Day of Dialog (and a lesson learned)

I had the great pleasure of serving on a panel at the 2013 Library Journal Day of Dialog yesterday. That’s me up there talking about “The Art of Science Book Writing” with Richard Dawkins and Simon Winchester. I realize that the pictures are a little blurry, so let’s make up for quality with quantity.

This is us with our moderator, Erin Shea.

It was a great panel, and there was a lot of really thought-provoking discussion of how we road-test our ideas, what the goal of popular science writing should be, and how the academy views this sort of work. More on one or more of these topics later. We also did book signings (my first for The Universe in the Rearview Mirror!). The librarians in the audience were great, and they had lots of interesting things to talk about afterwards. But there was one thing that got me down.

Most of the folks wanted me to make the book out to themselves, or just to sign my name. That was great. Others had a son or a husband that they wanted me to sign it for. Almost always a son or a husband. Only 1 daughter in the whole group (and I must have signed 60 or so books, with at least a dozen signed to someone else).

As you may know, I am the director of undergraduate studies in the physics department at Drexel, and I’ve been looking very closely at gender equity in the last couple of years. We have a great group of undergraduate and grad students who’ve formed a Women in Physics Society and together we’ve been working hard on undergraduate recruitment. I won’t throw a ton of statistics at you, but according to the American Physical Society, the fraction of Bachelors degrees in Physics awarded to women is 20%, and has been flat for more than 10 years, and Drexel is not ahead of this curve.

I’m trying to do my part, one kid at a time. Every night, my 3 1/2 year old daughter, Willa, and I have a “chat.” Almost always, she wants to talk about the planets, or animals, or math or the history of science. And I think this is pretty typical. But somewhere between 3 and 18, physics takes a hit. We seem to be losing a lot of potential scientists in the middle and high school years, and it’s not clear what to do about it.

I’m trying, in my own way, to bring greater attention to Emmy Noehter in my new book, but I don’t think that will be the tipping point we’re looking for. I don’t have a remedy, but even among an incredibly enlightened, science and knowledge-friendly audience, I was surprised to see this imbalance so starkly.


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