Behind the cover: August 2022

Every month, Physics Today editors explore the research and design choices that inspired the latest cover of the magazine.

Like most women who study physics these days, I have a lot of experience being in the minority. Most of my classmates in college and graduate school were men. Of all the physics classes I took, only one was taught by a woman. For most of my first decade working at Physics TodayI was the only woman in the room at many an editorial meeting.

I also have a lot of experience listening to questionable theories of why gender imbalance is no big deal—it’s just the natural state of things. Among the theories I’ve heard is that women are inherently uninterested in physics (on average, of course), because we’re “hardwired” to prefer working with people rather than objects or abstract ideas. I’ve also heard it said that women shy away from careers in physics because we perceive them to be incompatible with the time demands of raising children.

So I was interested to read in Joanna Behrman’s article “Physics … is for girls?” that in US schools in the early 19th century, natural philosophy (the predecessor subject of physics) was considered a subject more for girls than for boys—not despite women’s social role as mothers and nurturers, but because of it. Behrman does not advocate a return to that past; rather, she argues that because a society’s ideas of those interested in studying what can change so much over time, they can change again in the future. The impermanence would seem to suggest that there’s no “hard wiring” involved.

Because of the importance of Behrman’s message—and the plethora of historical images of women of science, real and imaginary—we decided to feature the article on the cover of the August issue. Art director Donna Padian found this beautiful portrait of Maria Mitchell, an American natural philosopher and educator, painted by Herminia Dassel around 1851. The portrait perfectly illustrates the overall thrust of the article.

For the main cover line, Padian chose a combination of old-fashioned typefaces that suited the era: Castellar, Essonnes italic, and P22 Stickley Pro. She added two flourishes to the lettering, from the Beloved Ornaments font, that might have been used in the 19th century and a nod to the lace on the dress. The placement of the cover line highlights the most important area of ​​the image. We decided to omit the question mark from Behrman’s article title because for us, there is no question: Physics is for girls!

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