PHYSICS, in many ways the most exacting of the sciences, has had special problems recruiting women to its ranks. While the number of first-year physics graduate students in the United States increased between 1979 and 1987, that increase was almost entirely made up by foreign students, says Beverly F. Porter, a statistician at the American Institute of Physics.
Ms. Porter sees a ``physics track,'' which starts with the first high school physics course and extends to postgraduate research. But the overwhelming majority of women never even take the first steps along that path.
In a study of high school students, Porter found that 25 percent of boys took high school physics, but only 13 percent of the girls did. ``It is the major differential at the high school level,'' she says.
Porter believes that while one factor in causing women to drop out of physics is a lack of math, math isn't the entire picture. ``Even those girls who score very high on mathematics tests do not take physics,'' she says. ``Clearly something else is involved.''
That ``something else'' might be a ``lack of hands-on experience'' with simple machines. ``The experience of fixing mechanical things, working with mechanical things,'' stimulates interest in physics, Porter says. It's an experience most girls don't have.
Once students go ``off the physics track,'' Porter says, they tend to stay off. As a result, only one of seven US bachelor degrees in physics go to women, and only one of every 20 working physicists is a woman.