The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science

The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science

by Theodore Roszak

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With daring originality, The Gendered Atom explores the uncharted depths of the scientific soul. There, beneath the scientist's rational, purportedly objective surface, Theodore Roszak finds a maelstrom of repressed sexual prejudices and gender stereotypes. Beyond analyzing where we have gone wrong, The Gendered Atom looks forward to a gender-free


With daring originality, The Gendered Atom explores the uncharted depths of the scientific soul. There, beneath the scientist's rational, purportedly objective surface, Theodore Roszak finds a maelstrom of repressed sexual prejudices and gender stereotypes. Beyond analyzing where we have gone wrong, The Gendered Atom looks forward to a gender-free science that respects our community with nature and promises a healthier, more fulfilling form of knowledge.

Editorial Reviews

Drawing on Mary Shelley's and feminist psychology, Roszak (history, California State U., Hayward) advocates for a new scientific sensibility based on the traditional female value on "sympathetic relatedness" rather than the male thrust for control. With a foreword by Jane Goodall. Lacks an index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
This antiscientific tract by a history professor focuses on the sexual politics of science. Roszak (America the Wise, 1998) centers his critique of science on the Frankenstein story—hardly an original idea, since Shelley's tale was itself a critique of science. Discovering a pervasive set of gender stereotypes at the very root of the scientific endeavor, he takes as his primary target modern physics. He is much taken with his chance discovery that CERN, the gigantic European particle accelerator, is built beneath ground that Shelley could have seen from the window of the Swiss villa in which she lived during the composition of Frankenstein; could she have had a premonition of the horror of atom-smashing? CERN, Roszak explains, illustrates a male predilection for smashing things and taking them apart. A lower-energy American project, whose spokesman speaks of "tickling" and "nudging" atoms into revealing their secrets, evidently meets more with his approval. The feminist historians of science he cites observe, further, that the classical atom was an avatar of a certain kind of male personality, determined to stand aloof from the outside world, and conclude more generally that the vaunted male-driven objectivity of science is fraudulent. The practice of removing infants from their mothers and placing them in a sterile environment—of which the Skinner box was the extreme example—is noted as an attempt to impose "scientific" self-sufficiency on even the newborn. Given the entire field of modern science, with its long history of male dominance, to dig through, there is no shortage of horrid examples to support Roszak's argument. One can understand why Jane Goodall was willingto write his Foreword. But in the end, Roszak has nothing to set in place of the science he holds up to criticism. As flawed as the science it attacks, with just enough substance to seduce the ignorant.

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The Gendered Atom

Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science

By Theodore Roszak

Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 1999 Theodore Roszak
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-509-1


Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Fate of the Earth

I heard a shrill and dreadful scream. It came from the room where Elizabeth had retired. The scream was repeated, and I rushed into the room. Great God! why did I not then expire! She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair, her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on her bridal bier. The murderous mark of the fiend's grasp was on her neck, and the breath had ceased to issue from her lips.... While I still hung over her in the agony of despair, I happened to look up. With a sensation of horror not to be described, I saw at the open window a figure the most hideous and abhorred. A grin was on the face of the monster; he seemed to jeer as with his fiendish finger he pointed towards the corpse of my wife.

We are at the climax of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The gloating monster hovers above his helpless female victim, ready to ravish, to kill. She is at his mercy. She screams, she struggles ... in vain. The hero arrives too late. His lady love lies expiring upon the bed.

I suspect all of us can recall scores of images like this from movies we have known since our childhood. The zombie, the werewolf, the mad slasher carrying off the half-clad leading lady ... can we imagine a horror story that does not include a frightened female swooning in the monster's arms? We can see the moment coming miles ahead. Yet how disappointed we would be if it did not come. Somehow the dramatic truth seems to demand it.

The damsel in distress was already a cliché of the Gothic novel when Mary Shelley sat down to write Frankenstein. The "shilling shockers" on which the children of her day grew up—the pulp fiction of that era—invariably featured voluptuous ladies in filmy nightgowns chained to the dungeon wall or cowering in the shadowy crypt, fearfully awaiting the ghost, the ghoul, the walking corpse who would soon have his way with her. But Frankenstein added something new. In this case, the hero is a scientist, a new social identity never before explored in fiction. He stands at the center of the tale, the man of reason swept away by a twisted passion that is at once intellectual and sexual. The female-victim is his bride, murdered before the marriage can be consummated. The monster is a creature of the hero's own making, in effect his unnatural son. Bonds of filial and matrimonial love tie the characters together, connecting them all to "a workshop of filthy creation," as Mary Shelley called the first experimental laboratory to appear in literature. By a stroke of genius, she transmuted the creaky Gothic tale into the first true science fiction. Borrowing from a genre once populated with monsters of the past—demons, imps, and witches—she discovered a new species of horror that belonged uniquely to the future of scientific society.

Yet as original as Mary Shelley was, her story is permeated by an archetypal familiarity—as if there were a mythic resonance about the lurid scene we see unfolding in this bedroom, something as primordial as the concept of taboo. Frankenstein may anticipate the latest developments in genetic engineering, but the tale is haunted by a temptation that reaches back to the Book of Genesis: "... and ye shall be as gods." That was the prophetical warning Mary Shelley placed at the heart of her tale. Science, though it champions reason, can degenerate into mad rationality. For all its idealism, it does not dependably elevate us above sin; in the wrong hands, it may only enhance our power to do evil.

Sigmund Freud believed we harbor childhood memories of parental intercourse in the depths of the unconscious. He called this the "primal scene." He was convinced that this image, which children usually interpret as a violation of the mother by the father ("an attempt to overpower the woman"), was not a true personal recollection but a "phylogenetic possession," something remembered from the prehistory of our species.

Can there be other primal scenes that are just as powerful? I believe there is at least one, an image that returns to us every time we watch the monster menacing the maiden. In this case, the violation of female by male takes on a larger dimension. What we are witnessing in that encounter, even when it appears in the most vulgar context, is the rape of nature.

This is a journey through the strange sexual subtext of modern science. It connects elements of physics and biology with insights from the new field of feminist psychology. Taking its cue from Freud, it regards no metaphor as a "mere" metaphor, but as a window into the soul. With the same insistent curiosity that psychiatrists have brought to bear on art, religion, and social custom, it asks why all of us, scientists included, continue to speak of nature as She and God as He as if we did not "know" better. At its most searching level, it seeks to understand why "mother" and "matter" were once thought so closely interwoven that the same word was used for both. Before we finish, we will learn how the atom, the hard core of the hardest science, was transformed into a gendered object and how several generations of male scientists, by willfully blinding themselves to that fact, came to believe they had at last arrived at a true vision of the world, only to see that vision at last become shadowed by monsters.

This is admittedly a highly speculative undertaking. Any project that delves into the depths of the human unconscious has to work from hunches, hints, and the free play of the imagination. Psychology has always had more literary art to it than its practitioners care to realize. Think how often the keenest insights into human psychology have been found in literature. Don Quixote's delusionary pursuits, Othello's murderous jealousy, Captain Ahab's obsessive vengefulness.... In these pages, Frankenstein performs the same role in feminist psychology that the Oedipus story plays in the theories of Freud: mythology coming to the aid of psychological inquiry. If one grants the necessity of risky conjecture, I believe the findings presented here are strong enough to be made part of our understanding of what science is—and what it is not.

For many readers, especially scientists, it may seem improper to subject science to an analysis of this kind. Scientists have done such a thorough job of portraying themselves as the guardians of rationality that many of them may believe they—uniquely—have no psychology at all. Is this not what we have been taught to honor as the scientific method—a way of seeing the world that is wholly unblemished by subjective taint? Ideally, the scientific mind should be a purely rational instrument, solidly logical to the core. Only theology purports to be as capable of speaking with divine authority, free of personal feeling and historical context. In real life, nothing remotely like that kind of detachment is humanly possible. Nor, I suspect, would many scientists enjoy being the sort of person they must pretend to be when they write for a professional journal or deliver a paper before their colleagues. On such special ceremonial occasions scientists, much like priests performing Mass, seek to make themselves wholly transparent before the divine eye.

The poet William Wordsworth brilliantly captured that reverential image of science in a passage from his lyric autobiography The Prelude. At Cambridge, where he went to school in the 1780s, there was a statue of Sir Isaac Newton, the founding father of modern physics. It stood in the university chapel. Looking back to his youthful years, this is how Wordsworth remembered that famous work of art:

And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favoring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind forever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

In these few lines, Wordsworth captures the somber and principled isolation of scientific man as only poetry can. As a young girl, Mary Shelley might have heard the poet himself read this passage. Wordsworth was often a guest at her family's many literary soirées. Daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and the feminist firebrand Mary Wollstonecraft, she grew up in one of the most literate and intellectually daring families in England. She might have gone to bed one night pondering that "silent face," that "mind forever voyaging." She might have fallen asleep hearing that final, sorrowing epithet "alone ... alone ... alone" echoing away into the darkening void. She may have wondered if we should want the human mind to be such a "marble index," chilly as stone, eternally perfect ... but never alive.

Science has changed vastly over the centuries. Newton's physics, hailed in Mary Shelley's day as a true reflection of the mind of God, has been all but turned inside out. Where Newton saw simplicity and solidity, his intellectual heirs now see a quantum phantasmagoria filled with paradox and uncertainty. We have come to regard his mighty principles and finely wrought formulas as merely a special case within the far larger, more complex universe we inhabit. Nevertheless, the underlying spirit of Newton's quest remains unchanged. Science still aspires to an objectivity that outlaws the irrational.

One can try one's best to force the irrational out of mind, but that is repression, not objectivity. And to confuse repression with objectivity leads us to that ominous identity called the "mad scientist," the man so out of touch with his own imperfect motivations that he becomes emotionally and morally anesthetized. Perhaps that is why some of us cannot be assured too often that, beneath their professional exterior, scientists really do have private lives, that they can be as conflicted and confused as the rest of us. When James Watson, the codiscoverer of the DNA double helix, digresses to let us know he has an eye for pretty girls ("popsies," as he calls them in his memoir), it may add nothing to his biology, but it encourages us to believe there is a human being behind the biology who might be expected to have a conscience.

These days we are fortunate to have a new style of science writing that seeks to put a human face on its subject. Thanks to biographers who go out of their way to emphasize quirky biographical details, we are discovering that scientists also have their emotional eccentricities. Sometimes what we learn is little more than gossip: that Stephen Hawking keeps a picture of Marilyn Monroe over his desk, that Richard Feynman loved to play the bongos, that Albert Einstein had a love life outside his marriage. Other revelations can be unflattering but nonetheless forgivably human, as for example when we are told how egotistically ambitious scientists can be, how petty, how nasty, how driven by the same lust for fame and fortune we associate with other celebrities.

Finally there are the revelations that tell of severely troubled lives: the hypochondria that turned Darwin into a recluse, the depression that drove Ludwig Boltzmann to suicide, the sexual guilt that led Allen Turing to the same sad end. Turing, one of the founders of computer science, once proposed a "test" that would measure how close artificial intelligence had come to the real thing. He wondered what one might ask in a structured conversation to decide if one's interlocutor was a human being or a computer. The question is still debated, but the ultimate Turing test might be to pose the question "How would a guilt-stricken homosexual commit suicide?" Would a computer ever conceive of eating an apple laced with cyanide? Probably not, but Turing, the consummate logician, chose just that bizarre way to end his life.

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 example, no one would suggest that there was a direct connection between Boltzmann's suicidally depressive condition and his theory of entropy, even though entropy, taken to mean that the entire universe is running down, does wear an air of tragedy. Conclusions like that would clearly be reaching too far. Suppose, then, we grant that the standard scientific method—being fiercely logical, making conscientious measurements, honoring the empirical evidence, remaining open to criticism and counterarguments—effectively screens out emotional distortion. Nevertheless, modern psychology has taught us that the unconscious contains more than purely personal contents. There is a collective unconscious made up of cultural elements that are absorbed into the personality in the cradle, if not before. These contents include imagery and mythic materials, values and suppositions so basic that they can seem self-evident and are rarely reflected upon with any critical awareness. Consider the following:

* there is a real world "out there" beyond one's own mind

* touching things proves they are really "there"

* other people exist as separate centers of consciousness

* time moves forward in a straight line with causes coming before effects

* reality is best studied by the rigorous application of logic to empirical facts (or, quoting Galileo, "the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics")

* the past, which we can never know directly, was governed by the same forces we can study around us now

* human beings have the right to experiment on "lower animals"

* the less emotionally involved we are with what we study, the more accurately we understand it

None of these are "facts" or "findings." They are assumptions that may lead to facts and findings. And, like all assumptions, they are open to doubt. There are traditions highly honored in other societies that have called one or another of them into question. The Buddhists, for example, can be rigorously logical in their analysis of experience, but the conclusion they reach—that the self is illusory, that the void is more "real" than the sensory world—would provide a very different starting point for doing science. One can live one's entire life unaware of the way in which culturally transmitted elements like these shape the contours of the mind.

Take the most basic metaphor in modern science—namely, that there are "laws" of nature. I daresay few scientists have ever sorted through all the philosophical baggage that this concept carries. Behind this commonplace notion lies an immense cultural tradition from which we learned that the universe was created by a lawgiver God who, as father, lord, and master, dictated the orderliness of nature, which is a lesser material realm under His jurisdiction. Science bootstrapped itself into existence on the basis of that familiar Sunday school lesson. In the early days of the scientific revolution, the idea of natural law helped two generations of natural philosophers work out their first quantitative ideas of motion and gravitation and chemical interaction. In the beginning, to understand nature was to read the mind of God, on the assumption common to all good Deists of the time that God's strict adherence to logic guaranteed the regularity of the cosmos. Later, agnostic scientists, themselves under the influence of other philosophical ideas, edited the great lawgiver out of the picture; but they retained the laws.

There seems to be an unwritten agreement in professional science to leave troubling philosophical matters like this undiscussed, the better to get on with one's research. The scientist who loiters over "the reality of Reality" or the strict meaning of determinism or randomness may never get down to work. That way lies philosophy, for which there are no prizes handed out at Stockholm. But sweeping such matters out of sight does not automatically build a mental firewall that screens them from consciousness. On the contrary, it is a principle of modern psychology that the feelings most apt to influence behavior are those that we try hardest to suppress. They work like malicious secret agents in the shadowed corners of the psyche. The basic strategy of every school of psychology is therefore to recover the repressed, to shine the light of awareness upon all that is hidden so that its influence can be assessed and allowed for. This amounts to saying that honesty—a clear declaration of one's tastes, preferences, vested interests, and emotional involvement—may be more important than objectivity, if by objectivity one means affecting a blank and neutral state. In that latter sense objectivity may be a pretense that hides profound distortions.

Excerpted from The Gendered Atom by Theodore Roszak. Copyright © 1999 Theodore Roszak. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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