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AAAS Science Festival

February 17, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Join Michael Hopkin at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's yearly jamboree, where members of the world's biggest science society tackle weighty (and not-so-weighty) matters in the worlds of science, technology and medicine.

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Day 3: The quantum bloggers

It will not have escaped anyone's attention here that 2005 is World Year of Physics. It commemorates the pioneering work of Albert Einstein, who explained space and time a hundred years ago, and will mean lots more pioneering work by science writers, who now have to explain Albert Einstein.

The hottest property in the blogosphere as far as physicists are concerned is Quantum Diaries, where you can follow the escapades of a host of physicists around the world as they enjoy their year in the spotlight. Apparently the most popular one gets 3,000 hits a day - so either someone has a lot of friends, or fly-on-the-wall physics is more popular than I thought.

The AAAS bestowed its own best blog award on Carl Zimmer, author of The Loom, at a glitzy ceremony last night. I was meaning to ask him and his readers what it takes to write a prizeworthy blog (you know, just out of interest...), but the evening's organizers had laid on some musical entertainment in the form of Grammy Award-winning a cappella outfit Sweet Honey in the Rock, and I kept getting shushed whenever I tried to talk to anyone.

Day 2: "Don't remove something the patient will later wish you hadn't removed."

The Washington Metro system, a cavernously overengineered marvel of 1970s concrete brutalism, is currently adorned with posters bearing the phrase "Marriage - it works". And in the more liberal parts of town, they carry the handwritten footnote: "Good, then let gays do it."

The idea that science has anything to add to this debate might sound silly. But a session on 'gender-ambiguous people', the roughly 1 in 4,000 who are thought to be born with intermediate or unusual sexual characteristics, seemed to suggest that gay activists looking to advance their cause might find plenty of interest in scientific studies.

William Reiner of the University of Oklahoma described how most babies born with such ambiguity are arbitrarily assigned a sex by surgeons in consultation with the parents. But he described kids as young as four who, almost as soon as they could express themselves, declared them to be the opposite sex to the one chosen for them.

There are no easy answers, Reiner conceded, especially as the decision is not taken by the person who ultimately has to live with it. But knowledge is the key, he remarked. "It's only acceptable to intervene with someone's body if there is good evidence for what you do. And don't remove something the patient will later wish you hadn't removed."

Eric Vilain, a UCLA geneticist who hails from France, made the argument that such cases show how arbitrary laws are that restrict which sex you can marry. "Intersex patients are born with a disability that makes sexual intimacy difficult," he said. "If they find a life partner they want to marry, that is a great success, and they should not be impeded by arbitrary laws - because their sex was assigned randomly anyway."

We also heard from a lay speaker who was born with Kleinfelter's syndrome. Raised as a boy until the age of 14, she described the process that led to her current life as a lesbian. The irony is that as the law in Texas, where she grew up, does not allow her to change her birth certificate, she is legally entitled to marry a woman there.

But even the most liberal-minded can get bogged down in definitions. The session convener introduced a representative from the Intersex Society of North America as the partner of the woman sitting next to her, only to be met with the riposte: "I think my husband would be shocked to hear that!".

Day 2: Doing it for themselves?

The issue of gender equality in science was recently thrust back into the limelight by Harvard University chief Lawrence Summers, who sparked fury last month by suggesting that men are simply better at doing science and therefore justifiably get more of the jobs. But even if the outcry weren't still ringing in everyone's ears, a meeting of this size could hardly pass without addressing the issue of women in science.

A British group called the Athena Project took the opportunity to present results from a survey first released last year, which quizzed 6,500 UK researchers of both sexes to find out whether women really are missing out when it comes to climbing the career ladder in the lab. And it seems that women might be feeling unnecessarily put-upon.

Whereas men still outnumber women in the top British jobs, women are more successful when it comes to first applications. So at grass-roots level, the picture may be changing. But when it comes to promotion, more than 50% of women felt they did not get the necessary encouragement to go for a better job, and 44% said they felt as if men more often get the nod when seeking to move up in the world. Only 14% of men agreed, but perhaps that's hardly surprising.

But the situation might not be as disheartening for women as they seem to think, argues Jan Anderson of the University of East Anglia, who worked on the survey. Fewer women than men in the survey felt that their departments valued their contributions, and fewer of them signed up to speak at conferences, also viewed as a good way to bolster a promotion bid. But the results show that women are good at getting jobs when they go for them, so perhaps their very sense of adversity is one of the things holding them back.

So the message from the Athena Project, I guess, is keep your eyes on the prize. Maybe they should have thought a bit more about the name though. Not that taking inspiration from the goddess of wisdom isn't entirely appropriate. It's just that for unsuspecting surfers looking for the project on the web it's far too easy to end up at the Athena Institute , which doles out "science-based" advice for women seeking a husband. Or the Athena Agency, with its impressive selection of Russian brides. Here's the actual link to the Athena Project just to be on the safe side...

Day 1: Wild west dress code?

AAAS president Shirley Ann Jackson says in her welcome notes that the meeting will emphasize "connections, ties, links". Which makes Washington DC, a city riven by political division and resentment, a slightly strange choice of location. But there's no denying that they put on an impressive show in this town - the conference hotel was recently the scene of George W. Bush's inauguration ball. One only hopes that none of this week's events adopts the same tuxedo-and-cowboy-boots dress code.

First on the agenda is the unveiling of three new robots that walk like humans (see "Robots toddle along with human efficiency"). According to the preview, they require no more energy than a student wandering into class. Which, if my memory of my undergraduate days is anything to go by, is very little energy at all.

Day 1: Don't water it down

You're never far from politics in Washington. And the day after the Kyoto treaty came into force for the rest of the world, US climate scientists took another opportunity to tell us (read: George W. Bush) about the damage we've already done through global warming.

For a change, this was climate modeling backed up by actual measurements. Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography described his (federally funded) attempts to show how human activities have warmed the world's oceans over the past 40 years. Using a powerful computer model called the Parallel Climate Model, he and his colleagues simulated how ocean temperatures should look with or without the release of extra greenhouse gases and aerosols into the air by humans.

The two simulations gave very different verdicts. And seven million measurements of ocean temperatures over the same time period matched the one that included human activities.

That's hardly surprising, a fellow member of the press remarked to me, as we've all been writing about this stuff for years. But we're in the US capital, where it seems that scientists have to work particularly hard to get their message across. As my colleague pointed out: "It's amazing how loud Americans have to shout to make other Americans listen to this stuff."

Barnett certainly pulled out all the stops, as illustrated by his most eye-opening factoid. If global warming really has heated up the oceans as much as he calculates, then the total amount of extra energy dumped into the drink by mankind would power the state of California for 200,000 years.

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