Archive for the LGBT Category

R.I.P. James Randi (1928-2020)

Posted in LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 22, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday I heard the sad news of the death, at the age of 92, of stage conjuror, humanist and famous debunker of charlatans, James Randi.  I guess quite a few of my readers won’t have heard of him, but he was a really interesting character. His real name was Randall James Hamilton Zwinge and he was born in Toronto. He was a professional magician (i.e. a conjuror) with the stage name “The Amazing Randi” who spent most of the last four decades debunking psychics and exposing fraudulent claims of the paranormal. Those of you out there old enough to remember the 1970s will recall the  “paranormalist”  Uri Geller being a household name for his numerous TV appearances bending spoons, stopping clocks and generally exhibiting supernatural powers. Randi exposed these as simple conjuring tricks, and got himself sued for his trouble.

There’s an interesting connection between the Uri Geller phenomenon and physics. In the 1970s, when Geller was at the height of his popularity, a physicist called John G. Taylor took great interest in him and the things that he appeared to be able to do. Professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London, Taylor was (and remains) a very distinguished scientist and was the first to take the paranormal phenomena displayed by Geller seriously. When Uri Geller visited Britain in 1974, Taylor conducted scientific tests of Geller’s feats of metal bending using all the paraphernalia of modern science, including a Geiger counter. Taylor also experimented with some of the children and adults who claimed to manifest psychic abilities after seeing Uri Geller’s appearances on British television programs. Taylor’s interest in such phenomena was not only in its scientific validation, but also in investigation of the way in which such phenomena take place and the nature of the forces involved. He suggested the phenomena may be some low-frequency electromagnetic effect generated by human beings.

Through the 1970s Taylor was regarded as fully endorsing the paranormal metal bending of Uri Geller, but gradually has made more guarded statements; then in 1980 he largely retracted his support for Geller’s paranormal talents. In 1974 he wrote

The Geller effect—of metal-bending—is clearly not brought about by fraud. It is so exceptional it presents a crucial challenge to modern science and could even destroy the latter if no explanation became available.

Taylor then spent three years of careful investigation of such phenomena as psychokinesis, metal bending, and dowsing, but could not discover any reasonable scientific explanation or validation that satisfied him. He was particularly concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for such phenomena. After failing to find this he did not believe that there was any other explanation that would suffice. Most of his experiments under laboratory conditions were negative; this left him in a skeptical position regarding the validity of claimed phenomena.

In contrast to the endorsement in his first book, Superminds, he published a paper expressing his doubts in a paper in Nature (November 2, 1978) titled “Can Electromagnetism Account for Extra-sensory Phenomena?” He followed this with his book Science and the Supernatural (1980) in which he expressed complete skepticism about every aspect of the paranormal. In his final chapter he stated:

We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. In the main, only poor experimentation [including his own], shoddy theory, and human gullibility have been encountered.

Taylor’s investigation of the Geller effect is interesting because it shows that physics doesn’t have all the answers all the time, particularly not when the phenomena in question involve people. Physics research proceeds by assuming that Nature is not playing tricks, and that what can be measured must represent some sort of truth. This faith can be easily exploited by a charlatan. James Randi always argued that scientists aren’t the right people to detect tricks performed by people: this is best left to tricksters. There’s no reason to believe that a theoretical physicist – no matter how brilliant – can spot the way a clever deception is carried out. The best person to see that is a magician, someone like James Randi. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that…

I wrote a blog post about James Randi about a decade ago because it was not until then, when he had reached the age of 81 that he revealed to the public that he was gay. I feel a bit sad that took him so long to step out of the closet, but I’m sure he was glad he made the decision. From wikipedia I learn that he married his partner José Alvarez in 2013. I hope their time together was happy, and send my condolences to José  on his loss.

Rest in peace, James Randi (1928-2020).

Thirty Years On

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , on October 9, 2020 by telescoper

Every now and then I use this blog to mark a personal anniversary, but I’m a bit late with this one. It was on October 1st 1990 that I started work at what was then Queen Mary & Westfield College of the University of London on Mile End Road. Here’s my staff ID card which, for some reason, I have kept for over thirty years.

I was to work there until the end of 1998, after which I moved to Nottingham.

My position came about because I had applied unsuccessfully for a permanent lectureship at QMW, but this was a kind of consolation prize. I had strong personal reasons for wanting to move to London at that time and was very happy with the outcome. I only had two years’ postdoc experience at the time and wasn’t sufficiently experienced for a permanent job so wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get it. In fact it went to Mike Thompson, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago.

The job I moved for was a five year fixed-term position that was a mixture of a postdoctoral research fellowship and a temporary lectureship in the ratio 30:70 so I had a teaching load that was lighter than that of a lecturer but heavier than that of a postdoc. As the card indicates I was in the School of Mathematical Sciences and because my research interests including a statistical component, I mainly taught statistics. In fact, the first course I lectured was on Time Series Analysis, which was to a mixed class of mathematics and statistics students. A couple of years into this position I applied for and was awarded an Advanced Fellowship from the (then) Science & Engineering Research Council, which meant that QMW got me for nothing for 5 years and my reward for that was a permanent position at the end of the fellowship.

For some reason – probably because the terms of employment were a little complicated – I kept the correspondence about the job. In particular I note that my starting salary was a princely £14,148 per annum (including £1,767 london weighting). That’s about what a PhD student’s stipend is these days!

I look back on my time at Queen Mary with great fondness. I learnt a huge amount not only from my boss, Ian Roxburgh, who had managed to set up the job in the first place and was very clever at things like that thanks to his somewhat Machiavellian nature.

When I visited QMW to talk informally to Ian about the job, he asked me why I wanted to move to London. “Do you have a girlfriend here?” he inquired. I said “no”. “A boyfriend, then?” he responded. I wasn’t sure whether he meant it as a joke, and thought it was a bit inappropriate, but didn’t hesitate in saying “yes” in response. I wondered whether this would cause any issues but it didn’t. Being openly gay didn’t cause me any problems there at all, in fact.

P. S. Here is the staff list on the letterhead of my appointment letter. An illustrious collection, though the gender balance could have been better. All by now have either retired or moved to other institutions, though I have stayed in touch with several of them through the RAS Club.

Exciting new changes at LGBTQ+ STEM

Posted in LGBT on June 5, 2020 by telescoper

There are some changes at the LGBTQ+ Stem site. In particular they are looking for contributors for their new blog. See this post for details.

LGBTQ+ STEM

Alex Bond & Izzy Jayasinghe

It seems impossible to write about diversity, equity and inclusion, in STEM or in broader society, without thinking about the horrendous racism and police brutality going on in the US, or the impact of Covid-19 on BAME health care workers in the UK. STEM is political, and STEM is people. You simply cannot be for diversity in STEM and not angry, upset, or scarred right now. And that’s ok.

We’re announcing some changes for us as an organization, in what we do, and how we do it. Last November, we celebrated our 5th anniversary and we sought feedback about what folks would like to see from us in the years to come. The feedback has been incredibly helpful, and we’ll be rolling out some new things and addressing some of the issues raised to make us a better, more inclusive organization. We need to be…

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Welcome to Pride Month 2020!

Posted in Covid-19, LGBT, Politics on June 1, 2020 by telescoper

Once again it’s time for a month of LGBTQ Pride.

Although the main Dublin Pride event has been cancelled this year because of the Covid-19 outbreak, there are still a number of virtual events going on.

Thus year more than any other Pride gives us an important opportunity to express solidarity to all grieving and fighting for a better world in the face of monstrous injustices such as the murder of George Floyd.

That includes those of us who are white and gay acknowledging that systematic racism exists and that by keeping quiet and doing nothing we are, however unintentionally, complicit in it.

LGBTQ+ STEMinar 2020 – The Conference Photograph!

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , on February 17, 2020 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog – both of them – will be aware that last month I attended the 2020 LGBTQ+ STEMinar at the University of Birmingham. This was fifth of these and the largest one of these do far, with around 250 participants. Anyway, I’ve just received delivery of the conference photo!

You’ll see me on the extreme left about half way up. Of course there are fewer than 250 in the photograph: not everyone wanted to be in it (for a variety of reasons).

Anyway, the next one of these will be in 2021 in Oxford where, I am told, there is also a university.

LGBTQ+ STEMinar 2020

Posted in LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 10, 2020 by telescoper

Well I made it to Birmingham (after getting up at 3.30am!) and to the Leonard Deacon Lecture Theatre in the School of Medicine at the University thereof for this year’s LGBT+ STEMinar (the 5th of a series that started in 2016).

This is the largest one of these do far, with around 250 participants, and an impressive array of sponsors:

One of the great things about the LGBTSTEMeminar (apart from the feeling of being amongst ‘family’) is the opportunity to hear talks about fields other than your own, which I am enjoying very much.

Ooh. I forgot to mention that next year’s event will also be in the Midlands, at Oxford University.

Cardiff Pride!

Posted in Cardiff, LGBT with tags , on August 24, 2019 by telescoper

I got up early this morning to fly back to Cardiff in time for Cardiff Pride, this being the twentieth such event in Cardiff. I was a bit worried I wouldn’t make here before the start of the Parade but I did, with time to spare. St Mary’s Street was quite a sight with all the rainbow flags.

The parade gathered on North Road this year before it got moving and it extended all the way from the castle to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama:

This is the reflection in one of the windows of the RWCMD building..

Not being in the parade myself, when it got going I moved to St Mary Street to watch it go by. It took so long for the front to arrive I started to worry something had happened, but eventually it appeared..

I watched a while enjoying the colourful sights and fun sounds before walking to Pontcanna for lunch.

It’s a lovely warm and sunny day for the carnival and concerts that take place this afternoon and evening so I’m sure everyone there will have a great time!

Me? I’m obviously too old for that sort of thing and will celebrate the occasion with appropriate indoor activities (if you know what I mean) but the least I can do is wish Cardiff Pride a very happy 20th birthday!

It’s LGBT+ STEM Day! #LGBTSTEMDAY

Posted in LGBT with tags , , on July 5, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are again at LGBT+ STEM Day. This time last year I was giving a talk in Cardiff and in my post about that event I expressed a hope that we might be able to have a similar one in Maynooth this year. Alas that didn’t come to pass, and today I am just having a day off, but in any case I thought I’d express my gratitude to all the individuals and organizations responsible for setting up and supporting this day and send my best wishes to everyone celebrating it wherever you are!

Stonewall, Fifty Years On

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , , , on June 28, 2019 by telescoper

Well, it’s 28th June 2019 which means that it is exactly 50 years to the day since the Stonewall Riots, the event commemorated each year by the annual Pride celebrations. The Dublin Pride Parade is tomorrow, actually. My Facebook and twitter feeds have been filled with rainbows all week, and it is nice to to see so many people, straight and gay, celebrating diversity and equality. I’m a bit more cynical about the number of businesses that have tried to cash in on  Pride but even that is acceptance of a sort. It remains to be seen how many of them are fair weather friends. I’m sure I’m not the only person who sees the dark clouds of bigotry threatening the fragile and precious rainbow.

 

It’s all very different from the first Pride March I went on, way back in 1986. That was a much smaller scale event than yesterday’s, and politicians were – with very few exceptions – notable by their absence.

It was in the early hours of the morning of Saturday June 28th 1969 that the Stonewall Riots took place in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. There are few photographs and no film footage of what happened which, together with some conflicting eyewitness accounts, has contrbuted to the almost mythical status of these demonstations, which were centred on the Stonewall Inn (which, incidentally, still exists).  What is, I think, clear is that they were the spontaneous manifestation of the anger of a community that had simply had enough of the way it was being treated by the police. Although it wasn’t the first such protest in the USA, I still think it is also the case that Stonewall was a defining moment in the history of the movement for LGBT equality.

One of the myths that has grown up around Stonewall is that the Stonewall Inn was a place primarily frequented by drag queens and it was the drag queens who began the fight back against intolerable  police harassment. That was the standard version, but the truth is much more complicated and uncertain that that. Nevertheless, it is clear that it was the attempted arrest of four people – three male (cross-dressers) and one female – that ignited the protest. Whether they led it or not, there’s no doubt that drag queens played a major role in the birth of the gay liberation movement. Indeed, to this day, it remains the case that the “T” part of the LGBT spectrum (which I interpret to include Transgender and Transvestite) is often neglected by the rest of the rainbow.

I have my own reasons for being grateful for drag queens. When I was a youngster (still at School) I occasionally visited a gay bar in Newcastle called the Courtyard. I was under age for drinking alcohol let alone anything else – the age of consent was 21 in those days – but I got a kick out of the attention I received and flirted outrageously without ever taking things any further. I never had to buy my own drinks, let’s put it that way.

Anyway, one evening I left the pub to get the bus home – the bus station was adjacent to the pub – but was immediately confronted by a young bloke who grabbed hold of me and asked if I was a “poof”. Before I could answer, a figure loomed up behind him and shouted “Leave him alone!”. My assailant let go of me and turned round to face my guardian angel, or rather guardian drag queen. No ordinary drag queen either. This one, at least in my memory, was enormous: about six foot six and built like a docker, but looking even taller because of the big hair and high heels. The yob laughed sneeringly whereupon he received the immediate response of a powerful right jab to the point of the chin, like something out of boxing manual. His head snapped back and hit the glass wall of a bus shelter. Blood spurted from his mouth as he slumped to the ground.

I honestly thought he was dead, and so apparently did my rescuer who told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell away. Apart from everything else, the pub would have got into trouble if they’d known I had even been in there. I ran to the next stop where I got a bus straightaway. I was frightened there would be something on the news about a violent death in the town centre, but that never happened. It turns out the “gentleman” concerned had bitten his tongue when the back of his head hit the bus shelter. Must have been painful, but not life-threatening. My sympathy remains limited.

I think there’s a moral to this story, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide what it is.

Anyway, back to Pride. In a post a few days ago I referred to the view that since we now, for example, ave equal marriage then it’s basically all done, isn’t it? There’s now no discrimination. You can stop talking about LGBT+ matters and `just be a scientist’.

That, I’m afraid, is bollocks. We may have equal marriage but, though welcome, by no means represents some sort of utopia. Society is still basically a patriarchy, configured in a way that is profoundly unfair to many groups of people, so there are still many challenges to be fought. Hate crimes against LGBT+ – especially transgender – people have rocketed. The rise of fascism around the world is encouraging bigots to target minorities and other vulnerable groups with their agenda of hate. Unless we keep pushing for a truly inclusive society there is a real danger that the rights we have won could easily be rolled back. In fact, you could really say that it’s really just the start. We still need to stand up for ourselves just like the heroes of 1969.

Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists

Posted in LGBT with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2019 by telescoper

Had things gone to plan, today I would have been at the premises of the Royal Society of Chemistry in Burlington House in London for the launch of Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ physical scientists a report by the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry resulting from a survey that I blogged about last year. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy here in Maynooth to fly to London and back for the launch so I’ll have to restrict myself to thanking these organizations for undertaking this project and pointing out that you can download, and perhaps even read, the resulting report here.

This report demonstrates that, while we have come a long way, we still have to do a lot more to make sure that LBGT+ people feel welcome and valued in the physical sciences.

A majority (70%) of the survey respondents believed that the working environment was improving for LBGT+ members of the physical science community but as many as 25% had at some point considered leaving the physical sciences due to discrimination.

I have also taken the liberty of including below a few infographics summarizing some of the main findings of the report.

One of the responses to the survey reads

I doubt this view is uncommon among heterosexual scientists but I disagree with it. The idea that no scientist has any identity at all in the workplace other than `scientist’ is quite ridiculous. Scientists are human beings, and humans are extremely diverse. I doubt if anyone likes to be defined by a single characteristic – we are all complex individuals subject to a whole host of different influences – but, to create an inclusive environment where the best scientists can flourish and the best science can be done, we need to make sure everyone feels comfortable. If we can do that it won’t just benefit our LGBT+ colleagues, but everyone in our workplaces.

Do read the report!