Women in physics going backwards, 11 dimensions, MOOCs

Australian Institute of Physics, Australian Institute of Physics Congress, Media bulletins

Today at the national physics and optics conference in Canberra:

The AIP Congress is Australia’s biennial physics conference—and this year it’s in Canberra from 7 to 11 December. This bulletin introduces some of the highlights.
All stories are embargoed until presentation at the conference.

There’s more information on some of these below and much more at www.scienceinpublic.com.au/category/conferences/physicscongress

And in the coming days…

  • Fusion in five years, 30 years or never?
  • Could maths and science have shortened WW1?
  • Laser-tracking belching cattle
  • The catastrophe of a four degree temperature rise. Are they listening in Lima?
  • Looking for dark matter in the Stawell Gold Mine
  • World wide spider web—spinning natural fibre optics
  • A portable synchrotron?
  • Recognising endangered birdsong automatically
  • The beauty and serendipity of blue sky research—Nobel Laureate Serge Haroche

For more details and information please contact us:

Niall Byrne 0417 131 977
Errol Hunt 0423 139 210
Margie Beilharz 0415 448 065
The media website is www.scienceinpublic.com.au/category/physicscongress

The conference website is at http://www.aip2014.org.au

At the National Press Club

Steven Chu on prudent management of risks of climate change with continued economic growth.

Steven Chu, former Obama energy advisor and 1997 Nobel laureate, will discuss the global energy and climate challenge, the reinvention of the microscope, and when science matters—culminating in a National Press Club address on Wednesday, 10 December. He’s an advocate of urgent transition from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewable energy to combat climate change.

Chu’s time will be limited—contact Phil Dooley at ANU for interviews (02) 6125 5575, 0478 337 740, phil.dooley@anu.edu.au.

Strobe light flashes to capture a speeding electron

Strobe lights and camera flashes have let us capture the motion of galloping horses and speeding bullets, but Paul Corkum can make flashes of light so quick that he can watch electrons in orbit around an atom, or see how they move in chemical reactions.

These attosecond pulses—a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second—have put the Canadian physicist on pundits’ hotlist for a Nobel Prize in Physics. It’s a long way from when, as a grad student, he had to convince interviewers he could handle the shift from theoretical to experimental physics: “It’s no problem. I can take the engine of a car apart, repair it and put it back together so it will work.” He got the job.

Finding the creative dimension of physics

Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall thinks that creativity and great science go hand in hand. Not only is creativity essential in science, she says, but a logical, scientific approach helps creative people illuminate the world. Lisa’s work connects fundamental particles with cosmological phenomena like dark matter.

Her most prominent contributions to physics relate to multi-dimensional theories: she co-wrote the warped-spacetime model that proved extra dimensions didn’t need to be vanishingly small, and believes the Universe has 11 spacetime dimensions. In keeping with the Congress theme—The Art of Physics—Lisa has written a libretto for an opera and curated art exhibits. Lisa’s two public speaking engagements today are:

  • Tonight at 6.15 pm, in a panel discussion on the topic ‘When Does Science Matter?’ (see below).
  • Tuesday at 9.45 am, The Ways that Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.

In Conversation: When does science matter?

Steven Chu, our own Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, theoretical physicist and bestselling author Lawrence Krauss and Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall will discuss when and why does science matter? A funny question you might think, as we rely on science for much that we do in our daily lives, but there are many who still question its value and legitimacy.

Tonight and open to the public:

6.15 pm to 7.45 pm, refreshments from 5.45 pm
Llewelyn Hall, ANU School of Music, Childers Street, ANU
Bookings and more info at http://billboard.anu.edu.au/event_view.asp?id=110374

Women in physics still going backwards

Losing confidence in science—the women’s tale
Young women enter science degrees feeling more confident in their abilities than do young men, but after completing a PhD they are less successful at establishing a science research career. These findings come out of a recent survey of 1200 scientists (both men and women) by University of Melbourne researchers Sharon Bell and Lyn Yates.

The skew towards men in senior positions and women in junior positions in science research has changed very little over the past 20 years, with the proportion of women at the top increasing by only around one per cent each year. This extremely slow progress suggests we can’t simply wait for time to rectify the imbalance. “There’s no evidence of a pipeline,” says Sharon Bell, “and this slow progress is also very fragile”. In fact, where women used to outnumber men at the lower levels of academia (Level A, or tutor, positions) now men dominate these positions too.

Job security is the issue of greatest concern for most women in the science research workforce (less so for men) and career breaks took a greater toll on women’s careers. There is some indication, however, that gender-sensitive practices by the Australian Research Council in awarding grants are having a positive impact on women’s research participation.
Schoolgirl physics doesn’t translate into career choices
Girls who study science at university take up life sciences at almost four times the rate they study physical sciences. In Year 12, it’s closer to a 2:1 ratio, which means there’s a dramatic drop-off in interest in physical sciences in the transition from school to university, as Joanna Sikora from ANU will outline in her talk on Monday 8 December. In contrast, boys are twice as likely to follow a physical science career as life science (and slightly more likely to do science at all).

The data come from the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth, and were collected from students who were 15 years of age in 2009, are consistent with international patterns and reflect a persistent and pervasive cultural association between particular fields of science and femininity and masculinity.
Girls in physics—what’s keeping the door closed?
Girls make up only about 20 per cent of the UK students studying physics in senior years of high school (A levels), even though they are as successful academically in GSCE physics (the year below) as boys. This low number has been constant over the past few decades, and contributes to greatly limiting possible careers in the sciences for women.

The Institute of Physics in the UK is investigating why girls don’t continue with physics—is it lack of confidence in their abilities, bad experiences in the physics classroom or the influence of broader school culture? Frances Saunders, IOP President, will discuss the IOP’s programs underway in schools in the light of their Project Juno, which has successfully broken down barriers for women in physics at UK universities.

More diverse scientists to produce better Australian science

Also speaking at the session, Rob Robinson, President of the Australian Institute of Physics, argues that failing to make changes that support more women in physics would represent a failure for Australian science, limiting our potential for future developments.  “Australia loses talent and important discoveries when we fail to mentor and support smart young women into sustainable careers in the physical sciences and engineering,” he says.

Role models

Despite these challenges there are plenty of women doing amazing work in many fields of physics. Just a few of them, presenting at the Congress, are:

  • University of Melbourne particle physicist Elisabetta Barberio, who is assisting the search for dark matter at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva
  • South Australia’s Bronwyn Dolman, who uses radar to study meteorological events, and has modelled the physics of the footy player’s dreaded hamstring injury
  • Harvard theoretical physicist and author Lisa Randall, a pioneer of multi-dimensional, warped-spacetime modelling
  • Astronomer Lisa Harvey-Smith, who investigates the birth and death of stars in our galaxy using CSIRO’s $188m radio telescope in remote WA
  • Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, who as CEO and Scientific Director of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin research centre, is responsible for 1100 reactor and synchrotron scientists
  • ANU researcher Merinda Nash who is studying the effects of higher dissolved CO2 levels on coral structures
  • UNSW’s Michelle Simmons, a world leader in the field of quantum computing, and director of Australia’s Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology.

More creative ways to teach science

MOOCS—better than uni?
After delivering three massive open online courses (MOOCs) in astrophysics to 25,000 students, ANU’s Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt and colleague Paul Francis argue that a good MOOC can be “a better learning experience than the vast majority of face-to-face classes taught at universities”. But the workload is surprisingly high and requires a different skill set than on-campus teaching. Paul and Brian incorporated two innovations in their successful course: holding conversations between the two of them rather than giving lectures; and involving the students in proposing and solving experiments on a mystery bubble universe each week of the course.

Paul Francis speaks on his experiences and the latest MOOC trends at 11 am, Tuesday 9 December.
Letting first year students loose in the lab
Are we teaching science the right way? Many of us learn best by doing, and that’s Les Kirkup‘s approach to teaching: challenging his students with practical problems, but not giving them the instructions for solving them—they have to work it out themselves. With this inquiry-oriented learning approach and using real-world problems Les engages the students’ imagination and creativity right from the start—even students who are apprehensive about tackling physics. His approach also successfully engages students for whom physics will not be a career focus.

On Tuesday at 5 pm, Les, from the University of Technology, Sydney, will describe some of the methods that have led to him being awarded the 2014 AIP Education Medal for his contribution to physics education.
Special effects reveal scientific insights
When data from a tornado in Illinois were fed into a visualisation, the scientists were surprised to find a secondary tornado (the front column of balls on the right in the still from the animation, below) in advance of the main tornado column—a phenomenon their observations had missed.

“It’s an example of how visualising numerical data can produce new scientific insight,” says Roy Tasker, from the University of Western Sydney, who believes visualisation is also the key to ensuring that students truly grasp the difficult scientific concepts they are learning.

Certainly his first-year students have a better grasp of what’s really going on in chemical reactions after seeing, and working with, visualisations. “It’s the key to making meaning from the symbolism and mathematics in science that too often alienate novice students,” Roy says.

With an Office of Teaching and Learning National Senior Teaching Fellowship, Roy will be running workshops for Australian educators across the sciences on best practice in computer animations in education. His goal is to see much wider use of visualisations in teaching science.

Roy is following his talk at the physics congress (Wed 10 Dec, 12 pm) with talks to chemists in Adelaide and biologists in Canberra in the same week. His Fellowship will result in national workshops teaching best practice design and teaching early next year, in the lead up to a national forum in 2015.

Photo credit: National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Photo credit: National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The animation is available on request.

Conference media contacts

Niall Byrne 0417 131 977
Errol Hunt 0423 139 210
Margie Beilharz 0415 448 065
The media website is at http://www.scienceinpublic.com.au/category/physicscongress

The conference website is at http://www.aip2014.org.au