Sunday, May 11, 2014

Joan Feynman: From Auroras to Anthropology

from A Passion for Science:  Tales of Discovery and Invention
by Christopher Riley

Joan Feynman’s career spans more than sixty years of dramatic change in society’s perceptions of the contributions that women can make to science. As a pioneer of the study of high-energy particles in space and the creator of statistical models to predict their impact on a spacecraft over its lifetime, her work is still used across the world today by the satellite industry. Joan’s research has lead to better understanding of sunspot cycles and the causes of planetary auroras. Now in her eighties, she continues to work, applying her research to new frontiers of anthropology. But this impressive career in science was almost stopped before it had started, due to a view of women that prevailed when she was growing up.

Women can’t do science

“Women can’t do science, because their brains aren’t made for it,” Lucille Feynman declared to her eight-year-old daughter Joan. The news was a huge blow to the little girl’s ambitions which, at the time in 1935, were firmly set on following her brother Richard into a life scientific. “I remember sitting in a chair and weeping,” she recalls.

The siblings grew up in an extremely science-nurturing household in Far Rockaway, a neighbourhood of New York City. A deep curiosity about the world had been enthusiastically encouraged at every opportunity and such an upbringing made this sudden news from her mother all the more shocking.

Lucille was an enlightened civil-rights campaigner who had marched for women’s suffrage in her youth. Yet she didn’t consider pointing her daughter towards other women of the time as potential role models. “To me, Madame Curie was a mythological figure,” says Joan, “not a real person whom you could strive to emulate.”

Today Joan appreciates that her mother hadn’t reacted like this to be mean. She’d said it because she believed it as an inescapable truth. But Lucille’s damaging misconception would have a lasting, negative effect on her daughter. “It was devastating to be told that all of my dreams were impossible,” says Joan. “I’ve doubted my abilities ever since.”

The other Feynman

In contrast, her brother Richard had been brought up to have complete confidence in his abilities. Their parents had positively thrust him towards a life steeped in maths and science. Even before Richard was born in 1918, Joan’s father Melville had confidently predicted to her mother that the boy was going to be a scientist.

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