A possible answer to the question ‘how is feminist science relevant to physics?’

In a recent post, Gap Junction Science discussed how Science is sometimes adjudicated by things other than its use of the scientific method, i.e., by how material its subject matter is, and how much material agency it has. In this way, Physics is often held up as the top of the Science hierarchy; other disciplines often are described (even by themselves) as having ‘physics-envy’ because of this. So it’s no surprise that physics is often deemed to pose a special problematic to the project of feminist science. How could physics be feminist if it’s so value-neutral and culture-free? It’s a good question, and one any feminist scientist (or science-y feminist) gets asked almost from the get-go. So what’s a feminist to do?

When someone critically engages with feminist science by pointing to the ‘physics problem’, I often point the questioner to Sharon Traweek‘s work. Some of her work explicitly investigates how nation and culture affects the ways in which physics is done; i.e., how culture affects the workings of physics. It’s an easy jump from there to feminism, in my view. If culture matters, then feminism matters. If you’re a physicist or a physics-enthusiast, or really interested in the concept or possibility of feminist science and/or science studies, then Beamtimes and Lifetimes is a great book to read. It’s like an ethnography (detailed in-depth qualitative study of a cultural phenomenon) of physics labs in the U.S. and Japan. I’ve found that it’s a real and potent answer to the challenge: how is feminist science studies relevant to physics?

Some of us don’t have time to read a book though, or we want a quicker snippet of a response. That’s where one of Traweek’s articles may come in handy. “Cultural Differences in High-Energy Physics: Contrasts between Japan and the United States” is about nine pages (5 PDF pages), and a pretty quick read.

One of the fascinating things I find in reading Traweek’s work is how much each group thinks that they are doing Science in the only way it could be done even as they do it very differently.

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