Saturday, July 28, 2007

Love thy colleague

I was very surprised when, a few days ago, I read in a comment by Count Iblis on Am I A Woman Scientist?'s blog that he manages to write papers with people he has never met. Since I have done plenty of collaboration with people who were physically far away, I stopped, and asked myself why I found it so strange.
The answer is, of course, that all my co-authors have been friends; indeed, we were friends or at least good acquaintances even before we became co-authors. Indeed, the relationship goes both ways: I have expanded my research field in certain direction, in order to read papers by people I found interesting, or even so that we could collaborate. On the other hand, I have become a close friend of researchers I started talking to because of pure scientific interest.
Indeed, more is true: I tend to think of the mathematicians in my field, those that I have known now for one or two decades and that I occasionally meet somewhere in the world, those that I invite to my conferences and whose papers I referee (and conversely), as my "village". That is, the place where I am at home; where people know me and accept me as I am, including plenty of problems (when I read of people complaining about slacker co-authors... well, that's usually my role).
Although I still keep contact with some of my pre-university friends, they are not so many, and the contact is infrequent. The friends I've kept for three decades now are those who at least try to understand why it is reasonable that I occasionally leave husband and children behind and travel to another town, or country, or continent, to try and prove theorems.
My social network in the town were I live tends to be composed of other parents with a university culture and a taste for books. Some are scientists in other fields, others are married to scientists, and all have some kind of curiosity or at least respect for the world of science; they are my models in my attempts to do public outreach (attempts that include this blog, of course).
So there's one part of balancing work and love, the brain and the heart, that I find very easy: namely, a lot of the people involved are the same.

This post is written for , whose next edition is Aug 1st at Twicetenured.

I'm a Girl!

And I Rock! Twice nominated me as

It actually happened some days ago, but this is as long as I struggled with finding a honest way to produce the above effect. Finally, with departure approaching, I gave up and just did a cut and paste from Twice's source file. I hope she doesn't mind: americans usually have a different attitude then europeans (well, than me) about copying, but hopefully it only applies to exams.

I will eventually find the time to put the comments where they belong, but in the meantime I would like to tag

Am I a woman scientist? who helps to be more realisitc as to how much better my life would have been had I chosen to work in Scandinavia. I understand that she has way too much to do, but this doesn't make her less awesome.

Sciencewoman, who is right now starting a new life as mother and tenure track faculty.

Jane, who manages to go to conferences and give talks while traveling with Baby Jane.

These are three women scientists with children whose age a in years satisfies |a|<1, i.e., they are at a time when I was exhausted all the time. Very happy, very exhausted, and very inefficient. So best wishes to all of them!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Brief rants

I'm in a tremendous hurry, so I can't rant properly now.
I first got angry at William Saletan claiming in Slate that people should dump their fat friends and get skinny ones: I'm on the skinny side myself, but I choose my friends with different criteria and so, I hope, does everybody else. The analysis he gives of the statistical data he quotes is totally nonsensical. But I often get pissed at him, so that's not surprising.
I'm much more impressed with being angry at Salon's Broadsheet, where Carol Smith advocated that it was right for a daycare center to fire a woman who didn't go to work because her husband had battered her too badly. The argument was "If her (ex) husband beats her up, she obviously is not comptetent to be a daycare center educator". Sorry? Uh? I couldn't believe my eyes. Her husbands beats her and it's her fault? And a woman says that? Angry is too weak a word. Maybe it's a good occasion to stop reading both Salon and Slate and get much more productive.
Update: it turns out women under 30 aren't allowed to choose which contraceptive method they want to use. That is, they are, so long as it's not tube tying. In fact, one can still have children after that, by IVF. The ovaries don't get removed or altered. But of course, women aren't ever really grownups, right?

It's that time of the year

Several weeks of summer vacations await me. So of course there has been a tremendous last-minute rush of things to do, especially since everyone else seems to have left at mid July. So I was the only one to answer the phone when questions arose from the administration.
Also my research students wanted extra office hours (we are talking of something like a total of three hrs/day in the last two weeks).
The paper with PD#1 and S#6 is finally ready. I am very, very happy with it, even though it is not a very great result. It is one of the few cases where I started with an idea of my own and saw it become slowly true. Of course I wouldn't have made it without my coauthors, but still it was my dream first.

I have said a bit too many times "yes" in the past few months, which means that I have agreed to write a number of non research articles of different kinds. I had the brilliant idea of planning to finish them all during the summer vacation: after all, for two weeks we are visiting my parents, and for one week we are going to a hotel with childcare.
The trouble is of course that my parents aren't willing to look after the children unaided for longer than 15 minutes, if at all, and that in previous occasions the hotel's children entertainment, while highly appreciated by C#1 and C#3, failed to satisfy the more discriminating taste of C#2. As a result, I was free to do any activity which could be performed while having on my lap 16 Kilos of child and/or running after said child who was obviously in training for some daycare level survival training.
So I will just summarize here the list of articles I have agreed to write, so that I can look at it occasionally:
  1. an expository article on a topic I know very well, but from an angle I am not familiar with;
  2. a short autobiography for a site about careers of women in science;
  3. a short article on the relation between women and science for a magazine with a mostly medical audience;
  4. another expository article on a topic I know very well, but which completely lacks readable references;
  5. a short expository article on part of my recent work;
  6. a short expository article about what I hope will become my future area of research;
  7. a very short article on the life of Emmy Noether, of which I know very little.
Due dates are basically all in September, but I should plan in finishing during the vacation, because afterwards the doctoral students will need even more time. And, I will have to seriously start nagging C#1 about her homework (last year she didn't do any... and WS isn't really very good at this kind of things, so it's my chore).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Headache is over

I am usually a very healthy person, and become easily obnoxious when faced with even the slightest physical inconvenience. I spent the last three days with a continuous headache, resistent against the usual painkillers I have at home. I have a very vague recollection of said three days, except that the weather was gorgeous and the children enjoyed every minute of it. Of course the culprit is the sun: I will have to get a hat. Sigh. It usually takes me no longer than three days at the beach to lose or destroy one, and most of them are too small anyway.

Today I finally woke up feeling normal, and I was so giddy with relief that I celebrated by doing almost nothing so far. That is, I talked to WS about something he needs to know for his current project, to a visiting scientist who explained to me some references I overlooked, to PD#1 and S#6 about our paper and in particular said references, to S#8 whose thesis is progressing really well, to S#4 who now should start writing up what she did in a reasonable way, and to FP1 and FP2 about some technical questions on Calabi Yau threefolds. As a result, I haven't started writing anything yet today, and I still have so much to do.

Tomorrow I will be in late - the new dishwasher should arrive - and spend one more hour attending a (hopefully interesting) talk by the visiting scientist. I also have to help WS plan an expansion for his research group which would also involve me and a rather interesting chunk of research money. Next week we have a very distinguished visitor, and then I'm going to go vacationing. Three weeks. I can't wait.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Writing science versus writing mathematics

Dr. Freeride at Adventures in Ethics and Science wrote a post inspired by the book A Short Guide to Writing About Science by David Porush. She quotes from that book a list of "commandments" for scientific writers. I'm going to comment on that list from the perspective of a mathematician (the only one I have!).

  • Complex sentences are more precise and intelligent than simple ones.
  • This is definitely not true. Indeed, I have had to learn to keep it simple, since mathematical english uses much simpler structures than my native language. This is a clarity requirement, particularly needed since for most of us english is not easy.

  • Passive voice is more objective than active voice because active voice involves stating the agent, who is often a human, and humans introduce subjectivity.
  • Passive voice is never used, except in extremely straightforward contexts.

  • Descriptive prose is imprecise and unscientific because descriptions rely on adjectives which are often unquantifiable.
  • You can't possibly use descriptive prose in a statement or a proof, since mathematical language is so overpicky. On the other hand, descriptive prose is welcome in introductions, and everywhere else where you are trying to give euristic comments (which should be included!).

  • Claims about scientific fact must always be cautious; thus, using very cautious language -- squirrel language -- in scientific prose is always prudent.
  • We fine tune caution when we state conjectures (we have several synonyms, referring to different degrees of confidence). But when we prove something, there's no caution: we are proud of our achievement and we're totally sure! Occasionally mistakes are found, usually before physical publication.

  • Be as wary of innovation or taking chances in language as you are in the lab.
  • We need new words all the time! We both use standard ones with new meanings (a ring, a field and a module all have a precise definition) and invent new words (my favorite is crepant, as something for which discrepancy is zero). Finding good words to describe new concepts is one of the key duties of mathematicians.

  • Revision is unnecessary because knowledge is transparent.
  • What can I say? Some of us don't revise. They are hated by the whole community. The vast majority does.

    In the comments, someone discussed whether things might have changed since Porush published the book in 1995. Maybe, but not in mathematics. We stopped writing complex sentences around roughly 1950 (reading older stuff is a pain, in any language) and the rest is even older. The only exception is the passive voice, whose perceived difficulty is in my opinion language-dependent.

    Maybe mathematicians are really different from other scientists: e.g., the difference with physics is pretty noticeable even at the stylistic level.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    In a hurry

    Today I talked to S#3, whose thesis project is unfortunately very, very slow. I told him to come back in two days. I had again a large number of meetings; I attended a talk by a very successful former graduate student of a colleague, and in the few spare moments started preparing the final version of the paper with PD#1 and S#6. I also achieved a very minor result from the point of view of visibility of my group within our department.
    And now I'm going to have dinner out to celebrate PD#1 leaving us soon for a tenure position!

    PS Lest I seem too efficient, I did skip one meeting. So I will have to read the notes tomorrow.

    Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    Fresh air, fresh ideas

    After a storm last night, the outside temperature went down a little bit. Today I feel more energetic and I actually managed to achieve something. Unfortunately no mathematical research yet.
    I discussed with S#4 some more details of her thesis project, and gave her advice about telephone interviews and the next postdoc application. I reviewed with PD#1 and S#6 our joint paper, which seems finally to be in an advanced status of completion. Hopefully it will go on the web by the end of July. I outlined to S#9 my suggestions for the next step of his thesis project. He is also working on a side project that he came up with on his own, and for which he has managed to find the relevant literature. Sounds good.
    On the service front, I had several meetings with a small but significant number of colleagues. I managed to get an extra grant for an advanced undergraduate student who wants to visit for a few months (all pro bono work, he is not in my field) and collected all the relevant information for a very important future meeting with the administration. I spent maybe three hours doing that; it seems I that no matter how much I hate administrative work, I am better at it than most of my colleagues or rather, as I suspect, they pretend to be not so good so that I do it.
    I might soon have to tackle an administrative task of greater responsibility. I feel a bit ambivalent about this. On the one hand, I already have too little time for everything I like, and administrative work can be quite time-comsuming.
    On the other hand, at least I can maybe stop complaining inanely about lousy and/or nonsensical decisions. I can do what I always wanted: work to change the system from within. And hope that the system doesn't change me instead.
    Update: I even started writing up an article on women and science. In my own language! For the general public! I'm very happy, although I know that I will repent having accepted to do this.

    Monday, July 9, 2007

    Mediterranean diet

    My children's school provides lunch, and no other food is available, nor are they allowed to bring more than a midmorning snack from home. Lunch is planned by a dietologist and supervised by the teachers; the only drink served with lunch is tap water. This is not a fancy private school, but the state one - the one that everyone complains about.
    At home we usually cook from scratch, with help from our freezer: some things are cooked in large amounts, portioned, frozen, and microwaved at need. We also eat plenty of less healthy stuff, but fresh fruit, some vegetables, and yogurt are general favorites.
    None of this is special, and indeed most other families cook more: typically, a main meal should include two cooked courses and one cooked side dish. We tend to have one cooked dish and sides that need only short or no cooking: for instance raw tomatoes and bell peppers, briefly cooked carrots and peas. Drinking tap water or bottled nonsparkling water is also standard practice here.
    Reading this article and especially the corresponding comment thread made me feel quite lucky. It even made me a bit less ashamed of my and WS's own poor cooking skills.

    Sunday, July 8, 2007

    Homeopathy for scientists

    Twice described in her blog her successful attempts to explain to some relatives why homeopathic medication can't possibly work. I am of course impressed by her ability to discuss such topics with her family - I certainly wouldn't attempt that with my parents (and successfully silence my husband, who thinks homeopathy belongs in the group with astrology and superstition). More importantly, I must add that I did use homeopathic remedies myself, and gave them to my children.

    I took homeopathic pills when I couldn't sleep because of contractions during my twin pregnancy. I never had serious problems, but in the last two months I was waking up many times per night and contractions, summer heat and double worries made it hard to fall asleep again. So every time I just took a few of my little white pills, and let them slowly melt under my tongue. I thought of my wonderful midwife who had given me the pills, and felt confident, relaxed and happy. I had made it once and would make it again. Did the pills help? Sure they did, even if they contained sugar as only scientifically detectable ingredient.

    Does this mean I think homeopathy can work? No. I'm a scientist, and I can do the maths myself. But placebo effect works, as described e.g. in a long article in Der Spiegel a few weeks ago (sorry, I seem to be unable to find an internet reference). Homeopathy can indeed cure actual health problems by placebo effect, and no scientist should be ashamed to admit that. Because the placebo effect can be measured!

    I also have another use for it, when the children have an illness for which the doctor recommends to just wait and do nothing since it will go away by itself. The following sample dialog happened several times, with different values for X and different pairs child/disease.
    X: "Have you heard how bad C#3's cough is? You should (insert random proposal)!"
    Me: "Don't worry, I am already curing him with homeopathic tablets".
    X: "Oh well, are you sure it works?"
    Me: "Well, the doctor said it could work, it doesn't have side effects, and we can still use something stronger if it doesn't work."
    X: "Ok, but don't wait too long."

    Hot summer days

    In case this wasn't clear by the lack of mathematics in my posts, I have been totally unproductive last week. I did spend a few hours explaining some technical stuff to my coauthors PD#1 and S#6, and discussing thesis progress with some of the students, but somehow this week was mostly spent planning for the future. I am almost done with planning my scientific travels next year, and have greatly restricted the choices for the remaining two weeks of summer vacation. I also bought all kinds of hopefully useful stuff: nothing at the sales (I might still find the time and energy to get a pair of shoes I can't go through the summer alternating Brikenstocks and trekking sandals, unfortunately) but home use material. Books, a cellphone for WS, a spare battery. I have also tried to buy a second iSight, and planned some much needed furniture replacement: three children shorten significantly the life span of a sofa, as I discovered.
    Yesterday and today I could have staid home and tried to catch up on the missing work. Instead, both days were spent at the beach, and this evening at a fair, eating sausages and french fries, drinking beer, and watching C#1 and #2 dance together with the grace and sense of rythm they inherited from me - i.e., none whatsoever.
    I discovered thus that C#2 is no longer afraid of the sea, and C#3 can more or less swim. They also accepted to have a cold shower on the beach before going home, and actually managed to have fun in the process. And I finally resumed my favorite hobby, sleeping on the beach. Two hours yesterday, and another two today.
    I love my family, I love summer. I couldn't have spent these two days any better.
    Hopefully tomorrow some of the energy I have accumulated will be transformed into theorems, instead of trickling out into phone calls to the electrician and travel and hotel reservations.

    Saturday, July 7, 2007

    Nasty thoughts

    In the local news today was the story of a very unlucky man who was caught by a stroke while on his boat, and died immediately. They were near to the coast, so someone heard his 6 years old son's cries for help and rescued him. My first thought was one of deep sympathy for this man and for his family, having to face such a sudden, tragic death. This was also, very appropriately, the tone used in the newspaper article.
    My second thought was unfortunately really nasty. The man who died was over sixty; what would the news have said had it been a 60+ old woman dying in front of her 6-yr old child? Would they all have resisted temptation to say "We told you it was wrong to have children when you're so old"?

    Monday, July 2, 2007

    Online quiz results are usually meaningless

    ... but maybe this result should tell me something.
    You Are 4% Girly

    Um... you're a guy, right? If not, you're the most boyish girl in the world.
    And for you, that's probably the ultimate compliment.