An ethnography of particle physics (Beamtimes and Lifetimes)

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 22, 2010

I’ve been telling everyone about this wonderful book that I finally got around to reading — Beamtimes and Lifetimes by Sharon Traweek.  It’s a really interesting read — an honest-to-goodness ethnography of particle physicists at SLAC.  Sharon Traweek is an anthropologist and she spent years in participant-observation at SLAC and at a Japanese accelerator, and documented their habits of dress, the physical space and what it signified, how they saw authority, the way that scientific truth was constructed, the difference between experimentalists and theorists, and the role of women, to name just a few.  It’s from 1988 so it’s a bit dated, but fascinating nonetheless.  For example,

Usually the physicists from each experimental research group will walk as a body to the cafeteria and then sit together, pulling a few table end to end and making room for late arrivals…  Theorists eat in smaller clusters.  While eating, people scan the room frequently, noting who is or is not eating with whom.  Almost no one eats alone.

She notes that the physicists have a “studiously informal” appearance, while the administrators wear classic business attire, and secretaries wear dresses and pantsuits.  Women physicists don’t wear skirts. There are very few dual career marriages, and two out of the three dual career marriages that she observed were between two particle physicists.  A career in particle physics was seen as a high calling, worthy of the sacrifice of the career of the non-physicist (generally, the woman) — especially in the eyes of those wives.  Another interesting observation was regarding the careers of postdocs.  They were given menial or tiresome tasks and were expected to complete those tasks diligently and well.

It is widely understood among the senior group members in American labs that it is not sufficient for a postdoc to do this sort of mundane job well; independent, risky work must be undertaken as well.  So far as I know, no one tells this to the postdoc. Some sense it immediately; some discover it when they realize that their hard labor is not getting the attention they want; others never learn.  (emphasis mine)

In fact, the group work is publicly stated to be that of a cooperative team, but again, there is a hidden message — only competition and transgression of the rules will result in a successful career.  If you’re nice, and you play by the rules, and help others out, you won’t get ahead.  “Postdocs who discover this double bind too late become angry at what they consider a deception.”  No kidding.  The successful postdoc overcomes their fear and gets responsibility for some large, important project.  They have to be pushy and self-confident.  The physicists see this state of affairs as fair and just — they are an elite, and only the very best can join their ranks.  So, competitive individualism is the way to ensure that only the best do rise to the top.

She explains her observations in terms of much of the language and previous findings of anthropology and culture, and one slowly starts to see how the physicists at SLAC have created their own culture, with shared meaning and rules.  Even though I’m not a physicist at SLAC itself, I saw many shadows of my own experience in this book.  I recommend it to those with this sort of interest — if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy March 29, 2010 at 5:13 pm

“if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like”

-brilliant!

Samuel October 13, 2011 at 8:18 pm

This book is brilliant. I just read chapter 3, about the way romantic metaphors are embedded in the language of what it means to become a physicist – super interesting!

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