Interview with Scott Calvin, author of Beyond Curie: Four women in physics and their remarkable discoveries 1903 to 1963

Interview with Scott Calvin, author of Beyond Curie: Four women in physics and their remarkable discoveries 1903 to 1963

Q. Thank you for agreeing to this interview! My readers always appreciate it when an author takes the time to share with them their insights and experience.

A. I’m happy to do it!

Q. In your case, I think your background is significant. We’ll get one thing out of the way first: we are siblings. However, I was not involved in the publication of the book and I do not benefit directly financially from the book. You are, by education, an astronomer, a physicist, and a classicist. This book, Beyond Curie: Four women in physics and their remarkable discoveries 1903 to 1963 (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*), seems like a significant departure from your previous books (at AmazonSmile*). While it seems to be positioned for use in academia, I believe it could have a much broader appeal. It amounts to placing four short biographies into context, and as such, goes far beyond the focus on science facts and theory. As you note in your introduction, “…writing about history is hard.” Why do this book now?

A. To tell the truth, it wasn’t on my docket of “books I’ll write someday.” At the start of 2016, I had recently announced I was resigning from my position as a professor of physics at Sarah Lawrence College, but I didn’t know what my next position would be. Jeanine Burke of the IOP Concise Physics line of books approached me about writing on a topic of my choice. I discussed it with my fiancée (now wife!) Erin Eisenbarth, who knew of my interest in these physicists and suggested the topic. So it just kind of happened.

Q. One of the things I found particularly interesting was your willingness to challenge a narrative. It would be easy to say that men were prejudiced against women, and felt that they weren’t as capable as a man in their fields. Reading the book, that didn’t seem to be the case to me. Generally, other scientists recognized their abilities and value. In some cases, they clearly thought the women should have more recognition and status. Explicitly stated or not, it was more that the organizations involved had policies that prevented women getting equal treatment and pay. In other words, institutions were bigger impediments than individuals. I would think that institutions would tend to insulate people from the effects of personalities, but they were perhaps more interested in conserving the power they have. How do you see that dynamic of individual relationships versus institutional inertia, in terms of how stereotyping hinders people?

A. And now I’m going to challenge your narrative about my narrative! (grin) I don’t think it’s actually institution versus individual; it’s more science versus career. While there were occasional institutional barriers, those could generally be circumvented with some cleverness and effort on the part of the men in question. Instead, it was common for the men to value the women as scientists, and to promote them vigorously in that role. But those same men would think it was OK to pay the women less than comparable men, or to deny them titles and administrative power. You can see the same sort of thing operating today with movie stars. Men will praise the acting talent and star power of prominent actresses, but still tend to pay them less, and women are still greatly underrepresented in positions of authority such as directors and producers. That’s not so much an institutional problem, in the sense of there being rules or inertia to overcome, as it is a split between how the talents of women are praised and how they are rewarded for it.

Q. Another narrative would be that things have gotten easier for women in science over time, so during the sixty years you cover, it might be expected that we would see your subjects finding fewer barriers: was that the case?

A. That’s a key question! There’s no question that the institutional barriers you asked about in the previous question decreased during this period. For example, in the early 20th century, women were not allowed to be professors in many universities in the US; that had changed by the 60s. But in other ways, things did not get better. The fraction of professional astronomers who were women went down during this period, not up. In 1959, the University of California still thought it was OK to pay Maria Mayer half the salary of her husband, even though they were both full professors.

Q. Something that I found particularly insightful and educational to me had nothing to do with physics. It had to do with how Lise Meitner would have felt herself “safe” in Nazi Germany, despite having a Jewish background. You explained the factors that should have made her secure, and how each of those were removed over time. I really enjoyed the scholarship involved. How does having that background in the book benefit students of physics and/or more general readers, and how did researching that part differ from the types of things you’ve written in the past?

A. I think it’s hard for many of us today to understand how people could go on trying to live normal lives under the Nazis. When we read the famous poem “First They Came” [by Martin Niemöller] in which the author recounts staying silent as the Nazis come after one group after another, we might wonder why it wasn’t obvious at the time that standing by when one group gets persecuted opens you up to the same. But targeting groups was only half of the equation. An individual might think he was safe, not just because he wasn’t part of a group being targeted, but because of groups that were favored: he was a veteran, or a Christian, or famous, or well-connected. That kind of safety is illusory. If you condone, either explicitly or implicitly, exploitation and murder, then you should recognize that you are opening yourself up to exploitation and murder down the line. After the war, Meitner realized that, writing about it repeatedly.

Q. You also spend quite a bit of time considering the motivations of people, sometimes doing an almost “differential diagnosis” by presenting a number of hypotheses and then examining each one. “Did so-and-so do this out of spite, fear, prejudice, strategic calculation…?”, that sort of thing. What was your goal in including that sort of analysis in the book?

A. There are two examples in the book that have outcomes that are broadly similar but in which the motivations of the men are very different. Henry Norris Russell argues Cecilia Payne in to doubting her own conclusion in her dissertation, and years later is widely given credit for her discovery. This is very unfair to Payne, but an examination of the context makes it clear that Russell didn’t set out to steal Payne’s work; instead, he was treating her as a fellow scientist and arguing the scientific case. Even though he turned out to be wrong, I think this was the ethical thing for him to do at the time—it’s only later, when Payne’s contributions were being downplayed by others, that Russell becomes complicit.

Valentine Telegdi, on the other hand, clearly disliked Chien-Shiung Wu, and wanted to prevent her from getting full recognition for her ground-breaking experiment. I’m not sure exactly what mix of motivations were at play there, but Telegdi continually misrepresented Wu’s contributions, and his own, in an effort to muddy the waters.

The result in each case was the same—the women did not end up with all of the credit they deserved for remarkable discoveries. But I do think the motivations and processes matter. Blaming Russell for sabotaging Payne’s work would let off the hook the scientists and historians in later decades who assumed that the discovery was due to Russell because he was the more famous, a mistake we must continually guard against. But not blaming Telegdi for his outsized role in fighting against a Nobel Prize for Wu would let Telegdi off the hook.

So yes, I think trying to understand the motivations, and that they can be different in different cases, is important.

Q. One more thing: my readers are interested in the process of putting a book together. There were great pictures in the book! They ranged from gates honoring a suffragist damaged by male students celebrating a ruling against women having parity with men, to an amateur musical parodying Gilbert and Sullivan that was full of “in jokes” about the Harvard College Observatory. You address both stories in the text. Did finding the pictures lead you to write about the incidents, or did you know about the incidents and then have someone find the pictures? Some pictures are reproduced “with permission”. How was the permission obtained…did your publisher do that?

A. Thanks! I found all of the pictures myself, but for those under copyright permissions were sought by my publisher. There was one case where permission was not granted, and I had to find a substitute.

In most cases, I learned about the incident first, and then I sought out relevant photos. The biggest exception was the Gilbert and Sullivan parody, where I stumbled across the photos early in the process. The modern discussions of Payne and the Harvard Computers rarely mention that remarkable moment, but always mention that the women who comprised the Harvard Computers were sarcastically referred to as “Pickering’s Harem” at the time. In fact, I can find no contemporary evidence for the latter claim; it’s modern writers trying to create a narrative emphasizing the misogyny of the time, either because they want to imply that things have gotten better since then, or because they want to stress misogyny in science in general. But the idea that the men and women of the Harvard College Observatory put on a play which featured a striking inversion of traditional gender roles in science, and performed it in the community—that doesn’t fit well in to those narratives. The misogyny was, and is, real. But the people of the time weren’t blind to it, and did at times push back, and push forward. And so, despite the striking photographs, the play has largely vanished from modern accounts of those scientists.

Q. Finally, is there anything else you’d like to tell people about the book, or your future plans as an author?

A. I do feel conflicted about one aspect of the book, which is worth mentioning here.

The four physicists featured in the book were all remarkable scientists. Lise Meitner, in particular, has long been a scientific hero of mine—in fact, I first learned of her from a biography you gave to me years ago! Maria Mayer became a hero to me when I learned of her work at Sarah Lawrence College, my former institution. And Cecilia Payne and the Harvard Computers have long fascinated me; the episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos, while it contains many errors, nevertheless brought tears to my eyes. The four are also very different from each other, in personality, in the kinds of science they did, in the kinds of lives they led.

I don’t think of the four as “female physicists,” any more than I think of Einstein as a “Jewish physicist.” I don’t think Meitner or Mayer, at least, would have liked that label much.

And yet I grouped them together in this book because they’re all women, and they’re all prevalent physicists. It allowed me to examine some of the challenges they faced because of their gender, and I’m glad I did, particularly because women in science today still face many of those same challenges. But I hope that by doing so, I haven’t somehow obscured that they were great scientists—I consider Meitner, in particular, to be one of the top physicists of the twentieth century.

For that reason, I’m glad I featured four physicists who were women, and discussed many others along the way. By doing that, I avoid the idea that any one of them stands in for her whole gender; I let them each be individual people, for whom gender is one part of a complex identity.

That’s my hope anyway. I look forward to hearing what readers think!

Q. Thanks again!

A. And thank you—those were thought-provoking questions!

I am doing an Amazon Giveaway for

Beyond Curie: Four women in physics and their remarkable discoveries 1903 to 1963 (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)


  • Winner:Randomly selected after Giveaway has ended, up to 1 winners.
    Requirements for participation:
  • Resident of the 50 United States or the District of Columbia
  • 18+ years of age (or legal age)
  • Follow Scott Calvin on Amazon

Some of my readers, who are also authors and publishers, are interested in what affects the sales of a Kindle store book. That includes interviews in blogs such as this one, and Amazon Giveaways. For that reason, I’m listing the book’s rank just after the giveaway went live and prior to the publication of this interview:

  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,113,972 Paid in Kindle Store
  • #1919 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Science > History & Philosophy
  • #3154 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Science > Physics
  • #6785 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > History > Science & Medicine

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

One Response to “Interview with Scott Calvin, author of Beyond Curie: Four women in physics and their remarkable discoveries 1903 to 1963”

  1. Last day to enter for a chance to win Beyond Curie: Four Women in Physics and Their Remarkable Discoveries, 1903 to 1963 by Scott Calvin | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Interview with Scott Calvin, author of Beyond Curie: Four women in physics and their remarkable disc… […]

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