MAD SCIENCE!!! or, Atoms for Peace and Fun with TRIGA

More than a thousand years ago, I was once an undergraduate.  A first-year, even. Liked trees, but my initial interest in forestry had been dampened by a job shadow day with some forest rangers who frankly told me parks and rec jobs were scarce and low paying, and government jobs were all about cutting down trees.  Set out to become an engineer because I was good at math, a few people important to me in my life had encouraged me that direction, and word on the street was that engineers got good jobs with high pay. Knew nothing about engineering.  Picked environmental engineering, because of the tree-love, and was quickly disappointed to discover it had more to do with sewers than trees.

Why I found nuclear engineering more attractive than environmental engineering is difficult to say.  A best girlfriend was majoring in it (and women were very scarce in engineering a thousand years ago, scarcer than today).  Plus, atoms! For peace!  Atoms and radiation were just so funky.

I'll tell you what. My nascent engineering self was forming right after TMI became the buzzword of the day, and here I don't mean "too much information".  But I still found the whole nuclear bit enormously compelling and sexy.  Get this!  A course where they let you run a freaking reactor!  Sign me up, baby!  You boys can go tinker with your circuits all day long in electrical engineering if you want.  Over here, we are splitting the fucking atom!  For those of us who were nuclear engineers, the thought that we were being trained to run something that could melt down or explode was freaking exciting.  I mean, we were 19.  What did we know?  We were gonna live forever.

I went critical at Penn State's Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, which recently had its 50th anniversary in service (now 55 years).  It's now a National Historical Landmark!  Check out the distinguished white dudes in the pic at the link.

According to a historical marker placed on the reactor site by the Penn State Alumni Association, "Penn State in 1955 became the first university licensed by the Atomic Energy Comission to operate a nuclear reactor as part of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's 'Atoms for Peace' program. Named for William Breazeale, Penn State's first professor of nuclear engineering, the reactor became a training and research tool for peaceful applications of atomic energy."

You can learn more about the reactor and its history here.

In the end, operating the reactor was not as big a thrill as I had anticipated, and as usual, the boys hogged the controls and shoved us girls aside, telling us it would be helpful if we did important bookkeeping tasks like writing down the numbers on the screen that some of the other more dweeby boys who had also been shoved aside were already writing down.  Bored as hell, we wandered around and went out to look again at the beautiful beyond description reactor pool.  Oh, Cerenkov radiation! You are so dreamy!  I felt like a GOD(DESS) (we were all male-identified in those days) looking down at the eerie blue reactor core.  I felt powerful and invincible thinking I could mince about there at the side of the reactor pool, some dozens of feet away from fuel rods packed with uranium where atoms were being split WHILE I STOOD THERE AND DID NOT DIE.  I felt I wanted to know the nucleus and its secrets and make it mine and control it and use it and, of course, do some good with it and help humanity and all that, but most of all I wanted the knowledge and power.

I did a senior thesis with a wise professor of nuclear engineering, Edward S. Kenney.  The very first and most important thing he taught me was to be afraid of radiation.  And never, ever, ever to lose that fear or to become overly comfortable in working with it.  He told me some stories of what could happen when one becomes too casual, careless, or comfortable in working with radiation.  Some of the stories were historical, and some were local.  He put the fear of the Lord of Radiation in me.  It was a great good gift.  The other gifts he gave me in that senior thesis year were these:  How to keep records. How to use the scientific literature.  How to contact a vendor to ask for samples.  How to approach a colleague at another campus for a possible collaboration.  (Even though he already had an ongoing collaboration, he had me present my tiny little project and talk about how it might fit in with Potential Collaborator's.)  How to look at "stuff", and frame it in a context, and understand it as data, and begin to interpret it, and then to draw conclusions.  How to tell the story of a year of work in a way that made sense to people who weren't with me every day.

He gave me knowledge and power.  Not the kind I thought I was lusting after at the side of the reactor pool.  Most of the time I did not feel sexy and invincible, everything felt like drudgery and confusing and boring and frightening and lonely and insignificant and there was no incredible blue light and I didn't split any atoms.  I won an award, though, for the honors senior thesis in engineering science.  I was on my way to becoming a real engineer, a real scientist, with an honest love for knowledge and some shaky beginning grasp of the ethical responsibility, to one's self and others, that came with its power.

Some years later, I was with a group of non-scientist friends.  Women's studies friends. We were talking about how some scientists can lose sight of the ethics involved in their work.  How things can go horribly wrong.  We had all just recently read Carol Cohn's excellent article "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals".  Some present felt that it was a problem of masculinity and "mine is bigger".  The Manhattan project was cited as a particular example.  How could anyone become so enamored of working with such a horrible technology, they said.  Men cannot give birth, so they built a bomb.  I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds, and all that. Women are more in harmony with nature.  There was more talk like that, a thousand years ago. Evil masculinity was destroying the world, and the feminine principle would save it, and gender essentialism was not being as closely scrutinized as it ought to have been.

I had been listening a lot, because I was not a Feminist Expert.  But now they were talking science, and lust for power, and this I knew about.  I spoke up.  I talked about the Penn State reactor, the seductiveness of Cerenkov radiation's sapphire glow, the Superwoman theme playing in the brain and the blood coursing just a bit faster in the veins.  That this powerful excitement and love, wanting to know, is an inspiration for scientists to work hard.  I said anyone can be seduced by science.  I meant to say more, but at this point everyone was looking at me oddly.  It was as if they had all been chatting away, believing themselves to be among friends, and then I tore away the mask - the MAD SCIENTIST revealed!!!!  MWAH HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!

I am still not sure how it is that I came to love science and engineering so, while nearly all my feminist friends in that room had learned to look upon my love objects as sources of fear and loathing.  I don't know how I was so fortunate as to learn from those same friends that science and engineering, just like any other subject in the academy, could be subjected to a critical feminist analysis and be the better for it, when most people I knew in science and engineering thought their fields were beyond reproach, especially from shrill feminazi harpies. I only know that feminism made me a better scientist.  I could be a feminist without science, but I'm forever grateful I wasn't one of the many women turned away and taught to fear and loathe what is rightly theirs to love.

A feminist scientist is, in truth, neither mad nor a harpy.  I am reminded of an old Far Side cartoon a friend long had hanging on her refrigerator.  A friendly looking, bespectacled, beehived therapist takes notes as a cow lies on the couch next to her.  The cow says, "Maybe it's not me, you know?  Maybe it's the rest of the herd that's insane."  Indeed. Herd, take note:  You have issues.  It's time to deal.

Happy Halloween, all you mad harpy feminazi scientists and engineers out there!

8 responses so far

  • A. Marina Fournier says:

    You wrote:
    I meant to say more, but at this point everyone was looking at me oddly. It was as if they had all been chatting away, believing themselves to be among friends, and then I tore away the mask – the MAD SCIENTIST revealed!!!!

    I remember just before college graduation, being part of a group where, as all too often happened, the males were on one side, and the women on another side of the room. Most of the males were in math or science, and most of the women were in the arts or humanities or maybe psychology. The males apparently couldn't understand why they had to learn other languages (other subjects, too, but that's not important right now), and the women apparently couldn't understand why they had to learn math and science. No one there seemed to see that math and music worked together.

    I couldn't understand that they couldn't see that math was "just another language", and that languages were the groundwork for our world and its cultures, and even math and science. I didn't voice it then, but if I had, there might have been expressions of horror.

    At least now, women in engineering schools don't have to go any farther than any male to use the restroom--which used to dissuade a lot of women from pursuing engineering. That niggling basic dis-inclusion took longer than it should have to be remedied. I know that I heard it at least from Catherine Asaro--but I'd read it elsewhere, as ways to keep girl cooties away.

  • Allyson says:

    Thanks, Zuska, great post! I'm doing my graduate work in evolutionary biology with venomous snakes, an area where I've really had it easy getting accepted in the (mostly) boy's club. I've had looks of shock from visiting faculty, but no exclusion from research or resources. I've had some excellent feminist friends and mentors, but the current state of our department is very low on female faculty. Therefore I am very grateful for you and others on the Web that can support us wee mad harpy feminazi scientists/engineers!

  • I love this post sooooo much!!

    Happy Halloween right back atcha, from another mad harpy feminazi scientist.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    Happy Halloween indeed! Wonderful post - it's often tough to marry my feminism with my LOVE of science, accepting science culture while staying true to my personal beliefs. I'm glad to know it can be done. Thanks!

  • scicurious says:

    MWAH HA HA HA !!!!!

  • theshortearedowl says:

    Great post. For me, the power-rush was pushing my first sequences through BLAST and getting matches.

    I was always turned off by anything with the word "Women's" in front of it, just because of all that Earth Mother touchy-feely crap. Now, I see it's place - but I don't think I should have to be associated with it just by virtue of being a woman; there are people of both sexes who are far more into it than me.

  • Miles says:

    I have never seen a more stunning blue than at
    I wish the picture did that color justice.

  • Kea says:

    Cool!! Oh, and I was an undergraduate theoretical physicist a thousand years ago! (And there still aren't many women). And I loved the nuclear physics, too, though we never got to run a reactor. I did run some cool gadgets though ... like a large radio telescope: push the button and that pretty big dish just spins around! And I got to run it with another woman! Astronomy has many women these days, but women still don't love theory so much.

    “Maybe it’s the rest of the herd that’s insane.” LOL, I've known that since I was 2 years old, which I suppose is why I don't get much out of professional advice ... I think I probably lost faith in people's sanity around the time of the moon landing, although I don't actually remember that day. Apparently I was sent to my room, so the grown ups could enjoy the TV coverage in peace. Probably I screamed so loud that the whole street could hear it.

    Here's to the beautiful blue, anyway! And I am thankful I chose Theory in the end. If I hadn't, I would not be able to do research on my own now. Unpaid and ignored. Of course.