Archive for May, 2009

The future of this blog and website

From what I’ve read in books about Asperger’s Syndrome and girls, it appears that there is a measurable difference between boy and girl geeks. Boy geeks tend to focus mostly on numbers. Girl geeks apparently divide their focus between numbers and language.

That describes me pretty well even today, when I’m trying to divide my time between keeping up with theoretical physics, expanding my website, working on this blog, and writing a novel.

It takes a lot of time to write a novel. So periodically I have to just forget that physics exists and enter the brain state necessary for writing fiction.

This blog is still in what I would consider a rough draft. I’m still going to experiment with themes and styles and features. I might move the location as well, so the url could change.

In the future, there will be more physics and math. I intend to blog through The Black Hole Wars chapter by chapter, starting in a few weeks.

I’ve migrated the website to a new server and fixed many of the broken links and features. Eventually I intend to update the page code and the content and add new content on loop quantum gravity and so on.

I’ll be taking a fairly demanding fiction writing workshop over the summer, so the website update will probably not be happening until next fall.

Save Sarah Conner from Termination

I just read at CNN that Fox is considering canceling my favorite TV show Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles.

I agree with Josh Levs that TSCC is worth saving. This show offers what I’ve always been looking for in science fiction, since I was a little girl: sci fi with a strong independent female point of view.

But it’s more than just that. One could imagine a shallow, empty TV show with a strong female POV. The POV is just one element in the total package.

TSCC has come up with the total package: an array of strong characters with heartfelt emotions and mysterious agendas engaged in a fight to the death that somehow manages to offer a rich and detailed commentary on human nature and the ongoing human relationship with technology.

As was pointed a number of times by the esteemed sci fi authors in the Sci Fi Grandmasters panel at the LA Times Festival of Books:

Since the future hasn’t happened yet, all stories dealing with the future are really about the present.

TSCC manages to say more about the present than any previous entry in the Terminator franchise. That’s partly because the story is set in the age of Internet worms and programmable unmanned military drones. We’re closer to building SkyNet purely by accident than we’ve ever been before.

This rich proximity to technology is both an advantage and a threat to Sarah’s campaign to keep her son alive and stop SkyNet. Sarah and John can find information on the Internet, but a Terminator’s brain can now travel online and search online records to find them too.

In addition, the advent of AI now gives us a reason to empathize with the machines. When Arnold came back as a reprogrammed Terminator to proptect John Conner, he was an appealing character, but there was never any ethical dilemma for John or Sarah as to whether he should be treated as equal to a human.

TSCC offers us Cameron, the girl version of Arnie’s Good Robot. Cameron is written as more than just a reprogrammed robot. She acts like a super-intelligent young woman who lives somewhere on the autism spectrum, as was pointed out by a child psychologist who interviewed the “Conner family” in one episode this season.

This seemingly casual reference to the autism spectrum digs much deeper into the human relationship with technology than any of the Terminator movies would have the time or energy to dig.

It appears that there is a new generation of TV writers out there who have some deep and complicated things to say about the human relationship with technology, and they’re using science fiction to say them.

I could go on and on about my love for this show. Instead I’ll just say — this is a show worth saving.

I was not surprised by the research described on the sciencegeekgirl blog the other day showing that both male and female physics students systematically rate female instructors more poorly than male instructors regardless of their own success in the class.

She linked to research published here.

The abstract of this article concludes:

Such a bias may negatively impact female students and contribute to the loss of females in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

I have felt this bias before and I have to say — it certainly did impact me negatively and it certainly did contribute to my fear of teaching physics in a classroom F2F situation.

Back when I was a TA at Caltech, I taught a recitation section of sophomore wave mechanics. Almost every student in this class was a sophomore, and many of them were non-majors — with the exception of three senior physics majors.

These three seniors decided to take this sophomore class not because they needed to learn the material, but because they needed a few extra units to graduate and they wanted to earn those units in the most pain free way possible.

I know this for a fact because they told me this when I advised them that the course, being aimed at sophomores, was not going to be taught at a senior physics major level.

These three seniors didn’t once ask a question in class. They didn’t participate in the solving of any in-class problems. They didn’t speak up to help any of the sophomores in the class who were asking questions and trying to understand the material.

The only thing these three seniors did was sit in class and stare at my breasts and pass notes to each other, every single course session, for the entire session.

But all three of these seniors did show up on the one day Caltech set aside for students to air grievances about their instructors.

What was their grievance with me?

I taught the class at too low a level, they claimed. That was my sin. That was why they got out of bed that morning and brushed their hair and shaved and got dressed — so they could show up just to complain about me.

They were seniors — complaining that my recitation section for sophomore non-majors wasn’t tough enough for senior majors.

Since I was just a TA, I wasn’t even the one to decide the level of difficulty of the course. The textbook, assignments and exam questions were all chosen by the male professor. Yet the students didn’t complain about him. They complained about me. The seniors acted like I was the one who made the outrageous decision that a class for sophomores should be taught at a sophomore level.

This distressing episode scared me away from teaching physics in a university. I learned that people interested in learning physics aren’t always the nicest people in the world.

Some of them have strong prejudices against women and other groups they perceive to be inferior. Sometimes they lack the emotional capacity for understanding how their prejudice impacts the people they target.

What I love about my website is that I can teach physics to everyone in the world and I don’t have to listen to any of the people who are out there who might be looking for some easy opportunity to intimidate or devalue a woman.

My commitment to physics education comes from my heart, and I will not have my heart broken by sexism.