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We're Doing Just Fine


In the 100 years since Einstein's historic year, African Americans and other minorities have progressed in many academic pursuits, but little advancement has been made in Einstein's field of theoretical physics. Sylvester James "Jim" Gates Jr. (pictured left), the University of Maryland's John S. Toll Professor and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory spoke to MiSciNet recently about his career, his influences, and the challenges that scientists of color face. Now Gates shares his vision of what theoretical physics would look like if more physicists of color were involved in the work and the culture and gives some reasons why he thinks it hasn't happened yet.

MiSciNet: Have you found the field of theoretical physics to be less inviting, more inviting, or about the same to people of color than other areas of physics and science?

Jim Gates: First there's the personal view, and then there is a view that is based on the aggregate presence of people of the African Diaspora in the area. My personal view is that it's probably pretty much the same as most parts of science, meaning it's no better than lots of areas, maybe marginally worse. The reasons it may be more difficult might owe more to the sociology of theoretical physics than to factors relating to ethnicity. It's also been a difficult place for female physicists to pursue a career, although recent trends seem to be positive for that group.

No Branch Rickey

MiSciNet: What do you mean by the sociology of theoretical physics?

JG: Well, in order to do theoretical physics at the top of the field one has to have a peculiar mix of traits, and intelligence is just one of them. In fact, I'm not sure it's the most important one. Minorities especially have to have the self-confidence necessary to persevere when others doubt their competence.

Being recognized in the field requires a receptivity of the community to the idea that an individual has the capability to make valuable contributions. I once told someone that the field of physics reminds me in some ways of professional baseball before Jackie Robinson's appearance. He had to be given the chance to perform in order to provide evidence that he and others like him could perform well. But, unlike professional baseball, there appears to be no Branch Rickey [the former Brooklyn Dodgers executive responsible for recruiting Robinson] at our "major league"' physics departments.

MiSciNet: What do you mean by the aggregate view?

JG: Well, the aggregate view is probably worse, because if you look at just raw numbers our presence in theoretical physics is low by any reasonable measure that one can imagine. A survey of the top 50 ranked physics departments in 2002 shows that of 1998 physics faculty members, there were 12 of identifiable African heritage.

MiSciNet: And you think that relates to the sociology you previously mentioned, the need to believe that you're the best or not concerning yourself with the opinions of others?

JG: I think that minorities are programmed in a way that accounts for an additional liability. What do I mean by that? Well, this society continues to deliver messages to young women and people of color that they are less capable at intellectual pursuits than others. And, as far as I'm concerned, for people not to admit this is racist or sexist. So, you have this negative message before you ever get into your field, and the question becomes how do you react when the challenge is presented to you? Many minority people ask, "Is there something wrong with me?" If that's the case then there's very little chance that you will continue to pursue the field. Others, particularly those who go on to be successful, say, "What's wrong with that?" or "What's wrong with them?"

MiSciNet: You think a lot of people find that challenge or disconnect going from graduate study on to their career?

JG: I believe this question recurs at all stages of one's career. So, I don't think there's any one place where it increases. The thing that likely does increase along one's career path is what I like to call the "last man standing effect." Imagine a battle where some people are killed because of what they do and others are killed due to misfortune. By the end of the battle, there are very few survivors. That's the reality for minorities pursuing careers in fields like theoretical physics. I remember when I was a graduate school student there were a half a dozen to a dozen of us around the country that I would've wagered would do what I'm doing now. I am practically that last man standing.

MiSciNet: Have you encountered other physicists of color who've faced situations similar to your 1995 attempt to submit your paper, containing a then-unexpected result, to the journal "Physics Letters B" on "N = 4 superstring theories?" [See box below]

JG: It's not that my story is so exceptional. I wasn't singled out for some special treatment. I know of no African American physicist who has pursued a successful career in the field who doesn't have a story like that.

MiSciNet: If you had to do that again would you do anything differently?

JG: There's only one thing I would have done differently. I would have kept the documentation of the first acceptance and flashed that in people's faces.

MiSciNet: Do you feel the burden or proof is on you as opposed to a white physicist?

JG: Actually, I don't. Perhaps that's why I've had some success. For me the engagement of the field is a very personal interaction. It's nice to know you're doing something others find insightful, but the actual passion I have for doing physics is internally generated. Being an outsider may provide an advantage because you have a slightly different kind of perspective on questions. If you harness that with a lot of work and a little bit of luck, you can often find things that others don't see. I've found even geniuses have intellectual blind spots.

MiSciNet: So far we've been talking about these issues from the context of American scientists, but do you find similar discrimination with scientists of color from other countries also?

JG: In the past the answer to that might have been yes. When I was a postdoc at Cal Tech (1980?1982), I came across a transcript of a meeting from the mid-sixties. One of the people at the meeting was Abdus Salam, who hails from Pakistan and later went on to become a Nobel Prize winner in physics (1979). I would characterize those transcripts of exchanges--between him and his colleagues--as disrespectful towards him, which I suspect was because of his ethnicity, although I can't prove it. So there seems to have been a time when Asian physicists would have faced something similar to the discrimination women and people of African descent face now. To some degree physicists from Latin America likely face these same kinds of issues. But for Asian physicists it's my belief that this issue has fundamentally changed.

Something Like Jazz Would Appear

MiSciNet: You travel all over the world. Do you find the bias against you, as an African American physicist, to be less when you're abroad than in the U.S.?

JG: I first started traveling extensively outside of the United States at the end of the seventies, principally to Europe. In fact, I had an offer for a position outside of the U.S. I had to think very long and hard before I said no because it's a very liberating experience when you're treated more as an individual than as a representation of a group. That's a very liberating thing to have people respond to you on the basis of what you say and what you think and what you do as opposed to saying, "Gee, I'm not sure I can take what this person says with the same kind of certainty that I do with other colleagues."

One of the primary reasons I used to go to the International Center of Theoretical Physics in Italy (established by Salam) was because I could see people from all over the world doing first class physics. It was a very different environment from being here in the U.S. and being one of a very few people of color.

If I may just add something else?

MiSciNet: Please do.

JG: When we look at diversity in an area like physics, many people leap to the conclusion that discrimination is the cause or the lack of minority participation. Others believe that it is a lack of ability or dedication. I've concluded there may be something quite different at work. Suppose we lived in a world where the only kind of music that existed was classical music and some bright young person came along and learned classical music, but then created jazz. How does the existing establishment view him? He's not playing by their rules. Some people might say he's not playing by any rules. So the difference in aesthetic plays an enormous role. I have a strong suspicion something like that's at work in theoretical physics.

In the early eighties Professor Salam commented he suspected that when a sufficient number of people of the African Diaspora start to do physics, something like jazz would appear. It took 15 or 20 years before I had the intimate knowledge of physics necessary to interpret this statement well enough to understand his meaning.

You see, there are different styles in how physics is done. There are styles of physics that are Russian, Germanic, English, and even American, which is very detectable to me. When enough people of African heritage do physics, they're going to bring a different aesthetic, and it will be new and valuable. Because classical music and jazz exist we don't think that we're musically poorer. Had jazz never come into existence we would've been musically poorer, but before jazz, musicians could say, "We're doing just fine. We have this wonderful art form here." And that's what's lost when people with different inputs don't participate in science. We miss the opportunity to create jazz.

In a book "Technology and the Dream: Reflections of the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999" (MIT Press, 2001 by Dr. C. G. Williams) Gates relates a story that illustrates the sort puzzling situation that can arise for minority physicists pursuing their research. Gates submitted a paper to the journal Physics Letters B in the spring of 1995 based on a mathematical physics model called "N = 4 superstring theories" After two years of rejections and rebuttals, the paper was accepted in November of 1997. The unusual circumstances surrounding the incident led Gates to believe it may have been ethnic discrimination. To date, however, the reason for the incident is unknown.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at