Category: Black People in Science

Bias, Bias Everywhere

By Sean Carroll | October 8, 2012 2:00 pm

Admitting that scientists demonstrate gender bias shouldn’t make us forget that other kinds of bias exist, or that people other than scientists exhibit them. In a couple of papers (one, two), Katherine Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh have investigated how faculty members responded to email requests from prospective students asking for a meeting. The names of the students were randomly shuffled, and chosen to give some implication that the students were male or female, and also whether they were Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese.

And the inquiries most likely to receive positive responses were the ones that came from … white males! You should pause a minute to collect yourself after hearing this shocking news. Here are the fractions of students who didn’t even get a response to their emails, and the fractions who were turned down for a meeting. (Biases aside, can you believe that over half of the prospective students who asked for a meeting were turned down?)

The results pretty much speak for themselves, and help to highlight the kinds of invisible biases that are impossible to detect directly but can end up exerting a large influence on the course of a person’s career. As previously noted, the first step to eradicating (or at least lessening) these kinds of distortions is to recognize that they exist. (Although a quick perusal of our comment sections should suffice to convince skeptics that the biases are very real, and oftentimes proudly defended.)

Interestingly, the studies didn’t only look at scientists, but at academics from a broad variety of disciplines, with dramatically different results. Read More

The McNair Program

By Julianne Dalcanton | May 5, 2008 1:57 am

The classic three pillars of an academic position are teaching, research, and service. While the University Administration sometimes seems to think of “service” as being synonymous with “sitting on committees”, many of us enjoy taking the broader view.

McNairAs part of my service activities, this weekend I had the pleasure to talk with a roomful of fantastic young scholars from the McNair program (officially known as the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program). The program was named after one of the astronauts who was killed in the Challenger disaster). He was also a physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT.

The McNair program identifies promising undergraduates who either are low-income, are first-generation college students, or are from an underrepresented minority group. It then provides extensive mentoring to encourage the students to continue on to graduate school. The mentoring takes the form of supporting the students in research projects in their own departments, guiding them through the steps involved in preparing a strong graduate application, providing an additional resource for academic and personal advising, and waiving application fees.

If you haven’t run across this program, keep an eye out for it. If you know a student who might be a candidate, encourage them to apply. Even more importantly, if you have a chance to work with a McNair scholar, jump at the chance. These kids are phenomenal. They’re interesting and driven, and a pleasure to know.

It's All About the Benjamins

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 13, 2007 1:53 am

Physics is lovely. Cosmology is profound. Astronomy is a thrill. That’s all well and good, but for those of you who are thinking of pursuing it as a vocation, what you may really want to know is, “What’s in it for me?”.

The answer? Lots and lots of cash.

Courtesy of the always fascinating American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center’s latest report, if you major in physics and land a job in a technical (“STEM”=”Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math”) field, you’ll make nearly twice as much as you would have in a non-technical pursuit. Short term you’ll be screwed financially if you go on to grad school (see the “University” entry), but if you hold on for a higher degree, you’ll do even better:

Well that’s interesting, but what’s my point? Namely, that whatever your beliefs about why white straight men are overrepresented in science and engineering, you’d be hard pressed to deny the financial impact. When women and minorities are underrepresented in scientific and technical majors, they are necessarily overrepresented in the “Bachelor’s non-STEM” box in the upper left of the plot above. If more of them drop out while pursuing advanced degrees, they’ll never make it to the high Ph.D. salaries in the lower right. These differences can accumulate into more than a million dollars over a 20 year career, and make tangible differences in people’s quality of housing, childcare, and health insurance.

So, while the social costs matter, it’s the economic costs that worry me most.

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.


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.

The Sermon

By cjohnson | April 30, 2006 10:49 pm

Well, it went wonderfully. What went wonderfully? My one hour (plus) talk at a local church in the neighbourhood. I mentioned the backstory in a previous post. It was quite a long day in the end. I got up at 6:00am to write my “sermon” -which involved hunting with Google images for images which would illustrate the various themes I wanted to bring out. I sketched what I wanted to say mostly in my head and scribbled on a few scraps of paper, but the idea was that I did not intend to be scripted, but instead talk off the cuff. The scribbling was simply a means of ordering various themes.

We had a full church service, with some excellent singing (with the pastor Aaron Howard on the piano). And clapping, lots of clapping. There was some reading from scripture, with some nice verses chosen, and there was prayer. I have a problem with none of the above, I should say. It was not at odds with what I came to talk about: Science and science careers. These were good people, doing great things in their community, and that’s all that matters to me at this point.

In some cases, I was able to find resonance with what I wanted to say and what came up in the verses, and so I improvised a bit and incorporated some bits here and there as I listened. I got a rather grand introduction from a lady who writes children’s books about black inventors and scientists, which I thought was just perfect. I spoke for about an hour, and then there was an unexpected amount of really excellent questions afterwards, and so we went on for another half an hour.

I can’t get over just how pleased everyone was that I came out to talk to them. They’ve never done this before. We spoke at length about problems in the community and where -with limited resources- they could do more about getting kids exposed to science. I mentioned that they might consider not waiting for the schools to be “fixed” and take matters into their own hands. Why not have a “science club” for the young (and everybody else), right alongside their bible club, and just share information about good books, ideas of the day, etc, and get people from USC and other places to come and talk as guest speakers? They really could hardly believe me when I said that if they called up USC and asked, they could get more people to come and give a talk (e.g., “Please come and tell us something about DNA”), especially if they make sure that everything is ready and the person just needs show up and talk. They said they were going to try to use USC more. I encouraged them to make a niusance of themselves to get this to work.

Here I am with the pastor and some of the young ones:
cosmic variance church sermon
Truth be told, the young person turnout could have been a lot better. The pastor was confused about this, but thinks that the message about what exactly this was to be did not really get to the schools. I offered to come out and do it again if they wanted to have another go at getting more kids.

One thing I talked about (more than I intended to, but that’s where the spur of the Read More

Cosmic Variance Goes To Church

By cjohnson | April 25, 2006 10:43 pm

Spotted in some of the local community presses:

From the Arts, Culture and Entertainment section of Our Weekly, a local newspaper targeted at the African-American community in Los Angeles:
clifford johnson talk press clipping

From the ACC (A Corporation for Christ) News:

clifford johnson talk press clipping

From the Education section of the L.A. Watts Times, and also the L.A. Sentinel, (Family Section, under Religion), newspapers also targeted at the Los Angeles African American community, find two more clippings. (See below, to the right and left of the text, respectively.)

clifford johnson talk press clippingOk. I’m sorry you spilled your beverage all over your front….or unwittingly sprayed it all over your monitor! Given some of the things written here at Cosmic Variance about Religion in the past, you’re thinking either I’m going to burst into flame the moment I set foot into the place of worship, or that this is another -even more elaborate than last time– April Fool Joke perpetrated by cvj, or….. the Religious have begun to take over some of your trusted sites on the blogosphere.

None of the above is correct (as far as I know). Given the strong positions taken on Religion in some of the eloquent writings of my esteemed co-bloggers Sean and Mark, I’m *so* going to get beaten up in the playground later! I’m very much looking forward to it. We disagree, I think, on the matter of degree and emphasis -and that’s ok- but it is important to be clear on this. I’d like to say once and for all that I don’t think that Religion – in its appropriate place (e.g., not in Science class at school, masquerading as Intelligent Design) – is all bad. clifford johnson talk press clipping Some terrible things have been done – and continue to be done – in its name, but it is not intrinsically evil or necessarily counterproductive. While neither Sean nor Mark have used precisely those last five words (and I stress that fact), it is often the sense that is taken away -rightly or wrongly- from some of their stronger, understandably passionate, and often excellent writings on Religious matters, especially when it starts to intersect with science.

I want to say that we need not throw away the baby with the bathwater. I think that Religion can be a powerful positive organizational force in the local community, often being the only thing left for people to cling to when all else has given up or failed.

As scientists and also as non-scientists (in other words, as members of society in general), we do indeed have to be watchful that Religion is not misused. That it is not hijacked to acheive power, and to gain political advances, as is all too often done in this country. It is too easy to hide behind it, rather than present sound argument. Too easy to exploit people’s ignorance, lack of education, or insufficient grasp of the facts by appealing to religious motives to which they might more easily relate, in order to win them over to your side. We must indeed fight that whenever we can, as though our lives depend upon it, since they certainly do. Mark and Sean are two admirable soldiers in the fight, and long may they continue to ensure that the battle is joined, and fought well.

Nevertheless, I think that we must be careful not to bash Religion just for the sake of it. In fact, when opportunity arises, I think that we should use the organisational power and assets of Religion -honestly- to achieve our own ends as well, those ends being simply the teaching of the citizenry to think for themselves. To help people learn how to move forward in Society through education. From my point of view, this is simply about Science Education, and you’ve read my writings about this a lot on this blog, I hope. (See the archives, if not.)

It is simply not unworkable to promote Science and Science Education in a Religious context. It is just downright naive to think that these things are mutually exclusive. The world is just not so simple. We have to compromise. Things are never so black and white or cut and dried in almost any walk of life, for us to get to the point where we cannot -with care- find a middle ground on such important issues. I’m not advocating bringing Science into the Religion classroom any more than I would advocate bringing Religion into the Science classroom. That’s not what I’m talking about.

This polarization -war in fact- that seems so prevalent in the USA is very odd to me, (although I am aware that a lot of the recent intensity has been brought on by those who would hijack religion for other means simply going on the attack on several fronts; a defense was rightly mounted in response to this). In England, for example (at least for now….remember that whenever the USA sneezes, the UK catches cold a while later, so don’t be smug), looking at the official Religion of the state (yes, think about that for a moment…there is a state Religion. So easy to forget, fortunately, and that’s the point…), the role of Religion in your typical local village as an organisational center can be simply marvellous. Nobody troubles you to wear your belief or non-belief in God on your sleeve. It is simply your private business, about which nobody forces you to talk. In fact, people can get downright uncomfortable if the whole issue of belief gets brought up. I know a lifelong Atheist who is an extremely nice fellow, a pillar of the community in his village. He regularly does readings in church on Sunday from his personal well-worn copy of the Bible. He raises tons of money every year for the local church by having garden sales. In cased you missed it a sentence or two ago: He’s an Atheist. It’s just not a big deal. In fact, it is just irrelevant. There are lots of members of the Church of England who are just like this. I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of Church of England vicars who are like this too! It does not actually matter so much to the business of quietly getting on and serving your community.

I should note (although several will ignore this remark anyway) that I’m aware that religion in the UK is far from simple -especially in light of Northern Ireland, immigration from very diverse parts of the world, and the global political climate brought to a head in September of 2001- and I am aware that a certain degree of relative affluence, together with the quiet confidence that you are the state religion, allows for such apparent indifference to the supposed “core mission”, but I am not so sure that it should be so easily dismissed as an example from which we can learn something.

So you are probably wondering what the backstory is behind the press clippings Read More

Black Scientists

By cjohnson | February 18, 2006 11:20 pm

So it is Black History month here in the USA, in case you have not noticed. Yes, all the jokes about why the shortest month of the year was chosen for the USA’s Black History month have already been made, so I won’t go there (it is in October in the UK, by the way). No, instead I’d like to (as part of my promise to report to you on things that are part of my academic life) tell you about what happens to me during the month of February every year.

Pretty soon after February starts, the deluge of email I get every day gets enhanced a bit by emails from students from all over America. I (and the relative handful of us around the world) become part of an assignment, you see. It seems that these kids are instructed to find a black scientist and write something about them and do a presentation to their class about them. (If you get these emails too, put a comment and let me know!)

Of course, this is a very good thing overall (see earlier discussions here , here and here -including the illuminating sometimes depressing discussion threads- about increasing the number of times that young people are made aware of a career choice that they can make that society, through the media, etc, tells them that they can’t make), and I’m very willing to help where I can.

Unfortunately, most of the requests are essentially simply attempts to get me to do the inquirer’s homework, which, I have to admit, I am extremely resistant to do. For example you’ll get a questions like “Have you written any papers or books?”. Hmmm, so at this point I usually check that it is still the case that if you type my name into Google, I still dominate the first page you get. Yep, still true, and a few clicks from any of those links that come up can bring up all the stuff I’ve ever written. So in the interests of encouraging students to do the work, I usually send a link or two: to my personal webpage (here), or one of two profile pages for me at USC (here and here), or the departmental page on me (here), and hope that they’ll take the ten minutes or so it takes to get the data. (This year I also give a link to this blog.) Another is “what is your date of birth?”, probably originating from the fact that this is harder to find on the web. Well, I’m not comfortable giving that precise information out to random people, so that one gets punted, at least partially. This year I even got a girl on a mobile phone asking me these questions, although I wish she’d actually introduced herself and said what the conversation was about before just asking me personal information…. She was young, so it’s forgivable….Her mum eventually came on the line and explained a bit, and I sent some links by email along with some good wishes.

I’ll repeat that I do welcome these questions -at all levels- from these young people, since I like the idea that for a change, there are classrooms around the country discussing scientists of African descent, as opposed to sportspeople, entertainers, and criminals, which are almost all you ever see us doing as career choices in the media (I exaggerate only a little). The first two are all excellent things to be doing, but I just want young people to be aware that they can choose to do other things too, including being paid to just think about how the world works.

For the first time, this year I got a higher level of questions. They were from a pair of students (Nekia and India) from an older age group, studying at the Johnson C. Smith University. Here they are:

1. Who or what inspired you to pursue your career?

2. What was the most difficult moment that you faced while pursuing your goal as a mathematician? Why? How did you get through it?

3. Knowing that attending college and/or graduate school can be stressful and overwhelming, what would you recommend to students so that they can stay strong and not give up?

4. When you hear the words Black History who are some of the late mathematicians that come to mind? Why?

5. At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a mathematician?

6. How many books have you written? Which is your favorite? What inspired you to write them?

7. My partner and I research shows that you have written 62 papers. Were these papers written throughout your post-doctorial studies, or are they papers that were just written throughout your studies? Are these the only papers that you have written?

Wow. These are really good questions. So I’ll be writing back to them with some extensive answers and some links to things I’ve already written. It is really great that they took the time to write me a nice introductory email letter first of all, asking whether I would mind if they asked me some further questions. That was rather nice, I thought.

Notice that I’m thought of as a mathematician a lot in these discussions. This is because (I think) of the website entitled Mathematicians of the African Diaspora (MAD, yeah, I know), which seems to get updated from time to time with (roughly accurate…I’ve published a bit more, and I’ve been at USC for more than a few months, for example) information about several black scientists. I’ve no idea who does this, but it seems to be a first port of call for a lot of students doing these projects. I explained in an email to Nekia:

I’m “culturally” (the way I think, approach problems, and the type of problem I choose to work on) more of a physicist….. but I use a great deal of mathematics in my work, so some might mistake me for a mathematician.

I’ll end with an amusing story. Amusing to me, anyway. Read More

The Black Middle Classes

By cjohnson | January 17, 2006 2:13 pm

Well, while we’re on the subject of under-represented groups in science (see here and here), let me raise a (perhaps) even more taboo subject by pointing out a very interesting programme on the BBC’s Radio 4 entitled “The Black Middle Class”. (Beware, the UK defintion and the USA definition of the term have some differences, but you’ll figure out pretty quickly the UK definition by listening.) A Journalist (who by the way, I gather from her comments is black, female, British, and trained as scientist) Connie St. Louis interviews several people (from schoolkids to Members of Parliament) on the issue.

Programme 1/2:

Is there such a thing as a Black Middle Class in Britain today? If so, who are its members? Connie St Louis goes in search of an elusive group of people.

Programme 2/2:

Connie St Louis goes in search of the Black middle class in Britain today. She considers what they can learn from their US counterparts.

Some random thoughts and impressions of my own (I’m in the middle of writing a lecture to be given in an hour, so forgive me if I don’t get everything in, and in the right proportion.):

In programme 1, she notices (as I, and hopefully you, have) the depressing fact that the few places that most people are aware of “successful” black people existing are in sports, media and entertainment. You might wonder, in the context of this blog and our recent discussions of women in Physics: Where are the scientists? Do they exist in reasonable numbers and are just not represented in the media much, or are they largely non-existent as a proportion of the population of people from other ethnic groups? Actually, I wonder that too. I don’t know the answer, but my own failure to encounter these people in significant numbers whereever I go around the planet suggests that the latter is closer to the truth.

But she’s not just talking about Scientists (actually, she doesn’t at all), but “middle class” jobs in general. I don’t care for these terms at all, to be frank, but we can use it as a placeholder for the thing I really care about, which is simply being able to use your talents to be as successful as you can (as measured in standard terms that society at large cares about…. power and influence within society, salary level, etc…. leaving intangibles like “happiness” aside for now.) The UK is arguably significantly behind the US on this issue, and it is interesting to hear (if you don’t know about it or have never thought about it) what the shape of the situation is in the UK, as it does reflect on the issue of representation within the sciences as well.

She tries to identify the particular forces that stop black people from getting very far in the UK, and of course rapidly arrives at a discussion of the problems of the education system, and a discussion of the breakdown of certain family structures that may (or may not?) be responsible. Another key factor is the conflict of values which place a lot of pressure on black kids (particularly male ones) in the playground: being black and being interested in education are just in conflict. It’s just not “cool” to be interested in history, science, literature, art, etc…. (That’s definitely a big problem in the USA too.)

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Fighting discrimination

By Sean Carroll | November 11, 2005 12:31 pm

This feisty blog has occasionally talked about issues of discrimination against minority-group members and women, in science, or in academia, or just more broadly. We have also, one must admit, occasionally taken the Bush administration to task for this or that example of egregious malfeasance. Thus, rigorously fair folks that we are, it’s only right that we also mention those instances when the administration takes time off from its busy schedule of intelligence-doctoring, operative-outing, deficit-growing, and hurricane-ignoring to actively fight the pernicious effects of discrimination.

So, here we go: the Justice Department is going to sue Southern Illinois University for discriminating against white males.

No, you can’t make this stuff up. SIU, like almost every university in the country, is seriously under-represented by minority groups among its graduate students; out of 5,500 graduate students, only about 8 percent are Latino or African-American (compared to over 20 percent of Americans). So they have a few fellowship programs that specifically target women and minorities, and help out a tiny number of people — perhaps 40 per year. The Bush administration, tireless warriors for social justice that they are, will stop at nothing to squelch this manifest anti-white bias:

“The University has engaged in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against whites, non-preferred minorities and males,” says a Justice Department letter sent to the university last week and obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The letter demands the university cease the fellowship programs, or the department’s civil rights division will sue SIU by Nov. 18.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to discriminate against someone, I would be able to do a much better job than that. You know, like actually having fewer members of the discriminated class at my university than in the surrounding society, rather than significantly more.

Sadly, this is an issue that (even) scientists don’t always think very clearly about. There is a feeling in some circles that perfect fairness consists of taking the tiny part of society’s workings over which you have control, and pretending within that part that there is no such thing as race or gender, everyone should be treated equally. But in the real world, where we are not all born into equal circumstances and presented with equal opportunities, it makes perfect sense to recognize that and account for it when we recruit and train students.

Of course, people will complain that singling out minority-group status forces us to treat people according to some external characteristics rather than as individuals, and amounts to an insidious form of reverse racism, ultimately hurting the people it tries to help. This philosophically appealing position has the downside of being in flagrant contradiction with the evidence. Although it’s true that programs typically aim (small amounts of) resources at people because of minority-group status rather than a detailed understanding of their personal history in overcoming obstacles, the fact is that this clumsy strategy actually works. People gain access to education and training that they otherwise would not, and the result is that the pool of highly-educated and successful people grows more diverse, which helps both the people in those groups and the society as a whole. As crude as it is, the strategy of targeting fellowships at under-represented groups is both cheap and effective.

Deep down, nobody likes affirmative-action type programs. Nobody. We would all much prefer it if universities and other employers could truly ignore the race or gender of applicants and workers, because they were treated completely fairly throughout all of society. But that’s just not reality. And until it is, making a tiny little effort to help out people who have faced systematic bias throughout their lives — even if the efforts are clumsy and imprecise — is the least we can do.


By cjohnson | October 18, 2005 5:36 pm

I was sitting on the bus this morning while it took me to work, and I was working out a computation on the back of the paper I’m editing, scribbling furiously, pausing every now and again to look around at the people. In other words, one of my usual morning activities….

I look up at one point to see a little African-American girl in a cute bobble-hat (I’m guessing she was about 6, or 7?) carrying a pencil and a large notepad, sit down next to me. When I look up again, she’s continuing whatever it was she was doing when she got on the bus wth her mom (sitting elsewhere) – she’s doing a computation! She writes (in really large, confident, pencil marks):

25 x 10 = 250

Then she thinks for a bit and writes:

29 x 10 = 290

Then she looks at what I’m writing for a moment or two, then turns back to her own (obviously more interesting) work and thinks for a bit more and writes:

24 x 10 = 240

At this point I’m feeling a bit self-conscious but very pleased about the picture the two of us must make, sitting at the back of the bus heads down calculating. I carry on. So does she. I notice after a while (I’ve got the corner-of-my-eye thing down to a fine art in case you’re wondering) that she’s decided that her multiplications need no further sharpening (or whatever she was doing) and turns to a new page and starts drawing a flower.

phi functionsSo now I’m frantically thinking of something to do to bring her back to the mathematics. (Nothing wrong with drawing a flower, but so much more unusual to see little girls absorbed in mathematics on their own like that) My stop’s coming up, so trying to start doing a silent reply to her work on my own page (perhaps a series of multiplications by 100?) -which would probably work eventually- would not work in time. Then I turn over my work to reveal a page which had one the paper’s figures on it. Her eyes flicker over to it for a moment and I see my chance. I tear out a square with the figure on the right on it and give it to her. Our silence is broken for the first time with a little “thank you” from her.

She immediately turns it over to the blank side and starts doing more multiplications by 10 on it.

My stop is really coming up now and so I just have to hope that she’ll eventually turn it back over and find something interesting about the other side. When I gave it to her, I was hoping she might have noticed how interesting it is that the curves all go through the same point. As I’m about to retrieve my bike from under our seat, she turns the square back over and asks me what she should do with it. So I point out the feature of the common point. So she says “oh, there are seven of them” and promptly draws a set of seven curves near the old ones, also decaying to the right, but now all going through the number 2!

* * *

Sorry if this is boring to you, but I just thought that was great! It really made my day, in fact. I’ve no idea what (if anything) will come of our encounter, and will not pin any great hopes on it, but it certainly is one of my favourite public transport conversations of all time….



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