Not a single woman was among the 27 Nobel laureates who convened last week in Southern Germany. That is not surprising: Only two women have ever won a Nobel Prize in physics (Marie Curie in 1903, and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963), and both are dead now. What should concern us, however, is that the percentage of female laureates isn’t rising. Natural sciences have opened up to women, and an increasing number of them are advancing to top research positions. We should thus expect more female prize recipients as well – but no such development can be observed.
Where’s the error in our reasoning? For the past few decades, the percentage of female scientists has been rising. The same trend holds true for the percentage of female professors, and for their publications and lectures: All are rising. Female scientists remain a minority, but their ranks are growing. Yet evidently, they fail to appear as recipients of prestigious awards.
A few days ago, the German newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” offered a possible explanation. It argued that women simply didn’t inquire into the big and important questions, but instead tended to focus on detailed scientific problems. Men ask about the Big Bang and the elementary particles of the universe. Women examine semiconductors and study the surface of the sun.
But wait: Who gets to decide what counts as a “big and important question”? When scientists talk about the search for the Higgs Boson, the questions they seek to answer sound important and fundamental: What holds the world together on the sub-atomic level? Why does matter have a mass? Where does matter come from, and how did the universe arise? Those who devote their careers to the study of these questions can hope for the highest recognition: Being named a Nobel laureate. The questions we value above all others are expressive of a male and Christian religion. They are linked to the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. The quest to uncover the origins of the universe does not simply seek to do away with religious dogma but wants to replace it. It comes as no surprise that the Higgs boson is often nicknamed “the God particle.”
Religious questions are male questions. They seek to provide answers to the fundamental myths of human existence – that is why we hold them in high regard. They are comparable to the final and highest truths, which are always announced to the world by wise and prophetic men in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Modern science is tied to that tradition.
The continued dominance of old men over the decision of what constitutes “big” and “important” topics of scientific inquiry shows that science still hasn’t completely emancipated itself from religion. To the contrary: At times, science is the continuation of religion by different means.
Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Idle Knowledge