Systematic Uncertainty & Other Feminist Things

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While at a Swiss winery one late spring afternoon, Johanna and her dear friend Julia struck up a casual conversation about feminism and women at the workplace. As a particle physicist extraordinaire (watch her womansplaining physics to Howy Day) and celebrated badass female working in STEM policy, Julia thoroughly understands what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. Instantly, Jo knew she wanted to introduce Julia and her unique perspective to our readers.

One of the best parts about starting a project like Femails is hearing about how our posts have moved you. Thanks for all your incredible feedback, we love you! And with that, we kindly present to you the first of a series of guest posts from our extraordinary readers to be featured on the first Wednesday of every month. Please enjoy! 


On 14 Jun 2017, at 22:15, Julia L. Gonski <jgonski@g.harvard.edu> wrote:

Hi darling,

I hope your illustrious stay at as a SCHOLAR at OXFORD is off to a chummy good start! (Do they say that in England? Ah who knows, you get the point.) Don’t forget about us little people in Geneva and send more photos, we want to make sure you’re happy and healthy and doing wonderfully! 😉

After much brainstorming and thinking and starting and stopping, I sat down tonight and just powered through something for Femails. I was sort of winging it style and content wise, but to be honest, this was a thing that felt good just to get out on paper so I am very glad I did it either way.

Bisous,
Julia

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“Systematic Uncertainty & Other Feminist Things”

This post begins, primarily, with trepidation. Being a Femails fan since day one, I have long admired the tenacity and spark in every post, but was hesitant of my own ability to match such fearless personal revelation. What should I say? What tone should I take? Will people from work read it? What will they think? Most importantly, if it’s not in an email, does it even count?!

My lovely friend and partner in the struggle Johanna told me that the only overarching theme of Femails was intimacy; this was a space to share sentiments that were not originally intended for an audience. Now is a good time to note that I am a particle physics graduate student and have never in my life publicly shared writing that was not built upon jargon, formulas, and plots. This time I cannot hide behind data, which is concrete and unambiguous and doesn’t take shit. So wish me luck.

I am a young female scientist. I am also from New Jersey. You can imagine how this combination of features in a person might generate some anger. Yet while I spend many of my hours quietly simmering, I find myself envious of my bolder male friends and colleagues who suffer none of the reticence to which I am inexplicably bound. This is a universal experience for women in many environments. Questions like the ones at the beginning of this post become the standard lens through which you view your life. To be a feminist, trying to scrape and carve your way into a world that has no room for you, is to expend this immense amount of mental overhead just to achieve some certainty, to earn answers to the acute questions in your mind.

Perhaps this grievance seems petulant or extraneous, but really, who can blame us? For better or worse, women today are posted up in an environment where we are made to question ourselves constantly. When I walk into a conference room in D.C. to be briefed for a Congressional science advocacy visit, and realize that I am the one woman out of fifty men— are any of these people going to take me seriously? Or when I get trapped in what feels like the hundredth conversation with a well-intentioned friend who insists that he’s not gas lighting me, but really, that coworker who cut me off in a meeting doesn’t even notice gender! It’s impossible to not let the disquiet creep in. Is he right? Am I becoming paranoid and seeing sexism in the shadows when it’s not even there? If I open an American news site and see a barrage of insulting and ignorant statements about the role of women in our society, you better believe I am questioning what our bodies will be subjected to and who will be holding the puppet strings that we just cannot shake off, not just yet.

So yes, this whole train of thought begins with uncertainty. Many trains of thought or action in our lives begin this way. But the beautiful thing is, while you’re existing in an environment that never lets you get too comfortable, and you’re standing on a floor that is constantly surging beneath you, and you cannot look forward because you are preoccupied with the threat that may be behind you— you get damn good at it. And yes, I may not have been certain of the words I wanted to write here. What I am certain of is what I want to say. That’s a clarity that is not going anywhere.

In particle physics analysis, we spend a lot of time concerning ourselves with uncertainties. We research them, categorize them, process entirely new simulations just to examine how much a particular factor can vary, and slap a number on them. Then, that’s it. They are quantified and measurable and finite. And we can make measurements, or even discoveries of new fundamental physics, and know with confidence exactly how much we trust our result. It’s a long and often painful process, but it makes us do better science. For me, that’s worth all the questioning and worrying and mental overhead that this crazy world can throw at me.

That all being said, one more thing— I find that sometimes, a bit of classic Jersey-style raging is absolutely necessary.

photo credit:
‘When Art Meets Particle Physics, the Result Is Chaotic Beauty’
SAMI EMORY, Creators @Vice

 

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