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Book Review

Beamtimes and Lifetimes: the World of High Energy Physicists

by Beth Hufnagel

Beth Hufnagel is Associate Professor at Anne Arundel Community College

January 2006

Beamtimes and Lifetimes: the World of High Energy Physicists
by Sharon Traweek (Harvard University Press: 1988), 162 pages ISBN 0-674-06348-1

How many times have you heard about a book that speaks to the experience of an outsider in a white male world and it sounds so interesting… but you never have the time to find it, much less read it? I was fortunate enough this summer to be selected by my college’s Women’s Institute for their Summer Seminar on Gender and Race (http://www.aacc.edu/ womensinst/Summer_Seminar05.cfm). This was a chance to spend the summer reading all those books that promised a sympathetic and independent viewpoint of my culture — and get paid for it!

A good place to start is with a book by an anthropologist studying the “exotic” culture of physics. I was eager for a fresh look at my profession through a trained outsider’s eye! When I decided to become an astronomer in 1985, I was coming out of a white male profession— corporate auditing — that had shifted dramatically in its acceptance of women over the thirteen years that I was in it. Naturally I assumed that this was about to happen in physics. Traweek addresses some reasons why it is not changing.

The story is a little out of date; Traweek studied the physics community for five years in the mid-1980’s, spending time at KEK (Japan), SLAC, and Fermilab. (She also earned her Ph.D. from UCSC, but thirteen years before I did.) This was before the SDI (a.k.a. Star Wars) and the superconducting supercollider (SSC) debacles yanked the high-energy physicists off the pedestal they’d built during World War II. However, it is fun (with 20-20 hindsight!) to identify the seeds of the downfall. Traweek starts by comparing the great particle accelerators to medieval cathedrals — “free from the constraint of cost-benefit analysis” run by “heroes of the search for truth.”

Whenever I’m sitting in some plenary rolling my eyes at a particularly sexist or bigoted comment from an otherwise highly-respected scientist, I get these messianic ideas about changing the culture. However, before you can change a complex system, you’ve got to understand it — and I don’t have the background. So it’s good to start with the basics, like what are “culture” and “community.” “Culture” to an anthropologist is a group’s shared set of meanings, the patterns of how the group makes sense of their experience. The four domains of community life are studied in this ethnography: ecology (e.g., means of subsistence), social organization, developmental cycle (e.g., training novices), and cosmology (e.g., the system of knowledge, skills, and beliefs). So I learned that, appropriately enough for an astronomer, it was the cosmology of physics that I wanted to change.

I frequently felt the shock of recognition with Traweek’s experience as an outsider in high-energy physics and my own experiences in my quest to be an astrophysicist. For example, she found that senior physicists were courteous and helpful, e.g., shocked by her low pay and small grants; they gave her advice on how to work the system better. The junior physicists, though, told her secrets that “we never tell anyone.” Granted, she wanted the information, but on the other hand she was disconcerted about not being “anyone.” I also experienced senior physicists as kind and helpful, if a little bemused by a 30-something woman wanting to be a scientist. I soon learned to recognize the bright and/or powerful scientists — they were not threatened by my aspirations.

Traweek describes the particle-physics community as functioning with “elaborate and stylized combat.” This could explain why a physics professor told me in 1988 that men were intrinsically better at doing physics. It’s helpful to me almost twenty years later to re-process that statement differently, less painfully. Perhaps he didn’t mean that I was intellectually challenged, but rather that women were not equipped to win the physics “war.” Now that I can take pride in: I like to think that women will recast physics as a cooperative quest for knowledge rather than a war for personal fame and glory.

The other theme she explores is the parallels of physics and religion, which I first explored with Margaret Wertheim in Pythagoras’ Trousers: Physics, God and the Gender Wars. This idea appeals to me because I see a parallel between physics and the traditional religions struggling with how technology has eliminated traditional gender roles, and reacting as if their very foundations are being attacked. The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown) may have taken this a bit too far, but the fact that my otherwise-progressive ordained-minister niece won’t read it tells me maybe not.
Traweek also identified a trait of the physics community that had been a common theme in my first profession, so I was not aware of it. This is the “… deeply felt tensions about time that I found coiled at the center of this culture.” When I first read this sentence, I felt that it accurately described how I feel about time; never enough, never spent effectively or efficiently enough, things always take too long, why do all those co-workers just want to chat? I must get certain tasks done today! I have a wonderful family, interesting students and pleasant colleagues — why do I resent taking the time to enjoy them? As a colleague at Michigan State commented as we drove by people lolling on their porches on a Saturday afternoon “Don’t those people have data to reduce?” Well, no, they don’t. Traweek perceives this “terror of losing time” as deliberately cultivated by the culture as a driving force. What a relief — I’m not dysfunctional, merely over-indoctrinated!

I enjoyed Traweek’s tour of SLAC and KEK, partly because I’ve spent time at Argonne and Livermore and the descriptions, like the female “pinups,” brought back old memories. It’s not surprising that she’s good at giving tours of particle accelerator facilities, as this job was her introduction to this world. I again empathized with some of her experiences: it seems hard for men to understand how insulting it is to a woman when outsiders assume on sight that she can’t possibly be a source of information, but she captures it here beautifully. She also noted the conformity in dress — “a distinct lack of fashion, quality or fit” — required by the physics culture, although she seemed to miss that the physicists insist that there are no such rules, yet haze those who dare to wear a skirt or makeup. And of course, it’s interesting to learn basic information, like the SLAC accelerator is a 4-inch diameter copper pipe.

Beamtimes and Lifetimes explores some themes I’ve read about before (like physics as religion), but also gave me some fresh insights into differentiating between my cultural indoctrination and myself. Not bad for a 15-year-old book!

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