Giving thanks.

This being the season, I’d like to take the opportunity to pause and give thanks.

I’m thankful for parents who encouraged my curiosity and never labeled science as something it was inappropriate for me to explore or pursue.

I’m thankful for teachers who didn’t present science as if it were confined within the box of textbooks and homework assignments and tests, but instead offered it as a window through which I could understand ordinary features of my world in a whole new way. A particular teacher who did this was my high school chemistry teacher, Mel Thompson, who bore a striking resemblance to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and would, on occasion, blow soap bubbles with a gas jet as we took quizzes, setting them alight with a Bunsen burner before they reached the ceiling. Mr. Thompson always conveyed his strong conviction that I could learn anything, and on that basis he was prepared to teach me anything about chemistry that I wanted to learn.

I’m thankful for the awesome array of women who taught me science as an undergraduate and a graduate student, both for their pedagogy and for the examples they provided of different ways to be a woman in science.

I’m especially thankful for my mother, who was my first and best role model with respect to the challenges of graduate school and becoming a scientist.

I’m thankful for the mentors who have found me and believed in me when I needed help believing in myself.

I’m thankful for the opportunity graduate school gave me to make the transition from learning knowledge other people had built to learning how to build brand new scientific knowledge myself.

I’m thankful that the people who trained me to become a scientist didn’t treat it as a betrayal when I realized that what I really wanted to do was become a philosopher. I’m also thankful for the many, many scientists who have welcomed my philosophical engagement with their scientific work, and who have valued my contributions to the training of their science students.

I’m thankful for my children, through whose eyes I got the chance to relive the wonder of discovering the world and its workings all over again. I’m also thankful to them for getting me to grapple with some of my own unhelpful biases about science, for helping me to get over them.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to make a living pursuing the questions that keep me up at night. I’m thankful that pursuing some of these questions can contribute to scientific practice that builds reliable knowledge while being more humane to its practitioners, to better public understanding of science (and of scientists), and perhaps even to scientists and nonscientists doing a better job of sharing a world with each other.

And, dear readers, I am thankful for you.

Kitchen science: evaluating methods of self-defense against onions.

I hate chopping onions. They make me cry within seconds, and those tears both hurt and obscure my view of onions, knife, and fingertips (which can lead to additional injuries).

The chemical mechanism by which onions cause this agony is well known. Less well known are effective methods to prevent or mitigate this agony in order to get through chopping the quantities of onions that need to be chopped for a Thanksgiving meal.

So, I canvassed sources (on Twitter) for possible interventions and tested them.

Self-defense against onions

Materials & Methods
1 lb. yellow onions (all room temperature except 1/2 onion frozen, in a plastic sandwich bag, for 25 min)
sharp knife
cutting board
stop-watch (I used the one on my phone)
video capture (I used iMovie)
slice of bread
metal table spoon
swim goggles
tea candle
portable fan

General procedure:
1. Put proposed intervention in place.
2. Start the stop-watch and start chopping onions.
3. Stop stop-watch when onion-induced tears are agonizing; note time elapsed from start of trial.
4. Allow eyes to clear (2-5 min) before testing next intervention.


Here are the interventions I tested, with the time to onion-induced eyeball agony observed:

Slice of bread in the mouth: 46 sec
Metal spoon in the mouth: 62 sec
Candle burning near cutting-board: 80 sec
Onion chilled in freezer: 86 sec
Fan blowing across cutting-board: 106 sec
Swim goggles: No agony!

Note that each intervention was tested exactly once, by a single experimental subject (me) to generate this data. If there’s any effect on an intervention due to being tested right after another particular intervention, I haven’t controlled for it here, and your onion-induced eyeball agony may vary.

Also, I did not test these interventions against a control (which here would be me chopping an onion with no intervention). So, on the basis of this experiment, I cannot tell you persuasively that the worst of these interventions is any better than just chopping onions with no interventions. (On the basis of my recent onion-chopping recollections, I can tell you that even the slice of bread in the mouth seemed to help a little — but THIS IS SCIENCE, where we use our tearing eyes to look askance at anecdata.)


The most successful intervention in my trials was wearing goggles. This makes sense, as the goggles provide a barrier between the eyeballs and the volatile chemicals released when the onions are cut.

The fan and the burning candle deal with those volatile chemicals a different way, either by blowing them away from the eyes, or … well, with the candle, the likely mechanism is murkier. Maybe it’s that those volatile compounds get drawn to the flame and involved in the combustion reaction there? Or that the compounds released by the candle burning compete with those released by the cut onion for access to the eyeball? However it’s supposed to work, compared to the barrier-method of the goggles, the candle method was less successful. Even the fan couldn’t keep some of those volatile compounds from getting to the eyeballs and doing their teary work.

Cooling the onion was somewhat successful, too, likely because at a lower temperature those compounds in the onion were less ready to make it into gas phase easily. There may be a side effect of this method for those chopping onions for culinary use, in that freezing long enough may change the texture of the onion permanently (i.e., even when returned to room temperature).

I am not sure by what mechanism a slice of bread or a metal spoon in the mouth is supposed to protect one’s eyes from the volatile compounds released by onions. Maybe it’s just supposed to distract you from your eyes? Maybe the extra saliva produced is supposed to get involved somehow? Who knows? However, note that it was possible for us to empirically test these methods even in the absence of a proposed mechanism.

If you have lots of onions to chop and don’t have a proper fume hood in your kitchen, a pair of goggles that makes a secure seal around your eyes can provide some protection from onion-induced eyeball agony. Failing that, chilling the onions before chopping and/or setting up a fan to blow across your chopping surface may help.

A guide for science guys trying to understand the fuss about that shirt.

This is a companion to the last post, focused more specifically on the the question of how men in science who don’t really get what the fuss over Rosetta mission Project Scientist Matt Taylor’s shirt was about could get a better understanding of the objections — and of why they might care.

(If the story doesn’t embed properly for you, you can read it here.)

The Rosetta mission #shirtstorm was never just about that shirt.

Last week, the European Space Agency’s Spacecraft Rosetta put a washing machine-sized lander named Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Landing anything on a comet is a pretty amazing feat, so plenty of scientists and science-fans were glued to their computers watching for reports of the Rosetta mission’s progress. During the course of the interviews streamed to the public (including classrooms), Project Scientist Matt Taylor described the mission as the “sexiest mission there’s ever been”, but not “easy”. And, he conducted on-camera interviews in a colorful shirt patterned with pin-up images of scantily-clad women.

This shirt was noticed, and commented upon, by more than one woman in science and science communication.

To some viewers, Taylor’s shirt just read as a departure from the “boring” buttoned-down image the public might associate with scientists. But to many women scientists and science communicators who commented upon it, the shirt seemed to convey lack of awareness or concern with the experiences of women who have had colleagues, supervisors, teachers, students treat them as less than real scientists, or science students, or science communicators, or science fans. It was jarring given all the subtle and not so subtle ways that some men (not all men) in science have conveyed to us that our primary value lies in being decorative or titillating, not in being capable, creative people with intelligence and skills who can make meaningful contributions to building scientific knowledge or communicating science to a wider audience.

The pin-up images of scantily clad women on the shirt Taylor wore on camera distracted people who were tuned in because they wanted to celebrate Rosetta. It jarred them, reminding them of the ways science can still be a boys’ club.

It was just one scientist, wearing just one shirt, but it was a token of a type that is far too common for many of us to ignore.

There is research on the ways that objectifying messages and images can have a significant negative effect on those in the group being objectified. Objectification, even if it’s unintentional, adds one more barrier (on top of implicit bias, stereotype threat, chilly climate, benevolent sexism, and outright harassment) on women’s participation.

Even if there wasn’t a significant body of research demonstrating that the effects are real, the fact of women who explicitly say that casual use of sexualizing imagery or language in professional contexts makes science less welcoming for them ought to count for more than an untested hunch that it shouldn’t make them feel this way.

And here’s the thing: this is a relatively easy barrier to remove. All it requires is thinking about whether your cheeky shirt, your wall calendar, your joke, is likely to have a negative effect on other people — including on women who are likely to have accumulated lots of indications that they are not welcomed in the scientific community on the same terms.

When Matt Taylor got feedback about the message his shirt was sending to some in his intended audience, he got it, and apologized unreservedly.

But the criticism was never just about just one shirt, and what has been happening since Matt Taylor’s apology underlines that this is not a problem that starts and ends with Matt Taylor or with one bad wardrobe choice for the professional task at hand.

Despite Matt Taylor’s apology, legions of people have been asserting that he should not have apologized. They have been insisting that people objecting to his wearing that shirt while representing Rosetta and acting as an ambassador for science were wrong to voice their objections, wrong even to be affected by the shirt.

If only we could not be affected by things simply by choosing not to be affected by them. But that’s not how symbols work.

A critique of this wardrobe choice as one small piece of a scientific culture that makes it harder for women to participate fully brought forth throngs of people (including scientists) responding with a torrent of hostility and, in some cases, threats of harm. This response conveys that women are welcome in science, or science journalism, or the audience for landing a spacecraft on a comet, only as long as they shut up about any of the barriers they might encounter, while men in science should never, ever be made uncomfortable about choices they’ve made that might contribute (even unintentionally) to throwing up such barriers.

That is not a great strategy for demonstrating that science is welcoming to all.

Indeed, it’s a strategy that seems to imbed a bunch of assumptions:

  • that it’s worth losing the scientific talent of women who might make the scientific climate uncomfortable for men by describing their experiences and pointing out barriers that are relatively easy to fix;
  • that men who have to be tough enough to test their hypotheses against empirical data and to withstand the rigors of peer review are not tough enough to handle it when women in their professional circle express discomfort;
  • that these men of science are incapable of empathy for others (including women) in their professional circle.

These strike me as bad assumptions. People making them seem to have a worse opinion of men who do science that the women voicing critiques have.

Voicing a critique (and sometimes steps it would be good to take going forward), rather that sighing and regarding the thing you’re critiquing as the cost of doing business, is something you do when you believe the person hearing it would want to know about the problem and address it. It comes from a place of trust — that your male colleagues aren’t trying to exclude you, and so will make little adjustments to stop doing unintentional harm once that they know that they’re doing it.

Matt Taylor seemed to understand the critique at least well enough to change his shirt and apologize for the unintentional harm he did. He seems willing to make that small effort to make science welcoming, rather than alienating.

Now we’re just waiting for the rest of the scientific community to join him.