Notes from the quantum field
Kate Metropolis & Chris Quigg

Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. By Sharon Traweek. Harvard University Press: 1988. Pp.187. $20. £15.95.

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 disagreed". A 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, USA.

Published in Nature 338, 215 (1989).