IF A coprophagous coleopteran stopped to reflect, its life would no doubt
seem a noble quest. Nevertheless, the attention lavished upon the dung
beetle by a Serious Entomologist would be flattering in the extreme,
applauding — by reason of the entomologist's devoted interest — this
scarab's life work. So it is with high-energy physicists and
anthropologists: the life of the mind, the quest for nature's secrets, is
suffused with its own divinity. But surely, to be taken seriously by
serious persons must be the sincerest form of flattery. Sharon Traweek is
a Serious Anthropologist and our colleagues must needs be flattered by
her fascination with their habits and tribal customs.
The community Professor Traweek has chosen to study, that of experimental
high-energy physicists, seems apt for classical anthropological analysis.
The group has a shared past, anticipates a shared future, has rites for
initiating new members and is able to distinguish itself from other
communities. The population is divided into highly ordered, long-lasting
associations: the handful of high-energy accelerator laboratories comprise
several groups, each executing an experiment in its own style. A group
consists of 50 to a few hundred physicists from different institutions,
with varying backgrounds, specialities and levels of experience — graduate
students, postdoctoral fellows, professors, laboratory staff members — who
build a detector to gather data on subatomic particles and then analyse
the information to construct a more complete picture of the Universe.
Subgroups, sometimes individuals, are responsible for different parts of
the hardware, software and analysis. Although people occasionally move
between experiments and laboratories, the collaboration may last for a
decade or more. The society is highly ordered, rich in mythology and
customs; and, because there are communities of experimental high-energy
physicists around the world, it offers anthropologists the opportunity to
distinguish behaviour patterns endemic in the profession from expressions
of national or ethnic traits.
Particle physics has well-known personalities —
clowns, tyrants, thoughtful moralists, egomaniacs, wizards —
about whom many people are curious. Are they typical? How do they
interact? What order underlies a group in which the
list of workers on a single experiment may fill an entire page of a
journal? An analysis that revealed the strengths and weaknesses of a
particular approach to large collaborations could be interesting,
amusing and even cautionary for scientists in fields beginning to
collectivize. Indeed, Traweek comes upon provocative questions: What are
the norms of behaviour within the community? How are actions and motives
analysed? Why do people who see each other day in, day out recount
different versions of history?
Scientific inquiry requires that researchers play Devil's Advocate until
they can convince themselves that their data are complete and can be
trusted. Unlike the physicists she studies, Traweek evinces no scepticism
towards her data and fails to convince us that she has gathered anything
more than an idiosyncratic sample.
Beamtimes and Lifetimes
reads less like a mature analysis than like a collection of undigested
field notes recording observations at SLAC, the Stanford Linear
Accelerator Center in the United States, and KEK, the national high-energy
physics laboratory in Japan.
Traweek consistently uses the experience or opinions of a few
individuals to draw broad conclusions about the entire community. If these
illustrations were used to vitalize an observation or
conclusion, they would be useful. Without a convincing richness of
supporting data, however, her inductions have a foundation of quicksand.
Further, her decision not to identify her subjects means that they become
interchangeable: one group leader, one laboratory director is presented as
indistinguishable from another. Yet in fact these people have quite
different personal and scientific styles. She does not make a plausible
case for not differentiating them, so the reader can only conclude that
her powers of observation are not equal to her task.
This judgement is reinforced by Traweek's methodology. Reporting a
discussion of how wives of high-energy physicists supported their
husbands' work, she writes, "The older wife of a laboratory director
interjected that she thought the way to avoid distracting the husband
from his important work was to pursue one's own interests seriously. By
their glances at each other I gathered that the younger women
moment's reflection provides a number of alternative interpretations:
interest in each other's reaction to an unfamiliar point of view,
exasperation over hearing this position put forth for the millionth time
by someone in a situation different from theirs, and so forth.
A recurring theme for
Traweek is gender bias and sexism in the education, the rites of passage
and the practice of experimental high-energy physics — a subject that
should not be trivialized. If particle physics is a male culture (although saying so doesn't make it
so), it is important to understand how it came to be that way and why it
remains true. Traweek's summation is as cogent as the evidence that
Beatles records, played backwards, contain messages of devil worship:
The language used by physicists about and around detectors is genital: the
imagery of the names SPEAR, SLAC, and PEP is clear, as is the reference to
the "beam" as "up" or "down." One must see the magnets at LASS to appreciate the labial associations in the detector's name, Large Aperture
Solenoid Spectrometer. Ironically, the denial of human agency in the
construction of science coexists with the imaging of scientists as male
and nature as female. Detectors are the site of their coupling: standing
on the massive, throbbing body of the eighty-two-inch bubble chamber at
SLAC while watching the accelerated particles from the beam collide twice
a second with super-heated hydrogen molecules made this clear to me.
The plethora of facts that Traweek has got wrong does nothing to encourage
faith in her inductions. Descriptions of scientific apparatus, events
and phenomena, intended to confer verisimilitude, are
grossly inaccurate. Her judgements are no more convincing: the statement
that the food at SLAC is "rather good, for a cafeteria" will come as a
shock to anyone who has eaten there.
The neglect of the reasons that inspire people to join and remain in this
community is a crippling omission. Particle physics is not a closed or
isolated society in which membership is determined by happenstance.
Because the only motive Traweek recognizes is career advancement, her
narrative is oblivious to the excitement, the exhilaration of doing
physics. Nowhere do we see people driven by curiosity, intoxicated with
the creation and understanding of new experience.
Beamtimes and Lifetimes is not a complete or reliable guide to the community
of particle physicists. Let it be
taken nevertheless as an invitation to particle physicists to re-examine
their values, institutions and assumptions about each other and about the
rest of the world.
Kate Metropolis and Chris Quigg are in the Superconducting Super Collider
Central Design Group, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Berkeley, California 94720,