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The New Yorker’s Disappointing Science Journalism May 8, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Mars, science.
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Here’s a quick letter to the editor (not published as far as I know) regarding the New Yorker’s recent piece on the scientific exploration of Mars. The cover of the New Yorker issue that contained the piece is pictured here. The cover epitomizes the essay.

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To the editor:

Burkhard Bilger’s piece “The Martian Chroniclers” (April 22, 2013) came just at the right time for me and my Vassar students in STS/WMST 375, “Gender, Race and Science.” We ‘d been reading all semester feminist histories of science in an attempt to track changes in the culture of science and had just arrived at the issue of the so-called “leaky pipeline” that is, why so many women leave science even after they obtain advanced degrees.

In communicating the tremendous excitement of discoveries of the Martian rover “Curiosity” since its spectacularly successful landing this past summer–I’m a geoscientist who studies what sediments reveal about planetary history–Bilger also inadvertently conveys much about subtleties in science culture that make it difficult for women to persist over the long-term in scientific research.

Bilger’s depiction of mission engineer Adam Steltzner captures the gendered bravado, swagger and profanity (“We think we’ve crushed  this fucker”) that characterizes big-money science and puts off people who feel uncomfortable with masculinist discourse. Bilger plays into the gender divide in science. Although he lauds the work of geologist John Grotzinger (who Steltzner derides as “fairly charming but not brash”), he plays up the enthusiasm for the “arsenal of instruments” that ” slender, effervescent” rover driver Vandi Tompkins has for her scientific endeavor.  And he resurrects the birthing trope commenting that “the Sky Crane was Steltzner’s baby….the landing also happened to coincide with another long-term project of his, now approaching its final descent: his wife, Trisha, was nine months pregnant.”

What would science look like if scientists and those who report on it worked actively to end this hierarchically gendered structure?

Jill S. Schneiderman, Professor of Earth Science, Vassar College

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