Saturday, May 17, 2008

Antea and the Green Flash

The European Southern Observatory at Paranal, Chile is location of the villain's lair in the next James Bond movie. They send us this photo taken May 2 of the "green flash." This phenomenon is occasionally seen at sunset, more often at places with stable atmosphere and free of light pollution like Paranal. The flash is said to result from interplanetary grains of dust, reflecting sunlight like tiny moons.

The green flash also inspires the epilogue to Roger Penrose's excellent book THE ROAD TO REALITY. Antea is a postdoc from a small town in Italy, possessed of remarkable artistic and mathematical talents. Her own ideas, not fully formed, are at variance with those of her colleagues. Like many others, she is deeply puzzled by the problem of quantizing gravity. One evening while watching the sunset Antea witnesses the green flash. "Then a remarkable thought overtook her..."

Penrose does not say what happens later, but from experience we can guess:

After publishing her idea, Antea found increasing difficulty getting postdocs. She wandered the world for years without landing a permanent job. Her colleagues became deeply suspicious of her research. As the mathematics were complex and unconventional, few took the time to understand it. In public forums she was peppered with more questions than a PhD defense. Critics probed to find some tiny mathematical flaw and claim her work was invalid.

After getting a position at a small college and teaching for more years, Antea found that getting tenure was very unlikely. Later she would find that jealous colleagues had spread outrageous rumours about her work. It would have been far easier to follow fashionable ideas like String Theory or Inflation. She found that the image of an attractive woman was not what the university sought for a physicist.

Despite all the challenges, Antea did not let her spirits sag. She happily answered questions about her work even from those she thought hostile. Antea had been inspired as a child by stories about Galileo and Isaac Newton. She continued because math and nature told her she was on the right track. She was surprised and saddened when others resorted to attacks, but more for their sake than hers. After many years she woke to find that her supporters were the top people in science and detractors had disappeared into the woodwork.

Antea's odd thought led to physics books being rewritten everywhere. Rumour has it that Antea is still happy and optimistic as a teenager. In the worst of times even detractors noted her positive personality. In a time when pessimism was the fashion, she believed in the future. Her belief enabled Antea to go where no one had dared go before.


Blogger Kea said...

What a great story. Do you have any links to more about Antea?

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read that epilogue to Penrose's book. It's a nice fairytale. Women in general - including many female scientists - do tend to spend a lot of their spare time painting their fingernails and applying makeup, which men don't.

Men are therefore free to grapple with important problems in their spare time. This may be the reason why the majority of scientific discoveries have been due to men, not women. Male chauvinism didn't deter physicists like Marie Curie and Emmy Noether, but they had a lot of difficulties to overcome.

I think anonymity in science is the wrong way around. Instead of having anonymous chicken peer-reviewers, I think papers submitted should be anonymous (the authors names and institutions should be blanked out and replaced by a submission number), and the peer-reviewers should be named and shamed if they try to reject papers on non-scientific grounds.

11:19 PM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

HI Kea: I wish Penrose had continued the story. He might have written about the many challenges to women in science, especially women with unusual ideas.

Since Antea was trying to link gravity with quantum mechanics, perhaps she found on the way that h and c change in inverse proportion. That simple idea escapes the most educated big brains (including Starts With a Bang) but would occur to a creative woman like Antea or Kea. It's a link between GR and QM.

10:05 AM  
Blogger CarlBrannen said...

Unfortunately, the time men save by not painting their toenails gets spent cruising the internet for "pictures", watching sports on TV, and trying to figure out where their hair went.

I'm back from my presentation at APSNW 2008. I put a lot of slides past the audience and got feedback mostly in the form of head nods or shakes. Accordingly, I've figured out which of my arguments are stronger and which need retuning and will put up a blog post with the improvements when I get a chance.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

I totally admire and support (emotionally and intellectually) women who pursue their passion in science in spite of obvious difficulties. Is there anything of a parallel between Antea and riofrio?

11:28 AM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

Congratulations, carl. I too am often without the use of modern conveniences like the printing press. If you address enough people in person it will spread the idea.

Is that ed minchau? I am writing about what befalls any woman with unusual ideas.

1:20 PM  
Blogger CarlBrannen said...

When I was a grad student at U. Cal. Irvine, we would regularly go down to the beach to look for the green flash. Or maybe it was to drink beer and ride bicycles. In any case, as far as I know, none of us ever saw the flash.

If I'd realized that it was so small it might have been easier to convince myself that I'd seen it.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

No I am not Ed Minchou. I am a retired electronics engineer with an interest in physics. I am also a fan.

7:05 AM  
Anonymous Sam said...

I had forgotten about Penrose's book, I have a copy at home, but I think I have only made it as far as chapter 16 before something more pressing came up.

2:01 PM  
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