Sunday, September 14, 2014

I am a White Male Astronomer

Astronomers, in general, tend to view themselves as liberals or progressives, particularly towards social issues.  But at the same time, our field is dominated by white males; the fraction of women in our field with faculty jobs is on the order of 20% , and the fraction of non-white people in our field with faculty jobs is of the same order 20% (and significantly less than that for blacks and hispanics).  Exactly how all this is counted is a little difficult to digest given that physics and astronomy are sometimes counted together and sometimes not, and there is a strong bias in these studies against non-faculty permanent jobs, faculty at two-year institutions, and other non-university positions, making a full accounting of everyone in the field incomplete, at best, and biased, at worst (but that is another post).  Having said that, it is, however, very clear that the field is dominated by white males.

Anecdotally, it certainly seems that there are more woman in the meetings and conferences that I attend, particularly women in the earlier stages of their careers, than there were in the past.  That is, young woman seem to be entering the field and moving through the early career steps; it does remain to be seen if they will remain in the field and move into more senior positions. However, I do not see (again anecdotally) the same increase in the number of people of color at these same meetings.  My personal (and probably skewed and biased) observations seem to be in agreement with my reading of these reports; women have made some noticeable, but not spectacular, strides in our field over the past decade, but people-of-color - particularly, black people - have not.

I do not know the exact number of black astronomers in our field, but I am sure the number is small, and I can probably call out a significant fraction of them by name - which indicates just how few there are.  My graduate school Ph.D. adviser was black (well, of course, he still is; I never know what verb tense to use in this context), and at the time, he was the only black astronomer I knew.   In contrast, I am sure I could not name all (or even a significant fraction) of the women in astronomy, indicting their numbers are far larger.

So the question arises (at least in my mind) what can I do?  After all, my perspective is from the point of view of the white male - and in particular, a relatively senior white male astronomer.  Part of what I can do (and you can do)  is to recognize that with my (and your) experiences come a set of unconscious biases.  That is human nature.  Being aware can help me (and you) make conscious decisions that counteract these unconscious biases.  By being aware of these potential biases, I can help work towards not allowing those biases to influence my decisions.

But perhaps one of the most important things I (you) can do is listen.   I have learned from my wife, tenured faculty of physics and astronomy and a member of our field who has endured much in her career as a result of being a woman, to listen to the concerns, to listen to the fears, to listen to anecdotes ... to listen.  From a point of view of privilege, it is very easy for a person to see equity and fairness all around them, and to dismiss stories of unfairness and bias as just that - stories.   It is also just as important to not simply assume a person is biased or racist - every person has a story - listen - hear them; hear yourself.

Towards that end, one of the blogs that I read regularly is by John Johnson who is tenured faculty at Harvard and a black astronomer.   When he writes about bias and race, particularly in our field, he often can make me uncomfortable, but he has helped me to continue to assess and re-assess my opinions.  He is beginning a series of blog posts on racism within astronomy (and by extension elsewhere).  Do I always agree with John?  Of course not, but I do respect his opinion and his observations, and I use his thoughtfulness to help me address and focus my own.

I eagerly await the next post.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thinking Through Our Use of Marijuana ...

There is huge push in this country to legalize marijuana, and there are real reasons to do so.  Used for medicinal purposes, marijuana is a godsend to many people - particularly those that are suffering from chronic illnesses.  And solely from a personal responsibility and freedom of choice of actions, marijuana is in many ways no different from alcohol or cigarette smoking.  But make no mistake, marijuana usage can have serious consequences.  Marijuana can impair your judgement and can affect your health.  So, just like alcohol and cigarettes and just about everything else, YOU are responsible for your actions and the consequences thereof.

For reasons that I do not quite understand, people who advocate marijuana legalization seem to have this attitude that it is no big deal.  Well it is!  Just like there are laws regulating (and punishing) drinking (e.g., age, driving) and just like there are alcoholics, there needs to laws regulating (and punishing) marijuana usage of similar ilk, and there are (will be more) marijuana-addicted people.

Since legalization in Colorado, there has been a huge jump in marijuana based DUIs (see this USA Today article) and deaths related to drug-related DUIs (see this article).  Marijuana is not some miracle drug that cures illnesses with no ill effects.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Because marijuana usage has a historical and stereotypical culture of being anti-establishment, there seems to be a perception that all is just fine.  Well, guess what!  That's not true.  Just like any recreational drug, marijuana can have serious and ill effects on you and the people in your vicinity.

And now, a new Harvard-based study highlights what we already knew but were not quite willing to talk about in our effort to legalize marijuana.  Marijuana has a detrimental effect on our brains even if you are only a casual smoker of marijuana - and in a way, that causal alcohol use does not seem to do.

Folks, these are our BRAINS - you know, the one organ that helps us get through every single day of our lives, and plan our future, and our kids' future, and our country's future, and our world's future.

I am a loud advocate for personal responsibility and for keeping the government at arm's length from our personal lives (which, for the record, is not the same thing as a minimalist government, but that is another blog), and I find it ironic that the more conservative element of our country (keep government away) is, in general, more opposed to marijuana usage while the more progressive element of our country (more government programs) is, in general, more in favor of legal marijuana usage.

To me, this suggests that the advocates of marijuana usage are primarily interested in thumbing their nose at the establishment and the adversaries of marijuana usage are primarily concerned with the increased influence of the progressive movement.  Neither side is really interested in the discussion or a true discourse about the topic - and sadly, I sometimes feel that statement is true regardless of the topic.

If we could only stop and think first and then act!  And do that as a country - as a culture - as a society - in everything we do.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Crazy Motorcycle Accident ...

Wait for it ...
This guy may be the luckiest motorcycle rider of all time. It is ALL about the physics: inertia, conservation of momentum, conservation of energy ... this guy needs to thank the laws of physics for his life - and maybe his bike for taking the brunt of the collision.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Volcanic Eruptions on Io.

In 2010, the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland halted air traffic in northern Europe for 6 days and emitted at a rate of about about 1 gigawatts (1,000,000,000 watts) at its peak.  The Earth is, of course, capable of producing even more violent volcanoes than that - for example, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Pinatubo, Mount Vesuvius. In fact, Mt. Tamboro in Indonesia produced an eruption so large in 1815 that the emitted dust blocked out sunlight for so long that summer in Europe that year was overly cool and crops failed.  1815 is known as the year without the summer.

But volcanoes are not unique to Earth.  Old volcanoes are found on Mars (e.g., Olympus Mons) and today there are active volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io - discovered in the late 1970s  as Voyager 1 flew past.  

Io, only about 25% the size of the Earth, has volcanoes that out shine the Earth's volcanoes - by orders of magnitude. In 2013, newly volcanic eruptions on Io were discovered and observed with some of the worlds largest telescopes including the Keck Observatory and the Gemini Observatory.  These volcanoes emitted nearly 10000 times the power of the Icelandic volcano of 2010, measuring nearly 10 terawatts (10,000,000,000,000 watts) at its peak.

In August of 2013, I was observing at Keck Observatory doing high resolution imaging of Kepler planetary candidate host stars when I received an email from Imke de Pater about an eruption on Io asking if could I take some infrared imaging for her at the end of the night. Always willing to help another astronomer, I said yes. But more fundamentally, as an astronomer who studies exoplanets, I saw this as a nice opportunity to more closely connect one end of solar system formation/evolution to another.  In a very basic sense, the physics that guided the formation and evolution of our solar system is the same physics that guided the formation and evolution of all the extrasolar systems that we are finding around other stars. Understanding our solar system will help understand all the other systems we are finding and vice versa. 

Our universe and its content is simply amazing ... and awe inspiring.