Category Archives: Sociology

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.