Monday, June 29, 2009

Gender, and other things

So time for my inevitable post about gender identity. Been a while brewing, but probably not any better for it. Was the topic of conversation of a sort the other night and today (well, yesterday technically) a friend gave me a "trans ally" badge (or "not a jerk" badge as someone put it).So now is as good as ever.

For those you don't know (and I doubt anyone actually reading this doesn't) my beloved partner/fiance/baby-father is bi-gender (the hyphen is useful, or people might think one if talking about Blefuscudians or something).  As sie puts it - somedays she's a girl, other days he's a boy. Gendered pronouns get a bit confusing as one would imagine - several people (myself included, unfortunately) tend to default to male pronouns (having been used to knowing him as male for so long), others default to female which she would probably prefer. And often we use gender neutral pronouns (specifically "sie" and "hir"), which I will use in this blog post at least.

And to be perfectly honest, the pronouns issue is the biggest problem for me. We always used to joke that sie was more of a girl than I was and that we got the gender roles the wrong way round in our house. The revelation (to both of us, as sie told me as soon as sie got hir own head sorted) a few years ago didn't really change the way I viewed hir or felt about hir. I think that in itself took me by surprise more - I had the feeling that I ought to be more bothered or at least have some opinion. But no, it was just a "ok then" and some effort to try and remember and adjust my language accordingly. When sie "came out" more recently, I was nervous for hir, but as more and more people were told and accepted it just as naturally as I had, and hir confidence and general happiness increased I was happier too and brimming with pride that sie'd overcome a major obstacle (more internal than external) and was becoming the person sie always should have been. Even the name change wasn't as much of a problem as I'd anticipated, and our son just accepted it in the way kids just do. He's less accepting of the idea that his daddy might be a girl occasionally, but then he also says boys can't have long hair, so what does he know? He's five - he's still learning about this gender thing.

But then, aren't we all? Gender isn't about stereotypes after all. While my beloved delights in nail varnish and can chat happily with workmates about clothes, I really don't grok the whole make-up thing at all. And, sure, clothes can be pretty, and so can jewellry, but ultimately I just want something to keep me warm/cover me up so I can go out in public. The only clothes I'm likely to get excited about are Last Exit To Nowhere t-shirts or the like. It was my fiance who started me wearing skirts and tighter fitting clothes, and admitting being a girl wasn't all bad. I think if not for hir I'd still be wearing geeky t-shirts and tracksuit bottoms. And for every "typical woman" behaviour I engage in, I bet I can find a "typical male" one as well. I don't really "forget" I'm a woman, I just joke I do, but I've never really considered it an important part of my identity, and hearing feminists talk makes me wonder if I'm missing something. Yet apparently I'm a cisgendered woman. I see no reason why I shouldn't be.

And I have no idea what it really is about. I'm hardly an expert and am not in the right frame of mind at the moment to even begin to guess. Because really gender is just another label, and labels are neither a good nor a bad thing inherently but exist mostly for societal convenience. Mostly, but not exclusively. Some people, like my SO, and to a lesser extent myself, feel the need to apply labels to things, including themselves, in order to better understand them. And of course one always want to be able to understand as much as possible, especially oneself. So labels like gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc are as much about a person defining themself as declaring "This is who I am" as they are about society or PTB categorizing people and declaring "This is who you are". Which is why a limited set of labels, defined by the relevant authority, is a bad thing. Which is why binary gender is a bad thing. And forcing people to choose one, when they'd much rather choose both, or neither, or something else entirely, is not only a bad thing from a personal liberty point of view, it also misses out on potentially important information about the sheer variety of people that can and do exist. (I hope that makes sense.)

I drifted off-topic slightly I think. It's late, I'm getting tired as the coffee wears off, and I doubt I really have anything useful left to say. My point was intended to be that I don't judge people by labels, most people I know don't either, and that a person doesn't really change just because the label changes. I call a person by the name they want to be known by as that is the polite  thing to do. Likewise, I refer to people by the pronoun set they choose, the title they choose, whatever, because that is simply the polite thing to do. I accept that people have the right to be who they want to be, regardless of whether I understand why they feel that way, and get rather angry at other people who think it's any of their business. I guess that's why I qualified for a "not a jerk" badge.

And just because I muttered a bit about labels - here's the list I think apply to me. I'm a cisgendered, heteroflexible, heterosocial, atheistic, liberal, social phobic, chronic depressive, female geek. Although once again I almost forgot the "female" part. Maybe I do forget I'm a woman occasionally.

tl;dr - gender is confusing, people are who they are.
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Monday, June 15, 2009

An Idiot's Guide to My Work (Part One)

Idiot's Guide as in a Guide written by an Idiot, you understand. I don't expect it to be helpful to other Idiots.

So I'm busy avoiding writing a thesis entitled Rational R-matrices and the Exceptional Lie Algebras. (Actually I'm not being too successful at the avoidance: I might even be nearly finished. In a month or two.) As "algebra" is a word that seems to make most people's eyes glaze over, I think I'll leave all the maths for a bit and talk instead about particle physics. But not the hard bits, so don't worry.

Prevailing scientific wisdom states that everything is made up of small particle-like things (only particle-like because of quantum, y'see). I'm not going to delve into it, because it's largely irrelevant and I don't really understand it all myself. In fact, all I really need is for you to believe that people might be interested in what particles do and how they interact, like in places like CERN where they smash particles into one another to see what they get.

Now, as theorists, we try and say something about what happens when particles collide like this. In other words, we try and describe the "Something happens" bit. (We use Maths! for this of course. In particular, we model the particles as existing in some vector space and look at algebras acting on that space. Which algebra we pick dictates how the particles can interact.) There are lots of different possible ways particles could interact, but we're interested not only in sensible ways, but in easy-to-describe ways and want to end up with maths we can actually work with. (This is the big secret of science, I suppose. We pick a theory not only because it works [sort of] but because it's understandable and easy to make predictions with. Shh, don't tell anyone.) A particularly nice set of rules for particle interaction are what we call integrable theories - amongst other things these say we need only consider two particles at a time.

So we look at a situation where two particles go in, and two come out. The thing that describes what happens in the middle is what physicists called a scattering matrix - or S-matrix for short.

This has to satisfy various conditions for the theory to be integrable, but the only one I'm really interested in is the consistency condition for three particle interactions. Because we are only looking at two particles at a time, if three particles collide we split that up into three sets of two-particle interactions. The consistency condition is that it doesn't matter what order we do it in:

This is called the Yang-Baxter Equation and my thesis pretty much consists of constructing and checking solutions to it. Now the eagle-eyes among you will have noticed my thesis title mentions R-matrices, not S-matrices - that's because I'm a mathematician, and not really interested in scattering matrices at all. Fooled you! But you can chalk it up to historical reasons and a difference in terminology if you like, and still think about particles interacting whenever I bleat on about R-matrices.

Ok, that's Part One done. Not sure when (if ever) I'll get round to doing Part Two - I have a thesis to avoid finish writing after all.