THE GENDERED ATOM
Reflections on the Sexual
Psychology of Science By Theodore Roszak
Conari. 144 pp. $21.95
Reviewed by Jennifer Couzin
The slippery mortar that holds science together and lends it credibility can be encapsulated in a word: objectivity. We trust that scientists dissecting DNA or smashing electrons or monitoring meteorites keep their personal views on the back burner until the office door shuts behind them every night.
Theodore Roszak eyes this claim of objectivity with skepticism, and has a knack for asking questions that cannot help but intrigue. "All of us see the world through a glass darkly," he writes in his new book, The Gendered Atom, and who could disagree? The person we are inevitably tints our world view. A historian and novelist, Roszak relies heavily on the intersection of 19th-century literature and science to prove his point. Threaded throughout the book, and adding zest, is the story of author Mary Shelley, which Roszak combines with anecdotes of his own travels through Switzerland while researching a book about Frankenstein. Together, these very different building blocks are intended to fall together like a jigsaw puzzle, confirming Roszak's thesis: Science is stamped with the gender of those who shape it, overwhelmingly men.
Men in ancient Greece could see nothing smaller than a speck of dust. Yet they reasoned that all matter, from horses to bricks to cheese, was built from the same minute, lifeless particles, which they called atoms. Roszak deems early atomic theory impersonal, totally logical and dead for its support of billiard ball-like particles -- and, by extension, gendered. The trouble comes when he tries to prove his point. Dr. Frankenstein, he contends, reflected real-life science in his desire to tame nature, highlighting an obsession with power that many (male) scientists share.
It's true that in their zeal for glory scientists are sometimes aggressively competitive and have even behaved atrociously -- but is this behavior male? A backdrop to male accomplishment until this century, women have barely had the chance to display ambition, let alone amorality, just as they've been denied a palette for their talents. Jane Goodall, who penned the book's foreword, is an oft-cited example of why science could use a few womanly women. Certainly, primate studies have benefited enormously from Goodall's sensitive and patient observations, which revealed that chimps use tools and share human emotions. Perhaps only a woman could have altered the field as she did.
Or perhaps not -- Goodall was unorthodox not only for her sex but also for her lack of university education and her youth. But since she is the only female scientist examined in depth, it's difficult to judge whether she's the exception or the rule. Enamored with Jane Goodall's months of patient observation of chimps, and 19-year-old Mary Shelley's daring Gothic novel, Roszak presumes that women can bring tenderness, receptivity, sympathy and gentleness to science, if only men will let them. To back up this quaint notion, he recalls an exchange he once had with a female scientist, who marveled that Roszak had more insight into woman stuff than she. "I was left to wonder," he writes, "if the fact that these sensibilities seemed more accessible to me than her meant that becoming a successful scientist means leaving woman stuff behind." But why assume that this female scientist was well-versed in woman stuff to begin with?
Roszak rightfully acknowledges that stereotypically feminine traits are hardly restricted to women, but he also undermines his own insight. Turning the pages of The Gendered Atom becomes an exercise in frustration. Roszak raises challenging, valuable questions about the limits of scientific objectivity, and that alone makes the book worth reading. But he fails to distinguish between the culture of science, which in fields like surgery and engineering has demanded some classically masculine behavior, and how or whether that culture influences scientific discovery.
The book quotes Frankenstein and poetry by Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley; it also offers a narrative of the Shelleys' marriage, together with details of Switzerland-based CERN, the mammoth particle accelerator. This creative combination reveals a sometimes macho side of science but does not convince me that at its core, it's gendered.
Maybe I'm missing something. Where Roszak hears violent language, sees attacks on nature or reads early scientific theories as anti-life, I'm amazed that early scientists, relying on philosophy alone, crafted the bare bones of atomic theory. That science benefits from a spectrum of views is no secret. But do men, looking into the lens of a microscope, interpret what they see differently from women by virtue of their sex? That remains to be seen.
Jennifer Couzin. who has covered science and medicine, currently writes about the Internet at the Industry Standard.