The closest I have ever been to Big Physics was the Stanford Linear Accelerator, in the company of Prof Theodore Postol, who felt it would be a good antidote to my jet lag, as we discussed anti-ballistic missile defence strategy. Postol also went down the corridor to see if I could meet Amos Tversky, but he had to give a seminar. Sad loss.
I have never visited CERN, but like most other people have read about its wondrous search for the fundamental units of the universe. What a wondrous thing is man! And, of course, woman. And thereby hangs a tale.
At a conference recently, Prof Alessandro Strumia gave his opinion about excellence in physics, particularly theoretical physics, and you can see his lecture slides here:
The lecture shows the relationship between publication and citation rates, and being hired in Physics jobs for different countries, and explains sex differences in STEM subjects by psychometric results, particularly the greater standard deviation of ability for men.
Typically for a physicist, he has summary graphs will compress a lot of data, and slide 23 is a good example. Brighter people publish more, and the brighter they are the higher the probability they will be men. Neat slide.
He also adds in a personal note about not being appointed to a job when he had more publications than the successful candidate. OK, I understand the gripe, but general data are more powerful than any individual case. He understandably objects to female sex being used as a positive reason for overlooking weaker publication and citation achievements. He argues that Physics has been built mostly by men, and he is right, so far. The present century may change that (see Nobel prize today), but his evidence suggests not.
I think this is a good presentation, data rich, and worth debating. Do I need to explain what debating means? Not to readers here, but for the audience elsewhere: it means that different opinions and conjectures are discussed in the light of how well they fit with reality. One cannot debate opinions until one has heard them. Some fools are asking how he was “allowed” to address a conference on women in science. Unless the conference organizers view women as frail souls who need to be protected from unsettling thoughts, then his lecture was well placed.
It would have been good to see the subsequent question and answer session, and to see any other reworkings of his findings which may follow. There is always room for argument about academic metrics, but often the results are so clear (some people publish far more than others, and are cited more than others) that it serves the purpose well enough. In former times it would not need to be explained that one can hear a lecture without agreeing to all or any of it, and one can also see which points need to be checked, and what counter-examples of similar strength can be put forwards. A conference which is based on one hypothesis which cannot be questioned has no place in science.
Strumia is now “under investigation” at both CERN (CERN is a culturally diverse organisation bringing together people from dozens of nationalities. It is a place where everyone is welcome, and all have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation) and his University of Pisa (“for reported violations of the University Community fundamental values”). His email at CERN no longer seems to get through to him. Perhaps too many people are sending him messages of support.
By the way, in the middle of this public farrago, I cannot pass up an opportunity to make a methodological point. It has long been argued that when a standard CV is given a male name rather than a female name, the former is more likely to be hired by subjects in an experiment. That is to say, that raters (both men and women are equally prone to this) rate the man more highly, as being more competent.
Powerful stuff, I used to think. However, that is not the real test. The more honest test is to take a selection of male and female application forms, remove names and anything which might reveal their sex, and then get raters to judge their quality.
Naturally, this story has attracted a lot of silly commentary. Some complained that Strumia spoilt a party dedicated to boosting women into science.
My own view is that I am not interested in the sex of theoretical physicists. It is none of my business. I do not expect occupations to be representative of the general public, merely representative of the best talent. I hope Physics job holders will be highly representative of the best thinkers. My primary interest, tempered by an inability to understand their formulations beyond a superficial level, is whether their testable hypotheses eventually get validated. I was pleased when the “goddam” particle was found, though it has yet to influence my life. However, there is always a lag. The Solvay conferences changed the world. Someone, somewhere, perhaps in CERN, will give us the next transformation in our understanding of matter.