Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Schrödinger's Mistress

for Nicola Gaston

I've been trying to remember where I heard this story the first time, and I'm pretty sure I've now found it in Leon Lederman's The God Particle, which I must have read about twenty years ago. Since this apparently happened at almost exactly this time of year, ninety years ago, and I happen to be spending a week with a girlfriend of my own, while the Tim Hunt affair seems to be reaching a kind of resolution through Louise Mensch's "formulation", let's say, I thought this might be a good time post it.

A few months after Heisenberg completed his matrix formulation, Erwin Schrödinger decided he needed a holiday. It was about ten days before Christmas in the winter of 1925. Schrödinger was a competent but undistinguished professor of physics at the University of Zurich, and all college teachers deserve a Christmas holiday. But this was no ordinary vacation. Leaving his wife at home, Schrödinger booked a villa in the Swiss Alps for two and a half weeks, taking with him his notebooks, two pearls, and an old Viennese girlfriend. Schrödinger’s self-appointed mission was to save the patched-up creaky quantum theory of the time. The Viennese-born physicist placed a pearl in each ear to screen out any distracting noises. The he placed the girlfriend in bed for inspiration. Schrödinger had his work cut out for him He had to create a new theory and keep the lady happy. Fortunately he was up to the task. (Don’t become a physicist unless you are prepared for such demands.) (P. 167)

Times have of course changed. Scientists have their work cut out for them in other ways these days. Only now the demand is not that they perform both intellectual and physiological feats but intellectual and ideological ones. Let's say they have to create new theories—or discover new proteins or land probes on comets—and keep the ladies happy. They have to make sure they don't offend the finer sensibilities of a particularly ambitious species of feminist with either their style of dress or sense of humor.

I wonder what they even think of Lederman's little anecdote, either in tone or content. I wonder if they can approve of either Schrödinger's behaviour or Lederman's obvious enjoyment of it. I would encourage them to make room in their conceptual apparatus to distinguish evidence of sexism in science from evidence that scientists like sex. I guess I'd say you shouldn't become a scientist, or a science writer for that matter, if you aren't prepared to make the distinction. Scientists, after all, have particularly open minds. If we don't respect this about them, and keep browbeating them for their candor, our attempts to make science a "safe space" for women may end up ruining it for scientists.

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