Repost: You’re only as washed up as you think you are March 21, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in career, research, science, work.
Tags: awards, career, nobel, recognition, science
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Note: In the course of conversations, I sometimes find myself discussing something that I realize I’ve posted before. Such was the case with the false notion that scientific honors go only to those who are brilliant in their youth, and so I’m republishing a post from the old blog which addresses this point.
I was listening to a speaker talk about success in grad school. This person said something that has bugged me to this day, particularly since I was 28 at the time. The person sitting next to me was 45…someone who’d worked in industry for over 20 years and decided to get a PhD. Both of us, of course, were parents. He said:
“You want to get through grad school as fast as you can. You want to do your masters in 1 1/2 year, PhD in 3 to 4. You want to do this because you’re young and don’t have families to distract you. Most of the greatest scientists made their great discoveries before they were 25, and you don’t want to be washed up.”
Needless to say, my fellow attendee and I sat slack-jawed after this most definitive pronouncement. We never heard the rest of the talk. We were too stunned to hear anything aside from the fact that were hopeless.
I wonder if this is the whole reason that so many academics feel you can’t succeed unless you put in 80+ hrs./week.
Look at it this way:
1 – The only reason to do science (or engineering) is to win great prizes in your field and endear you to humanity. (You see, you can’t do a job like that simply because you enjoy it. Never mind that most average people have no clue about the majority of Nobel prize winners.)
2 – You must make a brilliant breakthrough early in life to set the tone of your entire career.
3 – If you don’t manage to pull off #2, in order to achieve #1, you will spend the rest of your life chasing after the people who do manage to pull off #2. In that case, you must spend every waking minute focusing on your career and everything else is a distraction. (See FSP’s post on monomania, as well as the follow-up on Women in Science).
All I can say is, “Dudes, get over yourselves.“
If you check out this paper (sorry about it being locked, but the NDSU library was nice enough to let me see it), there’s a lot of info that says how whacked out this view is.
It does some nice statistical analysis of Nobel Prize Winners in Physics for the period 1901-2000. Keep in mind that, unlike many professional society awards (the highest of which are usually given for career achievements), the Nobel Prize is a one shot deal. You may be a bright and highly productive person, but unless you make the one great discovery being considered most important to humanity, you aren’t eligible.
It says that Nobel prize winners, at the time of their great discovery, ranged in age from 22 to 64. The average age of the physicist at the time of discovery is 37.4 years with a standard deviation of 8.1 years. (That means that about 2/3 of the people make their discoveries between the ages of 29ish and 45ish.) On average, they get their awards 15 years after their discovery…but the range was 1 year to 53 years later. They did say that the trend seemed to be moving toward the laureates being older when they received their awards.
So the most compelling reason I can see to try to make that prize-winning discovery before you’re 25 is so that you aren’t awarded the damned thing post-humously!
(Keep in mind that your chances of actually winning something like the Nobel prize are probably not quite as bad as winning a lottery, but the chances still aren’t all that great. The max they can award is 30 per decade.)
As a counter to the three “thought points” above, I think these make more sense:
1 – Your best discoveries can happen any time between the time you initially become brilliant at something to when you’ve been brilliant at it for decades. If you are going to win a Nobel, chances are you’ll probably have been at it between one and two decades.
2 – A researcher with a good work ethic who has the time to enjoy his or her life may be less prone to burnout and may actually be able to accomplish something later in life. How many profs get tenure, take a sigh of relief, and just sit there because they’ve had the life sucked out of them as a grad student and assistant prof?
3 – You don’t have to spend the rest of your life playing catch up. Richard Hamming actually suggested that you change (sub)fields every 7-10 years so that your ideas don’t get stale. I’ve often wondered if having a very diverse background (which can take a while to accumulate) may in fact serve the purpose of coming at new fields with fresh ideas…rather than taking the single-minded, monomania approach that seems to be so often revered in science. Maybe, possibly, that approach is more suited to beating a dead horse. (Not always, of course.)
If you’d like more examples of how not to be washed up, I suggest reading R.W.P. King’s Obit. Pay close attention to this paragraph:
His scientific contributions were prodigious. He was the author of 12 books, many of them treatises; many book and encyclopedia chapters; and more than 300 journal papers. Most amazing, he never seemed to slow down. He published his latest book at age 97 and published his latest journal paper at age 98. He received numerous honors. King was a Life Fellow of IEEE and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
If I win the Nobel prize, I want my discovery to happen when I’m older than 37.4 years. That way, when I do it, I’ll be above average…even for a Nobel prize winner. But in all honesty, I think I’d prefer to still be publishing papers when I’m 98.
When you think of a scientist… January 26, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in science, societal commentary, younger son.
Tags: science, women in science, younger son
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On the way to school yesterday, the younger boy started telling me that Dr. Frankenstein wasn’t a real scientist. I asked him what he thought of when he heard the word scientist. He was very quiet, and I started feeling anxious that this was going to end up in a “dude in a lab coat with beaker”.
I interjected, “You think of your mom, right?”
“No,” he paused for a few moments more. ”I think of someone who is already dead.”
Oh great. So to be a scientist, you can only be recognized post-mortem, right? I wondered if it was someone crazy like Tesla.
“Yeah, she discovered radium, I think.”
I was kind of stunned. He wasn’t thinking of guys in lab coats – he was thinking of Marie Curie. Upon conversing further, it turned out that he knew quite a bit about her. There was a Magic School Bus book on science fairs at his classroom, and he had read about her in there.
I had to admit that I was hugely relieved that not only did he suffer from a common misconception about what a scientist is but that his first thought of a scientist was actually a very accomplished female scientist.
Although I’m still a tiny bit sad he didn’t think of me.
Look smart! (Bonus points for not being sexist.) February 23, 2011Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineerblogs.org, engineering, feminism, grad school, physics, science.
Tags: education, engineering, impostor syndrome, perceptions, reddit, science, sexism
Some of you are undoubtedly aware of the conversation that started with Fluxor’s post about women engineers and perception at our favorite engineering blog. This started a huge conversation on reddit (which can be summarized as “women are incompetent and keeping men from getting the jobs they deserve”) as well as a response discussion on reddit2xc discussing how frustrating and pervasive the attitude seems to be. Frautech weighed in with her incredibly intelligent ladybrain.
At FrauTech’s blog, Chris Gammell wrote:
Here’s all I can come up with for why in the world someone would think this way.
1. “THERE’S A GIRL IN THE ROOM!”
2. “I MUST PROVE I’M SMART. I KNOW, I’LL PUT HER DOWN.”
It’s a good theory, and while I don’t know that it’s right, I think he may actually be coming close.
When I was working on my MS, I ended up taking a class with a guy who was a superstar as an undergrad but had just started his master’s. We were taking a class in emag, and after class, we’d sit and talk. I would often go off on how some things frustrated me, what I didn’t understand, how confusing certain topics were, etc.
After about a month, I was asking him what he’d figured out on a homework set. He looked around nervously, leaned over to me and shook his head.
“I have no idea what’s going on in this class.”
Every notion I had of him being so much more intelligent and competent than me shattered like glass. I really thought he knew this stuff…and I spent a lot of the semester helping him out on homework.
I realized at that point how much posturing goes on in engineering classrooms: guys really do feel a need to look smart, and engineering is notoriously competitive. When I was taking classes with other female engineers, we had no problems discussing our frustrations and confusion with topics in the class. Guys never did. They never let on that they didn’t know something (except for the one experience). I suspect this is part of adhering to the stereotype that men can’t let anyone know their weaknesses.
Reading the comments over at Reddit, there is a big part of me wondering if the whole “women are so much less compentent than men” issue that keeps coming up is due to the fact that women don’t feel shame in discussing their frustrations and struggles. Most men simply would never do that, and so they take women doing so as a sign that they aren’t competent. In reality, they’re just being honest about how their feeling, and due to things like impostor syndrome, a lot of women worry about failing and not keeping up with their colleagues. I really wonder how many men view these admissions as signs of weakness and failure, reinforcing a view that women aren’t as competent. In reality, the admission may be verbalizing concerns while having nothing to do with actual competence and ability. Women perceive they are not keeping up with their colleagues, they say something to this effect, and men then assume this means they really aren’t keeping up with their colleagues.
This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that women, in some engineering programs, are so few that they are often more easily remembered than male classmates who may, in fact, really be doing far worse. Considering most women I’ve run into have had a lot of difficulty finding study partners, I’m blown away that women do as well as they do. There have been a number of studies showing that women tend to fare worse than men in traditional classroom environments due to reduced interaction. One example is a study showing that women fare as well as men when the classroom is interactive (see here). There have also been studies (although not definitive) showing that women tend to fare better in online learning because the social advantage men tend to have in such classes is removed in online learning. (Unfortunately, I’ve scoured Google scholar and can’t find the reference. If you have it, let me know.) This isolation has a lot of negative consequences both academically and career-wise.
I don’t think, therefore, that the real problem is that women are less competent. I think some of the “observational data” is very perception driven and fueled by differences in communication. Men need to understand that women who are actually very capable fear failing, even when they are doing vastly better than their male classmates and colleagues.
Free Market != Sophisticated Healthcare February 2, 2011Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science, societal commentary.
Tags: innovation, research, science, science funding
The older boy knows someone who, on his blog, posted a link to information about a very sophisticated and cool medical widget. Then this person turned around and said something to the effect of, “Innovations like this are why we need to keep healthcare private.” I bet the older boy that 1) this device was developed at a university, probably state-funded and 2) the development of the device was probably done with some sort of federal funding.
I wish I’d made the bet for cash. It turns out that after asking the internet, I was right: state funded university with department of defense grantitude.
I was rather blown away that someone would make such an obvious mistake. But then, I’m a scientist and an engineer who knows people both in industry and academia. I’m probably more familiar with the process of technical innovation than the average joe. (In fact, I’m probably going to be discussing that Friday on http://engineerblogs.org.)
There are a lot of people that have misconceptions about what real scientist is or does. My guess is, that most people, when they hear the word scientist, think of the following:
(As a huge tangent, my ex-husband’s last name was Brown, and I was very reluctant to change my last name after we divorced. I wanted very badly for people to call me “Doc Brown” once I earned my PhD.)
Back to the present, we all know and love the stereotypical mad scientist: he (always a he) toils away in his basement to create some amazing gadget that will miraculously change the way human beings interact with their world. Bonus points for crazy hair.
Unfortunately, this is a very naive and pretty remote possibility. Since World War II, scientific research has been recognized as being something that our country can and should invest in order to put us “ahead of the game”. Serious science research, whether it is paradigm shifting or not, can seldom be done in the basement or garage. There is seldom “low hanging fruit” such that research doesn’t require a significant investment of time, money, personnel, and capital equipment.
Probably with the exception of electronics, which is riding a huge wave of capitalistic materialism, many of the things that have enhanced our standard of living over the past few decades has been the investment of public money into public institutions. This is especially true with health and medicine. Free market healthcare may make it easier to get access to things like MRI, but much of the initial research into medical technology comes from federal and state governments. Think about it: many of the most advanced, cutting edge medical research is done at hospitals with university medical school affiliations.
It is depressing to see that the US, especially the newly elected republican congress critters, are trying to drastically cut federal research funding while places like China doing exactly the opposite. Believe it or not, I’ve already heard about researchers going to China to do their work because they’re finding it easier to get funding and equipment time. China has seen that investment in science works, so they’re following suit. They’re being a lot smarter than we are.
I remember in the 80s (yeah, I’m that old) when everyone was so impressed that Tang was something that NASA developed. In fact, NASA is still making efforts to let people know how the organization benefits them. However, as obvious as it may seem to those of us in science, the average person may not really have a clue how important NSF, NIH, and other funding organizations are to both economic and technological leadership. It almost seems like, if they could afford it, these institutions need to be banging their own drum a bit louder, letting people know how important they are to everyday life.
But sadly, the reality is that most people don’t know or don’t care about where all our modern conveniences come from. They keep being told that the “free market” is what makes it all possible and that government spending is wasteful and useless. They believe it, and so they don’t realize how badly we as a nation are shooting ourselves in the foot if we fail to maintain or increase spending in research of all stripes.
Next time you see a gadget and think that it’s an example of what makes the United States a great nation, try to remember that there’s a good chance that gadget had some of its origins in public funding. By trying to end such funding, we are destroying our scientific and technological legacy.
Harder than it has to be August 24, 2010Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, physics, science.
Tags: education, science, teaching
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While working on my MS, I took a grad-level class in physics. Despite the fact that the material was close to what I was doing in EE, I had a lot of problems understanding how to do the exercises. The prof was trying to do more interactive things with our in-class time, so homework problems were often worked on the board by unwilling class participants.
On one such occasion, I was called up to the board and asked to give the solutions to an exercise.
I wasn’t terribly concerned about this as I knew I had the problem solved correctly. However, the instructor had described a particular way to solve this problem. I honestly tried several times to solve the problem the way he had described, but the effort was rather futile. After several attempts, I solved the problem using a method I’d learned in EE. (It was something my MS advisor had managed to explain very clearly in less than 10 minutes.) When I went up to the board, I described how I had solved it.
The instructor gave me a somewhat irritated look and made some comment about, “Well, that’s how an engineer may solve the problem.” Of course, out of the 15 students in the room, 12 were from engineering. He then proceeded to go through another explanation of the method he used which still made no sense to me.
I mentioned my irritation about this comment to a classmate later, and he said, “Yeah, well, your way actually made sense. We knew what you were talking about.”
I have often wondered since then how much of getting through a degree program is made artificially difficult by the way the material is communicated. Or perhaps it is made harder by adherence to methods that may not provide much intuitive insight. I often wonder if it really does have to be that hard.
Kinetic theory of kids July 23, 2010Posted by mareserinitatis in humor, science.
Tags: children, humor, physics, science
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It’s always fun to bring my kids to play when visiting with my scientist and engineer friends. Inevitably, the most haggard of us will comment on “how much energy they have!”
My response for the past few years has been, “Oh, we have the same amount of energy as we do, they just have less mass.” This has elicited laughter, groans, and, more often than I care to admit, blank stares.
Therefore, I have decided it is time to proffer a full explanation as more than once I have wanted to say, “Go look it up on my blog.”
Energy, as you may know, has an amorphous quality about it: it makes things move, makes them hot, makes them roll downhill, but it’s hard to define. It’s just one of those things things that we assign a number to and use it to do calculations.
The most important things about energy are that 1 – it is conserved because 2 – it can change from one form to another. As an example, a ball rolling across the floor will slow down because it’s transferring the motion from its energy into heat. The energy doesn’t go away (is conserved) but simply changes to a different form.
Fortunately, for this explanation, we’ll only deal with one form of energy: kinetic, or energy due to an object’s motion. It turns out that kinetic energy is proportional to the object’s mass and the square of its velocity. Specifically,
As I said, energy is conserved. This means it can’t go away but just can be transformed into another type of energy. However, I half jokingly assert that kids have the same amount of energy as adults, so I’m corrupting the meaning. But, moving along, we’ll assume this means that we can set the energy of an adult equal to that of a child. We’ll use the subscript A for adult and C for a child. (The use of the subscript k would be for kid, but that leaves a certain amount of ambiguity as to whether the topic of the post is human children or goats.)
If we want to know how fast a child should move relative to an adult, we can rearrange the terms to get:
In words, the root of the ratio of the adult mass to child’s mass will give the factor describing how much faster the child moves than the adult. Practically speaking, this means my younger boy moves about twice as fast as me.
One may wish to assert that the above equation is obviously false because infants, as we all know, can’t move very fast. While they may initially appear to be an exception, it is useful to note that they make an awful lot of jerky, uncontrolled movements which would probably average to the correct mean velocity.
I have, on occasion, considered taking measurements to validate the theory, but I just haven’t had enough energy.