“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

There have two more installments of the Science and the Fantastic column published on Tor.com since I last wrote – they cover the weird interstitial period of SF of the 50s that I cover using Bradbury, and the maniacal scientific work of Monod in uncovering mechanisms of cellular regulation. This was followed up by my first dip into the expansion period for both biology and science fiction in the 60s, covering Ballard and the movement’s British origins, which aligned nicely with the birth of recombinant DNA technology, and thus biotech.

I am happy to be out of the golden age of SF – I am getting really sick of writing about sexist white dudes. That being said, there are still more sexist white dudes ahead, but it’s going to be easier to move away from them in SF as we move forward. Not so much so in biology.

The Nobel Prize page has a breakdown about the demographics of Nobel Prize winners between 1901 and 2018 (mind you, this is in all categories, not just the sciences):

  • Of 935 Nobel awards, 52 have been awarded to women. That’s a little over 5.6%.
  • Of those 52 Prizes, most were in Literature or Peace, and one for economics
    • 3 women have won for Physics (out of 210 winners – or 1.4%)
    • 5 women have won for Chemistry – one was Marie Curie, who also won one of the physics ones (out of 181 winners – or 2.8%)
    • 12 women have won for Physiology/Medicine (out of 216 – or 5.6%)

I couldn’t find a convenient current breakdown of prizes in the sciences by racial demographics, but the awards are overwhelmingly awarded to white men, and there has yet to be a black Nobel prize winner in the sciences.

Of course, Nobel prizes are not necessarily the best indicator of the quality of a career in research (much like the Oscars aren’t the end-all-be-all in quality of an acting career). There are always politics involved, and many of the women and minorities doing groundbreaking research today won’t necessarily see any recognition for a lifetime of work for a while, but I both imagine and hope that this is going to continue to change moving forward as barriers continue to be broken down and scientific cultures of racism and misogyny diminish. The numbers don’t look good right now, and writing a history of two fields that have been overwhelmingly white and male (for a lot of the same reasons) feels disheartening, especially looking around at how the demographics in both fields has changed and continues to change.

  • As of 2015, women have reached parity in the biological and medical sciences
  • Minorities seem to have equal representation if all lumped together, but representation within groups is disproportionate, with more Asians in STEM careers and fewer black and latinos (see table 3-19)

None of this is to say that women don’t still run into misogyny in the sciences, and systems of oppression still act as gatekeepers to many minorities, but compared to even 30 years ago, the trend in diversity has at least been in an upward direction.

But I digress. The next article will be about Philip K. Dick (who the above title quote is from) and Sydney Brenner’s massive project to map the developmental fate of every cell within the roundworm C. elegans. Both were preoccupied with the central questions of life – what makes us what we are? It’s a compelling question to examine both from the angle of Dick’s fiction and Brenner’s work, and I felt it was interesting enough to push back the article I’ve been looking forward to writing about LeGuin and Lynn Margulis.


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