Quick Thoughts on Diversity in Physics

Earlier this month, during oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, Chief Justice John Roberts asked what perspective an African-American student would offer in physics classrooms. The group Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy has written an open letter about why this line of questioning may miss the point about diversity in the classroom. But it also seems worth pointing out why culture does matter in physics (and science more broadly).

So nature is nature and people can develop theoretical understanding of it anywhere and it should be similar (I think. This is actually glossing over what I imagine is a deep philosophy of science question.) But nature is also incredibly vast. People approach studies of nature in ways that can reflect their culture. Someone may choose to study a phenomenon because it is one they see often in their lives. Or they may develop an analogy between theory and some aspect of culture that helps them better understand a concept. You can’t wax philosphical about Kekule thinking of ouroboros when he was studying the structure of benzene without admitting that culture has some influence on how people approach science. There are literally entire books and articles about Einstein and Poincare being influenced by sociotechnical issues of late 19th/early 20th century Europe as they developed concepts that would lead to Einstein’s theories of relativity. A physics community that is a monoculture then misses out on other influences and perspectives. So yes, physics should be diverse, and more importantly, physics should be welcoming to all kinds of people.

It’s also worth pointing out this becomes immensely important in engineering and technology, where the problems people choose to study are often immensely influenced by their life experiences. For instance, I have heard people say that India does a great deal of research on speech recognition as a user interface because India still has a large population that cannot read or write, and even then, they may not all use the same language.

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2015 in review

Thank you everyone for reading my blog this year! May you all have a Happy New Year!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,100 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 35 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

A non-biologist’s guide to not saying dumb things about biology

I’m not a biologist, but even I still can see when some people make strange claims about biology. But maybe not being an expert can help here because I don’t know enough to give a super detailed explanation.

  • Nature vs nurture is really complicated. I think to some people nurture has become almost synonymous to “choice”  because of the use of this phrase in discussions about child-rearing and personal development, like the debate over whether or not people are “born gay”. But nurture also encompasses stuff in the environment that no one may reasonably have control of, like exposure to certain hormones in the womb.

dna

  • This also ties into genetic causes being hard to figure out. Many traits that are associated with a known gene aren’t completely controlled by it – it just may increase or decrease the odds of a person having it, because there are still environmental influences. The other issue is that many traits are influenced by multiple genes. For instance, 33 different parts of the human genome may be related to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Being allergic to something doesn’t mean you are allergic to every molecule in it. This seems to come up a lot in debates on GMOs, when people raise concerns about people having allergies to novel genes. Those concerns are mostly legitimate, but it’s worth pointing out almost any new molecule we encounter could end up being an allergen. (Latex and nickel allergies  were probably surprising when they first started showing up in populations.) We could actually test if whatever a new gene expressed could cause an allergic reaction. For instance, this paper says most shellfish allergies seem to be in response to one protein. Or your may know people who are allergic to cow’s milk, but can still eat beef. And it makes sense, because a major piece of evidence supporting evolution is how similar many proteins are across different species – we share a lot proteins with all the other multicellular species on Earth.
  • One study doesn’t really prove anything. This applies to all science, but it seems to come up a lot in reactions to reporting about biology and medical studies. One study saying something about a specific effect of eating chocolate or finding a gene correlating to a disease doesn’t mean much. A hallmark of modern science is reproducibility, and so we should generally look at multiple studies before accepting things as “fact”.
  • Genetic engineering does not work like LEGOThe TV tropes link explains a lot. And the Analysis page on TV Tropes also explains how this actually works in relatively accessible detail. You won’t get wings by adding bird genes to your genome – even if you got the right Hox genes, you would also need to still ensure the right signals were sent to activate the genes to begin the appropriate limb formation.
  • Rates of change matter. When people are concerned over climate change or pollution or other impacts humans have on the environment, it’s not that ecosystems can’t adapt to any change. The issue is that if the environment changes too fast, it can outpace the speed at which organisms can adapt and cause a large number of extinctions.