Field of Science

Sex in the citadel of science

"The problem was to give birth to a boy
and not a girl," said the fathers of the atom bomb.
Marie Curie did not give birth to any joy.
Tenderly she leans toward jars of glowing radium,
as she had earlier at the bed
of her sleeping daughter Irene. (And then she bore Eve!)
Four years clothed in bitter smoke, in a shed,
stirring a mass in ebullition, nothing secretive,

an iron cauldron, iron rod nearly as big as herself,
a shed no one wanted, not fit for cadavers.
Science is the primordial interest of my life,
nor do I know whether I could live
without the laboratory. Her problem—to give breath,
to let there be light, out of slag, abandoned earth.

— from "Her Crucible: A Poem of Marie Curie" by Margaret Almon

In the latest issue of Nature Chemistry, I have a commentary speculating on why women, despite their increasing presence in the field, win the Nobel in chemistry less frequently than 100 years ago. The essay is framed around Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel prize in chemistry. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Prof. Curie's Nobel (her second).

It's not about mathematical ability (sorry Larry Summers, there's hard data that punctures your theory) or lack of inherent interest. Instead, I wonder if it has to do with the built environment: the size, color, shape of the laboratory and its equipment:
Built space is not neutral, as Winston Churchill noted, “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” As much as scientists use labs to create science, labs themselves create scientists. (Read the rest here....)

1 comment:

  1. I think your chromatographic metaphor is excellent, and sympathize strongly. I think color schemes should be more neutral, and for other reasons: boys are at least as color-stereotyped as girls, as shown by your tea-set anecdote, and we don't want to discourage them from pursuing non-stereotypical interests, either.

    But there's also the matter of consideration for those of us who are taller and larger.

    It's rather hard on the back to work at a bench that's too short; constant stooping is physically painful. Is it better to make benches awkward for tall users so that short users don't have to stand on stools?

    Is there a way of designing benches and blackboards and whatnot that allow people with a wide range of physical sizes to use them comfortably? Must we make the average male user stoop so that the average female user need not feel tiny? There's about a six-inch difference in height between the average female and male in the USA.

    I'm afraid that there is no good way of accommodating everyone. I agree that assumptions about the average user are going to exclude users who don't fit the profile. I'm not sure what to do about it.


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