Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review: Mastermind (In Defense of Dr. Watson)

One of the biggest perks about attending Science Online in person this year was that all attendees received complimentary books. I got my first choice in the book lottery – Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind How to Think like Sherlock Holmes – and I thought it was great. However, if anything, reading up on how to think like the famous detective caused me to react in a way that is the complete opposite of Holmes, full of sentiment, attachment and personal bias. I failed miserably in this first test of Holmesian thinking.

The reason I say I failed is because I spent Konnikova’s entire book wanting to leap to the defense of Dr. Watson, Holmes’ companion throughout his many adventures. Holmes is admirable, entertaining, and his mental process is fascinating. Of course it is interesting to try to dissect the way that he looks at the world and deduces so much information from such seemingly obscure details. The fact that he uses his ability for good is particularly impressive, but Holmes is also kind of a jerk. Endearing, but still obnoxious.

Holmes is arrogant and closed off. He keeps other people in the dark because it amuses him to see them struggle for the clarity he so quickly attains, all so he can have his dramatic unveiling at the end of every case. He takes extreme satisfaction in the dramatic unveiling of the solution to each puzzle. He lets the police take credit, yes, but not until he has fully satisfied his desire to see Lestrade or Gregson squirm. His disdain for the average person seeps through the stories. There is also that minor issue of the heroin addiction.  

Watson doesn’t operate with the same mental dexterity as Holmes, but he is the character that I actually like. Holmes is the one I would hire to solve my next personal crisis, but Watson is the one I’d want to take out for a beer. It might be fun to imagine being Holmes, but I can actually relate to the human folly of Watson. He thinks like the rest of us do, and on top of that he’s a loyal friend and always bravely standing by at Holmes’ request with his pistol at the ready. He’s a soldier and a doctor – occupations I’ve always admired and respected.

Yet in spite of all of Watson’s good qualities, Konnikova throws him right under the proverbial bus. She makes no bones about her lack of admiration for the good doctor, even describing the “system Watson” way of thinking as: “Think of the Watson system as our naive selves, operating by the lazy thought habits” (Konnikova, 18.) I understand what Konnikova is getting at, Watson is the perfect example of the average person, but I bristled at the word lazy. Not because it isn’t correct – she fully backs up her reasoning with examples of Watson’s behavior in the various Holmes stories – but because I’ve attached myself to Watson the way you would a friend. How dare you call my friend lazy (even if he is!)

I found myself battling my sentimental attachment to Watson for most of Mastermind. One of the parts that riled me the most was Konnikova’s take on how Watson makes assumptions about Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four. When I read the story, I thought Watson and Mary’s attachment to each other was romantic, especially the scene where the lights cut out and they instinctively reach for each other’s hand in the darkness even though they’ve only just met. Then Konnikova has to go and totally burst my bubble by dissecting Watson’s initial impressions of Mary, which I hadn’t realized were totally superficial (at best):

“Right away the good doctor has jumped from a color of hair and complexion and a style of dress to a far more reaching character judgment. Mary’s appearance suggests simplicity; perhaps so. But sweetness? Amiability? Spirituality? Refinement and sensitivity? Watson has no basis whatsoever for any of these judgments. Mary has yet to say a single word in his presence. All she has done is enter the room. But already a host of biases are at play, vying with one another to create a complete picture of this stranger” (Konnikova, 41.)
Well okay then, so much for romantic. It only gets worse. As Mastermind progresses Konnikova lays out an entire array of examples of Watson being confused, getting defeated, and settling for less than the most rigorous truth. In the shadow of Holmes, Watson is far from deserving of our praise, and certainly not one to be emulated. I see that the overall message of Mastermind is that all of us have an inner Holmes we can train, and if we work hard we too can possess those same mental abilities. Still, I walked away feeling a little slighted, much like the good doctor. I didn’t really want to see the character in that light. It is naive I suppose, but I could have done without Watson going under the microscope. Alas, once one's eyes are open, they are open. 

If we take my sentimental attachment to Watson out of the equation, Konnikova’s book is an incredibly fun read that adds a wonderfully colorful context to Holmes’ thought process. I enjoyed it immensely and it really did open my eyes to the many ways we box in our own thinking. Recommended, although maybe not if like me, you find some solace in the sentimental way we react to our favorite characters.

Monday, April 8, 2013

#Sci4hels: The Killer (Female) Science Journalists of the Future

Myself, Kathleen, Bora, Rose, and Lena at Scio13
Photo by Russ Creech
Confession time, folks: all of the sci4hels members are women. Young women, at the start of their careers in science journalism. To date, nothing RoseLena, Kathleen and I have done in the lead up to our panel discussion at the World Conference of Science Journalists has addressed this fact, including our website, blog posts or question time. Why should it? The topic of the panel has nothing to do with gender. In case you've missed me talking nonstop about sci4hels in the last six months here is the panel description:

The 'Killer' Science Journalists of the Future: "The science media ecosystem has never been as big, as good or as vibrant as it is today. Many young writers are joining the ranks of veterans each year- and they are good! Many of them have science backgrounds. They all write really well. And they are digital natives, effortlessly navigating today's online world and using all the tools available to them. But some of them are going beyond being well adapted to the new media ecosystem - they are actively creating it. They experiment with new forms and formats to tell stories online, and if the appropriate tool is missing - they build it themselves. Not only can they write well, they can also code (well, some of us), design for the web, produce all types of multimedia, and do all of this with seemingly more fun than effort, seeing each other as collaborators rather than competitors. I'd like to see the best of them tell us what they do, how they do it and what they envision for the media ecosystem they are currently building." - Bora Zivkovic (panel organizer)

Being female isn't a part of that description. Yet, the panel is all female. Bora chose us by sifting through the work of dozens of new science journalists, by narrowing down his list slowly to make sure that he chose three panelists and a moderator whose experience and interests would make the best lineup. He ended up with four women. As four women who now have an international platform to discuss our profession, should we address our gender or not? Is it the proverbial gorilla in the room? Do we have some kind of duty to use our powers for good to try to tackle feminism and journalism just because we can? Are we putting some kind of target on our backs for criticism by calling attention to our gender?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, with a mixture of excitement and dread because we've made the decision to go there - to talk about being female science journalists. For me, even though I have my concerns about incorporating our gender into the official sci4hels discussion I don't see how we can avoid talking about it. It comes up all the time behind closed doors, and if we're going to commiserate and try to help each other tackle it, why shouldn't we open it up to our larger community? So, the next sci4hels question time (what, you missed question #1 and question #2?) is going to set out to constructively answer: how do we get more women to the top of the masthead?

In the words of conversation moderator Rose Eveleth: "There are tons of women in science journalism, but very few at the very top. This isn't a journalism specific problem, obviously, but in a field where the early and mid-career ranks are full of women, what can we do to even the numbers at the top? And, pertaining to our panel, what can the younger generations of science journalists do about it?"

We're going to be discussing this on Thursday 4/11 at 10 am EST on Twitter at the hashtag #sci4hels. I'm excited for what I hope will be a value filled conversation about how women can rise to the top of the journalism hierarchy. I'm more excited to see what advice there is for young women particularly because trying to establish credibility is hard for everyone, but being new and being a woman is like a double whammy when it comes to trying to convince someone you know what you're doing. If you don't have your PhD or a Pulitzer to wave around to tell people you know your stuff, it is that much harder. We tackled how to break into the business with question #2, so I think this is a logical progression: once you're in, then what? How do you continue to push your career forward and not plateau at deputy associate editor for XYZ?

With the first two questions I at least had some kind of an answer or advice to offer to the conversation. I don't have as much to give about this topic. Aside from the painfully obvious, yet still painfully necessary advice to be professional - which includes writing polite and appropriate emails, meeting deadlines, and communicating with your editors should problems arise - I'm not really sure how you go about positioning yourself to rise through the ranks. All the more reason why I think this question is a  necessary one. So here's hoping we can accomplish more than just feeding the trolls, I'll let you know how it goes.

Update 4/16 - So how did it go? Well, Rose Eveleth has your recap here, with a lot of interesting points. Thank you to everyone who participated!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Jennifer Laaser

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders, another month, another scientist! I want to introduce you to our April scientist of the month: Jennifer Laaser. Jenny is a physical chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we actually took a class together about communicating science when I was in grad school! Like I did with our other scientists, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, Becky, and Michael I asked her some questions to find out more about what she does as a scientist. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Jenny: I'm a physical chemist. Now, I don't know what you think of when you think of a chemist - I picture someone who works in a lab and wears a white lab coat and mixes colorful chemicals together. But that's not what I actually do! I actually only do chemical reactions once in a while. Instead, as a physical chemist, I mostly study why reactions happen, the way they happen and why atoms and molecules behave the way they do. I do this using lasers. 

The reason I use lasers to study chemical reactions is that chemical reactions happen incredibly, incredibly fast - way faster than you can watch with a video camera. Individual chemical reactions also involve atoms and molecules that are so tiny you can't see them, even with a powerful microscope. So the laser acts sort of like a super fast camera that asks the molecules, "what are you doing? what are you doing now? and what are you doing now?"over and over and over. Then we can use this information to figure out how the reaction works. 

I'm currently using our lasers to study how different types of solar cells work, and how we might make them better. Other scientists in my lab also use the lasers to study things like how proteins in certain cells clump together and cause diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer's disease - they hope that if they understand how this stuff happens, they might help other scientists figure out how to stop it from happening and cure these diseases. So, I think we do a lot of really cool stuff!

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?
Courtesy of Jennifer Laaser

Jenny: I studied chemistry in college, though I took classes in a lot of other interesting things too. I grew up in California, then I went to college at Yale University, and now I'm a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Jenny: I work in the chemistry department at UW-Madison. My "typical" day at work depends a lot on what I'm trying to get done that day - some days, I spend almost the whole day in the lab, working on the laser and setting up experiments. Other days, I spend most of the day sitting at my desk, doing calculations, analyzing my data, and writing papers about what I've learned. I think one of the reasons I enjoy my job so much is that it really never gets boring. I do something different everyday!

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Jenny: Oh, good question! I've always wanted to know how things work, and I've always loved doing experiments even just silly experiments in the kitchen or in my parents' backyard. So, I don't think I ever decided to become a scientist; I've just always been one. (If you like asking why things work and testing your ideas out, you might already be a scientist too!)

I chose to study science in school because I thought it was fun and interesting. But, I liked so many different types of science that it was kind of hard to pick just one. when I was six or seven years old I wanted to be an astronaut. I thought it would be super cool to go to outer space. When I got a little older, I discovered I was really good at math, and so I thought I might be a mathematician. When I went to college, I was pretty sure I was going to be a physicist. But then I took a chemistry class, and I decided I really liked it and I've been doing chemistry ever since. 

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Jenny: Well, playing with lasers is pretty cool. But really, my favorite thing about my job is that I get to work with a ton of really smart, fun people. We work together and help each other out a lot - for example, we help each other figure out how to fix experiments that aren't working, we talk about how to interpret the results from our experiments, and we design completely new experiments. So, I learn a lot from them and that makes doing science more fun. 

Another really cool thing about my job is that I get to travel to a lot of interesting places to meet with other scientists and talk about our work. Scientists have lots of meetings and conferences so that they can get together and discuss their experiments and it is fun to learn from these other scientists. It is also fun to get to travel to new places for these meetings - I've gotten to visit cities all across the United States (from Seattle to Boston) and even a few places outside the US. Last year, I even went to Switzerland for a conference. Can you find Switzerland on a map, it is really far from Wisconsin and where you are in New Jersey too!

Courtesy of Jennifer Laaser
Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Jenny: Well, I already told you that I don't actually do much with chemicals, even though I'm a chemist. But another thing that might surprise you is that the lasers in my lab don't look like lasers in the movies. The lasers I use are big and boxy and bolted to large tables in order to prevent them from moving. If they move even the tiniest bit, our experiments won't work at all. 

The picture above is me standing next to one of our lasers. Normally, this laser has a cover on it, but sometimes we have to take the cover off to fix parts inside that are broken. In this photo you can actually see some of the mirrors and lenses that make the laser work!

Erin: What are your favorite things to do for fun?

Jenny: There are a lot of things I like to do for fun! I love to cook and bake, knit, and take photos. But I think my favorite things to do is dance. I started taking ballet classes when I was four years old, and I've been dancing ever since. This year, I even performed in the Nutcracker with my local ballet company. Have any of your ever seen the Nutcracker? Any guesses which role I danced this year?
What do you think first graders? I think Jenny's work seems really fun and interesting. Did you expect a chemist to work with lasers? Do you have any questions for Jenny? Be sure to leave them in the comments!