issue 182 - April 1988
Science on the couch
Why is science dominated by men? What draws
them to it? Judy Gahagan argues it has more to do with
virility than the creative search for knowledge.
'It's a boy!' read the telegram from nuclear physicist Edward Teller announcing his pride and joy - the successful detonation of the first hydrogen bomb. His choice of image was apposite: a telling hint of what makes mad, male science tick.
Science begins in the mind, of course, keeping company with all the fantasies, conflicts and symbols of the human psyche. When it emerges it is permanently shaped by these things. This is why much of the prestigious science produced over the last three centuries in Western Europe has been obsessed with virility and fertility.
The domains of science are themselves arranged in a prestige hierarchy according to their 'hardness'. Those subjects - such as particle physics - which are most abstract, have least contact with matter, which penetrate' furthest into Nature, are the 'hardest' and therefore the most prestigious. Biology and psychology, which observe living beings interacting with their natural environment, are the 'softest'. This hierarchy has nothing to do with complexity, profundity, progress, even importance. It has everything to do with virility.
Hard science has triumphed in an age of capitalism and materialism. Because it masquerades as the apotheosis of pure reason, few have been inclined to poke around inside its psyche. But as we approach the apocalypse, brought about by its proudest achievements, many reckon it's time to get this god onto the analyst's couch.
Once inside that psyche, we are confronted by three major ideas that have been around for several centuries, and underlie all scientific activity. The first is the division between mind and matter. Since the time of Francis Bacon, (male) mind has sought to penetrate (female) matter.
Related to this idea is the assumption that the scientist's purpose is to control or exploit nature, as opposed to caring for, measuring, conserving - or just simply understanding it. And rounding off the trio is the way each scientific discovery glorifies its author's ego, in a way that, say, running a nursery school could never do. And so the race to be first, to claim paternity, is on. Thus is prestigious modern science relentless, aggressive and competitive.
But before we can look at the minds of individuals, we have to explain how these three ideas came to hold such sway within science's collective psyche. Many people have suggested they arise from a fear and hostility towards feminine principles that is thought to gnaw away at the vitals of the masculine unconscious (and not so unconscious). They see the attack on nature by the scientists as parallel to the rape and exploitation of women in misogynist cultures. This hostility, they argue, is rooted in a fundamental of biology. The story runs thus: the female's role in creating life is visible and unchallengeable. Motherhood cannot be disputed and makes the primary family unit a matriarchal one. The male is excluded from this primal creative process - and his resultant envy and insecurity are terrible. It can only be assuaged by creating secrets and miracles for himself or by exerting total control over women. The assuagement takes many forms. One form is the widespread and brutal enforcement of virginity to ensure biological paternity. A considerably less oppressive method is found among many indigenous peoples, where the men have secret societies and ceremonies which allow them special communion with nature, and from which women are strictly excluded. (Australian aboriginal women comment scathingly that 'men make secret ceremonies, women make babies'.) But the form we know best is men's modern quest to produce fantastic, dangerous and futile technologies in an effort to gain control over life itself.
This quest has the effect of both dominating over and escaping from everything associated with femininity. Scientists have a reputation for being obsessive, working 17 hours a day in conditions of mental and physical isolation. Such dedication earns our approval and we understand that it is essential for scientific progress. But is it? Why should this flight from life be seen to be the real hallmark of the genuinely committed scientist?
And what of the passion to be the undisputed author of a discovery, the father of the brainchild, to be first? In reality there is no hurry at all. In fact, if there had been a bit less urgency about nuclear research, scientists might have got around to contemplating just where the radio-active garbage was going to go. Indeed, the whole course of science might have been different had all scientific papers been published anonymously, solely in the service of knowledge. How would humble anonymity have affected Teller, the proud father of the H bomb (see Box)?
The mysterious nature of scientific research, its isolation and the secrecy so often surrounding it, also help feed the myth of genius. The genius is a person with a different kind of intellect, blessed with extraordinary gifts and powers. Or so we've always assumed. But recently psychologist Robert Weisberg has been examining the evidence for this assumption. And he has discovered that the processes needed for solving problems like the structure of DNA, the mechanism of evolution, the behaviour of particles, are no different from those involved in putting a new lock on the front door or investigating which signals an autistic child responds to most positively.
To qualify as genius, a scientist will indeed have above average fluency in certain logical, spatial or mathematical operations. But more important than these is their fascination, or obsession, with a subject. This means they often persist with a single problem for years. Using biographical and historical documents, Weisberg demonstrated convincingly how perfectly ordinary were the processes leading to 'great' discoveries. Only the obsession with the subject and the passion to be first were distinctive to the genius. Yet both are, as we have seen, potentially lethal characteristics.
All this leads to a conclusion: that true science must emerge from feminine and masculine qualities. Every institution that isolates men from the creative care of children, that alienates them from the feminine in themselves and other people, helps to set in motion a monstrous perversion of human intellect, rather than a creative search for knowledge.
Judy Gahagan is a freelance writer and former psychology lecturer based in London.
Dr Edward Teller, the American physicist, has been a crusading cold-war scientist for nearly 40 years. He was a member of the Manhattan Project - the Allies' brains trust trying to beat Nazi Germany to inventing the atomic bomb.
The whole area of atomic physics was so new at that time that scientists were not sure what would happen. Might a nuclear explosion ignite the heavy hydrogen in seawater or set off a chain-reaction in atmospheric nitrogen? Would the seas and skies catch fire, instantly destroying the world?
The task of finding out was assigned to Dr Teller. That there are no certainties in atomic physics didn't seem to bother him. Nor did the warnings of many of his fellow scientists. 'If the super-bomb is successful,' said Einstein, 'annihilation of all life on earth has been brought within the range of technical possibilities'.
Teller was not impressed. He simply stated that fusion was the logical next step after fission in the progression of scientific enquiry. And when it was suggested that scientists should take responsibility for their work, he invoked that time-honoured and self-serving disclaimer: 'use must be separated from development'.
After Hiroshima he could not claim the military would never use these terrible weapons. Nor did he try. Instead he took his crusade directly to the military and the politicians, confident that the super-bomb was technically feasible. And his fervent anti-Communism earned him a special place in the hearts of political and military leaders of the time.
His personality helped too. Teller was no ranting despot like Hitler, nor a cold sadist like Mengele, the infamous Nazi concentration-camp doctor. He was affable, gregarious and charming, popular with his students and his cronies in Washington. He spoke articulately, expounding his Ideas with a confidence and optimism that reassured his listeners. Besides, he was the expert and he was famous. So they trusted him.
That is what made him so dangerous. He contributed enormously to the psychic numbing of US citizens. Faced with this ordinary-looking, friendly man, it was hard for them to relate what he was saying - about national security, scientific progress and American values - to a ghastly weapon that could incinerate millions.
In 1952 Teller went to set up the new Livermore weapons laboratory. A few years later, after many nuclear tests in the atmosphere, there was a widespread public outcry over radio-active fallout. Strontium 90 was turning up in the food chain. Increased numbers of cancers and birth defects were predicted. Teller dismissed these fears: 'Radiation from test fallout might be slightly harmful to human beings,' he opined. 'Or it might be slightly beneficial. Or it might have no effect at all.'
Fears about the escalation of the nuclear arms race were also scornfully denounced as 'improbable and fantastic' departures from 'rational behaviour'. Teller himself advocated 'preparedness' for limited nuclear war, including provision of fall-out shelters for the entire population. 'Properly defended we can survive a nuclear attack,' he said. 'We can dig out of the ruins. We can recover from the catastrophe.' Yet this deluded nonsense came from the man who knew better than almost anyone else - because he did the calculations himself - that the temperature at the centre of a nuclear blast is several times the temperature at the centre of the sun.
In Dr Teller's view American virtue and Soviet evil are polar opposites. It is consistent with the beliefs of the new religious Right, with whom Teller Is a favorite, that born-again Christians will be whisked up 10 Heaven before the bombs reach their targets in a nuclear war.
Teller is the apostle of a perpetual arms race. He's always lobbied hard against arms control and we have him to thank for President Reagan's feared Star Wars project. It was he who was instrumental in convincing the President that a missile-killing system based on laser and particle beam technology was feasible.
This scientist has contributed more than anyone else to the terrifying threat we now face, as the world teeters on the brink of disaster, as vulnerable to annihilation by accident as by war. In the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr Rabi, Teller is 'a danger to all that's important it would have been a better world without him'.