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Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Backwards and in high heels

Jocelyn Bell, just after she discovered the pulsars
I'm sure you've noticed there are far fewer women than men on any list of famous scientists through the ages.  

There's a reason for this imbalance. Female brains are not up to the job. Science is too hard for them, especially physics, the hardest science of all. 

At least that's the story a senior male physicist presented to a roomful of young researchers, mostly female, during a conference at CERN recently on gender issues and high energy physics.

Not surprisingly his presentation went down like the Titanic. CERN promptly disowned it and suspended Prof Strumia "from any activity at CERN", pending an investigation.

Now I'm not and never have been a woman, contrary to what my friend Al saysNot in this life anyway. As a Buddhist, I probably was in a past life and will be again, which is nice. So instead of applying my currently male brain to the issue I decide to consult my friend Ann, who besides being a woman is also a physicist and a feminist. 

I have no doubt she can give me the facts and the female perspective.

But I have to admit to a slight problem with Ann. Tall, confident and clever, she scares and attracts me in equal measure. Which means when I chat to her my savoir-faire sometimes crumbles, like a gluten-free roll.

I once made the mistake of telling her she reminded me of an Amazon. "You think I sell books and don't pay tax?" she said, with a frown that pushed my panic button.

"Strong, scary warrior-women, enemies of ancient Greece, thought to be a myth but some evidence that they existed, I only meant ..."

She pats me gently on the back, cracking a couple of ribs. "Stop burbling," she says. "I know what Amazons are. Why did you want to talk to me about female brains? Are you struggling to understand them again?"

"Not me," I say, leading the way to the table in the corner of the Burnbrae, where Al and I usually take lunch after a session at the gym. "This Italian prof who claims there's loads of evidence that it's men who are discriminated against in science careers - and in life generally - and not women." 

"I saw that," she says, studying the menu. "What do you recommend?"

So we order veggie breakfast and coffee for two from the young waitress who, convinced by our constant bickering that Al and I are an ageing gay couple, studies Ann with surreptitious interest.

"Are you going to take notes?" she asks me. 

"If you don't mind. Means I can quote you accurately."

"No problem," she says, popping a mushroom in her mouth. "Let's start with the reaction from CERN and the audience of young scientists. To me it looks incredibly ineffectual. 

"This guy trots out graphs and charts and quotes scientific papers that he claims supports the idea that women are under-represented at the top of the physics tree, because their brains aren't up to climbing it, and what does CERN do?"

"Apologises for any offence caused," I say. "Then removes his presentation from its website."

"Exactly," Ann says. "They stick their fingers in their ears and go 'Na na na, can't hear you.' They try to shut down the discussion and sidestep the lorryloads of shit headed their way for hosting this guy in the first place. Does that work? Of course it doesn't. All it does is feed the knuckle-draggers' conviction that they're being lied to. That it's political correctness gone mad. That the 'cultural marxists' that Strumia explicitly blames are covering-up the truth."

I have no idea what a cultural marxist is. Maybe I'll ask her later. Right now I'm more concerned by the vigorous manner with which she's brandishing a vegetarian sausage to punctuate her points. I guess no one's ever died of vegetarian sausage wounds, but I don't want to be the first.

Moving my chair back six inches I put the key question to her. "So what is the scientific truth about female brains?"

"I'm glad you asked me," she says. "Here is what we know."

To be continued.

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