Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Review: The Madame Curie Complex by Julie des Jardins

The Madame Curie Complex by Julie des Jardins provides an engaging overview of the lives of women scientists entwined with a description of uniting aspects of their “hidden history”.

The best parts of the book are in Des Jardins’ descriptions of the individual women’s experiences, including Curie, the women of the Manhattan Project, and several others. My favorites are the stories of “inappropriate” female astronomers Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, and Henrietta Leavitt, who had the temerity to both work in science and speak up about their frustrations back in the early 1900s, and a chapter on more recent women scientists arguing about the role of feminism in their work. I was particularly struck by the 1977 Nobel laureate Rosalyn Yallow, who dismissed the difficulties faced by herself and other women as easily overcome. It has long been my opinion that sexism and other barriers don’t matter as much for people with truly extraordinary scientific ability like Yallow as they do for the much larger group of women who are merely talented, competent, and industrious.

This is a useful and well-researched book on the history of women in science, but I struggled with two of her central arguments. First, I doubt the existence of the Madame Curie complex that gives the book its title, and second, I am not convinced that women as a group approach science in a fundamentally different way than men.

The complex of the title is a special variety of the more generally known imposter syndrome. This mindset causes American women to believe that they cannot match the personal and scientific accomplishments of Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize winner from first half of the 20th century, and therefore should not try.

Des Jardins’ main pieces of evidence for the existence of this complex are (1) another historian, Margaret Rossiter, noted an inferiority complex in women after Curie’s two fund-raising tours in the U.S in the 1920’s, and (2) the number of American women pursuing science did not increase significantly after these tours. As she proceeds through a roughly chronological description of various women’s scientific efforts, the MC Complex is occasionally invoked to explain why these women scientists remained such a rarity.

Pervasive sexism, the widespread acceptance of science (and professional careers in general) as exclusively male endeavors, and the difficulties of balancing science with family obligations are sufficient to explain the slow infiltration of women into science, and no inferiority complex focused on Curie needs to be invoked. Further, Des Jardins does not mention a single example of a woman saying, for instance, that she considered studying science but then was put off because she could never measure up to the Curie legend. To the contrary, in Chapter 6, the scientist Fay Ajzenberg-Selove cites Marie Curie as a positive influence.

Des Jardins goes on to highlight the work of the “trimates” Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas, and Jane Goodall as part of her argument that science done by women is fundamentally different than science done by men. She suggests, for instance, that only a man could be callous enough to deprive a baby chimp of its mother in the famous whatever experiment, and only a woman would decide to perform the intense observational work of the trimates.

Again, I am unconvinced. Her argument is undermined by the shared vision of the trimates with the man (Louis Leakey) who supported each of these women, by the many remarkable innovations and varied approaches of male scientists (examples abound, but I suggest starting with the movie Kinsey), and by the relative banality of most science done by both men and women. Great scientists have creative and unique approaches to viewing the world and to designing and interpreting experiments. That need for creativity is part of what makes science so fun.

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