APS News

July 2011 (Volume 20, Number 7)

Letters to the Editor

Column Pins Unwelcome Label on Obama

Noting the use of the label, “African American President”, in the otherwise timely and informative May Inside the Beltway column, is a disappointment. The label is unwelcome particularly as President Barack Obama could equally be referred to as the White American president. Indeed, the President’s substantive exposure by birth to two ethnic value systems during his formative years is a strong attribute to his leadership in the hoped-for elimination of unwarranted ethnic labeling of any one American. For an educated readership as that of APS News, one would ask its articles continue to manifest the objectivity that underpins the community of scientists by forgoing such references in the future.

J. V. Martinez
Silver Spring MD

Women Face Slim Odds for Academic Careers

Regarding the Back Page in the June APS News, “Can We Declare Victory in the Participation of Women in Science? Not yet.”: I was disappointed to read some of the purported reasons that women don’t pursue advanced physics careers, especially professorships. It’s as if the authors never bothered to actually interview us young women to get our take on the matter.

I have no special desire to “work with people,” as was suggested by Dr. Tilghman. I do, however, have the desire to earn a decent paycheck and have a modicum of job security. Given that a physics PhD’s chances of landing a tenure-track professorship are nearly nonexistent, and that a woman needs to be twice as productive as her male colleagues just to be regarded as equally competent, many of us women make the pragmatic decision to leave academia to seek gainful employment elsewhere rather than lose a decade or more of our lives pursuing the one-in-a-million shot of becoming a tenured professor. It’s not that we don’t want to be professors–it’s the dream for most all of us grad students, myself included–it’s that we’re smart enough to know that the odds aren’t in our favor.

In addition, many of us are married to other PhDs who refuse to leave academia. Perhaps because of the male tendency towards overconfidence in their abilities, these men seem to think they’re better than the competition (à la the Lake Wobegon Effect) and that they will be the one lucky soul who will win the big Tenure Track Professor Lotto. Knowing that the odds of finding TWO such positions within a close geographical area is pretty much impossible, many of us women make the rational decision to leave academia so that there can be at least one steady income in the family.

Physics PhD Student
(name withheld by request)

Girls Must be Reached at an Early Age

In their Back Page in the June APS News, Shanahan and Hazari point out that there has been a large increase in the number of women going into the biological sciences, but not a comparable increase going into the physical sciences.  They suggest that the physical science interest of women can be increased by having high school physics teachers discuss the discrepancy. I suggest that they are looking at the matter in the girls’ educational careers at too late a stage. Peer pressure is very important to high school girls, and peer pressure often suggests that “real girls” do not excel in mathematics.  Lack of confidence in their mathematical ability will easily explain the preference for the biological sciences over the physical sciences. I believe that emphasis must be addressed to the physics and mathematics education at a much earlier stage in their lives–middle school or even elementary school. Although we have no formal follow-up, my experience in a NSF funded physics and mathematics summer program for “rising 7th grade girls” some years ago certainly showed an increased interest in the physical sciences. 

If we look at other countries, where science and mathematics are emphasized for girls as well as boys at a much earlier age, you see  significantly better statistics.

Alvin M. Saperstein
Detroit, MI

Ethics Authors Don’t Follow Guidelines

The ethics training described in the May APS News is apparently based on an APS survey of junior physicists. The authors of the survey failed to do a literature search.

They would then have found my own 1999 article “The authorship list in physics–postdocs’ perceptions of who appears and why” or my 2002 article “Coauthorship in physics” (you can find them on the internet under coauthorship.com). I guess authors of ethics do not have to follow ethical guidelines. In a sense I did not either–the APS tried to stop my surveys but I went ahead anyway. And I put the manuscripts on the internet since the journal I published them in (Science and Engineering Ethics) has little or no readership.

In any case ethics training at least in medical publication ethics seems to lead to worse behavior. Young researchers find out just how they are expected to behave, which turns out to be...unethically.

Eugen Tarnow
Fair Lawn, NJ

Blowout Cause Challenged; Murray Responds

Some time after the Deepwater Horizon sank, when the scale of the disaster had become evident, I read an item in the news in which a Canadian petroleum engineer claimed that the catastrophe had been exacerbated by the firefighters who sprayed large quantities of water onto the rig, flooding it and causing it to sink. That effectively put out the fire, but it caused the riser (the pipe that carried oil up from the sea floor to the platform) to buckle and rupture in two or more places. As a result oil was released into the Gulf well below the surface, making it hard to determine how much was escaping and harder still to shut off the flow.

This sounded plausible to me, but no more than that. I never saw any follow-up to this report or any official pronouncement that would have confirmed or refuted it. When the Final Report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (http://www.oilspillcommission.gov/final-report) came out, I scanned it to see what it had to say about the sinking. The only mention I found is on page 132: “As Coast Guard vessels continued the search and rescue operation, private offshore supply vessels sprayed water on the fire. [...] By the morning of April 21, the rig was listing. At 11:53 that  evening, it shifted and leaned even more. At 10:22 a.m. on April 22, the rig sank[.]”

This is a serious omission. If the fire had been left to burn and the Deepwater Horizon had not sunk, no oil whatever would have been released. This is especially ironic in view of the considerable effort made to dispose of the spilled oil, in part by collecting and burning it. (According to the pie chart on page 162, ultimately 5% of the oil was disposed of by burning.)

I am disappointed that the interview of Cherry Murray on the Back Page of the May issue of APS News, like the Final Report, glossed over this question, and in fact (again like the Final Report) focused more on human-interest angles and the societal implications of the spill than on technical issues.
David L. Book
Monterey, CA

Ed. Note: Cherry Murray, whose interview appeared in the May APS News, is Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, and served on the Commission. Here is her response:

In the Chief Counsel’s Report,  http://www.oilspillcommission.gov/chief-counsels-report, there is a detailed description of the events that led to the blowout of the Macondo well. It appears from forensic evidence and available records that the blowout occurred through the production casing and through the shoe track in the well (center of the well, not the annulus) because of a failed cement job, with a force strong enough to severely erode the annular preventer and the blind shear ram in the blowout preventer (BOP).  

Several more studies including an interim National Academy of Engineering report appear to corroborate this evidence, and to suggest that the blowout was sufficiently severe that it rendered the BOP on the sea floor incapable of shutting the well (either through the severe erosion, or by buckling the drill string up into the BOP, thus preventing the shear ram from working–or both.) See pp 196 and 221 of the Chief Counsel’s Report.

Unfortunately the mixture of oil and gas was heavily gas, and by the time anyone noticed on the rig, gas was already in the riser expanding into a jet-engine-like roar and it was too late to contain–see Chapters 4.1-4.9–the explosions on the rig were inevitable if the BOP could not be shut. Therefore, although the pouring of water onto the rig may have helped to sink it, the sinking of the rig was considerably AFTER the blowout and did not cause the blowout, and the oil and gas would still have been released even if the rig had not sunk as quickly. There was no other means of containing the blowout but the damaged BOP.

Nietzsche, Robinson Crusoe, and Women in Physics

When Zahra Hazari and Marie-Claire Shanahan assert that it is not yet time to “declare victory in the participation of women in science” (The Back Page June 2011), their rhetoric implies both a specific stance in moral philosophy, and a specific philosophical anthropology, neither of which are addressed explicitly in their article. But these unstated matters form a critical part of their argument.

First, the moral philosophy. The term “victory” implies a conflict. The conflict under examination by the authors is presumably between women who wish to have careers in physics, and the social, institutional, and other factors which prevent them from doing so. The primary means by which the authors judge whether this conflict is continuing is statistical:  they compare the percentage of those earning bachelor’s degrees in physics who are women (21% in 2007), to the percentage of women in the general population from which their samples are drawn. As of 2010, an estimated 50.7% of the US population was female. Presumably, if the percentage of women earning physics undergrad degrees is less than 50.7%, there is prima facie evidence of “underrepresentation.” No one disputes these statistical facts. 

The dispute is whether this statistical anomaly provides direct evidence that a moral wrong is being committed. Without raising the question directly or providing philosophical arguments for their position, the authors simply assume that underrepresentation is morally wrong.

The ostensible focus of the authors’ article is the possibility, raised by President Shirley Tilghman of Princeton University, that only 21% of physics BS degrees were obtained by women in 2007 because that represents a free and unbiased choice on the part of women, and it is simply the case that relatively few women choose to enter physics as opposed to, say, the life sciences. When President Tilghman says “As scientists we have to be open to that possibility,” she means that no interpretation of data should be ruled out without a good reason for ruling it out. The authors try to provide reasons to rule out President Tilghman’s interpretation, but in my opinion, fail to do so.

No number of surveys or statistical facts can resolve a dispute about philosophical anthropology, by which I mean one’s fundamental beliefs about the nature of human beings. The authors seem to believe that underrepresentation is a moral wrong. This position is historically associated with the philosophy of feminism, which attempts to treat one’s gender as an arbitrary and fairly unimportant feature. Like hair color, it should play little or no role in whether a person can pursue a given career. In feminism, as in many other modern philosophies, Nietzschean radical individualism prevails, and entails the right to define one’s own meaning of life and the universe. According to this philosophy, women (and men) are autonomous agents, free to create their own meaningful lives in any way they choose. They should not be restricted in these choices by anything: their sex, their hair color, or the opinions of others, which means society.

The individualistic aspect of feminism is why the authors cite “social influences” as a significant harmful influence on women who might otherwise choose to pursue physics in larger numbers. In a radical individualist philosophy, no one has a right to tell or even advise anyone else what to do. 

But no one except Robinson Crusoe can live a consistent radical individualist philosophy. We are social creatures, dependent for our very lives on the unseen thoughts and actions of others. When the authors say that society adversely influences women with its “stereotypical views of interest and ability in science,” they imply that society should change, and keep changing, until it reaches the feminist ideal of perfect 50.7% representation of women in physics, and everything else. If this is what they want, they should simply say so.

I would respectfully request that the authors do some introspecting in order to discover what they truly believe about their moral philosophy and about the nature of the human person. The one useful fact that they seem to have found is that you can motivate women to pursue physics by telling them there are few women in physics. I will remember that, but as for the rest, I am still waiting for a philosophically cogent argument against President Tilghman’s idea that perhaps all the women who want to enter physics and have the ability and persistence needed can currently do so.

Karl D. Stephan
San Marcos, TX

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Editor: Alan Chodos