Amazing Structure: A Conversation With Ursula Franklin

Citizen, scientist, feminist
courtesy Ursula Franklin

It’s hard to describe what Ursula Franklin’s done in her life. There’s just too much. 

The 92-year-old metallurgist pioneered the field of archeometry, the science of dating archaeologically discovered bronzes, metals, and ceramics. Her research into spiking levels of radioactive strontium in baby teeth factored heavily into the U.S. government’s decision to institute a nuclear test ban. She delivered the Massey Lectures—an important, annual series of talks delivered by Canadian public intellectuals—in 1989, and she was the first woman to be named University Professor at the University of Toronto, the university’s highest position.

She was also born in Munich in 1921, and was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for the last 18 months of the war.

I spoke to her recently by phone. It was a snowy day in Toronto, she said and she was happy to stay inside.

I’m here and ready and have a cup of tea and a pad of notes,” she told me, “and so I’m happy to meet you.”

Unlike many of the other women we’ve been talking to, you’ve been active as a philosopher—

—as a citizen.

—as a citizen, as much as scientist.


So I think we’ll start with questions about your background—and if you think it ties into an interesting or useful concept, then you should feel absolutely free to elaborate on that.

Okay. Will do so. I think you’ll find it’s more difficult to stop me than to encourage me.

Excellent. How did a girl growing up in interwar Germany—though of course it didn’t seem interwar at the time—how did you come to be interested in the sciences, and then enter them?

I take you back. I was born in ’21. I grew up German in mostly Berlin. My mom was Jewish; my father, of an old German family, a Lutheran family. My mother was Jewish only culturally, not religiously. Both my families—my mother was an art historian, my father, though he had an engineering background, was an Africanist—so I grew up in an academic atmosphere, but also in a very political one.

My mother particularly saw the dangers of fascism quite early, encouraged my father—unsuccessfully—to immigrate, and so we were all at the danger of threats and camps, etc., through the Nazis and survived it, though barely. None of my maternal family did. 

When I was a child in school, the fact that the laws of nature seemed to be permanent and immutable, compared to the laws of the state, made science most attractive to me. And I recall as a kid in school, a physics experiment—and my also mischievous pleasure that even these overwhelming, secular authorities couldn’t change the direction of a beam of electrons. And so I went into science for the fact that this was a career one could pursue with integrity—and that’s very dubious—but it’s what appears to the 13-, 14-year-old. There was also nothing else. 

I loved to state with the clarity of the scientist. I went into that and stayed in it as a milieu. 

My main interest then developed into solid-state crystal structure and the concept of structure: The arrangement of the parts to make a whole, and how the properties of the whole are not just the sum of the parts, but profoundly affected by the respective positioning of the parts to form the whole. That was a sort of [interest] that has stayed with me and [transferred] very easily into the political and the social things. So it’s all the back and forth of life—it’s always been navigating around a standing structure and changing them so as to change their properties.

And that applies, of course, as much to making special alloys of metal as it applies to any other social situation, so I have a sense of cause and consequence very much, being brought up, that things happen for a reason—that they have roots; that they are, in turn, the feedback for consequence, which are then the shoot; and much of that ‘root and shoot’ tighten my thinking.

As you were getting into alloys and metals, were there other women in your science education program or in college? 

The gender issue is really a postwar issue. Women, wherever they were, what side or what in the war situation, stepped into the places that men had left. And they were competent, and they could do it. It was only after the war, when the men came back, that they needed the mystique—that she’s a girl, and so oughtn’t [to be] there, this is a man’s job. The gender issue, in practical terms—either who [could be] in school or who thought they could do which job, which science, which math—is a postwar issue anywhere in the world.

And it’s the issue of a large number of well-organized men, who often got their training in the army during the war, returning and needing both work and justification for their organized maleness in a very hierarchical structure. These guys came out of the military, and brought skills, but mostly brought demands.

There were women who had coped—often very well in very technical [positions]—but what was needed now was a distinction between those who came out of a culture of order, discipline, and minimal consideration of an individual’s contribution. So you had to get the women out of the workplace. And that’s when that question—they can’t do math, or they are frightened of machines—that’s where all that crap comes from. But it’s there, and it took until the late ’50s when women said: “Ah ah! What’s going on here?”

It’s the collectivity—with some consciousness-raising, you see—that actually, the personal is political. It’s not that our skirts are too short or too long; it’s just that we are being pushed around and maybe we have to put a stop to it collectively. But that gender-based look at knowledge and competency is postwar.

So my school experience: It was ‘so what?’ 

How did you—in order to catch up to the late ’50s—you served in a Nazi work camp and then—

—and then I went back to university, got a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from the Technical University in Berlin, and then came to Canada on a postdoctoral fellowship.

And then, after three years as a postdoc—and this is where your interest may come in—I went and became a senior scientist at a small Canadian, Ontario-based industrial research organization that was doing technical work for small firms in the province of Ontario that were too small to have technical establishments within their own organizations but which were in need of good, competent technical services and advice. This organization—called Ontario Research Foundation—was created by the province to allow small firms to have technical competence without being burdened by the sophisticated establishment that they couldn’t afford.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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