#330      
Margaret Wertheim: Confessions of a science communicator

Celebrated science writer and author Margaret Wertheim discusses the state of science journalism and communication in a world of fragmented social and digital media, as well as her craft-based efforts to foster scientific and mathematical awareness. With Dr Shane Huntington.

“We actually see our methodologies of embodied learning as actually being parallels to the way scientists interact and discover nature.  It's only after the physical interaction often that you get the theory and so after the theory has been attained you can read about it in books, but somewhere along the line it has to intersect with the actual physical things.” — Margaret Wertheim




Margaret Wertheim
Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim, an internationally renowned science writer and exhibition curator, is the founder and director of the Los Angeles-based Institute For Figuring, an organization devoted to innovative public science engagement. Through the IFF, Wertheim has created exhibitions and public science programming for the Hayward, the Smithsonian, the University of Southern California, New York University, the New Children's Museum (San Diego) and many other venues. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Cosmos and New Scientist. She is the author of six books, including Pythagoras Trousers, a history of the relationship between physics and religion; Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything; and a forthcoming book about the Crochet Coral Reef project.

Credits

Host: Dr Shane Huntington
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel, Dr Daryl Holland
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel

Host: Dr Shane Huntington
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel, Dr Daryl Holland
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel - See more at: http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au/episode/328-mind-shift-how-always-digital-technologies-are-changing-our-brains#sthash.r8EAf0zX.dpuf

View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

Download file Download mp3

VOICEOVER
This is Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
I’m Dr Shane Huntington.  Thanks for joining us.  Our modern lifestyles are critically dependent on the extraordinary successes of science.  So why is it that we have such limited success in generating interest in science in society as a whole?  In the past we could live with a certain degree of blissful public ignorance but today with global threats such as climate change and the spread of virulent diseases, a lack of public trust and engagement is potentially disastrous.We tend to believe in the science when it offers us a convenience, like a Smartphone or a GPS system, but we question it when it's inconvenient, such as the dilemma of growing energy usage.  Furthermore, we know that there is a distinct gender imbalance not only in the number and distribution of scientists but also in the way non-scientists engage with science.  Although this problem is widespread across the scientific disciplines, it is at its worst in the physical sciences.So how do we promote a more robust interest in the sciences so that our public choices are better informed and sustainable and how do we open up the sciences to greater participation of women?  To help us answer these questions we're joined on Up Close today by writer, artist and science communicator, Margaret Wertheim from the Institute of Figuring in Los Angeles.  She is the author of three popular books on the cultural history of physics and her science writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.  Margaret is in Melbourne as a guest of the Carlton Connect Initiative.  Welcome to Up Close Margaret.

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Lovely to be here Shane.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Now you've been a science communicator for approximately 30 years now.  How has the field changed during that period?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Well one thing that's changed is when I first went into the field there was almost no such thing as a science communicator and now we have degrees in the subject.  So it's become much more professionalised and I think there has begun to be a great deal more understanding of the need for professional science communicators.Why do we need science communicators?  Because I think scientists themselves, their primary job is to be expert astronomers or particle physicists and some of them happen to be good communicators but many of them aren't necessarily.  I think science communication is a bridging tool between professional scientists and the rest of us.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Do you think the science communicator has grown out of the fact that in science programs and courses we simply don't cover the communication aspect in many of the programs around the world?  Is that the root origin of the science communicator?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Yes I think that's absolutely true.  Most scientists are so focused on doing their research, which they have to be because for them to get grants to fund the continuation of their work they have to be pretty single-mindedly focused on that.That's a right and proper thing but if the public are going to support science they need to know what it is and I think that science communication is a critical enabling science.  It literally enables science to take place by playing the role of explaining to the public why science matters, what's at stake, what's it for?

SHANE HUNTINGTON
I'd like to hear your judgement on the current state of science communication.  Here in Australia, for example, if petrol prices rise by 10 per cent it's all over the news but if the funding for science is cut by 20 per cent it barely makes the third page of our local newspapers.  How is science communication going given those parameters?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Actually I think science communication is really under threat these days, not just in Australia but all around the world.  I work in the US and I also do quite a few things in the UK and everywhere I see this happening.With funding cuts and the global economic crisis one of the things that has been cut is general communicative activities.  Science writing, science communication is something that is I think really struggling to find support.  Many major newspapers in the US used to have a science page or a couple of pages once a week.  There are only three major newspapers in the US that now have that - the New York Times, the Washington Post and I think the other one's the Boston Globe.  None of the other papers do and it's because writing about science doesn't bring in advertising dollars.So the question is who's going to pay for science communication?  I think that's a really unanswered question in all Anglo societies at the moment.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Now you mentioned the aspects of science journalism and in particular if we think of some of the popular science magazines and websites it would appear that these are largely male read documents.  Is that disparity actually a real problem or is it just perceived?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
I think it's a very real problem.  A few years ago I was asked to give a talk at Caltech on the subject of who is science communication for and I looked at the figures of who were the readers of the top 10 science magazines in the US - Discover, Scientific American, Popular Science et cetera - and, in a nutshell, the average reader of science magazines is a well off white man in the upper socio‑economic group and over 40.  That is about what two-thirds to three-quarters of the readers are.  That's not a value judgement, it's a statistical fact.So the question as science communicators and as people who care about science how can we reach out to other sectors of society?

SHANE HUNTINGTON
My understanding is one way you did that was to write some columns for some of the women's fashion mags.  Can you tell us a bit about that experience?  It's not the sort of thing you normally hear about.

MARGARET WERTHEIM
One of the things I do feel really proud of in my life is that for 10 years in Australia I wrote a regular monthly column about science and technology for three different women's magazines.  The first one was Follow Me, then it was Vogue Australia and then Elle Australia. And I feel that this is one of the hardest, most challenging things I've ever done.It's much harder to write an article about big bang cosmology for Vogue magazine than it is to write for the New York Times who I've also written for quite often.   And that's because when the reader of Vogue is reading an article about cosmology when on the opposite page there will be an ad about cosmetics and you have to keep their interest and you can't assume they know any of the language.I regard this as my missionary work.  Women on the whole are not the readers of science magazines but they read women's magazines in vast numbers.  So if we're really serious about wanting to communicate science to wider sectors of our society, then I believe we actually need to look at where the people are and go to the people.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
What we're doing there, I suppose you could say, is treating the symptom of the problem.  Do we know what the root cause is though because there isn't the corresponding requirement for you to write in blokey motorbike magazines or anything of that type?  So we're dealing with one symptom here but what's the cause?  Do we have a feel for that?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Let me just make a preface about writing for blokey magazines.  In the US there is actually the blokey equivalent.  It's called Popular Science.  Popular Science is by far the biggest selling science magazine in the US and it is very much a blokey magazine.  A lot of it is talking about cars, rockets and bikes. There is actually a blokey equivalent. But your wider question Shane is a very important one.  What are the underlying symptoms of why more people aren't reading science magazines?  We in the science world can fantasise that we'll wake up one day and everyone have a subscription to New Scientist or Scientific American and it's not happening.  Why isn't it happening?I've spent a lot of time thinking about this.  My own view is that the canonical ways of writing about science tend to play to the converted, to the people who have got subscriptions to magazines like Discover and Scientific American.  They have particular ways of thinking and talking about science that they're very well inducted into and they just want to hear more of that.But those ways don't necessarily bring in new readers or other sectors of our society. And I think just as we need very diverse forms of literature we don't expect one writer to appeal to everyone.  We have many different kinds of fiction writers, many different kinds of literary writers.  I think we need to see science communication more as a literary enterprise.  There needs to be different, more engaging, more diverse modes of writing, thinking and representing science to the public.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Now as someone who does a radio program on science every weekend I don't think I've picked up a science magazine in 15 years…

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Oh really?

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Well there just are so many other better ways to absorb science.  Are we keeping up in terms of science communication with those newer technologies?  Because if we're losing the younger group perhaps there is an issue there with the way in which we're distributing the information, not just how it's being communicated in the real sense.

MARGARET WERTHEIM
I think this is a huge issue for the media in general.  Newspaper circulations are, you know, falling rapidly.  Magazines are really struggling in the context of the fact that there are lots of blogs and websites devoted to these issues.  And so I think as a wider media issue this is one of the issues of our time.  Younger people don't tend to buy magazine subscriptions but at least in the US, and it's true here, Cosmos magazine in Australia has got a fabulous website and most magazines and newspapers in the US are putting enormous resources into making their web presences fantastic.So the brand name - the New York Times, Discover, New Scientist, Cosmos - stays even if it shifts from paper to online but the issue is how do you draw people into the subject matter?

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Now one of the things that we often find is that many science communicators and scientists in general are quire outspoken atheists and certain religious groups of course have pretty big issues with this as one would expect.In your writing though you seem to have tried to bring the two together in a way that perhaps complements one another.  Can you describe for us how you actually go about that because they do seem to be quite separated by a distance?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Yes.  There has arisen in the twentieth century a notion that one has to be a supporter of science or religion, that one cannot support or indeed mentally accommodate both these fields at once and this is a historical myth.The founders of the scientific revolution - Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Kepler - all of them were profoundly religious men who believed that their science was in some sense and adjunct to their theology.  So the scientific revolution was founded by people who believed that science was showing us the greater glory of God's creation.  There was nothing inherently problematic and indeed a lot of their theological thinking informed how they thought about their science.It's a phenomena of the last 100 years to see science and religion as inherently in conflict.  It doesn't have to be that way.  Most of my writing on the subject has been looking at the historical context. And I think we do need to address the issue of what can be a productive relationship between science and religion in society today.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
As we've moved on with our understanding of what science is we talk more about processes like falsification.  Are they not though in more conflict with religion than, as you rightly state, three-four-five hundred years ago it was a very different society, a very different game?  And in fact you could almost say everyone was religious in those societies to some degree whereas now we have a very different model.  So does the conflict sit appropriately when you're talking about those different processes?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Well a lot of this depends upon what you think religion is and does.  I live in the States where there is a very strong public representation of fundamentalist religion but I was raised in an intellectual Catholic family and although I'm no longer a Catholic I feel profoundly grateful that I did grow up in a Catholic family.  My parents were very serious intellectuals.  My father was a professor of philosophy at Melbourne University and we were certainly taught that there was no inherent conflict between science and religion.So it depends how you want to interpret religion.  There are many intellectually rigorous and interesting theological positions that don't demand simple literalist interpretations of the Bible.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
I'm Shane Huntington and you're listening to Up Close.  We're discussing some of the challenges in communicating science to the public with author and science communicator Margaret Wertheim.Now Margaret, you run a not for profit organisation called the Institute for Figuring.  You're going to have to explain to me what you mean by the term figuring.

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Well the name, Institute for Figuring, was very specifically chosen because figuring is a word that crosses the boundaries of many things.  Figures are numbers.  Figures are diagrams in scientific textbooks.  Artists do figure drawing.  We all have a figure, a body and we figure things out.  So the word figuring is one that's equally meaningful in mathematics, science, art and cognition.The Institute for Figuring is an organisation I found with my sister who comes from the arts world.  Its mission is to engage the public with science and mathematics by looking at the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics.The other thing that's lovely about the Institute for Figuring is that the acronym is IFF and IFF is the logical symbol for if and only if.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You mentioned the role that you play in this institute.  Is this something that's kind of been lost or sidelined from the teaching of science in schools?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Well I actually decided to found this new kind of organisation for doing science communication in radically different ways because as a science communicator I felt frustrated.  I thought there were lots of stories about science and mathematics that were beautiful and I couldn't convince magazine or newspaper editors to let me write about them.I also felt very frustrated by the fact that many of my friends are in the arts and so many of them would come up to me and say something like, oh Margaret I tried to read A Brief History of Time and I couldn't get past chapter one or, I tried to read that article in the New York Time science section the other day and I couldn't get through the first paragraph.  I want to engage with science but there don't seem to be ways in for people like me.And I really founded the organisation with a belief that there is a huge enthusiasm in our society for engaging with science and math but we need to do it in new and different ways.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Let's talk about some of the projects that you're running through the institute.  You may want to focus on the coral reef one which I think is particularly interesting and unusual, especially for us Australians who have a great love for our particular reef up north.

MARGARET WERTHEIM
The biggest project that we've done at the Institute for Figuring is this project where we're crocheting a coral reef which sounds like a kind of mad enterprise.  Why would you put water and wool together?  But it's a project that resides at the interface between mathematics, environmentalism, community art and ethics really.The reason we're crocheting a coral reef is to make an artistic representation of coral reefs which are being devastated by global warming all over the world, so much so that it's possible that in this century coral reefs might die out altogether if we don't stop adding so much CO2 into the atmosphere and the water.But the reason that we are crocheting it is because it turns out that all the frilly crenellated structures you see in coral reefs are biological manifestations of a kind of geometry called hyperbolic geometry which is an alternative to the geometry we learn in school.Although corals, sponges and nudibranchs have been making these hyperbolic structures for hundreds of millions of years, human mathematicians only discovered hyperbolic geometry in the nineteenth century.  But for a long time they didn't know how to make models of it and it turns out that the best way to make models of hyperbolic surfaces is with crochet.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Can you describe a bit more what a hyperbolic surface is?  Because I think that's something that, as you say, we do Euclidean geometries in school so we don't have a good feeling for things outside of X, Y and Z at best?  How do you describe one of these particular surfaces?  Most people have in their heads the type of corals that are based on fractal patterns so what are we talking about here?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
One way to think about hyperbolic surfaces is pretty easy to see visually is look at a lettuce leaf.  If you take a lettuce leaf, where the leaf attaches to the stem if pretty flat but as you go towards the edge of the surface it gets more and more frilly and crenellated.  So literally if you were to draw lines on it the horizontal lines near the stem are much shorter than the horizontal lines would be at the edge.  You're literally getting more and more surface.So these frilly crenellated surfaces, they're all versions of hyperbolic space.  They're not exact representations.  Just as in nature there are lots of things that are sphere-like but no perfect spheres like an egg, so in nature there are lots of hyperbolic like structures but no absolutely perfect ones.  But every time you see a frilly crenellated structure like some cactus leaves, corals, sponges, sea slugs, they are representing in biology this hyperbolic surface.What you're getting with a hyperbolic surface is literally more surface.  So while a flat piece of paper, as it were, is the same everywhere with the hyperbolic one if you try to flatten a lettuce leaf you can't because it's got all these bumps.The reason that's productive for nature is because you're creating a surface which has more gathering space for nutrients or sunlight.  A lettuce leaf wants to absorb more sunlight so it's better to have more surface.  In the sea lots of sea creatures have hyperbolic surfaces because they're having to grab their lunch as it's floating by in the water.So wherever you want to maximise nutrient absorption nature invents hyperbolic geometry.  It's a wonderful thing that nature's been doing this for 500 million years but mathematicians only discovered it in the early nineteenth century after literally 300 years of trying to prove it was possible.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
It's amazing when you think of every time you look at a trampoline it's a Euclidean space, it's a flat space, and when you stand on it...

MARGARET WERTHEIM
When you jump...

SHANE HUNTINGTON
...it becomes a hyperbolic space and the only reason you can flatten it is because it stretches right?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Yes, basically it goes from being a Euclidean to a non-Euclidean surface.  One of the things that's historically interesting about the discovery of hyperbolic geometry is that when mathematicians discovered this they realised that there was basically a whole realm of non‑Euclidean geometry which was then developed in the nineteenth century by people like Bernhard Riemann.  And non‑Euclidean geometry is the mathematics that underlies general relativity which will ultimately tell us about the structure of the universe.One of the things that's really important about the crochet coral reef project is that while we have thousands of people - we've literally had eight or nine thousand people all over the world - making these crochet coral reefs, everywhere from London to New York to Abu Dhabi, we are teaching them about non-Euclidean mathematics leading into discussions of the fact that this is going to tell us about the structure of the universe.So here you have women - most of the audience for this project are women - doing a traditional feminine handicraft while having profound discussions about global warming, the foundations of mathematics and the structure of the cosmos.Again and again what we hear from our audience is how important it is to them that while they are doing a beautiful artistic, productive installation that they are also being taken seriously as intellectual beings, that they are engaging in discussions about mathematics and physics and being told that yes you can understand this.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
I want to ask you about the people doing it.  First of all what are their backgrounds and secondly, based on that, how do you communicate some of the things you've just suggested to them through the project?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
The backgrounds of the people are incredibly diverse.  They come from all walks of life.  There are university professors.  We've had quite a number of computer scientists.  One of our early contributors was doing a PhD in geophysics.  We have homemakers.  We have students.  We have women in shelters.  We've had several times people have done it with women in prisons.They come from a vast diversity of social spectrums.  The one common phenomena is that 99.99 per cent of them are women.  That really did surprise us.  We thought we'd have more percentage of men and I think that says something about the fact that these traditional handicraft things are still very much associated with women.How we go about communicating the scientific and mathematics content is twofold.  We have a very extensive website - crochetcoralreef.org for anyone who wants to look it up - which has a great deal of information about the mathematics and the science behind it.But whenever we're invited to do this project at galleries and museums all over the world we have extensive workshops and lectures where I talk about the maths and science behind it.  Within the context of the workshop, while we're teaching people to crochet, we also teach them about Euclidean and non‑Euclidean geometry.  Within the context of what could also be thought of as something like a sewing bee we actually are sitting around having lessons in mathematics.My sister and I have just completed a book on the project and that was because we wanted a place where we could have chapters on the maths, on the science, on the global warming, also on the community art aspects.
 SHANE HUNTINGTON
Margaret, the reef project obviously is not just about a reef but it's about the larger context of what's happening to our reefs globally due to the changing climate, due to the pollution of the atmosphere and so forth.  Can you speak to that part of it because you're not just teaching people about hyperbolic shapes but also about what's going on in the world?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Yes.  The reason that my sister and I started the reef project in 2005 was because that was the year that it really came into public consciousness in science magazines that coral reefs all over the world were being devastated by global warming.  So the link was made that global warming, its effects are not just in the future.  Coral reefs are like the canaries in the coalmine of the global ecosystem and the devastation to them is proof that global warming is here, now and it's real.But since 2005 another problem has emerged, which I'm sure many of your readers will have heard of, which is ocean acidification.  Much of the CO2 that we pump into our atmosphere is ultimately absorbed by the ocean.  So at first you think great, gets it out of the atmosphere, stops the blanketing effect.The problem is it turns the oceans more acidic, so much so that Smithsonian scientist Nancy Knowlton has talked about the coca cola ocean.  You know how if you put a tooth in a glass of coke it will dissolve it?  The CO2 in the sea changes the basic chemistry of the sea so much so that it makes it harder for reefs to literally form their bony exoskeletons and it is now known that if the oceans get too acidic reefs' coral polyps may not be able to form these bony exoskeletons at all.  That's something that if we don't change our practice that could happen in this century.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
You're listening to Up Close.  I'm Shane Huntington and my guest is science communicator Margaret Wertheim.  We're talking about new ways to communicate science.Margaret, much of the project we've been discussing, to create a crochet coral reef, is very much hands on.  Is there a difference in the way we impart knowledge by these hands on projects compared to the traditional methods of learning science of reading, watching, learning in those sort of non-physical forms?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
One of the things that we've found with the projects we do at the Institute for Figuring, like the crochet coral reef - and we've also done things like make giant models of fractals out of 50,000 or 60,000 business cards - is that people love this way of learning that's physically embodied.  Because rather than just telling them what the mathematics or the science says about something you effectively allow them to explore for themselves and to experience it.So when you're crocheting hyperbolic corals one of the things that's really fascinating is you really learn what hyperbolic means because when you do your first rows you maybe have 10 or 20 stitches on and they happen very quickly.  By the time you're doing the hyperbolic increase for a few hours you're finding hundreds of stitches on each row and it literally takes you 10 times as long.  So you have a very visceral experience of what hyperbolic actually means.We find that this embodied experiential method is extremely powerful for, as it were, giving people a visceral sense of the knowledge and this is in fact what scientists do.  The process of scientific discovery happens not through reading books but by sitting down and actually doing things with nature - pouring the chemicals into the beakers and seeing what happens or going out there and looking at real stars, seeing are they orbiting around their galactic centre in the way that my theory predicts?  Or, oh my gosh, they're not, they're actually doing something different from what the theory says.So the whole process of science is one that we actually try to mimic.  We actually see our methodologies of embodied learning as actually being parallels to the way scientists interact and discover nature.  It's only after the physical interaction often that you get the theory and so after the theory has been attained you can read about it in books, but somewhere along the line it has to intersect with the actual physical things.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
As you mentioned, the vast majority of people going through your programs are women.  Our big goal here is to enhance the number of women proportionally in the sciences and, I think even more importantly, is to get them into the upper echelons of command and control of those particular universities, institutes and so forth.You studied physics and mathematics in the 1970s.  What was that like especially as a woman back then?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Well, when I went to university, the University of Queensland, for most of the time that I was a student I was the only girl in most of the classes.  There was certainly no female professors.  I loved the subject matter so much that I didn't really think much about that but I can also say that I think there was a general feeling that there was a particular mindset that one had to have in relationship to science which I didn't necessarily share.  I'm not sure if that was because I was a woman or because even when I was a straightforward science student I was interested in the fact that science was imbedded in a wider culture and we never talked about that then.I think science educations have changed somewhat.  We do hear a lot more these days about how science is imbedded in a wider cultural context.  In fact the conference that I attended last week at the National Academy of Sciences was specifically on this subject - how does astronomy relate to things in the wider culture?  I think we need more of those kinds of discussions for scientists as well as the general public.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Even though we are changing - as you said, things are improving slightly - there is still a pretty big problem with women in science especially in the traditionally hard physical sciences - physics, mathematics.  What needs to happen at this point?  What sort of things should we put in place to have an actual big impact, the type of big impact we need?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
The answers to that Shane are multitudinous.  Just yesterday I was at a lunch hosted by the Veski Foundation here in Victoria to discuss this very question, how can we keep, retain and encourage women in the science pipeline?  There were 250 women in the room and similar sorts of issues kept being raised.A primary one was how can I be a research scientist and also have children when the real crunch time as a scientist is usually in your post-doc phase where you have to really prove yourself - publish lots of papers, publish leading edge research which often requires vast amounts of time in the lab?  How can you do that at the very age in your life when if you're going to be having children that's when you should be doing it?It's really necessary that we think about how we can have career structures in science that are more flexible.  Madeleine Albright, she was asked once, can women have everything?  She said, “Yes, they can have everything, they just can't have it all at once.”And I think this is a really important point.  We need to think about ways that we can have career structures that allow women to be first class researchers but also to have time to have children and this a problem all over the world.I heard these discussions 30 years ago when I first came out of university and we're still having these discussions now.  It's going to take systemic action and it's going to take action from leaders at the top of all fields - leaders at the top of universities, leaders at the time of government.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Presumably at the moment though in this issue our funding agencies are just making a choice and presumably making the wrong one?  We could choose right now not to compare like for like, a male and a female, where the female in question has had children within the last five years.  We don't choose to do that.  We choose to compare them one on one and surprise, surprise the male gets the funding.Is it not just a matter of highlighting this to a greater degree and saying enough's enough?  That term relative to opportunity needs to be, real not imagined.

MARGARET WERTHEIM
That is absolutely correct.  I think part of the problem here is that research science has become an incredibly competitive field.  That is in part because science has become, for the most part, a very expensive activity.  It costs hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to build a major telescope facility like the Very Large Array that's being built in Western Australia now.We've discovered all the easy and cheap things.  We're now at the stage of science where we are at the absolute forefront of observability, whether it's the observability of the large scale universe or the observability of far back in time, or the observability of very, very tiny scales.To get to these edges of knowledge we have to build vast and expensive machines.  Wherever vast amounts of money are involved that means we have to choose which questions we're going to answer because we can't build every fantastically high tech machine that scientists would like.  So there's tremendous competition in science for which projects are going to get done, and we're churning out a lot more PhDs than we have jobs for.It's a very, very difficult question to say, how are we as a society going to decide which projects we fund and therefore which researchers are going to get funded?  And in an environment where it does cost so much to do these experiments how can we, as it were, guarantee that there is some equity given to the people who might not have been able to spend a hundred hours a week every week from the minute they graduated?I think these are very non-trivial questions that, as a society, there aren't any easy answers.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Margaret, do you think there is an issue that is creating this problem to a greater degree in the physical sciences than in, say, the biological sciences?  We certainly seem to have a different proportion of women coming through although I would say at the top end there is still the same problem in both.  Is there something about the physical sciences that's a barrier or a constraint to women coming through?

MARGARET WERTHEIM
I think there is.  There are many answers to this but when women and girls are polled about what's important to them they do talk about wanting to be involved in something that they feel is benefiting humanity.  And it's very obvious if you're in biomedical research how that is of benefit to humanity.  It's a much more abstract question how does exploring what happened in the first nanosecond after the big bang or what's happening in galaxies 12 billion light years away, how is that of benefit to humanity?  It's a much more difficult and abstract question.Research does show that when girls are considering what careers they might get into, they do care about this issue of care.  I think that's actually a marvellous thing.  I don't think we should in any way look on that as a negative thing.Physics in that sense I think does have an intrinsic issue that it's just not self-evident to a lot of women and a lot of young girls, when considering their career choices, why choose that?  I think it's not because there's anything wrong with the girls.  It is an inherent question, why does it matter what happened in the first nanosecond after the big bang?I don't necessarily think that we have to have as a stated goal that in every field of science there will be gender equity but when women do gravitate into fields like physics and engineering huge amounts of intrinsic bias exist so that they don't get promoted as much and when they do they don't get paid as much.The goal is not to necessarily say, every field has to have half men and half women.  The goal I think is it encourage the women who want to be part of these fields and make sure that they are given as much opportunity, as much recognition and as much value as their male colleagues.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
Margaret, thank you very much for being our guest on Up Close today.

MARGARET WERTHEIM
Thank you Shane, it's been a pleasure.

SHANE HUNTINGTONMargaret Wertheim is an author, artist and science communicator from the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles.  If you'd like more information or a transcript of this episode head to the Up Close website.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on 9 December 2014.  Producers were Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel and Dr Daryl Holland.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.I'm Dr Shane Huntington.  Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  We're also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2014, the University of Melbourne.


show transcript | print transcript | download pdf