually exclusive. I would argue that to see the beauty in mathematical proofs and concepts, it helps to see the beauty in the world around us. I remember first learning about Green's Theorem and suddenly realising that math was indeed beautiful. In fact, that was the same day I decided to pursue mathematics as a separate degree; I wanted to learn as much as I could about how mathematics describes the world. 

I am not an expert on sex drive, nor by any means am I a mathematical genius, but one should never exclude the other. I never dated until I was out of high school, but I do not think that had anything to do with my skills in mathematics, that was just because I did not feel a desire to. I certainly had a sex drive, but just was not ready to pursue it. It came in time, and never once along the way did anyone tell me that my skills in math came in exchange for a sex drive, like this article is implying. 

Sex is distracting, no one can argue that. When you are in the middle of writing a thesis or doing top research, sex is a bit of a deterrent, one need only use my last 6 months of my undergraduate degree as an example. So, okay, maybe when you are working on the next Maxwell's Equations, or simply trying to finish a proof for your linear algebra class, it may not necessarily be the best idea to have a naked person in the room with you. I don't know about you, but for me I found it easier to walk away from my Abstract Algebra assignments for said naked person, then say, my Complex Analysis, therefore clarifying in my mind where my priorities lay that's what she said

No one should ever imply that mathematicians are not and can never be sexy. Mathematicians may be the only people in the world who find math itself sexy, but believe me, we are capable of also finding people sexy and frankly, I think it makes us much more fun.