A blog for any man, woman or transgender, who feels physics could be more welcoming to the feminine.

Extracts from a student's journal

In Chemistry, we get a lot of time to really digest a topic...Chemistry leaves me in awe, and feeling humble and so grateful. Physics leaves me feeling rushed and slightly insecure, as though I can’t possibly learn it fast enough. The laws of physics rule the universe, and learning about the universe usually makes me feel small, but in a good way, like I can do anything, and like I’m part of something. I feel like I should be experiencing more of that learning physics, but instead I’m feeling insecure and somewhat inadequate. In Chemistry it’s like “here are all the rules you’ve been playing by that you never knew about, isn’t that amazing, aren’t we fortunate?” In physics it’s more like “These are the rules. Bow down.” It makes me feel underappreciated. I’m doing all I can to learn this subject, but it’s almost as though physics in general thinks it’s doing me a favour...

Nature as a model, measure and mentor

In complete opposition to Francis Bacon's views of Nature as a thing to be subdued, here comes biomimicry: Nature as the supreme engineer! If so many girls are attracted to biology, this might be a way to attract them to physics.

I cannot wait to introduce elements of biomimicry into my physics teaching! Many students are overexcited by the subject.

TEd talk by the founder, Janine Benyus:

See also the biomimicry website

and the biomimicry institute

Among my favorite projects: the wind turbine that imitates whales' flippers, natural air cooling system borrowed from the termites and how a shell can teach us how to build a windshield.

Application to space technology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FYMRH3XVlo&feature=related

Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain... (Leonardo DaVinci)

The chilly work climate

In "Gender and physics: feminist philosophy and science
education", Sci & Educ (2008) 17:1111–1125, Kristina Rolin explores several dimensions of the physics sub-culture.

She reviews Margaret Wertheim’s analysis of ‘the physicist as the priest’ (1995) . Here are some interesting extracts:

"In this section, I argue that Wertheim’s and Hasse’s studies of gender ideology in the culture of physics contribute to our understanding of ‘chilly climate’ phenomena.These studies suggest that gender ideologies in the culture of physics concern what I call ‘styles of doing science’. By a ‘style of doing science’ I mean a cluster of emotion, imagination, and experience which is invested in scientific activities. Insofar as certain styles of doing science prevail in the culture of physics and these styles are understood to be masculine, it is possible to do masculine gender by doing physics."

A number of prominent and influential twentieth century physicists have understood physics as a ‘quasi-religious’ quest for truth (or if not understood, at least used ‘quasi-religious’ rhetoric to advertise their research programs). She uses the term ‘quasi-religious’ to suggest that these physicists express a structure of emotion, imagination, and experience similar to that of Judaism and Christianity even though many of them do not express a belief in god as it is represented in the major Western religions. Second, Wertheim claims that the goal of seeking religious experiences by means of intellectual transcendence is not gender neutral; it is the kind of non-scientific goal which is more likely to appeal to a person with a masculine gender identity than to a person with a feminine gender identity. In summary, Wertheim suggests that gender ideologies influence the culture of physics by establishing a symbolic connection between the non-scientific goal of seeking religious experiences and the scientific goal of developing a unified theory of the four elementary forces(gravitational, electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces).

Wertheim argues also that contemporary physicists have appropriated the saintly image of Einstein for the purpose of constructing a public image of physics: ‘The myth of the saint scientific is not simply a literary fiction but a powerful cultural image that continues to perpetuate a view of physics as a divine or holy pursuit' (1995, p 188). The saintly image of the physicist is perpetuated, for instance, in press releases given by contemporary physicists, such as in George Smoot’s statement that discovering echoes of the big bang was like ‘seeing the face of God’ . Einstein’s legacy lives on in the quasi-religious imagination associated with a ‘theory of everything’. In popular physics literature the history of the universe is cast as a decline from a state of original unity (‘symmetry’) and a ‘theory of everything’ as the mathematical Eden where the physicist longs to return. ‘The idea that there must be one force ultimately responsible for all action and form in the universe can be considered as a scientific parallel of monotheism’,Wertheim suggests (1995, p 209).

Wertheim’s argument for her second claim, the claim that the non-scientific goal of seeking religious experiences by means of intellectual transcendence is widely understood to be masculine, is based on her understanding of ancient philosophy and Judeo-Christian tradition. Wertheim claims that ‘In the Christian West, the radition of intellectual transcendence has always been associated with a male priesthood’(1995, p 237). ‘Ever since the Homeric era, women have been cast on the side of the material, the bodily, and the ‘‘earthly,’’ while men have been cast on the side of the spiritual, the intellectual, and the ‘‘heavenly’’‘ (Wertheim 1995, p 236). ‘For most of the Greeks, particularly Aristotle and his followers, it was men alone who could aspire to psychic transcendence, whereas women with their upposedly defective souls were said to be forever trapped in the material prisons of their bodies’(Wertheim 1995, p 236). Wertheim suggests also that ‘The ancient association of maleness with psychic transcendence continues to underpin the male dominance of mathematically based science today’ (1995, p 236). Therefore, she argues, ‘It is not just a matter of helping women to change so they will be comfortable with the culture of physics, we also need to consciously work on hanging that culture itself’(1995, pp 246–247). Obviously, more empirical studies would have to be made in order to find out whether the association of maleness with transcendence continues to influence the culture of contemporary physics.

AIP women physicists speak

American Institute of Physics survey

# Although a majority of the responding women physicists said they would choose physics again, a majority also reported being discouraged about physics. Many spoke about negative interaction with colleagues, including many stories about discriminatory attitudes (Table 17). Eighty percent said that attitudes about women in science need improvement (Table 18).

# In the first international survey of women in physics, women spoke a great deal about the effects of children and childcare demands on their careers. However, in this study, women were careful to point out that the main problem is that women in physics continue to face discrimination and negative attitudes.

The main reason [I’ve felt discouraged] is so often you are just made to feel like you shouldn’t be there. You have to work twice as hard, do twice as much just to be considered half as qualified. ~Australia