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Coexisting in a Continuum of Knowledge Too Often Fragmented

I’ve been spending all my “free” time these last few weeks doing research for my thesis, examining life at Harvard during World War II. I took a break to read through some saved articles, and came across a profile of Gerald Holton, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science Emeritus at Harvard, who came to the school at the start of World War II and taught radar classes to the student officers who came to Cambridge as part of their military training. Here’s an excerpt from his Experience profile in the Harvard Gazette:

The war broke out and the time had come, since I now knew some physics, to have it put it to work. With the recommendation of Cady, I came to Harvard into the war labs. I was put into the section right off Jefferson Lab, the Cruft Lab, into the Electric-Acoustic Research Laboratory under that remarkable leader, Leo Beranek, who was an assistant professor here. (We just celebrated his 100th birthday.) I was also a teaching assistant to teach radar to Navy officers. Radar was top secret. And along comes an alien with a German accent and a swastika on his passport.

Now, this is where the Quakers come in again, because I was also being interviewed by two people from Washington who said, “We would like you to come to Santa Fe for some research.” I said, well, tell me about it. “No, we can’t talk about it here, but we can take you to New York into a safe house, and there we can tell you what’s going on there.”

I did go, I listened to them, and it was clear that this was about building an atom bomb. Most of the physicists at Harvard and elsewhere had disappeared, particularly those who knew nuclear physics, and most had gone to work somewhere. Nobody said they were at Los Alamos in those days, because it was supposedly at Santa Fe, Post Office Box 1663. That was the code for it.

I said no. I am really attached to the kind of spirituality which asks you to do defensive, not aggressive work. In fact, in England, and for a time in the United States, I had gone to the Quakers’ weekly First Day meetings. So I worked at the electric-acoustic lab here to improve sound effects such as that people can more comfortably use oxygen masks and gas masks, and to get rid of the excessive, disorienting noise in aircraft, and so on, trying to make life safer for the troops.

There was a problem, of course. Roosevelt had declared people like me with a German passport as not just enemy alien, but alien enemies. They had some rules for us. No radio, no camera, no travel beyond three miles without authorization. There were other rules like that. Nevertheless, this is a very pragmatic country. Among the 4,000 people that ended up in Los Alamos, there were a lot of people who had German passports, and also roughly 15,000 refugee boys in the Army. This is quite pragmatic again.

Later on I got my Freedom of Information Act file, and I discovered that, although I was given full freedom at the research labs — I was even allowed to visit, on the same floor, the rooms where they were building the first computer, Mark I — I was being followed all the time, perhaps appropriately. It was clear almost every contact that I had was being asked about me, including, I regret to say, a very appealing young lady who seemed interested in me, but turned out to be on the payroll of the FBI. [Laughter.] But this was wartime.

Q: After those war times, were you influenced at all about women appearing for the first time in Harvard classrooms? What, in fact, created your interest in women in science?

A: Oh, sure. I should start with the fact that all my education had been in all-male schools, from age 6 on, from elementary school to a professorship in the brilliant Harvard Physics Department. Maybe because I came from Vienna, I was wondering, “Where are the women?” [Laughter.] There is a song there: Without women, things don’t work. I don’t want to say that I peek around to look for women, but it was obvious that there was something wrong in the life of the university where there are no women as equals in many classes, and I had to go over to Radcliffe and teach physics to women in those early days.

Harvard had one or two women as tenured faculty members. The Faculty Club allowed women only through the back entrance, later called the handicapped entrance, and only into their room, not into the main room. Absolutely absurd.

And we had no tenured woman in the Physics Department from my time here in the 1940s until 1999, when Melissa Franklin finally was asked.

So that was another puzzle. The Physics Department was a beautifully working department. That there were no women tenured seemed to me to be a question that can be researched. I like researchable questions, particularly if they serve some purpose. So together with Gerhard Sonnert, who is an excellent sociologist at the Center for Astrophysics now, we sat down, got a little money, and spent quite a lot of time researching this in American science generally up to the 1990s. We wrote a book that’s called “Who Succeeds in Science: The Gender Dimension” (1995). It’s not like this now, but the book is still useful.

We found generally there was no blatant misogyny, no glass ceiling, but what happened in the case of female scientists — it is now different, in law and so on — they tended to have an accumulation of disadvantage, many small disadvantages that accumulated, even when the quality of their work was as good or better than the men’s. Since then things have changed a lot as far as I can see.

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