Monday, November 25, 2013

Physics and Testosterone Part 1: Captain Kirk

The New York Times Magazine had a really interesting article by Eileen Pollack about women in physics last month. And the week after, the Nobel Prize was announced, and the recipients were, no surprise, men. It got me thinking about how gender and physics. I happen to know a lot of physicists, some Nobelists, and a fair number of women who are physicists. One or two of the women might win a Nobel one of these years, but the odds aren't so good.

Thinking back on my training in physics, I realized that I have some stories to tell that might shed some light on the effect of gender on the development of scientists, engineers, and technologists, and how to do better.

My sophomore year at Princeton, I took the physics-major track physics courses. For Electricity and Magnetism, we had a professor fresh out of Caltech, who we all called "Captain Kirk". As rumor had it Captain Kirk borrowed his curriculum from a graduate course at Caltech which had a track record of producing Nobel Prize winners. The textbook was completely inscrutable and the problem sets were pretty much impossible.

Looking back on it, I'm pretty sure that if the curriculum ever produced Nobel Prize winners, it wasn't because it did a good job of teaching the material. More likely it was effective because it did a terrible job of teaching the material. Which had 2 consequences:

  1. All us smart-ass physics students quickly realized that we weren't nearly as smart as we thought we were. We were unaccustomed to the fear of failure, and it motivated us.
  2. We formed groups to work on problem sets together and taught each other the material.
  3. Except for the freshman who miraculously did all the problem sets on his own.
What struck me from Pollack's article was a quote from Meg Urry, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale:
“Women need more positive reinforcement, and men need more negative reinforcement. Men wildly overestimate their learning abilities, their earning abilities. Women say, ‘Oh, I’m not good, I won’t earn much, whatever you want to give me is O.K.’ ”
Maybe Captain Kirk's course was really designed to discourage us. Filled with testosterone or conditioned by society, the guys among us were stupidly overestimating our capabilities and we needed to be brought down to earth. We had all been solo stars in high school, and we needed to to be forced to work with our peers. We needed to be broken down so that we'd be more open to new ideas.

Probably the one woman in our study-group didn't need to learn those lessons. More positive reinforcement could have helped her more. (She ended up getting the physics degree just fine and went to med school.)

Despite Captain Kirk's hopes, no one from the class has won a Nobel Prize, yet.


  1. I assume many intro STEM courses are designed to discourage (and I have issues with this fact, having been through a math department that overhauled its core curriculum to be inclusive, with outstanding results).

    I notice that my female programming students are more likely to express confusion or uncertainty or other negative emotions, even though their ideas are not necessarily worse than those of the male students. In fact, while I haven't noticed any particular gender skew in who's likely to be struggling with the material (in my oh-so-large sample set of 29), I think the women who express confusion are more likely to explain their reasoning in depth and to evince signs of productive, even if incomplete, lines of inquiry. But that doesn't help you if you interpret the feelings as signs of inadequacy and don't continue, now does it....

    And physics. Physics! Which I was thinking about majoring in when I entered Mudd, and was not thinking about majoring in two weeks later. Somehow it and CS are the most acute of the STEM fields for gender issues. One of the things I noticed at Mudd, and Grant noticed at MIT (did you also see this at Princeton?), that we could never quite figure out, was that, while there was only a tiny handful of female physics majors, they were all *terrifyingly brilliant*. One of them, a year before me, literally won a national prize for her senior thesis.

    I mean, I know that the bar for getting into STEM in the first place is higher for women than for men - at equal talent levels the path of least resistance can point in different directions for gendered reasons. But I was never clear why that effect seemed so much more pronounced in physics.

  2. I have to ask: Do you know what became of the freshman who did all the problem sets on his own?

    1. Yes, he's a well known string theorist.