October 9, 2013

Women in Life Sciences v. Lifeless Sciences

"Now I am become Death,
the destroyer of worlds."
My current Taki's article reflects upon an impassioned New York Times article about the societal forces preventing as many women as men from getting Ph.D.'s in physics. 

Of course, a lot of top female science talent prefers to go into the Life Sciences rather than into physics.

Consider Nobel Prizes. These are lagging indicators, extremely so in the case of this week's Physics Nobel for theoretical work on the Higgs boson 49 years ago. Still, they are of interest.

Let's use 1969 as the year when modern feminist consciousness crystallized. So, here are the before 1969 and after 1969 number of female laureates for each hard science:

Before 1969
Physics: 2
Chemistry: 3
Physiology or Medicine: 1

So, no particular pattern was apparent back then.

After 1969
Physics: 0
Chemistry: 1
Physiology or Medicine: 9

So, in the feminist era, great women scientists have increasingly concentrated upon the higher, messier, living end of Edward O. Wilson's hierarchy of consilience. Even higher up (e.g., in evolutionary psychology), women become even more important.

Personally, having probably had my life saved in 1998 by a new life science invention, the monoclonal antibody for fighting lymphatic cancer, the fact that so much female talent goes into the Life Sciences seems pretty okay with me.

In contrast, the appeal to smart women of working with lifeless things is more limited. Patti Hausman, who has a doctorate in a life science, said:
Most of the physical sciences bore me silly. Efforts to attribute my apathy to "masculinist bias" in the curriculum amuse me no end... Reinventing the curriculum will not interest me in learning how my dishwasher works. It is a thing and things bore me. People are another story. I find them fascinating. 

But the distinction isn't just between the Life and Lifeless Sciences, but between the Life Sciences and the Death Sciences. 

The colossal prestige of physics was permanently cemented on July 16, 1945 at Trinity, NM. As the shockwave from the first ever atomic bomb passed beyond the Los Alamos physicists' observation post, J. Robert Oppenheimer reflected, in the words of the Bhagavad-Gita
"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

To a highly intelligent adolescent female mind, this most famous quote from the history of 20th Century physics is alien and horrifying. To a certain number of highly intelligent adolescent male minds, however, "destroyer of worlds" is the most awesome thing anybody ever said outside of a comic book.

46 comments:

Eric Falkenstein said...

Per Oppenheimer's quote. Johnny Von Neumann's response was that "sometimes someone confesses a sin in order to take credit for it."

SFG said...

Remember Fritz Haber? He helped make poison gas for the Germans in WWI. (Also helped turn nitrogen gas in the air into fertilizer.) His scientist wife was so perturbed by science being used for these purposes she killed herself.

Institute of Economic Understanding said...

interestingly, life arises from explosions (although we're talking about a galactic scale)

Anonymous said...

Bio is a bad field to be in professionally. Very competitive, long hours, difficult to repeat processes and your experiment can die on you. Job prospects are poor for biology Ph.D.'s as compared with engineering, chemistry, math and physics.

I would not generally recommend to any aspiring scientist to go into bio, unless they are sure that is exactly what they wish to do.

However, the nerd-testosterone level in Physics, Electrical Engineering and Comp-Sci is often obnoxiously high. Very similar to the hyper-masculine behavior on Wall Street but with a lot more social awkwardness. And being hit on by arrogant and socially awkward guys at work is nobody's idea of fun.

Anonymous said...

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-janet-yellen-federal-reserve-first-woman-20131009,0,669942.story

Notice her hair but forget her Jewishness.

Talk about red herring.

Look at her hair but ignore what's happening inside her head.

Jokah Macpherson said...

I was talking to my friend's fiance at a football tailgate a few years back. She was a Ph.D. in Physics so I made some comment related to the latest news out of CERN and she said, "Oh, I don't deal with all that stuff. My area of focus is the physics of sickle cell disease."

My take away from this is that even the female physicists are into the science of life rather than things.

Anonymous said...

In contrast, the appeal to smart women of working with lifeless things is more limited. Patti Hausman, who has a doctorate in a life science, said:

Most of the physical sciences bore me silly. Efforts to attribute my apathy to "masculinist bias" in the curriculum amuse me no end... Reinventing the curriculum will not interest me in learning how my dishwasher works. It is a thing and things bore me. People are another story. I find them fascinating.


But life sciences aren't about "people". They're about mechanical chemical processes and basically about stamp collecting the natural world. The close, obsessive observation and cataloging of the natural world (or anything else) is a very male thing.

Anonymous said...

For the same reason, I never got the point of the Title 9 law.

I wasn't real athletic when I was in high school, so I was involved in various activities (for the purposes of getting into a good college) including clubs, speech & debate, etc.

These all had overwhelming numbers of females and very few guys. Even the chess club had a surprisingly large number of girls turn out for it at our school and others we played against.

For theater/drama they were desperate to recruit any guys they could just so that they could have plays.

To me it was obvious females prefer different kinds of after school pursuits than males. It's true these other activities are co-ed and whoever wants to join can. But I still really don't get why it's necessary to have exactly equal numbers of girls participating in sports as boys, and why a lack of that scenario specifically means females are being denied their rights or whatever.

albert magnus said...

50% of female PhD physicists who work in physics are married to a physicist. Are there other fields like that?

My sister and niece watch a lot of Big Bang Theory. I think my sister uses it to guide my niece (who is a teenager) towards goofy, geeky guys (like my bro-in-law) rather than whatever else she may actually find attractive (boy band types). "Look at what fun they are having!"

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, Oppenheimer's softer spoken cousins' theories and activism have begat dysgenesis, destroyer of of the human mind.

Anonymous said...

I'm into people. Things bore me = the math to understand "things" is extremely difficult for me.

a very knowing American said...

At least one woman has made a direct contribution to the Death Sciences (or at least to Death Tech). Hedy Lamarr was described as "the most beautiful woman in Europe." After she moved to the United States she ended up developing a guidance system used by US Navy torpedos in World War II (among other inventions). Probably to a certain number of highly intelligent adolescent male minds, that makes her the most awesome babe who ever existed outside of a comic book.

Mark Plus said...

You can always find outliers:

Mary Sherman Morgan, rocket fuels chemist, certainly right up there in the application of lifeless sciences.

Difference Maker said...

Very similar to the hyper-masculine behavior on Wall Street but with a lot more social awkwardness.

Wall Street is also nerdy simply because of lack of physical combat

Dai Alanye said...

I am sick and tired of hearing about the Hedy-Lamarr-invention-that-defeated-the-Axis.

No! The proposal by Hedy (and some guy whom we never seem to hear of) was impractical, however interesting in concept. It was never used, never developed, never turned into anything but a myth.

Reminds me of the New Zealander who invented the airplane before the Wright brothers, one of many heroes of flight who are enshrined in legend but never actually made it into the air with any degree of success.

But Hedy was a babe, and on that let her reputation depend.

ironrailsironweights said...

I just finished reading Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, a 600+ page history of the US nuclear weapons industry from Los Alamos to the end of the Cold War, focusing on the means for determining when they could be used, the safety measures to prevent unintentional detonations, and especially on the way-too-high number of accidents that occurred.* There are at least a hundred people mentioned by name, quite possibly well over a hundred, and as far as I can tell every single one of them was male.

* = two days after JFK's inauguration a B-52 broke up over Goldsboro, North Carolina and a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb fell to the ground. It had four safety mechanisms designed to prevent accidental detonation. Three of the four mechanisms failed.
Peter

Anonymous said...

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Everyone misinterprets that allusion, including Ulam and von Neumann who knew Oppenheimer.

They think he was taking the part of the "I" and grandiosely speaking to the world. But from the context it's obvious that Oppenheimer was imagining the fireball (as Krishna) speaking to him (as Arjuna) and describing itself. Oppenheimer was expressing his sense of fear and humility, but that's not how it sounded.

This doesn't affect Steve's point, which is that the whole thing sounds romantic and cool to adolescent males.

Anonymous said...

My relative has a BS in Physics and talked himself into an Electronics Engineering job (without ever taking a single engineering or circuit design course) and designed electronics for stuff like Apache helos and Harrier jets. The company topped him out at around $40K+ salary. He LOVED designing war machines and said: "Physics is the science making things DEAD!"

Well, after a couple of years of crap engineering pay, he decided to chuck it all and went into medical physics, getting an MS in health physics; now he makes $140-$150K working in a hospital. He states: "I HATE MY JOB, but for the money I can afford it!"

Guys DIG making machines, making GUNS, making EXPLOSIVES, making FIREWORKS, making SILENCERS, making ham radios and electronic gizmos. Women just don't get it, which is too bad for them. It's like when I was reading an article about women's bras and one complained that designers just didn't understand how to properly design one.Well, NOTHING prevents a female from going into mechanical engineering and designing the proper bra. Heck, didn't Howard Hughes design Jane Russell's bra for some movie?

mukatsuku said...

Anon said "Bio is a bad field to be in professionally" as if this has nothing to do with the women in the profession. The wages drop hard in any field that women enter in numbers. Dermatology, optometry, psychology, marketing, public relations, journalism, etc.

gloria said...

"They think he was taking the part of the "I" and grandiosely speaking to the world. But from the context it's obvious that Oppenheimer was imagining the fireball (as Krishna) speaking to him (as Arjuna) and describing itself. Oppenheimer was expressing his sense of fear and humility, but that's not how it sounded."

That's how I always interpreted it, even when very young. And I'm female.

Mark Plus said...

Somewhat OT, but I've wondered lately about the kinds of hands-on experiences you could have to make you a good science fiction writer, apart from general writing skills and enough literacy in science and engineering to write about future tech plausibly. Seems like guy interests would predominate. For example, Robert Heinlein had a brief career in the U.S. Navy, along with experience in mechanical engineering, some graduate coursework in physics and mathematics, silver mining and working in a political campaign, in addition to the general manual skills acquired by most poor white boys of his generation. H. Beam Piper worked as a security guard and railroad detective, collected guns, went camping and hunting, knew a lot about the history and technology of firearms and had read up on military history, all of which he put to good use in his stories. A. Bertram Chandler worked as a merchant seaman in the British merchant marine, and later in the Australian merchant marine when he migrated Down Under; those experience show up in his depictions of life aboard space ships on interstellar voyages.

Off hand I don't know enough about women science fiction writers who had practical careers in their backgrounds which they drew upon in writing their stories. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

The same pattern is seen in engineering fields concerning the proportion of women.

A quick logarthimic decline is seen going from various disciplines. The percentages were what I observed when at Carnegie Mellon 20 years ago:

Biomedical Engineering (50%)
to
Chemical Engineering (33%)
to
Environmental Engineering (20%)
to
Civil Engineering (10%)
to
Mechanical Engineering (6%)
to
Electrical Engineering (3%)
to
Computer Engineering (1%)
to
Robotics Engineering (0%)

Anonymous said...

I know some people who are in graduate school in one off the more prestigious physics departments, and there seem to be quite a few women entering theoretical physics right now. And doing good work too, from what I understand.

Mr. Anon said...

Many guys who go into engineering or experimental physics, perhaps most guys who do so, have some kind of experience in some kind of technical hobby: electronics, wood-shop, car repair, bicycle repair, ham radio, etc,...........something. How many of those women who go into engineering or physical science have any such background? How many women engineers and scientists, do any kind of technical work at home, such as automotive maintenance, or plumbing, or electrical?

TLR2 antibody said...

Thank you for the informative article Steve.

David Davenport said...

No! The proposal by Hedy (and some guy whom we never seem to hear of) was impractical, however interesting in concept. It was never used, never developed, never turned into anything but a myth.

Sorry, but you're wrong, at least partially wrong. Contemporary tactical radars use frequency hopping, which is rapidly shifting among 2^n random or pseudo-random* transmit and receive frequencies. Frequency hopping improves the signal to noise ratio of the radar, and makes it harder for the foe to jam the radar. The jammer has to either be able to follow the frequency hops or spread his jamming energy over 2^n frequencies.

I dunno whether or not Hedy and George Antheil were actually first to propose the idea.

* True randomness is desired, but hard to generate.


Hedy Lamarr

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler
9 November 1914 [1]
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died 19 January 2000 (aged 85)
Casselberry, Florida, U.S.

Hedy Lamarr (/ˈhɛdi/; 9 November 1914 – 19 January 2000)[1] was an Austro-American actress and inventor, celebrated for her great beauty, who was a contract star of MGM's "Golden Age."[2]

Mathematically talented,[3] she and composer George Antheil invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping ...

Jonathan Silber said...

In these days of Affirmative Action for the Second Sex, any award to a woman for work done in science, including life science, is suspect, and likely as well deserved as the Peace Prize awarded Obama.

dearieme said...

"The colossal prestige of physics was permanently cemented": little is permanent.
The place of physics as the highest prestige science is dwindling away - not least because it's been stuck for decades, unlike the biosciences.

It's a pity for people who like and are good at physics, and who don't have much taste for biology, but we'll just have to thole it.

Anonymous said...

Lamarr had a concept for frequency hopping but it depended on crude electro-mechanical devices - using the mechanism from a player piano. This was impractical and was never developed into a working device. The spread spectrum and frequency hopping that is used today is all electronic and is only conceptually related to Lamarr's invention but does not lie on a direct evolutionary path from it.

M said...

FWIW the full Oppenheimer quote is:

"Some people laughed. Some people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita where Vishnu, seeking to impress the prince to do his duty, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.'. I think we all thought that, one way or other."

Andrew Ryan said...

I work in industry and we have a quite a few female life-science Ph.D.'s. They are uniformly inferior to the men. Very little think-on-your-feet ability or creativity, poor management skills and no "killer instinct" to go after a tough problem and solve it.

They would much rather talk to you about their kids than about science--and they frequently quit to take care of them if their husband makes enough $$$, leaving the project in a lurch.

However, they are fawned over if they even do a half-assed job and frequently promoted over more-deserving men.

Even the prestigious female life-science academics strike me as being fairly dim compared to their male counterparts. They are often nurtured and protected like fragile flowers within their departments and by funding agencies, whereas with the men its dog-eat-dog.

That said the non-Ph.D. women scientists (B.S. and M.S.) are often superior--much more mature, better organized and they actually follow directions (i.e. more submissive)--plus they're more fun to look at and talk to.

David Davenport said...

A short history of spread spectrum [frequncy hopping]

...

No danger of disturbance

Nikola Tesla, the prolific Serbian-American inventor and radio pioneer, filed a U.S. patent, granted on March 17, 1903 which doesn’t mention the phrase “frequency hopping” directly, but certainly alludes to it. Entitled “Method of Signaling,” the patent describes a system that would enable radio communication “without any danger of the signals or messages begin disturbed, intercepted, interfered with in any way”.

Tesla’s patent details a system whereby transmitter and receiver are synchronized and hop between two channels (although the patent notes any number of channels could be used) by altering the carrier frequency in a predetermined sequence to avoid interference.

Such an interesting idea didn’t escape the military’s attention of course, and by 1915, the Germans were making use of primitive frequency hopping radio to stop the British eavesdropping on their conversations. If the British had done their homework, they could have found out the details of the technology by picking up a copy of Jonathan Zenneck’s book Wireless Telegraphy that was originally published in German in 1908, but translated into English the same year as the enemy started using frequency hopping on the front line.

Zenneck was a German physicist and electrical engineer who had got interested in radio by attending Tesla lectures on “wireless sciences”. Wireless Telegraphy includes a section on frequency hopping, and, as it became a standard text for many years, probably introduced the technology to a generation of engineers.[1]

...

Anonymous said...

If you get a Ph.D. in physics (and CS, EE, and ME) you will-- with one, two, or three degrees of separation-- be employed and devote your life to advancing defense-related projects (or technologies to kill people more efficiently) or technologies to facilitate the surveillance state.

If you get a Ph.D. in life sciences you will be part of a company or organization that subjects animals to horrific and barbaric tortures.

What a choice!

Michael Ryan said...

i still remember the day in seventh grade I read that quote

Not Lion of the Blogosphere said...

Mary Sherman Morgan became pregnant in 1943 out of wedlock...and died of emphysema (smoker?) in 2004.

Mary Sherman Morgan was a prole.

Mr. Anon said...

"dearieme said...

The place of physics as the highest prestige science is dwindling away - not least because it's been stuck for decades, unlike the biosciences."

I think you are right. It's not as prestigious as it once was. It's chief output is an ever more dizzying array of "particles" that are really nothing more than bumps on a graph. It doesn't engage the public's imagination as it once did, because a.) it has grown too esoteric, and b.) the public doesn't have much of an imagination anymore.

NOTA said...

Mr Anon:

What is the last breakthrough in physics that has had a big practical impact on the daily life of non-physicists? My guess is that life science is gaining on physics because it's a lot easier to think of biology breakthroughs that matter (all kinds of medical stuff, DNA testing, sequencing to track food poisoning outbreaks, monoclonal antibodies, etc.) but hard to think of a recent physics breakthrough that matters a lot in my life. Maybe quantum computers will do that one day (assuming we can find interesting applications for them other than breaking cryptosystems and simulating quantum systems), but for now, it seems like biology and computer science are where the action is in terms of changing the world.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous NOTA said...

Mr Anon:

What is the last breakthrough in physics that has had a big practical impact on the daily life of non-physicists?"

The laser (1960) I suppose. I can't think of anything after that.

i spy said...

"Mr. Anon said...
"Anonymous NOTA said...

Mr Anon:

What is the last breakthrough in physics that has had a big practical impact on the daily life of non-physicists?"

The laser (1960) I suppose. I can't think of anything after that."

No. Lots of things, but they are not in the public domaine. Any technology that is in the public domaine has been known for decades, by the military usually. Perhaps sometimes by private developers. This is not occult--it's admitted even in MSM. Anything that the military is using now -- and invisibility suits have been filmed in use in the middle east recently -- has been around for many years. The stuff they don't want you to know about, you don't know about. But it will affect everyone eventually.

Anonymous said...

Madonna's ray of light was a pretty big physics breakthrough.

Suck it Larry summers.

Mr. Anon said...

"i spy said...

No. Lots of things, but they are not in the public domaine. Any technology that is in the public domaine has been known for decades, by the military usually. Perhaps sometimes by private developers. This is not occult--it's admitted even in MSM. Anything that the military is using now -- and invisibility suits have been filmed in use in the middle east recently -- has been around for many years. The stuff they don't want you to know about, you don't know about. But it will affect everyone eventually."

No, you are wrong. There is no secret physics, hidden away in secret laboratories under volcanos. The real world does not work like a comic-book or a James Bond movie. Your so-called "invisibility suit" is nothing more than a coat made out of a flexible display, that shows the image of what is behind the wearer, as taken with a camera. There is no new physics there. Even stealth technology, which was a closely guarded secret (and a fairly successfully kept secret too) for more than 10 years, is based on classical electromagnetic theory that was developed over a hundred years ago, and the computer, the development of which has been out in the open.

Anonymous said...

"What is the last breakthrough in physics that has had a big practical impact on the daily life of non-physicists?"

That's easy: the BLUE LED. The BLUE LED topped with phosphors gives you the WHITE LED. Now we have powerful LED flashlights and headlamps at affordable prices. The incandescent bulb flashlight is practically an antique now. As a practical commercial device, invented by a Jap dude, unlike the lab only curiosities previous.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

""What is the last breakthrough in physics that has had a big practical impact on the daily life of non-physicists?""

That's easy: the BLUE LED. The BLUE LED topped with phosphors gives you the WHITE LED. Now we have powerful LED flashlights and headlamps at affordable prices. The incandescent bulb flashlight is practically an antique now. As a practical commercial device, invented by a Jap dude, unlike the lab only curiosities previous."

Yes, you are right - as a practical device that comes out of the physics world (solid-state physics), is very useful, and post-dates the laser (the last one I can think of) Still, it was not the result of a fundmental new discovery in physics - an entirely new physical theory, or hitherto unknown physical effect (the same could be said of the laser, for that matter).

Anonymous said...

America, from checks and balances to unbalanced checks.

Anonymous said...

http://www.theatlanticcities.com/housing/2013/10/economist-who-just-won-nobel-prize-thinks-housing-terrible-investment/7240/

Anonymous said...

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-doesnt-the-constitution-guarantee-the-right-to-education/280583/

FINALLY AN ANSWER TO OUR EDUCATIONAL PROBLEMS! JUST MAKE IT A 'RIGHT' AND SCORES WILL SHOOT UP FOR EVERYONE!!