By Margaret Harris
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
I’ve been re-learning this lesson recently thanks to “Lateral Thoughts”, the column of humorous, off-beat or otherwise “lateral” essays that appears on the back page of Physics World each month. These articles are written by our readers and they have been part of the magazine ever since it was launched in October 1988. In fact, Lateral Thoughts is the only section of Physics World that has remained unaltered in its 25-year history.
Unaltered in its format, that is. But what about the actual content of the essays? Lateral Thoughts are not normally commissioned by members of the editorial team; instead, they’re selected from a pool of submissions sent in, unsolicited, by Physics World readers. Any shifts in style or subject matter should, therefore, tell us something about the way that the physics community has evolved over the years.
With this in mind, I began trawling through the archive of past Lateral Thoughts, looking for evidence of change. And boy, did I ever find it.
I began with the column’s earliest years, and one of the first things I noticed was the casual sexism on display in some essays. For example, one (male) author from this period bemoaned the fact that research publications do not contain “arousing centrefolds”. Another nonchalantly described “wives and daughters” of research fellows performing free clerical work in his department, while a third matter-of-factly noted that one of his colleagues at a major industrial firm had an X-rated screen-saver on his computer.
Several other articles also displayed a certain leering sensibility concerning the phrase “young ladies”. While reading through the archive, I cringed at references to “attractive young ladies in crowded trains”, “young lady” administrative assistants, and in one case even “physicists…going into parloured rooms with beautiful young ladies to see if anything exciting would happen”.
When people talk about a “chilly climate” for women in physics, I’m afraid this is the sort of thing they have in mind. The chill factor doesn’t even have to be obvious. Quite a few writers in the earliest years of Lateral Thoughts unthinkingly referred to physicists as “he”, thus displaying what one more enlightened essayist described as “the tendency for authors to implicitly – or even explicitly – write for male readers”.
But different attitudes to sexism weren’t the only dissimilarities I found. Perhaps the most striking illustration of how the world has changed came from an October 1989 article written by the Open University (OU) physicist Ray Mackintosh. “Sitting at the bar late one night…I asked one of my students what he would do when he had his degree,” Mackintosh began. “‘Oh, certainly, I’ll be sacked’, [the student] said…‘They’d never have a chap on the shop floor with a degree.’”
Mackintosh went on to describe several other examples of employer hostility towards OU students – most of whom were, then as now, squeezing their studies into evenings and weekends while holding down full-time jobs. “There are students afraid of letting their bosses, friends and even spouses know of their studies,” Mackintosh wrote. “The picture emerges of many firms with incompetent managements who are…vaguely terrified that the basis of their superior position would be undermined if shop-floor suggestions percolated upwards. Hence the insecurity about having graduates on the shop floor.”
Could a shop-floor worker be sacked for getting a degree in the UK today? Although I wouldn’t rule it out entirely, it certainly seems unlikely – and not just because there are fewer shop floors in Britain now than there were in 1989. The past is, truly, a foreign country.
I’ll be back in January with the next post in this series, which will highlight some amusing examples of how Lateral Thoughts haven’t changed over the years. In the meantime, if you’re feeling inspired, why not write your own Lateral Thought? Submissions must be 900–950 words long and may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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