As a Man, I Also Care About #ShirtStorm and STEM Sexism

Spurred on by some powerful blog posts by Dr. Zulekya Zevallos in STEM Women and Jess Zimmerman in Dame Magazine (among many other tweets and large blogs), I feel that I should speak up about my own distaste for the incident now known as #ShirtStorm, #ShirtGate, #RosettaShirt, etc.

For those of you who don’t have much social media access and/or live under a rock, the Rosetta mission launched the Philae probe, which landed on a comet (after having been in orbit for 10 years). Great, right? Of course it is — we are making strides in our understanding of icy bodies in our solar system and showcased our ingenuity in engineering and physics. But that wasn’t the only thing it showcased. The Rosetta project’s lead scientist Matt Taylor wore a particularly offensive shirt during the press conference. Many people (mostly women) immediately noticed it and spoke out. Perhaps science writer Rose Eveleth said it best with this tweet:

Subsequently, Matt apologized for offending so many people by his lack of judgment. Twitter trolls took to the internet to condemn those who spoke out against Matt’s poor choice of shirt and to give them the usual death threats and belittling rhetoric seen from Men’s Rights activists (because we white men are soooo oppressed). Feminists, and  have been mainly accused of “bullying” a guy “who landed a probe on a comet” and of being “prudish.”

To start, that accusation is just stupid. Let’s think back to those good old days in 4th grade when some kid said or did something stupid or offensive. Another kid told the teacher (or some authority figure) about the incident, the teacher chastised the first kid about what s/he did wrong and how s/he should change his/her ways and apologize, and the first kid apologizes. Then some insecure third kid charges up to the second kid and threatens them with belittling language and/or hits them for reasons like “I don’t like snitches” or “you’re a poo-face and I don’t like you.” Maybe a whole bunch of other kids join in and pick on the kid whose only problem was s/he spoke up against the initial bad behavior. It’s pretty clear who has bullied who.

Fast forward to this situation — a guy (likely unintentionally) wears a shirt that illustrates why women are uncomfortable in STEM fields and therefore offends. Feminists speak out against said man, said man (being an adult human being with rational thought) gives a likely heartfelt apology on his own accord, and in response, a gaggle of mostly white men who probably are insecure about having small reproductive organs take to twitter to belittle and verbally abuse the feminists who spoke out. Now I ask you, who is the bully in this situation?

Secondly, Matt is not the only person who contributed to landing a probe on a comet (not to mention he’s more the science research-end than the engineers who built the thing), but even if he was, his praiseworthy actions do not excuse poor judgment. Thirdly, just because the shirt was designed and gifted to Matt Taylor by a female friend does not make it any less offensive in this context. As scientists, we all know that context matters. If this dude wants to wear that shirt while lounging around the house or going out to a restaurant, he can do just that. People may think he looks stupid, but that’s his right. I wear plenty of bizarre, eclectic items of clothing, and I stand by that (granted, I try not to wear clothing that objectifies women as sex toys…). However, he wasn’t just loafing around the house — he was giving a press conference about this great scientific achievement, and that calls for professional discretion. In this context, the shirt is merely shouting out to the public, “Look at me! I’m a male scientist who doesn’t care about how women might react to the fact that my shirt is objectifying and would make them feel excluded from this already exclusionary world of STEM!” So yes, this shirt is a problem.

And of course, we accept this kind of judgment of women’s clothing choices every single day. Women on TV, in all contexts, are subject to heavy scrutiny by their male and female viewers alike. Yet the moment a man is called out for making a poor choice in clothing, the internet explodes! Take a moment to let that soak in. While you do, read about a male co-host of a morning show who brilliantly illustrated this by wearing the same suit to work every day, and nobody noticed, while his female co-host is constantly flooded with fashion critiques.

The fact that he has done something awesome and the fact that the shirt was designed and given by a woman doesn’t make this somehow less offensive. This is a classic fallacy that we all make in order to justify stupid things that we say or do. I have a Jewish background, and so despite my Atheism I often feel like it’s “okay” to make jokes about Jewish stereotypes. And yes, maybe that’s okay between close friends who know I don’t seriously mean it. But if I say horrible, offensive things about Jews in a bad context to many, many people, that’s still a problem, no matter how “Jewish” I may be.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, the kind of sexist behavior and rhetoric present in #shirtstorm is rampant in STEM, despite what an incredibly flawed study seemed to imply (a good rebuttal to that found here). And most of this is unconscious — both men and women engage unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally as well, of course) in sexist behaviors and/or forming sexist judgments against their female colleagues. And in most cases, men are either unwilling to accept that this is the case or are silent and let their female colleagues make all the noise. We too need to speak up and challenge our friends and colleagues when they say or do stupid and/or sexist things. This isn’t about the shirt or Matt Taylor anymore. It’s about systematic sexism that excludes women and makes it harder to achieve true diversity in STEM.

Generally, women who speak out against misogyny are subject to hostile responses. Gamers such as Anita Sarkeesian and Felicia Day have faced severe harassment throughout GamerGate, surrounding the treatment of women in gaming; Sarkeesian cancelled a public appearance at Utah State University after the college received a mass-shooting threat. Meanwhile, men like Wil Wheaton who publicly speak out against sexism in the same way do not face death threats or mass harassment. There is little risk for men to address sexism in any field, which is just one more reason to add our voices to the conversation. We need to show our colleagues, male and female, that we stand against this blatant misogyny and that this kind of abuse should not be tolerated.

This post may not be the most eloquent or well-thought out in its presentation, but I feel the need as a man to join in the conversation and speak out against #shirtstorm. Even though Matt apologized and hopefully learned his lesson, this doesn’t mean the conversation should stop. It’s only just begun, and as men, we need to take part in it, as supporters of and avid learners from our female colleagues.

And man, that is one ugly shirt.

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Why I am an Atheist: One Scientist’s Perspective

This post is a departure from my usual content, and will obviously be approaching some sensitive issues, so let me begin with a few things up front. I am an atheist. This blog entry, like all writings and discussions on religion are an (in this case, my) opinion; there is no hard fact to date about atheism vs. theism vs. agnosticism, so I plan to do no preaching of “truth.” I will be discussing my beliefs and why I think there is evidence for atheism…however, I mean no offense to people and individuals. Many of my close friends and family are religious, and I respect their right to believe what they wish. I present arguments against religion, not the people who believe in it; decide what you yourself want to believe. This entry does not reflect the general beliefs of any place I am affiliated with, be it a school, organization, or science as an institution. This is just my perspective.

Yes, I am an atheist. That’s probably not terribly surprising…a large number of scientists do not believe in God. But it was not an easy or quick journey. I was born into a Jewish family, with many members believing in God, and either Judaism or Christianity. I went to Hebrew School, had a bar mitzvah, believed in Santa Claus, and spent plenty of time in my youth accepting what I was told.

Though satisfied for a time, I began pretty early to question my beliefs. Bible stories started to feel contrived and absurd, praying felt empty, and my approach to life started to shift towards critical thinking and evaluating evidence. And things were scary at first, because it’s difficult when your beliefs are so deeply shaken. What does it mean if this religion is wrong? Are people lying to me (what else could they lie to me about)? If religion isn’t true, what does that mean about death? I have come to a resolution for some of these questions, and not for some others, but I’ve learned to take advice from Richard Feynman: “It’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Like many people who found themselves questioning the religion they grew up with, I began to dabble in other religions. Perhaps I could find a meld of what fit me best. I liked a lot of ideas, including Karma, reincarnation, and animism. To me, religion became less about a belief in God or many Gods, and more about being a good person and having comfort in the face of the human condition. But ‘morality’ is fuzzy, and as I started becoming more skeptical, even these ideas started sounding like fairytales. Things weren’t adding up, so I became an agnostic. If there was no evidence for God and religion, and there was no evidence otherwise, I would just have to stand on the fence.

Agnosticism is an odd system of belief (or non-belief), as it is often defined differently. Generally speaking, it’s the view that you cannot know or prove the existence or non-existence of any supernatural phenomena (be it a God, psychic powers, or what have you), so you’ll take the stance of “I don’t know.” There are many nuances to it that I cannot easily explain, but it’s the quintessential non-decision belief system. There are many merits to this philosophy, especially since it places such value on skepticism, critical thinking, and evidence evaluation. It was a natural place for me to gravitate as I became more versed in scientific thought, and could no longer find myself aligned to any supernatural belief system.

In recent years, I’ve changed my mind: I cannot stay on the fence. I think there is evidence out there, and I think it’s in the atheist camp. This may sound strange to you–how can there be evidence for no God? You can’t prove He/She doesn’t exist! That’s true…I can’t prove it. But we can’t prove anything, really (ok, now for the science part of this entry, since this is a science blog after all).

In science, we put out hypotheses meant to explain the world around us. These hypotheses are meant to explain what we see, and are put forth to make predictions of new things we may not have seen yet. We then go out and try to find evidence for or against these hypotheses. This implies there are two major types of evidence for or against hypotheses: verification results, and null results. Verification is the most obvious: the hypothesis made a prediction, and behold, we found it!

So what is a null result? It means we didn’t see something. At first, you might think that’s a useless result. You didn’t see it! But it is very important in science. Let me give you an example. Before Einstein, there was a problem with the physics theory of relativity (yes, that concept existed prior to 1905). If you throw a ball while on a moving train, an observer on a platform sees the ball move at a speed corresponding to the train’s and ball’s speeds combined. So it intuitively made sense that if you shone a flashlight on a train, the light would have a combined speed. But that wasn’t the case at all–light always moves at a constant speed while in the same medium. To fix this predicament, physicists believed in something called the aether. To test it’s existence, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley performed some experiments…and came up with a null result each time. Thanks to not observing the prediction made by the hypothesis of the existence of aether, they provided concrete evidence that is does not exist. It does not prove the non-existence of aether, but when special relativity came along, the evidence became so overwhelming that is it universally believed to not exist.

I choose these words carefully. You never prove anything in science, but we can find overwhelming evidence in favor of things such that we believe them to be true. Gravity is well accepted to be a true theory, and there is no evidence against it in the broad sense (things that go up come back down). It makes predictions that experiments validate, and tests for competing hypotheses come up with nulls. Many theories (including gravity) have some issues, but as theories improve, we learn more and explain more phenomena. But even in science we cannot fully escape belief and faith—we have faith that the scientific method works, that objectivity reigns, and we believe that evidence points to facts.

So let’s apply this mode of thinking to religion. Most religions make predictions. Some are untestable, like life after death, so we cannot apply science to it. Nonetheless, as Richard Dawkins would point out, that does not place it on equal ground as atheism—to quote Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It’s up to you to convince me why it’s so, not up to us to explain to you why it’s not. But fine, this is not strictly evidence in any sense, nor is it a satisfying argument, so let’s move on to actual, testable predictions of religion and atheism.

Religions put out a lot of claims. Usually these tend to be of a similar form—if you do good and you pray and you accept God, He will take care of you. Religious doctrines make predictions on how the Universe works: there are endless examples in many religions of statements of how the Earth was formed, or Mankind, or even how the stars and moon and planets do what they do. Like mysticism (psychics, astrology, homeopathy, etc.), religion has never been able to show evidence in a scientifically/statistically meaningful way that their claims are true. Null results abound in every aspect of religious prediction, and almost, if not all, religious predictions of how the world works remain evidence-less or even disproven. In terms of evidence for good reason to believe in religion and God, we encounter a barren wasteland of nulls. If one religion had hard evidence for the existence of God, and for their religion to be correct, there’d only be one religion: the correct one. People starve, many good people of faith die young and unexpectedly, and the evidence for evolution is so substantial that even prominent theists have changed their position on it despite doctrine. On this alone, one has more reason to believe in Atheism than in God’s existence.

But what does atheism predict? If God does not exist, it predicts just what we find: null results on mystic answers, and that the Universe is knowable only through natural (not supernatural) means. Science is how we’ve been able to gain knowledge, cure diseases, create iPads, and understand the motions of the real “heavens.” In my opinion, there is more evidence to support that God does not exist than otherwise. I am no longer an agnostic: I am an atheist.

Why do I share my story and reasoning? Because a lot of Americans don’t like atheists, or they at least don’t trust them. Especially thanks to a number of billboards, some tasteful, and some not tasteful. With atheism on the rise, I think more of us need to share our stories, not so much as a need to convince others to convert, but to allow others to understand where we are coming from, why we reject religion, and why we are still thoughtful, intelligent, respectable people. We have to show that we come in all forms, not just the militant kind. I think I am a good, moral person, and I think that if people know I am an atheist, then maybe that is one small step towards acceptance of non-believers. If you are reading this and identify as an atheist, I urge you to share your story in whatever means you think most appropriate. Be heard. Be respectful but truthful. Be frank and honest. Help encourage thoughtful and productive dialogue. Let’s have progress towards a way forward.

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The Quest to Ground the Googol, Part II

We started this quest with a set of simple questions. What is the biggest number you can visualize? What is the biggest number you know? What is the biggest number you can attribute to a physical phenomenon or quantity? We decided to try and come up with a way to answer the third question with the answer to our second question—the googol, or 10^100.

The quest began with an attempt to count physical quantities, like individual particles, or total distances, such as the volume of the universe, but in each case we came up short with only 10^80. We need a new approach, but one that we can still argue has a physicality to it.

The best approach (in my opinion) will come from measurements of time. This may seem counterintuitive—the universe is only 13.8 billion years old (1.38 x 10^9 years)—but we can make predictions of how long things can last. In Astronomy, we’re not just interested in the past, or in how the Universe was or is interacting; we also care a great deal about how long certain processes/phenomena will last and how the Universe will ultimately end up. So let’s start small, with star formation: stars form from interstellar gas and dust, but eventually that pool of material will cease and star formation will end–how long will that take?

The answer…not that long. If you look at galaxies today, they come in a few types. Spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, are very blue and contain lots of nebulous material from which stars can, and are, forming. But even now there are large elliptical galaxies, which have or soon will exhaust all of their fuel for star formation. The thing is, when galaxies collide there can often be lots of associated star formation, so we really have to wait until all the galaxies that will collide, do, and then see what’s left. Current estimates say that star formation will be done in about roughly 10^14 (100 trillion) years.

Okay, that failed. But one can assume that even if the Universe can have an end, it should take a long time, so let’s follow this exercise of hypothetical fate to its conclusion and see where we end up. When star formation in the Universe ends, what’s left? All the gas will be completely used up, so that leaves all stars as either brown dwarfs, white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes. Other than that, you’ll have some planets and asteroids lying around too. All of this normal matter (non-black holes) is called degenerate matter, a state in which all of the electrons in atoms are scrunched down to their lowest bound states, and the shells are filled. Think of it as a bottle of marbles. Even if you try pushing another marble into the bottle, it just has nowhere to go—in degenerate matter, this is true for either the electrons, or in the case of a neutron star, for the neutrons. During this time, the Universe is said to have therefore entered the Degenerate Era.

So how long does the Degenerate Era last? Well, it’s hard to say, because it has to do with what’s known as Proton Decay. It’s quite an interesting story! You see, it’s known that a neutron, one of the fundamental particles in atoms, will decay given enough time into a proton and an electron (in fact, a free neutron, or one not bound in a nucleus, actually only lasts about 10 minutes before it decays). But what about protons? Can they too decay?

In physics research today, a lot of attention is given to theories in which they try to combine all fundamental forces in the universe except gravity (i.e. electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force) into one, known as Grand Unified Theories (GUTs). These make some interesting, testable predictions, one of which is the timescale of proton decay. There are currently experiments to try and measure proton decay (if it exists), and to date no decays have been detected. For more in depth info, you can go here or here. These experiments have at least led us to believe the decay half-life of a proton must be at least 10^33 years!

This looks promising, so let’s pull it back into our discussion of the Degenerate Era of the Universe. What happens in the Universe now? Well, the remaining objects will either get flung out into the vastness of empty space, or will fall into black holes. So we’ll have a bunch of black holes, and a bunch of lone, degenerate masses. If protons decay, then eventually the degenerate matter will just decay away into the basest of subatomic particles. However, if you’ve learned about decay mechanisms in a science/math class, you may remember that it’s exponential. This means that even if the half-life is really long, it only takes a small number of half-lives to be left with next to nothing left. So even though it might take 10^33 years for protons to decay half way, it’ll only take about 10^40 years (and that’s being a little generous) for all the protons (and neutrons) to decay away, ending the degenerate era.

Darn. Well, we can keep going. We’ve now entered what’s called the Black Hole Era, because that’s all the Universe has left—black holes and a soup of elementary particles. But if Stephen Hawking is correct about black holes, then even they will evaporate over time into electrons and positrons. So how does that take? If you calculate the radiation timescale for a supermassive black hole, you get roughly…wait for it…a googol years! That’s right—the evaporation time scale for a supermassive black hole is roughly 10^100 years!

There you have it! We’ve succeeded in our quest to ground the googol with a physical phenomenon: it is the time it takes (in years) for a supermassive black hole to completely evaporate. It’s also the rough time it takes for a universe with proton decay to reach the so-called Dark Era, in which the Universe is nothing but a soup of cold particles. Though we’ve already done a lot of speculation, it’s even worse when trying to determine the Universe’s fate in the Dark Era. It’s likely that it will just keep expanding forever and cooling until we reach something known as the Heat Death of the Universe. Thermodynamics dictates that in order for work to be done, and things to interact to make structure, entropy (disorder) in the Universe must always increase. But once we reach a maximum entropy, no work can ever be done, and the Universe is effectively dead. Despite it’s name, the Universe would be a cold, dead place…a somewhat bleak end for the beautiful place in which we exist.

If you’re interested in learning more about potential timelines of the Universe, you can check out this University of Oregon lecture material, as well as look up a fun timeline. Hopefully you enjoyed our fun quest to ground the googol, and this is just one way in which I found an answer. Perhaps you came to another way to tie the googol to a physical quantity or phenomenon, or maybe tie down the googolplex? Leave it in the comments!

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The Quest to Ground the Googol, Part I

What’s the biggest number you can visualize? The biggest number you know? The biggest number you can attribute to a physical phenomenon or quantity? The human mind and mathematics offer humanity really beautiful and powerful tools when trying to understand the universe, mainly because the natural world is filled with numbers and concepts that would be incomprehensible without them. The best way to realize this is by asking those three questions. What are your answers?

Even this first question can throw you for a loop. What’s the largest number you can visualize? Is it in the thousands? Hundreds? Think of those carnival games where you see a jar of jelly beans, and you have to guess how many are in there…how much of a struggle is it? With your powers of observation alone, it quickly becomes difficult to imagine large numbers in any physical, meaningful way. To get to these normally unreachable numbers, we need to start using an abstract means of understanding the enormously large (or enormously small). Enter: mathematics.

With scientific notation, we become able to work with and understand large or small numbers without having to visualize them. Scientific notation is aptly used to accomplish the goal of quickly and understandably abstracting numbers for use. When I throw the number 1,000,000,000,000 at you, you might start to struggle with counting all 12 zeroes. But if I say it’s 10^12, it’s more quickly apparently that I mean one trillion. As such, in many scientific calculations (especially astronomy and physics), you have to work with crazy numbers all the time! The mass of the Sun is roughly 10^30 kilograms, the size of an atom is roughly 10^-10 meters, and the Milky Way Galaxy is roughly 10^21 meters across. These numbers may be unfathomable to comprehend with our senses alone, but we can abstract them to calculate other important quantities.

Okay, maybe this discussion isn’t too enlightening, but let’s move on to the other questions I posed earlier. What’s the biggest number you know of? Well, you might think of a googol. A googol is a huge number defined as a 1 with 100 zeroes after it (or 10^100 …see, that’s way more manageable looking!). Perhaps you’ve heard of a googolplex, which is 10 to the googol power, or 10^(10^100). That number might make your brain hurt if you think about it for too long. Sure, there is no largest number since infinity goes on forever, but at least a googolplex has a name. And everyone knows of Google, whose company is named after this number, so lets just stick with a googol for now.

This exercise is all well and good, but before when we discussed big numbers like the mass of the Sun, these numbers were grounded in a physical quantity. We could say well, it’s hard to visualize, but if you cut up the Sun into chunks 1 kilogram in size, you’ll get 10^30 of them. So that brings us to the last question. Now we have to try and tie the number googol to a physical phenomenon or quantity. When we take physical things, it becomes a lot harder to ground these obscenely large numbers…how far up can we actually climb this number ladder?


I prefer the physical analog of a number ladder you climb (instead of a number line) where one side is the number and the other side a physical quantity to represent it.

I prefer the physical analog of a number ladder you climb (instead of a number line) where one side is the number and the other side a physical quantity to represent it.

You can liken this discussion to when America kept its money tethered to the gold standard–at some point, we could only print as much money as we had in gold, so each dollar had a specific value grounded in a physical quantity. Printing any additional money was meaningless. We can count numbers as high as we want, but after a certain point, there’s no point in going any higher because those numbers are physically meaningless when dealing with nature or science in general. For the sake of argument, I’m going to say to ground a number physically, we’re going to use the standard SI units of measurement, meters, kilograms, etc. so we avoid the semantics of “well, 5 meters is the same as 5 million micrometers.”

So where’s a good place to start? How about stars, the building blocks of galaxies–how many stars are there in our observable universe? Well, there is about 100 billion (10^11) stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and there are about 100 billion (10^11) galaxies in our observable universe, so if you multiply the two together, we get a meager 10^22 stars in our Universe. Okay, that’s a big number, but it’s not that big. After all, we already said the mass of our Sun is roughly 10^30 kilograms, so that’s already a bigger number.

Okay, we failed there…how about the building blocks of matter, protons? How many protons are there in the entire universe? Our current estimate is pretty large, but it still falls short of a googol, topping out at roughly 10^80 protons. That’s a full 20 orders of magnitude smaller than a googol. Well, maybe instead of counting objects like protons, we can count units of distance? After all, the observable universe itself is a big place…what’s its volume? Well, we are doomed to fail again, as the current estimate is roughly 10^80 meters, similar to that of the total number of protons! Darn.

At this point, you might start to panic…protons and subatomic particles are as small as you can go for the “stuff” of the universe, and the universe is actually a bit too small for size to work (there’s a good joke hidden in there somewhere). If we want to try and ground the number googol into a physical quantity, the technique of just counting tangible “stuff” is not going to work, because there just isn’t enough “stuff” to count!

So far we’ve done well–grounding a number as high as 10^80, twice! But if we want to ground the Googol, we’re going to need a new approach…stay tuned for part II!

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