Guest Post: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

By Sean Carroll | October 22, 2006 1:08 pm

I first met Chanda (briefly) when she was visiting the University of Chicago as a summer undergraduate research student. Since then we’ve corresponded occasionally about life as a physicist and which general relativity textbook is the best. She emailed me a thoughtful response to a couple of posts about string theory and the state of physics (here and here), and I thought it would be good to have those thoughts presented as a full-blown guest post rather than just a comment; happily, Chanda agreed.

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A few months ago, Sean posted an entry on this blog addressing his concerns about Dr. Lee Smolin’s (then forthcoming) book, The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Dramatically titled and well-hyped, Lee’s book was sure to arouse strong emotions and plenty of debate on publication. However, it managed to do that even before it was out, and the commentary on Sean’s entry included correspondence from Lee as well as several other great contemporary thinkers in theoretical physics. The dialogue was inspired, passionate, argumentative, sometimes rude, and always exploratory.

But something was missing. I wondered how there could be a discourse about the marketplace of ideas and about who gets to participate in science without a component that addresses the obvious (at least for those of us with some relationship to the US academic system): the community of scientists in the United States is overwhelmingly homogeneous, white (of European descent) and male. That sounds like a pretty narrow marketplace to me, given that over half of the US population is either female or a member of an underrepresented minority group or both. Surely this must mean that we are under-utilizing our potential talent pool in our drive to better understand the physical world.

As a member of the National Society of Black Physicists’ (NSBP) Executive Committee and Editor of their newsletter, I like to stay on top of the statistics related to these issues, so let me mention a few to satisfy those who like to see data. (All stats are borrowed from the NSF unless otherwise noted.) At the moment, only about 12% of doctoral degrees in physics go to women. The number going to people identified as Black/African-American hovers around an average of 14 per year out of an average 738 total degrees. That’s 1.8% despite making up about 12% of the population. Further investigation uncovers the (to me) monumental tragedy that almost no other field in science and technology is doing worse at diversifying than ours, physics. (See Dr. Shirley Malcolm’s symposium paper from AIP’s 75th Anniversary celebration.)

Knowing all this, I want to share with you how shocking it is to me when I have regular conversations with my peers who express to me that they don’t see a problem. And if they do express concerns to me, a lot of the time it’s guys who want more women in the field because they want to find dates. Sorry guys, we’re here because we’re interested in physics, not you, and on top of that, some of us like women better! And yes, sometimes it’s just a joke, but sometimes it’s hard to tell, and believe me, we’ve heard that one many, many times before. On the topic of seeing more people of color (Blacks, Latina/os, etc.) most often I am met with disinterested silence or an insistence (the knowledge base this derives from is always hazy, in my opinion) that there’s nothing the physics community can do to resolve the issue because the problem is in the high schools and has nothing to do with post-secondary academe.

This attitude is disappointing, to say the least. First of all, the numbers contradict these sentiments. While it is true that there are deeply troubling issues facing the K-12 education system in the US, especially in low-income neighborhoods which are disproportionately populated by people of color, women and other underrepresented groups fall out of the pipeline at all stages, from the post-baccalaureate to the post-doctorate level, and they do so at a much higher rate than white men. Clearly something is happening. What is happening is far too full a topic to tackle here, but perhaps I will be invited to say more about it in the comments section. I invite readers to participate in a knowledge-based discourse about this issue.

On the other hand, if you’re having a hard time figuring out why you should care about diversity, the President of Princeton can offer you a helping hand. In the 2003 Killam Lecture at the University of British Columbia, Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman identified four reasons for why we should care about diversity in science. I paraphrase them here:

  1. If we aren’t looking at the entire talent pool available, scientific progress will be slower by default.
  2. It’s possible that women and other underrepresented minorities will identify unique scientific problems that their majority peers might not.
  3. Science will find it increasingly difficult to recruit the brightest minorities as other fields diversify and therefore look attractive to members of underrepresented groups. An attractive work environment is essential to competing on the job market for the best thinkers.
  4. The scientific establishment ought to pursue diversification as a matter of fairness and justice.
    In a small (statistically insignificant) survey of various scientists and leaders in scientific organizations, I found that the question of “why is diversity in science important?” is addressed in these four points. While point four is possibly closest to my heart, I think that points one and two are two of the strongest arguments out there. (An aside: As I am tidying up this essay, one professor writes me and says that he finds four to be most compelling! I hope that others will agree.)

I would like to reflect on point one in the context of work in theoretical physics, specifically in quantum gravity and cosmology. If we are to take seriously the concept that what we seek in physics is truth and a better understanding, don’t we want to have the broadest pool of talent available to participate in the process? I think this applies to people and ideas alike. Until we have a theory that pulls out ahead of the others, what are we doing arguing about whose theory is doing better? Right now, neither loops, nor strings, nor triangles, nor anything else has ANY data to back it up, so perhaps the best thing we can all do on that front is get back to work.

An aside to that last remark: It’s hard to get to work when no one will hire you. It remains true that even if I do good work in my field, if my field is not strings, I will have a difficult time finding a job in theoretical physics. Some might argue that this is fair because I have made the foolish error of working on a silly (let’s say loopy) theory. But honestly, to those who like to toe that line, I’d like to say that since you don’t have the LHC data in hand or anything else that proves/disproves strings/loops/anything else, at this stage we’re all in the same boat. And what if strings is wrong? Has the physics community gained anything by suppressing and/or ignoring the alternatives?

To speak in more general terms, I could ask the broader question: what has the scientific community gained by choosing not to pro-actively welcome a broad and diverse set of people and ideas into the fold? Well, again there isn’t enough space for the details, but there is increasing evidence from research in science education that supports the point that diversity of perspectives accelerates problem solving.

Moreover, a fellow grad student and active member of NSBP’s sister organization, the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP), pointed out to me that we can definitely be aware of what the scientific community potentially loses when people from different backgrounds aren’t allowed to participate in science. Laura noted that our society has thrived on the contributions of women like Marie Curie (discovered radioactivity) and Emmy Noether (Noether’s theorem) and African-Americans like Benjamin Banneker (early civil and mechanical engineer, self-taught astronomer and mathematician). At this point, I think it is easy to ask and answer, “what would our world be like without the Marie Curies and Benjamin Bannekers?” Most likely lacking.

But another, equally important question isn’t raised often enough: What are we missing by living in a world where only the Marie Curie’s make it through? A few women and underrepresented minorities have always found a way to challenge the status quo. Let’s face it: physics is hard for anyone. It’s not hard to imagine that it takes a certain type of determined personality to overcome barriers and make new discoveries. What of the rest? The people who didn’t find the right friends and family to help them? The ones who never had a chance to learn physics? The ones who thought that people who look like them don’t succeed at physics? (And yes, they are out there; I’ve met some of them.) Might we be further along in our understanding of dark matter? Perhaps, perhaps not, but until we push harder to integrate, we’ll never know.

At this stage, it occurs to me that many of you will look at my definition of diversity and think it is too narrow. I’ve left out all of the international collaboration that goes on in physics, and surely, isn’t that a wonderful kind of diversity which is plentiful in our world? Yes! One thing that endeared the Perimeter Institute to me almost immediately was the fact that my peer group hails from all over Europe and Asia, and at the lunch table, as many as five or more cultures may be represented. But to me this highlights the problem — if the North American physics community has been able to welcome an international populace with open arms, why can’t they do the same with the diversity that already exists at home?

In the end, perhaps this is not a fair way to raise the question. International members of the physics community also have to confront issues of racism and discrimination. Racism is not a uniquely American problem, nor do people of color suffer alone from it in the US. But I still have a question, then: if the academy is ready to bring those of us who earn Phds into the fold, why isn’t it doing more to encourage more of us to reach that far? Those of us who do make it that far are left wondering why it doesn’t bother anyone else that we are more likely to see a German in our graduate classes than another Black person.

The challenges we face in confronting these issues are not easy. First we must accept there is an issue, a problem. Then there must be open discussion about how we understand the problem. I realize that it is difficult to step into someone else’s shoes and understand where they are coming from. But to an extent, like Albert Einstein before us, we must rise to the challenge of the barriers placed before our understanding and transcend them.

For my part, as a Black woman, I would ask my white (and male) peers to remember that many of us (though not all) experience our differences as a negative in this environment. Where I see it as a Black cultural tradition to lend a helping hand even as I continue to achieve my own dreams, others see my commitment to NSBP as a signal that I am wasting my time not doing science. Do my friends who play music in their spare time get this same signal? Moreover, many of us who are women or people of color or both are often involved in efforts to change the face of science. When we are challenged about that by our peers, not only are they standing in our way, but they are also failing to recognize that for many of us, this investment in the community is necessary to our survival, much like someone else might say playing music is for theirs.

Furthermore, where I wish to understand other people’s choices of identification, there are those amongst my peers who have felt they had the right to make my choices for me. I find myself now terrified of mentioning my Blackness in any way, lest I become dehumanized, my personal identity reduced to an object of debate. These are examples of the way my background has been turned into a negative for me. I know others have similar and worse experiences, and surely, this is one major leak in the aforementioned pipeline. My hope is that physics will evolve not only in concept, but also in its sensibilities about who a physicist is and what she looks like. What if we came to value our heterogeneity, to see it as an advantage?

It is important to note that there are white men out there thinking about these issues. I know Sean Carroll is one of them. For me, Professor Henry Frisch at the University of Chicago has been an amazing mentor. His father, the late Professor David Frisch of MIT, was influential in the graduate career path of Dr. Jim Gates, now an accomplished African-American theorist at the University of Maryland. People who take the time to be concerned, therefore, do have an impact. A common complaint that I hear from interested people is that there aren’t enough people with diverse backgrounds in the talent pool when they are choosing grad students, postdocs, and faculty. I believe that this points to a fundamental problem that physicists can help with: somewhere a pool of talent is getting lost, and we need to push harder to find it again by taking a pro-active role in education policy, mentoring (studies show this makes a big difference in minority performance), and anti-discrimination activism.

I hope that many of you will take this to heart and realize that for the sake of science, if nothing else, diversity matters. There’s a lot to be done to change things, and I encourage you to support work that is being done in your community, whether it’s by contributing hours designing a website or giving a tour of your department to local students who wouldn’t normally be exposed to science. Moreover, I strongly urge you, especially those of you who are not from an underrepresented background, to take seriously the idea that not everyone experiences the physics community like you, not everyone has the same ideas, that some people face real barriers to academic progress, and that we’re all better off when we make a genuine effort to listen to and understand the other side.

Before I finish, I’ll make a last comment on the science. One of the ways I’ve seen these divisions hurt us is the way in which we seem completely stuck on some pretty major problems. As it stands, we have a standard model of cosmology where we don’t know what form 96% of the energy of the universe takes, and we only know the barest of details about the properties of dark energy and dark matter. The model is also still hazy on many of the details of the first 400,000 years or so. This is where the quantum gravity community should rise to the challenge of seeking new and unique ways of approaching the problem since the old ones clearly aren’t working. This means we have to encourage new ideas. Even if they turn out to be wrong, we’ll probably still learn something. So to partake in some near trademark infringement, it’s time to “Think Differently.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein earned her BA in Physics and Astronomy and Astrophysics (yes, it is gramatically incorrect on her diploma) from Harvard College in 2003. She went on to earn an MS in Astronomy and Astrophysics at University of California, Santa Cruz (2005), where she studied black holes in higher dimensions. She is now beginning a Phd under Dr. Lee Smolin in Waterloo, Ontario, recently dubbed the Geek Capital of Canada. A product of the integrated public magnet schools of Los Angeles, she is proud to be both a Black woman and a physicist.

  • Pingback: Physics in the US: white males of European descent « Later On()

  • macho

    Chanda,

    Thank you. I just received a series of letters from physicists on this topic that were very discouraging — almost all revealed a deeply held belief that the disparity in the percent of men/women in our field is due solely to the “fact” that women are different in their abilities and/or interests and that there is no discrimination or bias in our (physics) culture. Your thoughtful essay from an (unfortunately) unique position is exactly what I needed to remind me of how important it is to continue to work towards achieving a true meritocracy. Good luck with all of your endeavors.

  • Belizean

    Chanda,

    The problem isn’t and under-representation of Blacks and women. It’s an over-representation of Whites and men. Remember, there is a surplus of physicists. Whites and men and should be discouraged from choosing physics as a career (as should anyone interested in eating).

    Blacks and women, perhaps more interested in employment and security, are wisely staying away from physics and gravitating toward medicine and law.

  • https://nige.wordpress.com nigel cook

    There is far more arrogance in mainstream theoretical physics than probably any other subject, and there is definitely too much prejudice as well. I think personally this prejudice is against a wide range people, and that too many top physicists effectively ‘clone’ themselves by recruiting people of too similar background and thinking.

    I think your conclusion accurately sums up what is wrong with cosmology and the way forward for trying to get a complete quantum gravity. Hope you have a great time with your PhD under Smolin.

  • http://www.kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    Thanks Chanda and Sean

    I just a wish that a few (actually, quite a lot of) people I know would read past the first paragraph here and actually think about this issue. It would also be nice if they actually thought a bit more carefully about the physics, too.

  • http://sourav.net/ Sourav

    Chanda,

    Considering your points 1 and 2:

    1) What concrete steps should physicists take as a group to remedy this injurious narrowing of the talent pool?

    2) Why would this be the case? Does it not contradict the notion that underrepresented minorities don’t have different abilities? Or, are you arguing that underrepresented minorities have different but equal abilities, due to varying experiences? If so, why?

    Thanks,

    Sourav

  • Xenophage

    Jews are 2.2% of the US population and are excluded from education opportunities and subsequent positions by anti-Semitism. Are there any Jews in science? Are any Nobel Laureates Jewish? If you choose to race beagles against salukis, don’t complain about consistently disparate results.

  • Logizmo

    As a female high school student seeking to enter into the physics field, I would just like to say that there is a lot of support- even bias- towards women entering into this area.
    Of course, I am only at the stage of applying for universities, but I know that when I say that I am interested in physical cosmology, eyes light up.
    For the MIT class of 2005, women had roughly 3 times the chance of acceptance (and that was just for the university, regardless of chosen major). This is simply because the university strives for relative gender balance, and there are many more male students that apply than female.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, just that, from the perspective of a young woman trying to enter the field, I have encountered only support in my endeavours. And I’d like to say thanks to everyone in the community for that.

  • Alex

    Hi Chanda,

    Thanks for bringing up an issue that I’ve rarely heard mentioned. I’m doing a PhD in the UK and have often wondered why there are so few black people taking physics degrees here, when many other minorities in the UK seem to be fairly well represented (atleast in comparison). At the moment, particularly where I am, doing outreach seems to be in fashion which is fantastic, however maybe it’s not going far enough. In the UK the number of students taking physics at high school has dropped by 40% in the last 20 years (Institute of Physics website) and by about 15% since I did it in 2000. When I was taking physics I think I was the only girl in the entire year that wanted to do physics after high school, everyone else was there because they needed physics for med school or to be a vet. Anyway what I mean is in the British government’s desparation to get kids to stop choosing media studies et al, and opt for weighter studies such as physics, that any attempt to promote diversity falls into the background. In the UK atleast, I believe it’s at high school where the main problem lies. Although I’m unsure of what to do about this (except for writing this post).

    Good luck with your PhD!

  • Sam Gralla

    Hi Chanda! So, you went loopy, eh? (“eh” added for canadian emphasis). Lee Smolin was in Chicago a few weeks ago, and he stopped by the relativity office (where I work) for a bit. He mentioned lots of stuff about braiding; I guess that’s what you’re up to, since braiding befits a woman :). (Sorry to make jokes, but at least you haven’t heard that one over and over again like the ‘no dates’ one). Interesting post; I think my own opinions on the issue align mainly with your “individuals who take the time to care make a difference” paragraph. I think that minority science students mainly drop out due to lack of confidence, which is something that is remarkably easily fixed by having an advisor who is interested in his student as a person.

    Anyway, good luck at perimeter!

  • Haelfix

    I more or less disagree with the entirety of the post -shrug- Diversity of culture/gender/(insert group affiliation) is completely irrelevant to progress in science. Diversity of ideas otoh is (to a point obviously, lest the crackpot index breaks).

    I see no evidence that race/gender/sexuality/hair color has any statistical bearing on what type of ideas a person will concoct, ergo the premise is flawed. Indeed the nice thing about science is these arbitrary (and boring) social constructs like ‘culture’ are quite efficiently washed away in the search for truth.

    Moreover science is quite close to a meritocracy. If you’re ideas are good, you will rise to the top, if they are not, they will sink and you won’t get many publication citations and you’re search for a job will suffer. This quite independant of ones group affiliation.

  • http://faculty.jsd.claremont.edu/sjensen/ Steuard

    Thanks for posting on an important topic. On the whole, I agree with what you’ve said: I think that we share a moral responsibility to make sure that every person has the opportunity to achieve all that they can in our field, regardless of their race, their gender, or for that matter their research focus (within limits on that last one). The benefit to the field of including them, while significant, is secondary.

    I just have a couple of quibbles. First, at a small conference on women in science that we had in Chicago a year or two ago, I could have sworn that someone presented detailed data showing that the pipeline for women in physics does not leak at any point between “declared physics major” and “got tenure”: current disparities seem to be mainly due to lag time. (If anything, I seem to recall that the fraction of women actually improved slightly along the way, though it may not have been statistically significant.) The big leaks in the pipeline seem to be between high school physics classes and intro college physics classes, and perhaps also between intro physics and declaring a physics major. So while we clearly want to do better at every stage, the main problem seems to be very early in peoples’ physics career. (On the other hand, I haven’t seen any similar data on the pipeline for minorities, and I won’t venture a guess on how similar that situation is.)

    And second, I did find it a little odd to see your essay mixing and perhaps connecting the two issues of “fairness to underrepresented groups” and “fairness to underrepresented ideas”. Both issues are of course very important for us to confront as a field, but I’m not at all convinced that they are related. (And that’s not just because I don’t want my support for string theory to label me as a racist and male chauvinist. :) )

  • http://gregorybenford.com Gregory Benford

    I like this discussion, though agree the original post conflated diversity of views with cultural/racial diversity. I note nobody worries why there are so few Muslims in science; guess why?
    Actually, diversity in the upper echelons matters little compared with the disaster of K-12 education in the USA, which spends more money per capita than any other nation on it. We aren’t getting what we pay for, folks, and diversity talk is a mere deflection from that central problem.
    On blacks in physics: I wrote an entire novel depicting a black particle experimenter, set in my own department: COSM, still in print. So of course I got roundly attacked because the woman didn’t have standard views on academic & political matters. (Some even accused me of giving her my views!) Others attacked me for even presuming to depict others of different sex and culture.
    I learned a lot from this. And will never attempt such a novel again.

  • astro

    Logizmo,

    It’s encouraging to hear a young woman interested in science who feels that they are being supported by “the system” and not just one or two particularly nice folks. One followup question… Is your impression that most young women such as yourself are receiving a similar type of support? Or do you feel that only a subset of women (e.g., maybe those who act uninterested in non-sciences, or those who prioritize their career relative to their family) who “fit the mold” of more senior physicists (either because they’re naturally that way or because they’re willing to adapt to become physicists) are being supported?

    Enjoy MIT. It’s a lot of work, but it can be a great experience. It’s the most stimulating environment that I’ve been a part of.

    Best of luck,
    astro

  • M

    Chanda, I enjoyed reading your insightful, thought provoking article. You have obviously thought pretty deeply about the complexities of the issue of representation in physics; the kinds of probing questions you asked don’t come without a combination of serious contemplation and some experience in being a target of discrimination. I hope that many readers will give your questions the considered thought that they deserve, even if they don’t agree with some of your ideas.

    It was somewhat disheartening to see the ready dismissal of your essay by someone like “Haelfix,” who seemed to ignore your deeper questions because he didn’t agree with your premises. I thought his reasoning was especially questionable when he stated that, I see no evidence that race/gender/sexuality/hair color has any statistical bearing on what type of ideas a person will concoct, ergo the premise is flawed. He apparently thinks that if he isn’t aware of evidence, then it doesn’t exist. The falacy of this reasoning seems obvious; if he isn’t aware of the evidence, then all he can justifiably say is that he isn’t aware of it (i.e., such evidence may or may not actually exist outside his awareness).

    I think it is extremely unlikely that someone like Haelfix could have written a similar essay no matter how hard he tried, and no matter how good his writing skills are, simply because there is a lack of direct experience that catalyzes the necessary thought. To me, his comment is anecdotal evidence that there is definite benefit to getting ideas from people with a wide variety of backgrounds in order to understand important problems and get a range of different possible solutions. Certainly this example is not one in the realm of physics, but it seems pretty clear that career success (as opposed to likelihood of significant discovery) in theoretical physics is much more likely for someone with a competitive attitude and a built-in preference for popular problems and popular prejudices. Widening the talent pool to include others who take a different approach can be very beneficial when current ideas aren’t working well, and underrepresented groups may have something to offer there.

    (From now on, I will assume that it is desirable to increase the representation of underrepresented groups, not just in physics but also in other economically or intellectually rewarding scientific/engineering careers. Those who disagree should feel free to just tune out.)

    I wish I could see a good way of addressing the problem of underrepresentation of various groups that wouldn’t require significant change in either (or both) the society-at-large or underrepresented culture-at-large. (I will use the term “culture” loosely when referring to a group; hopefully it will be clear that I refer to the popular customs, norms, advantages and challenges of that group that can distinguish it from other groups. If there were no such “group culture,” there would be little merit to arguing that different groups have different things to offer.) From my experience and general understanding, some cultures within the United States put a significantly higher premium on doing well academically and in pursuing knowledge-oriented careers than other cultures. On the other hand, some groups are better represented at the low end of the economic spectrum, and may also over-represent the single-parent households or teen-aged parents.

    (To avoid misunderstanding I think I should emphasize I am not saying that single parenthood or teen parenthood is part of any group culture, since it cuts across all groups, but for any number of reasons some groups have a higher prevalence, and this has its attendant consequences for average economic or educlational success of the group. Single-parent households have additional challenges in raising children, if for no other reason than one parent is usually the only source of income. Teen parents have a difficult struggle in getting more than a high school diploma or two year community college degree without significant help from other family members.)

    It seems obvious that a single-parent family that is basically just trying to survive will be much less likely to raise a future physicist or other scientist/engineer than a well-off, highly educated family that has an expectation that the children will eventually obtain a bachelors or advanced graduate degree. Furthermore, if the general culture of a group is such that a small percentage of its members attain graduate degrees, then it is hard to believe that many younger members of the group will not see a PhD as somewhat out of reach. If someone with ambition tries to rise significantly higher than the perceived norm, but finds that their friends ridicule them for trying to “show them up” academically (as often happens in at least one underrepresented group, from what I have heard from members of that group), then the group itself becomes part of the problem.

    That seems to be the backdrop against which efforts to bring greater representation in physics must overcome. It is hard to change a culture or subculture that doesn’t see a driving need to change, and the failures of the “War on Poverty” in the 1960’s show that there are limits to what government as a whole can accomplish in bringing about change. To be sure, we should do what we can, but at least part of the problem lies inside the cultures that are underrepresented, and that will require a lot of persuasion by a number of role models. This is to me a strong argument in favor of increasing representation by some groups in the professoriat of academe — it increases the number of role models who can show it is possible and acceptable to “break out of the mold.” Secondarily, greater representation in academe will make it easier for others outside the underrepresented group to believe that the group is also capable of being successful in scientific fields, although I think that could be less important than service as role models.

    The other thing that Chanda brought up that seems potentially valuable is the availability of mentors. Not only can mentors help navigate through difficult challenges and boost confidence, they can also serve as additional examples of people in the underrepresented group who have “made it.”

    The problem of underrepresentation seems to run deep and will be difficult to change in a sustainable way. Getting rid of discrimination will be a start, but alone it won’t be enough. The problem probably isn’t intractable, but surely it will be very difficult to fix.

  • Elliot

    Chanda,

    While I agree that the underrepresentation is an issue and strongly support multiple steps to increase the inclusion of women and minorities in the physical sciences, I find your second point above implicitly divisive. To suggest that it is “possible” that women/minorities will identify unique scientific problems that their white male counterpart may miss, suggests a social or even genetic predisposition to a way of thinking which I think is counterproductive to your overall goal. Science is science. You may want to rethink this particular point because it opens the door to those who will suggest just the opposite, that white males “possibly” will identify unique scientific problems that women/minorities will miss.

    I hope you view this comment as constructive criticism, not an attempt to undercut your primary thesis, which I fully agree with.

    Regards,

    Elliot

  • anon

    ‘Science is science.’ – Elliot

    That’s really objective, wise, and highly informative ;-) Particularly over controversies ;-) Einstein suffering racist anti-semitic abuse in Germany leading to the book ‘100 Authors Against Einstein’ and other rubbish. It isn’t a question of race, but of cutural diversity. The less diversity of researchers, the less diversity of science. What part of this is beyond people?

    Also Haefix should note that it is ‘not even wrong’ and ‘wrong’ hype/noise (no matter WHO generates it, or how many followers they have) which is the harmful‘crackpotism’. If you are going to define anuthing unorthodox as crackpot, goodbye science. Einstein wasn’t orthodox in 1905, he got rid of mainstream ideas. That isn’t going to happen with a sneering scientific elite who all sing from the same hymn book or textbook. Can’t you see the problem?

  • http://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/personal/mleifer Matt

    Nice article Chanda. I just have to repspond to some things in the comments.

    Haelfix,

    Moreover science is quite close to a meritocracy. If you’re ideas are good, you will rise to the top, if they are not, they will sink and you won’t get many publication citations and you’re search for a job will suffer. This quite independant of ones group affiliation.

    This argument is right in some sense – I do believe that good ideas will consistently rise to the top in physics. The problem with it is that it ignores the timeframe required to come up with genuinely innovative ideas.

    Every young scientist has to face the issue of problem choice, which can be as important to innovation as good technical ability. By this I mean, do you work on a well-established set of problems that the community of scientists has deemed important, or do you “follow your own nose”, which could mean making up your own new direction, or working on problems that are currently regarded as of minor importance? If you choose the former direction, then provided you have good technical ability, there should be no problem quickly rising to the top if your ideas are good enough. If you choose the latter direction then it is likely that you will have trouble attaining quick recognition for your work, regardless of its quality. I have no doubt that good ideas will eventually be recognized, but the timeframe in which this happens may be far longer than the usual time required to get postdocs, faculty positions, etc. In fact, you may even not even live to see the day that your ideas become accepted mainstream science, like poor old Boltzmann for instance.

    Now, this may be naive, but it seems to me that people from cultures underrepresented in science will likely have a different view on which questions are the most important, so they may be more likely to pursue the latter route. This does not mean that they will necessarily come up with ideas for the solution to such problems that others could not have thought of, just that others would be less likely to be doing that work in the first place.

    Xenophage,

    Jews are 2.2% of the US population and are excluded from education opportunities and subsequent positions by anti-Semitism. Are there any Jews in science? Are any Nobel Laureates Jewish? If you choose to race beagles against salukis, don’t complain about consistently disparate results.

    Coming from a jewish background, I find this argument quite offensive. If being Jewish somehow gives me a genetic advantage in doing physics, then maybe I should get less credit than others for any accomplishments I might make, since they could be put down to genetics rather than to my genuine hard work. It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish community that I grew up in seemed to be or roughly the same average intellect as the rest of the population (and that’s being charitable to them).

    Personally, I think that an important part of the reason why there are a lot of Jewish people in science is because we come from an immigrant culture. Being different from the establishment around you, naturally leads to a questioning of one’s own beliefs, and also a healthy skepticism of the beliefs of society in general. In this regard, it is interesting to note that many of the most important contributions to knowledge from people with a Jewish background came from people who rejected their religion and were more or less secular, e.g. Einstein, Marx. On the other hand, I know of no major contribution to science from a Rabbi.

    If this is true then it is another argument for diversity, because surely people from other immigrant cultures will also have their own unique contributions to make. The rise of Asians in science seems to confirm this to some degree. Perhaps the reason why Jews seem to be overrepresented compared to other groups has more to do with historical accident than anything else. We have just been in a better position to interact with the scientific establishment for longer than most other groups.

  • noname

    I want to start by explicitly stating that I think the lack of minorities and women in physics is a real problem, and a difficult one. However, I personally find some of the suggestions in this email offensive. In arguing that lack of latinos/blacks/women in physics slows down science, you’re specifically stating that these minorities are somehow inherently better at driving science. Even if you choose to say that it’s not that these minorities are better, they’re simply different, you are still advocating that there is some aspect of science minorities can do better than white males and vice versa. Simply put, that statement is both racist and sexist.

    The problem of women and minorities in science is a very real one. The problem is, however, of an ethical nature, and has nothing to do with physics. It concerns only whether we develop a culture that is equally welcoming to all human beings, regardless of sex or race.

  • Dylab

    Coming from a jewish background, I find this argument quite offensive. If being Jewish somehow gives me a genetic advantage in doing physics, then maybe I should get less credit than others for any accomplishments I might make, since they could be put down to genetics rather than to my genuine hard work. It also ignores the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish community that I grew up in seemed to be or roughly the same average intellect as the rest of the population (and that’s being charitable to them).

    I don’t think the reasoning here is solid. Obviously an idea being offensive isn’t relevent to its truth but I don’t think it should be offensive. The abilities one has are the same regardless of what group you are in. A nobel physicist who has the genetic disposition to be smart deserve the same credit regardless if he was an Ashkenazi jew or a member of the bushmen tribe.

    I haven’t done a lot of research (or any) but this article at a very scholary website *cough* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashkenazi_intelligence disagrees with your intuition. I know IQ tests are a controversial matter, though.

  • Dylab

    This is somewhat offtopic. Has anyone seriously look at difference in science as a result of cultural differences.

  • Annie

    noname — That’s not really the argument at all. Chanda is not saying that “X group is better at science than white males.” She’s saying that if one accepts the premise that X group is (or can be, if we fix the system) as good at science as white males, then one also has to accept the premise that by tossing out the cream of the crop in group X, you water down the average in the field of physics. The argument is that, by leaving out large components of the population in the United States, you’re leaving out some of the best minds in the United States.

    Let’s say that there are 10 truly mind-blowingly brilliant young minds with a bent towards physics in the United States right now (just because it’s a convenient number for applying percentages). If we assume that all abilities are inherent equal — as you advocate in your response — that means that about 1 of those incredible physicsts is of African descent, and about 5 are women. And if things continue as they have been, we’ll lose most of the non-male non-white contributions. By eliminating women & minorities from the running, through subconscious bias or conscious discrimination or subtle discouragement or just terrible elementary education, you’re tossing out some of the most *brilliant* candidates in favor of candidates who look more like established faculty. You’re tossing out a portion of the cream of the crop based on something that has nothing to do with ability.

    THAT’S inherently sexist and racist. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Chanda’s argument that, by pushing people out just because of what they have down their pants & what color it happens to be, you are eliminating potential.

  • Ambitwistor

    Since then we’ve corresponded occasionally about life as a physicist and which general relativity textbook is the best.

    Is there more than one correct answer to the latter question? :-)

  • Ambitwistor

    Gregory:

    So of course I got roundly attacked because the woman didn’t have standard views on academic & political matters. […] Others attacked me for even presuming to depict others of different sex and culture. I learned a lot from this. And will never attempt such a novel again.

    As it happens, I’m re-reading Cosm at the moment. I wish you’d reconsider. I think it’s important to have “non-standard” depictions of scientists in fiction, and almost no one is doing this. If you’re getting attacked for it, that just points to the need for this kind of discourse; I can think of other SF writers who have been attacked for their characters’ politics, among other things, and I’m glad they didn’t stop writing such novels. For what it’s worth, Cosm has one of the best portrayals of a working scientist I’ve read.

    P.S. I’m puzzled by the part in Cosm where Max Jalon says an inverse-cube tidal force implies an asymmetric mass distribution, since a spherical body has an inverse-cube tidal force law. Or did I misread it?

  • noname

    Hi Annie.

    That was a very nice reply. Nonetheless, after rereading the original post I still feel that the original argument was closer to what I posted before. The argument you present is much better, though I’m still not convinced. If the subpopulation your choosing is the 10-sigma people who are simply brilliant, then it is unclear that the race/gender statistics of the population as a whole are relevant for describing them because you have a very peculiar selection function.

    At any rate, I truly feel that this is a very real problem that is, in essence, an ethical one. I just don’t think we as humans should condone a culture that is biased against a particular race or gender. I find this to be a much more compelling argument for change. I don’t need to be logically convinced that discrimination is counterproductive, I just think it’s wrong, and I would hope most people would agree.

  • Elliot

    Annie,

    I agree with your argument but it stands in contrast to Chanda’s point #2 above suggesting that female/non-white scientists may identify scientific problems that white males would miss.

    There is a subtle but important difference which in my opinion Chanda needs to rethink to strengthen the case for increasing diversity. Her point #2, I feel suggests that there are genetic differences, which I think opens the door to subverting the argument.

    I agree with nonname. This is an ethical issue and we should be doing the right thing here.

    Elliot

  • noname

    To put it another way- if we somehow managed to come up with a scheme that discrimated against most blacks/latinos/women, but not the most brilliant ones, would that be okay?

    I think the answer is no, because the problem is not that science is being slowed down, the problem is the discrimination itself.

  • Jeff

    A few months ago the National Academies released a well-publicized report on gender and race in science and engineering. It generally concluded that there was evidence of bias against women and minorities and that much work is needed – the conclusion that I, for one, believed already. When I looked through the report, however, I was surprised to come away with a different impression of the evidence with respect to women in physics (actually “physical sciences”, not including chemistry) specifically.

    Among other things, the committee compared the percentage of women reaching various levels of academia (post-doc, assistant prof, tenure, etc.) with the percentage of Ph.D.s granted in that field at appropriate times in the past. In other words, you don’t care if the percentage of female tenured professors today is lower than the percentage of female Ph.D.s today – the real way to test the pipeline is to compare it with the percentage of female Ph.D.s a decade or more ago. When you do this, many fields show signficant evidence of a leaky pipeline but I was very surprised that “physical sciences” does not.

    At least in this field, this report didn’t convince me that bias in academia is currently our problem – the physics faculty is male to a great extent because it is old and because few women start out in the field. It looks like the issue does start earlier, at least in terms of gender, possibly because of a lack of role models from the “bad old days”. We need to keep working at the academia level, but I think the real push has to happen earlier.

  • Jeff

    The poor representations of minorities and women in the sciences are generally discussed in terms of conscious and unconscious bias. I wonder to what extent they are just the most visible result of deeper problems.

    (1) I’m curious how much of the racial disparities in higher education are economic in origin. It is vastly more likely for a well-off suburbanite at a good school to end up as a scientist than a poorer student with no support network (e.g. good schools, family friends with post-college education). It is also a shame of this country that underrepresented minorities are more likely to be economically disadvantaged. I’ve always thought that more attention should be paid to race as a proxy for economic and social background, rather than just in terms of prejudice.

    (2) The academic life is a tough one in the sciences, and one not very compatible with having a family. It’s relentlessly competitive, not that highly paid, and even if you do well you don’t have job security until long after many of us want to start having families. My own professors got their Ph.D.s in the vast expansion of the field in earlier decades, a luxury today’s young people don’t have. Women may be more visible in leaving science for these reasons in many sub-fields (since they obviously have it tougher in terms of maternity leave and child care), but I think we also lose plenty of promising young men for this reason as well.

    These points are not at all intended to demean the problems of women and minorities in these fields, just to suggest that some may be broader and not solely a result of prejudice.

  • Annie

    Elliot — I see what you’re saying and thank you for your thoughtful reply. I think this is a sticky issue, but I suppose that I agree with Chanda that there is the possibility that different perspectives can lead to different ideas. I am sure I don’t need to point out to you that unequal access to opportunities in the sciences is far from being the *only* sphere in which the average minority experience differs from the average white/male experience.

    Successful Physicist from a Nontraditional Background A may work along like his/her colleagues on some major problem, while SPfaNB B might think, “Hey, I fought like hell to get here, and now that I am I’m not going to play it safe” and move on to hot topics. Just to point out – I work in astro, not pure physics, so my ideas of what constitutes a “different” idea might be skewed a little from other readers here.

    I don’t want to put words in Chanda’s mouth, of course, and this is just my reading of her argument based on my own experience, but I think she’s talking about differences of *experience* as a person and not differences of genetics as a brain in a body. I also don’t think Chanda was saying that “X group will have BETTER ideas” but that pursuing a diverse set of ideas is, in and of itself, a better idea than any of the individual lines of thought may be.

  • Annie

    Jeff — I obviously can’t speak for everyone wrapped up in this, but when I speak about conscious or unconscious bias, I don’t necessarily mean on the part of individuals. Systems can be biased. These systems are biased! I would consider both of your points to be examples of bias although I wouldn’t consider them to be examples of prejudice.

  • Elliot

    Annie,

    As long as genetic differences are kept out of it, I don’t disagree. I’d be very interested to hear back directly from Chanda on this point as I think there is some ambiguity in point #2 as stated.

    Elliot

  • Chanda

    Great discussion everyone!

    To clarify a great point of contention:
    There’s a reason I never mentioned genetics, and that’s because I think that’s not the point. Annie is dead on in her reading. I apologize for not explicitly saying that genetics was not the issue. I was under the false impression that not mentioning it at all would be a signal as to its level of importance to me!

    To clarify about point two, which I borrowed from President Tilghman, Annie is also correct in her analysis of this point. In my particular case, I have chosen to take a risk with my research (or working for Lee is seen as a bit of a risk anyway!) and yes, my background played into it. I’ve fought my ass off to get this far, and now, I’m going to do what I want, even if that means not playing it safe. And regardless of that particular aspect of the issue, I do believe that people of different backgrounds bring different experiences to the table, and this of course shapes how people think. Different thinking can lead to different ideas. Again, this has nothing to do with genetics!

    Also, as someone of Jewish descent, I’d like to back up Matt’s concerns about how our heritage is being discussed here.

    And finally, to the person who wondered why there aren’t more Muslims in science, I suggest that you do some research and get back to us because I am curious too, and obviously the issue is important to you. The particular focus of my essay on Blacks and Latinos stems from the fact that these are the communities I know (my step-mother is Chicana, and I grew up in a Chicano neighborhood), and I think it is inappropriate to write such a personal essay about something that is so outside of my experience.

    There’s so much more I’d like to respond to, but unfortunately, no one here at Perimeter has managed to figure out how to build a time machine, and I’m a little crunched for that particular currency :) I do hope, however, that I may be able to say more later.

    Chanda

  • Chanda

    Logizmo,

    for you I return to make a few comments!

    I am so thrilled to hear that you are interested in physics, and I hope you pursue it. It’s true that MIT is a tough place, but the classes I took there while I was an undergrad were some of the best I took while I was an undergrad!

    As I said in my essay, not everyone feels their background/difference as a negative. But I urge you to be aware that other young women may not share your experience and may not feel so encouraged. I have heard a variety of horror stories from women of all ages about comments made to them by professors, by peers in study groups, by their teaching assistants, etc. Most likely you will face at least one of these challenges, but hopefully you won’t! Regardless, I encourage you to look out for the impact these things may have on your peers and try and be a support if you do notice some of them faltering!

    I think MIT is a great choice because they have a history of putting a lot more effort into diversity and outreach in a way than I’ve seen other schools do. It is my hope that this will make a difference.

    Take care,
    Chanda

  • Elliot

    Thank you for clarifying the point. Best of luck at the Perimeter Institute.

    Elliot

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    #4 nigel cook writes:
    “There is far more arrogance in mainstream theoretical physics than probably any other subject, and there is definitely too much prejudice as well.”
    Why not politicians, philosophers,…? Calling people naive without giving (counter)arguments seems to be one of their favorite activities. This stuff about arrongance is just hypocracy. Also please be more specific in the form of prejudice you are refering to. National Academy of Sciences report “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” says in its summary “Some fields, such as physics and engineering, have a low proportion of women bachelor’s and doctorates, but hiring into faculty positions appears to match the available pool.”

  • http://nige.wordpress.com nigel cook

    Chinmaya,

    Politicians are not as arrogant as theoretical physicists, they aren’t as cynical, they GET ELECTED, they hold responsibility, they are often bad, but not completely barbaric. Example: see http://electrogravity.blogspot.com/ , top post, for how physics is being run into the ground in the UK by arrogant crackpots at the top.

  • http://nige.wordpress.com nigel cook

    (By ‘crackpots’ I simply mean people hyping uncheckable abject extradimensional speculations and making loads of $$$$$$ for it. I didn’t make a cent from my Electronics World editorial in the October 2003 issue, which was a public service I’m proud of.)

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Nigel, why can’t arrogant people “GET ELECTED”? All they have to do is put on a non-arrogant front. Most physicists don’t have to get elected so there is no need to put on a show.

  • Nicole

    About the ‘leaky pipeline’, the AIP study had some crucial flaws. It did not separate faculty at PhD granting instutions from teaching colleges, and did not treat the age distributions of male and female faculty correctly. Here is a study examining only the top-50 physics programs:
    http://lanl.arxiv.org/abs/physics/0506230

    It concludes that there is a leaky pipeline, that women physics faculty numbers are about 15% lower than expected.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    #28 Jeff: “A few months ago the National Academies released a well-publicized report on gender and race in science and engineering.”

    NSF also has a recent (October 2006) report that might be useful: NSF Report Reveals Century of Doctoral Education Trends in the United States.

  • http://geekcounterpoint.net Lorne Ipsum

    I’m surprised nobody’s brought up the recent study of women and math:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn10333

    The short version: being told upfront that you’re not going to perform well on math tests because of genetic traits (in this case, gender) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in later test results. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, but it’s always good to get experimental support for “common sense.”

    I’ve got to imagine the same psychological mechanism would play out in other fields as well. It definitely should provide incentive to encourage all kids to pursue math and science, not just the ones that look / love / pee “like me.”

  • Jeffsan

    A great discussion! The OECD recently did a study of declining interest in science and technology (S&T) studies among youth and found that physics was among the disciplines most affected by declining interest among females. Female participation rates in postsecondary education have been going up overall (largely due to major efforts to attract young women to pursue university degrees), but in S&T the rise has been slower relative to the average. Biological sciences are attracting more females that physical sciences. As to the causes, the study places more “blame” on postsecondary institutions than several people in this post seem to want to do. A lack of flexibility in curriculum, lack of diversity in role models, narrowness in curriculum, lack of relevance to how disciplines relate to the larger society are among some of the factors that the OECD study identified as turning females away from postsecondary S&T studies. Granted the problem exists at the high school level, but to say it ONLY exists there is somewhat blinkered.

    On the impact of diversity on ideas: In my own personal experience, I have found that diversity of experience and culture has a positive effect on intellectual endeavours. Only a purely positivist, rationalist understanding of science as the only objective route to “truth” could make one blind to this obvious experiential fact.

    On economic factors: The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation has done research that finds low income families tend to have an inflated view of the financial cost of a postsecondary degree (think it’s more expensive than it is) and a lower expectation of the benefit. These misconceptions lead many low-income families and students to decide against postsecondary education.

    One final suggestion: read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. He tells of an experiment which unfortunately reveals “hard wired” prejudice against blacks even among people who are consciously non-racist and who behave in an egalitarian fashion. So we all have to work hard to support diversity.

  • http://irrationalpoint.blogspot.com IrrationalPoint

    Excellent post, Chanda.

    Logizmo:

    I’m curious as to where you got the stat about women being more likely to be admitted to MIT. My understanding of affirmative action at most schools is that it’s unlikely to make more than a small difference, if any. It’s great that you’ve received so much support. Hopefully more women will have that experience.

    Lorne Ipsum:

    There have been a number of similar studies recently that link confidence/stereotypes with performance by women and minorities on math/science tests and IQ tests.

    –IP

  • Luke

    Hopefully, not all of this has been said above. It seems to me that there is a lot of speculation about where biases in education and representation enter the stream (with apparently a large finger being pointed at high school) and how to fix that. It seems to me that there is simply a bias at all levels that we should recognize and admit to. This also leads me to say that in order to correct what we all should agree is a state of affairs detrimental to the progress of science (more on this later), we should probably try to treat this problem at every level we can. It’s obvious that we can’t fix the problem by treating it only at a college admissions level, or only at high school science education, we have to realize that, for a variety of reasons, there is some sort of science career discouragement going on at almost all levels of our education system. As people pass through the system, therefore, people who might become extraordinary scientists are filtered out, convinced by those around them that they will be better off somewhere else. As someone who hasn’t had this sort of thing done to them (as Homer Simpson says, “I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are”), I am always amazed (and horrified) to hear from colleagues about the various ways that they have been urged to leave science behind. Since I know how intelligent and creative they are, I have no doubt that we would be poorer without them doing research, and I am also sure that there are thousands of others who did listen to the hundreds of subtle (and not so subtle) hints that laboratories were not places for them. Every branch of science, and from what I’ve read above physics in particular, has suffered because this early and persistent filter that has no correlation with scientific ability, and deprives us of individuals who would pull the field forward. Finally, though the problem cannot be solved by removing one level filtering, it can be made better. Every time we can do something to stop an obstruction to science put up asymmetrically in front of our population, we open the field to more people and thus more ideas. And really, isn’t physics hard enough as it is?

  • Maureen

    I’ve got to imagine the same psychological mechanism would play out in other fields as well

    There have been a number of similar studies recently that link confidence/stereotypes with performance by women and minorities on math/science tests and IQ tests.

    Google “Claude Steele”, the most prominent researcher in the field, or “Steele Effect” or “Stereotype Threat”, and you’ll get a mountain of that research. (Hey, someone had to give credit where credit is due.) And although this probably wouldn’t have any bearing on particle physics or pure mathematics, I’d argue that the fact that Steele is African-American did have an effect on his choice of research, and one could argue that one’s sex or ethnicity could urge a researcher into examining certain problems in biochemistry, climatology, biophysics, etc.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    (An aside: As I am tidying up this essay, one professor writes me and says that he finds four to be most compelling! I hope that others will agree.)

    I fully agree. Indeed, and I’ve been flamed for this, I think that there is enough fo an oversupply of scientists given the level of funding and the number of positions our society is willing to support that while increasing the pool will increase the average quality of scientists by default, that increase probably won’t be too huge. Good poeple already don’t get jobs. This is NOT an argument against increasing the pool, it’s just an argument that I think that argument 1 won’t really lead to gigantic gains.

    Argument 2 is very good. Hard to quantify, but then again, I don’t see how one could deny that a diversity of viewpoints and modes of thinking, all well-trained in the rigors of science, couldn’t help but make our approaches to problems in general more likely to succeed.

    But argument 4 to me seems like the dog-obvious absolutely best one. Isn’t it arguments like that that start out things like the Constitution of the US? Why must we insist on tangible practical gains to justify doing the right thing? Sure, there are also tangible practical gains, but doing the right thing should be good enough by itself.

    -Rob

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    As a female high school student seeking to enter into the physics field, I would just like to say that there is a lot of support- even bias- towards women entering into this area.

    Of course, I am only at the stage of applying for universities, but I know that when I say that I am interested in physical cosmology, eyes light up.

    My eyes light up, and I want to say to you: hang in there.

    I think that part of the problem is that a lot of us men think that recruiting more women as a sufficient solution.

    I would argue that it’s a necessary part of the solution, but not a sufficient part of the solution. Sure, just doing that, given a lot of time, perhaps one day the problem will be gone. But the problem persists in Physics, even though we’ve been aware of it (at some level) for decades now.

    We recruit… but we also have to retain, and support. Women are recruited into Physics programs, but if they then feel marginalized once they are there, harm is done. There is evidence — statistical, I think, and anecdotal, I know — that climate problems are serious problems. I’ve had many women tell me stories about study groups, and how male students won’t think to ask female students for help, even when the female students are working on the same problem, or are more with it than the other men. We’ve all heard stories. And, I believe I’ve read some places about the (in general) better performance of women in Physcis at womens’ colleges than in most places — but I’d have to dig for the citation before I’d stand behind this.

    In any event, we should not just stop by recruiting more women and thinking we’ve done enough. We need to be aware that challenges keep coming even after women have been recruited, and we need to eliminate gratuitous and stupid barriers or obstacles.

    -Rob

  • Jeffsan

    “We recruit… but we also have to retain, and support.”

    Amen, Rob! And those who think there’s no problem won’t/can’t do this.

  • Annie

    Rob & others — I think one of the most amazing things I’ve received from reading & participating at Cosmic Variance is insight to my own situation. Several months ago as a first-year grad I posted that, while I was well aware of problems for women in my field, I felt that I had generally been supported. I worried that either I had been very lucky thus far (and therefore my luck could run out at any time) or very naive thus far (which would just be sort of annoying and sad and lame).

    Spending more time working with women and talking about these issues and thinking about them has changed my mind, a lot. At my undergrad institution, I was The female physics major for two years, and then was joined by another female student. Of course, since we ended up as good friends and always sat in classes together, maybe we became The female physics majors ;). Now, though, I work in a group with two other female grads & a female advisor, while sharing another office with four guys. My perspective has changed.

    I just read Rob’s comment (and his very kind blog post — I know that is precisely what you asked not to hear!) and realized, well, of course those things have happened to me. And intellectually I know that having had shouting arguments defending the fact that, no, seriously, I was in fact the only person in the room doing the problem correctly *could* have had something to do with the fact that I was also the only person in the room with a ponytail. But I just never thought of it that way. I don’t know if it discouraged me in any long-term way, but I do know that it discouraged me in those moments, and I do know that I still wouldn’t dare to argue such a point unless I was *absolutely certain* that I was correct.

  • http://cyperus-papyrus.livejournal.com/ cyperus_papyrus

    I’d like to second Rob Knop on his comment (#48):

    We recruit… but we also have to retain, and support. Women are recruited into Physics programs, but if they then feel marginalized once they are there, harm is done. There is evidence — statistical, I think, and anecdotal, I know — that climate problems are serious problems. I’ve had many women tell me stories about study groups, and how male students won’t think to ask female students for help, even when the female students are working on the same problem, or are more with it than the other men. We’ve all heard stories. And, I believe I’ve read some places about the (in general) better performance of women in Physcis at womens’ colleges than in most places — but I’d have to dig for the citation before I’d stand behind this.

    My own experience 15 years ago was there was a lot of support for me going to graduate school in physics but not much support when I got there.

    Also, for those who wonder why it matters, faculty who train graduate students are the same ones who teach undergraduate physics and transmit their attitudes to those who are future teachers of high school physics. Professional physics may be extremely competitive, but that does not excuse the frequent attitude of superiority shown to students who don’t understand the material yet. Teachers need to be open to those needing to learn, not look down on them.

  • Gregory Benford

    Yes, good discussion. A few comments in a rush:
    Ambitwistor: (& why does everyone use pseuds? Names are easier…& honest)

    ” I’m puzzled by the part in Cosm where Max Jalon says an inverse-cube tidal force implies an asymmetric mass distribution, since a spherical body has an inverse-cube tidal force law. Or did I misread it?”

    I think I meant that bodies forming in a tidal force enviro (like a moon) will develop nonsymmetric mass distributions.

    On COSM: Maybe, someday, another novel about science. Right now I’m shaping up several biotech companies–providing science jobs, yes.

    I respect the inquiry about Muslims because it makes the cultural point. Those who think science is beyond real attack should contemplate the gradual fade of Greek science (well respected by the Romans, but not copied or pursued) and the sudden rise of Muslim science (suppressed within 2 centuries by religious fundamentalists). We are in the THIRD emergence of science. And vulnerable.

    Muslim scientists are few because that culture has huge bias against science itself. Latinos don’t see science as a career.

    Many cultures do. I grew up on the Gulf Coast, went to a one room schoolhouse. But I was in the US so made my way (with an identical twin to help, also a scientist). The culture of America made that possible.

    Consider the Asians, who carp not about bias, just make their way. At UCI they’re about 60% of the TOTAL student population. They resemble the Jews of a century back–recent immigrants, denied entrance where culture really matters, so they went into what worked for them. Smart. I did the same.

    When I was in grad school, UCSD, anybody with a southern accent had 20 IQ points deducted from their perceived intelligence. So I changed my accent. Got by. Still do, unless I’ve been drinking…

    I question whether culture matters much in doing science. Can field theory depend on being, say, a Hindu?

    Culture obviously matters in whether you even attempt science. That’s the big distinction.

  • limes

    Like Logizmo, I’m a female high-schooler and potential physics kid.
    I clearly can’t speak on what problems might need to be addressed at the bachelor level, but I think something does need to change in high-school. I’m taking 11th Grade Physics (in Canada) now, and it can be, well, spectacularly boring at times. I understand that you have to do the “so if the coefficient of friction is blah” stuff to get onto more interesting things, but making people slog through 5 units of it kills any interest most of the school might have had. Part of this starts at the textbooks – there are so many textbooks that are just terribly written. They’re like novels where the author decides that chapters 3-8 are just going to be giant exposition dumps.

    I think another part of this high-school problem is the teachers. To be sure, there are some amazing teachers out there. But there are some teachers that make me think they failed their third-year E&M courses and decided to get a B.Ed just for the hell of it. There’s also a great number of teachers with chemistry/bio/something completely unrelated to physics degrees teaching physics. So a bunch of students who might otherwise be fabulous at physics get short-changed for their senior year/freshman course and are forever left in the dust. I saw this happen to two people I knew who were otherwise quite good students – they were having problems with something involving vectors and the teacher didn’t understand either, resulting in a 63 on the exam for both of them, which meant no astro/physical sciences major.

    I suppose I should mention that my experience is definitely not the experience of most Canadian high-schoolers – I attend an all-girls private school (yeah, yeah, I know) where the focus is on the maintenance of the 100%-to-uni statistic and the tuition. My school really puts everyone through the grinder so that we’re ready for university, and they provide options for those of us who are really into certain areas (for example, I’m getting to take high-level IB Chemistry and Physics next year), but things like the IB aren’t offered everywhere. They haul in all these guest speakers (we got a pretty cool organic chemist last year) to try and motivate people.

    I’ve found what everyone has had to say to be very informative. Chandra, I think I have found a few more new physics role-models in you and other people in this thread. Small world – I’m applying this year for a spot at the summer camp they run at Perimeter.

  • Chanda

    So in one of the early comments, someone asked what we can do. Here’s a response that may be longer than the one desired! :)

    1. I think one important thing that comes up repeatedly anecdotally and increasingly in the research is the importance of involved mentoring. I have been incredibly lucky to have someone who was willing to give me a pep talk everytime I felt low. Most recently I had a chat with Lee that lead me to realize something that more students need to hear is the following:

    Some of you from underrepresented backgrounds are going to struggle more because of biases etc. The fact that you are struggling more doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your intellectual capacity or your ability to do physics, but more to do with the world you are trying to do physics in. Yes, this means you have to work harder, but I think you should do it because I believe you can.

    Sam is right when he says that confidence is a major problem, and hopefully this is one way to address it. Cultural issues are also a problem — obviously students also need to see people like them making it, so please support those of us who are still trying to get there! (I guess now would be a good time to thank all of you who have left messages here and in my inbox wishing me good luck!)

    2. This message has come to me in a variety of forms. I remember feeling like a changed person after my first trip to NSBP in February 2003. For the first time scientists talk to me about physics as if I was a peer and at the same time never laughed at my questions. I felt taken seriously and it revolutionized my sense of self as a potential theorist. When I worked for Henry Frisch in summer 2000, he sent me similar signals in the way he talked to me and guided me through my project. Etc. Sometimes all it takes is genuinely signaling to students that you take their interest seriously. This is something we can ALL do.

    3. I encourage you to look around in your communities for programs that focus on low-income communities, communities of colour, and women. NSBP’s Pre-College Education Committee could use more volunteers and welcomes contributions from people of all colours and backgrounds. Additionally, at the joint annual conference of NSBP and NSHP we welcome all interested parties, and we are particularly pleased to have recruiters from graduate and internship programs participate in our recruitment fair. Another group that I have not worked with but I know is out there is the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. The students I know who have attended their meetings have found it to be a transforming experience. Native Americans in particular are severly underrepresented in all of academia, and we should work hard to change this. These organizations could all use your fiscal support as well as volunteerism.

    4. I would love to see more schools make the choice the University of Chicago Department of Physics did by starting an REU that was specifically designed for women and underrepresented minorities. I participated in this program twice, and this is in fact where I met Sean. This program lead me to be introduced to Henry Frisch and as you all know, the rest his history. It was also the first time in my life where I was in an environment with a lot of women who were doing physics (we lived together in addition to participating in the program together), and I really enjoyed it. Please encourage your local physics departments to consider applying to the NSF to do a similar program!

    5. Become involved in your local schools! Instead of sending their kids to private schools, two physicists at the U of Chicago sent their daughters, both of whom are now accomplished college graduates, into the Chicago Public Schools. They then got involved in helping to organize for better science education! I know a professor who did the same with the schools in Pittsburgh, near his school, Carnegie Mellon University, a place now famous in the science ed community for finding ways to significantly increase the number of women who choose and stay in their computer science program. If those of us with an understanding of what it takes to succeed in physics give up on public schools, we give up on the people who go to them!

    6. There are other community projects that need your attention. I’ll let the Algebra Project speak for itself:

    The Algebra Project seeks to impact the struggle for citizenship and equality by assisting students in inner city and rural areas to achieve mathematics literacy. Higher order thinking and problem solving skills are necessary for entry into the economic mainstream. Without these skills, children will be tracked into an economic underclass.

    This program could use your fiscal support as well as your volunteerism.

    7. These college funds could use your support:

    American Indian College Fund
    United Negro College Fund
    Hispanic Fund

    All of them list colleges serving their respective communities which I am sure would be pleased to accept donations of resources and time. For the moment, I know that the majority of Black baccalaureates in physics are produced by Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and many of those institutions are struggling financially, especially those that were hard hit by Hurricane Katrina last fall. Check in with them and find out what you can do.

    8. Encourage and participate in anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic education. Bob Moses’s book Radical Equations talks a lot about the connections between math education and the fight for a more equitable world. One example of someone who took doing science and anti-racist activism seriously is the great Albert Einstein, a personal hero both for his science and for his sense of social justice. Little discussed in biographies over the years, Einstein was an ardent supporter of anti-racist activists. You can read more in the fantastic book Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor. We must carry on Einstein’s legacy as physicists who are committed to creating a better world than the one we entered!

    Finally, I’d like to second everyone who has said that this is an ethical issue. As I said in the essay, this particular argument is the closest to my heart, but I’ve found in my conversations with my peers, this is not always convincing! I like to push people to reconsider by looking at issues from all angles, and the harm homogeneity does to physics is just one of them. I certainly do not mean to minimize the profound importance of the ethical issues at hand.

    In the spirit of my always amazing experience at the NSBP/NSHP conference where we hear motivational messages repeatedly, I’ll summarize with something inspirational. Please remind students to keep Whitney Houston’s song “Tell Me No” in mind:

    And tell me no
    I’ll show you I can
    Tell me no
    Just tell me that I can’t win
    Come on
    I’m sure I’ll prove you wrong

    It’s important at every step of the way to remind students that the road may be tough, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it. It just means they should rise to the challenge instead of letting it discourage them.

    And then, everyone work hard to make the dream of change a reality!

    Thank you all for listening, thinking, talking, and fully engaging,
    Chanda
    ps: if I’ve left anything out, please feel free to contribute other suggestions as well as ask me questions!

  • Chanda

    of course I forgot something:
    9. Become educated! Read about minority scientists! Here is one place you can start: Physicists of the African Diaspora.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    I think the mathematics of ancient India was more algebraic and computer-science-like (e.g., formal grammars), while ancient Greece was more geometric. Perhaps it reflects historical accident; perhaps it reflects some cultural trend.

    Then, who knows, perhaps some mathematical insights are easier in one mode of thinking than the other? Even though the mathematical object in question has equivalent algebraic and geometric expressions?

    If men and women have different biases in spatial versus symbolic reasoning, then some problems will be easier solved by one or the other.

    Even in the scientific culture, we see a Witten solving some mathematical problems that the mathematicians were finding hard going. I suppose Witten was thinking in terms of path integrals which are too poorly defined for regular mathematical use, but also provide a different intuition. Science, mathematics is objective, but at this point in time, the person best equipped to solve a particular problem came from a physics culture.

    Of course, the world and science too is becoming increasingly monocultural. This may be a sign that we are becoming more objective; or maybe a sign that we’re losing our imagination.

    I dunno, Gregory Benford, you’re the SF writer, you tell us! Since we can’t experiment, play it out for us in a few dozen alternative universes :)

  • Andre

    Chanda,

    I am so proud of you. I was once told, sound truthful research is the unbreakable window that protects you from the unjust elements in this modern world. Unfortunately it may take time before this window is seen and in such times all you can do is keep that window clean.

    Continue to keep up the good work, you are being observed by many.

    Andre

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/ Rob Knop

    If men and women have different biases in spatial versus symbolic reasoning, then some problems will be easier solved by one or the other.

    On average….

    I don’t think that there is any clear evidence of differences in the ability of men and women to handle certain types of abstract problems, because everything that is touted as evidence of such is utterly swamped by the systematic effect of cultural bias.

    However, it is possible. One thing I think we do know, though, from the number of people of both genders out there doing these sorts of things, is that the variation between individuals of one gender is likely to be larger than any potential difference between genders, whatever your metric. As such, while (perhaps) women may really turn out to be intrinsically better than men at a certain class of problem, that doesn’t have any meaningful predictive power when it comes to comparing two individuals.

    Anyway, while it may be interesting cognitive research, when we’re thinking about how to put together physics departments, there is really no point in considering “intrinsic differences”, as we don’t know what or if they are at the moment. Indeed such considerations will do more harm than good, because of the baggage that they bring with them. Even if they exist, we simply do not know right now, so any decision based on the thought of them existing will be ill-based, and likely will be just an excuse for some sort of bias.

  • Vince

    Hi Chanda,

    I was wondering if there’s a way I can contact you via e-mail. I was just wondering about your Master’s thesis and your thoughts on working at PI. Thanks!

  • Logizmo

    Hi everyone :)
    Sorry about disappearing for a few days, I’m kinda swamped over here.
    But to answer a few questions…
    “One followup question… Is your impression that most young women such as yourself are receiving a similar type of support? Or do you feel that only a subset of women (e.g., maybe those who act uninterested in non-sciences, or those who prioritize their career relative to their family) who “fit the mold” of more senior physicists (either because they’re naturally that way or because they’re willing to adapt to become physicists) are being supported?”
    Astro,
    Although I certainly grew up in a specialized demographic (upper middle class, mostly professional parents), I have generally seen those girls that want to enter into physics find support. However, these are few and far between- the one other girl that I know closely that wants to enter into physics is interested in applied physics.
    As for the “subset” idea, I can really only answer in relation to my own experience, since I have never met anyone else that has the same interests. My personal desire to enter into physics is very closely linked to an almost religious passion to understand the universe. I am not sure that I could ever put that aside for the sake of having a family. I am, however, interested in the non-sciences. I love to read, write, and learn languages, but I guess that I consider those things to be hobbies more than careers. Sorry, I wish I could give you a better answer.
    (And for the record, I’m not in at MIT yet, just applying. I sure hope I make it though.)

    “I’m curious as to where you got the stat about women being more likely to be admitted to MIT. My understanding of affirmative action at most schools is that it’s unlikely to make more than a small difference, if any. It’s great that you’ve received so much support. Hopefully more women will have that experience.”

    Irrational,
    I got the statistics from a report on the MIT website concerning the numbers of male and female students that apply, versus the numbers that are admitted. There were about 3 times the male applicants as compared to female, and the differences in numbers admitted were within 50 applicants. The file is a PDF and is available under the “Resources for Counsellors” page. However, if those are incorrect, I apologize- they were just rough statistics I found for my own research. Also, it may not be any kind of bias, but rather fair admission standards. Who am I to say?

    Mr. Knop,
    Thanks for the support :)
    I haven’t had any real experience in the university environment yet, but I hope that it is positive. In high school, while guys are sometimes condescending at first, they usually ask for help or collaborate when it comes down to it.

    Limes,
    I am also in the Canadian system (Catholic), and the physics classes are definitely boring. But, since they don’t require calculus to take them….how exciting are they going to make them?
    And the principles are necessary. They just could have done 20 and 30 in the same semester (Sorry, I don’t know which province you’re in…but 20 and 30 are the grade 11 and 12 courses).
    Anyways, good luck with your IB. I’m jealous, since its not offered here.

    Thanks everyone.

  • Logizmo

    Chandra,
    I just wanted to let you know that I didn’t mean to undermine your point with my post. If it weren’t for women (and minorities), that stood up for themselves and those around them, places like MIT probably wouldn’t exist.
    Also, I have no doubt that there will be horror stories. I guess my philosophy is that if I cannot carve a niche for myself, I don’t deserve one. In a lot of ways I agree with “Science is Science.”
    But then, the extent of my knowledge is limited. My opinion may change if and when I enter the academic environment.
    I appreciate the advice on supporting my peers. I just can’t wait to get to a university where there are other people interested in this field.
    Thank you for your reply and your wisdom :)

  • Gregory Benford

    On MIT admissions:
    A friend who served on their admit comm told me there was a heavy pressure to admit females, and had been for quite some time. Plainly there’s a bias Just as there generally is in private universities for “diversity” — which means approved cultures and races. Never for Asians, of course.
    At UCalif, such favortism is illegal. So the top echelons changed admission standards to more heavily weigh “essays” and “life experience,” as shields for further bias.
    The Asians of course (who comprise a majority at my campus) are quite cynical about this. Thus are the seeds for future conflict sowed.
    I’m not making this up. I’m a professor at UCI.

  • Belizean

    At UCalif, such favortism is illegal. So the top echelons changed admission standards to more heavily weigh “essays” and “life experience,” as shields for further bias.

    Well-meaning liberals think that they’re helping us with such practices. In reality, they’re reducing the value of our degrees and creating resentment. I am permanently stained with the affirmative action brush, despite never having been an affirmative action admittee.

    No stereotyped criticism of a group could possibly be as harmful as deliberately lowering standards for them. As a black I have always found that practice particularly offensive and insulting.

  • Logizmo

    While I agree that affirmative action is offensive in a lot of ways, I also understand why universities choose to put such policies into practice.
    Personally, I would rather study with a group of very diverse minds and cultures- who knows if the answer to the next problem will be inspired by Tao principles or by someone whose dad taught them how to build a car when they turned 16?
    It makes learning and collaborating more interesting, and in my experience, more effective.

  • Haelfix

    And I find fault with the premise that different ‘groups’ or ‘cultures’ (whatever that means precisely) outputs different ideas necessarily, particularly for science which is much less a creative enterprise and far more constrained.

    It strikes me as a type of myth thats perpetuated in some circles b/c the fact is, say across the history of science, a fairly homogenous group of people have outputed radically different ‘working’ ideas.

    So not surprisingly uniqueness is very much about the individual and his/her mind, rather than arbitrary social constructs. Particularly in the age of free information and instant access to material, where everyone is on the same boat.

    People can clump people together however they want, for instance im sure the set of physicists with blond hair have outputed considerably different ideas than those with red hair. That doesn’t mean their is some sort of weird (either intrinsic or environmental) difference that favoritizes producing different ideas amongst the two groups.

    Perhaps more convincing would be to argue that *language* has some effect on the way a persons mind thinks. Indeed there is evidence for this in the literature, but again it strikes me as a horribly hasty conclusion to put too much weight on that.

  • Chanda

    On the subject of UC and diversity:

    Not only was I born and raised in California, but I was also a high-achieving student who chose not to attend a University of California campus for a couple of reasons:
    1. The financial aid was so bad that it was virtually impossible.
    2. The anti-affirmative action movement made me and others like me feel terribly unwelcome in the University.

    Having said that, I was strongly encouraged to return as a student at Santa Cruz to enter the Phd program in Astronomy and Astrophysics. What I found was a University who was struggling to keep its underrepresented minority enrolment up. In fact, the number of Black freshman entering at UCLA this fall was so low that it sparked protests! One person I know who has been reading applications for UCLA for years refused to do so for this entering class because she was sickened by the way students of colour were being weeded out of the university system.

    I too was upset by what I saw as a growing trend of high fees, low financial aid, and continuing low enrolment of minorities, so I got involved. Last year I represented the UCSC grad students on the governing board of the officially recognized statewide student government, the University of California Students Association, which represents the over 200,000 students in the system. What I learned during my year in UCSA is that overwhelmingly, the faculty, students, staff, and some admin are concerned about these issues of diversity, fiscal accessibility, and the general health of the university. The only people who seemed to turn a deaf ear to these concerns were those making the decisions — our state legislators, the Governor, and the Regents who decide the UC’s budget and how it is spent.

    Before I am accused of going off topic, I want to say that these things go to the heart of diversity in academia and therefore, to the heart of diversity in science. It seems to me that the more people are forced to struggle to get an university education, the less likely they are to choose fields considered impractical or out of reach, like our beloved physics. Financial aid, as well as funding for Student-Initiated Outreach programs, which draw in many of the students of colour and students from low-income backgrounds now attending the UC, are crucial to the success of students from underrepresented backgrounds.

    Simply put, if they can’t go to college, they can’t become physicists. There’s a leak in the pipeline right there!

    I’d also like to strongly challenge Gregory Benford’s generalization about “the asians.” Not only do sweeping generalizations like this make me cringe, but such comments are troublingly divisive. Students of all minority backgrounds are concerned about trends relating to diversity, and many of us stand in solidarity with one another. In my role on UCSA’s board, I had the opportunity to work with many students at UC Irvine, which hosted the annual Student of Color Conference this past April. The organizers of that program were overwhelmingly of East- and Southeast-Asian descent, and they were all pro-affirmative action and as troubled by the low enrolment numbers of minorities across the board as I am.

    Moreover, while attending the conference I found myself amongst peers who shared the same concerns about affirmative action and have since become great friends with one of them. Like many of them, I am hoping to not only see affirmative action protected, but I hope to see it expand beyond communities that have suffered systematic racial or gender bias to also include communities that face economic inequity.

    I can think of many examples of now-accomplished scientists, women and people of colour, who might never have made it without affirmative action programs, and I continue to see how it benefits the intended communities. I won’t make any claims about it’s perfection, but I believe it is integral to any program that seeks to truly diversify physics.

    And kudos to Logizmo for wanting a diverse peer group!

    Chanda (not Chandra :))

  • http://gregorybenford.com Gregory Benford

    I appreciate Chanda’s comments, but disagree.

    I’ve taught thousands of Asian students. Their groups on the UCI campus do not remotely reflect the feelings she saw in a self-selected group that went to UCSC. Of course there’s diversity of opinion among the 58% Asian population at UCI, but I have 35 years experience with this issue, and have seen it take its daily toll. Belizean’s comments are spot on.

    A far more effective method than affirmative action would be to work on the cultures that affirmative action sought to help. The problem isn’t at the UC level; it’s back in grade school, etc.

    More’s to the point, amid all the talk of social justice: a colleague of mine served on the Med School admission comm, back in the 1990s when Calif by a large vote on a state initiative ballot made affirmative action illegal in all state processes.

    Just to see the impact, the comm ran their previous sorting software, this time leaving out the weighted credits for affirmative action. About 15% of the previous incoming class was eliminated — completely. Even folding in the “soft” parameters didn’t overcome their scores and grades deficit.

    This isn’t just a matter of simple justice. Think of those who didn’t get into med school, and the public that got doctors from this weighted method. We owe them something, too.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    BTW I find “people of colour” to be extremely jarring. (I’m a deep brown – Indian, born in the US, grown up in India). I simply don’t define my world that way.

    E.g., if a person identifies himself as “Christian”, then I accept that person’s identification. But I don’t think of myself as “non-Christian” (which I am) except in very specific contexts. I would not be happy to have a “non-Christian” identity – it is the same as being “infidel”, “pagan” or “kafir”. I do not accept any of those identities either.

    Similarly, (white/non-white/people of colour) is not my construct. If a person wants to self-identify as “white”, I’ll accept that. But I don’t accept the “not-white” or “people of colour” as part of my identity. I don’t think of myself as “brown” either.

    Both in the case of my first example and in this case, I consider any concession to these labels as a form of colonialism. Anybody’s classification as “me=X” and “not-X” is not binding on the not-Xes.

  • agm

    Wow, small world! Chanda and I met at a NBSP/NSHP joint conference a couple of years ago. Lots of geeks, not all that many of us filling the stereotype at that conference.

    BTW, Chanda, I did finally track Aaron Saenz down and give him your greetings. About a week before he left since he’d finished the MS and was moving along… I’m glad to hear that you’re off and successfully pursuing what you want.

    But to me this highlights the problem — if the North American physics community has been able to welcome an international populace with open arms, why can’t they do the same with the diversity that already exists at home?
    For what it’s worth, Richard Tapia has been at this topic for 30-odd years, and he has been known to point this out as the largest problem with the shift in consciousness from “affirmative action” to a focus on “diversity”. On the other hand, the cohort I entered with was the rowdiest in years — the joke is that the university will never let two Hispanics into the department in the same year again after us.

  • http://sourav.net/ Sourav

    Chanda,

    Thanks for answering my question from the beginning about how to widen the talent pool. Though I am a member of an overrepresented minority, being mentored as been very effective in my own life.

    However, in the course of this thread, my second question was not answered to my satisfaction: how does sociological diversity lead to a more productive population of physicists?

    I am also skeptical of the efficacy of physics as an engine for social change. It is true that female, Latino, etc. physicists are signficant role models. But, there is something distasteful about that being about “hey, someone like me can ‘make it'” over “someone like me can be a renowned scientist.” In science particularly, it is the value of ideas that must be first and foremost, otherwise it’s lost its very reason for existence as a discipline.

    This is not to say that education should not be widely and cheaply available — but we must be very careful what we are teaching.

    Best,

    Sourav

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Hi Chanda,

    thanks for this important and thoughtful post. I meant to write a comment, but it got too long, so I’ve posted it on my blog, see

    Diversity in Science

    Cu,

    B.

  • HFS

    I’d like to chime in and say that I agree with those who think that affirmative action is not a good idea, because it will invariably both increase racial tensions among applicants due to differing admission standards, and lead to people looking at someone from an underrepresented background and thinking, “oh, they only got in because of their background,” thus diminishing their achievement. I don’t think that anyone would claim that the lack of diversity isn’t a problem, but affirmative action is treating the symptom of the disease and ignoring the root causes, which are economic in nature. (As a side note, this is perhaps related to my distaste for the reasoning behind Chanda’s point #2, because it is all too easy to employ the same logic to claim that perhaps white men from wealthy backgrounds are just better at physics).

    Instead of affirmative action, let’s start by increasing the amount of financial aid available for students from poorer neighborhoods, and making that financial aid easier to obtain. At the same time, we need to improve the high schools that these students attend. Over time, this would increase number of qualified students from underrepresented backgrounds (who attend these schools), and increase the number of them that can afford college. If we combine that with active efforts (such as those are featured on this blog) to fight prejudice among the faculty and staff at our universities, then we will have gone a very long way to fixing the pipelines that feed students from underrepresented backgrounds into physics.

    The problem, of course, is that improving financial aid takes money, and improving the quality of physics teaching in high schools in poor neighborhoods will take a great deal of time, money, and effort! Results will also not be forthcoming immediately, but will take 10 or 20 years to appear as new generations of students experience the improvements. I’m unconvinced, however, that there is any other viable solution to the problem. Affirmative action, while seductively easy to implement (doesn’t take much time, money, or effort) is a band-aid that creates more problems than it solves.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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