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the Complete Review
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The Gendered Atom

Theodore Roszak

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To purchase The Gendered Atom

Title: The Gendered Atom
Author: Theodore Roszak
Genre: Science
Written: 1999
Length: 155 pages
Availability: The Gendered Atom - US
The Gendered Atom - UK
The Gendered Atom - Canada
  • Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science
  • With a Foreword by Jane Goodall

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Our Assessment:

C- : makes a mess of its arguments -- though decently written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post B- 9/1/2000 Jennifer Couzin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Turning the pages of The Gendered Atom becomes an exercise in frustration. Roszak raises challenging, valuable questions about the limits of scientific objectivity, and that alone makes the book worth reading. But he fails to distinguish between the culture of science, which in fields like surgery and engineering has demanded some classically masculine behavior, and how or whether that culture influences scientific discovery." - Jennifer Couzin, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It's a good title and a seductive hypothesis -- the gendered atom. And the argument has superficial appeal: the male bastion of science is so hidebound in its masculine ways that this has even affected the way we see the atom. Roszak also neatly frames his story around a visit to Geneva, home of the CERN particle accelerator and Mary Shelley's classic, Frankenstein, both of which he uses extensively to make his point. (Roszak wrote the novel The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein, re-telling Shelley's classic tale from the wife's point of view; the book won the 1996 James Tiptree Jr. Award, whatever that is.)
       The subtitle is, of course, already more worrisome. Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science. "Reflections" suggests that "the sexual psychology of science" is a given, not just a mere idea or hypothesis. But what exactly is he talking about ? Obviously, there is no psychology of science. (Our Webster's defines psychology as "the science dealing with the mind and mental processes," neither of which science itself has.) So he must mean the sexual psychology of scientific practices, or of scientists. But neither of those look as good on the cover, we suppose.
       Certain points are undeniable. Foremost is the obvious: that men have long dominated the practice of science. One of the consequences of this, according to Roszak, is that what might be called "masculine" values dominate how science is done. Certain values and methods do dominate science. There has been, for example, a reductionist emphasis -- trying to figure out how individual things works, whether atoms, molecules, or animals, rather than examining them in their larger environment. Roszak simplifies somewhat here, and while his point that studying animal behaviour is better done with the subject left in its natural environment than in a sterile, isolated lab is fairly obvious, the jump to the study of sub-atomic particles isn't quite as convincing.
       Roszak has lots of fun with the expensive, big, brutish CERN collider, tearing apart defenseless atoms (stripping them !) as the ultimate symbol of male science. Certainly, the way we study atoms has been influenced by many factors. The major one, however, seems to be political, from its roots in the atomic programme around the Second World War and the subsequent interest in "big science". Funding was available for this and not for other scientific projects because it had tremendous public appeal, and possible military applications. While the reasons for this can also be blamed on a "macho" outlook, the connection is surely more complex than Roszak suggests.
       Speaking of the ancient Greeks Roszak says:

The atom entered history as a tiny, philosophical tranquilizer, an intellectual solution to our deepest emotional dread. For the atomists, technical questions about the objective characteristics of matter counted for far less than finding ways to relieve anxiety.
       A bold and dangerous statement,which paves the way for his making fun of modern efforts to tear apart the atom. Considering the CERN experiments he humbly suggests:
Is it possible, the layman's mind wonders, that beyond a certain point, what we are learning is that matter does not want to be taken apart ?
       At least someone is looking out for the interests of matter, brutalized against its will ! True, "a more delicate approach to disassembling matter may be the way forward in exploring the intricacy of the quantum world," but to suggest that is a "feminine" way (as opposed to the brutish masculine approach) seems to be adding an unnecessary additional layer of confusing terminology.
       Roszak wonders why we bother so much with the atom. Turning to feminist psychology he sees it as part of the larger unconscious male drive to control and understand the world on this basic level (other examples include the human genome project or "reshaping the human body or the planet as a whole"). Man is concerned only with exerting power and control over women and all things feminine -- like nature.
       This is, of course, where things get fairly dangerous. Roszak relies on psychology, offering up devastating conclusions based on marvelous (generally feminist) theories. The problem is, he offers no foundation for the premises. He does toss in a few caveats (if such-and-such a theory is correct ...), but nevertheless rests his arguments on these weak foundations. And so things get very messy, and so he is, finally, very unconvincing.
       Much of what Roszak writes has some appeal, because he seems to be a good guy, rooting for the right thing. No one doubts women deserve more opportunities in the science, or that science should be run differently, or that man should be more aware of his place in the world, and more ecologically responsible. However, his loudest claims are based on such flimsy premises that they do not withstand any scrutiny.
       Roszak is clearly partisan, often to the detriment of his argument. With his tendentious statements he opens the door to ridicule:
In four centuries of taking wealth and comfort from the body of the Earth, modern science has not troubled to produce a single rite or ritual, not even a minor prayer, that asks pardon or gives thanks. But then what sense would it make to ask anything of a dead body ?
       His anthropomorphic notions of the Earth as a body to be respected and venerated have great appeal, but he asks a bit much of the overarching concept of "modern science." Roszak seems to suggest a (re-)deification of Mother Earth, an idea that sounds "nice" but also comes with a host of problems.
       Roszak harps on the rape of nature, equating it too neatly with the rape of women. (Isn't there anyone out there else who finds this tired analogy utterly obscene ?) He has fun with (masculine) science's love of probing and penetrating, backing up his argument. The "most militant of reductionist biologists", Richard Dawkins, and his "selfish gene" naturally come in for criticism, Roszak hopes that "this might be macho's last stand in the sciences," for the simple reason that Dawkins' view, however true, isn't the nice way of looking at the world. Roszak never considers the question of whether Dawkins might be correct -- truth is not what he is concerned with.
       The contrast to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is occasionally useful, though generally what he says about the book is far more interesting (and astute) then what he says about modern science. The connections he forges with his main theses are forced, but he knows the book fairly well and so something can be learnt from this.

       Roszak's book drowns in a muddle of metaphors, (Roszak recognizes the danger on occasion, but he just keeps on heaping them on). Otherwise he writes fairly fluidly and well. Unfortunately, he does not argue very well or convincingly. His conclusions might find favour, but his argument is ultimately almost entirely emotional and without foundation. Weaving together too many disparate arguments he confuses the issues, bootstrapping one conclusion on another. Bad form !
       An unconvincing though superficially seductive book. And a dangerous book -- because it is so badly argued. We generally like dangerous books, but not this one. It does a disservice to all parties concerned, from readers to scientists to Mother Earth herself.

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Reviews: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Theodore Roszak is a Professor of History at California State University. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and twice been nominated for the National Book Award.

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