Tag Archives: women in science

When Your Science Hero is Problematic

We all have heroes, people we look up to and whose achievements spur us on to do our own personal best. And, especially in this era where women are saying #metoo and finally being heard, we have probably all had the experience of finding out that one of our heroes has done some less than heroic things. This has come up a lot for me recently with the deaths of some very famous scientists and science fiction writers, men I greatly admired when I was a kid, who I’m now discovering were frequently awful to women (i.e., people like me).

I think this happens more than usual in science, a traditionally male-dominated field where a culture of elitism and privilege has been embedded for a long time. And it’s tempting to view things in black and white: either my hero is amazing for their achievements or they are garbage for their behaviour. We know in our personal lives that people are multi-faceted, yet we’re slow to allow public figures that same understanding. If a famous male scientist discovers lots of things, and is a great collaborator with other men but acts differently toward women, consciously or unconsciously, how are we meant to think about that?

As a physicist who loves to write, I’ve had to consider this before, because one of my early science heroes was Richard Feynman. Feynman was a brilliant theoretical physicist, a Nobel laureate, and worked on the Manhattan project building the atomic bomb in my hometown of Los Alamos. He also wrote a series of very enjoyable popular science books, which were also quite personal and effortlessly engaging. A quote from an interview that immediately stuck with me:

Omni: As we came back to the office, you stopped to discuss a lecture on color vision you’ll be giving. That’s pretty far from fundamental physics, isn’t it? Wouldn’t a physiologist say you were ‘poaching’?

Feynman: Physiology? It has to be physiology? Look, give me a little time and I’ll give a lecture on anything in physiology. I’d be delighted to study it and find out all about it, because I can guarantee you it would be very interesting. I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.

As someone who is omnivorous about knowledge, I found that quote resonated with me deeply. Science is fascinating because it shows us how the world works, how things which might appear separate are deeply connected, and the overlapping intricacies behind the everyday we take for granted. I now do my research on nanoscience, a strongly interdisciplinary field that draws from chemistry, electrical engineering, materials science, and plenty more beyond the physics that I got my degrees in. I admired Feynman for not letting other people dictate the questions he could ask, for being a physicist in what felt like a subversive and wide-ranging way. He was also famous for his sense of humour, his love of non-scientific things like playing bongos, and for generally not being as formal and rigid about anything as physicists tend to be.

The author having a Feynman bongo moment at the No-Ball Prizes. Photo by Ian Bowkett.

Of course, if you read Feynman’s books you’ll also find less inspiring stories, if you are a female scientist. He writes about doing his calculations in a Hooters, negging women in bars, and pretending to be an undergraduate to pick up grad students’ wives. This is less subversive, and more what we might generously call ‘of a time’. Feynman did plenty to promote the status of women in physics, encouraging his own sister to study it and eventually get a PhD. But reading through these differing accounts of his behaviour, female physicists are left wondering whether this great man of science would have seen them as colleagues and equals, or as prey.

I still find a lot in Feynman to look up to, as a physicist who did amazing work but cared about communication and didn’t give in to pressure to conform. However I can still acknowledge the women he mistreated, or perhaps even drove out of the field which is a terrible loss to science. He had a complexity to him, and my initial hero-worship of Feynman when I was younger has been replaced by equally complex feelings, of respect for his scientific and communication work alongside frustration at his mistreatment of women. But there’s no such thing as a perfect hero anyway, and if I needed one in physics, I might be waiting a long time. We have many historical women in physics to look up to, like Lise Meitner or Emmy Noether, and yet often these women were denied resources and opportunities that their male colleagues had, which can make them feel like amazing but also tragic figures. I would hope that women working in science today can be heroic without the tragedy.

Perhaps looking for heroes in science is a fundamentally flawed endeavor. Science is at its heart collaborative, and the sheer scope of human knowledge means that it is impossible for one person, toiling alone, to conquer it all. We must talk to each other, work together, and build on existing work, as famously stated by Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The great man theory is as flawed when it comes to science as it is when it comes to history. We all seek out role models, but we must recognize that they worked with others, seen and unseen, and that science is a societal effort and not the work of a lone genius.

While Feynman is long gone, there are other scientists still living, still contributing, and still behaving badly. It’s important that we not let them off the hook. Feynman lived decades ago, and certainly the standards of behaviour were different then, but today’s harassers and discriminators have no such excuse. If science is truly a collaborative effort, then it loses strength every time a person is pushed out of science by harassment. We can have complicated feelings about prominent scientists of the past, but there are a lot of people working in science today who are doing it right, and can serve as inspirations.

For example, tomorrow is the first ever LGBT STEM day, being celebrated with events around the world. Our Irish LGBT STEM network, House of STEM, has done so much to organise and promote this event, and founder Shaun O’Boyle explains why it’s desperately needed here:

The past is full of problematic yet successful scientists. Yet I’m hopeful that the future will have a broader array of amazing scientists, working together, who are also amazing people.

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A Chat About Women In Science

What do Erin and I talk about behind the scenes of this very blog? Well, plenty, but often we discuss science communication and women in science. We decided to post this recent chat we had, with references! This is how the sausage is made, people.

 

Jessamyn:  !!!
YES
Erin:  I question whether the overarcing discussion is still so humanities-unfriendly (given the proliferation of things like Bright Club over here), but he’s got a lot of good points
I also think it’s worth thinking about why the humanities’ contributions have been overlooked
mainly because I think they are viewed as ‘lesser’ by a lot of scientists
which is kind of ironic given the way the tide has turned
Jessamyn:  yeah
I think that putting science up on a pedestal has both isolated it and decreased its perceived value
and being all shirty about the social sciences and how they have ‘physics envy’
Erin:  which is ridiculous!
we should be able to appreciate the value of other areas of study and hopefully see how they can benefit our own
Jessamyn:  being interdisciplinary and collaborative have huge payoffs
but they aren’t ego payoffs
Erin:  absolutely
but I don’t think scientists feel like they are being egotistical
Jessamyn:  they may not label it as that
but they are imposing a moral value system that conveniently places their work at the top
and then building a hierarchy of status based on that
Erin:  oh! how funny it ended up like that
Jessamyn:  sorry guys it just HAPPENS that my stuff is the most important EVER
Erin:  as defined be ME AND ALL MY BUDDIES
Jessamyn:  not everyone is smart enough to do what I do, sadly
so I have to tell you what’s important and what’s not
ME
I AM IMPORTANT
Erin:  sadly the current environment of academia does not help dispel that. PIs and researchers are constantly being driven to justify their work
and it’s only very recently that outreach and collaboration have had any place in that justification
Jessamyn:  yeah
I love doing all this stuff but I’m very aware that it’s not going to do much to help me get a faculty position
research publications do that
I think some departments are more into outreach than others, and I’m hoping one of those will place a higher value on someone like me… but it’s not a universally valued thing the way research pubs are
Erin:  I was talking to a PhD student today who is great, she is part of the bioscience team and is also spearheading a college-wide blog initiative. and the comments from her colleagues have just been so dismissive. “Oh, you’re good at talking to people? you should quit your position and go into publishing or communications.”
Jessamyn:  yes!
after I won that physics communication award people asked me if I wanted to take the outreach coordinator’s job
and I’m like, no, I want to do research and some outreach, and I want her job to be coordinating lots of scientists like me
and I think most scientists should be doing this stuff
at varying levels, but I mean… COME ON
Erin:  yeah, oh god, don’t get me started
and it’s like “overall that might be a good amount of outreach but my god it’s unfair to the few people who are willing”
even if they enjoy it
because as you said, it doesn’t directly help your career
Jessamyn:  my boss was also commenting to me and a gender equality committee yesterday that it’s generally female scientists who end up being great communicators
which, yes, because (a) I think female scientists are much more aware that they are unlikely to be able to be the single-minded scientist, if only because there is the ‘WHAT ABOUT BABEEEZ’ thing from so early on that men can just skate on past, assuming that a partner will do the bulk of the work
and (b) women are socially conditioned to value communication and language skills more than men are, and more ostracized if they fail to develop those skills, so
Erin:  yeah, I’ve definitely read studies and it goes: men without kids < men with kids < women without kids < women with kids in terms of scientists who engage with outreach efforts
Jessamyn:  makes sense
I mean I guess you could also say, well women in science know about the importance of role models
so they would be more invested in providing that, to get more scientists and more girls into science
but then that ends up being effectively another tax on being a woman in science
Erin:  yeah, especially since they’re also required to sit on all the committees, and be on all the brochures, and the panels, etc etc…
Jessamyn:  exactly
Erin:  :-/
AND WHO IS MORE LIKELY TO END UP IN THE HUMANITIES? (to tie this in to the beginning point)
Jessamyn:  yes!!!
oh I read a great thing about that awhile back
and more of those people are women
I hated the title of this, using storytelling to bring women to science, but it’s very interesting
I like how it challenges the framing that women need better sci/math skills
when it’s also, we just lose those women who go off and pursue other things they are good at
Erin:  yeah!
science needs better women skills!
Jessamyn:  yes!
stop phoning it in, science!