Diversity is not a Dirty Word

BBC Newsnight coverage of BICEP2 results.

BBC Newsnight coverage of BICEP2 results. Photograph: BBC via Guardian

Last week the global physics community celebrated the announcement of experimental results that reveal the very origins of our universe. While major news and science outlets focused on the discovery itself, a Daily Mail columnist inexplicably focused instead on the gender and race of two of the scientific experts invited onto BBC’s Newsnight.

The findings announced by the BICEP2 team appear to show a glimpse of the physics very shortly after the Big Bang and provide evidence for both gravitational waves and cosmic inflation, which caused ripples in the very fabric of space…! How do I know this? Not from watching Star Trek, I assure you. Nature came to my assistance.  Given that Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, Linde has waited 31 years for evidence of inflation* and that the results from BICEP2 appears to show both as well as being consistent with the so-called “Grand Unifying Theory”… talk has already turned to Nobels.

With the prospect of having evidence of the first moments of the universe, BBC Newsnight, rightly judged the scientific breakthrough as “newsworthy” and joined the international coverage. They produced this segment, which includes a background description by Dr. Chris Lintott of the University of Oxford and The Sky at Night, an interview with one of the BICEP2 team and two studio scientists: International expert in the field and researcher on the European Planck project, Dr Hiranya Peiris, Univeristy College London (UCL) & award-winning science communicator and The Sky at Night co-host, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, also UCL.

It will come as no surprise to some, that the international excitement generated by the discovery ended at a Daily Mail columnist’s front door. Far from being inspired (or inspiring) in the face of astonishing scientific endeavour, “Ephraim Hardcastle” (a pseudonym later disclosed to be Peter McKay) posted a bizarre swipe at BBC Newsnight’s coverage:

“Newsnight’s Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.

So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri-Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.” ~ Ephraim Hardcastle aka Peter McKay

Ephraim Hardcastle, Daily Mail columnists's review of Newsnight's coverage of the BICEP2 results.

The Daily Mail’s column by Ephraim Hardcastle. [N.B. Clicking provides traffic and income to online media. The article can be see on the Daily Mail website HERE.]

Leaving aside the fact that these comments don’t actually reflect the breadth of expert input to the show (by failing to mention the two male scientists who also contributed), the layers of offense in this particular cake of spite are dense and hard to swallow, including:

  • The implication that the two studio scientists were invited BECAUSE of their gender and/or race.
  • The trivialising of the female scientists by use of “women” compared with the language used for men, sorry, “American scientists”.
  • The erroneously assumed racial & gender background (white, male) of the experimental team, juxtaposed against the studio scientists.
  • That the birth place of Dr Hiranya Peiris is of ANY relevance whatsoever.

The notion that the scientists were invited to participate in the communication of complex scientific discussion within BBC newsrooms BECAUSE they were women and BECAUSE they were ethnic minority women was dispatched with quickly and expertly by Professor David Price, Vice-Provost for Research at UCL. In an open letter to the Editor of the Daily Mail, he highlighted the stellar credentials of Drs Peiris and Aderin-Pocock. Also pleasing was the quick and nicely-pitched public display of solidarity by fellow UCL physicist, Jon Butterworth, over at the Guardian. The defence was backed up on Friday by the Royal Astronomical Society.  The truth is that these scientific experts weren’t invited to participate in Newsnight BECAUSE they are BME women. One is an international expert in the field and the other a highly qualified scientist with expertise in space science communication. They were invited for their expertise. That this has to be defended to the editor of a national newspaper in modern Britain is nothing short of depressing.

The %age of girls studying physics at A-level.

The percentage of girls studying physics at A-level from IOP report It’s Different for Girls

Academic career progression in physics for under-represented groups (red = women; blue = BME).

Academic career progression in physics for under-represented groups (red = women; blue = BME). [Plotted using The interactive data provided by The Royal Society (data on other STEMM subjects also available).]

So, depressing, yes. Rage-inducing, maybe. But does it matter? Leaving aside the more general issues of casual sexism and xenophobia, consider the landscape in which these comments are made: Only 1.8 % of state-funded co-educational girls take physics to A-level (compared with 10 % of boys), which equates to around 20 % of physics A-level students. The Institute of Physics are trying to stem the fallout of girls from physics in post-16 education. BME students are under-represented in physics and astronomy degrees. And the Royal Astronomical Society report that BME groups and women are under-represented in senior academic roles. Only last month the House of Commons Science and Technology Select committee released a report challenging universities to do more to keep women in academic science. And in 2011 the Equality Challenge Unit found that the majority of BME staff in HE who took part in their study had experienced damaging effects on their careers by being treated as subordinate or excluded because of their race. [Incidentally, I’ve seen little data on intersectionality i.e. what happens to those that belong to more than one under-represented group.] The factors behind these issues are complex but the Royal Society’s Leading the Way diversity program seeks to understand them and “investigate ways to remove the barriers to entry, retention and progression within the scientific workforce”.

In light of that, a “diversity agenda” at the BBC, by which I mean mindfully improving the representation of typically under-represented groups rather than regressing to unconscious bias should be supported.

McKay’s comments defend the hegemony of social privilege by belittling the selection of studio scientists as nothing more than fulfilling a diversity quota. Highlighting “otherness”, rather than excellence, as your defining factor.  Achievements disregarded with a swipe of arrogant entitlement, as the expert is reduced to a label, a colour, an “other”. And though, as in this case, defence may be at the ready (though this will often be met with claims that you are being “over-sensitive”), the poison is already in the ether; “You’re only there because you’re a woman… You’re not actually as good as your male peers… They only wanted a minority face on the screen to satisfy a quota… Look, she wasn’t even born in Britain”… The undertone is to challenge your voice and undermine your position. Silence of bystanders in the face of this, magnifies it’s affect. That’s why I think it’s important to strongly object when you see the thinly veiled disguise of bigotry using diversity as a dirty word; the icing on a cake of spite:

The (inadequate) response from the Daily Mail columnist. With thanks to James Elder (@jamesofputney) for help providing this snippet.

I encourage you sign this petition initiated by UCL asking the Daily Mail to apologise that they allowed such an irresponsible message with xenophobic & sexist undertones, which perpetuate privilege and stereotypes, to be published. This, I think, is one small way to show support to Dr Hiranya Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and to say, “Enough!” to the Daily Mail. The message we should be giving young men & women, BME communities, schools, parents and anyone that will listen is that science is for everyone. That diversity is not a dirty word.

“I deeply pity the sort of person who can watch a report about ground-breaking news on the origins of the universe and everything in it, and see only the gender and skin colour of the panellists.” ~ Dr. Hiranya Peiris, Reader in Astronomy, University College London

* To recover from the unsavoury antics of Daily Mail columnists, enjoy the heart-warming response of the physicist who had predicted the inflation model, Prof. Andrei Linde and his wife, Prof. Renata Kallosh (whose research applies inflation to string theory), captured on video, as they are told of the experimental results. Surprised by a member of the BICEP2 team, Dr Chao-Lin Kuo, Prof. Kallosh’s response, “Discovery!” was a beautiful thing. Moments of success are hard won in research science and ones of this magntitude, are once-in-a-lifetime stuff.

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A Reproducible Preparation of Orangettes: The Levy Method

Figure 1: A representative OGT produced by the Levy Method.

Figure 1: A representative OGT produced by the Levy Method.

The materials submitted to the Journal of Epicurea by Levy et al. aim to provide evidence for the quality, reproducibility and longevity of Orangettes (OGT) produced by the Levy Method.

While both single and two-phase OGT methods have been reported previously, the authors of the present study undertook a two-phase OGT synthesis, the product of which is shown in Figure 1. The three key parameters responsible for triggering an Ingestion Response were all rated excellent, scoring > 90 % [Visual appeal: 92 %, Olfactory resonance: 98.5 % & Gustatory induction: 94 %]. This feat could be attributed to the high quality starting materials and/or expertise of preparation, shown HERE and HERE. It is certainly commendable that the OGTs withstood the Royal Mail agitation test, arriving at the review laboratory with few signs of mechanical stress.

Figure 2: Interfacial boundary produced by 2-phase Levy Method.

Figure 2: Interfacial boundary produced by 2-phase Levy Method.

Figure 3: Self-assembly of Levy Method OGTs. Note defect in assembly on the right hand side.

Figure 3: Self-assembly of Levy Method OGTs. Assembly defect evident on the far right of the field of view.

The OGTs produced by this method also show considerable potential to study interfacial dynamics (see Figure 2). Furthermore, their apparent ability to self-assemble (Figure 3) could be a result of non-uniform aspect ratios. This observation is both unexpected and may be of great interest, particularly to the Parental community. Possible evidence of defects in the self-assembly, perhaps as a result of a degree of inherent heterogeneity, may be observed to the far right of the field of view in Figure 3 and also warrant further investigation.

Overall the quality of the materials produced by the Levy OGT Method are impressive. While the in-batch reproducibility is promising, further samples are encouraged in order that the reproducibility be more fully assessed.  In fact, this reviewer believes it would be in the interest of the wider Epicurean community that the Levy OGT Method be published in full in order for these findings to be thoroughly investigated in other laboratories.

While the “Levy Method” will be of considerable interest to the Chocolate Orange community, and in particular those with an interest in Orangette Synthesis, it is the opinion of this reviewer that the world-class quality of these materials would be of sufficient interest to the wider Epicurean community to warrant publication in the Journal of Epicurea

Supplementary technical notes:

Figure S1: The use of EBT as a consumption enhancer is shown.

Figure S1: The use of EBT as a consumption enhancer is shown.

  • Whilst psuedo-solid phase methods of ingestion may be employed, this reviewer recommends the use of a 1 % (w/v) solution of EBT* (Figure S1).
  • Ingestion of 1 unit of OGT may be attempted but researchers should be aware of the risk of triggering a cascade reaction resulting in momentary over-consumption. The risks of long term exposure are yet to be established, this researcher can vouch for the acute uptake of up to 6 OGT units.

* English Breakfast Tea

The reviewer thanks Dr. Levy for the submission of this high quality material for review. It was very, very tasty!

Chemical Reactions

As a chemist, it’s probably not surprising that I’m interested in chemical reactions. The transformation of one substance into another, and the rationale behind it, has been the bread and butter of chemistry from its alchemical origins to the modern day.  Most laboratory chemists spend their day making, modelling or measuring chemical reactions.

But there is another kind of chemical reaction that catches my attention. The reaction *to* chemicals.  So frequent is the reaction to the concept of “chemical” a negative one – distrust, suspicion, hostility, fear – that a word has been coined for it: chemophobia.  Chemophobia is the irrational fear of chemicals.  

Now, I have an irrational fear of wasps.  I know it’s irrational and that wasps aren’t going to cause me undue harm and yet I can’t help but react like a lunatic whenever one approaches. Cue much embarrassment at an outdoor conference meeting last summer where I attempted to share some research opinions while performing, what can only be described as, acrobatic evasion tactics as 1 or 2 an army of wasps descended (sadly, true story). I am irrationally afraid of wasps but I know that they are unlikely to actually harm me and yet I involuntarily react.  My mum, with her vertigo, may well struggle to walk across The Golden Jubilee Bridge without employing the skills of an expert tight-rope walker (another true story) but she does know that she is unlikely to come to harm, even if she can’t fully control the involuntary response to her fear.

But chemophobia, I think, is something different. In my experience, those exhibiting chemophobia aren’t reacting involuntarily to an irrational fear at all.  The attempt to exclude anything perceived as “chemical” from their environment is a deliberate one. And, rather than having a fear response to something they know to actually be safe, they believe that “chemicals” will harm them. We are bombarded with the messages equating “chemical” with bad and “natural” with good, as though both those positions are always true and are mutually exclusive. This, of course, is nonsense. Chemicals can be safe or dangerous, whether synthetic or natural, depending on the context. People aren’t actually afraid of chemicals. They are afraid of what they perceive a chemical to be.

What would the world look like if I hadn’t had a chemical (or scientific) education?  What would my perception of “chemical” be?  How would I feel about the “chemical industry,” about “Big Pharma”?  Would I curse “chemicals” for causing cancer, celebrate them for curing it or judge them on a case-by-case basis?   Would I happily treat my headache with (R,S)-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid if it wasn’t obscured by a generic or trade name?  Would a chemical structure mean anything at all? Would I recognise that chemicals and chemistry pervade all aspects of our life? Indeed, that chemistry *is* life?

I don’t know what my perception would be but I do know it’s easy, as a chemist, to adopt a defensive position, to haughtily declare, “Chemistry is everywhere!” and wash my hands of this particular set of chemical reactions.  I’ve been guilty of this but I have to admit that it’s reductive.  Yes, chemistry is everywhere and everything is chemical but how does that blanket statement help engage and inform. And how does it help to provide an understanding of the complexity of chemistry.  At the root of the “chemical” vs “natural” argument is a difference in language, a misunderstanding of what a “chemical” is. And further than that, is the uncomfortable reality that a chemical, whether synthetic or natural, can only be judged dangerous or safe in context.

Challenging the perception of “chemical”, James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher based in Melbourne, Australia has produced really attention-grabbing infographics.  His most recent series has gone viral and began by showing the chemicals in a natural banana.  He has since created a whole range including blueberries, kiwi fruit, strawberries, beetroot, passion fruit and an egg (which you can buy in poster form or on a t-shirt through his blog). I’m looking forward to the coffee and tea ones.   As he discusses in the Collapsed Wavefunction podcast, the aim of his project was to show the relevance of organic chemistry to his students. Even though it wasn’t James’ intention to address chemophobia, his infographics challenge the concept of “chemical” and the notion that “natural” and “chemical” are mutually exclusive.

The Chemical Banana by James Kennedy

And so it begins…

So, finally, my first blog post (and only 4 days late – yay for friendly deadlines and nudges! (thanks Craig and Sarah)).  I say “finally” not in the mistaken belief that this blog will fill some void of expectation but because “starting a blog” has been on my To Do list for at least 3 years.  During which time I’ve started 7 blogs, each of which have gotten no further than concept, title and ‘about’ page (actually, the biking blog did get off the ground but Betty (the bike) was stolen, breaking my heart and ending the beginning of a beautiful blogship) before I’ve abandoned the project.

My hesitation about the blogging experiment is a result of the lethal combination of fear and expert level procrastination with a dash of imposter syndrome for good measure. And it seems I’m not alone.  There have been a number of variations on the theme that, ‘Women scientists don’t blog but should.’ Why that may be the case and to what extent it’s true is an ongoing topical matter of discussion. Personally, I have (what seem to be) common concerns that play out when I sit down to blog – Do I have anything useful to contribute? Will I make silly mistakes? Is blogging risky? Am I experienced enough? Am I over-analysing things (again)? Should I go and make another cup of tea? Where is the best place to go for a burger tomorrow? Did I save the link for those great anti-#chemphobia natural ingredient infographics? Why do I want to blog, anyway…?

You’ll practice your writing skills, you’ll reach beyond your lab/department/network and you’ll learn new things, I tell myself.  Surely, getting egg on your chin in ‘public’ can’t be *that* bad, I tell myself.  Even the best procrastinator can put things off only so long…  And so, as Athene Donald said to (anxious) would-be bloggers after the 2012 SpotOn London event, it’s time to:

‘Find supporters, take risks and stamp on those fears’ – Athene Donald, To Blog or Not to Blog

It turns out, it took a year for me to get the fear-stamping boots on.  Now, I am going to have that cup of tea. J