Diversity in and of Physics

When someone refers to a physicist from the early twentieth century, what kind of person do you imagine? Most people will think of an Einstein-like figure, but most likely, one will think of a white male from western Europe or the US.

Today, however, things have changed considerably; physics, both as a discipline and in the people that represent it, has become more diverse. This correlation is probably not an accident. In my mind, the increased diversity is an excellent development, but as with everything, it can be further improved. There are a couple excellent podcasts I listened to recently that have championed diversity in different contexts.

The first podcast was an episode of Reply All entitled Raising the Bar (which you should really start listening to at 11:52 after the rather cringe-worthy Yes-Yes-No segment!). The episode focuses on the lack of diversity in many companies in Silicon Valley. In doing so, they interview an African-American man named Leslie Miley who was a security guard at Apple and went on to work as a software developer and manager at Twitter, Apple, and Google among other companies (i.e. he possessed a completely unorthodox background by Silicon Valley standards). He makes an interesting statement about companies in general (while referring specifically to Twitter) saying:

If you don’t have people of diverse backgrounds building your product, you’re going to get a very narrowly focused product.

He also goes onto say that including people from different backgrounds is not just appropriate from a moral standpoint, but also that:

Diverse teams have better outcomes.

There is plenty of research to support this viewpoint. In particular, Scott Page from the Santa Fe institute and University of Michigan – Ann Arbor is interviewed in the episode and suggests that when teams of people are selected and asked to perform a task, teams of “good people” from diverse backgrounds generally outperform many “excellent people”/experts from similar backgrounds (i.e. the same Ivy League schools, socio-economic status, age etc.).

There is a caveat that is presented in this episode, however. They suggest that it may take longer for a diverse team to gel and to communicate and understand each other. But again, the outcomes in the long-term are generally better.

There is an excellent episode of Hidden Brain that also covers similar topics, but focuses on building a better workplace. The host of the podcast, Shankar Vendantam, interviews the (then) head of human resources at Google, Laszlo Bock, to gain some insight into how Google has been able to build their talent pool. Of specific interest to physicists was how much Google borrows from places like Bell Labs to build a creative workplace environment. Again, Bock stresses the importance of diversity among the employees at Google in order for the company to be successful.

In physics departments across the country, I think it is necessary to take a similar approach. Departments should strive to be diverse and hire people from different backgrounds, schools, genders, and countries. Not only that, graduate students with unorthodox backgrounds should also be welcomed. This again, is not just important for the health of the department, but for the health of the discipline in general.

I strongly suspect that Michael Faraday was one of the greatest experimental physicists in the past few hundred years not in spite of his lack of mathematical acuity, but probably because of it. His mathematical ability famously did not extend much beyond basic algebra and not even as far as trigonometry.

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11 responses to “Diversity in and of Physics

  1. “Disciplines are human constructions—the conservative, compartmentalizing affliction of academia. The world is one, and our best minds and hands have moved with facility across disciplinary lines, using tools of chemistry to chart emerging territory in biology. And vice versa. The star materials of the condensed matter physicist had to be synthesized by chemical techniques; the Fourier transformation and the mass spectrometer brought us new chemistry”

    DOI: 10.1002/anie.201108514 , Angewandte chemie, Editorial
    What, Another Nobel Prize in Chemistry to a Nonchemist?
    Roald Hoffmann

    The above excerpt from the article is with respect to Dan Schectmann winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry . DS had metallurgy background. There was disapproval first from late Linus Pauling when DS published the first paper in 1984 , in PRL with others on quasi-crystals Diversity in all areas is good. The best way to appreciate good science and breakthrough coming from diverse backgrounds in to have the open mindedness of Max Perutz. Here is the excerpt

    “On being asked what made the LMB such a remarkable place,
    Max answered: ‘Creativity in science, as in art [referring to the Renaissance in Florence], cannot be organised. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well-run laboratories can foster it, but hierarchical organisations, inflexible bureaucratic rules, and mountains of futile paperwork can kill it. Discoveries cannot be planned, they pop up, like Puck, in unexpected corners’

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puck_(A_Midsummer_Night%27s_Dream)

    From, Climbing mountains
    A profile of Max Perutz 1914–2002: a life in science • by Daniela Rhodes
    The full article is available at EMBO reports page 393-395 vol. 3 | no. 5 | 2002, DOI: 10.1093/embo-reports/kvf103.

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  2. I firmly believe that people coming from different cultural backgrounds have more to offer in the success of a team as compared to a group that is mostly composed of individuals coming from the same origin. Diversity is, and should be accepted, as a milestone not only in our present society but also for the generations to come.

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  3. Isaac Newton (Physicist)
    Born: January 4, 1643, Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, United Kingdom
    Died: March 31, 1727
    M Faraday
    Diamagnetism and electrolysis. Wikipedia
    Born: September 22, 1791, Newington Butts, London, United Kingdom
    Died: August 25, 1867, Hampton Court Palace, Molesey,

    Faraday was born after Newton. Newton did not have electricity . He must have done all his monumental work under some fireplace or ? S Chandrasekhar , the Nobelist regards Newton and Shakespeare as the greatest intellectual giants. He has for the common reader Newton’s Principia https://www.jstor.org/stable/4028686?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
    With all this technology the scientific community has not been able to produce another Newton or a Faraday. Faraday if he had lived in this Nobel age would have easily got four Nobel prizes.

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  4. I hope that you are not suggesting that the fact that these men were born in the UK has something to do with their intellect. If so, I would respond by saying:

    I wouldn’t argue that these men, Newton and Faraday (and even Maxwell) weren’t intellectual giants. My point though is that the prominence is also cultural. At that point in time, these men were in an environment that valued education and intellectual achievement.

    Viewed in this way, it is no surprise that the Greeks were the greatest mathematicians during the time of Euclid, that the Germans were the greatest mathematicians of the 18-19th century, that the Russians had a strong physics presence during the Cold War and that American science took off in the 20th century.

    During the hundreds of years of colonial history, intellectualism was not valued in the colonies and enslaved regions of the world. Therefore, the kind of person likely to turn into a Newton or Faraday does not get the opportunity to reach his/her intellectual potential. This is what makes someone like Srinivasa Ramanujan such an impressive figure, having been an autodidact during colonial rule. The same can be said of women, even in the developed world, where they are now (not without barriers!) finally becoming part of scientific discourse.

    There are usually two things required to make a genius, the talent of the genius him/herself, and the environment that values intellectualism and education where such a genius can be recognized and cultivated.

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  5. Your premise about colonialism is right . It has got nothing to with a persons birth in a country. Newton and Faraday were from UK. Similarly Goettingen, Germany (called as Nobel laureate city( https://www.uni-goettingen.de/en/nobel-prize-laureates-from-g%C3%B6ttingen/4281.html) and even Calcutta (Kolkata) had Raman , two Boses ( JC Bose and Satyen Bose) , Saha and many others. I feel the present problem is Neoliberalism in universities which has led to club mentality in unis globally which is creating problems. Neoliberalism started in 1980s in Britain and then spread all over the world. Neoliberalism is at its peak now globally

    Duncan Haldane, Nobelist , has himself said that he left UK to Princeton as always questons were asked about usefulness of his research ( market value). There is video on this ,

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  6. Academic managerialism is one major byproduct of Neoliberalism. The slogan is ” it is whom you know is more important than what you know” . This has led to the club as mentioned in the previous comment. The club selects only the “known” rather than the knowledgeable.

    Here is an article different in tone , but insightful
    http://www.nature.com/news/time-to-cry-out-for-academic-freedom-1.18813

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  7. go.nature.com/2g9BmJN
    Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2016.20987
    The mathematics of science’s broken reward system\
    Theoretical models of how science works provide valuable insights, says Philip Ball.
    Many researchers have warned that the availability of these metrics, which are supposed to make the management of science and funding more systematic and objective, may be changing the nature of science. They are starting to dominate how science is structured and steered and place great pressure on researchers, especially in the earlier stages of their career, to publish often and prominently. As a result, understanding science as a social phenomenon has become a matter of some urgency.

    Sure the author is right on the last lines ” metrics and understanding science as social phenomena”

    Final lines are well written.

    Scientists have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from having the lens of science turned back on its own conduct. It’s the old injunction: physician, heal thyself.

    Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2016.20987

    When there so much discontent , why not core subject scientists from physics and maths join together and abolish this metrics. The golden age of science from 1901 to 1980 did not have this

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  8. I haven’t read your blog in a while, and I truly missed it! Thanks for the listening suggestions. It is wonderful and encouraging to hear there are people out there trying to get away from the “white male” stereotype in tech.
    I have a friend who used to work for Siemens, and he disliked it because it was “too white, too male, too German”. He is a white male.

    For me, the question of representation in science is a political question, too. Science is an important venture. We’re not talking any more about some rich man’s leisure. We’re talking about where we choose to go as a society. Which issues we will tackle. What are the important problems.
    And if 50% of those concerned are women, and it seems that about half the brains in the world are female, then women should also be better represented. Same goes for race and nationality.

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    • Thanks for the kind words! I totally agree with what you say, and I think that academic science can lead industry in showing what a diverse workforce can achieve.

      Like

  9. Pingback: Citizen First, Scientist Second | This Condensed Life

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