Chemistry had Marie Curie. Computer science had Ada Byron. But what about physics? Of the hard sciences, physics is typically regarded as the most male, and the most chauvinistic too. For every dorm room poster of cuddly Albert Einstein, there seem to be several accompanying anecdotes about the man’s legendary misogyny.
It should come as little surprise that women have historically occupied supporting roles in physics: secretaries, assistants, and daughters. (There are exceptions, though Nobel winner Maria Goeppert Mayer is hardly a household name.) Subordinate though they often were, women naturally possessed an excellent vantage point from which to observe (and at times influence) the men they served. The female’s view of this hyper-male society is the subject of two recent books that deconstruct the world of the Cold War–era physicist from the outside looking in. Though completely different in approach, both show a probing empathy for these cerebral men, as well as boundless compassion for the women who had to work, live, and put up with them.
The more personal of the books, M.G. Lord’s
Astro Turf could be called a memoir, but it’s both more and less than that. Lord, the daughter of a mid-level astrophysicist at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, recounts her relationship with her father, a man who cocooned himself in his work rather than face the agony of his wife’s death from cancer, or his daughter’s own adolescence. Hardly a conventional memoirist, Lord uses her childhood recollections as a Proustian springboard for such far-reaching (and sometimes bizarrely tangential) explorations of maleness at a time (the late ’50s) when being a man meant that you were stoic, strict, and work-obsessed.
Examining the gender-drag archetypes of the era (as she did in
Forever Barbie), Lord seeks closure on her issues of fatherly abandonment. (“He had come by his misogyny honestly” is her somewhat obvious conclusion.) Plunging headlong into science as a way of reconciling herself with Daddy, Lord positions herself as soul sister to Ellie Arroway, the scientist heroine of Carl Sagan’s novel
Contact. Indeed, the role of women in the lab becomes a major thread in Lord’s book as past turns into present and the male stranglehold thaws into a tolerance (though not full acceptance) of females in leadership positions. What relevance the sexual politics of JPL had on Lord’s family is left for the reader to deduce. (Such is also the case for Lord’s digressions into atomic research and the Mars Mariner missions.) Lord provides the parts; we must assemble the rocket.
Astro Turf is slender but sprawling. Nearly twice as long, Jennet Conant’s 109 East Palace
focuses on the brief 27 months during which the nation’s top physicists gathered in a remote New Mexico outpost to create the first nuclear weapon. As its title suggests,
109 East Palace takes place almost entirely within the compound that today is referred to as Los Alamos. And while J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb, dominates much of the book, the real protagonist is his assistant Dorothy McKibbin, a widowed mother who loyally kept house for a horde of physicists in some of the harshest working conditions known to modern science.
Written in third-person reportage, combining firsthand testimony with second-hand documentation,
109 East Palace homogenizes its diverse journalistic sources into a straightforward yarn. Whatever personal interest the author has in the story (her grandfather James Conant was an administrator of the Manhattan Project and makes several appearances in the book) is completely sublimated in the person of Dorothy, whose role was to keep the non-physics-related parts of the Los Alamos community running on schedule. Part Ma Joad, part Florence Nightingale, Dorothy gamely fielded a nonstop stream of crises, including shortages of food and water, clashing egos, and Oppenheimer’s high-priest tantrums. “There was never a dull moment,” Dorothy says with somewhat scary zeal. “We worked six days a week but even so I couldn’t wait to get back to work in the morning.”
Conant, like Lord, goes easy on the scientific detail, preferring to evoke the cultural dynamics of this egghead society. (For a nuts-and-bolts account of Oppenheimer’s work, read Kai Bird and Martin Sherman’s just-published
American Prometheus.) As Conant tells it, wives on the Los Alamos range were kept in the dark about their husbands’ classified work. And for the most part, so was Dorothy, despite her proximity to the man in charge. (When the bomb finally fell on Hiroshima, she learned about it the way everyone else did—over the radio.)
In retrospect, Dorothy’s selfless dedication to Oppenheimer qualifies as a kind of insanity—or perhaps just willful ignorance. One wonders exactly how much she actually knew, and how much she chose not to know. Like
Astro Turf, 109 East Palace
leaves the reader to complete the puzzle, though this time, the pieces are slippery. It’s a strange irony that in the end, Dorothy should remain as fundamentally unknowable to us as she did to those she so slavishly served.