Kirk and Scotty (But Not Uhura) Play With “Rick”

A long-time reader tipped me off about a recent New York Times article poetically titled
Getting the Most Bang Out of Quarks and Gluons.
It’s all about the really nifty guy-physics going on at Brookhaven National Lab and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC or “rick”. Hah.)
I’m not sure what I find most annoying about this article. Is it the doofus-y physicists pretending to be Captain Kirk, Scotty, Spock et al. aboard the Starship Enterprise? (You may not be surprised to learn that there was no Lt. Uhura in the group.)

“That’s Captain Kirk over there,” said Dr. Trainor, pointing to the shift leader…Dr. Trainor continued, “You could say I’m Sulu, at the controls, but when the captain tells me, ‘I want things run this way,’ I do it.”
“He’s Chekov,” Dr. Trainor said, pointing to Jan Kapitan, 26, a doctoral student in nuclear physics from the Czech Republic. Then he turned to a tall man monitoring the alarm systems, Peter Filip, who works for a research group from Moscow. “He’s Scotty,” Dr. Trainor said, “because if something goes wrong, he has to respond.”

Awww….
Is it the condescending tone two of the physicists take in describing their daughters’ study of high school physics?

“When I try to help my daughter, she complains, ‘But the teacher doesn’t do it that way,’ ” Dr. Christie said.
Dr. Sowinski laughed and said, “My daughter says: ‘Oh forget it. I’ll just ask one of my friends.’ “


They aren’t able to adequately communicate the basics of the field that is their life’s work to their daughters – but ha ha, you know how litlte girls are. So adorable when their little faces are alll screwed up ’cause they’re confused about the physics stuff. Hey! Maybe one of them can grow up one day to wear a really, really short skirt and stand in the background and swoon while Kirk and Scotty take command!
All very annoying. But: is it REALLY – the journalist who hacks me off the most? The article begins thus:

There’s nothing unusual about grown men gathering around wide-screen TVs to watch collisions, whether between players in cleats or on skates or between cars on a racetrack.
But a group of men viewing wide-screen monitors in a control room at Brookhaven National Laboratory the other day were rooting for very different collisions, ones made by the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC (pronounced rick).

And the article goes on nauseatingly to portray particle physics as a boy’s game writ large. Meanwhile, in the photo accompanying the article, there are quite clearly TWO WOMEN as well as two men at the bank of computers, staring up at the wide-screen monitors. Yes, journalist Corey Kilgannon is the one who chose to completely ignore the presence of those women; to frame particle physics at Brookhaven as a rowdy get-together for the guys to watch the big game; to give a gee-whiz ain’t that awesome write-up to the “we’re playing Star Trek” conversation; and to include without commentary the quotes about the physicists’ daughters, thus leaving readers’ stereotypes about women-can’t-do-physics reinforced. And Kilgannon is the one who chose not to include any quotes from any women who might be working on the project at Brookhaven. I mean, who are those two women in the photo? Why have them in the photo if they aren’t allowed to appear in the article at all?
The first two lines of that article do an explicit mapping of what should be a gender-neutral activity (doing particle physics) onto what is a very gendered activity (men gathering to watch sporting events on big-screen TVs). Of course there are no women in the article. The article is talking about what men do, together with other men. At least, that’s how Corey Kilgannon is presenting particle physics at Brookhaven to us. Kilgannon is participating in creating and maintaining a vision, a heroic myth, of physics as a woman-less world, where men gather with other men to do manly things. And it’s all very heroic, like seeking out new life and new civilizations, going boldly where no…MAN has gone before.
Bleah. Methinks Corey Kilgannon’s shoes could stand a puking.
I’ve long since come to expect boorish or bad behavior from many physicists around gender issues, but it really, really sucks to see the press doing the gender bias work for the physicists. They don’t need any extra help. Derailing women from careers in physics is one thing they are totally awesome at all on their own.

  1. Jongpil Yun
    May 8, 2007 at 2:58 am

    “When I try to help my daughter, she complains, ‘But the teacher doesn’t do it that way,’ ” Dr. Christie said.
    Dr. Sowinski laughed and said, “My daughter says: ‘Oh forget it. I’ll just ask one of my friends.’ “

    And this is sexist how? I can easily see (and have, in fact heard, numerous times) the same situation with “daughter” replaced by “son”.

  2. Jongpil Yun
    May 8, 2007 at 3:03 am

    There’s no need to make up examples of sexism in science when there are plenty of real ones to go around.

  3. Shane
    May 8, 2007 at 3:42 am

    I was reading this blog post linked through a news reader, had to follow it to the original source because I couldn’t find the seemingly staggering sexism that drove the author to such seething contempt. Figured there must be something really bad below the fold.
    Nope.
    The sole example of “sexism” seems to be that two women went unacknowledged in the article, despite being in the picture that accompanied it. Maybe there’s a point to be made here; hard to say, since whatever sexism might be lurking within the article is drowned out by the sexism exhibited by the blogger, frothing at the mouth with desire to be offended by something.
    Seriously, gender equality in science must be in pretty damn good shape if this article elicits this reaction.

  4. May 8, 2007 at 6:27 am

    Ah, there they go with the old “I can’t see it, so it isn’t there!”
    A high school boy reading this article sees physics described as like things that are for him – spectator sports and cars and Boy’s Own Adventure voyages of discovery. A high school girl reading this article sees herself excluded and mocked.

  5. May 8, 2007 at 6:27 am

    Ah, there they go with the old “I can’t see it, so it isn’t there!”
    A high school boy reading this article sees physics described as like things that are for him – spectator sports and cars and Boy’s Own Adventure voyages of discovery. A high school girl reading this article sees herself excluded and mocked.

  6. Dr. Eye
    May 8, 2007 at 6:42 am

    Just because Tom Trainor is a doofus doesn’t make us all sexist-career-derailing-pointy-ear-wearing-parents’-basement-living misogynists.
    But hey, if your only tool is a broad brush the entire world must look like a canvas.
    I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got careers to derail.

  7. thereal
    May 8, 2007 at 6:59 am

    Yes, once again the whiny men appear in comments to prove Zuska’s point for her.
    “Waah waah it’s not faiiir you pointed out some sexism and anyway it can’t possibly exist because I’ve never been on the reciving end of it and women are overreacting and all emotional and anyway I’m so special and would never do that so I’m never speaking to you again”.
    Meanwhile, here’s a link to a well known British science personality talking about Star Trek and TV, and not expressing any misogny at all.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6634255.stm

  8. Mecha
    May 8, 2007 at 9:29 am

    The two almost-valid arguments above (Dr. Eye’s isn’t even what one would call a ‘valid argument’. It’s sarcastic absurdity) both rely on one thing. Taking it all out of context.
    The ‘I’ve seen people say this about their sons’ thing? Well, those lines might not be so bad on their own. In, say, a conversation about kids, in general, it’s not necessarily amiss. ‘My son’s having trouble.’ ‘My daughter is too.’ ‘Well, my daughter and son both get it.’ Blah blah blah. Those are the examples you’re talking about. Unfortunately, this isn’t those conversations. This is in a piece which has already set an exclusionary tone towards women, which makes sure, at the end (in the last three paragraphs) to tack on ‘their daughters, who are struggling with high school physics’ (not ‘their children’) and what is honestly very condescending language.
    Let’s take a little thought trip. They don’t even bother helping their daughters correctly. Don’t fathers ‘usually’ help their sons learn how to play sports? Which is a big metaphor in this piece? But not their daughters. Hmm. It’s almost as if he would have wanted to put in some lines about ‘how they’re teaching their sons’, but they didn’t have sons… so instead they went with the negative ‘how they’re failing to teach their daughters.’ What message does that, all together, send? Could it, perhaps, be a negative one? ‘Women aren’t involved in science, and younger women shouldn’t care.’
    It’s not just one thing. It’s a bunch of things put together.
    Similarly, Shane, besides being dismissive and insulting to the entire concept of the blog (which is always a good working definition of troll), draws out ‘one example’ of ‘maybe sexism.’ Because it’s ‘maybe sexist’ to portray science as a men’s game, and to ignore women. ‘Maybe.’ But this is only one article, so, hey, if this is all the sexism in the world, there’s no problem… right? And then the insults came, but you can’t really argue against insults.
    It isn’t all the sexism in the world. Sorry. Dismissing ‘one instance’ because it’s ‘not really mega sexist, in my mind’ misses the point that there’s a million instances, and they feed each other.
    The stunning thing, to me, is that unless you’re a straight white protestant male, you almost certainly feel and the same thing. Reminders of how society’s anti-atheist. Or anti-gay. Or anti-black/asian/insert race here. Or anti-women.
    ‘It’s just the 10 commandments. It has historical significance. You don’t need to be a shrill atheist (but what about all the other instances?)’ ‘It’s just one transexual who got beat up. You don’t need to overreact (just one beating/murder! No problem.)’ ‘Imus was just being funny and shocking, why is calling basketball players nappy-headed hardcore hos a problem (Because racism doesn’t exist, right?)?’
    And not even WASPs escape it, in certain situations (it’s just not… quite the same. Side discussion, different forum, etc.) I can never quite understand why understanding would be that hard to come by.
    -Mecha

  9. Mecha
    May 8, 2007 at 9:29 am

    The two almost-valid arguments above (Dr. Eye’s isn’t even what one would call a ‘valid argument’. It’s sarcastic absurdity) both rely on one thing. Taking it all out of context.
    The ‘I’ve seen people say this about their sons’ thing? Well, those lines might not be so bad on their own. In, say, a conversation about kids, in general, it’s not necessarily amiss. ‘My son’s having trouble.’ ‘My daughter is too.’ ‘Well, my daughter and son both get it.’ Blah blah blah. Those are the examples you’re talking about. Unfortunately, this isn’t those conversations. This is in a piece which has already set an exclusionary tone towards women, which makes sure, at the end (in the last three paragraphs) to tack on ‘their daughters, who are struggling with high school physics’ (not ‘their children’) and what is honestly very condescending language.
    Let’s take a little thought trip. They don’t even bother helping their daughters correctly. Don’t fathers ‘usually’ help their sons learn how to play sports? Which is a big metaphor in this piece? But not their daughters. Hmm. It’s almost as if he would have wanted to put in some lines about ‘how they’re teaching their sons’, but they didn’t have sons… so instead they went with the negative ‘how they’re failing to teach their daughters.’ What message does that, all together, send? Could it, perhaps, be a negative one? ‘Women aren’t involved in science, and younger women shouldn’t care.’
    It’s not just one thing. It’s a bunch of things put together.
    Similarly, Shane, besides being dismissive and insulting to the entire concept of the blog (which is always a good working definition of troll), draws out ‘one example’ of ‘maybe sexism.’ Because it’s ‘maybe sexist’ to portray science as a men’s game, and to ignore women. ‘Maybe.’ But this is only one article, so, hey, if this is all the sexism in the world, there’s no problem… right? And then the insults came, but you can’t really argue against insults.
    It isn’t all the sexism in the world. Sorry. Dismissing ‘one instance’ because it’s ‘not really mega sexist, in my mind’ misses the point that there’s a million instances, and they feed each other.
    The stunning thing, to me, is that unless you’re a straight white protestant male, you almost certainly feel and the same thing. Reminders of how society’s anti-atheist. Or anti-gay. Or anti-black/asian/insert race here. Or anti-women.
    ‘It’s just the 10 commandments. It has historical significance. You don’t need to be a shrill atheist (but what about all the other instances?)’ ‘It’s just one transexual who got beat up. You don’t need to overreact (just one beating/murder! No problem.)’ ‘Imus was just being funny and shocking, why is calling basketball players nappy-headed hardcore hos a problem (Because racism doesn’t exist, right?)?’
    And not even WASPs escape it, in certain situations (it’s just not… quite the same. Side discussion, different forum, etc.) I can never quite understand why understanding would be that hard to come by.
    -Mecha

  10. Cats are Snakes
    May 8, 2007 at 10:46 am

    Thank you, Mecha, for noting that for what those highly conscious of discrimination are likely to notice immediately, those who are not cannot even find. Will not even admit to.
    Yes, I agree with Zuska that the tone of the article was sexist. No, I am not being sarcastic.

  11. May 8, 2007 at 11:52 am

    I’ll link this to the post on the dearth of women in NAS and suggest that Nora Volkow, Brookhaven faculty (sorry not a physicist, she applies that tedious stuff 🙂 to something of real interest), IOM member, Time mag 100, perennial MSM darling, Trotsky descendent, current NIDA director and, oh yeah, she does some very innovative and interesting science on addiction, would be one of those ones we should expect to see on the NAS rolls pronto…

  12. May 8, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    I am, even as I write this, projectile vomiting through cyberspace in the direction of the many commenters above who can’t see the blatant sexism in Kilgannon’s article.
    Here is the letter I just fired off to Corey Kilgannon:

    I am a female with a PhD in particle physics, and I was appalled to read your story “Getting the Most Bang out of Quarks and Gluons”. Even though the article accompanying the story shows two women in the RHIC control room, your story portrays particle physics as a men’s past-time, comparing it to sitting around watching sports on big screen TV’s. And your description of all the men playing “Star Trek” in the control room notably excludes the two women who were obviously there.

    Gender discrimination is rampant in particle physics. Your story underlines that point perfectly. What a pathetic picture your story paints for young females who are thinking of pursuing a career in physics. I felt ill after reading it.

  13. wt
    May 9, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    As usual, Zuska’s minions are here to prop her up. You all should know by now any other opinions or interpretations are not allowed. At least you weren’t hit with the famous “sub-text”. You know, when “they” tell you what was really said.

  14. wt
    May 9, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    As usual, Zuska’s minions are here to prop her up. You all should know by now any other opinions or interpretations are not allowed. At least you weren’t hit with the famous “sub-text”. You know, when “they” tell you what was really said.

  15. May 9, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    You don’t have to be hypersensitive to notice the sexism in this article. It is blatant. Imagine what the two women in the picture have to tell their friends! “Yeah, my picture was in the NYTimes yesterday, but I was described as part of a group of ‘grown men’.” Not funny.
    And looking below the fold is not relevant. Every journalist knows that most readers don’t go past the first paragraph of a story. The most important things go in the lead, so this story is making “physics is about men watching collisions” the most important idea. The significant fact that 1/3 of the “six researchers” in the room are female is absent completely if the picture is not included.
    On the teaching issue, it happens that I know Jim Sowinski (irl, but I won’t say how except that I am not at IU). Although he did give a credible analogy for what they are doing at RHIC, he is a research scientist rather than a member of the teaching faculty. He talks to faculty in seminars, not undegrads in class. Knowing physics and being able to teach it are two different things.

  16. jt
    May 9, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    While the article is definitely an egregious example of sexism, I’d wager the fact the it was printed has a lot to do with the Times’ approach to science journalism.
    All too often, the reporter looks for the ‘human angle’ on these stories. Just to scenario it, Kilgannon gets, amidst his interviews, a quote for how the control room is like Star Trek. Sure fire hook, right? Physics = star trek, which everyone knows. Build an article around that, and you end up having the famously sexist (if tremendously entertaining) show dictating how the article is framed.
    Looking at it, it’s the reporter’s attempts to make the science (or how the science is done) accessible that let the sexism leak in.
    You’ve got, “It’s like watching football. There are plasma screens”, “It’s like star trek, there are plasma screens and we have different jobs”, and then “These physicists are just regular [emphasis]guys, they can’t explain things to their daughters”.
    If Kilgannon had just stuck to the science, which to me is cool enough, then you’re in a lot better shape. He may have even deigned to report on the what the female researchers said, because they wouldn’t have to have Star Trek names to fit into his story (excepting Uhura, of course).
    –JT

  17. jt
    May 9, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    While the article is definitely an egregious example of sexism, I’d wager the fact the it was printed has a lot to do with the Times’ approach to science journalism.
    All too often, the reporter looks for the ‘human angle’ on these stories. Just to scenario it, Kilgannon gets, amidst his interviews, a quote for how the control room is like Star Trek. Sure fire hook, right? Physics = star trek, which everyone knows. Build an article around that, and you end up having the famously sexist (if tremendously entertaining) show dictating how the article is framed.
    Looking at it, it’s the reporter’s attempts to make the science (or how the science is done) accessible that let the sexism leak in.
    You’ve got, “It’s like watching football. There are plasma screens”, “It’s like star trek, there are plasma screens and we have different jobs”, and then “These physicists are just regular [emphasis]guys, they can’t explain things to their daughters”.
    If Kilgannon had just stuck to the science, which to me is cool enough, then you’re in a lot better shape. He may have even deigned to report on the what the female researchers said, because they wouldn’t have to have Star Trek names to fit into his story (excepting Uhura, of course).
    –JT

  18. May 9, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    wt: I am nobody’s minion. I am quite capable of reaching my own conclusions regarding sexism in the sciences without Zuska’s help. In fact, I came to nearly all of those conclusions before I even heard of Zuska.
    PS: If Zuska “didn’t allow” any other interpretations, there are a whole bunch of comments on this posting that would have been deleted by now. If anything, Zuska is extraordinarily permissive in allowing trolls such as yourself to leave comments.

  19. May 10, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Corey Kilgannon answered my e-mail! Apparently at least some of the sexism in the article was not deliberate. He writes:

    I’m sorry about that. The photographer and I visited on two separate days. My
    day, it was all men. I have nothing to do with pictures or captions, but it
    should have been made clear. I do think women deserve to be physicists.
    Corey Kilgannon

  20. May 10, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Corey Kilgannon answered my e-mail! Apparently at least some of the sexism in the article was not deliberate. He writes:

    I’m sorry about that. The photographer and I visited on two separate days. My
    day, it was all men. I have nothing to do with pictures or captions, but it
    should have been made clear. I do think women deserve to be physicists.
    Corey Kilgannon

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