15th June 2018

At a friend’s birthday party this week I met a man whose opening conversational gambit – without knowing anything about my background – was a lengthy discourse on his theory of the equivalence of atomic and solar system dynamics, with electrons orbiting nuclei just as planets orbit stars.

atom and solar system maps compared

As is often the case in these conversations, his ideas contained nuggets of truth mixed with tailings galore. My general approach in such situations is to confirm the well-founded ideas and use the opportunity and obvious enthusiasm to add important missing pieces of theory and observation. In this case, that meant a discussion of the inverse square law in electromagnetism and gravity (“Yes, there are important parallels …”), and of the absence of gravitational charges leading to it being the only effective long-range force (“… and there are also important differences.”) Had there been the opportunity, we could also have covered the quantization of electron orbits and the existence of the ecliptic plane, moons, and orbital decay in planetary dynamics. In this case, however, his immediate response was to inform me that if only I had studied the field I would understand the truth and profundity of his theory.

In her essay “Men Explain Things To Me” my good friend Rebecca Solnit writes about a party at which the male host dominated their conversation with an extended monologue about Edward Muybridge, citing “an important new book on the subject” but unaware that she herself was its author. Soon after the essay was first published, a commenter on a LiveJournal blog post about it coined the term “mansplaining” to describe the assumption that the explainer – by virtue of being a man – is necessarily better-informed than the explainee.

men explain things to me by rebecca solnit book cover

Undoubtedly the explainee is more often a woman than a man, and equally without question, I have been guilty of mansplaining myself, even with the best intentions. What struck me particularly about my electrons-and-planets exchange was my new friend’s ability to maintain the mansplaining mindset even to an older white middle-class professional man who is giving every indication of expertise in the topic at hand. It was a valuable reminder to me of just how ingrained this behavior is, and how important it is for me to keep checking my own assumptions about people as I talk with them.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory