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Gendered Atom [Hardcover]

Roszak
2.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 30 2002 1573241717 978-1573241717
Beneath the scientist's purportedly rational, objective surface, Theodore Roszak identifies a maelstrom of sexual prejudices and gender stereotypes, and shows that even physics, the "hardest" of the sciences, is as profoundly shaped by unconscious and irrational drives as any human pursuit. Roszak argues that, in its masculine drive to control and exploit, mainstream science has ultimately corrupted our relationship to nature. Even the concept of the atom, long pictured as the very foundation of physical reality, is tainted with gender bias.

Deftly weaving insights from diverse sources ranging from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the field of feminist psychology, The Gendered Atom looks forward to a gender-free science that finally respects nature and promises a healthier, more fully realized form of knowledge.


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From Kirkus Reviews

This antiscientific tract by a history professor focuses on the sexual politics of science. Roszak (America the Wise, 1998) centers his critique of science on the Frankenstein storyhardly an original idea, since Shelley's tale was itself a critique of science. Discovering a pervasive set of gender stereotypes at the very root of the scientific endeavor, he takes as his primary target modern physics. He is much taken with his chance discovery that CERN, the gigantic European particle accelerator, is built beneath ground that Shelley could have seen from the window of the Swiss villa in which she lived during the composition of Frankenstein; could she have had a premonition of the horror of atom-smashing? CERN, Roszak explains, illustrates a male predilection for smashing things and taking them apart. A lower-energy American project, whose spokesman speaks of ``tickling'' and ``nudging'' atoms into revealing their secrets, evidently meets more with his approval. The feminist historians of science he cites observe, further, that the classical atom was an avatar of a certain kind of male personality, determined to stand aloof from the outside world, and conclude more generally that the vaunted male-driven objectivity of science is fraudulent. The practice of removing infants from their mothers and placing them in a sterile environmentof which the Skinner box was the extreme exampleis noted as an attempt to impose ``scientific'' self-sufficiency on even the newborn. Given the entire field of modern science, with its long history of male dominance, to dig through, there is no shortage of horrid examples to support Roszak's argument. One can understand why Jane Goodall was willing to write his Foreword. But in the end, Roszak has nothing to set in place of the science he holds up to criticism. As flawed as the science it attacks, with just enough substance to seduce the ignorant. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
By Leanne
Format:Hardcover
Let me begin with: Please don't buy this book. If you just can't help yourself, go to your friendly neighbourhood library and try it on for size. You will probably never want to see it again afterward.

Roszak threads an incredible amount of thinly-veiled propaganda and poorly-researched assumptions into this book. He starts with the interesting and fairly believable theory that science has been biased by a male-centered culture. Then he proceeds to completely lose credibility with gaping logical vacuums. Allow me to demonstrate:

My favourite example is the way he describes Richard Dawkins' work (which is far more interesting and credible than his own, by the way); Roszak explains that Dawkins views genes as "gangsters" and "war-gamers", and then proceeds to say he likens genes to these things "...in order to impose a defunct Social Darwinist ethic upon their [the genes'] behaviour." (pg.130) Oh, so do you mean he's trying to pull the old Social-Darwinism-for-genes trick? Oh, wait. Social Darwinism FOR GENES, that would be, er, plain old DARWINISM, am I correct? So Roszak treats real Darwinism and the theory of evolution as if it had sprung from its own misguided off-shoot, thus betraying his complete ignorance on the subject.

Roszak directly implies elsewhere that atheists and Christians are equally fanciful in their ways of explaining existence, since Christians posit that God created everything, but that GOD existed eternally, and atheists posit that the world exists because its basic parts have always existed.

The problem of an elegant explanation emerges here. Is he trying to say that it makes no difference to the credibility of these ideas that one group adds an extra (also, unprovable)step?
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1.0 out of 5 stars A biased, misinformed view of the atom Dec 28 2001
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This book is another in the postmod or feminist genre which tries to argue that notions of 'truth', 'objectivity' and 'universality'--indicative of scientific knowledge--are to be questioned. Why these notions are to be questioned is due to the assumption that the knowledge, theories and presuppositions held by scientists (who historically, and at present, are predominantly male), have been pervaded by socio-cultural biases and in the case of gender, by a male gender bias. It's not that males outnumber females in the scientific establishment, but that theories, concepts, hypotheses, research directions and even presuppositions are completely pervaded by a male gender psychological bias; a bias that, according to feminists, gets established in the male at the pre-Oedipal phase of development. The male--having to make a separate break with the mother--acquires a "separate self" with traits that reflect that separation: autonomous, separate, isolated, self-determining, rigid, insensitive, competitive, aggressive, objective, etc. For females, the separation is different in that traits like, intimacy, emotion, influence of Other, compassion, community, sensitivity, nurturing, receptivity, sympathy--what is called the "self-in-relation" develops.
Where the author sees male traits biasing the investigation into the origin of matter is the whole notion of classical atomism; a reductionist programme of searching for the fundamental building blocks of nature. He notes that feminists see a striking correspondence between atomism and the psychological persona of the stereotypical male. These traits supposedly pre-filter and bias how they see and generate suppositions and theories about the basic stuff of the world.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Today as Tomorrow's Laboratory Feb. 6 2000
Format:Hardcover
In this book, one of the best I have ever read, Roszak helps us see how we shape our own lives, our relationships, and our collective future, and how science was formed and how it shapes our lives in its image ... and he does all this in an easy-to-read, non-technical way. Indeed, his approach is unique. He has taught Frankenstein to college kids for 30 years, as a metaphor that predicted and described the shadow side of where we stand today. He uses that gothic horror story of a mad scientist to show how it presciently described modern science ... and from there he shows the next steps we and science can and must take, to go beyond Frankenstein's modern counterpart, Dr. Strangelove, by integrating the feminine relationship aspects of reality with science's vaunted worldview of utter objectivity and isolated particles. All this, he sets into incredibly accessible form, weaving it into the story of the trip he and his wife took to Switzerland to see where Mary Shelley, summering with Percy and Lord Byron, wrote Frankenstein ... and weaving in simple explanations of the strange discoveries and worldviews of modern physics by the (coincidence? ) that exactly there, where Frankenstein conceived his monster, now stands CERN, the European center for subatomic research. Add together Frankenstein, the feminist critique of modern science, four centuries of history (Roszak is a History professor), and a personal travel tale, and, alchemically, he creates a stunning clarification of our past and present and a clear map of our possible future.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 2.6 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A biased, misinformed view of the atom Dec 28 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is another in the postmod or feminist genre which tries to argue that notions of `truth', `objectivity' and `universality'--indicative of scientific knowledge--are to be questioned. Why these notions are to be questioned is due to the assumption that the knowledge, theories and presuppositions held by scientists (who historically, and at present, are predominantly male), have been pervaded by socio-cultural biases and in the case of gender, by a male gender bias. It's not that males outnumber females in the scientific establishment, but that theories, concepts, hypotheses, research directions and even presuppositions are completely pervaded by a male gender psychological bias; a bias that, according to feminists, gets established in the male at the pre-Oedipal phase of development. The male--having to make a separate break with the mother--acquires a "separate self" with traits that reflect that separation: autonomous, separate, isolated, self-determining, rigid, insensitive, competitive, aggressive, objective, etc. For females, the separation is different in that traits like, intimacy, emotion, influence of Other, compassion, community, sensitivity, nurturing, receptivity, sympathy--what is called the "self-in-relation" develops.

Where the author sees male traits biasing the investigation into the origin of matter is the whole notion of classical atomism; a reductionist programme of searching for the fundamental building blocks of nature. He notes that feminists see a striking correspondence between atomism and the psychological persona of the stereotypical male. These traits supposedly pre-filter and bias how they see and generate suppositions and theories about the basic stuff of the world. So atoms are then seen as separate, autonomous, individual, other, inanimate, cold, non-relational, solid, fundamental objects whose mechanical motions in the spacial void are subject to impersonal and universal laws. What male scientists declare are universal and objective are really projections of their own male-based, biased unconscious.

Roszak makes a further case for his claims by showing that recent developments in physics and mathematics (chaos theory, complexity, emergence and quantum mechanics) have overturned the notion of the classical atom (which never existed in the first place according to him) and have gone beyond the reductionist programme of trying to reveal nature's most fundamental units. These new developments are part of the recent sea-change occurring in the sciences where `deep community,' `relatedness,' `complexity,' `communication,'--all stereotypical feminine characteristics--are behind these new non-reductive fields of inquiry.

Here are some problems with the book's arguments. First off, virtually all the new developments that the author cites as part of that paradigm shift in the sciences such chaos theory, complexity, and emergence or even quantum mechanics, have been single-handedly authored by men.

Secondly, seeing a correspondence between atomism and the supposed male persona does not establish causation. It does not follow that because the scientific enterprise is supposedly `stereotypically' male that theories of matter will also be `stereotypically male'. Atomism arose to try to answer the problem about how small stuff could be continually divided; it had nothing to do with being macho. Atomism was one of a number of theories of matter that a few Greeks held to be true; whereas, a much greater number of Greek philosophers had different and incompatible theories to atomism.

Thirdly, the classical atom did exist and was necessary in the explanation behind Dalton's theory of quantitative chemistry, Boyle's law, Bernoulli's kinetic theory of gases, Clerk Maxwell's contributions to thermodynamics Clausius' atomic theory of heat and Boltzmann's statistical mechanics. In 1905, Einstein explained Brownian motion by assuming that a large number of atoms--colliding with pollen grains--made them move about randomly. Yet Einstein developed the quintessential relational and complex theory called general relativity where time, space, energy and mass are all interrelated. Newton, a devout classical atomist, created a theory that is an exemplar of relatedness and complexity where everything is attracted to everything else: universal gravitation. Faraday developed the concept of the electromagnetic field (and speculated that all phenomena are interrelated) and Clerk Maxwell gave this electromagnetic field its mathematical formalism. Mendeleev ordered atoms by increasing atomic number and in a periodic manner.

Lynn Margulis and Barbara McClintock are cited as examples of cooperation, communication and empathy in biology. But it is a cliche to say that men see competition and women see cooperation. One could find many examples to the contrary in science. And saying that women who see competition have adopted the male gender bias in their respective field is simply ad hoc explaining away of evidence to the contrary (the footnote about female sociobotanists). In biology, one can find as many examples of male biologists seeing cooperation as competition. Reciprocal altruism, ESS strategies, kin selection, group selectionism, biogeography, ecology, prisoner's dilemma strategy, etc., are all concepts originated by men. There are as many women Darwinists as there are male Darwinists.

On page 132, the author reverses his position by noting that the history of science has been an attempt to search ever deeper into the various domains of nature where we are finding an increasing complexity, subtlety and rich set of relationships. I would say this reads not unlike a process of learning how to read, play chess, or learn chemistry, etc. where the subject starts by learning the letters, the `atoms' of the discipline then larger `words', followed by still larger complexes and behavior. If this is so, then gender bias is irrelevant as it applies to the notion of atomism and science. The only sea-change in the sciences is the move to the complexity level in understanding nature. If physics was women-dominated, I would say that it would go through the same stages of theorizing and experimentation--starting from the four elements, to atoms, to leptons and quarks.

Sometimes the book reads like one big indictment against the scientific enterprise--especially when it comes to environmental destruction. But all these accusations are misplaced as the author repeatedly refers to the application of science, not science proper. Frankenstein (mentioned throughout the book) may be a critique about applying science; but it says absolutely *nothing* about science.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Just awful and almost unreadable March 29 2012
By Wilson Trimbull - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Since I am a scientist, I was curious and picked up this book. I can barely manage to struggle through a page or two without wanting to vomit.

Roszak clearly knew nothing whatsoever about science. He has some sort of distorted fantastical strawman in mind when he thinks about science, which he attacks over and over. Anyone who likes this book is highly suspect, in my opinion, and needs to actually learn something about science instead of just regurgitating this ridiculous nonsense.
5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Please don't encourage Roszak by buying this book. Aug. 19 2005
By Leanne - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Let me begin with: Please don't buy this book. If you must punish yourself, go to your friendly neighbourhood library and try it on for size. Or beat yourself with a belt. Both at once might even make the book seem less painful by comparison.
Roszak threads an incredible amount of thinly-veiled propaganda and poorly-researched assumptions into this book. He starts with the interesting and fairly believable theory that science has been biased by a male-centered culture. Then he proceeds to completely lose credibility with gaping logical vacuums. Allow me to demonstrate:
My favourite example is the way he describes Richard Dawkins' work (which is far more interesting and credible than his own, by the way); Roszak explains that Dawkins views genes as "gangsters" and "war-gamers", and then proceeds to say he likens genes to these things "...in order to impose a defunct Social Darwinist ethic upon their [the genes'] behaviour." (pg.130) Oh, so do you mean he's trying to pull the old Social-Darwinism-for-genes trick? That cunning villain! Oh, wait. Social Darwinism FOR GENES, that would be, er, plain old DARWINISM, am I correct? So Roszak treats real Darwinism and the theory of evolution as if it had sprung from its own misguided off-shoot, thus betraying his complete ignorance on the subject.
Roszak directly implies elsewhere that atheists and Christians are equally fanciful in their ways of explaining existence, since Christians posit that God created everything, but that GOD existed eternally, and atheists posit that the world exists because its basic parts have always existed.
The problem of an elegant explanation emerges here. Is he trying to say that it makes no difference to the credibility of these ideas that one group happens to invent a completely unnecessary and unscientific (in that it is not provable) intermediate step? He makes cutting comments about any other person he mentions who happens not to be a raging theist. His tragic lack of understanding of atheism (and existentialism) leads him to very obviously imply that non-theists are bitter, cynical people who have incredibly dark world-views and no conscience. He also describes the idea that the world has no inherent profound meaning as "macho" (pg.82), which is a strange way of putting things, to say the least. Ideas which he finds demoralizing on a personal level take an unnecessary beating in this book.
When describing the way that human beings treat the environment, Roszak waxes on about Mother Earth and gives the impression that we all have to be slushy sentimental goddess-worshippers to be true environmentalists. He never once mentions any of the perfectly logical reasons why we may not want to destroy our environment, such as: we will all die if our resources run out. Ergo, don't ravage the planet. But apparently my desire to maintain an ecological harmony just isn't good enough, because it doesn't stem from an outrage against the profaning of our Mother by filthy patriarchal scientist hands.
In conclusion, don't read this if you are expecting anything truly stimulating. Do read it if you are expecting a theatre of the absurd. It has earned its single star by virtue of its incredible strangeness, and its car-wreck quality of sickened fascination.
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rational vs. Rationale Oct. 17 2011
By Meredith Folsom - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
From my experience, men do definitely attempt to suppress women - to belittle, badger, beat and humiliate women for the purpose of keeping a master-slave relationship alive to their own advantage. Even the best intentioned of men find it nearly impossible to resist taking advantage. Governments fund construction to create jobs, jobs that are predominately male. Women must struggle to earn enough for rent. Many will compromise themselves to ally with a man just for financial support. This is no new idea. To say the contrary is akin to the arguments Southerners gave for keeping blacks under slavery. Science is just one of the realms in which this stance peeks its head above the grass. Another is modern corporate farming. See the DVD "Food, Inc." to see this well described manifestation. Four fictional film depictions that give the same idea of callous abuse is Greystoke - The Legend of Tarzan starring Christopher Lambert, Instinct starring Anthony Hopkins, Amistad again with Hopkins and Amazing Grace with Ioan Gruffudd. For some nasty depictions of the abuse toward women try Germaine Greer's Female Eunuch, Women and Madness by Phyllis Chesler or Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. We need not even broach the vast field of the Holocaust, of many peoples.
9 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Today as Tomorrow's Laboratory Feb. 6 2000
By Tigerdreams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In this book, one of the best I have ever read, Roszak helps us see how we shape our own lives, our relationships, and our collective future, and how science was formed and how it shapes our lives in its image ... and he does all this in an easy-to-read, non-technical way. Indeed, his approach is unique. He has taught Frankenstein to college kids for 30 years, as a metaphor that predicted and described the shadow side of where we stand today. He uses that gothic horror story of a mad scientist to show how it presciently described modern science ... and from there he shows the next steps we and science can and must take, to go beyond Frankenstein's modern counterpart, Dr. Strangelove, by integrating the feminine relationship aspects of reality with science's vaunted worldview of utter objectivity and isolated particles. All this, he sets into incredibly accessible form, weaving it into the story of the trip he and his wife took to Switzerland to see where Mary Shelley, summering with Percy and Lord Byron, wrote Frankenstein ... and weaving in simple explanations of the strange discoveries and worldviews of modern physics by the (coincidence? ) that exactly there, where Frankenstein conceived his monster, now stands CERN, the European center for subatomic research. Add together Frankenstein, the feminist critique of modern science, four centuries of history (Roszak is a History professor), and a personal travel tale, and, alchemically, he creates a stunning clarification of our past and present and a clear map of our possible future.
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