Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Personal Reaction to Larry Summers' Comments on Women in Science

Some people are starting to pay attention to Larry Summers' comments on women in science. A few years ago he made the observation that men seemed more suited to the highest ranks in science than women were. He described men as the best of the best and also mentioned their extreme dedication. Quite a few feminists were outraged.

A few weeks ago in the Washington Post Ruth Marcus brought up the subject yet again by reporting on research that showed men more likely to be outliers in terms of mathematical intelligence. She raised the question was Summers right -- even if politically incorrect. The following week a women by the name of Singer who had been a mathematician and professor challenged Marcus by informing us of the hostility she had encountered even though she loved math and teaching it.

When this controversy first arose, I had a somewhat unusual take on things. I am exceptionally intelligent, at least as measured by standardized testing. I show this intelligence in other ways as well. Today I am a member of Mensa and the Triple Nine Society. The latter limits membership to people who have shown on standardized tests that they are in the top 1 in 1000. I've also completed one marathon -- the Marine Corps in 1996.

What caused me to wonder about the people Summers described wasn't their intelligence -- it was their work habits. Besides praising their intelligence, he also said they worked 80 hours per week. That struck me as very unwise at best, if not absolutely crazy. I thought to myself "I can't work that many hours at physics a week and make sense. What makes these people think they can?" Perhaps they are even greater outliers than I am. While my IQ is around what theirs are, in other ways I can be quite normal.

Here's my take on reasonable weeks. Sleep is important. My own experiences regarding some sleep deprivation make me very reluctant to make it a life choice. There is also research that shows humans need about 8 hours of sleep per day. Some can do with less, some need more, but people who can function well on, say, 4 hours sleep per day are extreme outliers themselves. For the sake of argument, let's go with 8 hours sleep per day. That's 56 hours per week -- out of a total of 168 hours. So, just factoring in sleep reduces time available to us humans at 112 hours per week.

Exercise is also important for people who lead sedentary occupations. I spend about 9 hours a week engaged in exercise. We're now down to 103 hours.

Everyone also needs to eat. Yes, you can get a quick bite at your desk while working. That isn't generally healthy enough as an exclusive long term habit. By the time I have prepared, eaten and cleaned up after meals, I will spend about 2 hours a day doing such. That's anothe 14 hours a week. We are now down to only 89 hours a week -- and we haven't done anything but personal maintenance. Yes, some of that time can devoted to other things as well. For instance, meal times can be used for family and social activities.

Let's factor in commuting to work. Yes, a few people work out of their homes, but that is rare in tech fields. Let's say people spend 1 hour/day commuting. That reduces our unscheduled time to 84 hours -- 82 hours for people who work seven days a week.

Let's now look at three kinds of work weeks.

The first is the old standard of 40 hours -- like my father had when he was alive and my mother had when she worked. That 40 hour work week is only 8 hours/day for 5 days. That leaves two full days for things other than work -- family, community, etc. Even on work days there are 3.5 hours of time still unscheduled for family, etc.

Today quite a few people talk about working 60 hours/week. That's six 10 hour days. There is still one full day for other things. On work days, though, there is only 1.5 hours of "free" time. That doesn't seem like enough.

Finally there is the 80 hour week cited by Larry Summers. That leaves only 2 hours/week unscheduled. Something -- probably lots of somethings -- must give. Family? Community? Or something like sleep? Or exercise? Or meals away from work? The 80 hour work week looks, at best, unhealthy for the individual, his family and his community.

What kind of people adopt this lifestyle? Summers doesn't say. I have seen my fair share of people in science and tech fields with significant personal problems. Perhaps they would be that way in any event. But it seems unwise to organize major projects around such people. An Isaac Newton can come up with some kinds of major discoveries -- but you really would not want them trying to lead an organization.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Background of an L5 Society Activist

I'm writing this blog posting to let people know how I managed to create a successful event for the L5 Society in 1984.

I had returned to New Jersey from grad work in social psychology some years before. Upon my return, I rejoined the church I attended in my youth -- St. James Episcopal in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. I met up with some old friends and made some new ones. The McKenzies were active in Scottish groups and Revolutionary War reenactment groups. They had also started a poetry group. I got a little involved in all three. Through the poetry group I was introduced to a large part of the local arts scene. I eventually became a member of the Trenton Artists Workshop Association.

Shortly after returning to New Jersey, I contacted the Princeton Ballet after reading that they would perform the Nutcracker Ballet locally. While I had done some modern dance photography, I had never photographed a ballet before. The company, after seeing what I had done, made me their primary photographer for the rest of my time in New Jersey. This gave me another link to the local arts scene.

Links to the local arts community interestingly enough also gave me links to political leaders and various parts of state government bureaucracy that normal civil servants (I made my living by doing IT for New Jersey government) did not have. Michelle Mathesius, director of the Center Dancers, was married to the Bill Mathesius, then Mercer County Executive. Molly Merlino, active in TAWA, was married to state Senator Joe Merlino who was also president of the senate when the Democrats were in the majority.

Since I was a third generation Rutgers alum, getting active in Rutgers affairs was also fairly normal. I even did photography of Rutgers sports for a number of years.

Since my family had been active in the Anglican church for centuries, I was also drawn into that culture as more than a regular member. My photographic talent made a difference there as well.

My talents for photography and writing first got me attention in L5. Then, in 1981, I asked why I had never been called on a phone tree alert. I had been a bit active for a few years, knew society leaders somewhat and wondered what was going on. That's when I found out that there was no organization in New Jersey and that my name had come up as a person to organize New Jersey. Soon I had list of about 200 names of New Jersey residents who had volunteered to help out.

Over the next year I spent some time organizing the phone tree. I began calling people when alerts were sent out and simply asked them if they would phone people in their local area. Within a few months I had a functioning phone tree.

In the spring of 1982 I asked my assistants if any of them were amenable to organizing an L5 chapter. We started meeting over the next six months planning a chapter. Our first formal meeting -- announced via the phone tree -- was in August. At that meeting -- held at Bob Werb's apartment complex -- we decided on a course of action. Our first event was doing information tabling at the New Brunswick Octoberfest. I had participated in that event before as an artist.

That fall I approached the New Jersey State Museum about our group participating in Super Science Weekend -- an event to promote science in January. Their reply was illuminating. They said that because they knew me (through art and political connections) they trusted me. If they hadn't, there was a real chance that they would not have allowed our group to participate.

Super Science weekend in 1983 was a success for our group. People came by and chatted. They took literature. The museum director stopped by to check us out. She was favorably impressed. Our group was fairly young but mature. Most of us worked in tech fields. There was a significant contingent from Bell Labs.

That summer I told Dick Peery, the museum's planetarium director, about Spaceweek. I inquired whether our group could organize a Spaceday event at the museum. The museum was amenable.

Over the next year I recruited speakers and exhibits. Since the Space Studies Institute was located in Princeton, they were happy to supply both a speaker and an exhibit. The same was true of RCA Astroelectronics. Through Mensa connections I recruited a history professor from Philadelphia. I hit real paydirt through the Princeton Astronomy Association. In January 1984 they hosted a talk by J. R. Thompson, former chief engineer of the space shuttle main engine project. He was at that time a deputy director of Forrestal Labs. His talk was excellent -- and he was happy to also give the same talk at Spaceday.

Then came Spaceday. Dick Peery and I chatted a bit before the doors opened. He cautioned me to not get my hopes up too high. On a normal July Saturday only about 50-75 people would come through the museum. He told me if we got 500 the museum would call it a success and talk about doing it again. I don't know if Dick saw the three page feature article in the Trenton Times the day before. Our publicist had gotten us a good deal of attention already.

The day went well. The museum director came around in the afternoon. She seemed impressed. All the participants -- including people from the Princeton Astronomy Association and a local rocket club -- were happy that they participated.

The next week Dick phoned me. He was wildly enthusiastic now. He told me 2000 people came. He added that the museum director had said it was the best summer event that they had ever had. Then Dick got a taste of my sense of humor. I laconically asked if he wanted to do it again. There was a pause -- and then Dick realized I was joking.

I told Mark Hopkins of L5 about my success. He was quite impressed. He recruited me as an L5 Spaceweek coordinator.

I'm now going to explicitly state some lessons we can learn from this success.

I would not have been able to do any of these things if I had not already been involved in my local community through many activities. It was a big help having friends who were not connected to space activism. Space activists can be very narrow. Some are not.

The space field also needs artists as more than people to draw in the public. That's important. But artists also need to be involved in leadership as well. Artists are typically much better at communication than techies. There are exceptions, but that tends to be true. Artists listen better than most people. They are also more open minded. These are qualities sadly lacking in too much of contemporary society. The current financial meltdown can be attributed in part to financial leaders who came with schemes that didn't really reflect reality in too many ways. Yes, accounting, numbers and such like are important -- but so are the less quantifiable things.

That's enough for now. I don't want to hit people over the head. I hope I haven't.