Fly-By Blogging

By Sean Carroll | August 29, 2006 11:45 am

Things I would blog about, if I weren’t on blogging vacation.

  • A short piece I wrote for Seed about the arrow of time is now on the web. It’s basically a summary of the scenario that Jennie Chen and I are suggesting for spontaneous inflation. On a related note, Karmen at Chaotic Utopia has a series on complexity and time, starting here.
  • Cocktail Party Physics advertises a call for proposals from Feminist Press.

    Girls and Science: Call for Proposals

    The Feminist Press, in collaboration with The National Science Foundation, is exploring new ways to get girls and young women interested in science. While there are many library resources featuring biographies of women scientists that are suitable for school reports, these are rarely the books that girls seek out themselves to read for pleasure. What would a book, or series of books, about science that girls really want to read look like? That is the question we want to answer.

    I don’t know; seems to me, if we start encouraging girls to become scientists, pretty soon they’ll be replacing equations with hugs and instead of performing experiments we’ll just talk about our feelings or some such thing. That can’t be right.

  • Janna Levin, author of the uniquely compelling How the Universe Got Its Spots and the brand-new A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, appeared on the Colbert Report! I can’t actually get the video to play, but maybe you can.
  • Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science is now out in paperback. So all you poor liberals who couldn’t afford the hardcover edition now have no excuse.
  • Speaking of books, Alex Vilenkin has come out with Many Worlds in One, about eternal inflation and the multiverse. Alex was the one who first realized that inflation could be eternal, and is a world-class cosmologist; whatever you may think of the issues, he’s worth listening to. (And don’t tell me that we cosmologists can’t have a little fun.)
  • And Michael Bérubé also has a book out, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?. So many books. Don’t these people know they’re wasting valuable time that could be spent blogging?
  • George W. Bush has decided to close EPA regional libraries, to protect the public from information they don’t need.

    What has been termed, “positively Orwellian”, by PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, is indeed frightening. It seems that the self-appointed “Decider”, George W. Bush, has decided to “end public access to research materials” at EPA Regional libraries without Congressional consent. In an all out effort to impede research and public access, Bush has implemented a loosely covert operation to close down 26 technical libraries under the guise of a budgetary constraint move. Scientists are protesting, but at least 15 of the libraries will be closed by Sept. 30, 2006.

  • On the other hand, John Kerry draws support from unseemly quarters, at least according to Yousuf al-Qaradawi.

    Kerry, who ran against Bush, was supported by homosexuals and nudists. But it was Bush who won [the elections], because he is Christian, right-wing, tenacious, and unyielding. In other words, the religious overcame the perverted. So we cannot blame all Americans and Westerners.

    So we really shouldn’t complain about the President.

  • Weak lensing, uploaded to flickr by darkmatter. Amazing photos. Weak Lensing
  • Rob Knop

    pretty soon they’ll be replacing equations with hugs and instead of performing experiments we’ll just talk about our feelings or some such thing. That can’t be right.

    On the other hand, with all these men as scientists, it’s all beer bellies and farting and sitting around watching football, so….

  • Mark

    I’ve got a blog review of Alex’s book in the works.

  • John Branch

    I frequently learn more about our culture from this physics blog than I do from the cultural blogs I visit. Today’s example: Janna Levin, her books (I’m especially interested in the novel about Gödel and Turing), and her appearance on The Colbert Report. Thanks for that.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    A much simpler explanation for the arrow of time is a simple evolutionary universe. I’m not talking about a “family tree”, like Lee Smolin has proposed, I mean a truly evolutionary cosmological model, where our universe is nearly flat because leaps to configurations of greater entropic efficiency are the direction of evolution, as proven by our leap from apes to harness fire, and beyond…

    That defines a true anthropic connection between humans and the forces, where the human evolutionary process carries a reciprocal connection to the forces.

    This stuff falls from self-evident theory and observation as naturally as Darwin’s theory did.

    Why this so hard for people to fathom, I’ll never know, given the comparitively EXTREME forms of speculation that are given more credence, but with less direct evidence.

    In case nobody noticed, the high-energy photons that get released as the expanding universe “comes apart”, are critical to the creation of real massive particles from less-dense negative pressure energy… and this affects the gravity and entropy of the universe via an asymmetrical application of the second law of thermodynamics.

  • bizarre

    what if these female scientists menstruate all over an important piece of research?

  • Q

    Hi Sean,
    thanks for the weak lensing pic and darkmatter@flickr link.
    Some Magic optics and freeze framed photons!

  • Q

    “the extremely far past looks essentially the same as the extremely far future. The distinction between past and future doesn’t matter on the scale of the entire cosmos, it’s just a feature we observe locally.”

    “If time is to be symmetric—if the direction of its flow is not to matter throughout the universe—conditions at early times should be similar to those at late times.”

    I shall not add anything to that. Ley Us just say we agree on the fundamentals, though we (you+I) may have asymmetric views of the final picture – perhaps not so much imperfect mirror image versus ‘reality’, but rather the difference between a ‘negative’ or undeveloped photograph – and the ‘real’ image in its ‘real’ or true colours.

  • Clarification Requested

    dark energy — energy that is inherent in the fabric of space itself

    For clarification, not antagonism, I must ask, how does this differ from the Alchemical AEther?

  • Cynthia

    After skimming through this post, I’m led to believe that the multiverse has entered into mainstream physics. Just out of curiosity, has a recent poll been conducted to determine the percentage of physicists who have bought into the concept of the multiverse?

  • Sean

    CR, that is a frequently asked question:

    The dark energy doesn’t define a rest frame, it’s not a medium, and there is strong experimental evidence in favor of it.

  • frodo

    The link to the Colbert Report segment works just fine here (in Northern Europe). I think the TV channel/web site registers where you’re accessing from and then decides whether you get to see the clip or not. For instance, I’ve watched two episodes of the new Battlestar Galactica series on Norwegian television and fallen in love with it. (Apparently, we’re two seasons behind the civilised world.) However, when I go to the official site for the show and choose the “watch a full episode” option, I’m told that “this video cannot be accessed from your region”. Also, on Comedy Central, for every clip I wanted to see, I had to suffer through 30 secs of utterly irrelevant and painfully pompous advertising for services that simply aren’t available over here. But now all those video ads have thankfully disappeared from that site. So I think it all depends on where you’re logging on from.

    And Janna Levin was wonderful. It’s weird, but fake news journalist Stephen Colbert seems to know a lot more about how science actually works and what it is telling us about physical reality than the large majority of “real” science journalists.

  • Aaron S.

    interesting read in the seed magazine. i like the use of billiards in defining entropy, i am a fan of billiards myself.

    perhaps we are too stringent on our boundaries of conception for what the universe looked like in the beginning?

    i would suggest this idea for modeling the universe.

    discus shaped but with a mirror cone shaped center mass. all rotating, (i wish i had an image, trying to describe a picture with words here) but the centroid mass not being perfectly centered. all points rotating the same speed you would have a “wobbling” effect so that on one side of the disk you have an expansion and on the other side you would have collapse. the expanding side would not be able to percieve the contracting mass due to the shear mass at the center. each side would abserve itself seperately… (am i making sense?)

    then you would still be able to have low-high-low entropy cycles, the appearance of a “big bang/ big crunch” the energy of one side collapsing would fuel the other to expand, and it would explain why we can only account for a very small amount of the universe’s energy/mass…
    just my thoughts… feel free to tear it apart, thats the only way to make it better!

  • Amara

    In the Estonian newspaper this morning, I read about Ene Ergma being narrowly edged out for the main position in the Estonian Parliament. She is an astrophysicist specializing in stellar evolution. When I asked my cousin to tell me more, I heard that she is also open, honest, accessible and friendly. I wonder with her and Angela Merkel if the world has a new category of female scientists/politicians. I think these women can be excellent role models for girls going into science.

    {“Why did I go into politics? To defend science,” says Ene Ergma.}

  • Eugene

    Alex Vilenkin has a book out on eternal inflation? Cool!

  • N. Peter Armitage

    Sean wrote: “Speaking of books, Alex Vilenkin has come out…”

    Are there more of these stones that are in the Vilenkin link!???

    I only knew of the one at Colby College ME, which I spotted some years ago at a Gordon conference. It had some wonderfully crackpot inscription about the need to discover a material known as a “semi-insulator” which will repel gravity and lead to fewer airplane fatalities. OK, I just googled it and found it at here.


    So there are at least 2…

    At the time that I found it, I was on my way to give a talk about Anderson insulators, so of course a picture made its way into my intro …

  • Adrian

    pretty soon they’ll be replacing equations with hugs and instead of performing experiments we’ll just talk about our feelings or some such thing. That can’t be right.

    Is this a joke? If it is, it’s not funny, if not, it’s sexist. Either way it reflects poorly on the author.

  • LambchopofGod

    “Is this a joke?”

    Does the Pope shit in the woods?

  • Sandra Barsky

    pretty soon they’ll be replacing equations with hugs and instead of performing experiments we’ll just talk about our feelings or some such thing. That can’t be right.

    Is this a joke? If it is, it’s not funny.

    Now that’s funny!

    On the other hand, with all these men as scientists, it’s all beer bellies and farting and sitting around watching football, so….

    Sadly, this isn’t as far wrong as you’d like: I’ve had waaay too many conversations about “March Madness” and basketball than I ever imagined as a physics undergrad. Who knew that the ability to sit through beer-enhanced conversations about tall men who probably couldn’t pass freshman physics was a valuable skill for career advancement.

  • Adrian
    “Is this a joke?”

    Does the Pope shit in the woods?

    I take it that the author’s comment about women in physics is not meant to be taken seriously. Of course, this doesn’t make the comment funny, nor harmless for that matter.

  • Alejandro

    Sean, I find your proposal for the arrow of time problem very interesting, but I am not sure how it can avoid the “Boltzmann’s Brain” objection you described yourself in a recent post. You postulate an infinite de Sitter space in which a small patch starts inflating by a fluctuation, and this inflation evolves afterwards into our present universe. But ever from the moment of the fluctuation, all during the inflation and the post-inflation period, entropy in the patch is increasing -which means that the original fluctuation had to be more “unlikely” that the present state of the univere. Then isn’t it more likely to conclude that the present universe just fluctuated into existing as it is now instead of having evolved from the past? I don’t think any proposal to account for the arrow of time starting with a fluctuation in a time-symmetric background can escape this unacceptable “last-thurday-ist” conclusion.

    In other words, my question is, how does having the inflationary phase in your model help to elude the old Boltzmann’s Brain problem?

  • Tammy

    I have to say I am pretty dissapointed with the the sexist joke/comments about girls only offering hugs and discussions about their feelings. I find most of the social commentary of the authors on this blog to be pretty dead-on most of the time, but that was a bit insulting. Having ‘grown’ up in the academic physics community, there is definately a sense that all behaviors ‘tradtionally feminine’ (for the sake of argument let’s say hugs) are not scientific while behaviors that are traditionally masculine (let’s say beer and farting for the sake of arguement) are somehow acceptable ‘scientific’ behaviors. As a woman, do I need to deny my femininity (and just plain good manners) to progress professionally? After all, it is the ‘more scientific’ people who are looked upone more highly and advance more easily; does being a woman automatically make me less scientific or does the perception that women are not scientifc prevent my peers from recognizing the value of my work??

    Sorry, a bit heavy, but it got me thinking. Anyway, I suspect some hugs and discussions of feelings might actually brings some life into many of the cold, boring physics departments I have been part of….Of course, I was the one who would offer free yoga classes to my colleagues, so what do I know?

  • Alejandro

    How can people not get that Sean was just parodying the stereotypes of sexists? Sarcasm must be really dead.

    (Unless the expressions of outrage were really continuing the joke by squaring it, in which case I better shut up.)

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    I join Alejandro in mourning the sad inability of certain readers to appreciate subtle sarcasm. But I don’t think sarcasm is dead, not as long as The Daily Show and Colbert Report continue to be on the air…

  • Adam

    Perhaps what we need is a sarcasm smiley…. or maybe sarcasm html tags ( I was going to write them in, but apparently, they get interpreted somehow). Of course, I would expect that any familiarity at all with Sean’s previous posts would obviate the need for this.

  • Thoeger

    ASCII in general has too few characters to be a good carrier of something as complex as sarcasm…

    That aside, thanks for an always interesting blog.

  • Thom

    Sean, in regards to your comment on girls becoming scientists; I saw that episode of The Simpsons too.

  • N. Peter Armitage

    >I join Alejandro in mourning the sad inability of certain readers to appreciate >subtle sarcasm.

    Imagine the reaction if Sean was the president of Harvard ….

  • born2bewild

    Sarcastic or not, Sean is dead on. Emotions and hugs are far more intricate to be tackled by a set of equations. Hence the ineptitude and fear among male scientists to emerge on the subject. Hence the boredom one might experience in a physics department. Hence the plethora of beer bellies and farting. Indeed, I too would rather be watcing a tall blond stroll down the hallway in her 4-in heels but males scientists are not mature enough to handle that. Hence their state of despair and lock-out.
    Plus, it is better for a woman’s intellect and natural beauty to shine elsewhere…There are bright enough objects in the skies for the male scientists to stare at, not realizing what on the world they are missing….I would never encourage a woman to kamikatse herself unless she really really wants just that…

  • Carl Brannen

    For 30 years physicists have been trying to merge GR and QM with no success. Neither of these theories has an arrow of time. It’s easy enough to put an arrow of time into relativity. Simply add an assumption that a preferred reference frame exists (even if it cannot be detected) and use that. All your causality problems evaporate away.

    Nor is adding an arrow of time to QM any more difficult. Recognize that the fundamental character of a given patch of space-time, for example, January 1, 2008, 12:01AM, Time’s Square, New York City, differs depending on whether it is in the past or the future. As I write this, that event is in the future and can be represented by a quantum state. Six months from now, the event will be in the past and can be represented by a measurment outcome. Wave function collapse then defines the arrow of time.

    The reason these sorts of interpretations are not used is because they are not necessary. But things that are not necessary in the limited sphere of application of one theory, may become necessary when the theories are combined.


  • Dark Vader

    Fly-By Brains

    sexist joke/comments

    Gosh! And I thought that most people on this blog were much smarter than me. If your brain and eyes work pretty close to normal, then you’ll see the following blog contributors:

    In my world both name and picture indicates gender female. Plain English tells you that they are professors etc; doing research on theoretical cosmology and astrophysics and theoretical particle physics, including the phenomenology of electroweak interactions within and beyond the Standard Model.

    (WARNING: Sarcasm on the move!)

    My highly speculative guess is that hugging and kissing their two beer-drinking and farting blog-colleagues is NOT the primary science activity for JoAnne and Risa.

    (But, everything is relative and I might be terribly wrong – if so I do apologize to everyone offended!)

    Time to reboot upper storey…

  • Rob Knop

    I join Alejandro in mourning the sad inability of certain readers to appreciate subtle sarcasm.

    Subtle? It was subtle?



  • Alejandro

    I thought the same, Rob.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    On hugs and equations… Women have rituals but so do men… What does any of it have to do with physics? Probably nothing. But the question was how can we get girls interested in physics? I have always been puzzled by questions like that because you can’t change the presentation (and thus the methodology of) physics just because it doesn’t appeal to someone.

  • Rob Knop

    I think the deal isn’t changing the presentation of the Physics, per se, but all of the other associated folderol that isn’t essential to the Physics, even if we sometimes act as if it were.

    Somewhere around 6th or 7th grade kids get the message that “Math is Hard” and “Math is Not Fun.” There is a societal message that it’s OK to be really bad at math. What’s more, there are societal messages that start (probably) around that age that tell girls that they’re supposed to be worse at math and science, and that it’s not right for them to like it.

    I know just from looking at freshman physics majors’ classes at Vandy that much of the damage is already done. Those classes tend to be overwhelmingly male; there are few women left to drive out at that point. (And, sadly, some do still get driven out. And, of course, some leave for good reasons, just as some men leave for good reasons.)

    I suspect that Physics as Physics will be very appealing to girls and boys alike– because Physics is just so cool. I think that the real question is how to avoid putting people off of it who otherwise might have done very well at it. Many people who are driven away from Physics are driven away not by the Physics, but by the culture of how science is done.


  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Rob, I share many of your concerns. But when I read a Physics book I see no “folderol that isn’t essential to the Physics”. I am not completely happy with many introductory Physics books either as they don’t show the physical side. They need to be more like QM by Das & Melissinos.

  • Dark Vader

    Chinmaya Sheth – you can’t change the presentation (and thus the methodology of) physics just because it doesn’t appeal to someone.

    Who knows, I watched a program about a genius (more or less savant) who could do extremely advanced calculations in his head, and even ‘feel’ if a number was prime or not. How did he do that? Well, every number (in his head) has a different 3-dimensional shape, size and color. When you for example want to add two numbers you put them together, and the shape between represent the new number, which is the correct sum! Smart and weird…

    My point is can we be sure that the ‘male’ representation of equations, math and physics is the only one…? Is it maybe not even the best one? For sure – math is a fundamental part of nature, or vice versa, but is the strange and ‘mysterious doodles’ really the ultimate tools for understanding?

    I have a slight feeling that (some) people who understand complex mathematics ‘protect’ the complexity from the ‘ordinary mob’.

    Let me give you an example: Sean currently wrote the article Dark Matter Exists in this blog (as you all probably know), and in a brilliant way explained how the scientists came to the conclusion. And what’s the reaction from an ‘insider’:

    “I was disappointed to find this article much more personal and informal than I am used to. It read more like a teenager’s diary than a scientific examination. Unfortunately in cosmology, pictures arent enough no matter how much they’ve been photoshopped.”

    I do put my hope to smart women and smart computer programming (it’s only C and Perl who allow doodling around :-) ) to break the wall of advanced math and physics. Let’s face it – soon or later as the human knowledge grows there must be a limit for what one human brain can hold in form of data and knowledge. One solution is to have narrow specialist working in teams, but there must be a limit even for a narrow specialist when she/he go completely bananas. (maybe that’s the case today? :-) )

    I think computers are the solution – let them do much much more of the dull work – so humans can spend all time on true creativity, which should appeal to both girls and boys. And I really hope it’s not necessary to become a ‘Cyborg’ to make this work.

  • Jack

    Re Alejandro [comment 20]
    “Then isn’t it more likely to conclude that the present universe just fluctuated into existing as it is now instead of having evolved from the past? I don’t think any proposal to account for the arrow of time starting with a fluctuation in a time-symmetric background can escape this unacceptable “last-thurday-ist” conclusion.”

    First, it’s important to understand that, in a spatially infinite universe, anything that can happen, will. So out there somewhere, there *is* a precise copy of you which has just fluctuated into existence, complete with memories etc. It is also possible that the world around us has really existed for billions of years, but that what we call the “laws” of nature are just a series of coincidences which will come to an end tomorrow, thus belatedly confirming all of Hume’s suspicions about causation. Basically, an infinite universe allows you to get away with anything, as certain advocates of the wackier versions of Inflation have amply demonstrated. [“Yes, it may *seem* that I have been checkmated, but in an infinite universe…” — sometimes known as the Linde-Vilenkin gambit, after two famous grandmasters.]

    Second, Sean’s point was that he has an alternative to the Humean nightmare — in the late stages of a deSitter expansion, the total entropy may be large, but its *density* is small, so when a baby universe nucleates, its small size means that it automatically has very low entropy. Assuming that the process of nucleation does not itself greatly increase the entropy I guess….anyway, it seems possible that this kind of thing *is* more likely than just having the whole universe fluctuate into existence. Or something like that — I have been arguing about this with my advisor, and have suffered brain damage as a result….

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Dark Vader, I don’t think there is such a thing as a “‘male’ representation of equations”. I was trying to address the question of series of books that would give good understanding and keep interest alive and I think the answer is for them to be written by a collaboration between an active theorist (like Das) and an active experimentalist (like Melissinos) in their field of expertise. It would be interesting if a publisher does this, though they’ve probably thought of that…

  • Dark Vader

    Chinmaya Sheth, neither do I think it’s possible to put ‘gender’ on math and physics, but the question was – How can we get girls interested in physics? If current presentation and methodology appeals more to boys than girls, then I thought it would be ok to use the ‘male’ prefix to emphasize this fact. Maybe it was ill-advised…

  • Louise

    The lives of the intellectual elite are insecure, and those in charge are TERRIFIED that a young woman will appear who accomplishes more than they have. Let us stamp out sexism, starting by deleting sexist comments on blogger!

  • Alex R

    Anyone wanting to know how any Cosmic Variance bloggers stand on the subject of women in science might do well to look here.

    To get a better idea of Sean’s views in particular, I would especially recommend this post (and the posts linked therein), and this one.

    I would recommend that Tammy and Adrian, in particular, read these posts before commenting further on Sean’s comments in the current post…

  • Suz

    so what are you saying? So as long as you have declared a position on women in science before, you can either get away with a sexist comment or expect people to understand you’re making an unfunny sexist joke?

    Even feminists (male and female) who spend their lives dedicated to stamping out sexism have to be called out on their sexist behaviors and are expected to correct themsleves. I’m with the original comment that if it’s a joke, it’s not funny.

    But it’s okay, I’m prepared to not laugh and move on.

  • Aaron S.

    wo this whole thing is dumb… it was a sarcastic remark, meant to mock sexism, it was no where near a sexist remark. it shames me that so many people today are looking for a reason to be offended.

    todays society is so damned senitive… we need a good desensitivity move in this nation. if it bothers you don’t bother with it

    its that simple if something seems offensive ignore it, don’t rake the muck…

  • Dark Vader

    Since this is a blog about science, let’s get methodical and penetrate the sexist comment/joke incident.

    Sean earlier this summer wrote on the subject What I Would Do If I Could: “If I could propose one thing, it would be to do everything in our power to encourage young girls to get excited about science, math, and technology.”

    Suddenly this week Sean has become a rude sexist, according to some alert observers. Spending time and energy to humiliate girls with a sexist comment, alternative bad sexist joke: “…seems to me, if we start encouraging girls to become scientists, pretty soon they’ll be replacing equations with hugs and instead of performing experiments we’ll just talk about our feelings or some such thing. That can’t be right.”

    The explanation for this perplexity could be:

    1) Sean has unexpectedly been stricken by mental illness and his personality has split in two.

    2) Sean is living a double life. Most of the time he is pro women/girls, and then for a minute or two his real nature pop up in a sexist comment/joke.

    3) Cosmic Variance has been attacked by a computer virus that alters the original text.

    4) Stephen Hawking is right after all – information can be destroyed and lost forever. What happened yesterday has nothing to do with what we see today. The world has gone screwy.

    5) The observers have misinterpreted the information, and they did not contact the source to get more data.

    I’m not the man too propose the right answer at this moment. Maybe it could be smart to see what the accused has to say, and how he feels etc.

    With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon. — Albert Einstein

  • Rob Knop

    Dudes, the sarcasm and irony was bloody obvious. If you didn’t get it, smack yourself for not getting it and move on. If you got it but didn’t think it was funny, shrug and move on. But, for goodness sake, don’t continue on the “it was a sexist remark” bandwagon because you failed to recognize the sarcasm! Geez!


  • Say Lee

    It’s obvious that some are sensitive indeed. But it’s also obvious that some are missing on the sensitivity bit.

  • Dark Vader

    Rob Knop, I agree to 100% and not to make things worse – I should clarify that #44 was the final exam in sarcasm. Some obvious needs to practice… :-)

  • Carl Brannen

    I thought the sarcasm was obvious but in bad taste.

  • Dark Vader

    I’ll try lightening up the atmosphere a little bit with this really bad joke (which may be the worst in this blog):

    Sean has spent some time investigating Dark Matter. Perhaps this last confusion is due to the fact that Sean can’t decide if he believes in WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) or MACHOs (MAssive Compact Halo Objects)…? :-}

    More info on WIMPs and MACHOs:

  • Jeffsan

    My first time commenting. Really great blog. Thanks to bloggers and responders.

    On Sean and girls in science. I attended an OECD conference in Amsterdam last fall on “Declining Youth Interest in Science Studies”. It reported on a study in which 22 countries looked at enrolment and graduation rates in science discplines. Physics, chemistry and math are in trouble – OECD-wide. In particular, girls shun these subjects increasingly. (Female participation in higher education is increasing faster than that of males, but in the science subjects, the rate of increase is slower. In physics, there’s a decline in many countries).

    Another part of the study looked at ways in which different countries are tackling the problem. Many of the techniques involve working with younger girls in grade school to encourage them. At these age-levels, girls love science as much as boys, though often in different ways and for different reasons (vive la difference!). The drop-off starts to occur in junior high school. For boys and girls, partly to keep grade point averages up (i.e. science is hard). For girls, partly because of what some of the responders to this blog allude to – the way in which science is presented in school and in texts. One woman at the conference responded to a discussion of some very innovative promotional activities targeted to young females to encourage them to pursue science at university. She said: “You can do all the promotion you want and you’ll probably succeed in getting more girls to enrol in university science. But if the universities keep teaching science the way they do now, the girls will drop out!” We have to face facts, folks. We have a real problem – and its a cultural one.

    If you’re interested I’ll tell you about a Dutch university that solved the problem… (I’m a Canadian so there’s no nationalistic promotion here.)

  • PK

    I’m interested, Jeffsan; I haven’t heared about this.

  • Jeffsan

    The Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen was suffering declining enrolments in S&T disciplines, especially physics, chemistry, math. About eight years ago a new Dean of Science came onboard. He commissioned a survey of local high school students to find out their perceptions of his faculty and its teaching. The survey indicated words like “boring” “too hard”, etc. All the typical things. The Dean launched a two-part campaign to change things around. Part One was a promotional campaign targeted to youth via websites, etc. Part Two was a major curriculum and teaching reform. At the undergrad level, they created multidisciplinary programs to attract students with broader scientific interests (natural science, molecular life science, information science, environmental science.) They also created new masters level courses.

    But here’s the innovation I found most interesting: For physics, the Dean instituted a tutor system designed to help students with difficult course content. He recruited high school physics teachers to advise on the introductory course content to ensure a good transition from high school. These teachers were available to tutor students if needed. They also provided feedback to professors on their teaching methods. They attended lectures, evaluated the teaching, and gave profs feedback on how to improve! You can imagine how the profs liked that! The Dean got a great deal of push back from the profs. They recruit new profs based on research excellence, not teaching excellence. They warned him that the university would gain a mickey mouse reputation and lose lots of its research funding. End of story: the Dean persisted, the profs came around (albeit grudgingly), research funding went up, enrolments went up, drop out rates declined.

    If you’re interested in the OECD conference and studies, see their final report at

  • Mark Rotella

    I guess it’s too late in the thread to ask this, re Sean’s Arrow of Time story, but here goes anyway: as I understand it, one of the problems that inflation is supposed to solve is the horizon problem. We look out into space in opposite directions and see the same thing. Now inflation says: this is surprising because there has not been time for all this stuff to reach equilibrium, and inflation is supposed to allow equilibrium to be reached. But why do inflationists *expect* the initial state to be out of equilibrium in the first place? Surely if the universe just springs into existence, the most likely state for it is equilibrium? I understand that the initial *gravitational* degrees of freedom are far from equilibrium and that this is something that we don’t understand yet, but if inflationists have some reason to expect the *other* degrees of freedom to be far from equilibrium, then why don’t they have a reason to expect gravity to be far from equilibrium?

  • PK

    Thanks, Jeffsan!

  • Dark Vader

    The presentation and the methodology of physics:

    Albert Einstein managed to reveal some of the most fundamental properties of the universe by visualizing the problem in his head, so clearly there must be alternative ways to beautiful science (other than Current Latin).

    It’s time to make an appeal to every genius out there for a new comprehensible mathematical language; MISC (Mathematician’s Interpreted Symbolic Code) that works instantly both on paper and computers!! :-)


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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