Everything Wrong With Calling Scientists 'Boys With Toys'

Sexism is an important component, but it's more than that.
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California Institute of Technology professor Shrinivas Kulkarni. (Photo: Bob Paz/California Institute of Technology)

California Institute of Technology professor Shrinivas Kulkarni. (Photo: Bob Paz/California Institute of Technology)

This weekend, NPR aired an interview with a leading astronomer about his work, as part of a series that aims to show "what makes scientists tick."

"Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call 'boys with toys,'" California Institute of Technology professor Shrinivas Kulkarni told NPR. "I think there's nothing wrong with that, except you're not supposed to say that."

Well, the first, and obvious, thing wrong with that assertion is Kulkarni's defaulting to the idea that all scientists are male. Scientists on Twitter have responded excellently to that problem, by posting thousands of photos of themselves and their female colleagues next to telescopes, robots, particle accelerators, and more, with the hashtag #girlswithtoys.

We're just boys with toys, the comment says, totally harmless, like your nine-year-old nephew.

Beyond that, however, the "boys with toys" comment is wrong because it minimizes the power the professional astronomy community wields, the responsibilities it has to others, and the pain it can cause. We're just boys with toys, the comment says, totally harmless, like your nine-year-old nephew.

Kulkarni's comment comes at a time of heavy debate over whether a partnership of astronomy institutes should be able to build a $1.4 billion telescope on land that's sacred to native Hawaiians. Legally, the Thirty Meter Telescope—as it's officially called—is in the clear, and construction has already begun. Over the past few months, however, hundreds of people have marched on the construction site in opposition, leading to dozens of arrests. This isn't exactly that out of the ordinary either. Historically, astronomers have often found themselves in conflict with local people when they want to build a new observatory. If they want to do fairly by folks, a "boys with toys" attitude is not going to help.

There's also ongoing debate about whether astronomy and other science fields are welcoming to women and minorities. When Kulkarni says "boys with toys," he's talking about what the culture of astronomy is like, suggesting that it's got both a lighthearted side and a sense of play. I've certainly gotten that sense when I've interviewed astronomers too. It's very cool. But it's important to keep in mind that this is part of the same, larger culture that female scientists report forces them to "damp down" their ambition and hide their accomplishments. This is no innocent mischief.

Taxpayers give astronomers billions of dollars every year. Kulkarni himself has received more than $10 million in National Science Foundation grants over the last five years. We support the rich funding of science, but we would hope that scientists feel some sense of responsibility in return.

In the context of the NPR story, Kulkarni doesn't seem to think "you're not supposed to say" astronomers are "boys with toys" because it's sexist, or minimizes responsibility, but because astronomy is supposed to be a Serious Science that deals with Big Ideas about the Origin of Everything. Guys, I don't care what emotions you approach your telescope with every day. I don't expect astronomers to take their jobs seriously because the cosmos are Very Serious and Important. I expect astronomers to take their jobs seriously because they're a publicly supported enterprise and because they're in charge of training the next generation of scientists, and creating the next culture of science.

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