Who Wears the Pants? A Historical Look at Gender Bias in Physics


By Margaret Wertheim

Times Books, 279 pp., $23

One of the crucial scientific breakthroughs that made the atomic bomb possible came about almost casually. Lise Meitner (1878-1968), the Austrian-born, Jewish physicist, had fled to exile in Sweden after Hitler's invasion of her homeland.

One afternoon, while walking in the country with her nephew, they discussed a puzzling finding: Meitner had received news from her laboratory partner Otto Hahn that uranium atoms were somehow transformed into much smaller atoms of barium when bombarded by neutrons. ''Meitner had a revelation. What if a uranium atom did not absorb a neutron, but was instead split in two by it? ... The importance of nuclear fission was so obvious that in 1944 Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Otto Hahn alone!''

Australian science journalist Margaret Wertheim speculates that had Meitner been a man, she would have been the one to receive the honor. As it was, when the famous scientist Ernest Rutherford came to visit Meitner's and Hahn's Berlin laboratory, ''instead of inviting her to join in the physics talk, he expected her to take his wife shopping.''

In this provocative history of women in science, Wertheim makes a convincing case that women have been systematically and deliberately excluded from the formal practice of physics.

It was not until 1732 that a woman, Laura Bassi, became a professor at a European university. Even in 1990, although women constituted 41 percent of biologists, they made up only 3 percent of full physics professors. The evidence Wertheim presents is clear and unavoidable - for some reason, women have not been able to join the overwhelmingly male-dominated physical sciences.

Her explanation is subtle and unexpected. It is ''to be found in the religious origins and continuing religious currents in contemporary physics ... As the most orthodox denomination of the 'church scientific,' [physics] will be the last to accede to female incursion.'' The physical sciences ask the ultimate questions, about the origin and nature of things. As such, their domain historically has always overlapped theology.

The author is particularly fervent about the increasingly arcane and vehement efforts to develop a ''Theory of Everything.'' She argues that ''expecting society to provide billions of dollars to support this quest, ... physicists have become like a decadent priesthood, demanding that the populace build ever more elaborate cathedrals, with spires reaching ever higher into their idea of heaven.''

Wertheim's answer is to let women help to define the scope of inquiry. Women, she feels are more ''grounded,'' not so fixated on hierarchy. She is quick to deny any innate biological differences between men and women. It is just ''that having generally been acculturated differently ... they have a somewhat different pool of perspectives to bring to the endeavor.'' She feels that women would set goals for physics that will be more useful and achievable than have male scientists.

An establishment physicist might argue that this is a circular argument. If women received equal training and equal opportunities to men, would they still be acculturated differently? Or is there something inherently different, something ''feminine'' about women physicists that would enable them to provide a different perspective? It would be bad science to speculate without more data.

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