Women want to know the secrets of the Universe, too

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The Independent Online
A recent headcount carried out by the Institute of Physics revealed that only 3 per cent of tenured physics academic positions in the UK are held by women. It's a forlorn statistic and one I am reminded of whenever I visit physics departments around the country and want to locate the ladies lavatory, which will inevitably be a dingy little-used facility in a remote corner of the building.

A dearth of women physicists is not unique to Britain. The writer Margaret Wertheim finds much the same picture in the US, and thinks she knows why. In the course of researching her book Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars, Wertheim experienced a revelation too shocking to be ignored - that physics is, and always was, a quasi-religious culture indulged in by "priestly" male physicists. According to Wertheim: "The age-old link between physics and religion has set up powerful psychological and cultural resonances in our society that continue to serve as a barrier to women."

History abounds with examples of the misogyny of priests and male physicists. Even in the late 19th and early 20th century severe restrictions were placed on women attempting to enter academia. Even Marie Curie, who won not one but two Nobel prizes for her work on radioactivity, and was a distinguished professor at the Sorbonne, was never accepted into the French Academy of Sciences.

This is a familiar tale. So familiar that we have heard it of all professions requiring creative insight or intellectual rigour. It is in no way peculiar to female physicists. History records equally few women composers, painters or High Court judges. The condition of women and the evolution of society is well-trodden feminist terrain.

But Wertheim is arguing something different for the lack of women physicists. She believes that it is a result of a historical conspiracy between physics and religion to create an intellectual framework that has a peculiar appeal to men. Wertheim points to a line running from quasi-religious Platonism, which first sought mathematical relationships controlling but outside nature, through the medieval European monastic academic system which also excluded women, to 20th-century theoreticians who seek a Theory of Everything (TOE), again based on a transcendental mathematical structure.

Modern male physicists are, the argument goes, obsessed with synthesising a unified set of fundamental relationships between the elemen- tary particles comprising all matter and the fundamental forces (electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces and gravity). This is seen to represent a divine signature to be interpreted only by the priesthood of physics. Her evidence for this is that physicists, when writing popular books, frequently allude to God, often including the word God in the title. One example is The God Particle, a book written by the particle physicist Leon Lederman. This is the story of the search for a hypothetical elementary particle that makes possible the existence of all other fundamental particles: thus the "God" particle.

Are women alienated by this theological culture overlaid with its cold, dehumanising mathematical structures? Wertheim believes they are, concluding that we need a new culture of physics that does not value only highly abstracted goals, which is less obsessed with particles and forces, and more concerned with human needs. In exchange women, she suggests, would bring about a new enlightenment.

These arguments are naive and show a limited understanding for the ethos of physics or what physicists do. There is certainly an important part of physics that seeks to understand how the Universe came into being, and searches for a single mathematical principle underpinning the laws of nature but existing outside space and time in some sort of Platonic realm. It is also true that theorists such as Professor Paul Davies have used the God word in their popular writings on the subject. But this is only a metaphor for a mathematical principle. There's also a more cynical reason for getting God into popular science titles: He sells books.

The majority of physicists, however, are not particle physicists and are not the slightest bit interested in developing Theories of Everything. Most work in fields such as optics - designing new lasers for instance - or creating microelectronic devices that will eventually end up in your mobile or laptop. Nevertheless, even these more applied aspects of physics depend upon the work of theoreticians probing ever deeper into the complexities of nature.

Complaining that physics is too abstract is rather like complaining that the Pope is too Catholic. Physics is quite different from chemistry or biology in its formalism. Chemistry and biology rely on largely empirical descriptions built on observation and experiment. Physics attempts to draw mathematical descriptions, or models, based on some fundamental principle, which it then tests experimentally. The aim is always to make the model as general as possible. For instance, current TOEs are based on models of mathematical symmetries between particles and forces. Similar models are now used to describe phenomena in many other areas of physics, so revealing a universality within nature at all levels that is at once elegant and profound. This is what physics is all about.

But to say women are turned off by such deep mathematical concepts is plain wrong. Just like boys, girls are attracted into physics by the romance of understanding how the Universe works. My own daughter who read physics confirms that the exciting courses were cosmology and particle physics. For this reason there are, I suspect, more women physicists working in theoretical physics and astronomy than in other areas. Indeed the five women physics professors in the UK all work on some kind of fundamental physics; they include Gillian Gehring, a theorist at the University of Sheffield, and astronomer, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell at the Open University.

My contacts with male theoretical physicists suggest that they have a lot in common with women, being rather gentle people, much concerned with moral issues. Indeed, it is the applied physicists - the engineers - who are more likely to claim that women do not have a disposition suitable for the rigours of physics.

The reasons for the shortage of women in physics are, sadly, mundane. Thirty or forty years ago, before comprehensives existed, domes- tic rather than physical science was considered appropriate for girls. Few girls' grammar schools had physics departments. I was unusually lucky at that time to be able to do a full complement of science A-levels. I can remember being ridiculed for being interested in physics not just by friends but also by some teachers. There are therefore still too few senior women physicists old enough to be role models for younger women.

A second hurdle is managing family commitments and work. Experimental physicists are expected to work long hours, often at facilities far from home. Creative theorists, unlike other scientists, do their best work between the ages of 25 and 35 when many women are occupied having children. This is now recognised in academia, and the Committee for Vice Chancellors and Vice Principals is working with funding research councils to offer career breaks to women researchers.

Wertheim is looking in the wrong place. With the right changes in educational policy, we will see many more physics "priestesses" in the lab - and more accessible loos.

Margaret Wertheim's 'Pythagoras' Trousers' is published by Fourth Estate

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