Guest Post: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

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.

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73 Responses to Guest Post: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

  1. 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.

  2. Gregory Benford says:

    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.

  3. limes says:

    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.

  4. Chanda says:

    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,
    ps: if I’ve left anything out, please feel free to contribute other suggestions as well as ask me questions!

  5. Chanda says:

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

  6. Arun says:

    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 🙂

  7. Andre says:


    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.


  8. Rob Knop says:

    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.

  9. Vince says:

    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!

  10. Logizmo says:

    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?”
    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.”

    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.

    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.

  11. Logizmo says:

    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 🙂

  12. Gregory Benford says:

    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.

  13. Belizean says:

    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.

  14. Logizmo says:

    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.

  15. Haelfix says:

    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.

  16. Chanda says:

    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 :))

  17. 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.

  18. Arun says:

    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.

  19. agm says:

    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.

  20. Sourav says:


    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.



  21. B says:

    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



  22. HFS says:

    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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