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Wed Mar 24, 2021, 06:21 PM

I want to live in a world where I can be a physicist without also being asked to speak on...racism.

A Black Physicist Is Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past

It's open sourced, but some excerpts:

I remember the moment my freshman year of college when I asked my electromagnetism teaching fellow what a breadboard was and instead of answering my question, he laughed and said, “You should know this. You don’t belong in this class.”

The course was an introduction to physics for physics concentrators (Harvardspeak for “majors”). For me, I thought. But I was supposed to know how to read a circuit diagram and how to use a breadboard to build the circuit in the drawing. Of course, I had been looking through my lab kit for something with a label on it. I had not been expecting that I was supposed to just know that the slab of plastic with a bunch of holes in it was a breadboard.

This incident became part of a growing file of stories about being told I didn’t belong, along with the numerous times fellow students told me I didn’t “look like a physics concentrator.” When I complained to peers about being on the receiving end of these comments, they would then insist it was because I dressed more nicely than they expected science concentrators to dress. But my clothing was less nice than everyone else’s, and I often showed up to breakfast in my pajamas, trying to live my best version of a real-life scene in Real Genius (a favorite film about physics students). My friends and study partners refused to acknowledge the obvious: a Black woman—even a light-skinned one—violated everything we had been taught about who belonged in physics.

During winter break that year, I called my mother and said I was switching to anthropology. Another Black student had just dropped physics and switched to another concentration on the advice of their physics adviser, who suggested they would be “better suited” for it. This conversation still regularly replays in my head: my mother’s guilt-tripping insistence that she hadn’t worked a job as a night secretary, allowing me to stay jobless and enrolled in my nice magnet high school—which required a three-hour commute on the school bus—just so I could quit physics...

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Reply I want to live in a world where I can be a physicist without also being asked to speak on...racism. (Original post)
NNadir Mar 2021 OP
Solly Mack Mar 2021 #1
Buckeye_Democrat Mar 2021 #2
NNadir Mar 2021 #4
Buckeye_Democrat Mar 2021 #5
hunter Mar 2021 #6
Buckeye_Democrat Mar 2021 #7
NNadir Mar 2021 #8
hunter Mar 2021 #9
iluvtennis Mar 2021 #3

Response to NNadir (Original post)

Wed Mar 24, 2021, 06:43 PM

1. K&R

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Response to NNadir (Original post)

Wed Mar 24, 2021, 06:59 PM

2. Good grief, that surprises me!

All of the math and physics majors at my university were among the most deep-thinkers that I'd met there, and none of them gave me the impression that they'd behave like such shallow a-holes!

The computer science majors that I met during some of my required programming coursework? Different story. I did great in those classes, but just hearing them talk made me decide to never switch my major to CS. I figured that working around them for years at a job would drive me nuts.

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Response to Buckeye_Democrat (Reply #2)

Wed Mar 24, 2021, 08:14 PM

4. I wish it surprised me, but it doesn't.

Scientists, including physicists and mathematicians, are human beings, and I've run across my share of excellent scientists who were less than excellent human beings.

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Response to NNadir (Reply #4)

Wed Mar 24, 2021, 08:20 PM

5. Yeah, I guess there's ugliness just about everywhere.

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Response to Buckeye_Democrat (Reply #2)

Wed Mar 24, 2021, 11:04 PM

6. I switched my major from engineering to biology for similar reasons...

... as you said, "just hearing them talk."

Women who stuck with engineering in the 'seventies were tough. My girlfriend at the time was tough and had to be, even with the advantage of white skin and money.

My wife has horrible stories, even in a profession that was slowly accepting women beyond the few specialties they were considered most suited to.

It was awful enough that my grandfather, who had been an engineer for the Apollo Project, would call her "A Mexican Girl." Men in his family simply didn't marry Mexican Girls.

It took him a while to get over it, probably as he began to realize she was smarter than he was and better at math as well.

Nevertheless, my wife has in her career banged her head against the glass ceiling, and been expected to represent others who share her story.

Boring white guys don't have those problems, and most of them can't even see how it's a problem.

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Response to hunter (Reply #6)

Wed Mar 24, 2021, 11:11 PM

7. I took a couple engineering classes too, and...

... they reminded me of the CS majors. (The engineering courses were related to computer hardware design.)

A lot of them seemed mostly focused on their expected good-paying jobs after college, at least back in the late-80's and early-90's.

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Response to hunter (Reply #6)

Thu Mar 25, 2021, 11:39 AM

8. Speaking as an old boring white guy...

...I will say that my whole life has involved having my consciousness raised about these issues.

I certainly wasn't "there," years ago. The nice thing about the Nature briefing (and other feeds) is that they point these stories out. What struck me about this particular account was how tired she was of even having to talk about it all the time, even as she took talking about it as a responsibility.

I'm not sure I ever thought about that burden until just now.

My wife was a physics major when I met her. As she went to an inner city school when NY City was bankrupt and all of the textbooks were falling apart and the teachers were vastly underpaid - a few of them more interested in hitting on her than actually teaching her - certainly came to believe that "she shouldn't be there" in physics after a few University semesters, even if her boyfriend at the time also had been her physics TA.

I remember all of the attention she got, almost all of it prurient, and now recognize that one reason was that there were just not all that many women in science.

It's getting better, I see, now that my son is an engineer and in graduate school, but we're still not "there" yet with women in STEM, not to mention black women in STEM.

As for the "way they talk," while conversations with my son, while enjoyable through his whole life, are now so much more wonderful now that he's become this fine engineer.

I love that talk. To each his or her own, but life is so much richer when you appreciate this language.

I'm a chemist, and I love chemistry very much and can't imagine life without it, but if I had my life to do over I would definitely be an engineer, probably a nuclear engineer, but at the very least, a chemical engineer. My wife now works for a pretty prominent evolutionary biologist (whose undergraduate degree was in Electric Engineering) and she attended a meeting with the research group where he informed the undergraduates, very wisely I think, that they should expect to need to reinvent themselves every three years.

We do, and certainly I have needed to reinvent myself, particularly, as a boring old white guy, as to how I understand the struggles of "non-WASP" and "non-male" scientists and engineers.

These accounts help which is why I forward them here.

For the record, when I was 17, I wouldn't known what a breadboard is either. I very much doubt that I would have been told that I didn't belong there in a physics class as a result.

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Response to NNadir (Reply #8)

Thu Mar 25, 2021, 02:45 PM

9. It was the way they talked about things other than engineering.

I'd be happy to talk about computers and electronics all day, but other than those subjects there were the "cars and babes" guys who didn't know anything about cars or women, and the quiet guys who really didn't have many life experiences beyond getting good grades and scoring high on achievement tests.

I wasn't the lone outsider. I remember one engineering class with a Vietnam war vet who'd lost an arm, and two women. I enjoyed talking to them and we formed our own little pool of lab partnerships. (Assembling breadboards with one arm couldn't have been easy...)

There's nothing wrong with good grades and high scores on achievement tests but there's more to life than that. My own kids and some of their cousins were very high achieving straight A honor students in high school who were admitted to and graduated from excellent universities. They also had a lot of life experience, which in our diverse family can't be avoided.

I once shared an apartment with one of the "quiet" engineers. He was entirely focused on his studies, listened to insipid Christian Rock that I found intolerable, and attended the local Creationist/Prosperity Gospel/Christian Church without question. Beyond that he seemed entirely oblivious to the world around him.

Maybe his life was better than mine. I don't know what happened to him but I always imagined him getting a good job in the defense industry. I was "asked" to take time away from school that year, mostly for fighting with a Teaching Assistant. I never offered my parents any explanation for that. Altogether it took me nine years to graduate from college and it was a very rough road.

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Response to NNadir (Original post)

Wed Mar 24, 2021, 08:09 PM

3. K&R. What her mom said to her is what my grandma (who raised me) would have said to me had

I said I wanted to switch to a major that might not land me in a "good paying"profession.

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