We were descending through the strata of clouds that hovered above the Cartesian plots of northern Ohio. I was watching the approach, outside the porthole, of those beautiful cuts of amber and emerald, which I had never recognized as jewels when I galloped through them as a child. The young woman sitting next to me, wearing compression pants and savvy glasses, was biting her ponytail and concentrating on a book, How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age. She turned to the other person beside her, a man who was obstructing the aisle with one of his legs, and asked what the word “inextricable” meant. Although he was man-spreading, his age was impossible to guess—his facial hair was prepubescent, yet he wore a baseball cap advertising craft beer. He said, “Dunno,” and turned back to his Sudoku. As I stared out the window, I knew the meaning only too well.
I was flying to Cleveland in June of 2018 on a sort of homecoming. I was born among those semi-precious fields of northern Ohio, but also I had studied particle physics and I was returning to my subject and its people. I was going to attend a symposium dedicated to the living idols of modern physics, the men and women who were among my heroes in graduate school. I was planning to interview at least a half-dozen Nobel Laureates who had traveled to Cleveland, of all places, to celebrate the golden anniversary of their greatest achievement.
We were either one year too late or a few years too early for a jubilee. The paper from which the physicists had started counting the years was published 51 years earlier. And the theory that the paper described was affirmed at least a decade later. But the idea was worth celebrating, the organizer of the symposium said, anytime and anywhere.
Because if the goal of science is to enumerate the substance of the world and to reveal the forces and agents that move it, these men and women had done better than anyone else. They had developed the most precise theory ever contrived, and they had every right to call it the Standard Model as they did. A popular science magazine had commissioned me to write 2,000 words about it and the symposium.
In Cleveland, the Laureates boasted to me of their success, but they also confided in me their failure. The Standard Model had too many deficits to be correct. Its predictions matched almost every experiment on every particle ever observed, but there was so much more to the world than what anyone could measure. The theory still did not account for all the matter and energy that physicists regrettably called dark, which are the greatest constituents of our universe. And the theory neglected gravity, whose import we feel in our bodies. I suppose that could be one definition of privilege—to pursue ideas so lofty that gravity is inconsequential.
Although physicists had not yet concocted a theory to comprehend the entire universe, they had never relinquished the hope that they might one day know it all, just like teenagers or fools. I too had aspired, however briefly, to develop a theory of everything, when I was in grad school. Now I doubted the promise of such a neat finale. Even still, I honored the endeavor. Physicists had taken a risk, and set themselves up to fail. So had I.
Two weeks later, I submitted 6,000 words about the symposium and the Standard Model without telling the whole story. My editor rightly asked for cuts but wrongly asked that I remove all criticism. I withdrew the piece. I decided not to tell cheery half-truths. I had that privilege. Some of the physicists had confided in me more than their failures. So I decided to write the other half of the story instead, the one about the impurity of pure science, the one you are reading now.
But before I could finish the telling, I had to return to where I was from.
There are few cities in the United States better than Cleveland, Ohio, in which to delineate between failure and success, and I guess that’s what I was in town to do. The city’s professional teams were once the longest suffering in all American sports, but during the summer of 2018 two of the three were pretty great. The one with the racist mascot was in first place in the American League, and another was in the NBA finals and dominated small talk, despite the fine weather, while I was in town.
Serene Lake Erie, up to which the city of Cleveland sidles, blooms regularly with algae that release cyanobacterial toxins. The Cuyahoga River, which saunters beside downtown, is so polluted that it has caught fire an unlucky 13 times. Yet the most recent blaze was 50 years ago, in 1969, when so many other American cities were on fire, too. Pleasure-seekers can now boat on the city’s waters and acquire a tan without getting scorched, although no one much swims in the toxic water still.
Cleveland has long had one of the most vibrant orchestras in the world. It performs in a beaux-arts building set across a sweeping lawn from the city’s spectacular art museum, which is itself a hybrid of white marble and dark glass. Just one block away sits an even more conspicuous building, which Frank Gehry designed for Case Western University.
That building looks like aluminum foil unfurled from its roll, and snow used to slide from its undulant roof onto passersby. I am pleased to report that the extravagant Reynolds Wrap now supports precipitation, but the building is still a focusing mirror for the sun. It heats students on the neighboring sidewalk as if they were ants. I could feel its rays across Bellflower Road, where I lounged with Nobel Laureates.
Just a few blocks west of the heat, along Euclid Avenue, Cleveland also has one of the most prestigious hospitals in the world. A friend who had attended Case Western and who is now a doctor warned me that the blocks between the Cleveland Clinic and the university were notorious for muggings. I knew that this was a cipher to warn me that the neighborhood was African American, even though a person of color had encoded the message.
I was unscathed during my walk through that slice of land every morning. I did, however, sweat through my shirt the first time I hurried through. I was unafraid; I had just forgotten about the summer humidity of the Midwest.
During the soggy walks from my hotel to the university each morning, at most of the transit stops that I passed, a plaque exaggerated the history of that clinical neighborhood: “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Langston Hughes are among the luminaries with ties to Fairfax, a diverse Cleveland community that is now home to institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Playhouse, and Karamu House. It is a diverse and dynamic neighborhood of second- and third-generation residents living alongside newcomers, churches, and world class healthcare.”
I struggled to find the ties to such luminaries in my subsequent research. And there is only one durable black-stone church, the East Mt. Zion Baptist Congregation, along that stretch of Euclid Avenue, huddled by the stolid medical buildings looking down on it from all sides. But how many euphemisms for gentrification and disenfranchisement did you count in those two sentences?
During the summer of 1966, a few blocks to the north, Molotov cocktails had ignited the streets that were then deluged with people. The Seventy-Niner’s Café, a white-owned bar, had refused to quench the thirst of the neighborhood’s black residents. The National Guard dispersed the protest with bullets rather than water and murdered four civilians.
My father-in-law had arrived in the United States from Pakistan earlier that year, to study English literature, and he was then living nearby. He escorted a white roommate to his final exam through that black neighborhood, and he escorted his black friends past the white soldiers on his return home. No one knew to which side the brown man belonged.
Most people are sure that they know now.
Like the city of Cleveland, the discipline of physics has made uneven progress since the 1960s. It cultivates the finest of human achievements without much social advance.
Unlike the city of Cleveland, the demographics of physics have barely changed. The subject has long been a refuge for immigrants—first Jewish, and later South and East Asian—but physics was gentrified by Anglo-Saxon men long ago, and it remains their colony still.
In 1973, more than 97% of American physicists self-identified as white and male. Today, more than three quarters of students in the subject are white, and more than 80% are men. That is the standard model of a physicist. The only college major with a lower percentage of either black or female students is music. Jewish and Asian men were slightly overrepresented in my subject, but Asian men still comprise less than 8% of all physics students.
My relatives in Ohio used to ask me what it was like to compete against these model minorities, who were so naturally good at math. My relatives never credited the sacrifices of non-white immigrant parents or the hard work of my fellow students. In part, my blue-collar relatives could not conceive of math and science as a kind of labor. But my family also had little experience with anyone who was not white, except the few people of color whom they saw on television.
I answered that no race or ethnicity was endowed with any proclivity in calculus. I explained that what my relatives said was racist. How could that be racist, my relatives asked, when it was so kindhearted and true?
In surveys, physicists have long identified themselves as some of the most liberal professors on campuses. Sure, some physicists designed hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles, but many more protested such weapons and marched against America’s wars. During the Civil Rights era, while constructing the largest federal laboratory in the United States, they had campaigned for fair housing and job programs on the South Side of Chicago, so that African Americans might benefit from the lab, too. In the Soviet Union and China, leading dissidents were particle theorists. Some physicists even worked alongside the Black Panthers in the Bay Area to educate children and build an independent electric grid.
But physicists are rarely so political today, even though they adopt the language of resistance. They anoint their theories as revolutionary or radical, even when nothing is overthrown and no one gets hurt. They appropriate the cachet of revolutionaries, much as advertisers do, because they are selling a product.
Physicists want you to invest in their labor, for their gain but also for yours. Your tax dollars build the accelerators in which they control and measure particles. You buy the pencils and chalk with which they jot down ideas. You build the laboratories and institutions where their knowledge is manufactured. You pay for their jaunts around the world to disperse this knowledge. In return, the application of such knowledge generates your electronics, computers, vehicles, communication systems, and phones, which transport us around the globe, too. It’s a symbiotic relationship. But for this, we indemnify physicists of the other applications of their knowledge, to surveillance and war.
Still, physicists retain a kind of innocence. They are as curious and excitable as children. They are also at times overridden with arrogance, born of excessive praise and self-regard. I should know. When I studied physics, it was simply easier to inquire about the universe than to worry about other humans. People were so much harder than quarks for me to understand. So I buried my head in equations and books, and then I congratulated myself on all the hard work that I did to understand the real world.
I arrived in Cleveland on a pre-dawn flight and checked into my hotel on the morning when celebration of the Standard Model began. I chose not to stay near the conference center because I did not want to be surrounded by physicists day and night. The guests who crowded the lobby at my hotel were the relatives of patients at the Cleveland Clinic next door. A placard in my room informed me that Sharps containers were available at the front desk, complementary, for guests who needed to dispose of syringes.
When I arrived at the University Center that first morning, thankful that I had overdressed in a suit jacket, which concealed the puddles under my arms, I approached a black woman sitting at the information desk to ask where the symposium was. Before I spoke, she asked if I was looking for the diversity panel. I muttered No, I was looking for the physicists. She frowned and pointed upstairs.
I registered with a few student volunteers, who all wore sky-blue shirts that promoted the Standard Model. I picked up my swag—a mug, notepad, and pen—and asked if their shirts were for sale. They were not.
I walked into the lecture hall, sat down in the back, and looked around. The turnout was larger than I had expected, more than 100 attendees. The number of women was exactly what I had expected, barely double digits. I counted three African Americans. And there was no discernible intersectionality, which was no surprise. Less than half of queer physicists feel comfortable being out among their colleagues.
Most of the lectures during that long weekend, all but two or three, were dense with information and aggressively boring—the antithesis of TED talks. The speakers droned from scripts, projected onto their maximalist slides. I will spare you the details; masochists can watch the presentations online. If you do, however, you will not hear most of the questions from the audience. No one held the microphone close enough to be heard. And you will not hear Helen Quinn, an award-winning lecturer at Stanford University, and an Aussie-accented voice of reason, as she made incisive comments to everyone around her.
Thankfully, Helen Quinn, and nearly every one of the other speakers, had already answered questions that first morning, during an Ask Me Anything forum on Reddit. From the back of the hall, just before lunch, a filmmaker who was live-streaming the talks shouted that the physicists were the top link on the site. One white physicist, wearing a black Standard Model T-shirt, available only to speakers, stood up and bragged that he had earned a gold star. When asked to define theoretical physics, he had said it was a socially acceptable form of mental illness.
In a long line during the first coffee break, a Nobel Laureate cut in front of me as I reached the table of refreshments. He was blithely getting a tea, so I said nothing as I walked around him to get some coffee. But I was not even sure what to say to a Nobel Laureate who had never seen a queue or did not care to wait in one.
As I sipped my coffee, I saw another Nobel Laureate standing alone. I reintroduced myself; we had met a few times before, but I knew that he had forgotten. He had never recognized me after any of the other times we had met. I asked the Laureate if he had some time the following day to talk about the Standard Model. He looked at the conference schedule, pointed to the only talk by an African-American, Bennie Ward, and said he intended to skip that one. I asked if he was sure, there was plenty of time to talk during lunch. Of course he was sure, he said, that talk sounded boring.
That evening, I walked back to my hotel, toward the sun that blushed as it fattened and fell in the blue sky. I heard the oscillating buzz of locusts, the same crepitation that had hummed me to sleep when I was a kid. At the hotel, I changed into a bathing suit in my room, and I descended to the pool. I taught a boy to swim after he asked me how I did the strokes during my laps. His aunt was hunched sideways over a lounge chair, speaking quietly on her cellphone. The boy introduced himself as Josiah, like from the Bible, and I introduced myself as Joshua, like from the Bible, too. He told me, nonchalantly, that his mother was having surgery on her heart. Josiah’s aunt asked if I could watch the boy for a second while she went to order food.
After she left, a brawny man wearing a camouflage hat walked around the deck holding a Budweiser. He reclined on a lounge chair and stared at me when his towheaded son jumped into the water. They looked like a pair of my relatives. Josiah did not. I braced myself for the father to motion to his son not to splash with the dark boy and the man in the pool. I had many of these familial experiences growing up in Ohio.
I had misjudged. A black woman came in with her lighter-skinned son and sat next to the brawny man. She handed him another Bud. Josiah’s aunt came back with food and thanked me for watching him.
That evening, at the hotel bar, a man sat next to me, wearing a hat that matched his sleeveless Harley Davidson shirt. He ordered a Michelob Ultra and a shot of Patrón, because he was celebrating. He told the young black bartender that his momma was done with her surgeries so he could finally be gittin’ home. He left and did not tip. I tried not to judge. Personal experiences do not sum to universal truths.
Not everyone participates in the assembly of knowledge. Andrew Pickering, a former high-energy physicist, once derided his subject as a sport for the rich. Its teams play with expensive equipment and travel the world on million dollar grants, arguing ideas and patterns that they designate as beautiful or pure. Physicists ignore the costs of their work and enjoy the trappings of luxury, even though they rarely acquire wealth from doing research. They don’t have to; more than three quarters of physicists are born into the top socioeconomic brackets.
Inside the program of activities for the symposium in Cleveland was a list of its corporate sponsors. Three had donated at least $20,000 and seven others had pledged more than $5,000 to reimburse the lodging and expenses of the guests, nearly all white men. Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream even designed a new flavor exclusively for the participants—Quarksicle, made from a base of toasted pistachio, ribboned with Bing cherries and blueberries, all melting in the primary colors of quarks.
I was also enriched by the study of physics. So I still believe in the universality of some of its theories. Special relativity prevails everywhere in space and time and its laws exist independent of you or me. In fact, relativity is the theory that reconciles our different points of view, the one that depicts universals despite any distinctions between us observers.
I am not so egocentric to contend that truth is constructed only by human minds. We gather facts from an apathetic world and struggle to understand them collectively. Sometimes we discern real patterns in multiform data. We even luck onto ideas that are greater than ourselves, facts that exist outside our bodies or our contrived races and borders.
But the truths of basic physics are simple. Every electron is the same as every other, in weight and size and charge. The subject does not have to account for any diversity. Even so, or perhaps because of this, the truths of physics might be the greatest accomplishments of humanity. Physics really does allow us to see a more perfect universe, one in which we are—all of us—made of the same material, quarks and electrons and the embers of stars.
Every quark and gluon comes in one of three possible colors: red, green, or blue. The actual color, every physicist knows, does not matter at all. But why physicists chose to stain these particles with the additive primary colors, rather than the subtractive colors, during the 1960s, I do not know. The choice was innocent, yet you can hear its reverberations today.
Some physicists still refer to particles as “colored.” But quarks and gluons can never be observed independently, as individual particles of color. They can only be observed in groups of two or three, when they blend to white. If subtracted, their colors would have combined to black. I suppose then they would never be seen.
The acquisition of pure knowledge is almost never pure, whatever our intentions.
As a graduate student, I once asked a woman why she wanted to be a physicist. I later asked the same of a Hispanic colleague. I’m sure their motivations were no different from my own, but no one had ever asked me.
I dated one of the few women in the physics department in grad school, but I was so petulant after our break up that she nearly quit. Her advisor later said that she was too emotional for our rational discipline. I should have been the one to quit, long before I did. I struggled with self-confidence, yet no one had ever doubted my abilities. But I was neither a woman nor a person of color. I was born in a poor town, among the fields of northern Ohio, yet I never suffered the daily slights and aggressions that led students who were far better than I was to quit.
Here’s a fact: Women and people of color who attain the same score as white men do on math exams report less confidence in their abilities and drop out more frequently.
In graduate school, I did not work in groups or promote my classmates. I did my calculations alone. Whenever I was stuck, however, I expected their rescue. One of my professors told a young female student that she was not good enough to be in his class. I said nothing as she cried and walked out, although she had helped me with my calculations. I saw another white physicist take the chalk from a person of color and tell him to sit down, because surely the student did not know what he was talking about. He was discussing his own research.
During the symposium in Cleveland, the member of one prominent physics department told me that her colleagues had recently voted against accepting a grant that would encourage people of color to study physics. The faculty did not want to dilute the quality of the applicants. Then she told me that she did not want to encourage more applicants to study physics, either. She did not want them to suffer advisors who actively obstructed change.
I specialized in theoretical physics, the province of pure ideas. The subject is perhaps the most natural conduit for white privilege among the sciences. Its purveyors are predominantly white men to whom we ascribe a singular genius. Theorists shuffle down our hallowed halls to their quiet offices in which they have few concerns more pressing than to sit and think. Administrative staff, often women of color, attend to their ignoble needs. Yet theorists still use female pronouns when describing Nature. They pursue her relentlessly, and they strive to uncover her secrets.
Here’s another fact: There is a direct correlation between the number of white men in a field and the likelihood that a male professor will be called a “genius” on evaluations. Physics has the second highest likelihood. But female physicists are still called geniuses half as often as men are. Only in online courses, when students do not see the professor and are purposefully told the wrong sex, will students judge women equally as brilliant as men. A student’s bias is finally blind.
Albert Einstein, everyone knows, was the greatest theoretical physicist. He was also, we are told, a virtuous man. He protested the lynching of African Americans, supported Marie Curie against sexist attacks, broadcast the violence of Nazis, and enlightened the world with his mathematics. But he was also an atrocious husband, an inattentive father, and a misogynist who almost never collaborated with anyone. He was too dedicated to pure ideas for quotidian concerns.
Make no mistake; the vocation of physics is never wholly noble, however righteous the soul. Physicists do what they do for the same reason that an addict pursues a fix. Discoveries large and small light up the pleasure centers in our brains, and physicists pursue these moments of fleeting glory, which they hanker to relive. We permit them this fix and even pay for it, because we benefit from their dependency.
Physicists often acknowledge the privilege to sit and think about the universe, to decipher its beauty from extravagant locales. But they do not always register the circumstances from which their privilege derives. Those who become physicists are selected by their merit and drive, as most students in the sciences are. But others who are equally deserving never have the same chance.
It is hard to recognize the bias that winnows the demographics of a discipline, before selections based on merit are ever made. Physicists can look around and see other white men and draw conclusions from skewed data. Racism and misogyny are latent diseases of the body that need not flare up to be manifest.
I was just as diseased as everyone else. In college, I thought that most people weren’t smart enough or didn’t work hard enough to become physicists, although I was neither more diligent nor smarter than anyone else. I was, however, narrowly determined. I was often so deep in thought, so lost in my own head, that I did not witness the injustices around me.
My blindness was permitted, however, despite my humble beginnings, because I am a white, cis- man. Few other demographics get to submerge their worries in pure thoughts as I did. They do not get to be apathetic or apolitical. They are impeded, or imprisoned, by truths baser than those of physics.
I am generalizing of course, because that is what we do when we group people. But I think physicists can handle it. Not every physicist is as petulant as I was.
In 2015, two thousand physicists signed a letter supporting affirmative action, after the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court asked during hearings: “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” The American Physical Society, which represents the country’s 50,000 physicists, issued a statement in response: “APS is committed to supporting the advancement of knowledge, and the people who make this possible. We cannot separate the two.”
Here is a fact I learned afterward: The greater the diversity of a collaboration the greater the number of citations that its papers receive and the greater the influence of its work.
Before the lectures in Cleveland began on the second day, the organizer instructed the audience on how to hold the microphone. The trick to being heard was to hold the mic like a singer in a punk band, straight out from the mouth and against the teeth, rather than up and down like an ice cream cone.
A blond Nobel Laureate arrived late and walked regally down the center aisle. He nodded left and right to his colleagues, until he made it to the front row and sat down. He wore red suspenders and a denim jacket. During the talks, he frequently turned around to the audience behind him, smiling at some witticism from the speaker or one from his own head.
A woman, whom I did not recognize, always accompanied him. She wore glasses to match his suspenders and followed him in and out of the hall during every session. But she never sat next to him. On the second morning, she sat next to me and worked on her laptop while I peeked at her screen.
I suspected that she was the Laureate’s secretary; she spent most of the morning booking his flights and renting a house in his name on Cape Cod. She then spent the remainder of her time placing bids on renaissance art—especially one rendition of a noble horse without a rider. But I gleaned her name when she checked Facebook. She has a Ph.D., speaks at least three languages, and has a history of publication in energy technology. She had once been the Laureate’s collaborator. I heard him say later that evening that she handles his schedule and travel.
After a few talks and even more inaudible questions, Bennie Ward, the lone black speaker, walked to the front. The Laureate with whom I made an appointment to speak gathered his things, strode past me, and winked. We walked outside together to the quad. The Laureate drank coffee but somehow had radiant teeth, and he spoke at me for an hour. I was able to interrupt him only four times to ask questions. He finally looked at his watch and said we ought to get back inside. He wanted to hear a fellow Laureate speak. I noticed afterward that the background on his computer was a photograph. He was seated at a white-cloth table between a blonde princess and the Queen of Sweden.
That afternoon, during lunch, I sat next to a wall of televisions, which displayed excited tweets about the symposium and its Nobel Laureates. Across from me, a middle-aged physicist spoke authoritatively over the phone, in a tone that physicists reserve for non-physicists or one that men reserve for women. After his monologue, he told the woman on the line that she should be talking to her husband, not to him, about her feelings.
As I stood up and left, I suddenly saw the Nobel Laureate whose paper was the principal reason for our celebration. He looked like a Kewpie doll in an expensive suit, and he was sitting alone on a boomerang couch, with his hands crossed atop the handle of an ebony cane. As I approached, I saw that his eyes were closed.
Mary Gaillard, whom I had also been trying to locate for an interview earlier that day, then hobbled past the Nobel Laureate, aided by a more utilitarian cane. She was nearly the same age as he was, but she had not received her first permanent position in physics until many decades after he did. She sat on the other arm of the couch and closed her eyes. I let her sleep, too.
I met the organizer of the symposium before the first session on the third day, and I asked how long he had been planning this event. Fifteen months, he said. But most physicists, at this level (his words), were booked two years in advance. He had not started in time to secure the attendance of everyone.
The organizer stood up as I walked back to my seat and announced that student volunteers would be herding the feral physicists for a photograph during our coffee break. Then he taught us, once again, how to hold the microphone.
The sleepy theorist, whose paper we were celebrating, arrived late, after the start of the second talk. When he sat down, he took a manuscript and a box of orange juice from his bag. He read, drank, and finally slept through the only talk to mention politics overtly.
A cosmologist lectured to us about the production of matter in the early universe, and at the end he posted a fake tweet from the current President, who was exclaiming his own theory. “[It] solves YUGE problems by pure thought without making boring testable predictions. Who needs observational verification? Sad. EXPERIMENTS ARE FOR LOSERS! #MakeAstrophysicsGreekAgain.”
Another Nobel Laureate did inadvertently make a political statement during the following talk. He told the audience to look around. “It’s pretty homogeneous,” he said, much as it was in outer space.
Later that morning, I approached the Laureate whom we were celebrating, while he was still awake, to ask if we could speak. He asked whether I had an advanced degree in physics. After I said yes, he consented to talk.
I descended to the ground floor with him and another Laureate, who has a reputation for mistreating students. Later that afternoon, a female physicist told me stories about this man that were so harrowing that she made me promise, more than once, that I would never repeat them to anyone.
Downstairs, the sleepy Laureate saved me a seat overlooking the quad. The sky was steeled with impending storms, and I asked only a few questions before I let him attend a buffet, exclusively for the speakers. The storm arrived and I had brought neither an umbrella nor a lunch, so I went upstairs to eat the complementary fruit outside the lecture hall.
Mary Gaillard was there, sitting alone, and I asked if we could speak. She had also grown up in northern Ohio, not far from where we were, and I felt at home beside her.
Fifty years ago, in 1968, Mary Gaillard had an office in Paris, where she had a position without pay. I asked her about the actual revolutions in the city that summer, when a group of students had occupied her office. She said: “It had nothing to do with me. It had to do with this other guy because he was always bringing up the names of famous physicists, and that was against their principles. They were Maoists. We were supposed to be egalitarian, everyone is equal.” I asked if her colleagues or the students ever treated her as an equal. She said No.
I then asked if physics had improved for women, since this revolution. “Well,” she said, “when I was in graduate school there were two women in my class of 60. And now it’s like…well it grew during the 1970s, then it sort of leveled off at about 15 or 16%.”
Gaillard lowered her voice as the other physicists were returning to the hall. “We still get a lot of complaints from women who feel put down. It’s still true that men will say things even when they don’t know what they’re talking about, and women are afraid to speak up for fear of making fools of themselves. I don’t know why that hasn’t changed.”
That evening, the physicists attended a reception in the open-air courtyard of the art museum across the quad. Black musicians played light jazz and Hispanic waiters offered drinks and canapés to mingling physicists, who stood awkwardly far from the stage. I introduced myself to the political cosmologist, to say how much I had enjoyed his talk. He bristled when I also mentioned that I admired his wife’s research. She was standing next him, with a fetching swath of pink in her metallic hair. Her husband turned to speak to another man while I chatted with her.
I did not want to meet anyone else and explain who I was, and no one else wanted to talk to a writer, so I left. As I waited outside for a taxi, two young women of color left the museum. I recognized them as student volunteers from the conference. They were walking outside with glasses of champagne to have a smoke. They needed it. I heard them talking about one of the male professors inside, whom they had to escape, confirming what I already knew about him. I wanted to ask them for a cigarette, but I left them alone.
Back at my hotel, I went downstairs to the bar to have a drink. The local basketball team was on the television, in the NBA finals. The commentators argued about the importance of numbers as a measure of a player’s true performance. One of them asked what numbers even meant. I asked, under my breath, why anyone kept score.
On my final morning in Cleveland, the organizer demonstrated, once again, the proper way to hold a microphone. I watched the blond Laureate leave soon afterward, followed by his assistant, as he told another colleague that the talks were boring. A theorist whom I knew asked if I was still having fun. I said yes.
The two young women who had smoked and drank outside the museum the night before were now sitting in the back row, wearing sunglasses and volunteer shirts that matched the summer sky. During the coffee break, they asked Mary Gaillard to sit with them for a photograph.
After the final questions of the day, which still no one could hear, the organizer praised the speakers and thanked Betty Gaffney, his African-American secretary, whose hard work and dedication had made the conference possible.
I went to a nearby food court before I left for the airport. A few tables away, the female student volunteers were having lunch with Helen Quinn. I eavesdropped on her stories from a lifetime in physics. More than once, she looked around, leaned forward, and whispered something I could not hear. The young women nodded solemnly or laughed.
At the airport that afternoon, after I had passed through security, a man approached a woman, tapped her on the shoulder, and told her to check her purse. He had witnessed another man “acting strange” behind her. The women put her hand to her heart, checked her purse, and thanked heavens that her wallet was still there.
I had also witnessed the man who was acting strange. He had been walking behind the slow-moving woman and her husband, trying to pass before turning into the bathroom. Pickpockets do not typically buy plane tickets or show government ID to they ply their trade. But white people in Ohio do readily suspect African Americans of theft, even inside an airport.
Two weeks later, after I killed my story about the celebration and the Standard Model, a young physicist published an article about her own experience in Cleveland, for the same magazine (at half my word count). At the end of the article, she described an encounter with a Nobel Laureate who said that she must have been invited to the conference because she was pretty. Immediately following her otherwise cheery piece was the disclaimer: “The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of [the magazine].”
Half of all women on science faculties report unwanted sexual attention or harassment. The rate of incidence has not decreased since the 1970s.
I was seated in a row all to myself when, once again, I descended through the strata of clouds that hovered above the bejeweled fields of northern Ohio. It was one month after the conference. I was flying to Detroit, the city nearest to where my parents now live. We were going to drive south together, through fields of corn as tall as basketball players, to the small town in northern Ohio where I was born. I was going home to see my relatives.
It was my great-grandmother’s 103rd birthday, and my family was celebrating her prime year. I could not extricate myself from this trip. I had not visited my extended family in a few years; since the time when I overheard my uncles complaining wildly about cabals of Feminists, Mexicans, Muslims, and Blacks. I knew that they had never met any of these categories of people whom they generalized, because the population of their small town, which they had never left, was more than 98% non-Hispanic white. Fifty percent were female, but I did not know of any who self-identified as feminist. And I knew everyone in town.
During this trip, my uncles said nothing to me. But they did repeatedly tell my nephew that he looked like a gangbanger. He wore his baseball cap slightly askew, so my uncles physically straightened the cap on his head. My nephew was five years old. He returned the brim to where he liked it with my encouragement.
Racism and sexism are more difficult to explain to my relatives than physics is. Most of my relatives have preconceived notions of the first two and no notion of the last. They do not stop to consider the opportunities that are stolen from women. They do not try to understand how national or local policies can obstruct people of color. In part, that is because my relatives lack opportunities, too. They think that they know a thing or two about the world already.
Their notions: Other people want handouts, they don’t work hard enough to merit success. Men and women are different, anyone can see that.
My relatives have discerned a pattern in biased data, their own experiences. They have never left their zone of comfort, that very small, very white town. When they do enter diverse spaces, I have witnessed them confuse black educators for janitors, demean women in authority as bitches, assume people of color were cashing welfare checks rather than paychecks. One of my relatives once tapped my wife atop her head and called her “girl.” She is an American woman of Pakistani descent with a doctoral degree and a professorship. This relative later asked of my wife: “What is she?”
I never would have empathized with people who experience such daily slights and aggressions, had I not experienced them, obliquely, myself. Thankfully, I never had to live them.
In high school, my best friends were migrant workers from Mexico, with whom I labored on a farm. I am not very dark, and neither are they, but we were all darker during the summer, after toiling all day in the fields. When we went to the mall speaking Spanish, no one attended us, and I heard ripe words whenever people thought we spoke no English. I witnessed the prejudice of insurance agents, car dealers, and medical professionals whenever I accompanied my friends as their translator or guarantor. But I always returned home to my cozy privilege.
When I was a child, growing up in Ohio, my great-grandmother took me outside one evening and pointed out all the white constellations in the dark sky. She identified a pattern in every speckle that I could see. She still tells the story of how I was then able to distinguish the planets from the stars, even at six years old. But I could not yet fathom all that black space, teeming with its own matter and energy.
My great-grandmother loved science fiction, and she became a nurse because it was the best opportunity in science that was available to her. She then encouraged me to pursue a life of science, which she could never have.
I love physics, despite the foibles of physicists. But I cannot separate the two. I want everyone to have the same opportunities that I did, to dive into profound ideas and lose themselves in idle thoughts without having to worry about politics or quotidian troubles. I want physicists to deserve their privilege to pursue lofty truths. I want everyone to ignore gravity.
But on the morning when I arrived in Ohio to celebrate my great-grandmother, an investigation revealed that a renowned astrophysicist had groped a woman at a conference in 2016. Two days later, I saw him speaking about black holes on a television program called How the Universe Works.
My wife joined me in Ohio, but she flew in a few days after I did. I had begged her not to come, to avoid all the demeaning questions that my relatives still ask about her citizenship, race, and religion. But my wife would never delay her trip because of a few racist relatives or my masculine concerns. She had stayed home for blood tests. We were going to be parents. I had told her not to come because I was trying to protect our brown child, before people thought they knew to which side he belonged.
I love my relatives, whatever their foibles. But I cannot separate the two.
After that second visit to Ohio, my parents drove my wife and I to the airport. Although my parents grew up in that small white town, they can point to some of my other relatives and truthfully say that there is a spectrum of racism, and my parents score better than most.
But en route to the airport, halted by the traffic of the Motor City, my father looked into the car idling next to us. A young black man was at the wheel. My dad hesitated. Then he said, “I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but I've noticed that many African Americans don’t wear seatbelts.”
I paused. I breathed. I had decided not to let even these slight biases pass. So I reminded my dad of all the young white men whom we have known who died in accidents when not wearing seatbelts. I asked if that was cultural, too. “No,” he said, “I guess you’re right.” My mom nodded and did not say a word.
Back home, a few weeks after I had finished writing this half of the story, a male physicist told a largely female audience, during the first workshop ever devoted to theoretical physics and gender, at the largest physics laboratory in the world, that their subject was invented by men and built by men, who were now losing their jobs to women. The reason, he said, was that women are sexists.
The following week, Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for physics, the first woman to be lauded in more than 50 years.