Let Astro|Physics Be The Dream: One Year Later
Last May, I wrote a widely circulated (11K hits) blog entry, Let Astro/Physics Be The Dream It Used To Be. In it, I outlined some of the bad (although not the worst) shit that I had experienced as a Black queer femme trying to make a path for myself in theoretical astro|physics. (Why not the worst? Because of the way academia works, it’s actually not professionally safe for me to talk about it. But let’s just say it involves abuses. Verbal, racist, and sexual.)
The response, at least outside of the physics and astronomy communities, was phenomenal. Well-known people in other fields reached out to me and asked how they could help. Diversity workers at various institutions, taking their missions seriously, all invited me to come talk to them about my journey and what I wanted for the future of my field. Some physicists and astronomers contacted me with concern, mostly experimentalists, and mostly people from non-research intensive institutions. I heard from a lot of students and fellow junior researchers how much what I wrote reflected their own experiences, and how it gave them a little bit of peace to know they were not alone.
You all see where I am going with this.
I dreamed, as I saw the response, that a year later, I would be able to write a generous follow up that talked about how much better I felt about things. And I waited and waited and waited to start a draft, waiting for that to become a truth I could report. I waited so long in fact that the one year anniversary of the post has already past, unmarked or noted by me. (I was giving a colloquium that day at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto, a visit I very much enjoyed, for what it’s worth.)
Here is what I can write: there are some truly phenomenal people in the astro/physics communities. Most of them appear to be experimentalists. I mean, most of the community is made up of experimentalists, but I think they are overrepresented in the phenomenal department. Of course, the some of the most egregious stories we’ve heard about sexual harassment in the last year have been about experimentalists/observers so as a group you all are not off the hook.
But overall, the astro/physics community has a stewardship/mentoring/research production paradigm that can be most succinctly described as: a fucking shit show.
I could use big terms and say it is white supremacist, heterocispatriarchal, and misogynist in nature.
But what it boils down to is that while there are many kind, generous advisors out there, even the kind, generous ones don’t really know what they are doing.
So, in an effort to be productive, let me offer some advice about giving advice, now not only as a senior postdoctoral researcher in theoretical physics but also as the new Editor in Chief of a literary magazine, The Offing, whose mission is to “author change from the people who built these cities.” It’s going to be a little tough love-y. But it will also be full of love for what we could be. (And works in tandem with what Sarah Tuttle has said about the disasters of the Master/apprentice model.)
Much of what we do in physics and astronomy is basic science. The impulse behind basic science is a quality that is extra ramped up in humans: curiosity. We don’t feel the urge to do it because we think it will make us rich or because it will make the next world wide web (something which is a truly excellent side effect of doing physics). We do it because we are humans and humans like figuring things out. We do it because we are humans and humans have a creative impulse to construct stories about the world and lives they find themselves in.
Basic science is a creative mission in the name of curiosity.
In other words, basic science is about our dreams of knowing the world.
That is what I thought when I was 17 and starting a bachelors degree in physics. It is what I think now, at age 33, about what should motivate me to do physics.
It is the truth that we should have in the back of our minds every time we are advising a student, a mentee, a friend, a colleague, an acquaintance.
But instead we have a community where far too often what drives research, advising and most profoundly hiring is: competitiveness, Euro-American colonialist impulses to control ideas and idea production, the desire to be more right than the next person (especially if they happen to be from a marginalized community), and perhaps most dangerously and disastrously, a false sense of objectivity to the point of stupidity (no, really, your biases make you stupid, and we marginalized people can tell).
We have to cut that shit out, astro/physicists. Cut that shit out.
You are not objective. You are not more objective than other people. You are especially not more objective about issues of marginalization than people who are marginalized relative to you.
You likely also don’t know your science history as well as you think you do. Do you know about the fact that Copernicus may have borrowed the heliocentric model from somewhere east of Europe? No? Then you don’t know your physics history well enough to comment on the origins and history of scientific consciousness. (Yes that was an Adrienne Rich reference, and if you don’t know who that is, your feminism is probably not good enough [there are exceptions to this rule though] for you to be talking about diversity in science with any significant authority.)
We really beat it out of people, the love of creation. — Sarah Tuttle
I bring these things up because they affect how we advise students, especially students from marginalized backgrounds.
Yes you have unconscious bias. But you also have a tremendous amount of conscious bias. You think that Europeans and European thought are the root of modern science. This is not consistent with the facts. But no matter, you are still communicating to your students that science was a white man’s thing until recently some people who are not white men were allowed to do it.
You don’t share with them how the fact that it was only the purview of white men really caused problems. Like, not developing women’s health care in any serious way, which is one reason why Emmy Noether died when she did, thus fucking over theoretical physics (because she was fairly young and probably had some more good ideas). Or the part where most of what we know about modern women’s health care was developed by torturing Black women slaves, and that is one reason Black people often don’t trust scientists. History. It matters. It’s not that Black people don’t have a culture of doing science. It is that we have a lived history of being harmed by science while also being dispossessed of our right to participate in the process.
Again, this is still about advising even though it doesn’t seem like it.
Your students are looking to you for help. They want help seeing themselves in the story. They want to know where they fit into the timeline. How do their ancestors fit in? How does this inform where they are now? What does this mean for where they can go?
They are also looking to you for help navigating their path into the future. They are coming to you, vulnerable, with their dreams. And they are asking you to help them forge a path to them.
They are not asking you whether you think getting a C in Freshman physics is good. Everyone and their goddamn mother knows it is not ideal.
They are asking you how to achieve their dream if that is what happened.
They are not asking you whether it’s good to be involved in anti-racist activism. And frankly, it is fucking tragic that in my experience, physicists are actually not categorically in the “yes that’s good” box on this one, but are rather in the “isn’t that distracting you from your work?” one.
You know what’s distracting? Discrimination.
So, maybe you should be helping your mentee not with the ideal path that you experienced or think people should be experiencing.
Not with your virtual reality.
Help them with reality reality. You know, the real world? The one they live in? The one where they can be arrested, beaten, or murdered for peeing in the bathroom? The one where they can be murdered for wearing a sweatshirt with a hood attached to it? The one where their study partners may say disparaging things about Native American spirituality? The one where the professor who runs their lab may have suggested that Native Hawaiians don’t know what’s good for them? Yeah, that real world.
If you have a mentee who wants to change the fact that those things happen, please give them an award.
I’m not being sarcastic. Find out what awards are available and get them one. And if there aren’t any, fucking fix that.
Then ask your student/mentee/colleague: what is your dream?
And when they trust you with the precious gift of their dream: don’t tell them, it can’t be done because it’s never been done. Tell them it’s a new and difficult path and you are here to help them figure it out. Call your friends and ask them to collaborate with you on formulating help. Don’t tell them what they can’t do. Help them create a world where they can do it.
Because basic science is about human dreams. It is why we do it. It is about our humanity. When you tell marginalized people “don’t get distracted by that stuff” you are denying their humanity. It is anti-science to tell marginalized people this.
It is anti-science to tell anyone that exploring non-scientific outlets for their energies is not good for their career.
And if they are vulnerable and come to you with stories of harassment: your job is to believe them.
Did your student of color say she experienced racism? Then she did.
Did your trans student say he witnessed transphobia? Then he did.
Does your gender nonconforming student say they are gender nonconforming? Then they fucking are. They’re not confused.
Does your marginalized gender colleague say she was/they were sexually harassed? Then they were. No, they don’t need to hear the harassers name every time you meet.
Is your student still in the room after years of being the only person like them in the room? Then probably they are very passionate about the work. If they don’t seem so, it’s probably because they are also freaked out about being the only person in the room or having a hard time with it. Stop telling your marginalized students you don’t see their passion. See that they are still in the goddamn room with you, despite feeling out of place.
Advising is about helping people get to their dream life, not shoving your ideas of what’s realistic down the throats of people who have less power than you.
That’s a profoundly unimaginative way to go about life. And if you want to do that to yourself, that’s your prerogative.
But stop fucking with other people’s lives, hopes, and dreams. That’s not your job. Your job description does not say, “Tell them no.”
A friend told me today, “I find the narrowness of what we’re expected to do so utterly soul crushing.”
News flash: feeling like your soul is being crushed is actually not conducive to productivity. And defining meaningful membership in the community as requiring that the only soul food that we can need or accept is “doing science” is not healthy. And it’s not human.
So, figure out how to tell your mentees yes. And figure out how to make a world that says yes to their existence. Fully.
Basic science is a human endeavor. We must respect the humanity of people if we are at all serious about the endeavor.
This is in part what it means to let astro|physics be the dream it used to be.
“Each item of one’s life — from experience or from imagination — merges until anything becomes material we can use to make the gorgeous and enduring thing. The only joy I have had in writing about domestic violence is the opportunity to re-envision and reform memories that otherwise leave me inoperable and in tears. Writing the poem is how we face the terror while working to separate ourselves from that same terror.” — Jericho Brown