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Aug. 03, 2009

Angels and Demons and Women

by Karen A. Frenkel

Click to enlarge images

angelsdemonsThere’s a lot of buzz about antimatter and whether the threat it poses in the movie Angels and Demons is real. But less has been said about the character Vittoria Vetra, an Italian scientist played by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer. Maybe that’s good. I remember when Barbra Streisand accepted an award for best woman director in the early 1990s. In her speech, she said the award was "very nice," but that she hoped soon such a qualification would not occur to anyone. Perhaps we’ve arrived at that moment with regard to scientists who happen to be women.

Director Ron Howard seems to think so. He believes stereotypes of women in science or of women as thinkers and leaders have broadened. He told reporters at a press conference the idea that it’s harder to cast a female as a scientist is probably behind us. "I wanted to present two very intelligent people going on this journey together," he said. "In Ayelet I found a blend of intellect and a kind of humanity, plus she’s beautiful and had a really good chemistry with Tom (Hanks) in the audition." Zurer is known for her pervious roles in Nina’s Tragedies, Adam Resurrected, and as Eric Brana’s wife in Munich and is also an accomplished TV actress.

CERN is so pleased about its association with the movie that it has launched a specially dedicated site to explain the science behind the story. Here are links to the news the site and news releases based on the press conference.

Nevertheless, I want to celebrate the portrayal of a physicist as brainy, beautiful, and sexy, who knows more than the men around her, and has a leading role in a blockbuster. And even though stereotypes may be diminishing, there are very few women physicists, let alone those specializing in particle and nuclear physics. According to the National Science Foundation, women got 225 (16.6 percent) of PhDs in physics compared to 3,262 (49.2 percent) in the biological sciences awarded in 2006. The good news is that the number of women who got physics PhDs increased from 12.6 percent in 1999. But they constitute a mere 0.76 percent of all science, math and engineering doctorates (a total of 29,854) awarded in 2006. Here are the NSF tables for all doctoral degrees, 1999 – 2006, and doctoral degrees awarded to women during the same time interval.

Here is a site dedicated to accomplished women physicists and my essay and book review in Scientific American about why there are so few women physicists.

According to the CERN Courier, an International Journal of High-Energy Physics, the laboratory itself suffers from a dearth of women scientists. Here’s a 2007 article on the topic from the European perspective. Author Marianne Johansen of Stockholm University reports:

Physics has always had a relatively low proportion of female students and researchers. In the EU there are on average 33% female PhD graduates in the physical sciences, while the percentage of female professors amounts to 9% (ECDGR 2006). At CERN the proportion is even less, with only 6.6% of the research staff in experimental and theoretical physics being women (Schinzel 2006). The fact that there is no proportional relationship between the number of PhD graduates and professors also suggests that women are less likely to succeed in an academic career than men.

Happily, in both the novel and the movie, Vetra conducts biology and physics research at the Swiss nuclear research laboratory. She has collaborated with her father in research on antimatter using the Large Hadron Collider, but their work has inadvertently produced an antimatter bomb capable of bringing down the Vatican in a flash of light.

I say “happily” because Zuler’s Vetra will serve as a role model for thousands of girls and young women. She’s a far cry from the mad scientist’s (merely) beautiful assistant. In one scene, Vetra points to a computer diagram of the antimatter device and explains to the men surrounding her. “The antimatter is suspended, there, in an airtight nano-composite shell with electromagnets on each end,” she says. “But if it were to fall out of suspension, and come into contact with matter, say with the bottom of the canister, the two opposing forces would annihilate one another. Violently.”

According to a CERN press release, Zurer described particle physicists as "strange" and "extraordinary." She also told journalists, "I wanted to understand the relationship between the person who invented something quite powerful and the emotion, stress, and guilt that she carries throughout the film because of the possible devastation it could cause."

To research her character, Zurer relied more on Dan Brown's book and on the Internet than on real female physicists, the press release said. Zurer did interview the female chair of UCLA’s astronomy department, according to the L.A. Times, Zurer (and Tom Hanks) also read Nobel prize winning physicist Leon Lederman's book The God Particle. According to Publishers Weekly’s review, the "God particle" is Lederman's term for what “other physicists call a Higgs boson––a hypothetical particle that might hold a key to the subatomic world of quarks and leptons. To find out if a Higgs boson indeed exists, this Nobel laureate in physics conceived of the Superconducting Super Collider.”

Here’s to Brown for creating the character of Vetra, Howard for his direction, and Zuler for the extent to which she did research the researcher and for her performance. But in this case, I hope for an unnatural exception––we don’t need anti-female particle physicists. Nevermind that sort of antimatter.

By the way, an explosion on the order of the one in Angels and Demons is sci fi. Antimatter is safe because it is difficult to make. And at the rate we produce it today, it would take a few billion years to fill a balloon.

- Karen A. Frenkel
For information about me please visit my website, www.karenafrenkel.com

About Karen A. Frenkel

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