heroic science and science heroes

Sabine Dippel sabine at hlrz24.zam.kfa-juelich.de
Mon Apr 22 08:05:57 EST 1996

I thought I'd introduce a post from a discussion group I subscribe to, WIPHYS,
the discussion forum of the APS on women in physics. It is strongly realted to 
this "science hero" discussion, and I think Patricia won't mind my reposting it 


From:      <patricia at cco.caltech.edu>
To:        ACP.ACPGate("wiphys at aps.org")
Date:      2/13/96 1:19pm
Subject:   is physics necessarily abusive?

I just picked up an interesting book _Women Changing Science,
Voices from a Field in Transition_ (love that title :-) and the author
goes into the social interactions involved in teaching and
communicating in science, and she considers three basic types of
social interactions: cooperation, competition and intimidation.

Her examples of how scientists are socialized to expect
intimidation made me remember all those famous Pauli and Dirac
stories, where the message being given to the young grad student
listener is:

Intimidation is a great tradition of our forefathers.

This famous story where Dirac hears an audience member mention
that he does not understand, whereupon Dirac agrees with him and
moves on - this is an example of abusive behavior being
normalized through anecdote about a legendary figure. This
legendary figure whom we all worship was abusive so you can be
too - that's kind of the message or at least one of the messages that
gets passed down to the next generation through these legends.

It also has the effect of silencing people who feel damaged by such
intimidating behavior. It puuts them in the position of appearing to
have no sense of humor, since the message that intimidation in
physics is acceptable was passed through a humorous anecdote.

This is one reason why we have so much anger and distrust
towards our male superiors. We are being taught that physics is an
inherently abusive  s enterprise and that flies in the face of logic.
That message is not true but it is enforced through the power of
Peer Inaction -- which is the tendency of men over the age of 25 in
physics to affect a blank stare and move on when confronted with
an example of a peer's abusive or harassing behavior.

It has taken me personally many years of effort to move my own
husband to the point where, when approached by a woman student
with a problem with another male Caltech professor, he will
actually TRY TO DO SOMETHING TO HELP HER. I am proud
now that he does react to tales of abuse as if they deserve attention.

It takes a lot of communication to overcome this blanket
acceptance of bad human interaction patterns in the sciences.

What also shocks and saddens me is that some people idealize the   
   concept of "intelligence" to include abusive behavior. That is a
very big problem at Caltech, where we have to deal with the
SOCIAL    fallout of Feynman-worship, which causes some very
abusive behavior among the undergrads.

Hey I loved Feynman -- but his book about himself idealized
abusive behavior as proof of intelligence -- in that awful story
about how to punish a waitress for not thinking clearly enough.
"MOst people don't think" was his thesis. WELL most people are
not going to work as waitresses in order to qualify for his physics
class either and he has no right to impose his idea of who he
thought she should be on HER.

A woman at Caltech wrote an editorial about how Feynman'sown
story teaches young people to equate intimidation with genius --
and you should have seen how many people rose up to defend
Feynman's battle against the ignorant masses outside of physics.
As if he really was in battle with them! Not true, but the
CULTURAL NORMS being passed through his anecdotes will
create such a battle eventually.

Well, the SSC being cancelled may have been the first shot from
the "other side".

I vote for peace and a process of cultural evolution to make 
intimidation no longer a cultural norm in physics.     

Being smart is no excuse for treating other humans like garbage. I
wanted to say this every time I heard those Pauli stories, but
I felt -- intimidated. No more. Let's forget that abusive man. There
are plenty of people who did great work who were not abusive.

Well, there must have been -- but nobody tells stories about them.

Why not?


PS Let's make a great physics legend out of how Leibniz tried to
get Maria Winkelman appointed the Court Astronomer! There was
a good man whose efforts to conquer sexism were 300 years ahead
of his time.  This is what we should be RECYCLING from the past
-- not those old Pauli stories. 

There are good role models for young men in physics. We should
not be handing them Pauli for a role model. That is a crime we
commit against ourselves even.

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