On Physics Identity and Culture

By: Hannah Pell

Graphic from shutdownSTEM.com.

Recently I started rereading When Physics Became King by Iwan Rhys Morus, a historian of science at Aberystwyth University in Wales. Published in 2005, Morus traces the development of physics through the nineteenth century, as the field gradually evolved from its roots in natural philosophy and mathematics to later becoming regarded as the “ultimate key to unlocking nature’s secrets.” He does so emphasizing the critical roles that institution-building and identity- and community-formation have played in the professionalization of the field, tackling the questions: what did it used to mean to “be a physicist” or to “do physics,” and how have these meanings changed over time?

I wondered about the unique lessons that examining the history and culture of physics offers us. After all, physics is about exploring behaviors and phenomena within our universe that act and exist independently from us. Morus notes that, “it is central to the view of science—and of physics as the preeminent science—that we hold in our culture that science and culture do not mix.” Science is supposed to be objective, right? The laws of physics are universal, free from the limitations of the theorists and experimentalists who propose and gather evidence for them.

Morus’ cultural history of physics highlights the fact that “there was nothing inevitable about physics’ rise to prominence.” History reminds us that what constitutes physics today was by no means how it has always been, and that the pursuit of doing physics was “crucially dependent on a range of cultural and material resources.” Physics — like all of science — has always been deeply interconnected with the culture of the time-and-place in which it was done.

As physicists-in-training, we are not usually advised to think about our own culture as a community of scientists, researchers, students, and educators. How often do we consider the ways in which physicists are perceived by non-physicists? How often do we critically examine and challenge existing (yet inaccurate) presumptions about who a physicist is or should be? How often do we question who is permitted to do physics; and who, as a consequence of the systems and institutions we’ve built over time, are denied the opportunity?

Physicists of the Past

The canon of physics stories from our introductory courses unfolds as a seemingly-logical succession of scientific breakthroughs. Galileo first used the telescope to study celestial objects. Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to propose a heliocentric model of the universe. Johannes Kepler’s laws describe the movements of planets. Sir Isaac Newton made significant contributions to optics and mechanics, claiming he “stood on the shoulders of giants” before him. James Clerk Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism. Later arrive the early twentieth-century quantum revolutionaries — Max Planck, Erwin Schroedinger, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, among others — as well as (arguably) one of the most famous physicists of all time: Albert Einstein, whose name and image have become eponymous with “genius.”

Of course, we know that this isn’t the whole story, but nevertheless this narrative is problematic. The lone-genius narrative ignores the collaborative efforts necessary to construct an entirely new discipline and do science. It glosses over the messy uncertainty of how science really happens. It creates a perception of intellectual prestige. Over time, these heroic narratives can play out as a uniquely masculinized culture within which cis and trans women are othered and experience discrimination and microaggressions. It is a scientific culture that has historically been dominated by white physicists and housed within institutional structures that have actively discouraged and failed people of color.

If these are the only physicists we learn about, then what room is left for anyone else?

Physics Identity in the Present

“Physics stands out among the sciences for its inability to attract enough women or minorities that their representation will, in the foreseeable future, be commensurate with their proportions in the general public,” writes Dr. Shirley Malcom, the Head of Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and co-author of a The Double-Bind: The Price of Being a Minority in STEM. Unfortunately, this problem is not new. The physics participation statistics show wide disparities in gender and racial representation and not many signs of changing soon.

What work has been done? A collection of studies was published in the Physical Review: Physics Education Research journal about the physics gender gap. Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, cosmologist and feminist theorist, has written extensively on systemic racism in STEM and argued that white empiricist culture within physics in-part explains why the discipline is less welcoming and accessible for aspiring Black physicists. Physics education researchers have proposed a Critical Physics Identity framework to help understand how “racial identity and physics identity are negotiated.”

We know that feelings of belonging and identity are crucial for underrepresented students to stay in STEM. Earlier this year, the AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (or, “TEAM-UP”) released a report outlining critical factors affecting African Americans students’ pursuit of physics, and the first two are identified as (1) Belonging and (2) Physics Identity. “African American students have to overcome stereotypes about who can become a physicist,” the report states. “How students perceive themselves with respect to physics is predictive of career intentions and achievement.” In 2018, astrophysicist Dr. Jedidah Isler founded Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM to “create conversations between emerging and established women of color in STEM, where [they] can celebrate and affirm [their] identities and STEM interests in a safe space.”

It’s clear that to encourage a more inclusive physics culture, we need to challenge and diversify the conventional physicist identity.

The Physics Community Of Tomorrow

On June 10, 2020, nearly 6,000 members of the academic physics community participated in a one-day strike from their normal academic duties to protest systemic racism in academia. The event was organized by teams of physicists and other scientists involved in Particles for Justice, Shutdown STEM, and Vanguard STEM. Amidst and in conjunction with the global #strike4blacklives, non-Black scientists were charged with spending the day to educate themselves on the pervasive inequities Black scientists face within academic spaces and develop personal action plans to help make positive change moving forward. “Wednesday June 10, 2020 will mark the day that we transition into a lifelong commitment of actions to eradicate anti-Black racism in academia and STEM,” the Shutdown STEM website states.

Physics is difficult in its own right; it becomes harder still when you feel like you don’t belong. To take steps forward as a scientific community requires both an understanding of the past, as well as continued critique of the physics culture we’ve constructed. The inclusive physics we build for tomorrow depends entirely on the actions we start taking today. Change is by no means trivial, nor something we should take for granted as inevitable.

What history are we going to make?

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