Marco's Blog

All content strictly personal opinions.
en eo

Femininity - the Missing Half of Science and Technology?

2010-10-05 8 min read Architecture marco

I am a man, in the most stereotypical way imaginable. I suffer from all the symptoms of the condition – the hair slowly starting to grow where it shouldn’t, the quick temper ready to flare up for virtually no reason, but most of all for the way I think.

You could possibly try to call me sexist because of saying this, but there seem to be marked differences in the way the male and the female brains work. These differences seem to relate to evolutionary advantages, and they seem to confirm a stereotypical notion of gender roles in the incipient human community. I am at the butt end of the evolution, but I can see how we got to me.

Let’s start with the unproven assumption that men were the hunters and foragers, while women were the nurturers. Let’s add the assumption that humans, like many primates, were naturally inclined to form societies. What does that yield?

The males’ main task, hunting, requires focus and concentration. It also requires strength and persistence, but those are bodily traits I don’t care about right now. For the hunter, it is imperative to lock on the prey and to ignore all else. For the hunter, the main rational skill is the ability to find a path to connect the weapon with the prey.

The females’ main task, creating a society, requires a lot more intellectual skill. It requires the balancing of self-interest with the self-interest of others and the interest of the society as a whole. It requires the ability to take the needs of others into account, to predict how far you can go, and to generate a harmonious whole. You win, as a society builder, if you can get others to do things for you without their endangering the welfare of all for you.

Fast-forward a few scores of thousands of years, and you get to the modern age. The age of science and technology. Two fields that are predominantly male, even now – after the Sexual Revolution and Women’s Liberation. It’s a mind-boggling mystery.

Or is it?

You see, I recall my days in college. I majored in Theoretical Physics in Aachen, Germany. A great school, if a little old-fashioned. What shocked me was that after we did our B.S. (I love saying that!), I realized that all my friends had left. About 50% of the class hadn’t made it through the exams, so I wondered why all my friends would be affected. Then I started noticing that my friends reported they had moved on to something else, that physics was not for them. One started playing guitar in a band, another became a journalist, a third had gone on to teach high school kids.

None of my friends had gone on to another technical field. All of them declared science “too dry.” Which I found interesting, because science was not dry to me. Not at all.

I did realize, though, that I had surrounded myself with creative people with lots of imagination. I also realized that they had buckled under the strain of exams, which are mostly there to weed out people that don’t have the ready ability to recollect facts in a short time frame.

Now, the assumption is that you don’t recollect facts because you didn’t learn enough. But there just are people that are not good at recollecting facts, no matter how much they learn. Of course, lack of focus would prevent you from memorizing facts. Being creative, on the other hand, almost presupposes lack of focus. Was I onto something?

Another item happened shortly thereafter. I was finishing up my favorite class of the year, Theoretical Mechanics, and the last assignment was to compute the relativistic modification in the perihelion of Mercury. If you don’t know physics, just ignore what that is. The issue at hand was that I sat down with the equations in hand and solved the problem as if no physicist had ever looked at it before. That was just foolish: Einstein had solved the equation, and his result was one of the first experimental confirmations of the Theory of General Relativity.

Needless to say, everybody else had taken the solution from the text book and handed it in. When we received our grades, I had 0 out of 5 points – complete failure. I was annoyed, since I had spent so much time solving the problem. I looked at the paper, and interestingly it was completely unmarked, except for the big, red 0/5 up front and the comment, “I don’t have time to find the mistake in this pile of crap, but it’s all wrong,” at the end.

Well, I wasn’t going to give up 5 points for nothing, so I went to the TA and asked. He sighed, looked annoyed, and asked the class whether they wanted to talk about it. He misjudged them (after all, we had gotten rid of the artsy and creative types) and we went on to look for the mistake. After an hour, we realized that I hadn’t solved the problem wrong at all: at the point where Einstein solved a first degree approximation, I went on to the second degree. Technically, my solution is more accurate than Einstein’s – albeit nobody cares, because the first order approximation is more than accurate enough.

That left me with a strange impression. I went to the library, where they kept copies of the original of Einstein’s published papers. I read the articles about relativity, and I was shocked. There was virtually no math in there.

Now, this is not about the math being missing – it was all well-known. It’s that Einstein did something totally different than what other theoretical physicists do: instead of going from a premise to a consequence, he simply explained differently what was known already. He took something universally known (at least in the case of Special Relativity) and explained it in a way that made sense, no matter how unintuitive it was at first.

In short, he had taken a creative approach to the idea of science. He was the opposite of my colleagues, who were all about the method.

This continued to puzzle me, until one day I realized that mathematical and theoretical papers are all styled in a particular format: they set out a chain of reasoning to get to a conclusion. That’s what is called a proof. Typically, you start out by saying what you want to prove, and you go on proving it. You go step after step (theorem after theorem and lemma after lemma) until you have enough evidence to make a final statement.

That’s all nice and good. It has, though, a fundamental flaw: it teaches you nothing about how you came up with the thing you want to prove in the first place. It’s as if you took a camera to record how you climbed down a mountain, but had turned it off while going up.

And that’s the problem with the male-dominated fields of science and technology: they focus on the male part of the process, the linear, follow-through, goal-oriented, focused proof; they teach nothing about the female part of the process, the creative, intuitive, non-linear, random idea. The issue is of enormous importance, as is easily seen in the case of Einstein’s theory: it took decades for the world of physics to come up with an explanation of the phenomenon.

The female part of science and technology is frequently poo-pooed within the field, too. It is common for people to make fun of a hypothesis, because it’s unproven. Even with hypotheses that have been around for centuries and have stood the test of time, one feels the tinge of ugliness and disrespect. The idea, I think, is that, “Everybody can come up with a hypothesis. It’s the proof that makes it science.”

That is, of course, true – but it doesn’t give the hypothesis enough credit. More accurately, it doesn’t give those that come up with good hypotheses enough credit.

Some of the best science in the world has remained a hypothesis for the longest time, and the scientists that came up with the original idea are some of the best minds in the field. Riemann, for instance, came up with his famous hypothesis, unproven to this day. My own thesis was about the Kaplan-Yorke conjecture – a brilliant form of unproven theory.

So, what’s the point? I think I derive two important conclusions from my thinking:

1. Science and technology need to focus on giving more information not just about how one proves or implements something, but also to the fuzzier aspects of how one came up with the idea in the first place. That’s going to be a problem for the scientific and technology communities, because we tend to be embarrassed by revealing our thought process.

2. The study of science and technology needs to change. Receiving a degree of any form needs to include a part that tests the creativity of the individual. Those tests are not as easy to administer in a standardized fashion, but they are crucial to the success of science and progress. In particular, multiple choice tests are the worst enemies of creativity in the current methodology of study.