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A Woman's Place in the Cosmos

Some Scientists Want Harvard's Summers To See That for Girls, The Sky's the Limit

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page C01

The California desert was a natural choice for the mid-January family gathering. Vera and Robert Rubin, two of their grown children, a smattering of grandchildren -- they had all been in San Diego for the annual American Astronomical Society convention. Theirs is a family of scientists -- a biologist, a geologist, a geophysicist, a mathematician. Vera is an astronomer. So is her only daughter, Judith Young.

Outside, the desert provided scientific riches. The flowers were in bloom; the landscape beckoned. Above, the sky was brilliant, the stars clearly visible, the wonder of the galaxies spread out, begging for study, for exploration.

Astronomer Vera Rubin views the issue of women in science differently from Harvard's Lawrence Summers. "I think the question is, are there women . . . who want to do science . . . but they never really got the opportunity?" (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

Inside, at the dinner table, there was one topic of conversation: Harvard President Lawrence Summers and the controversial remarks he had just made about women in the sciences.

Vera Rubin had her opinions, strong ones, and she was not hesitant to express them. Young tried to avoid the subject, declaring his comments "uninspiring and false."

The effort was fruitless.

"We discussed it every day from then on," Rubin says.

Was there debate?

"Well," she says, "if there was a debate, we were certainly all on the same side."

Astronomers know that when you look at the stars, at galaxies, there is so much more than simply what can be observed, even through a telescope. That what is hiding behind the surface is deeper, richer, far beyond anything the average person might think or see. This is what captured the imagination of Rubin as a young girl studying the sky outside her bedroom window in Northwest Washington. This is what enraptured Young the day she learned about black holes -- from her mother, by then a world-class astronomer who was guest-teaching a class at Wilson High School.

Summers has since apologized, repeatedly, for what he said that January day, calling his remarks "ill-informed." He saw what he considered to be a dearth of women in "high-end scientific professions" and had offered up his own personal conclusions. Maybe it's because women do not have the same "intrinsic aptitude" for these fields, he suggested, or maybe they make tradeoffs when it comes to balancing work with family. Maybe, he said, the discrepancy wasn't about socialization -- girls being encouraged in certain fields, boys in others -- but rather about taste.

Denice Denton, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz and a specialist in electrical engineering, sat in the audience. By her own estimation, she was one of only a few female physical scientists there; most attendees were economists, like Summers. Listening to Summers, she says, was "weird." And shocking.

"It's almost inexpressible," Denton says weeks later on a visit to Washington. "Difficult to listen to. Challenging. Provocative. But when you started hearing things that you knew were not right . . ."

She shakes her head.

Once the remarks became public, they started a wildfire. The suggestion that women had less aptitude for science, in particular, made many people irate. Some academics and columnists rose to Summers's defense, arguing that academia should be a place where open discussion is encouraged, not ruled by political correctness. Op-eds were written, statistics cited. Harvard's own hiring record on diversity during Summers's tenure was explored. Questions were raised about his managerial style, which had ruffled more than a few feathers on campus.

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