Friday, November 21, 2014

Sometimes We Forget to Laugh ...

Read and watch the news, listen to your friends or colleagues, or simply walk down the street, and the world can be an overwhelming place: there is hunger, poverty, war, riots, protests, racism, hatred, pollution, politics ... the list is never ending.  It is so easy to focus on what is wrong with the world that we often to forget to acknowledge what is right in the world.  I am not suggesting, of course, to ignore such injustices in the world, but I am suggesting that your positivity has a positive influence on the people around you, your community, and the world - and that positive influence makes a lasting contribution to the world.

I am strong believer that you have the power to make world a better place each and every day through your own small actions.  The power of positive thinking does not just make your life better; it makes the world better. To me, positive change in the world comes directly from each person's positive interaction with people and the world.

Some time ago, I wrote a blog about my personal philosophy on how to bring positive change to myself and by extension the world, and I realized I left out one very specific and important item: Laughter! So I have altered my original post to specifically include laughter.
  1. Choose to be Positive: this is a hard step. It is easy to remain negative, and in particular, it is not always obvious that one can choose to be positive. Some times bad things happen, but it is up to me to find the positive. By doing so, I choose to handle the situation the best that I can, and knowing that I choose my own attitude empowers me, and no one can that away take from me.
  2. Everything is a Learning Experience: in every situation there is good and bad and sometimes finding the good is hard - very hard. But it is up to me to learn from what is happening and incorporate that learning experience back into my life. By learning from the situation, you inherently find the positive and that is what carries forward. Not every situation is immediately fixable, but every situation does carry an experience from which I can learn.
  3. Take Care of Myself: only if I am mentally and physically healthy, can I truly gain what is offered by life and only then can I impart back on to the world a constructive and positive attitude. Self-doubt is the most insidious enemy of self-care. It is easy to turn on yourself, but if you don't care for yourself, who will? For me personally, this is the most difficult step and the one with which I struggle the most.
  4. Laugh!: This is related to the item above; positive living grows from learning how to laugh and learning how to take yourself (and others) not so seriously.  There is plenty of research that shows that laughter is physically and mentally beneficial to humans.  This does not mean that everything is funny, but it does mean that everything should be kept in the proper perspective.
  5. Love: this is, by far, what we do best (thank you HIMYM). Don't shy away from it and hide it, but rather, embrace it, share it, expand it, and show it. And I don't necessarily mean love in the sense of a lover, but rather love your family, your friends, your pets, the sky ... whatever. Love is an emotion that, like all emotions, gets buried away if it remains unused. Don't save it for some rainy day - use it and enjoy it.
  6. Work Hard, Play Hard: positive living grows from self-fulfillment which comes from knowing that you have done your best. From there, you can be in a healthy place for yourself and for the world around you. Not everything will work out and sometimes you will screw up. That is all ok - failure is part of life; taking responsibility for yourself and your community turns that failure into a positive. In short: Have fun, sleep well, and tell good stories.
    So ... with that in mind, go ahead and laugh; it's infectious! And besides, I think the dog has figured out the right priorities!

    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.