Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Story of Setting Things Up

Late one night last weekend, I was playing around on Facebook and, feeling generally vague and detached, set up Skeptics in the Pub in Wales.

It was something I've been urged to do by friends such as Jack of Kent, Carmenego and many others. I replied I hadn't a clue how to set such things up, and if the Welsh were keen, wouldn't they have done it themselves? As far as I am aware, I was the only person in Wales to do the Ten23 homeopathy overdose. And I don't know any local skeptics.

That is, until I went along to a demonstration in Cardiff for proportional representation, which I should blog about - suffice to say we got our best audience when two riot vans arrived, though the police were pretty cheerful! - where I did actually find a fellow Pembrokeshire skeptic. That alone was pretty encouraging!

How are we doing, a week on? We now have 90 Facebook members. We have a Twitter account, and an e-mail address, We've had brilliant advice and support from Crispian, Jack of Kent, and Simon Perry; and we have had various promises of speakers. Dean has also made the following promotional posters . . .

And that's just the start of it. He's finding our venues, looking for speakers, generally doing all the fantastic practical stuff I can't do from Pembrokeshire - oh, and he's also launched a competition for our first night. (If you can't see it, I will write about it on another blogpost . . .)

We've also been contacted by a journalist who's thinking of doing a piece on Skeptics in the Pub in Wales as some local news, but neither she nor I know if that's going to go ahead.

So all in all, it's looking terribly exciting!

I'm still a bit clueless about the finance side, though have had brilliant advice from Simon Perry on that. Jack of Kent tells me we ought to form a committee. I don't know the first thing about committees. But the wonderful thing is that we are all playing to our strengths here. I can write, have ideas, and sniff out speakers. And there are other people who are doing the parts I can't.

Naturally some people have contacted me to object in some way. The most common complaint is, "How dare you call this Skeptics in the Pub in Wales?" Effectively, the complaint is that the name implies there can only be one group for all Wales. Well, sorry if it came across that way, but when I set it up I didn't know whether anyone would be interested or where they would congregate. I wasn't going to call it Skeptics in the Pub in Pembrokeshire, because I don't know if anyone would turn up to that. Or Cardiff or Swansea, because I don't know anyone there.

I was delighted to discover that there were many people interested in having one in Cardiff, and as more people arrived, it looked like Swansea might be a popular venue too. We discussed the idea of alternating between the two. That's one possibility - another is having two separate groups. In which case, Wales SITP was just a starting point - and that applies more and more if any more groups are set up. If you want one in Aberystwyth, Bangor, Llandudno or in a tiny village halfway up Snowdonia, neither I nor anyone else is stopping you from going ahead. Not just that, I'll help you!

What did stop people anyway?

And, on a pettier note, why do some people just moan instead of getting up and doing something?

I'll tell you a little story about me, now. It's not something I'm always happy talking about, but it's far enough in the past now that I don't feel too vulnerable revealing it.

I used to be one of those people who just moaned, instead of doing things. Not for all my life, I hasten to add. Throughout school I was very active - I made a point of talking to as many people as I could, going to lots of clubs and activities, interrupting every lesson with my own points to make, and starting petitions when a rule made life unnecessarily difficult. Then, when I was eighteen, everything changed. I took a gap year from university and moved 300 miles from home to do what I was told would be environmental consultancy work, and was in fact sitting around typing up health and safety policy documents and being the office scapegoat. To cut a long story short, all my health and confidence were stamped out of me. I spent two years unable to lie down even to sleep for the nausea, and the next two years in constant pain.

This was, of course, while I was at university - just the time when people should be active and able to start things off! But I no longer could. It took all my energy to drag myself to lectures. The doctors got fed up and sent me to the cognitive behavioural therapist, who told me that not only was the pain and nausea all in my head, but so was the workplace bullying. You read of people who bear pain and illness with beautiful energy, sweetness and dignity, from Freddie Mercury to Cousin Helen in "What Katy Did". I wasn't like that. I was grumpy, miserable, unable to believe any compliment, unable to trust anyone, and unable to believe that I had the right to do anything. I was probably very frustrating and depressing to talk to, as I couldn't be cheered up. When I saw others being proactive, I felt resentful. I felt as if someone had unfairly chosen them, to hand them some ticket of power or permission, some privilege not accorded to others.

I was very fortunate that I'd read Sattareh Farman Farmaian's wonderful "Daughter of Persia", which examines how some people feel they have the right to be active in their community, and others do not. I was able to observe this as a sort of scale, among international students, and when I lived in Spain. Watch for yourself how active people are, in that sense - it's very interesting. They feel, or do not feel, not only a sense of public responsibility, but a sense of initiative and bravery. When there's a problem in the community, do they attempt to solve it? If a traffic light is broken, do they call the police or do they leave it to someone else? If there's broken glass on the floor or about 1000 magazines thrown all over a set of marble stairs, perfect for tripping up the elderly, do they get these hazards out of the way? So I was able to see that my thinking was wrong, and begin to do something about it.

If you feel you cannot do things, and you don't understand people who do - let me tell you a secret. There is no special permission. There is no secret ticket. People who do things are not necessarily on an exalted pedestal. You can be one of them - unless something is very wrong, nobody will stop you.

I can't promise it'll always be a success. Three years ago, the government was shouting about how many hospitals it was going to close and there were a lot of local protests - "save our hospital" and so on. I tried to get the Brighton one and the Pembrokeshire one to join forces, and gradually create a national protest. I thought that several splintered local groups was the wrong way to go about it, a divide and rule scenario - it would be all too easy to manipulate them into playing against each other, trying to save their own hospital at the expense of others, when there was actually a national problem (for example, very long distances to hospitals in rural areas, or too many people in Accident and Emergency departments as it was, without taking most of these away). It didn't work - one was polite but noncommital with the other, and the other decided "they're NIMBY Tories" and not worth bothering with. This was extremely annoying and frustrating.

Yes, things may not go to plan. But don't let this put you off. If everything was a success, can you imagine what the world would be like? It's still worth trying. And you can still try again, later, in another way.

If you're reading this and thinking about setting up a Skeptics in the Pub group, or indeed anything else, but haven't been feeling confident enough to go ahead - please do it. Anybody can. You just need this little voice in your head to say, "Here is your ticket." I'm giving it to you right now.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Skeptics in the Pub in Wales is born!

Following encouragement from my Skeptics in the Pub friends, I've set up a Facebook group to develop Skeptics in the Pub in Wales.

Please join in.

Any ideas are welcome on the subject of venues, speakers, topics, how to attract more people, costings, arrangements which I have no idea how to sort out such as funding and expenses - or just attend, and have a terrific evening!

Simon Perry and Jourdemayne have both promised to be speakers for us when we start off. We're also hoping to get Simon Singh (but then who isn't?). Simon Perry has already been very helpful and sent us a copy of his guide to starting a Skeptics in the Pub group - if anyone wants one, please e-mail him or me to ask for a copy! He's also going to get us onto the main website.

Another instrumental player has been Dean Burnett. He signed up almost immediately, designed the logo above, contacted Simon Perry, will probably be doing most of the website work, has an (outrageous) idea for our first meeting, and seems to be happy to take on the venue research! (Leaves me wondering what the heck there is left for me to deal with.) He is now one of the group admins, as is my Pembrokeshire friend Freya who has given me masses of ideas and encouragement.

Simon Perry's guide recommends starting off with a bang, namely a large event with an excellent speaker, which sets off a good precedent. Venues need to be large enough to accommodate us, to have the equipment, and to be calm enough for us to hear ourselves. Some hire a private room out, and some simply let us take over a large part of the pub and let the other patrons get very, very intrigued!

We don't yet know when we will start. Early autumn might be best, getting the summer holiday out of the way first. Or we might plunge in before August. Please let me know your opinions if you are thinking of coming.

You can read more about Skeptics in the Pub generally here in Wikipedia (don't miss the "notable speakers"), and for my experiences, Jourdemayne's talk and the Westminster Rally. And you can find me on Facebook and Twitter or leave a comment here to contact me.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Blowing the citizen science trumpet. Oh, all right, mine then

Will Gater, whose terrific and beautiful website I seriously recommend (and who also gave a very good lecture at Herstmonceux back in 2008), has written up a lovely collection of citizen science projects for the Sky at Night magazine.

It's a lovely collection, a small space dedicated to each one with little visual guides to what you'll need (in each case, a computer) and how much of your time it will take up (though I am astonished that Galaxy Zoo is given 2/5, meaning a relatively short time, rather than a massive highlighted DANGER ADDICTION warning!).

About half of them, I saw with pride, are bud-offs of our beloved Galaxy Zoo: the supernovae, the mergers, and so on. I won't list them all so as not to spoil Will's detailed work! But there are some projects I'd never even heard of: Globe at Night, for example, to map every area of sky that people live in for light pollution, and Be a Martian to map the red planet and whose description includes a wonderfully cartoon-like picture.

Will has also interviewed "the expert", i.e. Dr Chris Davis of Solar Stormwatch, and "the user", i.e. yours truly. I wish to highlight my personal achievement of taking that photo myself, by going outside and pointing my mobile in roughly the right direction! I enjoyed answering Will's excellent questions, but I think next time I might bossily step aside and suggest a zooite who classifies galaxies more than I do. Truth to tell, classifying is very much a sidelines thing for me nowadays - my job is looking after all the people who do - so I haven't got anything very interesting to say about my clicking!

In the meantime, it actually appears to be Interview the Zooite Week. Stellar recently did a terrific interview with Bill Keel for the Young Astronomers. Bill is one of the brightest shining stars on the Galaxy Zoo Forum: he is a professional astronomer, and also a real part of our community. His speciality is overlapping galaxies, like this pair:

Credit: SDSS, and recently studied by Bill at Kitt Peak observatory. Overlapping pairs of galaxies are in the same line of sight, but not close enough to merge with each other. They are highly useful to astronomers because the background one acts like a torch to the dust in the foreground one, allowing one to study more about what is going on in the galaxy besides the movement of its brightest stars. I think only a couple of overlapping pairs were known before the Zoo. Since Bill joined us, we've amassed over 600.

Anyway, did I mention it was the season for interviews? Look what Half65, the zoo forum's overlapping galaxy expert, has done. I love the yellow "ed" bits. Half65 is an absolutely adorable zooite, who also specialises in switching on his espresso machine and making everybody feel welcome.

This was definitely an exceptionally interesting set of questions to answer. Half knew just what is important to me and what would get me writing - in fact, for the first time, I had to be extremely careful about how to word some of my answers!

I myself recently interviewed six zookeepers (I'll direct you to the results when they come out), and got a lot of, shall we say, constructive feedback on what sort of questions I should ask. With Half, it appears to have come naturally. Perhaps he knows more about my work on the forum than I know about the zookeepers' work on galaxies, which is a little scary. Or perhaps he could give me some tips!

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The "She is an Astronomer" Conference: Day 2

Continuing from my earlier post; now we're onto Friday 23rd April.

I should have mentioned yesterday that while we were putting up those banners, Helen asked me what I thought about winding up the She is an Astronomer forum. I agreed with her that it was probably all for the best as, sadly, it was very little used apart by spammers. I think there were several reasons for this. For one thing none of us really got round to putting up all the articles, statistics and so on that were available on the website - the information was available in one place and the discussions in another. And yet when we did do this, the response was still depressingly small. In the main, Helen pointed out, what we learned was that women astronomers don't really want to use a web forum - which in itself was a useful finding that we wouldn't have known without having tried! I would have thought it would be a terrific place - I know that doctors have a forum where they get to rant their heads off - but I guess it just didn't work like that in practice. It was a shock to me, but I've been spoiled by the Galaxy Zoo Forum and forget that such things don't appeal to everyone. Maybe in another generation, it will.

We just had a morning of lectures before a nice leisurely lunch, and very interesting they were too! First up was Sotira Trifourki, who I gather had done 50 slides for a 20 minute talk - she has been up to an awful lot during the International Year of Astronomy. You can find her at her Cosmic Diary Blog from 2009, the Cosmic Diary website, the wonderful international website Astronomers Without Borders, and here for what her long term plans are now that the International Year of Astronomy is over.

She also told us about Cosmos Media, a project to equip schools and teachers with materials and knowledge to teach astronomy. Many primary school teachers are afraid to teach science and astronomy, having had little exposure to it themselves at school - and, of course, that breeds more of the same thing. Their research revealed that children's perceptions are set very early: for example, that even after learning about bricklaying, very small girls will say, "I can't be a bricklayer, I'm a girl." (Whether they challenge that thinking when they are older - as teenagers do challenge many of the things they thought as kids - I don't know. But it's fair to say one doesn't often hear of a female bricklayer!) There was a lovely little project in which children were invited to "invent their own moon". Sotira's project was part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy, and mentioned the zoo's contribution too. They also developed a science newspaper of citizen writing, which can be looked up at Astronomers Without Borders.

Pedro Russo gave a delightful and detailed account of about a thousand and one activities of the International Year of Astronomy! The idea for it was thought up in 2003 by Franco Pacini, to celebrate the upcoming 400th anniversary of Galileo pointing a telescope at the sky (he wasn't the first, but he was the first to publish). A lot of planning went into it from about 2005 onward, with topics being thought up such as light pollution, and projects such as Cosmic Diary. Universe Awareness was launched during 2006, and and a UN proclaimation in 2007 - this was especially important to secure funding, especially to work in developing countries.

It worked well due to it being a great idea and having strong support, global participation, funding, a UN recommendation, exciting activities, the engagement of people at all levels. The funding was the hardest bit, he said.

Pedro's role was a global coordinator, and he obviously enjoyed it! He was involved with science centres, planetariums, educational communities, professors, and amateurs - the last of whom he thought were the best. They had great media coverage. Women made up 30% of the staff, and were often a sole point of contact for an area or project - in fact, 70% of cornerstone projects were chaired by women.

Each story Pedro told was cause for a smile. Astronomy displays appeared all round the world, of varying descriptions - for instance, someone grew an astronomy flowerbed in Solihull, Birmingham! (I Googled it and there were no current images available - how sad. But local websites offer such appalling puns as how "blooming great" it is . . .) The International Year of Astronomy went to Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Exhibitions took place in developing countries: Mozambique did lectures and introduced astronomy into their undergraduate curriculum; public talks in Bangladesh were attended by thousands; Ghana took up Galileoscopes. In India, a camel pulled a display through the streets! Around the globe in total there were 24,595 activities, and astronomy is estimated to have reached 975 million people. And by the way, this is estimated through only 50% of the reports. The only activity formally discontinued was Galilean Nights; everything else was kept in some form or another. Pedro hopes that a coffee table book of the best of IYA can be produced.

Jan West spoke about the mentoring scheme, and she started with some stern advice to the women watching. "The way to advance yourself - and this is controversial - is not to put your head down and quietly do a good job, or spend all your time in a scientific laboratory." She told us that about 70% of jobs (through out the whole of employment) are obtained through networking, not objective merit. So personal and social skills are very important, as are not letting others take the credit for your work. "I'm afraid it is a game."

A mentor is not a teacher, but someone to advise and encourage you, to remind you of your goals and keep you on track. Some women are afraid to admit they have a mentor, in case they look weak, or as if their work is not their own. That, of course, is not what happens: you still do all the work! Many people are happy to mentor the younger generation, feeling that it is their responsibility; also, many "top people" are hugely thankful to mentors they have had.

A worldwide mentoring scheme is not yet ready. However, the UK now has MentorSET. It's a project started by the Women's Engineering Society. Basically they ask you to be willing to give up a few hours of your time every few months. And they ask women who have had mentors to be willing to be mentors later.

I thought it was a very positive scheme, but odd to see it formalised and I could easily picture women being uncomfortable with it. It's really what happens naturally at the zoo. I cannot thank people like Chris and Kevin enough for all I've learnt from them - and all the places I've got to due to their guidance and steering - and I hope that I have taught dozens of people half as much. I guess it was the kind of thing I'd hoped to do via the She's an Astronomer forum - let people actually meet each other. It's also odd that it does seem to happen naturally with men - the "old boy network" and so on. But perhaps there are also plenty of men out there who could do with a mentor and haven't got one?

We were rounded off with a lovely talk on comets and telescope time, and by Helen being asked to wrap up with conclusions! Helen got up from the back. "Oh, boy, conclusions? My conclusion is I'm very tired!" We laughed as she went up to the front. She doesn't think we've found all the solutions yet - or even all the problems. But as Jocelyn Bell-Burnell said, women are just as capable of doing science as men, so why is there not a 50-50 ratio? "Answers on a piece of paper please." We all do astronomy because we love it. We also love communicating it, especially to the next generation - so we are lucky to have public figures such as Brian Cox and Chris Lintott.

Helen's original IAU proposal had massive support. She wanted it to be generic but not too detailed as each country had its own characteristics and problems. Only challenging attitudes can stop bullying and harrassment. Sometimes encouraging men to say "shut up" can help!

It's not a leaky pipeline, she said, but a labyrinth. There are lots of small problems rather than one large one; so there is no one solution, such as "more girls' schools". Local problems have local answers. Nevertheless, there are some specifics - for example, women should be less shy about giving talks (even though it's often them who do the inviting! We should make sure women are invited). It helps to get men on our side - all the evidence I have seen shows that many of them are - and to encourage them to nominate women for awards. She promised that She is an Astronomer will continue, and urged us to keep sending in our suggestions.

There were some funny moments, such as us collectively noticing that solar astronomy and dust disks seem to be particularly popular areas of study for women (and therefore, great meetings to sneak in on to get some feminist action going!). And there were painful ones, such as when talks like mine, Ruth Wilson's, and Jan West's encouraged women to blog and reach out over the Internet - and these were greeted with injured faces and protestations of "We don't have time!" There was obvious resistance to the idea of going out in public; it bemused me and Hanny, as both of us are keen to the point of over-eagerness to do that. I wondered why: if it was a lack of confidence, if they were dropping with tiredness. And I wanted to help. I love blogging and outreach. It doesn't seem right to discover things and dedicate your life and then not share it with the layman. But I have certainly seen astronomers looking absolutely worn out, and wished there were more posts so each individual did not have to practically kill him or her self.

Lunch was a hurried affair this time - but I had several lovely talks with women in astronomy, many of whom expressed their enthusiasm for Galaxy Zoo and my determination to reach the general public. I talked to one lady for quite a while about how the zooites have taught themselves spectra and SQL, but she had a sober warning. "You're singing to the choir," she said. "You've already got these people before they join. You're missing out on the others." I resisted that to some extent - many people join knowing very little astronomy, simply popping along because it looked so interesting, and find themselves welcomed. And in any case, why should I force astronomy on people who don't want to know? But she has a point. I am uncomfortably aware that to a large extent I am catering for the privileged: those with Internet access, free time, and the confidence to come along . . . I went into teaching because I didn't only want to reach the privileged. But that, as we all know, was not to be. I haven't given up, though. I'm only 28, and expect to be doing a great deal more with my life. That's all I can really say for now!

I also talked to Sotira for some time - she was terrific! She encouraged me to get some proper training for science communication - in fact, she named something that I thought of a few months ago, but hadn't yet dared apply for. Evidently I'd been making the very mistake that so many women do make: thinking "I've just been lucky, I can't really do this." I have had a major part in creating a very friendly forum where people can relax and do fantastic science together, and I want to carry on doing that sort of thing! Once I'd got some food on my plate, I went back to the lecture theatre for an interview with Marta Entradas, who is studying for a PhD on science and the public. She wanted to know my thoughts on what people think of space exploration (manned versus robots, for example) and many other things about which I had not a clue - and asked me many more questions about what motivates people to want to know astronomy, which made me think a great deal!

Finally it was time for a cup of coffee, from the machine for which you need a PhD to engineer. After a few wasted bags of coffee and trips to the RAS kitchen, one of the RAS staff rescued me. And as I was heading up to collect my things, I had one last lovely surprise. Helen called me back, and she had that calendar in her hand. She handed it to me.

"That was for the best poster, wasn't it?" I laughed. "I didn't bring a poster."

"For your talk," said Helen.

I blinked and probably spluttered that my talk hadn't been anywhere near the best. Helen assured me that I'd got the best reaction! It's a beautiful calendar - very colourful and original artwork, and a couple of paragraphs on 12 historical women who did crucial astronomical work. It's actually also a lovely thing for bedtime reading, as it takes just the right amount of time to relax you and distract your brain from everyday worries. You can download a copy here.

Sorry it took me such a long time to finish that conference write-up, but it was actually a week of surprises - I've been deluged with requests for guest blogging and for an article which hopefully should appear in a month or two. It still feels pretty unreal, especially when I go to work in a normal office or mooch around a rural garden. But there's a big world out there, full of important things happening - and I can be part of it, and so can you. There are a lot of stars and galaxies up there, too. And all in all, things are looking pretty exciting.

Related posts: She is an Astronomer Conference Day 1; My talk
PS The presentations can now be found on the She is an Astronomer website. Worth a read!

Monday, 3 May 2010

The "She is an Astronomer" Conference: Day 1

Whoops, sorry it took over a week to get round to the actual conference write-up. Already it seems like a long time ago - perhaps because I've had so many surprises then, mostly requests for guest blogging. Strangely, what I remember the most about the start of the day is the beautiful sun, and the lacy patterns of the trees in Green Park. I set off just before 8 so as to be there in time, arrived before 8.30, so went and sat in the park to ring my mum and tell her I'd been asked to write an article - and, for the first time, am actually being paid for it. Just like a fresh university student, just starting out . . . But it's never too late.

The buildings of central London rose up white and friendly out of the traffic, their eaves high, giving their tall windows a look of their eyes being wide open to admire the rich blue sky. I love central London. It's always like coming home.

The RAS building is at Burlington House, an impressive collection of royal societies around a courtyard which seems to keep changing its (for want of a better word) decoration (all these silver baubles have mysteriously vapourised). I sat on one of the wavy white benches and soon Helen arrived, full of friendliness and enthusiasm. We started setting up our banners, which required my height and her knowing how to actually do it. The one we put in the hallway to welcome everyone in was a picture of a woman looking through a telescope. We agreed that it was blatantly a model rather than a real astronomer, since she was caressing the telescope rather than having a good old fight with it!

The inside of the RAS is more like a very smart, luxurious house than its museum-like inside would suggest. There is the Fellows' Room on the bottom floor, with comfy chairs, unobtrusive lamps, cushions with Jupiter-like stripes, a table full of leaflets, and a coffee machine which needs a mystic's degree to operate - but in the room opposite is always a very friendly person or two who has such a degree and is glad to help out. There's a kitchen full of crockery downstairs, and a toilet with taps like waterfalls and a massive window seat, which I've never seen in a toilet before. The stairs are endless; a spiral is etched into the glass of one of the windows, and mysterious wire objects purportedly representing structures such as black holes hang from the faraway ceiling. The whole building is made of marble (or some kind of stone; I don't really know), and looks as if it will last forever. On the first floor is a library enough to make one gasp: books up to the ceiling, which includes a black spiral metal staircase to reach, amazing instruments, and heavy tables on which the librarian displays impressive texts or pictures as he chooses. The floor above that is also stacked with books, golden instruments, and a coffee machine whose mysteries are entirely different from the one downstairs; and that's where the posters were and where we put our stuff and ate lunch. But the best thing is the lift. I recommend you visit the RAS just to see it. Start at the bottom floor and watch the Moon, the planets, galaxies, nebulae, Fluffyporcupine's avatar, and the Cosmic Microwave Background go by!

Helen and I took our stuff upstairs. The posters were already up - far fewer than we'd expected, but a range of subjects nonetheless: people's research, what it was like being alone as a female astronomer in your whole country . . . Helen showed me a pretty little orange calendar, made by the Spanish She is an Astronomer team for 2009. It was 12 historical female astronomers. "That's going to be the prize for the best poster," she told me.

We were soon joined by Quentin, Emily, Anita and Hanny. An awful few minutes passed waiting for Pedro Russo to arrive; he'd been standed in Germany and had all the badges and books of abstracts! Thankfully he did, and dumped two heavy cardboard boxes on the tables. We unloaded the books of abstracts (of our talks and posters), and started trying to sort the name badges into alphabetical order. The table promptly turned into a sea of blue ribbons. We ended up taking those off, and giving all the arrivals one badge, one blue ribbon, one book of abstracts, one survey (of a question about what they thought would help female astronomers the most. Sorry, Helen, I never did hand mine in), one programme, and so forth. I got terribly thirsty and asked one of the RAS staff where I could get some water, as I didn't know about the kitchen at that point. He angelically went and got me some! Minor, but nice things like that should be noticed. They often don't happen, unless you're in a position of power.

The lecture theatre is on the right as you go in, a surprisingly small room compared to the awesome library upstairs. We filed into the seats to hear Jocelyn Bell-Burnell give the opening address. Sadly I'd left my notebook upstairs, so I couldn't write down anything she said. She was rousing and impressive, though, of course! She never needed to mention having been passed over for the Nobel prize (which makes me cross every time I think about it). She was the first female president of the Institute of Physics, which says a lot, she says: physics is more hostile to women than astronomy. The higher you go in the academic career ladder, she reports, the more male-dominated it becomes, though "cooling-out" starts of affect women before they even finish their PhD. She told a wonderful story of an excellent male role model: a professor of chemistry who often left the department early to pick his young kids up from school. The tone of the department matters a lot. "There have been a lot of programs to support women," she told us, "but they all said the same thing: that we women have to change, and they're there to teach us how to adapt. In other words, they assume that it is women who are deficient." Pause. "GET LOST." Whoopee! She went on to explain that women are just as good at science and astronomy as men; we simply do it in a different way - and while we should adapt, so should men, and so should science, so that we all meet each other half way.

The lectures that followed contained many questions, many statistics - some things I disagreed with, some things that were revelations, and all things giving me a great deal to think about. Some lectures had to be skipped because of the presenter being unable to come; a few talks were read out by others as I'd suggested to everyone by e-mail (this suggestion was met with mixed views!). There was some debate over whether to train so many PhDs, the reason being that very few stay on in academia anyway. Or, should PhDs be changed to provide additional job skills? Personally this made me groan; for starters the question seemed to answer itself since PhDs are very valuable in the job market and give you great skills anyway. For another thing it drives me mental to hear constantly about academic learning only "really" being for jobs. It's not. There is such a thing as intellectual curiosity. But maybe I live on the moon. Though on the other hand we later heard, in a talk about the career paths of PhD students, that they all choose to do a PhD because they love their subject. So there you go . . . We also heard how hard it can be to get accurate statistics about women at various levels of academia; they are very different between, for example, physics and biology. Also many websites are out of date, the department hasn't compiled the statistics, and so on.

One interesting trend that came up in several talks was the contrast between the "Catholic" countries (such as France, Spain, Greece and Italy) versus the "Nordic" countries (such as the UK, the Netherlands, Finland and Germany). In the former, there are more women in science and fewer in politics; in the latter, vice versa. There was some discussion whether this was due to whether science was regarded as a respectable profession in these countries or not. Interestingly, France allows professors (male and female) to obtain permanent academic positions earlier than the UK or Germany; this certainly makes it easier for female scientists to have children!

There are some glaring exceptions. Lots of women in India get PhDs, but the culture there discourages them from continuing work after they get married. Jocelyn went to Malaysia and said she wanted to get more women into science; they asked her why - and she found out that 60 to 70% of scientists over there are female! She also found a high proportion of female scientists in Mexico and asked a Mexican lady why; the lady responded in one word: "Maids." There are many poor women glad of a job looking after the house, which frees up the wife to go to work. This was uncomfortable hearing. I'm hopeless enough at housework (except cooking) as it is, and would love someone to do it for me. And yet, as Elaine Morgan would say, this only amounts to liberating half of women at the expense of the other half. But then, and this is my personal view and it did not get discussed, is it really necessary for scientists to work such incredibly long hours? Couldn't there be more scientists to do the same amount of work? Couldn't that, indeed, apply to quite a lot of jobs?

Some of the statistics were quite anger-rousing; for example, women very rarely get any awards - and those that do are on average 2.5 times as productive as the men who get similar awards! I don't know what the parameters were for the 2.5 times, though.

Towards the end of the morning I was making general points about all the lectures. The gist of all was that there is no point in pretending women and men are the same, because we're not. As Danielle Alloin put it, "Diversity is strength." There is a good mix of men and women doing PhDs generally. Men tend more to go into the private sector and women the public, but there is not a large difference. Also, people who do a theoretical PhD tend more to go into the private sector. Claims of how many PhD students stayed in academia varied throughout the day, from two out of a hundred to 46%! The famous experiment of asking a child to draw a scientist was brought up a couple of times - I don't buy much into that as children are pretty random, not generally aware of discrimination, and also may be trying to please the adult; but maybe I'm missing Something Significant, etc. We were warned that the media can distort general perceptions by always talking to the same people (you can say that again!), and advised not to base our social lives around our work, because that only leads to something along the lines of the "Old Boy Network". We also heard about the Daphne Jackson Trust, which aims to get women who have had a two year or longer career break catch up and get back into academia.

Someone, I forget who, told an interesting story at one point - that girls who go to all-girls' colleges seem to do better. We hear this about schools every so often. The reason given for this was that "they see examples of female leadership". Well, I know I shouldn't value personal experience over statistics, but when I transferred from an all-girls' grammar to a mixed comprehensive, I suddenly found myself whizzing ahead in the sciences. This may of course have been because the grammar school did not (with the exception of one or two teachers) take science very seriously. But in particular it was interesting listening to the boys talking about science, to overhear them debating and see how different their angles and their approaches to problems were. Anyway, all in all I felt that to segregate the sexes particularly on the grounds described above is to treat a symptom, not a cause. Is it a given that mixed schools and universities don't get to see female leadership?

Emily was trying to tweet the main points from the conference, but there was no Internet available in the lecture theatre! So she had to type them up and send them at lunch time. You can find some excellent soundbites on @SheAstronomer (from 22nd and 23rd April, of course) such as "'Women are like canaries in a coal-mine' i.e. more sensitive to friendliness of a department" (that is not to say that men do not get put off too). I wandered round to look at the posters and saw a fascinating one about the links between solar activity and the incidence of particular diseases. I didn't chat with the others as much as I should have, because I was getting quite childishly nervous about my upcoming talk. Hanny and Emily were very sweet about that. If it had been a year ago I wouldn't have had nerves at all, but it had been a while, and also this was my first audience of professionals! They had the good taste to serve fresh fruit at lunch time, beautifully cut up, often the only way I'll get around to eating fruit. Mango, pineapple, strawberries . . . It definitely felt like spring, just the time to get everyone chatting about how to change the world.

Last of all we had Sarah Bridle, who told us what a wonderfully varied career she's had and how becoming a professor made more difference than having a baby; we had Ruth Wilson, who has gathered our blogs together and just never stopped smiling; and we had me; and finally we had a wonderful talk about William and Caroline Herschel's unique partnership. Caroline was the first paid female astronomer in history. Unfortunately I think this is the page that fell out of my notebook, and in any case my brain had blown by then!

We milled around in the library, eating crisps and drinking wine and orange juice and attempting not to spill them over some amazing antique texts the librarian had put out. Quentin had been rushing around all day getting everyone coming to the Italian restaurant to choose their meal. I got talking to some lovely astronomers once I was able to relax - in the restaurant, two women were talking about gravitational waves and quantum fluctuations and my eyes were absolutely out on stalks. They told me what a nice change it was not to get the answer "Oh, so you can predict the future?" when they said "I'm an astronomer"!

A write-up of Friday should follow shortly . . .
Related links: My talk
Narrow picture from Profiles at She is an; the top is, of course, the logo.