Diversity in the Scientific Work Force: Why?

Our recent U.S. Presidential campaign and election have been proclaimed “historic” because of the gender and ethnic diversity of the candidates. In the world of chemistry, we’ve also seen historic demographic changes in recent years, especially in the presence of women in the workforce. Half of today’s undergraduates majoring in chemistry are women.

The percentage of chemists (and other scientists and engineers) who are members of under-represented minorities, however, is still woefully low. Scientific societies and professional associations are devoting considerable resources to advance the cause of diversity.

So, diversity is a good thing and it’s necessary. Right?

I must confess that I have been skeptical in the past. As a scientist, I want to see research results before I’m willing to give new ideas my full blessing. Show me the data!

Click here to see the rest of my article, published this week on the Careers Blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Published in: on April 29, 2009 at 8:15 am  Comments (1)  
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Great website about scientific process

I’ve been looking over some of the nominees for this year’s Webby Awards, and I came across an excellent site that illustrates how science works.  Developed by the Exploratorium, Evidence:  How Do We Know What We Know? was nominated for a Webby People’s Voice Award in both the “education” and “science” categories.  I especially liked the sections on “How Science Works” and “Can You Believe It?”

Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 9:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking

A blog article that I wrote for the American Chemical Society’s Careers Blog was posted earlier today.  The subject, “Toastmasters: A Laboratory for Public Speaking,” is described for an audience of chemists, but the subject really applies to anyone and everyone.

Published in: on April 20, 2009 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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Will Scientists Leave Hedge Funds and Return to Science?

An article in today’s New York Times, “A Rich Education for Summers (After Harvard), caught my eye.  It talks about how Larry Summers worked (one day a week, earning nearly $ 5.2 million in two years) at a large hedge fund “advising an elite corps of math wizards and scientists.”

The company,  D. E. Shaw & Company, was founded in 1988 by David E. Shaw, then a computer science professor at Columbia University.  According to the NYT article, “As part of Shaw’s rigorous screening process — the firm accepts perhaps one out of every 500 applicants — Mr. Summers was asked to solve math puzzles. He passed, and the job was his.”

I’m disappointed that the world of science wasn’t able to attract and retain these brilliant individuals over the past two decades.  If they had put their creative and analytical minds to work investigating mysteries of nature rather than mysteries of high finance, I think we might be better off today.

I’m encouraged that the tide may now be shifting.  In fact, according to the Shaw Group website,  “the vast majority of [David Shaw’s] time is now devoted to his role as chief scientist of D. E. Shaw Research, LLC, in which capacity he leads an interdisciplinary research group in the field of computational biochemistry and personally engages in hands-on scientific research in that field. He also holds appointments as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Columbia University and as an Adjunct Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Columbia’s medical school.”

Let’s hope that the values and traditions in the world of science (as compared to the values and traditions in the world of banking) do a better job of effectively channeling the talents, dreams, and energy of the next generation of bright students.

Published in: on April 6, 2009 at 4:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Second Quantum Election?

In a blog post in mid-February, I introduced my (mostly tongue-in-cheek) theory that the Franken-Coleman election for the U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota is the very first “quantum election.”

Even while that contest’s recount goes on (and on and on), we may now be experiencing our second quantum election–the 20th Congressional District in New York.

At this point, although it’s still very early, it looks like yesterday’s vote may very well prove to be inconclusive, with ongoing disputes about absentee ballots and other voting irregularities. Once again, perhaps, the winner of this election will be determined eventually by whatever official body takes the final snapshot. As long as additional snapshots are being taken (e.g., recounts, court cases, appeals, etc.), the outcome will change on a somewhat random basis, as predicted by the probability cloud of voters.

In a comment on my previous post about quantum elections, Erik offered a critique of my theory.  Although I feel unqualified, as a philosopher and epistemologist, to argue with this critique, I must reiterate my belief that there is no “true winner” in these elections.  The “winner” is randomly determined at the moment the observer makes the observation.

If this trend toward quantum elections continues, the next round of national elections in 2010 will be a mess.

Perhaps some of the techniques that high-energy physicists use to better understand quantum mechanics can be applied to political science.  Here are two suggestions:

1)  The large hadron collider accelerates particles (e.g.  protons) around a big circular track and then bangs them together.  The results of the collisions provide valuable evidence that can be used to test various quantum theories.  What would happen if we accelerated two politicians (perhaps  a Democrat and a Republican) around the outer edge of the Capitol’s circular Rotunda and then collided the two politicians?  Perhaps this would knock some sense into them.

2)  And here’s another application of quantum theory to politics:  It’s a thought experiment called “Schrodinger’s Supreme Court Nominee,” based on the well-known thought experiment referred to as Schrodinger’s Cat. In this experiment, a Supreme Court nominee is locked in a box, along with a geiger counter and a tiny radioactive sample.  During this one-hour experiment, the nominee is both confirmed and rejected at the same time.  The nominee’s political fate is smeared out in a probability cloud.  (In the cat experiment, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.)

At the end of the hour, the box is opened.  Only at this instant will the nominee “collapse” into a final state of either “confirmed” or “rejected.”  This procedure is just as effective as, and much faster than, today’s confirmation process for dealing with a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Any other ideas?

Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 4:16 pm  Comments (1)  

April Fool: Chemistry humor (?)

Several of my recent posts have hinted at the possibility that scientists have the full range of human emotions, including a sense of humor. (The humor can, admittedly, be somewhat warped.)

As further evidence, I offer this link to “The Periodic Table of Rejected Elements.”

I dare anyone who has taken a chemistry class to study this periodic table without smiling, chuckling or laughing out loud.

Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 7:44 am  Comments (2)  
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