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Taking the Pants off Physics

Anne Dalke's picture

You have several assignments this week. First, we're reading the work of two historians of physics: selections both from Sharon Traweek's Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists and from Margaret Wertheim's Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars. In your posting this weekend, tell us how you see Traweek's and Wertheim's analyses and ideas intersecting. How do they rub up against one another? Where do you see reinforcements and contradictions? How are their arguments similar or different?

Your second task this weekend is to select a woman physicist or astronomer of the modern era, and tell us on-line by Sunday evening whom you have selected. Then research her life in order to participate as her in our salon on Wednesday. Come ready to speak about her motivations for chosing science, what obstacles she encountered, what enabled her success, and what advice she might have for current women students.

Anne and Liz

Anne Dalke's picture

uncertain about uncertainty

Reporting in (as per usual) on the news from the Times: Monday's paper included a most relevant book review of David Lindley's Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and the Struggle for the Soul of Science:

"'Uncertainty' examines the critical juncture at which classical scientific methods became obsolete and the most radical theories began to be outside the realm of proof...'a gap had opened up between what a theory said was the full and correct picture of the physical world and what an experiment could in practice reveal of that world'....As Wolfgang Pauli once said...'It's much easier to find one's way if one isn't too familiar with the magnificent unity of classical physics'....the Heisenberg uncertainty principle...'has become a touchstone, a badge of authority' ...because it can be used to make scientific truth sound less than all-powerful. Treated that way, 'the uncertainty principle makes scientific knowledge itself less daunting to the nonscientists and more like the slippery, elusive kind of knowing we daily grapple with.'"

Anne Dalke's picture

varieties of scientific experience

Remember Contact, the film w/ which this course began? and Carl Sagan, who wrote the book (hey! who lived the life!) on which it was based? According to the Times yesterday, his widow, Ann Druyan (who produced the movie) had this to say about the spiritual implications of the scientific revolution: "I know of no other force that can wean us from our infantile belief that we are the center of the universe."

Motivated by her impatience with religious fundamentalism, Druyan has just published a book of Sagan's reflections on the relation between science and religion, called The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (the title plays with William James's famous Varieties of Religious Experience). Much of what was excerpted in the Times article has resonances for, and works as interesting extensions of, the essays we read on Monday, by Traweek and Wertheim, about physics as a secular religion. For instance,

"I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.....[The search for who we are] goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predisposition on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."


sky stegall's picture

late but better than never

i'd like to really agree with rosemary on the concept that both of these articles made physics into a kind of club - both in the sense of a decadent priesthood and in the sense of an ethnograph-able (separate?) culture.  what's interesting to me is that as an insider, so to speak, as someone in the process of training and initiation, physics doesn't necessarily look like that.  and when i do see evidence of that "club" mentality, i can find parallels in other disciplines easily.  in particular, i remember flora mentioning people looking down on other people within the context of gender studies because they "hadn't read the right [or enough] literature."  so many of the things we've said in this class reinforce for me the stereotypes and misconceptions people have about science, and scientists.  i mean, i've never in my life heard a physicist say that physics is objective, but that's been brought up in nearly every reading and discussion (usually in the context of "physics presents itself as...") and particularly in this recent reading relating to fundamental "truth," religion and the search for a theory of everything.  i wonder if part of the problem is perspective - what we're doing, and what we think we're doing, may have little or nothing to do with what the public thinks we're doing.  now, obviously, this could be a good thing or a bad thing, or a little bit of both... but in either case the issue is really communication with the outside world.  should a physics research insitution have to tell the public everything it's doing, and why?  should bryn mawr have to tell me where every cent of my tuition is going, and why?  should the government have to account fully for every single decision it makes?  and go out of its way to explain its plans, hopes and expectations to a seriously uninformed public?  i don't know.

Rebecca's picture

Science and religion

Before I forget I would like to channel Sandra M. Faber for the salon on Wednesday.


The discussion of earlier physicists using physics as evidence for the divine reminded me of theories of intelligent design that exist in biology.  Intelligent design is an alternative theory to evolution that explains since all the pieces of life fit together in a way that there must be a designer as opposed to a series of random natural events.  It is not considered scientific and is not respected in the biological community.  This and other theories I have learned had lead to me to believe science and religion are at odds with each other.  However, the discussion of physics in the Wertheim article distinguished for me religion based on science from a science based on religion. 

oschalit's picture


I would like to comment on Traweek's statement that she made on page 78, beginning with "There is, it seems to me, a cluster of subliminal messages in these picture captions...". I think that her comment is very interesting because it appears that this portrayal of physicists, in textbooks and the like, may have a very grave impact on both the men and women who are reading them. On one hand, as Traweek states, it appears in these books that physics is not only constructed but controlled by these serious, stern and isolated men. The images of physicists that Traweek illustrates really paint a picture of these men as being solopsistic by nature and profession. Does this cause the male students who read these books and look at the pictures of their "heroes" to develop a warped perception of not only how their predecessors existed in the physics community but how they should as well? Do they then pursure physics with this mindset fixed into their brains? 
Women on the other hand may feel threatened by these images. Therein lay a whole history of male dominated science. Does this presentation of physics instill a sense of humbleness, which might be connected to the statistic we read a few assignments ago about how women rate themselves, in terms of success and ability, as lower than men? 


oschalit's picture

not sure if my post went through

I would like to channel Jocelyn Brunell

Pemwrez2009's picture

Intersections, Contradictions, Similarities, Differences

i guess, what i wrote did not post, so i have to start over! I'm sorry this is coming so late!

After reading the Wertheim and Traweek articles i noticed most of all how both of the authors emphasized the ideas of methodology as an integral part of either teaching or acting as a scientist or in science. While Traweek wrote about easter vs. western concepts, Wertheim emphasized gender differences. It is always interesting to see different marginalized groups relationships with areas as severe and structured as science (physics in particular)

Also, not that I was surprised in particular, but it was interesting reading about the exclusivity of physics and i couldn't help but think of the significance of religion is...usually when one thinks about the relationship between science and religion, they think of this battle there is between the scientific and the spiritual world! In these articles one could make an argument that the two fields are far more similar than that! They are both extremely exclusive. While religion only leaves room for believers, science only as room for certain westernized, male-dominated structures.

It was really interesting however to look at this idea of western teaching vs. eastern or (Japanese) teachings of science. The most interesting section that I read was where Tarweek talked about how to western scientists teaching all of the scientific body the same thing is emphasized where in Japanese science culture what is most important is teaching the next generation of science!


Sorry about this! I guess my original post didn't go through, I was alerted of this by Odile!

oschalit's picture


I would like to channel Jocelyn Burnell

Sam's picture

I would like to channel

Both articles focus on just how physics shapes the way we, as laypeople, see the world-- Wertheim uses some science-fiction seeming examples of humanoid robots and speaking with aliens alongside cutting edge technology (5).

Both articles also, interestingly enough, describe physics as a secular religion. Wertheim points out that the sciences actually aligned themselves with the church in Western culture, whereas Traweek makes it sound like science has overtaken religion. Physics allows us to see the "divine," or at least an expression of it.

The idea that women have trouble gaining entry into physics due to religion was one I found interesting, at least, and Wertheim tied it in neatly with her article-- whether or not I agree with the link (I'm not sure yet).

I actually prefer Wertheim's more historical approach, but that could be because I found Traweek's reading a bit scattershot.



I would like to channel Chien-Shung Wu, if she hasn't been taken yet.

rmalfi's picture

In Da Club

When reading Traweek and Wertheim's articles, I found that they echoed a lot of the same ideas. I felt that an overarching theme in both of their works was this idea of physics as this untouchable field, this sect or "club" that requires a sort of proverbial "password" in order to gain entry. Wertheim, with regard to women's access to this field, describes physics as the "Catholic Church" of science. Just as Catholicism has not conceded to the allowance of women as priests, physics is the last of the sciences to see the increased success of women (pp. 7). Likewise, Traweek describes the career trajectory of getting involved in high-energy physics as an induction process (pp. 88 among others). This club, which consists of many senior physicists, has certain standards attached to it. You have to exhibit the kind of character or intelligence that the network - the "club" - sees fit. Traweek describes the "induction" process of a young physicist (post-docs primarily) to the "club" as a series of intentional obstacles (set up by advisors, superior ranked physicists) that must be overcome in order to acheive a repuatation. In order to successfully get through this obstacle course, one must have character or charm - one must exhibit a competitive nature backed by confident individualism (according to Traweek), which is funny since physics claims to be so objective.

Though this idea is not mirrored exactly in Wertheim's peice, she touches on the same underlying principle. In order to make it into the physics "club" that Traweek describes, one has to be very public and vocal about their accomplishments. This touches on the "public-private, male-female dualism" brought up by Wertheim. She talks about this idea of "natural social order" (promoted by social Newtonians and embraced by the Enlightenment) and how this idea that women "belong" in the private sector and men in the public sectors. Though this idea has clearly been overcome in many fields, it has arguably tainted the evolution of physics and thusly the entry of women into the field. This idea was brought up in our previous readings. Women in the realm of physics have complained about its competitive nature. Believing that they are viewed incompetent until they prove their worth (a generalization), they take extra time to go over their results, and find little support from their colleagues. This is unlike the Japanese institutional system (which sounded more ideal to me), where cooperation is encouraged.

This has become a long entry, which was not my intention. I think that both authors touch on some very important points. Physics, more so than the other sciences, attempts to describe universal "truths" (much like religion), and perhaps for this reason, it has become one of the more exclusionary fields. I believe that the structure behind the practice of physics, its exclusionary nature, is part of the reaon why women have found it so difficult to gain access to this part of the scientific world.

Pemwrez2009's picture


pemrez2007: I have chosen Marietta Blau

eli's picture

Also, I'd like to 'channel'

Also, I'd like to 'channel' Rosalyn Sussman Yalow.

Anne Dalke's picture


yalow was taken already. pick someone else to channel, please--

eli's picture

How can culture be held apart from science?

Here are some of the items that were interesting overlaps between the two readings:

Denying that physics is separate from culture.

Both of these readings bring up the point that physicists believe they are operating in a world that is a neigh Utopia, held apart from the rest of humanity as it pursues Truth. Both of these readings also argue that this is entirely false. Whether it be from the culture meaning a national culture (for example, Japanese culture as opposed to American culture), religion, or Western gender roles, science is not in its own little world. It might be true if Science were the only sphere in which the scientists operated in, but it isn't. Science can no more escape outside influences, be it history or modern culture, than any other discipline.

It is also interesting that as Traweek points out in her section about undergraduate students, this high standard that Science is held up to is not solely on the part of the scientists themselves. In fact, it is much outsiders creating this stereotype as it is insiders. Picturing Culture/Humanity as a large circle, and science as an inner circle in a venndiagram of sorts, isn't it odd that the larger circle denies its own interactions with the inner circle? I wonder if that's like trying to hold your liver outside of you and claim it's important but not influenced by what you drink.

Science reflects the division of women in the private life, and men in the public sphere.

On page 149, Werthiem points out the division of women into the private sphere and men into the public sphere. Reading this, it reminded me of the discussion Traweek has about how the wives of physicists did not tend to have careers of "equal" important to their husbands. Furthermore, the fact that in both the Japanese and American model that physicists needed to have wives. The role of the koshi in the Japanese model was even to find a suitable woman for their students.

Women thus serve as an important part of the scientist's identity, a way of validating that he's of sound emotional and mental state, but are not supposed to directly contribute to the improvement of science. Beyond waxing on about how sexist that is, it's also interesting to note that we automatically assume it is "wrong", it is "weaker" for women to take care of the household while the men are making scientific discoveries. I guess what I'm trying to do is bring up the idea of the third wave feminists. Thus we should not only consider the impact of a lack of women scientists, but also the impact of the women who provided emotional support for scientists. One could even think cynically that, without these wives on their arms, many of the physicists might not have gone as far as they did. After all, having a wife seemed to be a very valuable commodity on their resume.

But do indirect contributions make up for the fact that women are virtually omitted from the history of science and math? That they are represented as icons in textbooks that science acts upon, or that sciences are dominated by phallic vocabulary? What does Science have against women?

Japanese vs USA cultural models.

Just briefly, I wanted to mention that I found the leadership models of the American and Japanese physicists to be extremely interesting. Because this has been a rather lengthy response though, I'll liimit it to this point: what does the fact that the Japanese model is a traditional Japanese family, the ie, and the American model is a sports team have to impact women? 

sky stegall's picture


i posted this earlier, but it doesn't seem to have shown up: i'd like to research and portray dr sally ride.she seems pretty awesome.

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sky's picture


i'd like to portray dr. sally ride

rmalfi's picture

My persona

I have chosen Vera Cooper Rubin.

Flora's picture

The woman I have chosen.

I would like to profile Rosalyn Sussman Yalow.