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Zer Netmouse
April 12th, 2008
07:58 am


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erg, I say, erg.
Over on a discussion about Scalzi's "Big Idea" Guest post by Vox Day, Pretty Lady responded to a post I made about how it is in fact true that few women (incl. authors) are trained in physics, and I didn't think Vox was necessarily saying women SF authors don't write as much hard SF because they can't because they're women, but that they don't tend to, and maybe that's related to the whole not knowing physics and not wanting people to attack their writing for inaccuracies thing.

Comments seem to be closed over there, but I wanted to respond to this.

    I'd said:
    I don't think he was saying "women by the gender can't hack physics," I think he was saying "here's a pattern I see."

    Pretty Lady wrote:
    Absolutely. My personal opinion is that we are perfectly capable of hacking the physics; we just don't want to.

    There is a new book out which supports my assertions that women's minds work more holistically and less linearly than men's, which tends to mean that we focus more on relational activities than hard science or highly driven career paths. This is not, in my view, a weakness, so much as a genuine difference which has very good reasons for existing, and which we attempt to ignore at our peril.

So as a scientist, I feel maybe someone should point this out:

There is a ton of holistic and non-linear thinking in science.
Hard science.
Oh yes.

Even if women do tend more toward that sort of thinking, that is no reason for them not to go into the sciences. Interestingly enough, tons of women do go into several hard sciences (have you ever tackled microbiology? Not easy, I tell ya. Science? Oh yes.) The fact that fewer women go into theoretical and experimental physics I think has more to do with social influences and perceptions of the field that are inaccurate. Such as the one above.

One of my favorite nonlinear thinkers is also one of my favorite scientists - Richard Feynman. And one of my favorite books as a kid was about the "Aha"! experience when you suddenly see a different way around a hard mathematical problem - not necessarily through linear thinking. It's called Aha! Insight, by Martin Gardner.

In experimental science, a lot of the process is "what about this? oh! did you think of that?"; when an experiment fails, linear thinking will lead you to do it again the same way you planned in the first place. It is the less linear leaps of logic, combined with the willingness to investigate and try something that might not work, that makes up science. We often demonstrate something experimentally based on a holistic observation, and *then* tackle the process of coming up with theory (also holistic!) to explain it that will satisfy the linear logic approach. Thus we get many shaky theories that are disproved later. But that's okay! That's science.

Personally, I think part of the reason fewer women go into this sort of science is that we are (for multiple reasons) socialized to be shyer about risk-taking; perhaps we take it more personally when something doesn't work. For instance, research indicates that in junior high girls of a same above-average ability as boys in math will be less likely to think that they are good at it, whereas boys are more likely to think they are good at it but that the subject is hard; girls take the challenge as more reflective on their own abilities than on the subject.

In engineering, failure is part of the process. My dad's an engineer and always tried to press into me that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. Or, as Edison allegedly said about developing his version of the light bulb, "I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work."

There are other misperceptions of the field, such as that physics is done in lonely towers and underground laboratories by bachelors who are more interested in books and subatomic particles than they are interested in people and you have to be asocial and averse to sunlight and healthy living to even want to go that way. That is, uh, also untrue. Happily.

I do have to admit that in many grade schools non-linear thinking in math is punished by the system. "Show your work!" and "That's not the right way to do the problem" are sayings that plagued many of us in school, where teachers have one way to do things in their textbook and are uncomfortable with kids who think faster or differently than they do. There was a front page newspaper article in Ontario while I was in school there about a girl who seemed to have discovered a new method for factoring polynomial equations. Well, it wasn't new, it just isn't taught(that was pointed out a few days later). Because sometimes, in some ways, school sucks. And teaching kids there is only one way to solve certain types of problems is one of those ways.

(14 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2008 02:40 pm (UTC)
Yes I believe social pressure has a lot to do with the sex divide in not just the sciences but all across our society. How many female IT workers do you meet? Not a whole lot.

But, I believe there is more to it than that. I believe it's a matter of the methods of teaching. Although a lot has been done in the past couple of decades, men, women, different cultural backgrounds, non-NTs, etc all learn differently. Our education system is not geared towards this idea at all. (note: I'm not saying some teachers don't try or aren't taught this just that the system isn't setup to handle this)

Basically everyone is taught the same way. This has meant that one type of teaching works well for one type of brain in math... while another works better for say sociology.

I think we need to embrace the idea that all people are created equal but some are more equal than others. Not in the manner that it was originally used in but in the idea that everyone is equal and deserves the same chances to suceed but that everyone is also different and we need to embrace that difference.

[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC)

If I meet a female IT worker the odds are that she is Indian or Asian. For every WASP female IT worker there must be 10 that are Indian or Asian. If that doesn't scream cultural bias I don't know what does.

[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2008 02:52 pm (UTC)
All good stuff. There are plenty of social pressures that discourage women from going into science, and not just the obvious one of a male-dominated environment. For example, science often requires a sophisticated lab, which makes it much harder to work from home, so if you have kids you are much better off with a job that only requires a computer. Also there are some rather odd strains of feminism that claim all science is a tool of the patriarchy. These might be small things, but they all add up.

And while it may be true that you have to think like a man to do science, it may be true that the way science is taught is more friendly to male brains than it is to female brains.

On the IT issue, when I was in software development full time I preferred women programmers if I could get them because they tended to be more interested in producing code that worked and was understandable whereas the guys were often obsessed with showing how clever they were.
[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC)

Various people have been giving me various pieces of evidence that all the differences we currently see in how men and women think exist because of cultural issues. So I think that stating that some particular way of thinking is "how women think" is generally pretty dangerous.

Now, I definitely do notice this trend with female authors.

One author I've been a bit impressed with is Naomi Novik and her dragon series. Partly, she just says "dragons exist" without a whole lot of explanation. But partly she also doesn't give them weird, extraordinary abilities that just don't make sense in a world without magic. She explains their flying, for example, by implying that they are basically living blimps.

And she gives a good reason for world history to have gone along very similar paths regardless of the existence of dragons by having their date of domestication be fairly recent and having dragons themselves tend to not form cultures of their own.

This is way more carefully analytical than I would generally expect of a female author in the US. I don't think female authors are incapable of this (as they obviously aren't since Naomi is female) they just generally choose not to for some reason.

[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
You seem to be saying (correct me if I'm wrong here) that you don't expect female authors in the US to be analytical (or "that analytical") and logical in creating their invented worlds.

Rather than get all defensive about this (for myself and other female authors in the US), let me ask first what you mean by "analytical." Mind you, I like Novik's books, and I agree that she set a good solid background under them. But so have other writers I enjoy, both male and female.

IMO, all good stories have good interior logic--whether they're SF or not. If there's an impossibility (in SF, anyway) it needs to become part of that book's logic; it needs to make sense in that book-universe. "Analytical excellence" in a story (and especially in SF) means to me that the writer has thought about the implications of their maguffin, and worked it all out in a way that feels right to the reader with some awareness of the field. IF this were possible, yes, it could work like that.

So, what do you mean by "analytical" and (just as important) can you give examples of books by US female SF writers that you feel do not compare well in that department with Novik?

[User Picture]
Date:April 13th, 2008 02:53 am (UTC)

I hope this clarifies


Good interior logic is a quality I consider the mark of a good storyteller in general. And I don't feel that US female authors are worse or better on average in this regard than male authors. The quality I mean by 'analytical' I guess is a bit different than that.

Also, thinking about it, there are several male authors who don't meet this criteria I thought of either. But I do feel that a lower percentage of female than male authors meet it.

I think the criteria is best exemplified by a set of Vernor Vinge stories in the 'Peace War' universe. In that universe there exists a piece of technology that can stop time for an arbitrary spherical volume for some arbitrary period of time (but fixed at the time of the bubble's creation) in the timestream the spherical volume is in.

He very carefully works through all the physics implications of this technology. For example, it creates a region of space that is totally opaque to neutrinos. It is a perfect mirror. When you touch the surface it's warm because it's reflecting the heat radiation of your hand back at you. There are no violations of known physics.

He also works through a number of really interesting uses. He thinks about how it might be used in war. It has obvious offensive applications. But it's also a good defensive weapon. The characters very cleverly exploit their enemy's lack of knowledge of what the technology actually is (it's originally thought to just be a permanent impermeable barrier), even though the enemy can use the technology themselves.

It's not just a maguffin, it becomes a real feature of the world in which the story takes place.

I'm going to contrast this with some stories by his ex-wife, Joan D. Vinge. In particular the Snow Queen series. These are awesome stories, and are among my absolute favorite stories in the SF genre. But she doesn't take this approach to her technology.

She makes use of advanced nanotech, but the nanotech is mostly magic. This is partly OK because the series is set after a grand fall of civilization in which a culture based on this advanced nanotech has destroyed itself by accident. But the characters largely use the nanotech as an environmental feature. The nanotech also frequently breaks various known physical theories with no particular explanation of how or the wider implications of these physical theories being discovered to be incomplete. It just does what the author says it does and it moves the plot forward.

And I guess you could look at this as a hard-SF vs. soft-SF distinction. That's how the distinction I'm making is usually seen. I usually see it as looking at just how far down you're willing to carry the implications of the change you're making to the universe the characters exist in.

[User Picture]
Date:April 13th, 2008 05:06 am (UTC)

Re: I hope this clarifies

Thanks for your thoughtful answer. I agree that though what you're talking about is often seen as a dividing line between hard and soft SF, it's more a matter of following the implications of a change (or, in non-SF, the implications of any other story element) down to the bedrock, as far as you know it.

What I've noticed is that some readers do not recognize this kind of rigor if some other element they think frivolous or fluffy is also in the book. (Note, I'm not imputing that view to you.) I ran into it years ago when an ANALOG reader objected to the serial of one of Lois McMaster Bujold's books because a) it was by a woman writer and b) it "had no science" in it. Actually, it was chock full of interesting science ideas--but they were largely (not completely) based in biology, and although the implications very thoroughly worked out, that reader could not see the biology (including human genetics and reproductive technology) were in fact part of science. It was by a woman; it dealt with reproduction; therefore it wasn't science--to that reader. Since my science background is primarily biology, I was seeing the science in the story easily (as well as the socio-political fallout from it.)

Some years after that, I was given a book described on the cover as hard SF, and blurbed by those whose names are familiar as a worthy successor to Heinlein. It was so full of nonsensical rule-breaking that I kept bouncing it off the wall. (A small, rocky, waterless satellite of a gas giant--small enough to walk around in four hours--has Earth-normal gravity and atmosphere--not under a dome. The inhabitants walk around in shirtsleeves outside. Though there's no water on the surface, and no water in the caves our heroes explore, there's plenty of water coming out of faucets and shower heads. And fresh fruit on the table, though there's no sign of a greenhouse. After that, the way our heroes' spacecraft dealt with the realities of spaceflight wasn't a surprise...but also wasn't convincing.) Why would anyone consider it hard SF? Because the author was male? Because it lacked any obvious girl cooties? (Whatever, in the minds of readers, passes for girl cooties in SF.) Dunno. Still annoys me.

But I digressed...my question now would be whether you (or anyone interested in this topic) find plot elements that, for you, obscure the science. I'm not talking about too much infodump (which definitely does it for me--if I want data as data, I read journals...) but about things in the plot that by their nature make the science seem less valid, or less rigorous.

[User Picture]
Date:April 13th, 2008 09:01 pm (UTC)

Re: I hope this clarifies


I might have a hard time seeing the rigor if there were a lot of romance. But I don't really think so.

I think biology and softer sciences are really tricky. It's very easy for them to fade into the woodwork of a story unless something is done to highlight their existence. I do notice well thought-out evolutionary schemes on alien worlds. I also definitely noticed some interesting biology in David Brin's Glory Season. But both of those are front and center and hard to ignore.

And I have definitely noticed some really interesting and well thought out implications of various bits of linguistics and psychology in some of Suzette Haden Elgin's work.

Psychology and sociology are even harder, and they so often bleed into politics. I think, for example, that Heinlein was generally a poor writer for physics or the implications of interesting technologies (for example there is one story in which he has a character who has memorized log tables and does all the calculations before entering the values into a computer), but that he understood sociology, psychology en masse, and politics better than most.

I think that mostly what I have is a bias towards only seeing this quality in physics or technology.

[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
You have to change the attitudes and perceptions of teachers, fellow students, employers, and most of society. Male programmers and scientists don't take well to having girls out-perform them. They can deal with another guy doing better - but they really hate it when a woman out performs in their field. It's a personal insult somehow. A woman has to be willing to go to battle every day in order to succeed in that environment, and I have to think that most just don't think it's worth the effort. I know I didn't.
[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2008 07:22 pm (UTC)
Is it unsporting to note that listening to Ted Beale talk about gender, science and physics is roughly akin to asking Frank Chu about astrophysics? The man is, full stop, an idiot: time spent paying attention to him is time wasted with no potential for any productive return.
[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2008 08:14 pm (UTC)
"no potential for any productive return"

I dunno. I skipped his essay on Scalzi's blog because I already knew he's a dingbat. And then I got to read this really smart piece that Anne wrote in response. As far as I can see, I've come out ahead.
[User Picture]
Date:April 13th, 2008 03:39 am (UTC)
Well, fair enough. Then again, a cockroach fluttering its wings in Manhattan might, in the long run, cause a cooling breeze somewhere in the south pacific, but that doesn't mean I won't step on the fucker every single time.
[User Picture]
Date:April 14th, 2008 10:10 pm (UTC)
Lisa Randall. 'nuff said.
[User Picture]
Date:April 22nd, 2008 09:44 pm (UTC)
My mom was a professor of physics. She did what she could to encourage female students.

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