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

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.