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woman-1044143_960_720My first impression on entering the room was immediate awareness of the ample collective brain power.

The room was LaSelles Stewart Center last weekend on January 16-17, the event was a Conference on Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP) and the participants were more than 100 physicists from the Northwest.

The attendees gathered to learn about opportunities in the professions of physics, discuss their research and share experiences about the opportunities and challenges of navigating through a discipline long dominated by men.

The atmosphere was markedly optimistic and collegial; sentiments that I shared at the vision of so many bright minds setting forth to change our world.

After the conference I met with some of the OSU organizers – Dr. Janet Tate (Professor of Physics), Allison Gicking (3rd year PhD student in Biophysics) and Kelby Peterson (1st year PhD student in Solid State Materials Physics).

They were tired because running a successful conference is a massive undertaking and I appreciate their generosity in time and thoughts.

There are about 20,000 professional physicists in the US and Dr. Tate told me that about 20% of those are women.

From the OSU Physics Department page I see that there are 17 tenure-line faculty members 5 of whom are women, which is 30%.


This is problematic because employment in physics typically requires a PhD or beyond and the number of women pursuing physics degrees is nearly equal to men doing the same.

Gender equity is working among students in higher education. Yet if the employment numbers stay as they are, the majority of women with physics degrees will end up in careers different from their degree focus.

It is not the case that success with a physics degree leads solely to working at a University or Federal lab.  There is growing demand for physics majors in sectors working with energy technology, medicine, information technology, semiconductors, space, environmental technology, among other applied research-and-development fields.

mathematics-112720_960_720The key question is not “what can I do with a physics degree?” but rather “what can I do with a mind that is capable of succeeding at a physics degree?” That is true of every degree focus.

What accounts for the low ratio of women employed as professional physicists?

It is not that women are less interested in science than men. Women are entering and completing degree programs at all levels across the sciences including physics.

Dr. Tate hypothesizes that the cultures of physics departments and research organizations work against women who have or plan to have children.

Gicking and Peterson point out that the rarity of female role models in professional physics is a barrier to women entering the field.

These explanations are supported by a 2013 Nature article by Helen Shen, “Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap.” Search for that article on the web because the interactive data presentation there is fascinating and tells the story in ways that my words cannot.

Does it matter whether physics research and teaching is conducted by women? Yes it does.

For one, the physics of reality – such as gravity – does not differentiate between genders.  There is one physics for us all, so bringing diverse perspectives to a common topic increases the potential for shared knowledge. As Gicking put it; “the domain of the unknown is getting smaller.”

My observation is that the domain of ignorance may not be getting smaller and many people are increasingly distant from the world of science.

Human knowledge need not be scientific but it should not anti-scientific. The more our population understands science the better for our culture.

Making way for more women who like science, including those who are able to pass that on to their kids, to participate professionally confers a general benefit.

The corollary is that it would be beneficial for more men to maintain an interest in the sciences. I am philosopher and I read something about physics and other sciences every day. That’s one way to keep current with our fast changing world.

The human species currently faces some very large-scale wicked problems including environmental shift and social fragmentation. specialist-454872_960_720

A “wicked problem” is one that is hard to solve because of its extreme complexity and dynamic requirements.

Traditional approaches to problem-solving may not be adequate to these big issues.

Dr. Tate notes that a benefit to more women working as professional physicists is an increase in collaborative modes of research.

Gicking and Peterson observed that women in physics often seek an interdisciplinary focus and that “interdisciplinary science is the way of the future.”

I hypothesize that the human species has a kind of group intelligence that manifests as social change in response to large-scale pressures.

Rats do this; when they overpopulate an area the individuals spontaneously stop mating.

Pressure on the whole population results in modifications of individual behaviors.

Perhaps the recent influx of women into science through education and the professions is our species intelligence transforming the way that we construct knowledge and approach issues in ways more appropriate to the wicked problems. Note: those who dislike “intelligence” may just as readily read this as a bottom-up evolutionary process.

It is good for women to want to be in physics and it is good for plenty of professional scientists to be women. Our institutions should reciprocate this movement by developing family supportive policies including maternity leave, family leave and daycare.

Some physicists are taking the lead in making the change happen.

This is the 11th year of CUWIP sessions and the first time the conference has been held at OSU, thanks to Dr. Janet Tate, Allison Gicking, Kelby Peterson, and a group of dedicated students on the conference planning group.

This is how intentional change happens my friends and I urge you to seek out further opportunities to increase awareness and participation within this amazing place that is our academic home.

Image Acknowledgements





metropolis_lenaTechnology Across the Curriculum (TAC), my OSU home, has the charge to explore how changes in technology may affect the pursuit of knowledge by students and instructors.

This effort is called “futurecasting” and is based on forms of analysis that I’ve taught in my ALS199 course “FutureTech”; what I offer here owes much to what I have learned from the remarkable students of that course (hi you guys)!

Futurecasting is not merely guessing or a form of science fiction, though I think it fair to say that science fiction is not merely guessing either.

Science fiction is a literary genre that uses speculation about possible derivations of science and technology to comment on the human condition.

Quality science fiction does more than merely imagine some fantastic new technology, it connects the imagined technology to our present condition through extrapolations from existing science.metropolis_poster

Writer Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of literary speculation is; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I take this to mean that magic in literature is sheer imagination and needs no explanation, while the speculative technologies of science fiction require some plausible relation to known reality.

The technologies in science fiction films vary between the speculative and magical.

We may distinguish these in retrospect depending on how closely actual changes in culture maps to past representations of the future.

Judge for yourself as I briefly survey the history of science fiction film from its onset through the 1960s.

Le Voyage Dans la Lun [A Trip to the Moon] (1902): French artist Georges Méliès apollo_moon_landingstarted the science fiction film genre with his fanciful adaptation of a novel by Jules Verne.

Melies’ technology is almost wholly inaccurate although he did introduce space travel and a moon landing to the public imagination at a time when the existence of motion pictures alone was a mind-bending technology.

Robert Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 and 43 years later a rocket did send people to walk on the moon, which much of the world watched live on television.

Metropolis (1927): The first great science fiction film is by Fritz Lang whose vision of occult robotics and mechanized society driven by vast social inequality anticipates the digital divide that faces us today.

The Jetsons (1962): I grant that this goofy cartoon series was not intended as serious social commentary, but watch a few episodes and you will see remarkably approximate representations of video chat, tablet news readers, jetsons_pill_camflying cars, dog walking treadmills, robot chefs, a medical pillcam, and the smart watch; all of which are with us now in some functional form (as demonstrated by the links in this post).

The Jetsons was a spinoff of the popular cartoon series, The Flintstones (1960), which depicted a fantasy stone age world in which modern machine technology was accomplished by uses of imaginary animals; for instance a can opener operated by a living bird with a long beak.

Both The Flintstones and The Jetsons provide a mid-twentieth century view of society by substituting everyday processes with imaginary methods – in one case magical and in the other science fiction.

I point this out because for some people the fact that we are talking about cartoons and movies designed for entertainment rules out any serious meaning to be derived.

I disagree with that exclusion because all reality has some meaning and often the significances that are hard for us to recognize occur in the form of the seemingly trivial; in history the jester has often been the sole agent who may reveal undesired truths to the powerful.

If one approaches the task of understanding from a position of already knowing what is and is not meaningful, then the effort will be short and simple, but not more truthful.

Alphaville (1965): Technocratic totalitarianism is a modern anxiety that continues to inspire depiction in film and most follow the lead of the film by Jean Luc Goddard which presents a society dominated by an artificial intelligence that outlaws emotion and the irrational.

Star Trek (1966): The relatively obscure TV series which became a phenomenon star_trek_transporteris a gold mine of speculative technology which anticipated applied science such as the cloaking device, the medical tricorder, the communicator and the replicator.

Most remarkable aspect of the original Star Trek was its premise that the human species would survive to thrive in the 23rd century.

In the 1960’s most of us assumed that the human species was on track to annihilate itself through nuclear war or some other apocalyptic technology.

Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry showed us a human future that had not committed species suicide, transcended racism, sexism and nationalism, succeeded in peaceful collaboration with alien species (except for Klingons and Tholians), progressed with an economy without money but based on human excellence and operated by consensus with a moral principle of universal respect.

The original Star Trek may look comical by current production values, but it presented a unique conception of hope in humanity at a time when the human prospect appeared dim to many and the stories of the series are better than much of what is sold as science fiction today.

fahrenheit-451-largeFahrenheit 451 (1966): François Truffaut adapted Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future where books are banned “firemen” are a kind of SWAT team who find and burn the hidden libraries of resisting bibliophiles (451F being the burning point of paper – sort of).

The film ably depicts a world without reading, even the film titles and credits are spoken, and human relationships are mediated via ubiquitous room-sized flat-screens.

If we stripped all text from YouTube it would look a lot like the world of this film and given the contemporary push for video over text in education, the issues raised in this story about the future of cognition remain relevant.

The film music is by Bernard Hermann who asked Truffaut why he had not chosen a “modern” composer and was answered; “They’ll give me music of the twentieth century but you’ll give me music of the twenty first!”

Planet of the Apes (1968): The idea of non-human apes supplanting humans is a popular culture phenomenon that started with a film based on the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle.palent_of_the_apes

The film script was written by Rod Serling, creator of the Twilight Zone (which itself is a wealth of futurecasting), and at center is a reversal of evolutionary science in which chimpanzees and gorillas progress to the dominant species while homo sapiens devolves to non-sentient brutes.

The concept continues to flourish via remakes, sequels, tv series, and more because the story confronts viewers with the problem of: what does it mean to be human?

This month a federal judge rules that two chimpanzees caged in NY have the legal right of habeas corpus (the right to legally challenge one’s imprisonment), which is remarkable in a decade where some human beings have been officially denied that same right.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): A milestone for science fiction film as art was Stanley Kubrick’s enigmatic masterpiece which futurecast a rich environment of emerging technologies including the space shuttle, the space station, artificial intelligence, artificial gravity, video conferencing, digital photography, smartpens, zero gravity meals and zero gravity toilets.

Consider that the film fairly accurately shows a moon landing and walk which in fact occurred a year later when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface in 1969.

2001 remains a great science fiction film because it raises vital questions about interrelations of humanity, history, technology and the scope of human understanding.2001_monolith

2001 contains magic as well, as defined by Clarke’s Law, so that separating the technically plausible from the merely imaginable remains a present challenge for interpretation.

Science fiction does not predict the future, it describes possible futures and explores the implications of them.

How the possible near futures of technology may impact learning is the area of concern in Technology Across the Curriculum at OSU and you are welcome to write to us and visit for exploration of these matters –

Next week this column will overview SciFi films of the 1970s to present and you are invited to make additions, comment and corrections below!

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