Posts by: Margaret Harris

Lateral Thoughts: Voices from history

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War

A burning oilfield in Kuwait after the Gulf War. (Courtesy: US Army)

By Margaret Harris

This is the third in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. Click to read the first and second posts.

As part of Physics World’s 25th anniversary celebrations, I’ve been reading through the archive of “Lateral Thoughts”, the magazine’s column of humorous or otherwise off-beat essays about physics. My goal is to get a better feel for the topics that have amused and preoccupied Physics World readers over the past quarter-century, and to understand how the community has changed.

While most Lateral Thoughts have focused on the world of physics, the archive shows that every now and then, the wider world intrudes. The results can be fascinating, sobering and sometimes even disturbing. Consider the essay “Soft zlotys for western hardware”, in which the metallurgist Jack Harris describes taking a research trip behind the Iron Curtain to Poland. “In science, as in other areas, I was struck by how little real contact there was with Russia,” Harris wrote. His Lateral Thought was published in July 1989. Two months later, Poland defied its puppet-masters in Moscow by electing its first non-communist government since the Second World War.

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Personal reflections on Plutopia

By Margaret Harris

As Physics World’s reviews editor, I come across a lot of books that interest me intellectually. But with Kate Brown’s book Plutopia – the subject of this month’s Physics World podcast – my interest is personal, too.
The human side of plutopia

Brown’s book tells the story of two cities, Richland in the US and Ozersk in the former Soviet Union, that were built to house workers at the nearby Hanford and Maiak plutonium plants. Brown calls these cities “plutopias” because high wages and subsidies meant that residents enjoyed a better standard of living than their neighbours outside the secure zones. Such benefits, in turn, fostered an atmosphere of loyalty and solidarity that helped keep the plants’ horrendous environmental records under wraps.

This sounded familiar to me because my childhood had a decidedly “plutopian” flavour.  Although I didn’t grow up in an “atomic city” like Richland or Ozersk, my father worked for a defence contractor for 39 years, and his plant’s generous vacation allowance meant that we took longer holidays than most American families. We had good health insurance, too, which may have saved my life as a teenager. But after reading Plutopia and speaking to Brown for the podcast, I found myself wondering whether such benefits were a fair trade for working, as my father and thousands of others did, in a mostly windowless building that was surrounded by razor wire and contaminated with beryllium dust.

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The cost of stereotypes

By Margaret Harris

When a 2012 study showed that scientists subconsciously favour male students over females when assessing their employability as early-career researchers, it generated plenty of debate – not least among women, who were, according to the study, just as likely to be biased as the men were.

Some of these discussions got rather overheated, but one cogent criticism of the study did emerge.  Roughly, it was this: might the scientists’ preference for men over equally well-qualified women be a rational response to the fact that, because of various barriers, women in science often need to be better than their male counterparts in order to have an equal chance of success?

The question was an awkward one, since it implied that women in science could be caught in a vicious circle, with the negative effects of bias in the workplace making it “rational” to be biased in hiring (and, in turn, making such workplace bias more likely to persist).  However, a new study appears to rule out this argument by finding similar patterns of hiring bias against women even when the “job” is an arithmetical task that, on average, women and men perform equally well.

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A question of responsibility

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

The first 45 minutes of Amy Smithson’s talk here at the 2014 AAAS meeting were interesting but not especially controversial. Smithson, a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, DC, began by speaking about her role in combating the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons over the past two decades, and how this made her persona non grata for both conservative Republicans and the Clinton White House during the 1990s. After drawing parallels between Iraq in the late 1980s and Syria today, she outlined some of the tactics that “bad guys” like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad have used to circumvent international weapons treaties and delay their enforcement.

At that point, Smithson changed tack. Warning that she was about to become “the skunk at the party”, Smithson turned her fire on the scientific community. Policy-makers, she observed, can’t make weapons of mass destruction on their own. For that, they need scientists, and over the past 60 years, “hundreds of thousands of scientists” have obliged by working on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

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Bad weather? Blame Santa

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

If you’re fed up with floods in England, sick of snow in the US or mystified by mild temperatures in Scandinavia, blame it on Santa Claus. That’s the message coming from atmospheric scientist Jennifer Francis, whose “Santa’s revenge” hypothesis suggests that the weather weirdness that we’re currently seeing at middle latitudes could be linked to recent warming in the Arctic.

Francis’ theory begins with the polar jet stream, the high-altitude “river of air” that flows over parts of the northern hemisphere. This jet stream owes its existence to the temperature differential between the Arctic region and middle latitudes: because warm air expands, that temperature differential produces a “hill” of air with (for example) England at the top and Greenland at the bottom.  The Earth’s rotation means that air doesn’t flow straight down this hill; instead, it curves around, producing the west–east flow seen in animations like the one in this video from the NASA Goddard Science Visualization Studio.

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Burning the midnight gas

Satellite image showing dots of light from flared natural gas in North Dakota

The light from natural gas flares burning in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field can be seen from space. (Courtesy: NASA Earth Observatory)

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

The environmental risks of shale-gas production are real, but the things people worry about most aren’t necessarily the ones that cause the most damage. That was the message of this morning’s AAAS symposium on “Hydraulic Fracturing: Science, Technology, Myths and Challenges”, which featured talks on the social implications of hydraulic fracturing as well as the risks of water and air contamination.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, involves drilling a well and filling it with a high-pressure mixture of water and other chemicals. These high pressures cause nearby rock formations to fracture, releasing trapped oil and gas.  According to the first speaker, energy consultant David Alleman, fracking and horizontal drilling have “revolutionized the energy picture in the US”:  a few years ago, the country imported 60% of the oil it consumed, but today the figure is just 30%.

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Cold city, hot science

Skyscrapers above a snowy field

Downtown Chicago rises above a snowy Grant Park.

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

It’s ice cold outside (–16 °C the last time I checked), but Chicago is still a hot ticket for scientists this week as the capital of the American Midwest prepares to host the 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

As usual, there are plenty of fascinating talks planned for the meeting, which runs from today through Monday. Looking through the schedule just now, I’m pretty sure I could fill all five days with seminars on scientific entrepreneurship, policy and communication – although if I did, I’d miss out on some great physics topics such as dark-matter detection, quantum cryptography and next-generation materials for batteries. Which would be a shame.

I’ll be posting regular updates throughout the conference here on the physicsworld.com blog, and I’ll also be live-tweeting a few of the talks (only the really interesting ones, I promise) as @DrMLHarris on Twitter. So check back soon for more on the 2014 AAAS meeting.

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100 leading British scientists

By Margaret Harris

Earlier this week, the UK’s Science Council – an umbrella group for learned societies and professional bodies – published a list of the country’s 100 leading practising scientists. The rationale behind the list is interesting: according to the Council’s press release, it’s meant to “highlight a collective blind spot” in our attitudes towards scientists, which tend to “reference dead people or to regard only academics and researchers as scientists”.

I gave a quiet cheer when I read this. As I’ve noted before, fully 96% of the UK’s science PhD graduates make their careers in something other than academic research, yet their contributions often go unrecognized. There are many reasons for this, including commercial confidentiality and poor visibility (almost every academic scientist has their own webpage; most industry scientists don’t) along with the aforementioned “blind spot”.  But whatever the reasons, a list honouring non-academic scientists seems long overdue.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the Science Council’s list fits that description.

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Lateral Thoughts: some things never change

By Margaret Harris

This is the second in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. You can read the first one here.

The Lateral Thoughts column of humorous, off-beat or otherwise “lateral” essays has been part of Physics World ever since the magazine was launched in October 1988. In my previous post about the column’s history, I described some ways that Lateral Thoughts have changed since the early days (tl;dr version: loads of sexism, side order of class conflict).  But in my trawl through the archive, I’ve also discovered that some things haven’t changed very much at all over the past quarter-century.

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Lateral Thoughts: a foreign country

By Margaret Harris

LT-cartoon
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

I’ve been re-learning this lesson recently thanks to “Lateral Thoughts”, the column of humorous, off-beat or otherwise “lateral” essays that appears on the back page of Physics World each month. These articles are written by our readers and they have been part of the magazine ever since it was launched in October 1988. In fact, Lateral Thoughts is the only section of Physics World that has remained unaltered in its 25-year history.

Unaltered in its format, that is. But what about the actual content of the essays? Lateral Thoughts are not normally commissioned by members of the editorial team; instead, they’re selected from a pool of submissions sent in, unsolicited, by Physics World readers. Any shifts in style or subject matter should, therefore, tell us something about the way that the physics community has evolved over the years.

With this in mind, I began trawling through the archive of past Lateral Thoughts, looking for evidence of change. And boy, did I ever find it.

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