January 23, 2014

Ardor for water.

I missed "The Life and Death of a Drop," the lecture by University of Chicago physics professor Sidney Nagel that I promoted on the blog yesterday. It conflicted with Scott Walker's State of the State Address, which I did watch live, but that's not why I didn't attend. I easily could have time-shifted my experience with Scott's SOTSA using the DVR. I was just being lazy and cold-averse.

Anyway, here's a report of the lecture about drops:
“Each step of a drop’s life arouses astonishment,” he said. “Nature is subtle, but we have tools to decipher her code.... I’m trying to tell you why this is important physics to know, but I’m showing this movie for another reason. This is an uncommonly beautiful thing to watch... It’s that aesthetic sense which has just as much compelled me to study this as the importance of the science itself. I really believe that this is a perfectly good reason to study this behavior.”
That reminded me of that interview with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that we were talking about the other day, here. Remember, she was asked how to get girls to go into STEM majors, rather than the "helping professions," and Gillibrand's idea was to leverage the (supposed) female desire to help people by explaining to young girls that science and technology do ultimately benefit people.

That quote from Nagel suggests another approach. Appeal to the love of beauty, reveal the aesthetic aspects of science, and let the girls — not to mention boys — know that it's just fine to pursue what you feel compelled to look at because it is beautiful. That makes science more like other things you instinctively feel drawn to put your time into when you are young.

Make the study of science intrinsically rewarding instead of portraying it as a means to an end, where the scientist supposedly loves other people, but instead of working with people, closes herself up in a lab and pays attention to things other than people, urge herself onward by imagining the people out there who will benefit.

It's better to love exactly what you are doing. Have the object of your study be the beautiful thing that you love, as Professor Nagel loves his drop of water.

45 comments:

Michael said...

Let us say that the City of Madison's water system went wrong and suddenly there was no water coming out of most taps and that which was coming out of any smelled bad. How long would it take for the water system of the City of Madison to be repaired if only women were put on the job? Ask that question of the power supply. Ask that question of the sewer system. These are not, of themselves, beautiful systems nor are the components of these systems aesthetically pleasing.

Ann Althouse said...

"These are not, of themselves, beautiful systems nor are the components of these systems aesthetically pleasing."

I think it is possible to become interested in sewerage systems because of their beauty.

We're talking about the high-level design, not the burly-worker part of descending into the manhole… which by the way is work I would hope is being done by guys (and gals) who find that physical engagement with urgent problems intrinsically rewarding.

This hope that human beings will be good drudges… if that's what you think is needed to help the cause of men, I feel sorry for you.

John said...

It sounds very interesting. Is there video anywhere?

And to echo Michael, we tend to take things like water and power systems entirely for granted. When we open the faucet, water, that we can drink without getting sick, comes out.

This is a rather recent and limited development in human history.

We need to appreciate it more. And help others get it.

John Henry

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Sounds like his drop of water has affinities with the human faces in the movie "Visitors," reviewed in today's Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/movies/godfrey-reggios-visitors-is-a-slow-parade-of-faces.html

John said...

Ann,

I agree with you about the beauty of a sewer system.

I doubt it is beautiful to most people, though.

But to engineers or people with an engineering bent like myself, all these systems can be beautiful.

Mainly depending on how well they are designed and function. As opposed to physical beauty.

John Henry

Fen said...

"Appeal to the love of beauty, reveal the aesthetic aspects of science, and let the girls — not to mention boys — know that it's just fine to pursue what you feel compelled to look at because it is beautiful"

And then give them a self-esteem trophy.

You participated! Well done!

I'm sure that will hold them until they encounter Calculus 101.

EDH said...

He sounds like a real drip.

mrs. e said...

This, too, is why I love science and why I was drawn to it as a young women. It's beautiful, it's tangible and it's real - as real as it gets.

George Grady said...

"I'm sure that will hold them until they encounter Calculus 101."

If you don't think that calculus is beautiful, you're doing it wrong.

rehajm said...

"These are not, of themselves, beautiful systems nor are the components of these systems aesthetically pleasing."

I'd beg to differ, too. Municipal systems that provide water, power, sewage, sanitation are fascinating in their elegance and complexity. There was a PBS series narrated by Judd Hirsch (maybe called Hidden City?) that examined NYC municipal systems. Beautiful and brilliant!

And I'm sorry I missed the Nagel presentation, too. Hopefully someone will post.

I'm hopeful the new Cosmos series with Neil Degrasse Tyson will inspire the way the original Sagan series did for my generation of students.

Ann Althouse said...

My last comment got me googling "a sewer system is beautiful," and I found "The wetland system – making sewage beautiful (and useful)."

And there was a gender angle!

"Last week work began on the wetland sewage system in the field behind the women’s community. On a site of just over an acre (about half a hectare) big caterpillar tractors have been digging out the swales ( curved ponds where the waste will sit while it undergoes transformation into pure water) and shaping and levelling the banks between them. The contractors have has been working twelve hour days to prepare the site and the basic groundwork is now complete. The system purifies sewage and waste water with minimal, or no, non-renewable energy use and at the same time we are creating a beautiful, species-rich ecosystem and wildlife habitat. This will enhance the biodiversity of the local environment; there will be frogs, toads and newts, as well as a large variety of insects and pond life which, in turn, will attract many species of bird."

And the frogs sing the most beautiful sound in the world.

Anonymous said...

These are not, of themselves, beautiful systems nor are the components of these systems aesthetically pleasing.

Nonsense, both water treatment to turn potentially contaminated water into safe drinking water and waste water treatment to clean sewage are truly beautiful. Not to mention that these methods, mostly invented, improved and maintained by government agencies have, over the last 150 years or so, saved more human lives, and reduced human misery, than almost anything in the history of mankind.

Michael said...

It is pretty to think up new sewer and water systems, systems that in one form or another have been operative since Roman times. It is pretty to think that women can turn their brains to improving on these systems, recognizing their intrinsic beauty, the interconnectedness of it all and devising breakthroughs that will be very high level. Maybe they will use their brains to devise systems that will not require any drudges, self-fixing systems, that won't have any hurly-burly at all. I long for that day and hope you do too. Science with no hurly burly.

Ann Althouse said...

"And then give them a self-esteem trophy. You participated! Well done!"

Fen, you get an F for reading, but if you intrinsically valued the experience of completely misunderstanding the point, then good for you, and here's your Cranky Old Geezer medal to suck on.

Anonymous said...

As opposed to physical beauty.

Actually one of the trends in waste water treatment is the use of artificial wetlands as part of the process. There is your physical beauty (although granted, not everyone finds a marsh beautiful).

Ann Althouse said...

I only kicked Fen's ass because I found it intrinsically rewarding.

JimT Utah said...

Women in science are in it because they love it. I have known a few breeding pairs of scientists in my time. I recall a couple of chemists who read Chem Abstracts to each other as they sat by a cozy fire in the evening. A friend of mine followed a pair of physicists on the recruiting trail. Every HR person he talked to was stunned. Either one was amazing; the pair was incredible.

I have worked with a couple of lady MEs. They get just as excited by a good design as the guys do.

At college the ChemEs had their own "Plumber's Prom" in the lab, because they had to take data every hour for three days straight. Their dates seemed to enjoy not just the dance, but the environment.

The drawback to all this is that the ladies seemed to find motherhood more rewarding, and left the profession, (or scaled back a lot) once they had a family.

In any case, a pretty woman who understands what you're talking about is more fun to work with than a guy.

Revenant said...

Make the study of science intrinsically rewarding instead of portraying it as a means to an end

The kind of people who go into STEM fields don't need to be told that, though.

Edmund said...

The emphasis on STEM education by the government is not realistic. First, not everyone is suited for it. It takes the right skills, some of which are innate, such as what one cognitive research firm calls "structural visualization", the ability to mentally visualize connections and structures. I knew in college that no matter how many classes I took, I'd never be a theoretical physicist. I don't have the right kind of ability in pure math. I hit a wall, and wouldn't get farther. (I'd be Leonard, not Sheldon, in the physics world, for all you Big Bang Theory fans.)

Second, we have a surplus of STEM graduates in the US. Outside of a few fields like petroleum engineering there are more than enough graduates. The proof is that compensation for STEM graduates has been flat for years. If there was a shortage, salaries would be increasing. Most STEM graduates work outside their field. (See the IEEE website for details.)

Smilin' Jack said...

Never mind sewers...is there any result of science that is more beautiful, in both theory and realization, than the hydrogen bomb? They are so cool.

Jane the Actuary said...

But is Gillebrand's push about boosting the number of STEM students, or the more limited goal of reaching metrics around the percent of graduates who are women? (I'm not a fan of prodding girls to study STEM subjects just to improve the metrics, without regard for whether it'll benefit them.)

Anonymous said...

The proof is that compensation for STEM graduates has been flat for years.

A lot of that has to do with the misuse and abuse of H1B visas. Companies pretend they can't find enough Americans to do the job in order to get overseas indentured servants and keep wages down for everyone.

Ann Althouse said...

"The kind of people who go into STEM fields don't need to be told that, though."

Do we know that there is not another group who have not yet gone who are dissuaded from going because they have looked away -- thinking they belong somewhere else -- and if they got a good look at science as beautiful and were encouraged to go ahead and yield to the compulsion of that beauty and to feel liberated from the conventional sense of obligation to care about people, they too might go?

Ann Althouse said...

"I'm not a fan of prodding girls to study STEM subjects just to improve the metrics, without regard for whether it'll benefit them."

Me neither, as I said in the older posts, but that's another reason to encourage participation based on loving the work itself rather than as a means to the end of helping people. The encouragement should not be to serve the ends of the social engineers and gender balancers but because it will be good for the women who do choose these fields.

I think this applies to males too, that they should find work that they find intrinsically rewarding (even as they also want the income). There's no income that makes up for hating your job, and it's incredibly hard to put a number on the value of the job benefit that comes in the form of enjoying the work.

I can think of some paid jobs that involve activities that other people people would pay to do. And I don't mean prostitution. (The 2 persons engaging in sex in the act of prostitution are not doing the same activity.)

Jane the Actuary said...

Do we know that there is not another group who have not yet gone who are dissuaded from going because they have looked away -- thinking they belong somewhere else -- and if they got a good look at science as beautiful and were encouraged to go ahead and yield to the compulsion of that beauty and to feel liberated from the conventional sense of obligation to care about people, they too might go?

In some ways, that was me.

I was one of the best math students in my grade in high school, and took multivariate calculus, calculus-based statistics, and one quarter of Honors Chem and Physics, but was enough embued with "do what you love" to be a history major. Would I have done any differently if I were encouraged to think of science as "beautiful" as a "helping profession"? No. Would I have done differently if I'd been told, straight up, "you will never get a job in history"? Probably. But why should my history advisor steer me away from history?

Jane the Actuary said...

I think there are substantial limits to the "do what you love" idea. But there's a lot to be said for the "bloom where you're planted" approach, finding a job that's not unpleasant, and is satisfying in its own way, and trying to learn and grow as much as possible within that job.

I worked in the dishroom in the cafeteria my senior year of college. Did I "love" it? No, but there was something relaxing about disengaging from academic work for something physical instead.

Revenant said...

Do we know that there is not another group who have not yet gone who are dissuaded from going because they have looked away -- thinking they belong somewhere else -- and if they got a good look at science as beautiful and were encouraged to go ahead and yield to the compulsion of that beauty and to feel liberated from the conventional sense of obligation to care about people, they too might go?

That question doesn't even make sense to me. It seems like you believe that a love of science or technology *isn't* the most common reason people go into STEM fields. If so, you are incorrect.

You don't have to teach a kid that, say, physics is awesome. Either they think "whoa, this is pretty awesome" when they encounter physics... or they don't, in which case going into physics is A TERRIBLE IDEA because a career devoted to thinking about things that don't naturally interest you is a nightmare.

Ben Morris said...

Victor Hugo's lengthy discussion of the Parisian sewer system in (the unabridged) Les Miserables is quite beautiful imo.

Gabriel Hanna said...

Most of the STEM fields require a level of dedication not often found outside of monasteries.

For example, a physics education through the graduate level only gets you up to about 1950. All that time spent in school on extremely difficult courses does not make you a physicist, it gives you what you need to BECOME a physicist once you settle on your field of study and fill in the post-1950 knowledge you didn't get.

It's the inverse of smoking--the pain is upfront and the pleasure comes much later. (There's never money, although physicists rarely starve.)

I would say 100% of STEM graduates do it because they find it intrinsically interesting, or they would have switched to something else.

Jane the Actuary said...

Actually, I would say that the label STEM is a simplification. There's a great deal of distance between the T and E, much more practical and hands-on, and the theoretical levels of the S and M. The S is variable too -- are we talking working in a research lab at, say, a pharma company, or theoretical physics?

Kirk Parker said...

" it's just fine to pursue what you feel compelled to look at because it is beautiful"

Where do the onion rings come in?

paul a'barge said...

This is a bunch of unmitigated, straight-up sexism: simplistic, knucklehead assertions about males (and females).

Anonymous said...

Most of the STEM fields require a level of dedication not often found outside of monasteries.

Bullshit. Although some areas of STEM do require a PhD, you can make a good living with just a B.S. in many stem fields (e.g. Chemistry, Engineering, Biology, Computer Science, even Math if you choose the right emphasis.)

Jane the Actuary said...

So, Freder Frederson, I have an 8th-grader who likes and is better at science than any of his other subjects, but is no great genius. What careers can he look into?

Christy said...

"Appeal to the love of beauty, reveal the aesthetic aspects of science, and let the girls — not to mention boys — know that it's just fine to pursue what you feel compelled to look at because it is beautiful"

You end up with weirdos such as I, who thrills at the sight of an transmission tower. Just kidding, I didn't find transmission towers beautiful in the beginning.

I wonder, had women had more choices in generations before ours, if more would have gone into STEM programs. I mentioned over on Lem' s group blog recently that I believe home sewing, a dying skill, paved the way to my engineering career. So many aspects of sewing lay out ideas, or neuron pathways if you will, that translate well to engineering. Then I also was the one who used Grandma's old treadle when we all got together to sew. Where all the moving parts are out in the open to be figured out. Anyhow. Sewing helps develop those spatial reasoning skills experts say we women lack. So I figure in earlier generations women may have had it in spades. In those earlier generations when, as my grandmother once explained, respectable women could be teachers or wives.

Michael said...

I believe that there is beauty to found in almost all kinds of work. Watch a short order cook at a busy time, observe the guy up the pole repairing the electrical line, a lawyer listening carefully and responding with precision. All of these things have a certain grace that accompanies them, not least the short order cook's ballet.

Ditto mathematicians and physicists and heart surgeons and field goal kickers. But if beauty is the attraction why are women, who seem naturally to comprehend beauty, not observant of what is before them in the handles that turn on the water and the switches that illuminate the rooms and the floats in the toilet water tanks? Could it be that they aren't interested in that kind of practical outcome? Or that they are shitty at it?

Anonymous said...

What careers can he look into?

Engineering probably gives you the most bang for the buck with an undergraduate degree. I would stay away from Computer Science because that is where the most abuse of the H1B's occurs.

Gabriel Hanna said...

@Freder: Bullshit. Although some areas of STEM do require a PhD, you can make a good living with just a B.S. in many stem fields (e.g. Chemistry, Engineering, Biology, Computer Science, even Math if you choose the right emphasis.)

An engineering degree does not make you an engineer. A chemistry degree does not make you a chemist. You are, as in the case of a Ph. D. in physics, given the tools you need to learn the profession once you get into it.

Some STEM fields only need a BS, true, but for most of them the long hours of study only get you in the door. They do not, in themselves, give you the knowledge you need for the profession.

Michael said...

In my field of investment banking I see a number of engineers. The discipline and analytical skills necessary for engineering are very handy in finance. Ditto math guys. Also a good measure of men and women with degrees in the humanities: not "studies" but traditional History and English and Philosophy majors.

Mark said...

My soon-to-be-seven-year-old twins (boy and girl) are learning to be makers, and are learning to love math games. Yesterday we were playing division games, talking about why dividing by zero isn't allowed in math and touching on the properties of infinity in the process.

I have no idea if my daughter will go into a STEM career, but she and her brother currently like math, and with luck will for the rest of their lives.

(BTW, in my experience Calculus is most often taught as a series of recipes with no real regard for how any of it actually works.)

roesch/voltaire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
roesch/voltaire said...

Just came from a class where a number of the women were discussing why they are in the STEM field. Ture most of the women mentioned wanting to make a contribution to the world but I don't think women are urged to become STEM majors just for the "metrics," might have more to do with the need for diversity of view point as well as not closing off STEM to women. Further is seems odd to think because you work in a lab on cancer research one is cut off from people or what is beautiful. See Richard Feynman's lecture on science and beauty. Frankly what turns folks away from STEM, according to my students, is often math which they point out is often poorly taught in high school.


Laura said...

So what to do about the bigotry towards stay-at-home fathers and men who desire to be in the "helping" professions.

Would appreciate the competition to get my pay grade up. Boo Yah!

Christy said...

Gabriel noted, "An engineering degree does not make you an engineer."

When the head of the nuclear engineering department gave our class the talk getting our professional license, I asked him what I should put on my 1040 where it asked for profession if I didn't.

He replied, "Housewife."

Revenant said...

Engineering probably gives you the most bang for the buck with an undergraduate degree. I would stay away from Computer Science because that is where the most abuse of the H1B's occurs.

I would stay away from Computer Science because people who aren't particularly smart won't do well in it. Many engineering fields allow a rote-learning approach, but computer science isn't one of them. You need to constantly relearn skills if you don't want to be stuck at a junior level forever.

H1B's aren't much of a problem (they're a couple of percent of jobs). Offshoring is a bigger concern, although frankly I don't expect it to be a long-term threat. There is currently a labor shortage in the field, but you shouldn't plan a career based on something like that; plan it based on what you'll enjoy.