Katy Huff

this life is in beta

Category: scientia

That Piece in the Atlantic

I finished reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic, and now I’m angry. So angry. For a while I couldn’t see through the blinding anger to know whether I was angry about some disagreement I have with her work or suddenly mystified by the big bad world. Having been in male-dominated academic science for most of my conscious life, the latter was unlikely.

Did I disagree with her?

She points out that work life balance with an ambitious job (tenured professor, world leader, etc.)  is basically impossible. Okay, agreed. She points out that women are failing to make it to the top. Only 9/190 heads of state are women. Sure, I’ve seen that. She suggests that videoconferencing and flexible work hours will help. Of course I agree. Virtual research meetings currently help me live in the same city as my partner.

Then, she claims that women are powerless against the biological desire to be caretakers.

Absolutely not.

Or are we?

The fear began to mount when she said,

Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them.

And I didn’t doubt the truth of it when she said,

In my experience, that is simply not the case.

But when she said,

Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

My heart caught on the word. Reflexive. So, this incredibly intelligent lady (former director of policy planning for the state department, tenured professor, respected former colleague of Hillary F*ing Clinton…) has decided she knows why women can’t juggle families at the same time as hyper ambitious jobs. Women are biologically tuned, evolutionarily and socially programmed, to choose the kids over the job… it’s a reflex.


Physiology . noting or pertaining to an involuntary response to a stimulus… any automatic, unthinking, often habitual behavior or response.

I’m angry, but not because she was wrong. I don’t know whether she’s wrong.

I’m a housecat baring its teeth at the lion, angry with the fear that I might be eaten alive.

On Terrible Ideas

In my experience, the mark of brilliance is an abundance of terrible ideas.

The more ideas a person pursues at any one moment, the more likely it is that one will turn out to be excellent, or popular, or temporally relevant.

This applies to science, invention, politics, romance… you name it.

In romance, it’s the shotgun method. The man who randomly chats up every reasonably attractive girl in the bar vastly increases his chances of hitting his target: the one who’s worthwhile to chat with.

In terms of science, it seems to me that the difference between prestigious scientists and regular people is just lots of hard work. The difference between hotshots and ordinary prestigious scientists on the other hand, seems to be entirely based on the sheer flux of the ideas they’re willing to pursue. If you need an example, think of DaVinci’s tomes of designs for flying devices that could never have flown.

So too with young hotshot professors, who have lots of terrible ideas and work hard to pursue all of them. In so doing, they astronomically increase the likelihood that one will eventually take off, with perfect timing, and revolutionize some research topic of great relevance. At that moment, these hotshots must drop everything else to ride the wave, or be drowned.

Nuclear Thought Experiment

I present the following thought experiment.

What would happen at the nuclear reactors of the world if all humans simultaneously disappeared? 

Generally speaking, most nuclear reactors would kindof gently keep running for a while and then will either scram and shut down quickly or gently cease to be critical and shut down a little more slowly. The question for me, is what happens first:

I. The core will eventually run out of reactivity:

A typical power reactor doesn’t require a human to physically do much at all, and (if the grid is behaving appropriately and there are no earthquakes or volcanos shaking the pool) it just plods along until it gradually consumes all of the reactivity available in its current configuration. That said, there is a reactor operator whom is a human responsible for adding reactivity to the reactor. This person is therefore required to physically turn a knob periodically while the reactor slowly consumes its fuel over the course of its 18 month cycle. Without the reactor operator there to bring the control rods out of the pool in increments over the course of reactor operation, the reactor will cease to be critical within a few days or a month, depending on the reactor configuration and the age of the fuel. In this scenario, the reactor is cooled at the same rate as ever, and slowly loses reactivity over the course of weeks or months until it is no longer critical. It will cease to sustain its reaction at that point and with the help of its typical cooling system, will be cool within a few weeks.

II. Chaotic grid behavior could cause a scram:

A scram is when the emergency shutdown sequence in a reactor is set in motion. By design, power reactors faced with any signs of danger ( increased heat, radiation, seismic activity, loss of power, etc. ) shut down effortlessly, automatically ramping up their alternate power supply to support active cooling systems that are automatically brought online. Once this happens, the reactor should be cool within a week or two.

In the no humans scenario, power loss is the likely culprit for tripping a scram. The likelihood of this depends on the other power sources on the grid, largely. Solar, wind, and gas are fairly automated, as I understand it, but what about coal? And what about the grid itself?  In the case of coal, its clear to me that without daily trainloads of coal (driven by humans) refueling them, these coal plants will cease to function normally very quickly. In the case of the grid itself, I have to admit I don’t know enough about how our domestic grid works to know exactly how automated it is, but presumably there’s some human in the chain necessary for power to keep going to the right places. Without that human, we’ll certainly eventually scram a lot of reactors.

III. What else could happen? Well, I can think of a few things, but let’s not, since they’ll all basically lead to the resolutions outlined above.

Nuclear Cartoonery


I was asked about what’s happening in Japan. Here’s a cartoon of  the fundamentals. For more information and live updates, I would suggest NEI or the IAEA .


To make electricity, we typically need hot steam. (The steam moves through a turbine and spins its blades, which spins a magnet, thereby moving electrons through wires coiled around the magnet.)

In nearly all modern power systems, steam moves through a turbine to create electricity.

Conveniently, a bundle of uranium rods in water happen make a lot of heat (see fission), so we can use that heat to make steam with clean water (see heat exchangers).

The reactor core is a 4m tall bundle of 20-50 thousand 1cm thin rods of uranium.

We keep a finite amount of contaminated coolant water flowing past the uranium within a thick, steel, pill shaped shell (see boiling water reactor vessel).

That shell is inside a very very thick containment building, the sole purpose of which is to contain potential accidents.

The containment building is typically inside a bigger outer building.

Cold water flows into the pressure vessel from a coolant system.

The coolant system is typically powered by the same electricity grid that powers your house.

What happens when the power goes out?

There’s always a backup coolant system, usually powered by a nearby gas turbine, diesel generator, or battery.

But, as the secondary coolant system might be weakened by chaos, it’s usually best to shut down the reactor anyway as soon as that sort of thing happens. This is done quickly and mechanically (see control rods).


This is the stage at which most of the affected Japanese reactors are right now.


The core will keep producing heat as it slowly shuts down. At this point, if the cold water doesn’t keep pumping, the water inside gets too hot, causing the pressure to increase. Pressure can be decreased by opening a valve in the pressure vessel. The hot reactor water has bubbles of radioactive gas, which at this point are released into the containment building. These gases include elements such as Hydrogen, which can be very explosive.


The Fukushima I reactor is at this stage right now. Hydrogen fission gasses seem to have collected, ignited, and destroyed the outer building structure, though the containment building appears to be intact. The weak secondary coolant system is being supplemented by cold seawater.


If any of this doesn’t happen fast enough, the fuel can melt. In a worst case scenario, this can complicate control of the reaction and endanger the structural integrity of the pressure vessel. However, the reaction can be controlled with the addition of boron, and even in the unlikely event that the pressure vessel is breached, the containment building will be largely unaffected.

On Women

Schopenhauer, Hegel and Nietzche agreed on little except that the female of our species lacks the capacity for genius, particularly genius in the sciences, mathematics, and formal logic. Modern society trusts these thinkers with higher order logic, and it seems, also our treatment of the second sex.

But, today is international women’s day, so today, let us rethink these men and their ilk.

In addition to this claim about genius, seemingly logical paths have been followed to other appalling conclusions. For instance, the notion that the female is equipped with inferior machinery to that of her male counterpart is a hard one for me to counter. After all, my female body is often slower, weaker, softer and all other manner of inferior to those of many males. Similarly I know few counterexamples to the happy observation that the ability to give birth has gifted women with a singular love for the care of others. The caveat, of course, is that seemingly predisposed to this genre of selflessness and tenderness, females often take up a place in society all too subservient and docile.

Certainly, successful arguments for and against each of these notions may be and have been made, but I am not equipped to make them. Let us speak here of genius.

And of science, of physics, of math, let us also speak of these skills.

A very intelligent cartoonist pointed out, biology is just chemistry, and chemistry is just physics, and physics, of course, is all just math. Ten women have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, four in Chemistry, two in Physics and zero have won the Field’s medal, the Nobel Prize of Math, as it were. With this, we’re left with a plethora of evidence that seems to point to a notion that women are better equipped for the derivative sciences than the fundamental ones.

Clearly, women don’t excel at the ‘hard sciences’, by any measure, in great numbers. However, there are certainly exceptions to be found in the Hypatias and Curies of the world, clearly geniuses in mathematics and fundamental physics. Plenty of women, Lise Meitner, Gertrude Goldhaber, Grace Hopper, have been very near the top, but in a genderless Olympics of science, women rarely win the gold medal.

Of course it’s not innate though. Chemistry is not so unlike physics. It’s full of kinetics and thermodymanics, and has a lot of conservation laws, quirky units, atomic scale phenomena, etc. So, then, with their similarities, why have women excelled in chemistry over the last many decades but continue to blush at physics, math, and computer science?

To wrap this up, I’ll simply direct you to Bertrand Russell. He did not think that “all genius will out”. Rather, he imagined that many of the world’s geniuses are suppressed by unsympathetic environments in their youth, and we never know them.

The environment of today is one with pathetic female media presence, redundant negative reinforcement, stereotype threat, etc. at every turn. Here’s hoping we’ll someday test Russell’s theory of suppressed genius by enacting the counterfactual, a sympathetic environment.

It’s midnight at the office…

… and I ain’t got no photon-induced thermal stress coefficient.


Sine Wave

Walked across campus instead of biking, just for kicks, and it was noteworthy as usual.
A tall man with ever saltier salt and pepper hair walked from the chemistry building intently text messaging. His eternal inability to walk and text at the same time not only meant I could identify him from across the quads but that his pace slowed and stopped then picked up again then slowed and stopped three times before I caught up to him and nuzzled his startled sweatshirt. We commiserated on the difficulty of text messaging and jumped headfirst into our frenzied friendship for the furlong between chemistry and crerar.

Luka only sees me a few times a quarter, so we have the bizarre experience of seeing each other’s lives in monthly digests. We’re close though, because for some reason we talk only about science and romance.

The last he saw me, my misty eyes and I were leaving the scene of a late night break-up, so in the span of five minutes I updated him to all the science and romance in my last month and a half… and as I did, of course, I beamed.

… and he called me a sine wave.

so now I want nothing more than to review myself in monthly digests in the hopes I might determine my phase, my amplitude, my intercept, my frequency…
Imagine the possibilities… if I had a frequency… I could resonate.