Saturday, January 18, 2020


This will be my ninth year as a judge at the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival. I found this film shelved in the non-fiction videos at my neighborhood branch public library. It was a lot of fun to watch. However, any adventure story will draw criticism from those who truly live the facts. So, too, does the broad treatment of this 90-minute documentary fail to reveal important details. That all being as it may, National Geographic delivered a good overview of the kids, their parents, and teachers. Although generalizations must fail in the face of individual histories, the film does show how necessary factual truths about the sociology of science play out.

First of all, the kids are individuals with their own motivations. Deeper still, curiosity is a primary. Some people have more of it than others. That motivation is a door which opens from the inside. As Howard Roark told Peter Keating in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in order to get things done for other people, you have to love the doing. Whether your goal is to mitigate the Zika virus or to build a flying wing—or to ship office supplies—the process itself must echo who you are on your own terms. 

Kashfia Rahman found no visibility in her school. They had three gyms and a weight room and football team with a 0-9 record. Still, it was the coach who helped her when no other teacher would. That is all the more disturbing because she had taken 2nd place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair the year before. I sympathized and empathized. Austin, Texas, has a major university with Nobel laureates on the faculty, but they are hung like trophy heads in a man cave because this is a town with no science museum. 

2018 South by Southwest Film Festival Award
2018 Portland International Film Award
40th News and Documentary Emmy Award
Available from National Geographic here
Moreover, two years in a row, it was an honor and a privilege for me to identify and promote an entrant in Behavioral and Social Science who had to turn to the University for help with statistics because none of her math or science teachers would make time for her. Through UT, she found graduate students who were interested in her work and who tutored her in mathematics. 

I have seen that played out often. Talented students from rural schools do good work, but are not up to fifth place standards because they had no support at school or at home. No one would or could help them with the fit and finish and polish that let a good idea shine. 

That subplot does play out in this documentary. All of the ISEF participantss were driven by their own internal engines of creation. And I see that in every entrant here at the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival. But Jericho High School had nine exhibits at ISEF because they had one teacher, Dr. Serena McCalla, dedicated to science research. On the other hand, Robbie Barrat did not place at ISEF—though he achieved much just in qualifying—and he did not get accepted to any of the colleges he applied to. His high school math teacher was less concerned with his interest in number theory than in the fact that he was not doing his homework. However, Robbie was hired by a Silicon Valley firm specifically because of his ISEF presentation on number theory.

That is another story line that was missing. Here at the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival, we have many special awards. Given out by the military, the Society of Women Engineers, and others, they are independent of the official rules and standards. 

The documentary said nothing about the process of judging. The assumption that qualified working scientists objectively rate each competitor based on their presentation of their work is wrong on three premises. 

First, the kids do not know in advance what category will give them the best visibility for an award. Sciences overlap: biology with chemistry, chemistry with physics, physics with engineering. Where do you place a project in environmental engineering that centers on an optically-based automatic data device invented by the student? You do not know what kinds of “scientists” or “engineers” will see your work. 

On that score, the kids are pushing the limits of what we know. A working scientist or engineer knows their own field, but cannot know all of the event horizons that grab the interests of thousands of young geniuses. And they are geniuses, mostly because they are young. We know that about science and how it is practiced.

Second, judging is subjective. We follow a rubric. It is not all just willy-nilly touchy-feely, but the rubric is only a guide. Winners stand out. It is obvious by inspection. You know a good, solid experiment and presentation, and you know an exceptional one. That judgement does come from work experience, especially in STEM where everyone is smart, but some few are just a little smarter, work a little harder, worry a problem a little deeper. 

The arithmetic of judging winnows the best of the best into a winner-take-all competition. In a crowded field, a project will be narrowly surpassed by others just as good. Placed in a different category, someone who does not make fifth place might easily make third, second, or even first. Moreover, judging is subjective because it is a social event. I lost arguments about the facts of behavioral science to people with better social presence. Places are awarded to exhibits that have strong advocates.

Third, the documentary gave the false impression that the canned speech is a key to success. We do not stand and listen to a child recite a memorized sound bite. As soon as the sing-song starts, we cut them off with a question. We receive their abstracts in advance. They set up their boards the night before and once they leave the hall, we walk the floor and spend long minutes with each exhibit. We read their field notes and their binders. We read their boards. We run our own database searches and do our own thinking and reflecting. And we talk it all out among ourselves and find consensus. But it starts with shutting the child up and asking them questions to see what they really know based on what they did.

The only study guide based on this film that I found online (from the Chicago International Film Festival here) seemed to me to have been written by someone who was trying hard to make science and science fairs interesting, rather than by someone who actually finds them rewarding. 
Among the very many resources online is this: “How to Answer the 5 Most Common Questions from a Science Fair Judge” (from Scientific American guest blogs). 


Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Madame Curie Complex

I relied on this book for facts about the women computers at the Harvard Observatory in the late 19thto mid-20th centuries. (That article was for the Sidereal Times newsletter of the Austin Astronomical Society here see p. 6-7. ) Despite the helpful inventories of names and thumbnail biographies about women in astronomy at Harvard and physics at Los Alamos, this book is largely what the author denies that it is: a victimology. And it is true that women have been victims of discrimination. Who has not? 

Not one of the professors who gave me the A grades that resulted in my summa cum laude baccalaureate would write a letter of recommendation for me for graduate school. They did not like my political views. As it was, I slipped in by taking a blended 500/400 class which put me in the graduate school while I was a senior. So, my MA in social science and BS in criminology are from the same alma mater, Eastern Michigan University.

The Madame Curie Complex:
The Hidden History of Women in Science
Feminist Press, 2001.
Des Jardins opens the book by telling of her failure to overcome math anxiety, even though she had been an arithmetic prodigy as a child. She opted out of calculus class in high school and never even considered majoring in biology in college, despite having an obvious passion for science. I understand. I should not have taken calculus and physics, but I did, for C+ grades in high school. In college, I failed Calculus I. I just took it over for a C+. Then, I earned an A in a short course in computer programming for calculus. I took freshman physics three times (at three different schools) until I got an A in it. I liked physics. It was just hard to do. So, I have no sympathy for Julie Des Jardins. I do respect her reporting—most of it.

Des Jardins never identifies the Madame Curie Complex. She does write around it. From that, her definition of the problem is that women are at once required to approach science as men would – cold, dispassionate, detached, working long hours—and yet are forced to accept their cultural roles as wives and mothers, keeping the home running for her husband and their children.  Moreover, women are expected to be passive in social settings, allowing administrators and peers and sometimes subordinates to exploit them. I would never argue against so obvious  a truth. 

I would put it in context. In Nelly Hanna's biography of Isma'il Abu Taqiyya, Making Big Money in 1600 (American University of Cairo Press, 1998) she tells of a Bosnian slave woman, living in Cairo, who sued in court three men who attempted to cut her out of a deal she brokered for her master. Hanna points out that no noble woman in London or Paris of 1600 could be a plaintiff in a court of law. It is not that women today would be better off under Islamic law. The salient fact is that by 1800, in the wake of the Enlightenment, the status of women in the industrialized nations was changing. In fact, everyone’s status was changing. Capitalism brought equality of opportunity.

She cites the opinions of Kant, Rousseau, Newton, Descartes, and Locke who claimed that women naturally lack the rational disinterest required of science. On the other hand, Herbert Spencer argued otherwise. But Spencer is disliked by academics. Some sociologists cite his later opinions after his intellectual prime, but they do so just to underscore the inherent injustice of capitalism. 
"... transgess the domestic sphere..."

The book is spiced throughout with the buzzwords of postmodernism. Des Jardins apparently failed to see the humor. Even as I agree about the social problems cited in Thomas Kuhn’s history of science, I would never “transgress the boundaries” of anything, nor "give voice" to "nuance"; and I would not "privilege" [as a verb] a sociological "space." Calling the book a hidden history is another postmodernist strategy. Hidden by whom? Hidden from whom? And how was it so easy to uncover? Of necessity, the book is about some women in some science occupations. Des Jardin chose her narratives.

"... transgress the bounderies of female behavior..."
Des Jardins contrasts the stories of women torn between the male roles of physical science (often as underpaid helpers) and their social roles as wives and mothers with the narratives of Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, and Diane Fossey who left traditional family and home life far behind to take on grueling, debilitating, dangerous work in isolation. Moreover, the “Trimates” owed their opportunities to Richard Leakey, a man who loved women. Perhaps he loved them in the collective abstract. He seemed to have loved several of them in the particular concrete. In any case, Leakey receives praise here pointedly not granted to Edward Pickering of the Harvard Observatory. Beginning in 1879, Pickering created jobs for women, some of whom published in peer reviewed journals. 

Explaining the works of the “Trimates” Des Jardin readily accepts the innocence of the apes. She does not identify the fact that they can be duplicitous. Deception may be an inborn strategy. Certainly, some apes give evidence of purposeful misdirection. Des Jardin does not follow that path. 

Des Jardin never states her premise. She never says clearly what she thinks the ideal social situation would be. Des Jardin apparently believes that a woman should not have children. Or if she does, someone else should raise them. She also seems to believe that if a woman chooses to raise her own children, she should be employed for wages and be promoted in salary whether or not she actually shows up in the laboratory or office. 

Des Jardin also does not identify what female traits she considers genetic, cultural, or chosen. Throughout, she calls women's work intuitive and collaborative. Echoing Evelyn Keller's biography of Barbara McClintock, women have a “feeling for the organism” even if the organism is a stellar nebula or an atomic nucleus. For her, it is unfair that women are forced to practice science in a dispassionate, objective, and, she insists, therefore manly mode. 

Des Jardin makes much of McClintock's seeming sexlessness. The same lack of physicality hallmarked Sir Isaac Newton, of course, but also other men. (See The Man Who Loved Only Numbers reviewed here.) Maybe she did not know about those men, or maybe she did not care, or maybe (I believe) those data contradicted her theory.

She does praise Richard Leakey for taking over household duties so that his wife could write and publish. I agree that marriage is the kind of relationship where 50-50 is the failure mode because both partners need to give 100%. I never expected either wife (serially, not in parallel; please) to be the downstairs staff. Through the ‘eighties and into the ‘nineties, I was Mr. Mom. “He washes dishes. He washes clothes. He’s so ambitious, he even sews. But no regrets, folks. That’s what he gets, folks, for making whoopee.”  That song was written in 1928. The times they were a-changin’ …

I heard Isaac Asimov speak at MIT on my spring break from the College of Charleston, March 21, 1968, on “The Coming Disappearance of Women.” He said that he could have called it “The Coming Disappearance of Men” but likely no one would have been interested enough to show up. When he called the typewriter a great liberator, he was  booed. The women who were displeased did not want to be kept down as secretaries. And he agreed. But he pointed out that office work requires few muscles and a lot of brains. Women would seem to have an advantage.

Des Jardin does not appreciate the fact that while the women of the Harvard Observatory worked in their offices and sometimes from their own homes, the men were on frozen mountaintops. Someone had to take those astronomical photographs. Men are just natural born hearty and hale hunters. Send them. No one then cared about the inequality of sex roles when the men’s nuts were freezing. Today, of course, arctic gear comes in all shapes and sizes. So, everyone gets to go. 


Monday, January 6, 2020

Amateur Astronomy for Pay

Technically, of course, if you are getting paid, then you are not an amateur. At least, that is how the International Olympic Committee used to view the matter, certainly when they took away Jim Thorpe’s medals because he played minor league baseball while in college—though baseball was not an Olympic sport until 1992. Here, the assumption is that you have some other employment or are retired, and for you, astronomy is a pastime. How can you get paid for it?

One of the active members of our local club is a very accomplished photographer. He displays at periodic arts and crafts shows. Astronomical photographs seem to be easy retail sales. The trick is in the printing and mounting and you can find advice online about on that. Tourist-oriented shops or book retailers in your area could be outlets, also. However, most of them will want your work on consignment and typically you take the loss if the item is damaged, or stolen. 

Moon of Jupiter casts its shadow on the planet.
Rob prints his processed images on metal.
I own two.
I know Ron from our local astronomy club.
My wife knows him from a local software club.
Still, because astronomical photographs are compelling, this could be a market for someone who enjoys marketing. Selling online with your own website and through other big outlet sites is always an option. It still requires payment services, packing, and shipping, and customer service and all that.

Astronomers rely on two broad families of software: planetarium and image processing. In the first category, several commercial products such as Starry Night are well known and compete against free software such as Stellarium and Celestia. But with software, creators are passionate about their better idea. Image processing software includes AstroPix and StarTools among others. Again, for those who love to code, the fact that others already have done it is no barrier. (See the earlier post, Ruby Methods the Ruby Way, here.)
Free Astronomy Planetarium Software
Matthew McCool  Southern Polytechnic 
SU E-mail: 
posted at the University of Texas Astronomy here:
You can write for publication. The channels are narrow and shallow. In the USA we have two paying magazine, Astronomy and Sky & Telescope. Both are mostly written by their own fulltime staffs. They do accept submissions, subject to a lot of restrictions. Both magazines tell authors to query first. For Astronomy, I found the Guidelines by putting Guidelines in the Search box. (I could not find it as a tab, menu item or link off the homepage.) 

They say (in part): “Most of the articles used in the magazine are commissioned by our editors. Occasionally, we do publish unsolicited material. To query us on an article idea, send a letter or an outline that describes the piece. If you have not been published in Astronomy, please send writing samples along with your letter. All submissions must include a typed, double-spaced printout. These materials will not be returned to you. You will receive a written response indicating whether or not your article has been accepted for publication.”

Sky & Telescope is more user-friendly. The guidelines for contributors is a labeled link at the bottom of the home page. Sky & Tel says (in part): “About half the material in each monthly issue of Sky & Telescope is written by our editors and regular contributors. The rest is authored by science journalists, research astronomers, historians, and accomplished amateur astronomers from all nations and diverse cultures. Many authors write for us again and again, but we're always looking for new writers eager to share their enthusiasm, talent, and expertise with our readers.”

(Just to note: I have not submitted any queries to either magazine. I am not far enough along in my knowledge base. I have been granted literary awards by the American Numismatic Association, but in those cases, I report on the works of others, not original discoveries. So, that would be my intentions here as well.) 
Cary Jacobs (Kent, UK) acrylic on canvas
advertised on The Sky Searchers dot com
under Vendors
If you like buying and selling, astronomy is a hobby that depends on expensive equipment. I will caution that buying and selling is an activity in its own right. In the five years from 1977 to 1982, computer retailers learned that a successful track record in refrigerator sales is a better predictor of success than knowledge of computers. If you do not enjoy trading, knowledge of astronomy will not provide the skills. Those skills can be learned, but it is learning by trial and error which can be expensive.

Just a side note:  Shipping can be expensive as well. A friend from my local club assured me that his telescope is portable because it weighs only 50 lbs. When I wanted to borrow a scope from the club, the equipment chair cautioned me that the optical assembly alone weighs about 60 lbs. That is something of an upper limit for a hobby scope, but a factor to consider. Eyepieces, lenses, mirrors, finders, filters, and such are much smaller and easier to take to FedEx, UPS, or the USPS.  

Lecturing for pay is possible. Our local astronomy club does get requests from hotels, resorts, and similar venues to provide guest lecturers for special events. They offer (modest) honoraria that cover time and expenses. 

You could always do your own advertising and market your own presentation services. However, as with sales, if you do not already enjoy public speaking, knowledge of astronomy will not carry you through. It is learnable. Toastmasters International is a popular engagement for those who want to learn public speaking. I will say that my wife tried it when her information systems employer wanted her to make videos. Instead, she took 18 weeks of improv training at a local theater. She got over the fear of presentation but does not volunteer for it. I do. 


Sunday, January 5, 2020

Astrophotography and Me

It is not easy. I spent three hours over three nights trying to figure it out. The theory is clear and I have the equipment. What I lack is The Knack: I do not enjoy fussing with the fine details of sensitive equipment. On the other hand, not only do I change the sparkplugs, I made an induction coil for a magneto when I dropped the original into the suspension frame somewhere, which is another clue. I found it a couple of years later, when replacing the water pump, which took two tries over two days. Astrophotography does not go that well for me.

Entry-level and beginner telescopes often come with cellphone mounts. Everyone has cellphones. They take pictures that would have astounded professional astronomers of 100 years ago. That is also true of our telescopes. Transported by time machine to 1920, a ten-inch dobsonian “light bucket” costing a week’s wages today would have been the envy of professionals back then. The two telescopes that I own would be called “hobby killers” by advanced amateurs. But it is a poor workman who blames his tools. 

For my birthday, I asked for a NexYZ 3-axis cellphone mount. It is the top of the line. The simple mounts retail for $9.95 and up. This was $59.95. It is a nice little gizmo. My cellphone is an iPhone 5, admittedly a bit old and underpowered. It is not very smart. I could download an app for it to enable or enhance astrophotography, but I am not trusting about apps on my phone. My telescope is a 70 mm National Geographic refractor. 

The first night, back in early December, I went to a nearby field and sighted on Jupiter and Saturn. Seeing them through the telescope, I could not get them in the camera. I eventually tried a street lamp as a target but the camera kept insisting on showing a large white circle. That was the first hour.

With the Moon at first quarter on the 2nd I went out to try again. While the sun was still up, I took everything into the backyard and made sure of my  equipment and set-up. I clamped the NexYZ and cellphone to the 32 mm eyepiece, and inside I sighted across the kitchen to a living room lamp. Then I went outside. I got the Moon. But not in focus. I did find the “iris” control for my phone and brushed the little sun icon down and down. 
03 January 2020 about 1900 hours
iPhone 5 and National Geography 70 mm
with 32 mm eyepiece
The third night went better and I found out what the three colored circles are for. Of the eight snapshots two were usable. Last night, I went out again and got one more out of six. However, the moon filter did not help and I still had to close the “iris” all the way. I also failed to get the Barlow lens to work for the camera. (It works fine for me.)

04 January 2020 about 1900 hours
iPhone 5 and National Geography 70 mm
with 32 mm eyepiece and Moon filter
All of the work was done with the 32mm eyepiece. I already know that the 20mm correcting ocular does not sit well in the eyepiece tube of this telescope. It is fine in my larger 5¼ inch (130 mm) Celestron reflector. Even though I planned to, I did not try the 17mm lens. I had enough.

I enjoy viewing the night sky. I like even better knowing what I am looking at. So, for me, reading astronomy provides the background for understanding what I see. I am happy that other people take nice pictures.

That said, I am not sure that I am happy with all of their manipulated images using Photoshop, PixInsight, and other software. I had a graduate class in geographic information systems. Using ERDAS, ArcGIS, and other software, information can be delivered via false color images, for example to show temperatures recorded by sensors. I am not sure that this is what hobbyists seek. At best, they manipulate electronic records to recreate what the eye provides naturally. At worst, they are destroying the actual record and delivering doctored data. 
ArcGIS image from GEOG 579 laboratory class
 Eastern Michigan University Winter 2010.