On Being What You Want, and Bigotry

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For me, personally, it isn’t the endless immensity of the seas that calls. It’s the endless immensity of space, the Universe, and the stars.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and A. Nota (STScI/ESA).

And I try to not just share my passion for it with my readers and students, but to encourage all of you (and all of them) to follow their passions. Perhaps it’s physical science that excites you, like it does for me. Perhaps you’re excited about space, temperatures near absolute zero, or nuclear or particle physics, among many others.

My experience in teaching physics has now reached the point where I’ve had just about 1,000 students over the course of my life, and I’ve noticed something troubling.

Image credit: USC Physics & Astronomy.

This is the Physics & Astronomy faculty at USC, a fairly typical-looking department. Everyone in this photo is an expert in some sub-specialty of physics and/or astronomy, and has demonstrated a high degree of competence over many years.

They’re also all men.

And this is troubling to me not because I think that any one of these men is unqualified to do their job; I think that’s pretty demonstrably false. But seeing that there are so few female physicists at the Professor level troubles me because, well, I teach.

Image credit: MindingTheCampus.com.

And over the years, I’ve noticed something about my students: the harder they work, the better they do. Pretty much anyone that works hard sees the rewards of doing well. Some students display more of a natural aptitude for it than others, but invariably the ones that end up as the top performers are the ones who love it, who work at it, who think about it (even when they don’t have to), and who challenge themselves to excel.

Oh, right, and in my (admittedly limited) experience, here’s what I’ve noticed: gender is quite possibly the single most negligible factor when it comes to ability.

So why, you might ask, are the vast majority of physics & astronomy faculty members in the United States male?

Comic credit: Randall over at xkcd.

Well, the truth of the matter — and there are far better qualified people than I to tell you about it — is that there are a huge number of factors in play that have discouraged (and continue to discourage) women from reaching the top levels in this profession.

The most destructive one that I’ve heard my whole life, and that I continue to see, however, is also the most absurd.

Image credit: Men Are Better Than Women, which is satire, FWIW.

It’s this idea that men, somehow, are innately better at math and science than women are. No less a formidable figure than Larry Summers has come out publicly and stated:

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

(Emphasis mine; full text of his speech available here.)

How could anyone — much less a professor — even make such a statement and think there’s anything legitimate about it? He goes on to talk about research that shows that, while men and women on average demonstrate the same aptitude for math and science, there are a disproportionate number of men scoring in the very, very top percentiles as compared to women. And sure enough, the data corroborates this.

Now, my question is this: WHO CARES?!?!?!!!!

I mean that, you jerks who study this, who cares? Why should you (or anyone) care what percentage of some category of people score what on some exam?

What do you hope to learn by studying this, other than to justify this infantile position that “men are better than women” at science? What do you hope to accomplish, other than justifying centuries of gender discrimination and discouraging thousands of women from doing something they have an aptitude and passion for? Who benefits, in any way, from making such a tenuous and speculative connection?

Because I’ll tell you what the real loser is from all of this: science.

Yes, that’s right. Science.

If you love it and you want to work hard at it and you have the capabilities to succeed at it, then you can do it. Your SAT scores, your gender, and a whole host of other things that we pretend are important don’t matter. People, whether they mean to or not, display their own insecurities by even asking some of these questions. What matters is what you can do, and that’s largely determined by how hard you’re willing to work. And we should live in a world today where everyone encourages the top students to pursue their passions, because those are the ones who’ll help advance science the most.

So who, in astronomy and astrophysics, would I look to as a great female role model? Well, there are a great number of examples, but here are a few of my favorites:

Caroline Herschel: the first woman to discover a comet, she was the sister and collaborator of famed astronomer (and discoverer of Uranus) William Herschel. Although we’ll likely never know just how much of his work she did, she had a huge number of astronomical achievements, and was the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1828. No woman would win it again until 1996.

Margaret Burbidge: An active astronomer and astrophysicist for nearly 70 years now, Margaret Burbidge is most famous for her work in figuring out how nearly all the chemical elements found in the Universe were formed in stars! She faced more overt gender discrimination than anyone else I can think of in modern times:

She was turned down for a Carnegie Fellowship in 1945 because this fellowship would have meant that she would have had to observe at Mount Wilson observatory, which was reserved for men only at that time.

Vera Rubin: you think you had it rough with your applications to colleges? Take a look at what Vera Rubin had to face:

After she had earned an A.B. from Vassar College (1948), she tried to enroll at Princeton but never received their graduate catalog as women there were not allowed in the graduate astronomy program until 1975.

Fortunately for astronomy, Vera Rubin went to Cornell and then Georgetown for graduate school. In the early 1970s, she measured how galaxies rotate, providing an important piece of evidence that there is much more to galaxies in the Universe than simply stars, planets, and gas. (The most common explanation is dark matter, but she is open to the possibility of MOND being correct as well.)

Now, I never had the pleasure of meeting Vera Rubin, Margaret Burbidge, or (of course) Caroline Herschel, but I have met the following astrophysicists:

Virginia Trimble: astronomer, writer, historian, and an all-around incredibly interesting person, she is most well known for her studies on the evolution of stars and galaxies.

Helen Quinn: while more of a physicist than an astronomer, Helen Quinn came up with one of the two most promising dark matter candidates: the axion, as a consequence of a fundamental symmetry of nature that she noticed. She has been awarded the Order of Australia, and is currently a professor of physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. And…

Sandy Faber: co-discoverer of the Faber-Jackson relation (which is, for elliptical galaxies, what Vera Rubin is for spiral galaxies), she also co-discovered the Great Attractor, a gravitational anomaly in our nearby Universe. She is currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz, and helped develop the largest telescopes in the world: the twin Keck reflectors.

Only an absolute bigot could possibly argue that astronomy and astrophysics would somehow be better off without the accomplishments and achievements of these great women, and any one of them would make an outstanding role model. But as far as choosing a role model, I have one more piece of advice. (Which you are free to take or leave as you please, of course.) Someone suggested to me (once) that I might possibly be the next Carl Sagan.

What a great compliment! And in fact, I’m sure that he and I have many things in common, including many of our dreams. But the next Carl Sagan? That’s not who I’m not going to be. I might share many of the same goals and viewpoints that he did, and he might be someone I look up to and respect greatly. But I don’t aspire to be the next Carl Sagan. He was who he was, and he was great and wonderful in his own way.

And I am too, in my own way. I’m not going to emulate him and try to be the next Carl Sagan, I’m going to be the first Ethan Siegel. And whatever it is that you’re going to do, or your kids are going to do, or your students or friends are going to do, I hope you encourage and support them to excel at whatever it is that drives them.

So go after your own dreams, whatever it is that you love. Work hard for it, and don’t let anyone discourage you. If you’ve got the ability (and believe me, more of you have it than you know) and the sustained drive to do it, you can make it happen for yourself, regardless of what anyone else says. Don’t dream it, be it!