I am privileged to have grown up in a middle-class, Jewish family. Having just been astonished at the most recent presidential election, I found myself reeling—how could a candidate who campaigned with antisemitic dog-whistles and open ignorance of and hateful vitriol towards Muslims, LGBTQ people, immigrants, the disabled, and people of color have succeeded?
I found myself writing in order to simply work out how I felt:
I believe in reason.
I believe in facts.
I believe in a shared, underlying reality.
I believe in the Enlightenment.
I believe women are as smart as men.
I believe in listening.
I believe that my experience is not the only valid one. I believe in trying to understand another point of view. I believe in changing my mind.
I believe it is valuable to admit ignorance.
Growing up in New York City, diversity wasn’t abstract—it was all around me. I grew up in Queens. Within a short walking distance of the Roosevelt Avenue/74 Street subway station more than 160 languages are spoken on a regular basis—it is universally recognized as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world. I easily forget that the vibrant, multicultural upbringing I experienced is not universal, but upon self-reflection it is apparent how integral it was to who I am.
Even as what we today think of as Physics emerged from Natural Philosophy, it was an international subject, though of course by modern standards it was seriously lacking in diversity. While the academic physics community might have had a lead compared to large swaths of society in terms of international communication and engagement, it is clear that there still remains a long way to go before Physics can really be considered diverse.
In the last year or two, there has been discussion in the media asking what the value of diversity is in the physics classroom. Science is a human activity, and has been politicized in the past—such as when teaching relativity at universities was prohibited in the Weimar Republic for being “Jewish Physics”—so actively embracing diversity is needed to ensure everybody learns and contributes as much as they can in a physics classroom or research setting.
Moreover, minority students can contribute a unique point of view valuable to the communication of physics. For example, many romance languages distinguish between a permanent state of being (in Spanish: “ser”, which is conjugated “es”) and a transient state of being (“estar”, conjugated “está”) while English does not explicitly distinguish these two senses of “to be”. This distinction is useful for differentiating the semantics of the equals sign in equations for acceleration often seen in classical mechanics
Acceleration is definitionally the derivative of velocity with respect to time: “ es ”. While the second equality is again always true, the forces one must account for vary from situation to situation and may themselves be transient, so the meaning is much closer to “ está ”. This is just one example where a minority perspective can clarify a potentially confusing pedagogical point inside a physics classroom.
I am a scientist—I believe in reason, facts, argument, listening, and changing my mind when wrong. I believe in trying to understand another point of view, because it is crucial for learning something new. This is not unique to physics—it is critical in every part of life.