Let Physics Be the Dream It Used To Be

Or, how to make physics fun

I received a very nice e-mail this week from an esteemed theoretical physicist who was concerned about tweets that indicated I have been feeling distressed about the world of physics. I say this was a very nice e-mail because in my life it is rare that someone senior has paid attention to how I am doing not just in terms of the product of my professional work (papers) but also in terms of how I was feeling about being involved with the process (the physics community).

We discussed it in person, and at the heart of what I told him is this: the astro/physics community has rarely let me enjoy the science. It began with an undergraduate curriculum that was designed for more highly resourced high school graduates than me, the adviser who spent four whole years telling me I wasn’t smart enough to be a theoretical physicist, and a school full of people intent on reminding me that I didn’t look like a physics major (for a bunch of smart kids, what an uncreative response to that piece of information).

For four years, I told myself it would get better later and also that I had to give up on some of my original plans because problematically, having had no one to counter the noise I was hearing, I partly believed the adviser. So, I ended up in the wrong graduate program, then went into what I thought was the right graduate program, only to discover that sometimes white male postdocs are really racist assholes and no one wants to do anything about it.

Through all of this, I was supposed to be enjoying the wonders of physics! Because physics is super fun when your study group is treating you like a low-IQ charity case because while they were enjoying leisurely study time in the library, you were at your work-study job. Because physics is super fun when your adviser tells you at almost every meeting that you’ll never make it. Because physics is super fun when you start to believe the stories that people are telling you about yourself, just a little, and you hate yourself for being that thing they keep telling you that you are. Because physics is super fun when you’re Black, queer and from a working class background and your classmates and eventual colleagues regularly say racially insensitive/blatantly racist, homophobic and classist things with an occasional (in my own personal experience) sprinkling of sexism/misogyny for good measure. Because it’s super fun to go to work or to visit a department and brace yourself for the regular barrage of questions about your race/ethnicity/Jewish parentage because apparently your skin color screams “different but ambiguous WHAT IS IT??!!!!” to various white people.

And of course there’s also the part where you don’t really get to choose where you live, and if you’re a Black (Caribbean American) Jewish, queer woman finding community will be incredibly difficult almost everywhere in North America that isn’t a select few cities. Living in places where you may end up feeling out of place is always fun times. FUN!!!!!!!!!

I’m not going to catalog every shitty thing that happened to me in grad school or as a postdoc even though I haven’t actually mentioned the worst stuff (because it’s not safe for me to), but the point is that I didn’t and still don’t fit into the dominant astro/physics culture, and this has really sucked a lot of the fun out of physics for me. White astro/physicists need to understand and take to heart that this is in fact a real issue that doesn’t magically go away with admissions and diversity initiatives that fail to address underlying cultural, structural issues.

At this stage, anyone reading this might ask, “well why are you still here?” And the answer is that increasingly I feel like I don’t know, which I guess is what lead to the disconcerting tweets.

I don’t know how to deal with a community that won’t acknowledge its colonialist and white supremacist past and present, thereby insisting on a colonialist, white supremacist future.

I don’t know how to deal with a community full of people who can hear a Native American woman and a Black woman say that the community discourse about an experiment is hurting them and not have a large number of people stop and say, “wait, let’s rethink what we’re doing here.”

I don’t know how to deal with a community where Native American students can bravely challenge a racist e-mail, only to be told by their classmates that their anti-racist stance was embarrassing to the community.

I don’t know how to deal with a community full of people who don’t understand that what they are demanding of us is that we assimilate to their sensibility of what’s “true” and “fair” in science.

I don’t know how to deal with people who do understand that it’s a demand for assimilation and think that it is ethical.

I don’t know how to deal with a community that expects me to be comfortable in departments that are not only dominated by people who are solely of European heritage but also sometimes are in locations where there is no cultural alternative to that dominant experience.

I don’t know how to deal with a community that values diversity for the “sake of science” but doesn’t value equal opportunity for the sake of fundamental human decency.

I don’t know how to deal with a community that has a job application process that is frankly fairly dehumanizing for most participants, especially those of us who for a host of reasons couldn’t be on “the perfect trajectory.”

I don’t know how to deal with a community that has never really considered what it’s like for someone like me to watch as the very few Black people ahead of her in the pipeline in her field disappeared from the mix.

I don’t know how to deal with a community that doesn’t understand my experience is different from theirs, that the racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism I deal with impacts my life 24 hours a day, not magically only during the hours when I am not working.

I don’t know how to deal with a community that is fundamentally empathy-deficient, even takes a kind of pride in that, and doesn’t seem capable of considering the epistemic consequences of that social structure.

I don’t know how to deal with a community where one of the most famous departments in the world is also home to three known sexual harassers, and it’s been like that for decades.

I don’t know how to have fun with that. How is that fun? It’s not fucking fun.

Yet, here I am. I believe that the cosmos don’t belong to straight, white, ablebodied cismen alone, even though for the last 500 years they’ve felt pretty entitled to it and with high frequency to use the knowledge gained about it to keep the rest of us in literal and metaphorical chains. I share Carl Sagan’s humanist belief that one of our greatest strengths as a species is our transcultural impulse to weave stories about our origins. And I like math, a lot. I still think the times table is a miraculous thing, 26 years later.

And I want little children of every shade, gender identity, sex identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, romantic orientation, (dis)ability and religion to have access to that cosmos, to have fun with it, to have joy in it. And I still want that for myself.

But I tweeted a few weeks ago that the astro/physics community is ruining the fucking stars for me with their bullshit. I told the kind physicist that I can work on trying to enjoy myself more, I can work on shutting out the noise more, I can try to hold on for dear life to the occasional person who gets it, but ultimately what really needs to happen is that the whole community needs to start working with me and for people like me. And with far too few (but highly appreciated) exceptions, it is not.

Will I stick around? I don’t know. I may not be able to anymore. Because I was struggling to enjoy the work, because of the very real discrimination I faced, and because of random bad luck that can happen to anyone, I struggled to be as productive as many others. Does that signal I don’t have the capacity to make significant contributions to the field? Not particularly. Will it be read that way? Already has been. Actually, I think the fact that I have been able to make contributions to the field despite everything that has happened signals that I could do really wonderful things if given a more equitable chance.

I’m writing this to say that I want a chance, fellow scientists, to regularly have uninterrupted fun doing science. But that means making this field different. Making it so that I am not constantly putting out fires on all fronts, quietly soothing the concerns of students who are afraid to speak out publicly while pushing back publicly against some of the harmful crap that they are hearing while also trying to let those students know that it’s not them, it’s the hand they were dealt by a community hell bent on not changing too much.

Just because I’m good at all of those things doesn’t mean this stuff doesn’t sting. It more than stings. It hurts. And it also means that time I could be spending working is spent protecting my community. Lots and lots and lots of people will respond to this by saying that I need to be more selfish. But do people imagine what that decision is like? To actively say to myself, “I could help people like me and protect them from some of the bad experiences that I wasn’t protected from, but I’m not going to do it”? I want to be able to like myself when I go to sleep at night and selfishly ignoring the suffering of other marginalized people is not part of my personal vision of integrity. And imagine what we marginalized people could do if we were no longer marginalized and in a community of support. Imagine.

Abdus Salaam once said that when Blacks started to enter physics in large numbers, it would create something like jazz. The problem is that astro/physicists don’t really want jazz. They say they do, but they don’t want to do the work of learning a new way of doing things. They want to keep playing the same classical songs, exactly the same way. Sure maybe they are willing to include new looking people in their band, but only if we play to their beat, their way. Only if we do the work, not them. But I can’t live like that and so many marginalized people can’t live like that.

Do our lives and our ability to breathe, not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally, matter?

Does it matter that by forcing us into a box, the community is teaching us not to improvise, even though creativity is maybe the second most important quality for us to have as scientists (after persistence)?

I understand intellectually why my work on inflation and axions is interesting, but I am tired of the disjointed feelings of liking the ideas but finding it hard to breathe in the community that I have to share them with. Because I am human and not an objectivity machine, those two things are both part of doing science. Astro/physics loses so many people, including white men, because the community refuses to acknowledge this dual reality, that science is both a mathematical process and a human, social enterprise. We lose people because too often there aren’t enough victories and moments of joy and fun for those of us who are from communities that history kicked to the cotton fields, trails of tears, unsafe street corners, prisons and deaths at the hands of state actors.

I think that can change, but as Kiese Laymon likes to say, people have to be ready to do The Work to make it happen.

sankofa