Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens SPOILERS

So, I finally saw the new Star Wars movie today.  The good news is that it didn’t suck.  My thoughts will continue, with increasingly annoying spoilers as I go. 

On the science point of view, they had some interesting X-wing fly-byes of a ringed planet’s rings.  I’m hoping that sometime in 2017, the Cassini mission’s actual ring flybys actually work without destroying the spacecraft, and produce images which we can compare to the Star Wars artist’s impression. I suspect that once again, reality will show how limited the human imagination really is.

My other beef is that planets seemed to be less climactically diverse than Earth.  We had all-green planets, all desert planets, all ice planets, but nothing like Earth, will al of those regions easily visible from space.

As for the cinematic experience, the great thing about the new Star Wars movies is that all the little stuff is done really well.  The dialogue is lively, the effects are awesome, the tension in the scenes is well tuned. The new young leads both hold up their parts of the story, and Han Solo is old, but still has it.  The story is very fast-paced, and there is always something happening. Despite the speed of the plot, there are relatively few glaring plot holes.

However, at the same time, there wasn’t a lot of momentum, and much of the movie was emotionally flat. The movie was running full speed from the very beginning of the film.  But unlike the previous movies, there was not a lot of emotional B-story to make us care. The chemistry between Han and Leia from the earlier movies was sadly lacking. Furthermore, all of the main plot points were telegraphed, or otherwise made absurdly obvious, way in advance.  There were no jaw dropping surprises here. And the reveals didn’t have much impact. Any many plot points in the latter third of the movie were transparently about setting up later films.

Similarly, the villains were weak.  One of the few things the prequels did well was to show just what a complete badass the Emperor was; in contrast, the bad guy in the new movie is a cartoon villain. And the Kylo Ren is so shallow that his personality is perfectly captured by a spoof twitter account. Mrs. Lemming described him like a Harry Potter villain- a half blood with a disappointing muggle father. And at several points, I felt the Jedi battles degenerated into yet another live action comic.

Still, the movie kept my attention all the way through, and the special effects were fantastic, both in their spectacle and their integration into the plot. Definitely worth a viewing, but I doubt I will go back unless it is to take the kids.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Twenty-one protons

The David Guetta / Sia hit Titanium has been floating around the internet and our airwaves for about five years now; the first adio broadcasts are just now passing Alpha Centauri. Despite the popularity of the song, its lesser known prequel is hardly ever heard. This may be an accident of economics; not everything can be a hit, especially if it is odd. Or it might just be a sign of the times; unlike Titanium, the prequel came out before Youtube or streaming, and was released on a rather more old-fashioned musical medium known as the 45.  Or, to be more precise, the 44.9559…

You leave it out
And ekaboron holds the space
Nilsen cooked my oxide up
I’m purified, but molten salts are such a waste
Reduced fluorite makes me up

Mendeleev proved nothing removed
Fire assay fire assay
Trivalent, but not the same
As lanthanum or gallium.

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the yttrium
I am the Scandium

Cut me with
Aluminum increase the strength
Rare earth, the lightest one
Take your choice of ore min’rals to soak me up
Phosphates and uranium.

Mendeleev proved nothing removed
Fire assay fire assay
Trivalent, but not the same
As lanthanum or gallium.

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the yttrium
I am the Scandium

I am the Scandium
I am the Scandium

One chart, calcium
takes a proton on the run
Scandium oxide makes glass!

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the Yttrium
I am the Scandium

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the Yttrium
I am the Scandium

I am the Scandium!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

RIP Marco Beltrando

A quick search of the term “RIP” in this blog will show that it has been used over the years to mark the passing of senior scientists, mentors, and explorers who have an influence on me, whether personally or by reputation. I never imagined that I would have to write one for a student several years my junior. So it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to Marco Beltrando.

Marco did his PhD at the Australian National University when I was a technician there. In fact, he would have graduated a few years after I started this blog. He was a big friendly guy, full of energy, lighting up the hallway with the excitement of science. He studied the formation of the Alps, the journey of the various alpine thrust sheets down deep into the Earth and back to the surface again, prying apart their precollisional history, their tectonic wanderings, and their speed, one accessory mineral at a time.

Marco’s geochronological tool of choice was the argon-argon system, not uranium-lead, so we didn’t interact directly in lab on a regular basis. But he certainly had an excellent understanding of geologic time.

As geochronologists, we need to work on a very large span of time. The nanoseconds that we use to define the dead time in our counting systems are 24 orders of magnitude shorter than the duration of time since the Alpine rocks Marco studied were deformed. And the Alps are considered young by geologic standards.  When we throw around millions of years of uncertainty in our professional lives, it can be easy to miss the individual moments that make up our day to day existence. And since the most we can hope for is a lifetime that spans 20 billionths of the history of this planet, it behooves us to treat our time more valuably. After all, Marco only got eight and a half billionths.

To put it another way, the 31 million year age of the Alps is also a thousand trillion seconds. Millions of years are easy to get lost in- ice ages, extinction events, and the evolution of modern humans all happened in a fraction of a million years.  But we can all relate to seconds. We waste them all the time: By the hundreds waiting for the bus, by the dozens looking at random crap on the internet, by the score looking for things we ought never to have lost.

And yet, it only takes a single second to wave someone down at a conference, to greet a long lost friend, to offer a cup of coffee and the prospect of devoting a thousand seconds to catching up on years of life. It is a professional hazard of geology to think that places, things, and people will always be there, as they always have, with no vestige of an end. And it’s not until we lose someone that we realize how fleeting life can be.

Good-bye Marco, and rest in peace. You’ve left us some mighty big shoes to fill, in education, in motivation, and in research. But the best we can do is to try to make the time.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Tetrodotoxin Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can be a tricky holiday overseas. As it is a distinctly North American holiday, anyone outside of the USA and Canada will not necessarily understand what is going on.  Before we had kids, I would take a day of annual leave on Thanksgiving Thursday, and cook up a storm for local friends. We have been having expat Thanksgivings in Canberra ever since I first came here in 1997, and the tradition has continued in most years.

However, as the arrival of children has cut into our spare time, and as work responcibilities have increased, scheduling issues have forced me to abandon the strict calendar approach and host Thanksgiving on the following weekend. I've generally managed to be home on Thanksgiving, but for the first time since the field work for my PhD in 1998, this year I was stuck overseas.

I had a few thoughts about what to do, but my wonderful hosts in Japan's National Institute of Polar Research saved the day and took me out to dinner.  When I asked what it was, the answer was, "boiled fish." But it wasn't just any old fish, it was a notoriously poisonous-and Japanese- one.

The Fugu is a toxic blowfish (there are a variety of species, apparently). In a country known for the diversity of diet, it is one of the most extreme and iconic dishes of Japanese cuisine.  A poisonous fish, with the parts that will kill you carefully removed by a licenced chef, turned into a fancy meal. One of our post-docs had a manuscript rejected that morning, so she volunteered to be the taster. And the drinker.

The first course was salad of vegetables and strips of raw fish skin.  This was followed by the sashimi (shown below). After that came the deep-fried fish, followed by the main course; fish meat so fresh it was twitching, boiled at the table. After that, various vegetables were cooked in the fishy water, hotpot style, with thin strips of fish eaten shabu-shabu style. Finally, the residual broth was used to make rice.

As one can imagine, pufferfish are not particularly muscular.  Quite the opposite, in fact. So most of the later courses involved coaxing small amounts of meat off of large, perforated, platy bones. The boiled course, in particular, was probably the most difficult-to-eat chopstick meal that I have encountered in Japan, China, or Korea.  And the meat itself was extremely mild flavored, in contrast to the orange paste shown above, which was quite spicy.

The price was more reasonable than I feared- 5000 yen per person, including the beer. Overall, it was a fascinating experience, but not something that I will add to my standard rotation of what to eat in Japan. Still, it was better than trying to find a turkey substitute that wasn't quite the same as mom cooking her great-grandma's recipe, and it was a great way to celebrate the holiday with a meal that has a distict sense of place, even if that place was where I was working, and not my home.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Playing with science metrics

There are numerous critiques, both online and in the literature (pdf), of the overused H-index and journal impact factor (IF) metrics, particularly when it comes to assessing the quality of recent research.  However, many of these critiques do not include suggestions for how to improve the situation, aside from pointing out that if h-index equals half the square root of total citations, then it is a redundant number.  Over in Economics, they have gone all out to make a fantasy economics league, but we dirt people have no such construction.  Here, then, are a few easily calculated stats that would be an improvement on the status quo.  The can be calculated using Google Scholar, if necessary, assuming anyone knows how to yank their numbers.

COIF: Citations over Impact factor.
This is the number of citations per year a given paper has relative to the impact factor of the journal. Impact factor/2 is the average citations per year of a journal for papers in their first two years of release; subracting that from the citations per year for each given paper gives each paper a score. averaging those for a researcher gives their score. 
This metric puts the particular work of a scientist into perspective relative to others who publish in similar journals. Of course, the COIF from someone who publishes in journals with IF of 20 is not comparable to that of those who publish in papers with IF of two, but if IF is going to be tied to individual researchers despite all admonitions against this practice, then COIF gives a way to interpret it.

I suspect that most young to mid careers scientists will have a positive COIF; citations, at least in geology, tends to accumulate more in later years than in the first two.  However, a declining COIF might mean that one's work is becoming less relevant as time goes by.

Whether an institution wants a person with low COIF and flashy journals, or a high COIF in esoteric publications probably depends on the particular institution, and what their priorities are.  So the COIF might even be useful for determining how well suited people are to various particular institutions.

As an industry person who publishes occasionally, I have few enough papers to be able to calculate this for myself manually and easily (using Google scholar, which probably inflates the numbers by 20%). Anyone with a basic knowledge of programming could probably automate the process, though.

Paper year Journal IF CPY COIF
Birch et al. 2007 AJES 1.6 1.8 1.0
Parsons et al.  2008 Am Min 2.0 4.3 3.3
Klemme et al 2008 Geostandards 3.2 2.9 1.3
Parsons et al.  2009 CMP 3.5 3.3 1.6
Aleinikoff et al. 2012 Chem Geol 3.5 7.7 5.9
Magee et al 2014 SIA 1.2 1.0 0.4

3.5 2.2

SCP: Self citation percentage
What percentage of a paper's citations come from authors of that paper? This is simply The number of times a paper is cited by one or more of its authors divided by the total number of citations. This has been looked into by a number of people in the never ending struggle to interpret citation numbers.  At least some suggest that the number in generally in the twenties, and doesn't have enough variant to be useful, but I find that surprising, as the papers I've published vary quite a bit:

Demonstrating on myself again, it can range from 4% to 100%.

paper year cites sefies SCP
Parsons et al.  2008 30 6 20%
Aleinikoff et al. 2012 23 1 4%
Parsons et al.  2009 20 7 35%
Klemme et al 2008 20 6 30%
Birch et al. 2007 14 2 14%
Magee et al 2014 1 1 100%
108 23 21%

Friday, November 13, 2015


I've been working on a manuscript and other things. so it could be quiet around here for a while.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Geosonnet 35

The bluestone of which Melbourne is constructed
Is fresh basalt, from NVP derived
And yet no ocean slab is here subducted
No spreading ridge or hotspot has survived
With late Cretaceous Antarctic divorce
The margin should be passive, fires spent
And yet there must be an upwelling force
As mantle melting is quite evident.
Cratonic root plows through Asthenosphere
The slowest ship to ever voyage north
Yet models show convection will appear
So decompression melts can issue forth.
  Melb's gloomy architecture isn't fake
  The town's built from Australia's stony wake.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Geosonnet 34

Our bodies' carbon, oxygen derives
From hearts of stars, extinguished into dust
Life resurrects these molecules, and strives
For meaning, ere death follows, as it must.
The lifeless gardening of impact rocks
Makes dust of stones and boulders on the Moon.
Inevitable crumbling, by the clocks
Chonometrize the sands of time, so soon
The robot eyes, which scan the moon for heat
Will see long-dead ejecta cooling fast
But when time's millstone's work is incomplete
The radiating warmth of rock will last.
  While entropy will not release its hold
   Observing it lets history unfold

Geology 42 1059

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Geosonnet 33

The swiftest planet, closest to the sun
Is roasted in the star's infernal gaze.
In polar craters, dawn has n'er begun
Eternal darkness freezes gasses there.
Though sunshine never penetrates the holes,
Reflected light creates a subtle gloam
night vision robot, orbiting the poles
While Earthly radar guides the cam'ra home.
Prokofiev hosts lightly colored frost
In other craters ice is black as char
A lag from which the water has been lost?
Organic/ sulfur condensate? Like tar?
   From springs? Or solar wind? A comet's blow?
   From whence this water comes we do not know.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Geosonnet 32

Southwest from where Doc Livingstone was found
The grand conglomerate caps old black shales.
The rhenium, in micro-pyrite bound,
Can date when diamictite ice prevails.
The wild’s call, beyond the Yukon Gold
Hides ancient glaciation in the wilds.
To test the Snowball Earth, we ask, “How old”
These jigsaw continents, frozen or mild?
Just past the pleasure dome of Kublai Khan
Mongolia preserves more ancient rock
The age determination’s not forgone
We must assess the isotopic clock.
   For fifty million years, and then for five,
   The planet froze, yet somehow stayed alive.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Geosonnet 31

Gyrations of a topsy-turvy world
Could spur migration of the cryosphere
No snowball Earth, just poles and tropics whorled
The data which support this are unclear.
Precambrian magnetic fields suggest
That tropics, poles exchanged with frightful speed.
Magnetic hysteresis is the test
Anorthosite and feldspar crystals need.
A shaky witness cross-examination
The steep magnetic field begins to fray
Faced with a single crystal refutation
The polar history has gone away.
   The Ediacaran poles didn't roam.
   Emerging life was blessed with stable home.

Geology 43 132

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Hard rock men and soft rock girls

Readers with short attention spans who waste too much time on social media may have noticed that Brian Romans has been complaining over on twitter about the hardrock/ softrock divide. This being a blog, I will whinge in more depth below:

For those of you who grew up on a carbonaceous chondrite, there is a historical cultural divide between hardrock- the study of high temperature processes as recorded in crystalline rocks, and softrock- the study of low temperature processes which can be recorded in sediments.

I’m not sure where in the fossil record this division first appeared, but my experience of it goes back to teachers who were trained in the Apollo era. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the moon race injected lots of cash into the study of (dead, high temperature) moon rocks and associated meteorites. A generation later, from the 90’s on, there has been an increasing push to understand climate, presumably in hope that we can learn something about it before it kills us all. One result of this change in focus is an unnecessary cultural divide, premised on lazy assumptions that in some cases are decades out of date.

For example, one of the strengths of the 20th century hardrock push was the elevation of petrology beyond a simple descriptive science to a thermodynamically constrained, math-based quantitative science. The calculations done with thermocalc or MELTS or any of the other equilibrium simulators are of course trivial compared to what goes into climate models or organic geochemistry or genetics, but some of the older, out-of-touch hardrock evangelists haven’t quite caught on to these developments yet. Similarly, researchers who have used the surge in climatological research funding to tackle new fields of research have sometimes been labeled as too soft to make it in hard rock, while in many cases they feel that their former fields of study have either had the interesting questions answered, or degenerated into untestable speculating.

In reality, the advancement in modern analytical, conceptual, and computational techniques means that the separation between hardrock and softrock is largely a psychological or historical one. As you carbonaceous chondrite dwellers surely appreciate, we have moved on from isotopic anomalies in presolar grains to organic cosmochemistry, the origin of chirality and life, and other burning questions that require understanding the interaction between low and high temperature processes in active planets. Even bread-and-butter questions like continental crust formation are increasingly having to deal with the effects of weathering (and how it changes as the atmosphere evolves), in order to explain increasingly detailed analyses. As a community, we should have realized way back when subduction was discovered that it is futile to separate aqueous and thermal processes on a planet whose thermal engine is driven by downgoing oceanic slabs.

Having met a lot of scientists over the years, the ones who use their skills to address a variety of questions across outdated subdisciplinary boundaries seem to be happier and more productive than those who choose to wave an archaic banner from a lost tribe of geoscience. From the 21st century, the hardrock / softrock divide seems as old fashioned as the Billy Joel song parodied below:

Softrock Girl

Softrock girl,
She’s been living in her softrock world.
I bet she’s never had a mantle guy
I bet her momma never told her why.

I’m gonna try for a softrock girl
She’s been living in her climate world
As long as anyone with magma can
and now she’s looking for a hard rock man

And when she knows what she wants from deep ti-i-ime
And when she wakes up and makes up her mi-i-ind
She’ll see I’m not so tough
Just because
I’m in love
With a softrock girl.

You know I’ve seen her in her soft rock world,
She’s getting tired of her plankton toys
and her presents from her soft rock boys
She’s got a choice.

Softrock girl
You know I can’t abide to study pearls
But maybe someday when my ship comes in
Drilling MOHO through the MORB so thin
and then I’ll win.

And when she’s walking on sand grains so fi-i-ine.
And when she’s drilling, she yearns for a mi-i-ine.
She’ll say I’m not so tough
Just because
I’m in love with a softrock girl
She’s been living in her climate world
As long as anyone with magma can
and now she’s looking for a hard rock man
That’s what I am
Softrock girl
She’s my softrock girl.
You know I’m in love with a
Softrock girl
My softrock girl.
You know I’m in love with a
Softrock girl
My softrock girl.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

A one-way ticket to an unsuspecting Kepler 452b?

There has been a bit in the science press about the newly discovered exoplanet, Kepler 452b. This related to the observation that it is in the “habitable zone” of a sun-like star.  The big news, as always, is that this planet is completely unlike anything in our solar system. If it is solid, it has three times the mass than every rocky body in our solar system combined. If it is not solid, then it is one of the sub-neptune planets common everywhere but around our star.  But there are two points in particular which have been ignored- or at least not appreciated, which I would like to expound on.

Firstly, we can see them, but they can’t see us.  There are two main techniques used for detecting planets around stars: Radial velocity, and transits.  The motion of the planet around the star pulls the star backwards and forwards, in proportion to their relative masses.

With the radial velocity method measures the very small Doppler shift in the light of the star created by this pull. However, in order to see this motion, the orbit of the planet around the star needs to be somewhat edge-on as seen from earth. If we are looking town down on the orbit, then the star doesn’t move towards or away from us; it just goes in a circle (or ellipse). And sideways motion in the sky is much harder to detect that motion towards of away from Earth.

With transit detection, the crossing of the planet across the face of the star (as seen from Earth) causes the light from the start to dim a little bit in a periodic fashion. This requires Earthly observers to be in the same plane as the orbit of the planet- For a Earth-like planet orbiting a sun-like star, the planet will only transit if the Earth is within a half degree of the planet’s orbital plane.  The Kepler mission is a transit mission; all the planets it detects are systems which are edge-on as seen from Earth.

For aliens trying to detect us using the transit method, they need to be viewing us from a star that lies in the ecliptic. Basically, if they want to see the Earth pass in front of the sun, to detect its transit, then from our point of view, the sun needs to cross in front of their star.

However, the Kepler primary mission* field of view is nowhere near the ecliptic. It is, fore the most part, more than 60 degrees from the ecliptic. This makes transit detection of the Earth in front of the sun impossible from any star systems in the original Kepler field of view. And due to the high angle, radial velocity measurements of the Earth’s pull on the sun will be less than half as effective as our radial velocity measurements of their planets.

So the Kepler mission isn’t just a telescope.  It is a spy satellite, peering down on a thousand planets circling hundreds of distance star, all of whom are blissfully unaware of our planet’s existence.  If there are aliens on Kepler 452b- or any other planet Kepler discovers, they aren’t waving at us, because assuming technological parity, they can’t possibly know that we are here.

Of course, we know that they are there.  And it might be that one day,. given a modest technological advancement, someone could sent a colony ship on a hundred thousand year mission to visit them.  However, the visit could easily overstay its welcome.

Kepler 452b is probably not an Earthlike planet. However, if it does have an Earthlike composition, then it is a gigantic hunk of rock and metal three times more massive than every rocky-metal planet in our solar system combined. Due to gravitational self-compression, this planet would have a mass six times that of Earth.  At 36 hellagrams, it is just under half the mass of Uranus. The surface gravity would be a crushing 2.3 times greater than on Earth.  No rocket we currently have could even leave the launch pad under suck crashing gravity.  And even if it did, the velocity required to achieve orbital velocity, 15.5 km/s, is almost twice what is required on Earth.

Although technology is sure to advance if we are to get the ability to launch colony ships, such a huge planet would trap any rocket conceivable with current technology.  Kepler 452b is, in essence, a gigantic Hotel California, from which no-one can ever leave.  As a result, any short-lived visitation attempt would inevitably become a permanent stay.

So don’t be too disappointed if the locals on Kepler 452b don’t wave back.  They are blissfully unaware that we are staring at them.  And if they did know, the fact that we would wear out our welcome upon visiting by a factor of infinity is unlikely to cheer them up.

 * The secondary mission, however, is observing on the ecliptic.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Geosonnet 30

The periodic dinner tables host
A smorgasbord of elemental food.
Without the nutrient that’s needed most,
The spread of life’s substantially subdued.
When goethite settled out of ancient seas
The phosphorus adhered to iron mush.
Experimental doping can appease
Silicic activists and calcite crush.
If photoferrotrophs consume the P
Archean ocean surface life can’t grow.
No photosynthesis, O can’t be free
‘till rivers from the first great mountains flow.
  Yet when a couple billion more years pass
  Not P, but iron grows the biomass.

 Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The biodiversity of topography

The central Australian desert is an extreme arid environment.  For 20 million years, the continent has been drying, its rivers turning to playas, its ground water salting up, its inland plains and plateaus slowly disappearing under waves of sand.  The plant kingdom has not abandoned the continent, though, and thousands of drought-tolerant plants inhabit the red centre of Australia.  This aridity is a fickle thing, however.  In this wide brown land we call home, a slight increase in water availability, or a bit of shade from the noonday sun can make a big difference to a tropical, moisture loving plant.

A stunning example of this is the cycad.  As this global distribution map shows, cycads are mostly found in tropical to sub-tropical forests, and in Australia, they hug the wetter coastal areas.  But there is one species not shown on this map.

In the central Australian Macdonnell ranges, Macrozamia macdonnelli is found in ravines, at the base of south facing cliffs, and in rare desert oases, where ground water and sun protection allow it to cling to life as the continent dried out.  1500 km from the ocean and about as far from its nearest living relative, these cycads are found through the MacDonnell and Hartz ranges of the Northern Territory, where steep ravines channel water and shade the plants which grow within. Like an outlawed bushranger on the run from the law, this plant and its pollinator sidekick have been hiding out from the sun in the secret mountain waterholes for millions of years.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Tim Hunt sleight of hand

The internet has been all atwitter about the blatantly sexist remarks made by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt earlier this week, at a women in scientist event in Korea.  These remarks have been roundly ridiculed, as is appropriate for such stupidity from such an influential scientist.  A few days later, after a half-assed apology, Professor Hunt resigned. 

This is unfortunate.  His resignation allows his university, not to mention the rest of academia, to “shoot the messenger” and use him as a scapegoat to ignore the structural problems that allow academia to shelter and perpetuate sexist behaviour in the first place. It is like treating cholera with doxycycline while ignoring the sewage.
Ideally, his remarks, which were basically an admission of sexual harassment and/or bullying, should have triggered the standard investigative processes at his universities.  If, in fact, he has been hiring in a gender-biased manner, or taking sexual advantage of starry-eyed underlings, or making his employees cry, then he should be dealt with using the appropriate channels.  By resigning in haste, it means that we have no way of gauging the efficacy of the university grievance policies, and it gives his victims no means of redress or compensation.
I have mentioned many times the depreofessionalization ofscience, and the attendant social problems that result.  However, the flip side of scientific research getting outsourced from the corporate world to academia is that it requires academia to get more professional.  This is especially true in those areas where commercial research is being done.  However, there has been a resistance from academia to adopt professional attitudes and work practices along with this work.  And this is one of the problems that allows sexist and racist hiring practices and work environments to persist in the ivory tower while private and public sector workplaces are trying to reduce them.
In all types of workplaces, people do fall in love.  Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, and People hopefully learn to work out how to balance their personal and professional lives before their 72nd birthday.  But whether one believes the appropriate waiting time between leaving supervision and calling should be measured on the second hand or by the orbit of Mars, the admission of a senior researcher of committing damaging and unprofessional behaviour should not prompt knee-jerk resignation.  This just deflects attention from the institutional structures that either address or cover up these sorts of problems.  The issue is not Professor Hunt’s twinfamy; it is the inability of academic institutions to protect their junior personnel.