Maria Rentetzi | Visualizing High Energy Physics in the Postwar Period: A Gendered Task

Abstract

In his 1968 Nobel Lecture, the physicist Luis Alvarez drew the attention of his audience to an incident that had happened a few years earlier. While the Austrian physicist Victor Weisskopf was giving an after-dinner speech in a physics conference, he exhibited “an absolutely blank cloud-chamber photograph, … saying that it represented proof of the decay of a neutral particle into two other neutral particles!” Although Weisskopf “brought down the house” with his humorous line, by the late 1950s cloud, but mainly, bubble chamber photographs had been indeed elevated to proofs of the existence of particles. It became common practice to present such photographs as evidence and convincing tools for ones peers in important physics conferences. Moreover, bubble chamber photographs became emblematic of postwar experimentation in physics. These photographs appeared to provide the ideal evidence of a new subatomic and otherwise invisible world.
During the 1950s and 1960s high energy physics, visual recording devices underwent a transition from unprinted photographic film to scanned photographs and detailed histograms. This is closely related to a whole set of other transitions; from instrumentation to engineering, from a generation of physicists for whom instrument-making meant a delightful activity with manageable monetary constraints to regiments of engineers and physicists for whom physics was translated to ‘events per dollar,’ from a laboratory to an industry. In addition, the visual transformation meant a deep shift in gender roles within the physicists’ work place”; “unskilled” women took up the “natural role” of scanning photographs and recording data whereas male physicists interpreted the results. 
More specifically, before the ‘Franckenstein’ measuring machine was put in regular operation in Alvarez’s laboratory (1957) and the 72-inch bubble chamber which required intensive scanning of a large number of photographic plates, was put into operation in 1959, all the scanning of the photographic film was done by the physicists themselves. Alvarez did his scanning on a stereo viewer along with the physicists Don Gow and Hugh Bradner. They looked quickly at each frame and shifted to the next one when a film contained no interesting event without keeping any records. They discussed their results, showing to each other whatever ‘anomalous’ event came into view. Ready to take over when the first person’s eyes were tired, this generation of physicists did not yet trust this part of the discovery process to professional scanners. Later on it was almost taken for granted that an army of—usually young—women without any knowledge of physics would study the films produced by bubble chambers and record the data they contained. Scanning photographs, a routine job like many others, became a gendered occupation. It was women who, graced by ‘nature’ with patience, uncomplainingly undertook the analysis of observational data in the astronomical observatories in the early 20th century and operated the telephone switchboards in inter-war America. Similarly, women recorded data in scientific laboratories during the 1950s and 1960s.
The claim here is that the shift to measuring machines such as the Franckenstein, the less expensive SMP system or the Spiral Readers was simultaneous with a general shift not only in experimentation but in the gendered culture of the laboratory. A bubble chamber seemed to be a wonderful device for exploratory experiments but, as Alvarez argued, these experiments had no statistical significance without a data analysis system accompanying its use. Here I explore how this correlation of instruments, objects, and their visualization affected gender hierarchies in the laboratory. Which where the social and cultural perceptions of gender that led to the attribution of the task of visualization to women within the laboratory? How that tiring, time consuming, and sometimes, harmful occupation influenced the individual experience of women’s bodiliness?