PW Question #7 ~ MACHOS

by Michio Kaku

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PW Question #7 ~ MACHOS

Unread postby Liz » Sun Mar 01, 2009 3:36 pm

Let’s discuss the “spherical bastards” and their treatment of “outsiders” and women. From pg. 71-73:

Astronomers universally rejected or ignored the pioneering work of Zwicky, unfortunately, for several reasons.

First, astronomers were reluctant to believe that Newtonian gravity, which had dominated physics for several centuries, could be incorrect….

Second, there was the question of Zwicky’s personality and how astronomers treated “outsiders.” Zwicky was a visionary who was often ridiculed or ignored in his lifetime. In 1933, with Walter Baade, he coined the word “supernova” and correctly predicted that a tiny neutron star, about 14 miles across, would be the ultimate remnant of an exploding star. The idea was so utterly outlandish that it was lampooned in a Los Angeles Times cartoon on January 19, 1934. Zwicky was furious at a small, elite group of astronomers whom, he thought, tried to exclude him from recognition, stole his ideas, and denied him time on the 100- and 200-inch telescopes. (Shortly before he died in 1974, Zwicky self-published a catalog of the galaxies. The catalog opened with the heading, “A Reminder to the High Priests of American Astronomy and to their Sycophants.” The essay gave a blistering criticism of the clubby, ingrown nature of the astronomy elite, which tended to shut out mavericks like him. “Today’s sycophants and plain thieves seem to be free, in American Astronomy in particular, to appropriate discoveries and inventions made by lone wolves and non-conformists,” he wrote. He called these individuals “spherical bastards,” because “they are bastards any way you look at them.” He was incensed that he was passed over when the Nobel Prize was awarded to someone else for the discovery of the neutron star.)

In 1962, the curious problem with galactic motion was rediscovered by astronomer Vera Rubin. She studied the rotation of the Milky Way galaxy and found the same problem; she, too, received a cold shoulder from the astronomy community. Normally, the farther a planet is from the Sun, the slower it travels. The closer it is, the faster it moves……However, when Vera Rubin analyzed the blue stars in our galaxy, she found that the stars rotated around the galaxy at the same rate, independent of their distance from the galactic center (which is called flat rotation curve), thereby violating the precepts of Newtonian mechanics. In fact, she found that the Milky Way galaxy was rotating so fast that, by rights, it should fly apart. But the galaxy has been quite stable for about 10 billion years; it was a mystery why the rotation curve was flat. To keep the galaxy from disintegrating, it had to be ten times heavier than scientists currently imagined. Apparently, 90 percent of the mass of the Milky Way galaxy was missing!

Vera Rubin was ignored, in part because she was a woman. With a certain amount of pain, she recalls that, when she applied to Swarthmore College as a science major and casually told the admissions officer that she liked to paint, the interviewer said, “Have you ever considered a career in which you paint pictures of astronomical objects?”...... When she told her high school physics teacher that she got accepted to Vassar, he replied, “You should do okay as long as you stay away from science.” She would later recall, “It takes an enormous amount of self-esteem to listen to things like that and not be demolished.”

After she graduated, she applied and was accepted to Harvard, but she declined because she got married and followed her husband, a chemist, to Cornell. (She got a letter back from Harvard, with the handwritten words written on the bottom, “Damn you women. Every time I get a good one ready, she goes off and gets married.”) Recently, she attended an astronomy conference in Japan, and she was the only woman there. “I really couldn’t tell that story for a long time without weeping, because certainly in one generation….not an awful lot has changed,” she confessed.
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Re: PW Question #7 ~ MACHOS

Unread postby nebraska » Sun Mar 01, 2009 6:52 pm

I will repeat part of my post in the quotes question

page 227 Lisa Randall "seems out of place in the fiercely competitive, testosterone-driven, intensely male profession of theoretical physics". (my interpretation, theoretical physics is on a parr with bull riding and arm wrestling? :grin: )


To me, the idea that theoretical physics is testosterone-driven seems absurd. My own mental picture of a theoretical physicist is much different and perhaps that is my own prejudice showing.

It must be part of human nature to want exclusivity and to feel superior by comparing other people unfavorably with ourselves. In a field where so much of the work is made up of brain stuff, and much of it is based on the idea that absolutely anything can be possible, I would expect to find more openness than in the population at large.

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Re: PW Question #7 ~ MACHOS

Unread postby fansmom » Sun Mar 01, 2009 7:43 pm

I have a cousin who used to teach physics at Stanford, and he was very much a non-conformist and lone wolf. I don't know if it was rooted in sexism, but he definitely thought there was no point in trying to explain his work to anyone outside of his department, because they wouldn't understand. (Then you're not explaining it right, I thought, but whatever--.)

Then he met the love of his life, got married, had a daughter, and is now astonishingly human. :lol:

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Re: PW Question #7 ~ MACHOS

Unread postby gemini » Sun Mar 01, 2009 8:00 pm

At my age I have worked many jobs in several fields and unfortunately this seems normal human behavior. People like to stay in-groups they feel comfortable in, which means not accepting outsiders. This holds back new comers of both sexes in all fields. Since I am retired now, I hope things are improving. I think in competitive fields it is also a way of holding back new competition.

As for the women, don't get me wrong, I am not defending the all males club but I do understand one thing. With some exceptions, men do better at math. Probably why you don't see so many female physicists.

I have seen many glass ceilings for women and also ran into women who held woman back. This doesn't say that men were not the main resistance to female advancement in the work place. I was in management when it was a big battle for women to hold their own, and saw things improve over the years to where some women wonder what all the fuss was about. Men in the jobs really felt they had enough competition without adding women to the workforce.

I do agree with Nebraska about not thinking using your intelligence has to be on a parr with bull riding and arm wrestling. Women should be able to compete more easily in jobs where strengh is not an issue, but dont get me wrong, if women want to do the heavy lifting jobs, I am all for that too. :grin:
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Re: PW Question #7 ~ MACHOS

Unread postby Liz » Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:33 pm

fansmom wrote:I have a cousin who used to teach physics at Stanford, and he was very much a non-conformist and lone wolf. I don't know if it was rooted in sexism, but he definitely thought there was no point in trying to explain his work to anyone outside of his department, because they wouldn't understand. (Then you're not explaining it right, I thought, but whatever--.)

Sometimes I feel that way trying to explain how I can run a book club on a Johnny Depp fansite. Most people just don’t get it no matter how hard I try to explain.

I think we have to take into consideration the fact that Vera Rubin proposed her theory in 1962. So obviously she encountered prejudice in college and high school prior to that. This was before the women’s movement. I think we have come a long way since then. I encountered many women scientists during my college years—not too many physicists, though, I have to say. And I am surprised after having learned a bit more about physics—due to Johnny. Maybe the reason that women don’t go into the field is due to a prejudice and ignorance about physics, which I have already admitted to having. I’m not sure if I am a good representation of women, though. I’m beginning to think now that it is a good idea that physics was required coursework at my kids' high school. The high school has since decided it is not a requirement, after about 10 years. I’m not sure why.
You can't judge a book by its cover.

The only thing that matters is the ending. It's the most important part of the story.


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