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.
Here are some excerpts:
On how "inviting" theoretical physics is to people of color:
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.
On what 'minorities' need to succeed in physics:
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?"
On the kind of discrimination faced by scientists of color from other countries:
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.
Finally, a very interesting analogy between genres of music and 'ways of doing' physics:
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.