…every time I tell them I’m studying physics. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of my parents’ friends (and peripheries) this summer, since many of my friends aren’t in town. Inevitably, they ask me what I’m studying, and I tell them that I’m studying physics. They say something or other about how they never understood physics, about how it’s so impressive that I’m studying it, about how they wish so-and-so were here so we could talk about stuff they would never understand. Now, I’m human, so of course I like being told that I’m brilliant and fascinating and awesome, but I’ve started to dread the moment people ask me what I’m studying. Not that I’m not proud of studying physics; of course I am. Physics is hard and I have to work hard to be even passable at it. But I don’t want to come across as bragging, especially in such a first-impression-building situation.
Yes physics is hard, but it’s not that much harder than other disciplines, at least not on the college level. I know English majors and chemistry majors and art history majors who work just as hard as me and are as smart or smarter. So why are people so impressed? Maybe it’s because of the perception that all science students are socially-inept, painfully dorky, acne-ridden nerds. That’s certainly not true – I’m none of those things (except sometimes painfully dorky), and there are only a few physics majors that I know who are. Are people surprised because I am capable of both learning about the inner workings of the universe and also interacting with other human beings?
I think part of it is because I’m a girl, and physics is a field that appears to be dominated by men – I don’t think it is, but from the outside… Well, let’s just say that even I can only name a few lady physicists, and many more male ones. Look at this super-famous picture of many of the most influential physicists of all time at the Solvay Conference in 1927… Notice anything?
Not a whole lot of women. I wouldn’t have even noticed Marie Curie in the first row if I hadn’t known she was in this picture. Anyway, the point is, I have never seen one of my male friends get this kind of “Oh, that’s so impressive/intimidating, I never understood/even tried to think about that, it’s so interesting but so hard, you must be brilliant!” reaction. Since this post was just a thought I had in the shower, I don’t have any other opinions yet. But I’m e-mailing a bunch of people now, and there will be a follow-up post for sure. If you have experiences or opinions, let me know! I’m reachable by comment, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter @DownHereonEarth.