I find myself in Washington DC for two and a half days, attending an interesting conference. It’s the annual meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists* (NSBP), and I’ve been invited to give a talk (which I gave a few hours ago, entitled “The Dynamics of Flavour in Gauge/Gravity duals”, with a focus on what we can learn about experiments and observations of strongly interacting nuclear systems using string theory. Post about that here). I’m here for more just the talk, however. I also want to talk – in the sense of converse. Basically, it is of interest to me to get a feeling for what’s going on with the issues of underrepresented minorities (in this case, people of African descent) in Physics. As you know, the numbers are vanishingly small, and as you also know from reading my writings, I am very interested in this issue, and of course, how to make it not an issue, by helping more people find their way into the field and have as much opportunity to do well as the next person.
(Scene from the opening banquet on Thursday night. The featured speaker (no, not on stage in photo) was 2006 Physics Nobel Laureate, John C. Mather. Click for larger.)
It has been years since I came to one of these, and I must say it is a real pleasure to be here. There seems to be a lot of contrast to how I remember things from the early to middle 90s. Let me tell you some of how it was, or at least how it seemed to me.
I was told about the NSBP back then, and encouraged to go along to the meeting. Frankly, while people were nice and so forth, I came away very uncomfortable with the whole meeting, and, frankly, the whole NSBP. This was partly because, having newly arrived from the UK, I was not happy with the very idea if it at all. I later grew to understand that the UK and the USA have quite different approaches to issues of race, and minority in general. The approach of the US often involves clumping together and finding strength in numbers and proximity, while the UK model is less organized, and arguably was (I think it has changed a bit in recent years) averse to forming organizations of that sort, focusing more on the strength of the individual, and survival on your own in the mainstream. It is not quite so cut and dried, but it’s partly true. Each approach has its own strengths, and are adapted to the history and character of each country. The US has many instances of minorities within a given context seeking each other out and grouping together for the greater good – to achieve a certain goal, and also to share points of commonality. To me at the time the idea of a professional society officially coming together in the name of something other than the professional activity seemed odd, even misguided, as it seemed to fly in the face of the goal itself – greater opportunities to participate in that profession in the wider society. So a society of Black Physicists bothered me a little. It seemed to get in the way of doing things in the order that seemed better to me – getting on with doing physics, and it being entirely incidental to the enterprise that you’re black. I later figured out that I was partly wrong about this – there are good reasons to come together in this way.
However, the other reasons I had for feeling uncomfortable were legitimate. It seemed to me that (despite the fact that there were many good people involved at the top) the focus of the society and the annual meeting I went to (twice, early on) was simply in the wrong place. There was way too much concentration on things that seemed to only exacerbate the problem: too much time spent looking backward instead of looking forward, and looking inward instead of looking outward. Examples of the first include spending way too much time talking about the problems of racism, lack of opportunity, lack of recognition and so forth (trading war stories, if you like – we all have them), and examples of the latter include too much focus on “keeping it in the family”, which meant a great deal of discussion and other effort spent on what was perceived to be the base – the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), another US tradition I had at the time not properly understood, and hardly any time and effort being taken to target everywhere else. There was a bit of a “them and us” tone I was unhappy with, and given that I was at the IAS in Princeton at the time, and am a black person speaking with a British accent (which, you may not know, makes a lot of African Americans of certain backgrounds suspicious even to this day) it was not clear to me whether I was “them”, “us”, or some third category. I was bothered by what I saw to be results of this, such as not enough non-black people coming to present their physics, and certainly relatively sporadic appreciation of some of the kinds of physics that was going on in several departments. On these points, I suspect that there were a number of key things in operation – some of them quite understandable. One was probably a worry that students would simply leave the HBCUs for the “other” places, perhaps creating a brain drain that would undermine things somewhat. Another was simply that a lot of the people dominating the organization then were playing to their strengths, and basing things on the network of people that they knew. If there’s scant few people of colour in the wider world of physics departments, it is entirely possible to be a successful black physicist in an HBCU and not have much contact with those departments as a result – and why would you if you’ve had an entire career of probably not being taken very seriously by most (if not all) non-black physicists you’ve encountered?
Finally, there was the most striking thing of all to me that made me uncomfortable – there was not enough time spent talking about physics. Now that might have been a function of the fact that I was one of three or four people of African descent working on things like string theory and quantum gravity, and maybe only half of that number would be attending one of the meetings at any one time, but I think it was a deeper problem than that.
The biggest issue for me, which I thought would address most of the problems I mentioned above, and one that I expressed strongly back then – probably not to the liking of the people involved – was that the key was young people, and getting together to talk more about the physics. I was of the view that the NSBP was largely missing the point if it did not make them youth its focus. My view was that there should be more young people attending the meetings (they had this bizarre business of having an NSBP meeting for the “professionals” and a separate meeting for the students, often at a totally different date and location. I thought this was insane), learning from the older ones, and taking charge in shaping the proceedings to meet their needs – discussions of career opportunities, how to get into those “other” institutions and generally take part in the wider physics world (which should not be regarded as the “white” physics world) and so forth.
I expressed the view in summary one time by publicly mentioning in a talk that I believed that the primary purpose of the NSBP was to create a world in which it would be no longer required. This did not go down well, largely. While I think that I sort of believe that to some degree, I was too strong about it back then, I think, because I did not understand the “club” component of the whole thing – grouping together not just because there’s a “problem”, but because you have other things in common – anything from geography to a certain style of home cooking from your childhood. There’s nothing wrong with finding points of commonality of that sort, but that seemed to me lost among the more contentious issues. So I wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Well, I did not want to throw it out. I just decided that it was not for me at the time, and left it at that.
I stopped going for a long while, as I did not think I belonged, and thought that my efforts to get more black people interested in physics (and taken seriously in physics) would be best spent elsewhere. A lot of that effort was, first and foremost, just getting on with being a black person doing physics in the wider world, with all of the ups and downs that involved. Other efforts included just taking the time out to give advice to young people when asked, and to talk to up and coming young people in the field about physics, about their physics projects- taking them seriously at those crucial stages in their development at which I was not always taken seriously, and so forth. I did come back to visit a couple of times, (and someone reminded me at dinner this evening that I even helped host one meeting once when I was a professor at the University of Kentucky), such as the time I presented information about the opportunities to participate in programs at the ITP in Santa Barbara (the ITP Scholars program and so forth), as an attempt to get people in the organization more engaged with the “other” places. But overall, I was somewhat unhappy with the focus.
So… That was then. What of the now, over a dozen years after my first impression? I’m happy to say that a great deal of positive change has come about. The feel is completely different and there’s so much more of a positive and forward-looking attitude. I’ve spent the last day talking with endless amounts of young people, and learning about what they are up to. They’re young people of colour doing excellent physics in a wide variety of fields, at a high level, and in departments all over the country, from HBCUs on the one hand, to the Harvards, and Princetons, the UCs, Michigans, and so forth. It’s wonderful. It is largely the way the meeting should be – driven by young people (doing a lot of the organizing, communicating enthusiasm for the subject), with a lot of focus on young people and their careers, opportunities, and so forth. There are presenters (and recruiters) from all sorts of institutions, and from all sorts of backgrounds.
And yes… you know what’s most striking of all? The young people in attendance (undergrads, graduate students, postdocs) are talking about physics. They’re loving physics. I could hear it all around – in the corridors, the elevators, the bars (those old enough to be in them), and asking each other (and us older sorts – a range of people from assistant professors onwards to retired senior physicists) questions, trading information about papers they’ve read, textbooks they’ve enjoyed, and so forth. It’s been great. The organization has come a long way indeed, in a short time, and those involved in making that happen, young and old, should be proud.
I’ll try to say a bit more in a later post, but I’m exhausted now and just got a call to go to dinner. I should end by saying- Thanks Chanda, for hounding me to come! [NB: Posted some hours later, after dinner.]
*[Update: Held jointly with that of the National Society of Hispanic Physicists.]