Portraits of Discovery

by G. Greenstein
240 pages - Wiley, 1998

Reviewed in American Journal of Physics by Mark P. Silverman.

Portraits is a collection of eight essays about the lives and accomplishments of ten physicists and astronomers: Cannon & Payne-Gaposchkin, Gamow, Bhaba, Alvarez, Feynman, Perl, Geller & Huchra. This is a book with a two-fold purpose: first, to show the reader that science is a quintessential human endeavour, undertaken by people whose creativity is inspiring and whose idiosyncratic personalities are fascinating; and second, to decry what the author sees as a shameful imposition of barriers to the pursuit of a career in science by women.

As a storyteller, the author does a superb job. He tells his tales easily, clearly, dramatically - as if he and the reader were sitting together at a fireside on a cold wintry evening - all the while never missing an opportunity to glean from his characters' words and experiences insights into the practice of science and the attributes of a successful scientist. One attribute common to a number of the individuals - and which stands so starkly at variance with widespread public perception of science as a remorselessly dull activity - is a playful spirit.

There is, for example, Gamow, a man fascinated by magic tricks, who filled his notebooks and letters with frivolous rhymes and drawings (that captivated my attention when, as a child, I pored over his books). We read of the insatiably curious Luis Alvarez, who applied his inventive genius to pyramids and dinosaurs with the same facility as to elementary particles. We are told that Feynman's exploits with Jell-O, ants, and explosive water sprinklers were not diversions to distract his mind from his true work, but "they were his true work." Those who are not scientists, or who may think that physics and physicists are dreary subjects, should by all means read this book. If, like me, you have already read long ago the biographies and autobiographies from which a number of these stories are taken - for example, My World Line by Gamow, or the (in)famous Surely You're Joking... and What Do You Care... by Feynman,- you will enjoy revisiting these engaging characters with George Greenstein, whose thoughtful impressions and sharp eye for detail give added dimension to the delineation of each well-known personality.

Narrative aside, Portraits is from first page to last a jeremiad on the treatment of women. The author sees discriminatory forces at work throughout every stage in the development of a woman scientist, from her earliest classroom experiences through her graduate school years on into her employment. The impassioned account begins with Cecilia Payne in the first essay and extends through Margaret Geller in the eighth. Regrettably, these digressions are disruptive and tedious. To deny that shameful incidents have occurred or may yet be occurring is to pass through this world with blinders on. And yet, to see in every cross expression of a teacher, in every tempered praise or lack of encouragement, in every young girl who may choose literature over science, or in every woman who must bear the "burden" of rearing her own children an example of gender-based discrimination, is to lose entirely a sense of perspective and balance.

Was Rutherford's commencement of his lectures by a thundering "Ladies and Gentlemen" - to a class comprising but one "lady" (Cecilia Payne) - really "contemptible behavior" or "cruel humiliation", as the author imagines? Or could one not see that as just another example of Rutherford's generally overbearing and arrogant manner - inflicted no less flinchingly upon his male subordinates? [Read of Rutherford's chaffing of one young Scotsman in Robert Weber's More Random Walks in Science (page 95).]

The chapter on Geller and Huchra is particularly exasperating, for the fascinating theme of the large-scale structure of the universe is almost lost amidst lengthy and speculative monologues on the plight of women. Here, especially, there is an extraordinary irony in the author's priority of concern. We read, for example, of John Huchra, born to working-class parents, living in ever-present poverty, beaten at school by local hoods, depressed by feelings of inferiority, and deprived of opportunities by both poverty and his parents' lack of higher education. We read next of Margaret Geller, born to a tranquil and secure middle-class affluence - her father a solid-state physicist who often took her to his laboratory - but bored by school. The author then proceeded to worry about Geller! But what about John? Had an early life of distress and poverty damaged his psyche? If so, from where did he muster the inner resources to become a successful scientist? Both Huchra and Geller achieved prominence as astronomers. One might have predicted this for the daughter of a physicist. But for the son of a freight conductor....? Does the episode not suggest, if general lessons can be drawn, that character strengths, rather than gender barriers, separate those who "make it" from those who do not?

The issue most central to the author's concern, however, is the perceived disadvantage that marriage and children pose on women seeking careers in science. The implied message that women are victims of circumstances beyond their control is a paralysing and self-defeating one, for it convinces the believer that she has no responsibility for her state of affairs and no choices for changing it. This is hardly the case. It would of course be ideal if both husband and wife would agree to undertake together the responsibilities of bringing up their children. But if a prospective husband is unable or unwilling to share in domestic burdens, a woman can choose not to marry him. If the desire for career and income takes precedence in both spouses over child rearing, a family can choose not to have children. Yes, these are difficult choices - but then the adult scientist has choices, whereas the infant she brings into the world has none.

The author's solution, which I fear many readers would agree with, is that government-sponsored day care centers "should be an integral part of every workplace: every university, every observatory, every conference." However sincerely meant, this advice in my opinion is very much misguided. A child is not a disposable piece of furniture to be left in custodial care. Nor should the public pay for rearing the children of scientists who could - if their priorities were readjusted - take care of their own children themselves. In a nation of escalating divorces and a scandalous level of child abuse, it is wrong to adopt as public policy measures that encourage further disruption of family life.

I was pleased to note - although the author must have regarded this as a grave misfortune - that astronomer Cecilia Payne took her young children to the observatory with her, rather than leave them in the custody of strangers.

The reviewer, Mark P. Silverman, is not a reactionary curmudgeon offering gratuitous advice that he himself does not follow; rather, together he and his wife, who is a Ph.D. scientist, have brought up their children entirely without day care. His scientific interests (in optics and quantum physics) and educational philosophy are discussed in his latest book, Waves and Grains: Reflections on Light and Learning (Princeton University Press, 1998).