Gal Science: Mansplaining Physics

IMG_3213As The Toast searches for its one true Gal Scientist, we will be running a ton of wonderful one-off pieces by female scientists of all shapes and sizes and fields and education levels, which we are sure you will enjoy. They’ll live here, so you can always find them. Most recently: When a Scientist Tries to be Funny.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but at some point in the six years between the first physics class I ever took and the day I started my first adult job as a physicist, something horrible happened: physics became cool. Not nerdy cool or geek chic cool, but actually mainstream cool, or at least mainstream to someone who spends a lot of time on the internet.

I don’t want to be the crotchety, liked-it-before-it-was-cool person who has a problem with this. I want to think it’s lovely that more people are taking an interest in physics. I want to be proud that my field’s outreach efforts are really paying off. I want to focus on the positive impact this good press could have for increased funding in science and for attracting more diversity to physics. But really, I mostly just want to vomit a little every time I overhear someone explaining “The God Particle” at a party.

As a freshman in college, when I told friends and acquaintances that I had decided to become a physics major, I would usually get surprised looks or blank stares. Part of that common reaction was likely because I didn’t (and still don’t) look or behave like an archetypical physicist, but a lot of it was simply that for most people, physics was a conversational cul de sac. Physics either reminded them of some terribly-taught high school class or that image of Albert Einstein with the wacky hair, and they couldn’t tie me to either of those associations. My best guess was that they thought I was smart and maybe a little weird, and to be honest, I was pretty ok with that reaction.

In just a few years the response has completely changed. Although I still occasionally get the bewildered stare, I can divide most of the responses into two categories. Category 1: “So you’re just like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, right?” Category 2: “Oh, you’re a physicist? That’s really cool! I’m so jealous. I love reading about particle physics in my spare time. I’d love you to explain [insert quantum mechanical phenomenon] sometime if you could.”

What interests me about this response is that it almost always comes from the same demographic: young, confident, internet-savvy men. What irks me about this response is that its deliverer seems to think that reading science writing in his spare time has given him enough of an understanding of what physicists do, and consequently what I do, to say that he’s jealous of it. This is mildly annoying but mostly harmless, on the same level as the guy I went out with a few times who texted me out of the blue to ask what an anyon was (I didn’t know, but Wikipedia did) or those silly Neil deGrasse Tyson memes. The effect of the newfound popular science fascination with physics is less tolerable when it intersects with the mansplainers of the world.

After a few summers working at a science museum for children, I grew convinced that scientific mansplainers start at a very young age and continue loudly misinforming anyone who will listen up through adulthood. That job let me see the evolution of the trait from the kids to their dads and now, thanks to celebrity physicists like Brian Cox and Carl Sagan, I get to witness it in my own generation.

To their credit, mansplainers don’t mansplain physics to me if they know I’m a physicist, so for the most part I can only observe from a distance, usually in the form of men (mis)describing physical phenomena to their wide-eyed girlfriends (I overhear this a lot working on the science side of a college campus). I’ve gotten a more interesting perspective the few times I’ve happened to end up in a pop-science discussion in which no one knew my background.

IMG_3207Although I usually try not to chime in on these conversations, every now and then I just can’t help myself. I remember once when I was on the skirts of a conversation between two archaeology students trying to out-mansplain ground penetrating radiation to each other, I caught one of them describing it as, “Just like radio, only with light waves instead of sound.” When I gently reminded them that radio waves are also light, they looked at me like a bug to be squashed, and spoke to me accordingly. I remember wondering just what it was about my looks or demeanor that led them to assume I was so obviously incorrect (when, of course, I was so obviously correct). They were both good guys in that sort of blustery, well-intentioned but still mildly-sexist way, and they were appropriately chastened when they found out about my physics background later that day. Still, I will never forget how I felt when they baselessly tried to shut me down.

I want to stress that whatever annoyance I have with the mansplaining that the increased popularity of physics has spawned is an infinitesimally small price to pay for the amount of kids that are getting excited about physics because of this trend. On the whole, popular attention is a great thing for physics. And it’s difficult to express why I get annoyed with these well-meaning physics hobbyist guys (and really, they are almost always guys) without sounding terribly elitist. The crux of it, though, is simple: physics is hard. Not insurmountably hard, not unapproachably hard, but hard enough that it is virtually impossible for someone with no physics foundation to have a deep conceptual understanding of high-level modern physics. Any cutting-edge research important enough to warrant extensive journalistic coverage is at all odds going to be difficult to parse, even for PhD-level physicists, and even more difficult to convey to the layperson. Because of this, science writers have a very difficult job when it comes to writing about the latest advances in physics. Some do a much better job of it than others, but all of them rely to a certain extent on detailed analogies and metaphors.

The first piece of science writing I read on the Higgs boson coincided with the first time (of many to come) that a physics hobbyist asked me to explain phenomena which I was in no way qualified to describe. I was a sophomore in college, it was the second day of classes, and, in the middle of a discourse on William Blake, one of my literature professors turned at me and said, “Ginny, you’re a physics major. Explain the Higgs boson for us.” At that point I’m not even sure I knew what the Higgs was, and I certainly did not understand what it had to do with William Blake. I muttered some excuses and said that I would read up on it and get back to him. The article I read as a result of his awkward question compared the Higgs particle to Lindsay Lohan (she was more popular and less of a mess at the time) and the Higgs field to a crowded party through which she was trying to move. Something about the way the crowd bunched around her as she made her way across the room was supposedly analogous to the mechanism for creating matter.

I’m sure it was a valiant attempt at an analogy, but I won’t pretend to understand the physics or the analogy well enough to evaluate its effectiveness. My bachelor’s degree in physics does not qualify me to understand cutting-edge physics research to which I’ve had no exposure. It is, however, a huge help in interpreting journalism about physics, because it gives me a greater perspective on what I don’t understand, the ways in which I don’t understand things, as well as some intuition as to where the author is stretching his or her understanding or analogies.

This is actually something that I love about higher-level physics: it forces its student to relax and make peace with their ignorance. It is so difficult to parse, so unknowable in language and concept that in order to gain anything from attempting to study higher-level concepts you must let go of your attachment to answers and content yourself with questions and occasional insights (and, of course, lots of math). Richard Feynman, in an introduction to a lecture on quantum mechanics, put it this way: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take the lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and enjoy it.”

So perhaps I am finally hitting on what is so irksome about the way it’s become cool to casually, confidently explain the latest hot topic in physics news to friends. The assumption that you could understand any of it at all is hubristic and antithetical to everything that I barely grasp about the nature of studying higher-level physics. Read about physics if you like, but do please remember not to understand any of it.

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