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CERN Searches for the Sex Particle
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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.

Strumia citation by IQ

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.


• Category: Science 
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  1. There is no justification for the claim “IQ causes X.”

    • Replies: @Jamie_NYC
    , @aesop
  2. Jamie_NYC says:

    What would be the justification for any claim that you would accept? You could always reply: “No, God did it!” The point is that his explanation fits the data, and the alternative doesn’t.

    • Replies: @RaceRealist88
  3. aesop says:

    Would you also disagree that “X causes IQ” for some values of X?

    • Replies: @RaceRealist88
  4. @Jamie_NYC

    “The point is that his explanation fits the data, and the alternative doesn’t.”

    What novel predictions are made?

  5. @aesop

    “Would you also disagree that “X causes IQ” for some values of X?”

    What is IQ? What comes into play while taking an IQ test?

  6. dearieme says:

    “I was pleased when the “goddam” particle was found”: I was disappointed. Finding what the theory said is hardly exciting. Finding something different would have been far more interesting. Physics remains stuck where it’s been for decades now.

    On the other hand my sometime pal Peter Higgs got a grand pat on the back; I was happy for him.

  7. James Damore redivivus.

    Or else: Alessandro Strumia plays it again… Or: Oops – they did it again. Or: Remembering, repeating and working through – then start anew…

    (Headline caused big laugh – thanks esp. for this one!)

  8. Is the award to Donna Strickland the first “diversity” Nobel?

    The whole system is tainted by now.

    • Replies: @dearieme
  9. dearieme says:
    @Christian Moon

    That’s the problem. Even if she thoroughly deserves the prize – which for all I know she does – people will just assume that she doesn’t.

  10. That’s the problem. Even if she thoroughly deserves the prize – which for all I know she does – people will just assume that she doesn’t.

    The only instance in which the Nobel committee overlooked a genuine first-rank contribution to physics by a woman was in the early 1970s, when Jocelyn Bell (now Jocelyn Bell Burnell) was left out in favor of her thesis advisor and another senior colleague for their discovery of pulsars.

    She downplayed the controversy at the time (she was already well known to the media by then) by saying that she was just a research assistant. Wikipedia explains it well.

    Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell …is an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who, as a postgraduate student, co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. She was credited with “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century”. The discovery was recognised by the award of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, but despite the fact that she was the first to observe the pulsars, Bell was excluded from the recipients of the prize.

    The paper announcing the discovery of pulsars had five authors. Bell’s thesis supervisor Antony Hewish was listed first, Bell second.

    Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with the astronomer Martin Ryle.

    Many prominent astronomers criticised Bell’s omission, including Sir Fred Hoyle. In 1977, Bell Burnell played down this controversy, saying, “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.”

    Bell served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, as president of the Institute of Physics from October 2008 until October 2010…

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  11. ” Someone, somewhere, perhaps in CERN, will give us the next transformation in our understanding of matter.”

    Somewhere… you mean, China.

    China, definitely China.

    Maybe it will be a man, maybe it will be a woman, but it won’t be some feebly diversity hire at an institution that cares more about diversity than good research.

  12. @PiltdownMan

    Sound pretty unfair to me. Why shouldn’t a research assistant be credited for noticing a key result?

    • Replies: @dearieme
  13. dearieme says:
    @James Thompson

    “Why shouldn’t a research assistant be credited for noticing a key result?”

    Because the Nobel committee is made up of physicists who employ research assistants. Just everyday who-whomery.

  14. Don’t fall for the mischief-making of Ryle’s longstanding enemy Fred Hoyle. The achievement of the man who created the project – in fact whole areas of radio astronomy – that led to the discovery of pulsars can’t be put on a level with that of the student, no matter how gifted, who was on watch when the signals were picked up. Jocelyn Bell is admirably clear-eyed about her own role.

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