This is what physics taught me about gender

My high school physics class spent a day on particle-wave duality. He started with Isaac Newton’s “corpuscular theory” of light, which described light as being made up of particles. Then, Thomas Young’s 1801 Double-Slit Experiment seemed to provide definitive evidence that light behaved like a wave. Unfortunately, in 1905 Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric effect, showing that to explain that phenomenon you really needed to assume light was made up of particles. Finally in 1927, Davisson and Gerner published a paper showing that electrons definitively show properties of both particles and waves, depending on the situation. Later the same results were demonstrated for light, as well.

Oh no! A paradox! Particles and waves are totally different! How can light sometimes be one  thing, and sometimes be another?   “………….but that’s stupid,” my physics teacher said, “Because light isn’t a particle or a wave.”

I was 16 years old, sitting in a classroom filled with aging desks and the smell of chalk dust, and my high school physics teacher was treating me to a fundamental lesson in epistemology.  It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember it word-for-word, but the gist of it went like this:

The whole idea of a particle was invented by we humans from our day-to-day experiences. Particles are basically rocks: tiny, idealized rocks. But in our minds, they are still rocks. And waves are… the movement of the ocean. So when we describe the behavior of some phenomenon in physics, and it looks similar to the way rocks act when they bump into each other, we say: Oh! It’s particles! And when the behavior we see looks similar to the way the ocean behaves, we say: Oh! It’s waves!

But there is no reason to think electrons or light are anything like rocks or the ocean! Why would you think that stuff that tiny is anything at all like the big things, like rocks and the ocean, that we see and feel in our day-to-day lives?

This is one of the most important lessons of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics reminds us that even something that seems as fundamental as calling something a “particle” or a “wave” is nothing more than a description. We’re not talking about what the thing really is. We’re not talking about the true nature of existence. We’re talking about a convenient approximation. A description that is…. accurate enough to be useful. Nothing more.

* * * * * * * *

If you look at online discussion boards and opinion pieces, you will see that some people are in a downright panic at the idea that some people might feel neither male nor female, or that their gender might be fluid or be experienced and expressed differently in different situations.

I suppose if you are the sort of person who insists that light must be either a particle or a wave, then getting panicked over the idea of a person who is not rigidly male or female just makes sense.

I suppose.

Personally, I consider myself lucky. I am very comfortable with the idea that “male” and “female” are just human-created labels that are our attempts to apply a simplified, generalized description to an underlying phenomenon (gender identity) that is incredibly complicated… much more complicated than any simple label like “male” or “female” ever implies. And I  didn’t even need to take a class in gender studies, queer theory or cultural criticism to get used to this idea.

All I needed was a high school physics class.



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  1. Kevin Killian says:

    For me it wasn’t “particle or wave” it was “Slot A or Slot B”. Slot A, you are gay. Slot B, you are straight. The thing is, if you don’t note them at the slot, the pattern that emerges on the screen is with a large hump in the middle. in other words, we are all bisexual. It’s only when we try to manage it, i.e, count you at the gate, do we see a pattern of two humps, gay and straight.
    Apologies for the word “humps”.

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