Diffractions: On Science, Emotions, and Culture (Part 1)

By Vandana Singh

I once heard an older female scientist remark on a miscarriage suffered by a colleague, another scientist, who lost her baby at the end of her first trimester. "She should just think of the fetus as a bundle of cells," said the older woman, who had children of her own. She went on to elaborate that if you could be scientific about something like that, you wouldn't feel so bad.

Not long after, a woman who had been a biology major confided in me that when she felt bad about killing baby mice for a biology research project, her professor (a woman, also) said something like: "How can you become a scientist if you are going to get so emotional?"

Some time ago an advertisement for a book exploring quantum physics and consciousness landed on my desk. Unlike the New Age babble that would make any self-respecting physicist break out in hives, this book, Quantum Enigma, appeared to be a serious attempt by actual physicists to tackle the question of consciousness and to debunk the various myths that had been floated around on the subject. I teach a modern physics course for which this would be wonderful supplementary reading—but my other reason for excitement was that never before had I come across a rigorous attempt to examine the fascinating problem of consciousness from a physics perspective, one that promised not to get bogged down in vague handwaving exercises or to confuse analogies with literal truth.

Then a line from the ad caught my eye. It was a quote from historian of science Jed Buchwald:

Physicists . . . have long had a special loathing for admitting questions with the slightest emotional content into their professional work.

In an accompanying letter, authors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner seemed to imply that discussions of consciousness were "embarrassing" to physicists because of the connection to human emotion.

So here it was again. Science, and emotion, apparently mutually exclusive.

My own experiences in this matter are mixed. When I was growing up in India I did come across the notion that the content of science was free of the emotional baggage that humans carried around with them. However I don't recall putting my emotions away before entering a class or a lab. Of course I did go to an all-women's undergraduate institution at Delhi University, but in the two years of working toward my Master's degree, where there were men as well as women, there seemed to be no covert or overt attempts to check your emotions in at the door.

Were my encounters in the U.S. anything to do with modern Western mainstream culture's fear of sentimentality? One sees this reflected in some kinds of Western literature as well, where anything remotely sentimental might be regarded as purple prose. Indians are a highly emotive people in general (as exemplified by the carefree, almost wanton emotional content of Bollywood movies) so perhaps my perception was the result of a cultural misunderstanding.

But consider this famous quote from Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

First, he's being sentimental/emotional, and second, he's talking philosophy. Of course in Einstein's day philosophical questions were discussed without reservation—in fact they were the center of much of the debate about the interpretation of quantum physics. Physicist Lee Smolin, in his book The Trouble with Physics (a compulsive read), bemoans the fact that since that era physicists have been encouraged to "shut up and calculate" rather than discuss physics in a broader human context. Practical considerations overtook the search for truth and meaning, and that is the way it has been since then.

As a physics undergraduate in India, I had, along with my friends, done my share of late-night musings on the nature of god, reality, consciousness, and the wider implications of physics. Unlike the physicists that Rosenblum and Kuttner refer to, we didn't feel embarrassed. We didn't necessarily accept one notion over another, but certainly there was no hesitation on our part in discussing such things with anybody. In general I came across a whole spectrum of attitudes among both professors and students, from the hard-core rationalist skeptics to those who had an inclusive philosophical/religious take on the subject.

There are two main stereotypes of the Western scientist: the mad scientist and the coldly logical Vulcan. One type is distanced from emotion entirely, while the other is literally deranged, with an emotional spectrum restricted to the dark pleasures of world domination. Both are usually male. In the Western perspective, science itself is emotionless, as is the universe at large, a view well expressed in the classic SF story, "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin. Reading Justine Larbelestier's excellent book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, I was struck by how overt early American science fiction is with regard to both women and emotion. In one early SF story it is only after women are eliminated that humanity (i.e. men) can found a truly scientific culture. Other stories and letters from readers of the era reveal an attitude that conflates the existence of women with emotion, and science and real science fiction with things that are emotion-free.

So some very interesting questions arise. Are only some emotions permissible in the culture of science, such as those expressed in the Einstein quote above? And is this a generational thing, related to the post-war emphasis on practical applications and the eschewing of philosophical questions? How does the culture of science differ from place to place, such as the U.S. and India? What is the connection, if any, between the paucity of female scientists and the culture of science? Is the content of science ever affected by the culture of scientific practice?

All these questions have great relevance to science fiction, but they are of wider importance as well. When I started digging into all this I didn't realize that I was attempting to unravel a very tangled skein. My journey took me from some fascinating conversations with physicists and social scientists, to head-scratching encounters with sociological jargon in academic papers, to insomnia induced by too much thinking about the nature of reality. I discuss some of what I discovered—insights, confusions, and connections—in my next two columns.

Vandana Singh's recent short fiction includes work in Clockwork Phoenix and Year's Best SF 14, as well as a novella, Distances (Aqueduct Press), which was included on the 2009 Tiptree Award Honor List and won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award for 2008. Her first short story collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, was published in India by Zubaan/Penguin in Fall 2008. Upcoming work includes short fiction in a Bestiary anthology edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. For more about her and her work, see her website.


Thank you very much for this excellent and insightful essay. I am looking forward to your next two columns.

I feel like this is something scientists do quite often. Emotion was never inherently a bad thing, but it could be. It might interfere with the ability to be objective in their observations and experiments, slowing things down. You might feel bad for your dead rats, and thus, not repeat the experiment to learn further information. However, you might be instead (or concurrently) fascinated with what the rats were dying for which is a constructive(ish, depending on your philosophy) form of emotion. However, since that possibility exists that could result in an experiment not being carried out or reported when it otherwise would have, scientists must have, over time and probably subconsciously, created a culture in which emotion is discouraged wholly. Just a form of creating a completely controlled environment - on a bigger scale.

Still, I don't think emotion is completely banned. Big names like Stephen Hawking talk about the philosophy surround their work, and not many people willingly become a researcher without having a fascination with the unknown.

Karin, thanks!

MRZ, thanks --- you raise some interesting points. I think it is important to distinguish between being objective so that your preconceptions don't bias your results, and suppressing an emotional reaction (to killing lab animals for instance) because you want to know the truth, keep your job or whatever. The latter raises the question as to whether the desire to learn the truth is sufficient justification for the methods employed. In terms of lab animals you may be interested in knowing that people who care for lab animals in big research labs often have psychological problems partly because they are not encouraged to voice their feelings about ultimately having to kill their charges. This article in New Scientist "Lab Animal Carers Suffer in Silence" http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19726493.700-lab-animal-carers-suffer-in-silence.html also mentions that in some Japanese facilities memorial services are held for the animals that are killed. The question I ask is that since humans are emotional beings, is it not more honest to admit to it than to pretend our emotions don't exist? And then it is natural to ask whether there are appropriate or acceptable emotions in science, such as the examples you mention at the end of your comment. Do these allowed emotional responses differ by culture/ gender? Or are there other factors?

Some of this is what I hope to explore in the next two columns.

This is a really important point. I've felt that the wide-spread idea that science is free of emotion is actively damaging to the real-world practice of science & engineering. For one, no one gets into their field without feeling at least a little passion for it, and that's important. The other main point is that all humans have egos and emotions, and you're never going to eliminate those. However, if you act like they're never going to affect things, you don't compensate for them adequately. Basically, assuming that everyone is going to be perfectly rational and converge on a single optimal solution is a Really Bad Model when you're actually sitting in a group meeting and two people have taken opposite approaches for emotional/ego reasons and will now proceed to fight to the (metaphorical, career) death over them.

And it really doesn't have to be this way: science has self-correcting mechanisms that mean that you can be as emotional as you want; the universe will still have the final say. Are the results replicable or not? If yes, congratulations! If no, back to the drawing board, ego or no ego.

It's even harder in engineering, where there often isn't one *right* answer, but several perfectly good approaches, any of which could work. The incredible (and incredibly prolonged) ego battles that go on to just *pick one* are stunning--and everyone still sort of magically believes that "emotions don't enter in to these decisions." Yeah, right. I wish we'd all own up to the fact that the sociology of group dynamics is as important in the STEM fields as in any business or marketing meeting, and learn to apply better models for how to make those interactions as productive as possible, instead of pretending that we're all Vulcans here--it's just that person over there that's being irrational (by opposing my idea)!

Very much looking forward to the next two installments!

Karen, well said. Thanks also for the input from engineering. I have always had the general impression that it was harder for women in engineering than in the pure sciences. As for the denial of the relevance of sociological concerns in STEM fields --- that is also something I've noticed. When I was a graduate student of physics there was no awareness of or discussion of social dynamics in physics research and teaching. The same was true at other physics departments, in conferences, even in committees looking into the paucity of women in the physical sciences! There is in fact quite a lot of research by sociologists and anthropologists on how scientists work with each other and within society. Many people in the natural sciences whom I've come across seem to look down on such 'soft' disciplines which might explain why there is so little awareness of their work.

I'd love to hear more from people about their personal experience of science and teschnology culture. In particular did anyone experience something different from what seems to be the Western norm? A related question is which SF works portray an unusual science culture.

Incidentally one important thing to point out is that atleast in terms of bachelors degrees in physics, the gender asymmetry does not exist everywhere, as it does in the West. This is consistent with my experience growing up in India but I am currently tracking down some data on this for the next installment!

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