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I hereby nominate Matt for "father of the year." :) Seriously, explosing your kids to poetry, literature, science, and encouraging critical thinking at a very young age will only help them navigate the real world that much more effectively, and withstand the inevitable peer pressure.

And Rob's anecdotal evidence of women assuming they're wrong even in graduate school strikes me as pretty accurate. I don't know where this tendency comes from, and while women grow more confident as we age and rack up a few encouraging successes -- to be honest, I still catch myself automatically assuming I'm wrong sometimes, even when deep down, I know I'm right... No idea how to combat this, but I doubt it's something that's "innate" to my gender.

08 27 06

Hello there:
I think it is worthwhile to bring more women into the fray. There are so many things that women have traditionally done which involve physics in some way, but we are never taught that. Good example, my Mother and sisters like to sew. They make their own patterns. My Mother took two polygons and attached them together to make a pair of pants. This is second nature to her, but she didn't know about Teichmuller spaces and the pair of pants construction. I also know a lot of girls that braid hair or twist hair, and it is something that we have always done. However, many of us don't know about braid theory and its greater applicability to the theoretical physics etc. A few days ago, I chanced upon a young girl with braids and was so intrigued that I began to examine the symmnetry of each of her braids. Then I showed her a paper on braid theory. She was so surprised that such a branch of mathematics existed.

The point I am trying to make is that learning should not only be fun, but RELEVANT. A good teacher should be able to motivate the students with examples that are tangible to the students. With women, I think that is doubly true. One thing I am curious about is why chemistry and biology always have wayyyy more women than physics. Hmmm

Wonderful post, lots to think about and motivate....

Another couple of datapoints:
There is a lot more of a macho-subculture in the sciences than appears at first glance. For example, the quotes "Nobody gets an A in my class!" Or "You guys aren't cut out for the sciences."

I don't know if you found those discouraging, but for young boys, those kinds of statements are challenges. They don't discourage extra effort, young boys get told they can't do stuff all the time, and it doesn't seem to stop them.

Check out this entry in Gordon Watt's blog (

It's about the Quals for physics grad school. Gordon in the article and Dave Bacon (in the comments) wax nostalgic about how painful their quals were.

If the same message encourages the boys and disheartens the girls, maybe we should give same sex education another look.

Oh, this is so great! I'm officially the Cocktail Party Physics Father of the Year! Can I make myself a seal to put on my web page?


Re same sex education--I think it's a double-edged sword as far as preparing girls for a male-dominated world. I can speak from experience, having gone from attending two all-girls Catholic high schools, to majoring in engineering (10% female) at a university where overall the male-female ratio was 65:35, to being the only woman in my entering class of 25 in physics graduate school.

What was good about single sex education in my experience of it over 20 years ago is that girls are more open about studying together. There wasn't this pressure to put up a front of bravado to make it look like everything was infused knowledge--it was OK to be honest about not understanding some concept, because other students would be happy to help you figure it out. Competition was deemphasized, which was kind of frustrating to me in some ways because I actually was quite competitive then.

The all-boys' schools my brothers attended played up competition--sports, math teams, debate, you name it. That whole one-upsmanship thing that's part of male culture was just totally absent from my high school experience (I did speech and math teams, but no sports). Even though I had seen my two brothers and their friends in action, it was still a culture shock to get to college where guys just projected confidence all the time, even when it wasn't justified.

The competition for dominance is the way of science and business, so girls should be prepared for that as much as possible, even though I think the world would be a far saner place if people could be as open and honest with one another as they were back at my all-girls' schools.

As a few people have mentioned, it's not even necessarily a matter of teachers -- it's a matter of girls being socialized to lack self-confidence. I had some great science teachers (and some terrible ones), but I never even considered the fact that I might even plausibly have the brains to be a scientist. Just never even crossed my mind. I loved high school physics, for instance, but I got an 89 on my final, so I figured I must be dumb. Even doing well in college physics didn't change my mind.

I certainly hope Feminist Press manages to fund and promote some excellent books for girls, but I don't know how hopeful I am... my press just put out a series of books about women scientists aimed at roughly middle school girls (, and it's just getting no interest whatsoever (at least at the bulk level). They're great little books, in my probably-somewhat-biased opinion, but organizations don't seem willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to encouraging girls in science. Makes me really sad, actually. Hopefully Feminist Press' NSF grant will allow them to provide some free copies to people who might be theoretically interested but practically unwilling to spend the money, because this is looking like something one has to force people into.

Perhaps I can help reconcile the hard vs. fun camps.

One of the biggest barriers I have had to surmount across my years in academia as both science student and teacher is frustration. One of the biggest and most important frustrations has been that of failing to immediately comprehend something.

Different people respond differently to frustration. Some give up and try something else that is perhaps a little less challenging. Others, who are more comfortable remaining in that frustrating state of not-quite-understanding might persist and continue to work on their problem at hand. I am completely convinced that “Math Anxiety” is simply an inability to withstand the frustration of NOT KNOWING something long enough to actually learn it. (Note that this can be both willful or subconscious, but I have had great success in surmounting this particular claim.).

For some, the prospect of that anticipated spark of inspiration or delight that comes from persevering to the point of enlightenment drives them through the uncomfortable uncertainty period. Over time, students learn to be more comfortable and less bothered by NOT KNOWING, and can progress through harder and longer problems as their tolerance and comfort increase. Ultimately, people can learn to anticipate the challenge and revel in the idea that if they can just concentrate long enough, they are sure to eventually learn something and eventually delight in the whole process start-to-finish.

I happen to believe this is NOT an innate ability. It is a learned skill. If there is no properly self-aware teacher available to guide and settle the student through the early frustrations, and the educational environment fails to foster the mental discipline or world-view of intellectual reward through calm persistence, we end up with people who equate “hard” with suffering, who give up on ever achieving profound and potentially life-changing realizations, and who will never know the real joy of figuring out complex and interesting things.

Our schools need more teachers who understand this sort of thing.


(p.s. check out my blog at for more similar musings.)

I'll blogwhore my old website for anyone who is interested in my past thoughts and a book I wrote ages ago (never published, though) about this topic. Feel free to explore it for background materials and ideas, and if you find busted links, please let me know. I really haven't bothered to update it in quite some time now.

I am always happy to plug science blogs. :) I like Phillip's take on math anxiety: "simply an inability to withstand the frustration of NOT KNOWING something long enough to actually learn it." The more passion and enthusiasm we can instill in kids about a given subject, I'd argue, the better we can help them get past that natural sticking point. And becoming comfortable with not knowing, thereby developing mental discipline and (one hopes) more rigorous critical thinking, can only serve students well in the long run. And this is probably not an innate ability, as Phillip also points out.

"simply an inability to withstand the frustration of NOT KNOWING something long enough to actually learn it.

Or in the case of higher level mathmatics and Quantum Mechanics - withstand the frustration of not understanding until you get used to the idea and stop expecting it to make sense ;) Anytime I want to blow my own mind I sit down and really think about wave-particle duality and the like. Paradoxes can be fun!

At the risk of admonishing people for wanting to reinvent the wheel:

Every girl should have a copy of Dignifying Science in her library.

For more info:

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.