Diffractions: On Science, Emotions and Culture, (Part 2)

By Vandana Singh

In my last column I posed some questions on the intersection of science, emotions, and culture. Specifically I wondered why, in current Western SF and in science, emotions were apparently considered suspect (except for some specific ones like awe or wonder) and were associated with women. Since I am female, a scientist, and a science fiction writer, I find it a particular pleasure to examine this nexus with a dispassionate (hah!) eye.

My awareness of sociological studies of science was quite limited before I began this quest. I had read general texts on sociology and found the field very interesting, while at the same time I was aware that certain social science trends were suspect, such as those derided in physicist Alan Sokal's book (co-authored with Jean Bricmont) Fashionable Nonsense. These social scientists included philosophers and feminists who used the lens of postmodernism to declare, among other things, that science was a social construct, and they went on to misuse scientific terminology to a degree that was not just funny (to me) but puzzling. (Some of their more bizarre comments quoted in Sokal's book included a statement by Belgian philosopher and feminist Luce Irigaray critiquing E = mc2 as a masculine statement because it privileges the speed of light.) But as I dug more deeply I found a tribe of very interesting empirical scholars—anthropologists and sociologists—who had gone into actual labs and observed actual scientists, while learning enough about the science to have a basic understanding of what the scientists were doing. It amused and delighted me to know that just as a scientist studies, with a giant metaphorical lens, some phenomenon of nature, so the scientist, being also a phenomenon of nature, is in turn studied by an anthropologist peering through his/her giant lens. In fact, there is an entire academic field devoted to the study of science culture and the relation of science and technology to society (internationally and also in the so-called third world. Related fields of study include the relationship between science and empire, deserving of its own series of columns).

Being a mere physicist, I started by looking at the literature and contacting various academics, from physicists and historians of science to feminist social scientists. They were amazingly generous with their time and patient with my ignorance. What they had to say was revealing.

Here, for instance, is Jed Buchwald (quoted in Part 1 of this article), historian of science at Caltech, who learned physics at Princeton. He says, "My professors were not interested in looking very far past calculation and experiments. Moreover, there was clearly a culture . . . which put a premium on outdoing the other guy and never showing any weakness. I've seen much the same thing over the years since. Whether it's a particular characteristic of American physics culture, particularly among high-energy people, or is more general I couldn't say. So it's not so much the 'cold, unemotional' quality but, instead, a pretty hot, competitive, almost American sports-like desire to win and overwhelm the competition." And he goes on to say that after about the first half of the 19th century, "physicists in particular began to write in ways that stripped the personal altogether out of their work insofar as possible."

Bruce Rosenblum, physicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-author of Quantum Enigma, finds that the non-American physicists he has been in contact with seem more open to subjects like consciousness that lie outside of physics. And further, "I can say that American physics graduate students and physics majors are far more open to the quantum mysteries than are their teachers." Perhaps this is a generational thing; young physicist larvae, freed from the shut-up-and-calculate dictates that succeeded the war era, can now indulge their curiosity in ways that would make the earlier generation shudder. However, as Rosenblum points out, these discussions are not in the forefront of physics culture and have to be explicitly raised to make students aware of them.

I wondered to what extent these aspects of physics culture in the U.S. had to do with the extreme gender disparity in the field. There are very few female physicists, although the numbers in biology and chemistry are more respectable. I called up Maria Ong, a social scientist and project leader at TERC in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She asserts that science is not a culturally neutral forum, citing in her paper (Ong, M. [2005]. "Body Projects of Young Women of Color in Physics: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Science." Social Problems, 52[4], 593-617) historical studies about the gendered nature of Western science. For instance, scholars have shown that founders of the modern university "deliberately associated masculinity with qualities of rigorous intellectual inquiry and objectivity, and associated femininity with emotion and subjectivity." Contemporary scientists, studies show, consider white and male to be the default appearance of the scientist and reward these attributes, as well as mannerisms like aggressiveness and arrogance, and values such as independence and competitiveness. That certainly bears out the personal experience of Jed Buchwald and probably a number of physicists. I recall going to conferences when I was a young particle-physicist-in-the-making in the US, where I saw a confrontational, challenging style of interaction practiced. Looking back, I can't help but characterize that culture as masculine (in the Western construct). Anthropologist Sharon Traweek's fascinating study of experimental particle physicists in the U.S. and Japan bears out my suspicion. Her 1992 book, Beamtimes and Lifetimes, speaks, for instance, of the characteristics a successful post-doctoral fellow must possess as seen by senior physicists: aggressiveness, great confidence, and a certain "son-of-a-bitchness," along with drive and commitment.

In such a world, women (and men who don't conform to that ideal) have a difficult time, and women of color even more so. Maria Ong's paper studies the intersections of gender, race, and science, describing how women of color in the physical sciences must negotiate the contradictory expectations of what it means to be (and look like) a woman, and a woman of color, doing science. Many women leave the sciences for reasons that include the difficulty of negotiating such expectations, while some of the survival strategies employed by the few women who stay are often deleterious to their wholeness as human beings. A study published in Nature (Wenneras and Wold, 1997, quoted in "Evaluating Scientists" in Value-Free Science?) shows that female science applicants must show a productivity 2.5 times that of the average male applicant to be given the same competence score.

Digging further into the gender disparity in the sciences, and the physical sciences in particular, I came across a fascinating paper by Geoffrey Potvin and Zahra Hazari ("Views on Female Under-Representation in Physics: Retraining Women or Reinventing Physics?" in The Electronic Journal of Science Education, Volume 10, #1, September 2005), now at Clemson university where they are part of a physics education research group. The authors lay out commonly held (and not necessarily mutually exclusive) viewpoints among physicists and science educators with regard to the under-representation of women in physics. One is the notion that there are inherent differences between men and women that cause women to be less interested in the physical sciences. If you believe this, you might wonder why people make a fuss about the paucity of women in science. If women are not naturally attracted to physics, why force them? Perhaps testosterone is necessary for doing higher mathematics. By extension we shouldn't worry that there are fewer female writers writing hard SF. It's just not what they want to do, right?

Another view is that women are under-represented because of negative socialization—they are discouraged via familial and social expectations from being interested in the sciences. As the authors say, " . . . greater social emphasis is laid on females to develop nurturing characteristics. So 'people science' becomes more interesting than the physical sciences." The paper cites some evidence that while boys are satisfied with the "internal coherence" of physics, girls seek "external coherence," i.e., they wish to find connections between what they are studying and the larger picture, the world around them. Traditional physics courses are taught in a highly idealized, abstracted way that might turn off girls. I don't know to what extent this gender preference is generally true. Speaking for myself, I love internal coherence, the gorgeous abstractions and mathematical structures of theoretical physics, but I also seek external coherences, including a personal connection between the concept and me. For instance, I once took a course on vector spaces, and loved them to the point that I seriously considered switching from physics to mathematics. But also I wanted to live there.

Third, we have the "culture bias" viewpoint that suggests that "physics is not a gender neutral subject but rather is tightly bound by masculine tendencies and preferences. Females (and males) that lack such tendencies might feel disinclined to the subject and/or alienated within the field." This is consistent with the experiences of people I've quoted above as well as social science research such as that of Maria Ong and Sharon Traweek.

My searches seem then to point to this statement: that Western scientific culture is heavily gender-biased, particularly in the physical sciences, and perhaps most of all in particle physics. Specifically, certain behaviors consistent with Western constructs of maleness are encouraged, including distancing oneself from a wide range of the emotional spectrum. This can lead to the sciences being less attractive to women, to men who don't fit the preferred personality profile, and to people of color. Perhaps, given all this, it is no coincidence that we find a gender divide in science fiction. Justine Larbalestier says, "'Hard' science fiction is frequently portrayed as 'real' science fiction because it is more 'scientific' than 'soft' science fiction. 'Hard' science fiction is predominantly mapped on to the male, and 'soft' sf, onto the female" (p. 148). So it seems that many science fiction writers of past and present are simply mirroring reality as it exists in the West. How very unimaginative! The possibility also exists that because of biases conscious and unconscious, hard science fiction stories with a non-traditional ethos may not even be recognized as such. In this context it is important to mention Gwyneth Jones' novel Life, which examines the culture of science through the feminist lens of its main character and her shadow.

Unfortunately I don't as of yet have much data on the culture of science in other countries, other than some idea of Japanese particle physics culture from Sharon Traweek's book, but it is worth noting that the situation is different in other countries at least with respect to physics. An American Astronomical Society summary of a 2002 conference report from the International Union of Pure and Applied Physicists mentions that there is a high degree of undergraduate physics enrolment in countries like India and Iran (in India a 50% enrolment is reported up to the Master of Science level, which is unheard of in the United States; Iran is reported to have the highest level of female college level enrolment). This is consistent with my own experience in India here I did not come across the attitude that women could not do physics, rather that women should not pursue the sciences (or anything else for that matter) at the cost of family and economic concerns. The fact that in all countries the number of women in science seems to drop at higher levels of education and research speaks to the prevalence of such factors.

The summary mentioned above goes as far as to say that "when women are marginalized and when a culture is not under pressure to change, the aggressive, competitive, non-collaborative atmosphere that some call 'combat physics' can prevail."

The international figures on women's enrollment in physics courses ought to silence any argument that women are innately repelled by the physical sciences. But what difference would it make to science if there were more women, more people of color, more diversity among scientists? One is obvious: we know that increasing diversity causes cultural shifts, so the inclusion of women and marginalized groups would presumably create a scientific culture that welcomes all kinds of people and shuns combat-style science. We would then end up with a larger pool of scientist larvae than currently exists and avoid, for instance, the current crisis in the U.S. of declining numbers of people interested in science and science-related disciplines. Presumably scientists would be less afraid of being the emotional creatures that we are, and perhaps there would be a more honest recognition of the biases one brings to one's work. But are there other things that a more inclusive and collaborative community of scientists can bring to science? And how may such possibilities be explored in science fiction? I will look into some of this in Part 3 of this series.


Vandana Singh would like to thank the scholars she contacted for this article who generously shared their thoughts. She takes all responsibility for any errors or inadvertent misrepresentations of their positions. Her 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. Her latest publication is a short story, "Indra's Web," out in TR:SF, an anthology of new science fiction published by MIT's Technology Review, in October 2011.For more about her and her work, see her website.

Comments

No comments found.

Leave a Comment

The following HTML tags are allowed: <em><strong><cite><strike><b><i><a>