19 April 2016

In high school I was the one girl in a group of seven students who would hang out at the town ‘science center’ after school twice a week. ‘Science Center’ is in quotes because it was the disorganized office of a retired experimental physicist with some no-budget-physics demonstrations. I often left the ‘science center’ more confused than educated, but I loved physics so I stubbornly kept attending.

The primary factor in my confusion was that the experiments were not well explained, but there were other contributing factors. Maybe it was the learning style: as a teenager I would read undergrad-level physics textbooks, daydream about how to turn what I’d learned into an episode of Star Trek, and then struggle with the end chapter problems, and this worked better than a lecture and a demonstration. Maybe it was the non-physics content: more time was spent arguing over politics and religion than learning about physics, and I, a liberal atheist in a town referred to as the ‘little vatican’ and in the riding of Peter MacKay, was always wrong. Or maybe it was the weird analogies: electrons were boys, protons were girls, because boys have no mass and can’t stand to be in the same state together? No homo.

The men running the science center had the best of intentions, but they were quirky. The retired physicist was devoted to an obscure interpretation of quantum mechanics that had its last death throes in the early nineties. Explanations subtly included this interpretation, which didn’t mesh with the things I was reading. There were religious (Catholic) and cultish undertones: he insinuated that if I studied physics I would realize the importance of all life and never get an abortion. Studying physics at school was ‘mickey mouse’ compared to the education I was promised at the science center.

And they were unnecessarily critical. One afternoon I gave a summary of a textbook on cosmology I’d recently read. I was so excited about how the heavier elements fused together in the sun that my mouth went faster than my brain and I repeatedly said carbon monoxide instead of carbon dioxide. One of the men running the science center picked up on this, and interrupted to correct me using the socratic method. The socratic method is a fantastic way to introduce new students to knowledge just outside their understanding, but if you do this to a 16 year old girl who has 98-99% grades in her high school chemistry classes and surely knows the difference between carbon dioxide and monoxide, it is extremely condescending.

My reaction was not, Oh right, carbon dioxide, whatever but rather to think he thinks I’m dumb and it’s true what am I doing here and then hide under the table to cry. This memory is not a metaphor for how I felt at the time: I actually hid under the table and cried.

The boys in the group tried to cheer me up by saying things like “more men are geniuses but women are smarter on average”, and “you may not be good at math but you’re really good at explaining things”, the implication being: you’re not special like us but you’re still smarter than most people we know. It didn’t make me feel any much better.

I wish I could say that these experiences made me stronger, but there’s no evidence they did. I had many more hiding-under-the-table incidents in undergrad, through graduate school, and in my post-school career, and will probably continue reacting to things this way because I am a coward who would rather read physics papers alone and not have to prove I’m smart to anyone.

Over a decade on, only one of those seven students ended up in a career in physics.

It was me.

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