Why I am a biologist rather than a physicist

I’ve never written my name in the snow. I’ve never participated in a competition to see how far I can urinate. These are apparently serious deficits in my experiences that affected my ability to visualize three-dimensional trajectories, according to some sad academics.

But the academics argued that ‘playful urination practices – from seeing how high you can pee to games such as Peeball (where men compete using their urine to destroy a ball placed in a urinal) – may give boys an advantage over girls when it comes to physics’.

Oh, no! I never even heard of “Peeball” before! But according to these wankers, it’s an important life lesson in physics.

This self-directed, hands-on, intrinsically (and sometimes extrinsically, and socially) rewarding activity must have a huge potential contribution to learning, resulting in a deep, embodied, material knowledge of projectile motion that’s simply not accessible to girls.

Where did this nonsense come from? It was published in the Daily Mail, so I felt a momentary relief — that rag is all garbage, so it’s not surprising that they gave it some credit. But where did they get it? The Times Educational Supplement. Christ.

The authors argue that there is a serious problem here. I agree.

The gender gap in physics, and other related subjects including engineering, has long been a cause for concern. This has led to both educational innovations as well as policy interventions such as Change The Equation, Sage and Wise. However, there is little evidence that such campaigns have much effect. For example, Wise was set up in the UK in 1984. In that time, the fraction of female students studying physics in the final two years of school has hovered around 20 per cent.

Therefore we have to ask: why don’t young women perform as well in physics?

Then they acknowledge that there are a whole lot of social forces biasing women’s opportunities and choices. Also true.

Of course, there are likely to be a number of complex, interacting reasons, some of which can be changed more easily than others. The majority of physicists are male, and this reinforces a masculine culture. Historically, logical and mathematical ways of thinking have long been associated with masculinity (although all three of us would argue that such modes of thinking are not particularly masculine or feminine). Most physics teachers are male, so there aren’t many female role models for physics students.

There may also be cultural effects outside the discipline – parents may offer boys more encouragement to study physics as it leads to later study of, for example, engineering (another field that struggles to recruit and retain women).

Knowing all that, they then hare off after this wacky idea that boys learn physics by peeing up to five times a day, so by 14, boys have had the opportunity to play with projectile motion around 10,000 times. Good god. They haven’t done any serious analysis; they watched some youtube videos of people peeing in the snow, they heard a few anecdotes about pissing contests. They did no experiments. They did not propose any tests of their hypothesis. They don’t even suggest possible controls. They make a few jokes about peeing. And they get that published.

There are probably a few people who will take this bullshit seriously, because we know one thing for sure: there are guys who will seize upon any biological basis for their supposed superiority.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Presumably the Daily Flail did not realise that the TES authors were taking the piss (mea maxima culpa).

    Worthy of the great Sokal, himself.

  2. says

    @ 1:

    the TES authors were taking the piss

    Y’know, even if they were, it doesn’t matter. There are more than enough men, and no doubt evopsych people who will latch onto this like their life depended on it.

  3. says

    It stands to reason, therefore, that the greatest physicists in the world must be those suffering from diabetes insipidus, right? But I suspect this is an argument that doesn’t hold water.

  4. cartomancer says

    I thought the TES piece was a pretty obvious satire of this sort of men-are-biologically-better-at-physics nonsense. Particularly given the smirking puns in the last paragraph. I guess Poe’s Law applies in this case too.

    I wonder if they might now turn their attention to why my Classics classes are so full of bookish girls and flamboyantly homosexual boys? Perhaps it’s all the ogling of shirtless male torsos that gives them a headstart in their appreciation of classical statuary?

  5. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “there are guys who will seize upon any biological basis for their supposed superiority.”

    Because those are the same guys who flame out spectacularly when confronted with tough, highly mathematical, material.

    Strangely enough, manual dexterity when peeing isn’t correlated with being able to solve nonlinear partial differential equations.

    But pissing all over editorial pages? They got that one covered, you betcha.

  6. damien75 says

    Incredible. It’s hard to believe that article was written by academics and is not a joke. Is that the best theory they can come up with ?

  7. llyris says

    So how do they account for the number of grown men who seem unable to aim into the bowl?
    Especially when drunk. You’d think that would be when they get a lot of practice.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    The authors refer to a pissing contest in Pope’s The Dunciad. The title itself is a giveaway, and the pissing game (like the other contests), is engaged in by men who Pope regarded as the champions of stupidity and dullness. So, Sokalesque anyway.

  9. weylguy says

    Dr. Myers, Newton’s theory tells us that Earth’s gravity acts as if all its mass were focused at the center, so that strictly speaking the arc of a urine stream is an ellipse, not a parabola. I believe that since time immemorial boys have been seriously trying to verify this phenomenon. It’s not just juvenile horseplay!

  10. komarov says

    This self-directed, hands-on, intrinsically (and sometimes extrinsically, and socially) rewarding activity must have a huge potential contribution to learning, resulting in a deep, embodied, material knowledge of projectile motion that’s simply not accessible to girls.

    Given the “huge potential” involved, I propose we make it scoially acceptable for women to spit in the face of their harassers. Beside discouraging the latter, this would clearly result in generations of great (female) physicists who naturally excel at fluid- and aerodynamics and of course ballistics.

  11. consciousness razor says

    Well, maybe we shouldn’t blame them too much for having less-evolved genes, but the fact is that until they learn to overcome their incorporeal urination practices, they just don’t stand a chance.

  12. doubtthat says

    Before I decided on law school, NASA offered me a job because I sent in a resume detailing my urine-themed exploits, experience flicking boogers and shooting spitballs, as well as a solid foundation in propulsion – lots of farting. That’s the kind of real-world experience you can’t get from “books” with their “equations” and such.

  13. robert79 says

    Speaking as a physicist (according to my masters degree… I went to the dark side and switched to maths afterwards):

    Erm.. WTF?!?!?

    And here I always thought that the folks obsessing about (the mechanics of) biological functions were… The biologists!

  14. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    …..if that’s true, how come so many grown men miss the fucking toilet/urinal?

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    robert79 @20:

    I went to the dark side and switched to maths afterwards

    It’s not the “dark” side! It’s the “well, somebody‘s got to do it” side. Like biology and chemistry.

  16. handsomemrtoad says

    Here’s something about this which has always puzzled me. If you look at your urine stream, for about an inch after it leaves the tip of the penis, its cross-section is a narrow vertical ellipse, corresponding to the vertical slit which is the opening of your urethra. but after about an inch, the elliptical cross-section widens and a little further on it’s a HORIZONTAL ellipse!

    Are there any fluid-mechanics geeks out there who can explain this to me?

  17. wcorvi says

    No, PZ, you are a biologist because you couldn’t handle the math. Enrico Fermi: “If I wanted to memorize the names of all those particles, I would have been a botanist.”

  18. PDX_Greg says

    I dunno — rumors are that Trump is much more into urine observations than your typical standing pisser, and he seems completely incapable of understanding anything even remotely scientific. Sure, my argument is weak, but so is the article, so checkmate, misogynists!

  19. chrislawson says

    Snarki@6: this is why Charles Murray always amuses me (as well as horrifies me) — he is a white man arguing that whites and males are naturally better at maths…using arguments from faulty statistics.

  20. Derek Vandivere says

    Have forwarded to my buddy Freya, a professor who works at CMS at CERN. Eagerly waiting to hear just how much further she would’ve gotten had only she been peeing standing up all her life.

  21. Derek Vandivere says

    Update. Her reply: How do you know I don’t pee standing up? And btw most German men pee sitting…

  22. jimzy says

    I could see how a woman might get involved in a peeing contest. Organize one for male physics students to pee on an electric fence. All together now…

  23. says

    Ah, you’re seeing the wonderful effect of the dominance of the Murdoch Media played out. It’s an old trick of theirs – have one of their more “upscale” organs (“The Australian” here in Australia, “The Times of London” in the UK) publish something in very small print on one of their inner pages where very few readers will actually see it. Then get one of their more popular tabloids (The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Sydney Herald-Sun etc) to republish it, with a reference back to the more august paper to give it legitimacy. Now, here’s the trick for new players: go see if you can find any reference at all to these “academics” outside the Murdoch media (ie outside News Limited/News Corporation/Fox News sources).

    I’m willing to bet you won’t. Passing these made-up articles from paper to paper is how the Murdoch press generates legitimacy for their fake news.

  24. rhebel says

    I’ve avoided commenting for a while, but this is one of my favorites. I will take up a conversation with a physicist or mathematician and say that biologists are the highestly educated people. Then, I explain why. You cannot understand physics if you don’t understand math. You cannot understand chemistry if you don’t understand physics. And finally, you cannot understand biology if you don’t understand chemistry, therefore, biology is the peak of understanding, as so far as scientific knowledge goes. Do this, and your colleagues in math and physics will go nuts. Lotsa fun!

  25. says

    And then you take up a conversation with someone in the humanities, and they give you funny looks at “highestly”. You cannot understand any of those science disciplines if you haven’t mastered the language, so I guess English professors rule all.

  26. jrkrideau says

    We have finally managed to infintrate an agent into a renowed biologist’s classroom. It has not been easy; we lost cell-phone contact with the first agent as she reported a whiteout between her room and class. Her last tranmission seem to say, “Watch out for the zeb…” when it broke off. In any case here is our first release of the information.

  27. DanDare says

    Playing catch
    Skipping stones
    Bowling to the batter
    Tossing jacks
    Throwing the hopscotch marker

    Dont those twits get out?

  28. fusilier says

    I’m surprised that Caine hasn’t chimed in about We Pitisowewepahikan aka “two balls.”

    When they were younger, Daughters #1 and #2 used to play a lot. “Vicious” doesn’t _begin_ to describe the intensity!


    James 2:24

  29. cartomancer says

    PZ, #33

    The English Language is, of course, a product of Medieval English history – derived from Latin, Greek and Old High German with some other bits thrown in. Therefore I assert the primacy of Classicists and Medieval Historians over the English types. Tributes and paeans of praise can be sent to the usual address.

    I also invoke the ancient right of No Backsies (nihil rursorum), so any scholars of Etruscan, Proto Indo European and prehistory can fuck right off.

  30. mountainbob says

    I’ve heard, on good authority, that the problem girls have with engineering and physics is that all their young lives they were told that an object the length of their thumb equals six inches.