When scrounging the bowels of the library the other day in search of the Proceedings of the Geological Society of Poland, 1966 (no, we don't have it), I impulse-checked out an autobiography of a lady physicist, Fay Ajzenberg-Selove. Usually I would think that an autobiography of any physicist, lady or otherwise, would be like watching for mesons with a magnifying glass (ha ha) but perhaps my latent obsession with Dick Feynman drove me to check it out.
A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist grabbed my attention right away because Fay is direct, candid, and funny. The title seemed to imply that she made choices, I thought sacrifices, and I expected there to be some regrets. It turns out Fay is not a regretful person! Which may be the best lesson to take from the book, for female physicists and everybody else. The story of how her family escaped the Holocaust is alone enough to make this a worthwhile read. Her underdog success, aided by a few gender-blind mentors and colleagues, was enough to warm my cynic's heart. She also takes a few institutions to task, by name (Harvard, Princeton) and points out the second glass ceiling at the tenure review. It was gratifying to google her and see that her website at UPenn is still active, as she is no doubt still active, even after surviving cancer and her husband's health problems as well. Fay's voice is objective, awkwardly literal (as physicist types can be!) and she tells the story of her life without sugar coating, pointing out when her recollections might have been bitter and assessing whether she still holds that bitterness. I think anyone reading this book would come away with a deep respect for the perseverance of a woman who quietly found a way to do what she wanted to do, without tooting her own horn, and truly picked her battles. While on some level an inspirational story, it was also a reminder for me of how much patience is required to break through barriers on ones own. Cheers Fay, and thanks.
Amazon link for A Matter of Choices
I'm off to Windhoek in the morning for a meeting with our new research group - no idea what to expect there, but excited! Sila asked for a souvenir - he wants a snow globe.