5 Things: Scientists

Another 5-pointer, inspired by a post I read about the stereotypes of scientists. (I know there are just as many about other professions but scientist is one of my current ones.)

  1. We’re not all “bushy-haired” confused old white dudes.

    It’s amazing that pictures of 19th Century scientists and Einstein have had such an influence on how people portray scientists. This link shows you how academics (researchers in general but a lot of scientists are in here) are shown to children. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this if it wasn’t reinforcing a really negative stereotype about the potential uselessness of science (Professors who are not connected to the real world and who do foolish things) and the demography (it’s almost all men and white ones at that) which are more than likely having a significant impact on how kids feel about going into science.

    It’s getting better, as we can see from a Google image search for scientists, which shows a very obvious “odd man out”, but that image search actually throws up our next problem. Can you see what it is?

    Sorry, Albert.

    Sorry, Albert.

  2. We don’t all wear white coats!

    So we may have accepted that there is demographic diversity in science (but it still has to make it through to kid’s books) but that whole white coat thing is reinforced way too frequently. Those white coats are not a uniform, they’re protective clothing. When I was a winemaker, I wore heavy duty dark-coloured cotton clothing for work because I was expecting to get sprayed with wine, cleaning products and water on a regular basis. (Winemaking is like training an alcoholic elephant with a mean sense of humour.) When I was in the lab, if I was handling certain chemicals, I threw on a white coat as part of my protective gear but also to stop it getting on my clothes, because it would permanently stain or bleach them. Now I’m a computer scientist, I’ve hung up my white coat.

    Biological scientists, scientists who work with chemicals or pharmaceuticals – any scientists who work in labs – will wear white coats. Everyone else (and there’s a lot of them) tend not to. Think of it like surgical scrubs – if your GP showed up wearing them in her office then you’d think “what?” and you’d be right.

  3. Science can be a job, a profession, a calling and a hobby – but this varies from person to person.

    There’s the perception of scientist as a job so all-consuming that it robs scientists of the ability to interact with ‘normal’ people, hence stereotypes like the absent-minded Professor or the inhuman, toxic personality of the Cold Scientific Genius. Let’s tear that apart a bit because the vast majority of people in science are just not like that.

    Some jobs can only be done when you are at work. You do the work, in the work environment, then you go home and you do something else. Some jobs can be taken home. The amount of work that you do on your job, outside of your actual required working time – including overtime, is usually an indicator of how much you find it interesting. I didn’t have the facilities to make wine at home but I read a lot about it and tasted a lot of wine as part of my training and my job. (See how much cooler it sounds to say that you are ‘tasting wine’ rather than ‘I drink a lot’?) Some mechanics leave work and relax. Some work on stock cars. It doesn’t have to be any particular kind of job because people all have different interests and different hobbies, which will affect how they separate work and leisure – or blend them.

    Some scientists leave work and don’t do any thinking on things after hours. Some can think on things but not do anything because they don’t have the facilities at home. (The Large Hadron Collider cost close to USD 7 Billion, so no-one has one in their shed.) Some can think and do work at home, including Mathematicians, Computer Scientists, Engineers, Physicists, Chemists (to an extent) and others who will no doubt show up angrily in the comments. Yes, when I’m consumed with a problem, I’m thinking hard and I’m away with the pixies – but that’s because, as a Computer Scientist, I can build an entire universe to work with on my laptop and then test out interesting theories and approaches. But I have many other hobbies and, as anyone who has worked with me on art knows, I can go as deeply down the rabbit hole on selecting typefaces or colours.

    Everyone can appear absent-minded when they’re thinking about something deeply. Scientists are generally employed to think deeply about things but it’s rare that they stay in that state permanently. There are, of course, some exceptions which leads me to…

  4. Not every scientist is some sort of genius.

    Sorry, scientific community, but we all know it’s true. You have to be well-prepared, dedicated and relatively mentally agile to get a PhD but you don’t have to be crazy smart. I raise this because, all too often, I see people backing away from science and scientific books because “they wouldn’t understand it” or “they’re not smart enough for it”. Richard Feynman, an actual genius and great physicist, used to say that if he couldn’t explain it to Freshman at College then the scientific community didn’t understand it well enough. Think about that – he’s basically saying that he expects to be able to explain every well-understood scientific principle to kids fresh out of school.

    The genius stereotype is a not just a problem because it prevents people coming into the field but because it puts so much demand on people already in the field. You could probably name three physicists, at a push, and you’d be talking about some of the ground-shaking members of the field. Involved in work leading up those discoveries, and beyond, are hundreds of thousands of scientists, going about their jobs, doing things that are valuable, interesting and useful, but perhaps not earth-shattering. Do you expect every soldier to be a general? Every bank clerk to become the general manager? Not every scientist will visibly change the world, although many (if not most) will make contributions that build together to change the world.

    Sir Isaac Newton, another famous physicist, referred to the words of Bernard of Chartres when he famously wrote:

    “If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants”

    making the point even more clearly by referring to a previous person’s great statement to then make it himself! But there’s one thing about standing on the shoulders of giants…

  5. There’s often a lot of wrong to get to right.

    Science is evidence-based, which means that it’s what you observe occurring that validates your theories and allows you to develop further ideas about how things work. The problem is that you start from a position of not knowing much, make some suggestions, see if they work, find out where they don’t and then fix up your ideas. This has one difficult side-effect for non-scientists in that scientists can very rarely state certainty (because there may be something that they just haven’t seen yet) and they can’t prove a negative, as you just can’t say something won’t happen because it hasn’t happened yet. (Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.) This can be perceived as weakness but it’s one of the great strengths of science. We work with evidence that contradicts our theories to develop our theories and extend our understanding. Some things happen rarely and under only very specific circumstances. The Large Hadron Collider was built to find evidence to confirm a theory and, because the correct tool was built, physicists now better understand how our universe works. This is a Good Thing as the last thing we want do is void the warranty through incorrect usage.

    The more complicated the problem, the more likelihood that it will take some time to get it right. We’re very certain about gravity, in most practical senses, and we’re also very confident about evolution. And climate change, for that matter, which will no doubt get me some hate on the comments but the scientific consensus is settled. It’s happening. Can we say absolutely for certain? No, because we’re scientists. Again – strength, not weakness.

    When someone gets it wrong deliberately, and that sadly does happen occasionally, we take it very seriously because that whole “standing on shoulders of giants” is so key to our approach. A disingenuous scientist, like Andrew Wakefield and his shamefully bad and manipulated study on vaccination that has caused so much damage, will take a while to be detected and then we have to deal with the repercussions. The good news is that most of the time we find these people and limit their impact. The bad news is that this can be spun in many ways, especially by compromised scientists, and humans can be swayed by argument rather than fact quite easily.

    The take away from this is that admitting that we need to review a model is something you should regard in the same light as your plane being delayed because of a technical issue. You’d rather we fixed it, immediately and openly, than tried to fly on something we knew might fail.

5 Things: Computers

In the interests of blogging more usefully, I’m trying some “5 point posts” in areas where I have some reasonable knowledge. Hope they’re useful!

  1. Computers neither like you nor hate you.

    If I had a dollar for every time I saw someone go through some sort of ritual like pleading with, patting or hitting a computer, I’d be a very rich man. We often talk about computers as if they understand what we’re talking about (a fallacy that can trip up novice programmers, thanks for the reminder, Mark!) and this assumes that there’s some kind of mind in there. I know that you all know that it’s not actually true but we have to stop acting like it’s true as well.

    If you have important documents on your computer – then back them up, somewhere. If you are writing large documents, save them every 5 minutes or so. And check regularly to make sure that they’re actually being saved. The amount of preparation you put into making sure that the computer doing something ‘bad’ won’t actually affect you will directly reduce the amount of stress that you feel when it does go wrong. The computer is neither your friend nor your enemy and it will do what the programs tell it to do – not what you want it to do or what any reasonable person would do. This is pretty much true across every computer and operating systems. The computer can’t tell your vital photos from an old recipe copy you don’t need and it most certainly has no idea that you have a deadline – you’re just more likely to make mistakes because you’re under pressure.

    One of the best things you can ever install to stop your computer “behaving badly” is anti-virus software that you keep updated. Yes, it costs money (sorry) but how much is your time worth? If you can say “Yes, I lost the last 12 months work and it will take me a week to get my computer working again and I don’t care” then you can skip Anti-Virus. Everyone else – please install supported Anti-Virus software (look on line for customer reviews and recommendations, I make none here.) Having your computer hacked isn’t some jolly pirate image that pops up and goes “ho ho ho”. Modern attacks can wait, encrypt your backups and then charge you money to get at your own data – deleting it if you don’t pay. Computers don’t hate you but there are a lot of haters out there. One of the biggest threats is becoming part of a BotNet, a collection of computers that are being used to conduct unauthorised or criminal activities, without the knowledge of their owners. Not that worried? BotNets can be used to host all sorts of things, including child pornography chat servers and files. But don’t be worried! Install good anti-virus software instead and keep it up to date!

    Now, very, very few people are “bad with computers” but a lot of people have had unfortunate first encounters (and that is far more likely to have to do with the computer than with what you are doing) and have retreated to what is, essentially, a position of superstition. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that…

  2. Computers are everywhere.

    And this is why not being comfortable with computers is going to be more of a problem. I have now learned to program (in simplistic form but still) everything from cars to video recorders, including my vacuum cleaner, because all of them have little computers inside them. It will, sadly, get harder and harder to stay away from them. I’m not advocating some Butlerian evolution of the machine but it’s just happening anyway. Do they work exactly as we wish? No, but I’ll get back to that later, because they are close enough most of the time.

    So you probably already have one at home, in some form, which brings me to… 

  3. Computers need to be replaced and upgraded.

    This is a bit of a pain, particularly for those who don’t like (or prefer not to) change or have no cash (or anything else that says “I don’t want to upgrade”). The computing hardware will eventually break down and the more active the life of the computer, the more likely it is for something to go wrong. Laptops tend to die before desktops because of vibration, dust and heat, and tablets and phones are easy to drop. That’s why the point I made about backing up is really important anyway and triply important for anything vaguely mobile.

    Companies regularly declare an end-of-life period for their software and hardware and you have to keep an eye out for this as, after this time, you will no longer get updates for the software and the hardware. An unsupported computer is a crash waiting to happen and a security hole that you could drive a truck through. So not only do you need to keep using something supported, you have to keep patching it (downloading updates from the company and installing them) to keep it safe. In 2008, an unpatched Windows XP box would be hacked in, on average, 4 minutes of connection time. XP itself was released in 2001 and it was officially declared end-of-life on April 8, 2014. That’s over 12 years, compared to the usual product cycle of 10 years. But now, unless something big happens or you happen to be running ATMs, you will not get any more support for Microsoft on this operating system. Which means that, soon enough, your machine will take but minutes to infect and become part of someone else’s network of compromised machines – if it hasn’t happened already.

    Hardware does change and removing old machines can be painful when you have a trusted companion that is still working. However, these sorts of changes (like Apple’s removal of support for the PowerPC chip) are advertised well in advance (it took 7 years for Apple to stop supporting the PowerPC) and there is at least one silver lining on the creep in hardware and system specifications. If you buy 12 months behind the release of new technology, you should still get 5-ish good years out of your machines and avoid paying full price – plus you can buy refurbished models from early adopters with more money than sense. However, be careful and don’t buy something from a discontinued line because it is cheap – it will end-of-life much sooner than the low-end new line hardware.

    Yes, forced obsolescence sucks but we actually don’t have to buy the new shiny every time (not that many of us can afford to) and knowledge of the refresh/end-of-life cycle will help you to make a good decision. Those of you who are supporting older family members, I know it sucks but you’re going to have broach the issue of operating system changeovers before they become part of an distributed denial-of-service attack on some government department or have all of their e-mails encrypted for a $500 decrypt fee.

  4. It doesn’t really matter which computer you use, if it works for you.

    I’ve used pretty much everything in the way of computers and I use what works for me, when I need to. Right now, I’m using a lot of Apple gear because I’m not doing as much gaming and it all does what I need. If I were working more in different areas, I might be doing a lot more in Linux. I’ve worked with Windows before and I’ll probably work with it again. In 10 years time, who knows?

    I have no strong opinions as to what is best and I’m certainly not going to lecture someone on their choice. If they’re obviously unhappy, then we might chat, but don’t let anyone tell you that you’re right or wrong just because you have this system or that. (Unless it’s horribly out of date or not backed up, in which case, please look into updating/upgrading/fixing!)

  5. Computers are here to stay and the computing profession has some work to do

    And that’s the truth of it. We have a long way to go in making computers work better with people, that’s for sure. It would be great if we could be more ambiguous and hand wavy with a machine and get it to do what we want but there’s a lot of things to get working before that happens. However, hand on my heart, it is so much easier to use computers now than it was 10 years ago, let along 20 or 30. I genuinely think that we are going to see better and better ways to work with them as time goes on so, please, hang in there if you’re having trouble. That next upgrade might be just what you were looking for, even if it seems like a pain at the time.