Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science

by Theodore Roszak, Foreword by Jane Goodall

(Conari Press, 174 pages, $21.95 (hardcover), November, 1999)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Combining a critical analysis based on thirty years of teaching Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" with a largely uncritical acceptance of feminist psychology, University of California history professor Theodore Roszak has produced a book guaranteed to generate controversy in academic circles. His literate, provocative prose weaves together argumentation, history lessons, and a travelogue of his research in Switzerland for a novel, The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein. The result is The Gendered Atom, a hybrid which, like Victor Frankenstein's monster, may not behave as its creator expects when it makes its way into the world.

The book's central question is this: To what extent do genetically- or socially-ingrained traits affect the process and results of science? In particular, has the historical dominance of male scientists skewed our perspective of life and the universe in gender-specific ways?

Roszak's answer is both unequivocal and controversial. "Exploring the scientific unconscious as boldly as Freud ever probed our erotic impulses, feminist psychologists have discovered a deep sexual warp even in the hard sciences, a bias that arises from the peculiarly masculine character of professional science," he contends. "The connections are complex and elusive, but they suggest that our understanding is gendered down to the level of the prima material." Even theories as fundamental as the atomic nature of matter have been distorted by observation through a gender-biased lens.

Had that statement appeared in the author's preface or first chapter, most scientists would eagerly rise to Roszak's intellectual bait. Their personal inclination might be disagreement, but their professional response would be a suspension of judgment until they heard the evidence.

Unfortunately, most scientists will never get to that statement. It comes in chapter 5, more than a third of the way into the book; and by then the very people Roszak hopes most to persuade may well have slammed the volume shut in anger.

Roszak begins with Mary Shelley's vivid scene in which Victor Frankenstein discovers his bride, Elizabeth, raped and murdered by the monster he created. Then come several pages in which Roszak attributes Frankenstein's flaws to his scientific, rather than his human characteristics, describing those traits as stereotypically masculine. The damage continues with a personal affront, accusing most scientists of intellectual dishonesty: "As candid as scientists have become about their emotional side, few among them would grant that their personal idiosyncrasies have significantly distorted their impersonal search for truth."

For a scientist looking for intellectual dialogue, that is only the beginning of disillusionment. After Roszak has set up a stereotypical scientist as a straw-man and knocked him down, he explicitly denies that he intended to do so. He then offers feminist psychology as an alternative to a furious reader who is no longer in a mood to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

And that's just chapter one. At the end of chapter three, Roszak belittles one of science's most sacred traits, self-correction, because it doesn't occur as fast as he would like. "(I)t would seem self-correction is compatible with being wrong for a very long time before correction sets in." With those words, an already seething scientific reader might well have had enough.

The most unfortunate part of this scientist-bashing is that Roszak offers many points that most of them would be willing to consider. Jane Goodall's thoughtful foreword sets the intellectual table well. Readers are therefore advised to stay the course, fussing and fuming through chapters called "Macho Science," "The Rape of Nature," and "The Corpse of my Dead Mother...," after which they will suddenly discover themselves in more hospitable territory.

In the last chapters, Roszak describes hopeful "signs of change." He concedes that modern science pursues not only the wheels within wheels of particle physics but unifying visions as well. From the chaotic behavior of the minuscule emerges coherent properties of the universe and the phenomena we call life.

In the end, Roszak adds feminine stereotypes to the mix and speaks positively about science. At last, he offers his readers a point of connection, a place where the productive arguing can begin. Perhaps the best advice for the readers who rage in the early chapters is to "take it like a man," to ignore the provocation, and to pay attention to the evidence Roszak offers behind his loaded words. When they reach the end of the book, they'll have a chance to show their true, non-gender-biased self.

Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz's career has included twenty-five years of full-time employment in various male-dominated fields of science and technology and twenty-five years (full-time since 1996) in the female-dominated field of writing for children.

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