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Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists

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The unique breed of particle physicists constitutes a community of sophisticated mythmakers--explicators of the nature of matter who forever alter our views of space and time. But who are these people? What is their world really like? Sharon Traweek, a bold and original observer of culture, opens the door to this unusual domain and offers us a glimpse into the inner sanctum.

206 pages, Paperback

First published December 14, 1988

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About the author

Sharon Traweek

6 books1 follower
Sharon Traweek is an Associate
Professor of Gender Studies and History at UCLA.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews
Profile Image for Charlotte.
163 reviews10 followers
August 31, 2019
If you're a physicist, as I am, then reading this book is a bizarre experience. Yes: it's an anthropological study of…you. And, for the most part, it's quite astute. The author pitches wildly a few times on the science, doesn't understand physics education very well (see, for example, her silly claim that undergraduate coursework gives only a simplified and partial version of major topics because "novices are thought to be unsuited to a full disclosure of truth in these first years"), and says some foolish things in the epilogue. Also, her claims about the gendered-ness of research apparatus is completely absurd. Nevertheless, physics is not her field of specialty, so we have to cut her some slack. Really, though a layperson to the field, she has a solid grasp of a lot of physics and instrumentation.

I recommend this book to other physicists. For us, as physicists, to be more emotionally healthy people and to make the community more just and supportive of its members and capable of producing good science, it is valuable for us to have brought explicitly to our attention the mores and assumptions that we all share but rarely notice or acknowledge.

Among the topics to which I would particularly call attention is her analysis of anxiety within the community. She correctly observes that

"Each stage [in a physicist's training] has its characteristic anxiety: for the undergraduate it is a fear that one's own capacities are insignificant in comparison to the community. Graduate students are afraid of using up their predoctoral years working for a team whose experiments may prove unproductive; afraid of losing their chance at success by losing time. Postdocs are looking two or three years ahead, trying to anticipate rewarding questions in physics; they become anxious about the future.

"These anxieties do not disappear when the postdoc gains a permanent position; the fears of the full-fledged member of the community combine all those of the novice (fear of the accomplishments of others, fear of losing present time, fear of the future coming too fast), in somewhat revised form. The established physicists are afraid that they will not continue making significant contributions…."

Her observations about physicists' intellectual elitism and their illusion of a strict meritocracy within the field--the unexamined assumption within the community that the smartest people necessarily end up at the best institutions and with the best appointments--are definitely correct and constitute, in my opinion, serious indictments of the community's values.

Additionally, she makes a detailed analysis of gender which is--in my view, as a woman researcher--very good. I was particularly struck by an observation she makes about the relationships between male physicists and their female (non-physicist) partners/spouses, a point about which I've been bothered many times in the past: the condescension with which many male physicists regard their partners, and which the women very often accept (or actively promote) with a kind of degrading and even cringing deference to the male physicist's expertise and career.

In addition, I found it thought-provoking to read about the state of research, research technology, and research funding in the mid-1980s.
Profile Image for Lilly Irani.
Author 4 books45 followers
July 6, 2010
Super readable -- skimmed it in a few hours in an evening -- full of fascinating and engaging detail about what physicists wear and eat, how they consort, what they stress out and joke about, and what this has to tell us about their relationships to nature, gender, machines, and society more broadly. It isn't, however, very heavy handed about the "why this matters" -- it makes its points lightly a few times and mostly stays in the well-curated description so read it if you're already curious, not if you want convincing that cultures of science matter.
33 reviews
May 20, 2020
I really wanted to enjoy reading this book but I really didn't. That is not to say this is not a good book: I think Traweek's ethnography is worth reading for a first stab into trying to understand why science may not necessarily be a acultural, uniform, universal as we'd usually think. Because once you remove science from the abstract level of "science is X, science is Y" and look at the practice of science, what you see are all kinds of ways that the Japanese particle physicists don't agree with the kind of individualism and self-aggrandizement that the American particle physics community is characterised by; how the same senior physicist who told Traweek that there is no culture to be studied among the community of international particle physicists told her later on that he couldn't read between the lines of an agreement signed with some Japanese physicists. Traweek's work is full of great and excellent examples demonstrating how the myth of meritocracy, impartiality, universality, is exactly a myth, but perhaps as a social scientist this doesn't come as a particularly surprising or particularly new revelation. To me, what is interesting is how science and scientists can ever come to conceive science as being acultural, when even the Japanese scientists who had studied abroad repeatedly point out the ways in which the Americans or Europeans do science in a different way that extends beyond institutional or funding differences. And that is precisely one line of critique directed at Traweek's piece which establishes that the physicists inhabit a "culture of no culture": to me, that sounds like the beginning of something really that I really hoped she would dig into, but in Beamtimes this claim is simply asserted as the conclusion. We don't get a sense of whether the physicists themselves would agree with this, whether there might be differences between the Americans and the Japanese on this matter, but also more importantly, the "culture of no culture claim" indicates that Traweek somehow still uses a definition of culture and an approach to culture that sees cultures as discrete, bounded entities in the cultural relativism tradition. Considering that particle physicists themselves would probably describe their work in terms of looking for truth, there is surprisingly little that is said about how we might try to investigate that claim: Traweek just states somewhere in the beginning that she's just going to take that the photons, etc. exist because the physicists take that they exist, which means that, in other words, the veracity of the truth claims actually don't matter for Traweek's ethnography. The problem is that this still retains a divide between science / culture, truth / social construction: anthropologists are forever consigned, under Traweek's terms, to study things called culture that can never attain the same status of truth claim that a photon has. I think the really interesting work comes in when that divide between science / culture gets problematised: approaches such as those used by feminist technoscience like Karen Barad come to mind, in which she talks about how the fact that quantum physics smashes up the rules of classical physics is really something that needs to be taken seriously because it should force us to reconsider everything in terms of causality, ethics, etc. And that is exactly the kind of thing that's sadly missing from Traweek's account, which is precisely all the stuff that approaches like Actor-Network Theory and feminist technoscience picks up upon. In some senses then, the problem with Traweek's book is thus less the attention she gives to her interlocutors or the kind of empirical work that she has, but the broader theoretical framework which shapes her orientation to this book. And I guess, taking it from that light, perhaps one ought to be less harsh with the problems of this piece given that it's really the product of a particular zeitgeist of American cultural anthropology in the 1980s, and it is worth saying that much of Actor-Network Theory and feminist techno science developed in the 1990s and 2000s, precisely out of the kind of dissatisfactions that I recounted earlier.
Profile Image for Pavan Dharanipragada.
126 reviews11 followers
January 14, 2023
it's a bit eerie to read about an anthropological study of your own community as you would read a bit on an remote and exotic tribe. But it serves to examine one's own culture critically and for that i am grateful something like this book exists. On top of that the author is witty, smart and an exceptional writer. The frequent use of irony, metaphor and the anthropologists own presence as a device for interesting observations is amazing.
I have not read enough anthropology to judge the work on how well it fulfils those obligations. But apart from being entertaining, the book is a serious study of its subject matter, from my perspective as a layperson. Although, I have been unable to glean the importance of the central thesis the work attributes to itself--to establish that the principle that "a culture's cosmology reflects itself in its social action" holds true for the particle physics community.
Apart from this, the excruciatingly detailed description of detectors, (which I felt could have benefited majorly by the inclusion of pictures, which I couldn't understand why they weren't included), was something I found difficult to trudge through and appreciate. This also ties into the point she makes about detectors encoding its making group's culture, history, aspirations as well of object of study.
I found the description of the stages of life of physicists amusing, as I did the descriptions of hypocrisy and bigotry of several of the physicists. The book draws interesting contrasts between the communities in USA and Japan, and infers that these contrasts are due to the differences in their respective national cultures, which the physicists claim play no role in their community as a whole. Also the book portrays a clearly more favourable picture of organisation of the Japanese community over the American one, although it's not portrayed as being better at science. Such judgements are not made, as is proper in an anthropological study.
Profile Image for Adam Ross.
4 reviews
December 18, 2020
As an undergraduate physics student, I found the book both pertinent and fun. The ethnographical sections gave me a clear view of the particle physics communities which Traweek observed, which gives me an idea of what physics communities outside of my personable and relaxed university are like. The world that she studied is very cutthroat, but the characters that people it uncover meaningful science. Knowing the culture and structures that govern physics institutions will not only give me ideas of what to expect and how to succeed in those particular settings, but also gives me ideas on the drawbacks and common mistakes in the broader physics community and what I need would need to change about myself to remedy these. Particularly in the US, science institutions can be exclusive and patriarchal and if I am to help change that I have my work cut out for myself. The light this book sheds on the social problems surrounding physics institutions will be crucial to anyone who wishes to be an upstanding scientist.

In addition, I really enjoyed the background and setting information that was less sociological in nature. Before she went into Sociology, the author had worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and her explanation of the mechanical setting is clear. Reading the second chapter felt like reading JK Rowling’s description of Hogwarts, if Hogwarts studied physics instead of magic. I had little familiarity with particle accelerators prior to reading the book, but reading this book made me understand the gist of their mechanical systems, although I plan to supplement it heavily with YouTube and Wikipedia.
63 reviews2 followers
March 13, 2017
95% of this book is a highly worthwhile (if sometimes ideological) peek behind the curtain of the world of experimental particle physics of the recent past. While a touch dated at this point, there is quite a lot to glean from the outsider's anthropology of the mythologized realm of the particle physicist (a mythology which I've been brought up with, and which I do not fully reject, I must admit).

5% is perhaps so ideologically charged that outsiders to the world of cultural criticism (such as myself) might be tempted to disregard the entire work due to its excesses (e.g. reflections on the subconscious genital symbolism of accelerator design). I would encourage anyone coming from the anti-postmodern camp to hold off on that impulse, though -- just because a few pronouncements are a bit much doesn't mean we should make a mockery of the whole thing. Those are not the pivotal insights of the book, anyway, in my opinion.

I think it is important for those who are of a similar bent as me (techno-optimist, pro-science, a bit defensive when it comes to the vitriol of cultural critics, and comfortable with a notion of progress) to actually read works like this. Many of the brash and hostile dismissals of this kind of work find a few silly sentences among dozens of revealing and enlightening ones and decide to toss the baby out with the bathwater. I am finding that many of the dismissals of this kind of cultural anthropology either are misrepresenting what the sociologists are saying or, very possibly, they are able to see past the works and address the "true" motivations of the critics. That sounds a bit like a straw-man argument to me, though. I say give them the benefit of the doubt and hold them only to what their books/articles actually say. And it's not as radical, relativistic, or unhinged from reality as it is often presented.

I think this book is a vast improvement upon the style used in the other famous work of science cultural anthropology, Laboratory Life, that I recently read. Perhaps it has to do with an anglophone/francophone difference in style, but Traweek's style was so much less obnoxious and convoluted than Latour and Woolgar's. This was readable and made its points clearly.

This book does a great job exploring the social world and pressure of these scientists, and where culture (Japanese and American, in this case) intersects with practice. Its best points may be the ones it is not best known for, but it's all there in the book. Make up your own mind, but I thought this was worth reading.
Profile Image for Sharad Pandian.
407 reviews127 followers
February 6, 2022
There are two sections that I thought were pretty good:

-An account of the socialization of members into the SLAC community from their undergraduate days, with the attendant anxieties and office politics

-Episodic comparisons between American and Japanese High Energy Physicists, which point to how there are different cultures of training and working. This was sometimes fascinatingly counter-intuituve: for example, she points to how because of the individualism of the Americans, decisions were in fact made in a top-down way while for the Japanese, the fixed hierarchy removed some of the perpetual competitiveness, fostering a form of consensual decicion-making.
January 15, 2023
Interesting to read about a natural sciences community through the eyes of an anthropologist. For someone being part of academia the book will definitely result in many recognitions and you likely will observe parallels with one's own science community. I appreciate the objective description of the wide variety of systems and organizations in the experimental physics community, while leaving the question open if one is to be considered superior. From a feminist perspective it definitely lays some of the fundamental issues bare, explaining why this community is such a hostile environment for women.
Profile Image for Zara Rahman.
197 reviews78 followers
December 14, 2016
I read this for a reading group at work, and in all honesty it's probably not the kind of book I would otherwise have picked up... The main learning (and the thing it is most cited for) - is highlighting the importance of personal networks to professional achievements, which (slightly sadly) doesn't surprise me wholly.
Profile Image for gigi.
84 reviews
September 12, 2022
Read for my Conceptualizing STS class.

Interesting read, a bit boring and confusing at parts only because I know nothing about particle physics and never want to find out any more about it.

The socialization of physicists was interesting to read and I was extremely compelled with the comparisons between Japanese and Americans physicists.
Profile Image for Giulia.
21 reviews
January 27, 2022
Really liked it but too descriptive, sometimes. Nevertheless, it raises very interesting questions about the science elite culture and way of thinking.
Profile Image for Sam.
61 reviews13 followers
December 21, 2014
Not as interesting as I expected. The book concentrated on the bureaucracy of particle physics quite a bit. It also seems rather dated, as my experience with particle physics is rather different.
Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews

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