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President's Commentary (Summer 2005)
By Richard Peterson
Announcer, Vol. 35, Iss. 2

Still a 'Band of Myopic Brothers'?

The World Year of Physics 2005 and AAPT’s imminent 75th anniversary celebration have triggered some reflections about perspectives that AAPT has championed since its beginnings in December 1930. At the January 1965 APS/AAPT Winter Meeting, the late Philip Morrison, in a powerful Oersted Medal response, challenged the physics community regarding the preparation of what he termed "the most important product of the lab"—the physicist—and encouraged sharing the essence of our discipline much more broadly.1 Perhaps reflecting some of the societal tensions of the turbulent 1960s, Morrison commented on the tragically limited diversity of physicists and physics teachers,

Yet ours remains a narrow sect. Please look around you. Who is missing? We need many more women, we need many more Negro Americans, we need poets, at least a few. Ought we not to attract one Senator? They are not here. They are not even our students, most of them. But here we are, listening, arguing, inventing, doing physics, with some industry and a good deal of weaponry as a by-product. We are a happy few, a band of myopic brothers.

This quest for more diversity among physicists themselves, but also within the perspectives from which they teach, is a complex and sobering subject that surely can’t be properly addressed in this short homily. However, perhaps we can still reflect on any modest progress since the 1960s and at least try to peer ahead to a better land.

 

Two months after Morrison’s talk saw the horrors of "Bloody Sunday" near Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, and two weeks later the start of the "long march"—more than 3,000 people walking 54 miles to the steps of the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery—and eventually the successful passage of national voters rights protection. While many significant and broadly systematic problems still remain in our society, the status of people of color throughout the country has improved markedly on several counts since the often violent late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. But has the physics community done as well with Morrison’s challenge? Why is it so difficult to broaden our base of physics students to include the increasing numbers of Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans that would be expected, based on U.S. demographics? Regarding women in physics, we seem to be doing better, according to recent high school numbers (about 50% women in physics classrooms), but still see very significant drops in their percentages while moving through undergraduate years toward a physics degree. And I see little progress with current (or future) poets and senators!

 

While having almost no ready answers, let me still raise just a few of many questions that come to mind.

 

• Why do black students who graduate from historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs) appear to be better motivated and prepared for careers in engineering and science? Is something missing in the teaching methods, atmosphere or mentoring of traditionally white schools? Do most instructors "have a clue" about what may sometimes be an ongoing assault on the "personhood" of a person of color who sits in their classes? If the AAPT figuratively were to walk the 54 miles to Montgomery concerning such issues, what would be our first steps?

 

 • Is physics teaching and research at high school, college, and university levels an inviting occupation for women and men who want to "have a life"? Are we sometimes too comfortable with a smug and elitist image of physics that is simply not attractive to many who wish to deeply engage and work within the context of the full breadth of human values? What actions must we take as a physics society to more effectively provide venues in our journals and national meetings for highlighting those areas where physics interacts with culture, ethics, and public affairs?

 

 • Do our teaching methods in classrooms and labs help convey a respect and tolerance for those who bring different backgrounds and perspectives? How do our teaching and assessment practices identify, encourage, and compassionately assist those who have never experienced the constructs and methods upon which we so comfortably build? Do we even bother to learn of their backgrounds, families, and personal goals?

 

These are tough issues that have confronted nearly all of us, and meaningful responses must be both personal and corporate. So it is that we have active AAPT Area Committees devoted to Women in Physics, Minorities in Physics, and Science Education for the Public. These groups and their leaders are listed in the "Organizational Directory" of the Spring 2005 Announcer, and at www.aapt.org/Directory/index.cfm. Whether or not you are an official committee member, they welcome, and need, your help. Yes, we may still be a bit myopic, but together we can at least march forward in the right direction with more confident strides.

 

1. Am. J. Phys. 33 (9), 702–706 (1965).


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