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Everyday science

Everyday science

The admiral of the string-theory wars, add-male-author-gate, the Einstein font and more…

08 May 2015 Hamish Johnston
Xxxx Particle Zoo. (Courtesy: CERN)

By Hamish Johnston

Peter Woit is lauded by some for having the courage to speak the truth to the physics establishment, while others see him as an enemy of science. Woit writes the Not Even Wrong blog, which has the same title as a controversial book he once wrote about the merits of string theory. In an article in the latest issue of Nautilus, Bob Henderson profiles Woit and his three decades of doubt over various incarnations of the theory that culminated about 10 years ago in the “string wars”. Henderson’s article is called “The Admiral of the String Theory Wars” and provides a fascinating insight into how the rise of string theory caused Woit to switch from physics to mathematics and his relationships with string theorists – some of whom work in the same building as Woit at Columbia University.

Over at BuzzFeed, there is a good discussion of the “Add-male-author-gate” controversy that arose recently when the geneticist Fiona Ingleby of the University of Sussex was told by a reviewer that her scientific paper would benefit from her finding “one or two male biologists to work with”. With foot firmly in mouth, the reviewer went on to suggest that papers by male authors tend to benefit from the “marginally better health and stamina” enjoyed by men. The fallout so far is that PLOSone, the journal to which Ingleby submitted her work, has asked the editor involved to resign and removed the reviewer from its list of experts. Beyond the appalling sexism of the incident, one has to ask if anyone actually read the reviewer’s report before it was accepted.

Elsewhere in the Red Folder, we give you a great profile of Julie Peasley, who in 2008 founded Particle Zoo – the maker of small plush toys based on subatomic particles. Peasley, who has no formal training in physics, was inspired to create cuddly quarks, muons and gravitons after seeing a popular lecture about the Big Bang by Lawrence Krauss. Peasley works alone and can make up to 100 toys a week. Not surprisingly, there was a boom in sales when the Higgs boson was discovered and Peasley says she is looking forward to the discovery of the next new particle. It will be interesting to see if the Large Hadron Collider – which saw its first collisions of the year this week – is forthcoming.

Finally, if your colleagues aren’t taking you seriously, then perhaps you could start sending e-mails in a new font that mimics the handwriting of Albert Einstein. The font is being developed by the German typographer Harald Geisler, who first combed through samples of the great man’s writings to gain an understanding of both how the physicist formed his letters and the pen strokes he used to write them. Geisler’s project is described in an article in Fast Company magazine written by John Brownlee and Geisler says of Einstein that “He was a thinker outside of mainstream physics, and this was also reflected in his style of writing”.

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