Notes of an Academic Son
Physics revealed to me a world which made no reference to who I was and all the random factors that could bend a life trajectory. It presented the world as one of structure and order and gave me many reasons to have faith in a life I did not completely understand.
I first watched Gattaca after my junior year of high school, and it thereafter became my favorite film. Recap for those who haven't seen it: In a society where embryonic gene editing is the norm, parents can choose particular physical and cognitive traits for their children ever before such children are the proverbial twinkle in their father's eye. In one of the early scenes, we are shown two parents in a spare sepia-toned office discussing with their doctor what should or should not be included in the genetic profile of their second child. Their first child, Vincent Freeman, was conceived without gene editing, and from his natural genetic profile had a high probability of depression, ADHD, and neurological disease and was given a life-expectancy of 30 years due to a predicted heart disorder. For their second child, the parents did not want to leave as much to chance.
Narrating his subsequent life, Vincent explains "I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No. We now have discrimination down to a science." Vincent has aspirations of going into space, but his inferior genetics bar him from any of the positions that could make that dream even remotely possible. However, he is intense, tenacious, and committed and finds a way to hide his identity behind another which he uses to gain access to a space corporation planning a flight to Saturn's moon Titan. In the corporation, our hero proves himself to be a master navigator and is soon chosen to be part of the new mission. His plans are almost derailed by a murder and a subsequent investigation, but the ending scene has him on a rocket leaving Earth. Before the credits, Vincent tells us: "For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess, I'm suddenly having a hard time leaving it."
In the years after that first viewing, I never interrogated my attachment to the film, but now I can guess it came from a few sources. There was the beautiful orchestral score, the minimal set pieces, a post-Pulp Fiction and pre-Kill Bill Uma Thurman. But mostly I think I was attached to the arc of someone succeeding in a place he was not ever meant to be. I had first watched the film at an age when I could not escape thoughts about career and future, and at the time I was consuming without caution the biographies of the great theoretical physicists of the mid-twentieth century: Gell-Mann, Feynman, Dyson, Tomonaga, Schwinger. Their pre-college life stories were so different from mine in superficial and profound ways, but still I entertained the idea that I too could become a physicist. In Vincent, I saw a mirror of myself, and in the scenes with him doing inverted sit-ups weighted by a large celestial mechanics tome, I saw a metaphor for how I too might succeed.
But there are necessary questions in selecting, if only unintentionally, such a mirror. That Vincent is considered by his society to be inferior to the more genetically-curated humans is a basic premise of the story, one that it spends the entire time questioning, but one which is nevertheless made plain in the leaps through fire-crested hoops Vincent must go through in order to hide who he is. If I indeed saw myself in him, did I too think that my society saw me as inferior? Did I look around at my peers and see people who I thought were in some way better than me, and as a result, did I believe I could only gain some measure of success by making up for that inferiority with tenacity and commitment?
I saw the film in the summer of 2008 in an MIT classroom whose windows overlooked the southern border of the campus quadrangle. I was not a student at the time. Rather, I and about 60 other rising high school juniors were partway through the Minority Introduction To Engineering and Science (MITES) program (This is the old breakdown of the acronym. It now stands for MIT Introduction to Engineering and Science). The MITES program takes students from across the U.S. and puts them through a simulated first-semester college curriculum featuring Calculus, Life Science, Physics, and Writing courses and a selection from engineering electives. The courses were taught by faculty and graduate students from Boston and Cambridge and had weekly assignments, exams, and class projects. And aside from the cost of flight tickets to and from campus, the program was free.
Outside of class, MITES organized tours, weekly career seminars, and movies for the students. It was during one of the movie sessions that I saw Gattaca. Given the film's heavy-handed questions about the relationship between scientific progress and society, it was an apt choice for a science and engineering summer program. But given the demographic composition of the program, one could also glean a more subtle message in this choice.
MITES first began at MIT in the early1970s with the goal of increasing the percentage of underrepresented minorities in engineering and science. Consequently, a majority of the students who attended the program were Black, Latino, or American Indian. Reflecting supposed universal experiences behind these demographics, the films and books assigned during the program often explored questions of identity and place. During the same summer we watched Gattaca, we also read speeches by then Senator Obama and watched Smoke Signals, a film focusing on the experiences of teenagers living on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation. Based on all of this material, we were asked to contemplate how the writer's or characters' development in their societies influenced their beliefs, aspirations, and judgments, and to doubly reflect on how their experiences mirrored our own.
So, in Gattaca there too may have been a message for the young audience. The film poses the question: In a society in which success can be pre-manufactured at a genetic level, how can someone who is, by definition, genetically inferior carve out a life for him or herself? Maybe the question posed to us was similar: In a society in which past prejudices were codified into law and made manifest in educational spaces, how can someone who is, by public judgment, inferior carve out a life for him or herself?
The answer, implicit in the film's story, was simple: diligence. Vincent made it onto that rocket heading to Titan because he busted his ass and hustled more than anyone else. Such habits were a constant theme of the MITES program. Students were given more work than they could complete and yet were still expected to complete it. This led to students working 60+ hour weeks and covering, in days, mathematics and physics that is taught over weeks in a college class. People have often said that getting an education at MIT is like trying to drink water from a firehose, and MITES was no different. The program directors made students work hard in MITES in order to get them to understand that it would similarly require hard work to become scientists and engineers, especially in a society in which people like them rarely became such things.
However, the problem with the film's answer to Vincent's society, and MITES's reciprocal answer to our own, is that neither fully interrogates the idea at the source. Namely, they suggest how one might succeed in a society in which one is seen as inferior, but they do not explain how one might combat the idea of inferiority to begin with. The result of this half-answered question is that the questioner could walk away with a strategy for temporarily making claims of their inferiority irrelevant, but can still be left vulnerable to internalizing that inferiority when strategy proves inadequate.
My journey in physics began a year before the start of MITES. Months before I ever opened a physics textbook, I had asked my school's physics teacher if I could take the advanced physics course the following year. He told me that since I had not taken Calculus and was not scheduled to take it the next year, the physics course would be too difficult for me. So he suggested I take the Algebra-based course instead. After this meeting, I decided to teach Calculus to myself. I was fortunate in that I had studied Trigonometry during spring break, and thus had completed one of the pre-requisites for the subject. At the start of the summer, I borrowed a textbook from my Algebra II teacher and spent the next few months working through the chapters. By the start of the school year, I knew enough Calculus to be able to take my high school's advanced physics course, but I no longer wanted to. I had grown so accustomed to the steady rhythm of my own reasoning that I did not want to be beholden to someone else's syllabus. So I decided to also teach physics to myself.
I was the socially-inept son of financially beleaguered Nigerian immigrants. Short, pimpled, and incredibly sheltered, I looked into the mirror each day and was reminded of how far I was from an ideal image of who I could be. Consequently, high school felt like I was serving time for some mysterious but surely heinous crime, condemned to walk the hours of the school day in an ill-fitting costume of some torturer's creation. I felt apart and different, and the last thing I wanted to do was question that apparent difference or try to understand the vast divide between who I thought I was and who I thought wanted to be. And at the same time, my sense of the larger world had begun to take on darker hues. Hurricane Katrina had hit my home city of New Orleans a year earlier, and against all the post-hoc prophecies, I did not believe that America's modern "Sodom and Gomorrah" had incurred the wrath of a just God. Instead, I had begun to believe that natural disasters, and the unfortunate and unchosen realities of life, were not the karmic workings of a higher deity but the arbitrary crests and troughs of a largely indifferent universe.
What I found in physics was an escape from all this. Physics revealed to me a world which made no reference to who I was and all the random factors that could bend a life trajectory. It presented the world as one of structure and order and gave me many reasons to have faith in a life I did not completely understand. In physics, I found that everything happens for a reason and thus the world was shown to be, if not replete with meaning, certainly not arbitrary.
I spent my junior year continuing my self-study of physics and then went to MITES where I took my first physics course. At the end of the program, the physics instructor gave me a quantum mechanics book to study on my own. By the end of my senior year, I had worked through much of the textbook, and had begun using what I had learned as a foundation for further study into relativistic quantum mechanics.
A year after the end of MITES, I entered MIT. From all my work in the prior two years, I had come with many prerequisites under my belt. In high school, I had taken the AP Calculus BC exam and both AP Physics C exams, and in my first week at MIT, I was also able to test out of Multivariable Calculus. Entering MIT after spending so much time studying physics on my own, I was deeply curious to see what it would be like to take physics in a place so focused on science and mathematics. Deeply curious but also deeply impatient. In my first semester, I requested to take a 3rd year quantum mechanics course which used the book my MITES instructor had given me a year prior.
I received permission from the instructor to take his course, but when I informed my freshman advisor of my plans, he was unsure of what to do. He enlisted the help of his boss, who in turn enlisted a proctor in the physics department. The three of them collectively decided that a freshman, no matter how highly he thought of himself, should not be taking a junior-level class, and they encouraged me to take the sophomore-level course instead. I balked at the apparent compromise, seeing it as a slap in the face rather than an extended hand. In protest, I decided to just take the freshman sequence and to continue studying quantum physics on my own. I kept studying throughout the semester, through winter break, and on through the spring semester, my notebooks eventually filling with improbable mashups of pulley-problems, Feynman diagrams, and circuit analyses.
It was around this time that I discovered the "BF" aisle in the university library. Many nights, when I grew tired of filling pages with symbols, I would walk beyond the science shelves and up the stairs to the humanities floor. There, I would look through texts on genius, creativity, and intellectual ability.
I think I was so interested in these topics because I was trying to find something to emulate. I was a new student, just beginning the fitful first steps towards a career as a physicist, and I wanted to know what general habits of thinking and work I would need to cultivate in order to succeed. In the psychology stacks, I read about Howard Gardner's notion of multiple intelligences, Anders Ericsson's conclusion that expert-level performance required on average 10 years of deliberate practice, and Dean Simonton's argument that eminent scientists had so many things named after them not necessarily because they produced a greater proportion of high quality work, but because they simply produced more work.
In all of these books, ability and success were defined as things other than lotteries of talent or ritualistic exercises in passing tests. These books suggested that intellectual skill could be cultivated and that it always extended along multiple axes in ways that a single number could never completely encompass.
Other books had a different perspective. If one spends enough time even just skimming through works on intelligence, it does not take long to find work discussing race and cognitive ability. So it was during this time that I first discovered Murray and Hernstein's The Bell Curve.
There is a stereotype about physicists that we oversimplify things, that we are interested in reducing a system down to some small collection of fundamental principles from which we hope to deduce an understanding of the entire system, if not of the entire world. At the time I was exploring the library, I had yet to become a physicist, but I was still drawn to such ways of thinking. I say this to admit that the premise of The Bell Curve was attractive to me. A way to explain social stratification through the population-wide distribution of a certain number? So easy! So all encompassing! And of course many statistical conclusions in the book made a simple kind of sense. If intelligence was defined as an ability to engage with and solve problems in the world, and if that intelligence could be measured with a test, then of course those who had higher scores on that test would fare better in a world where one's socioeconomic status was dependent on how well one navigated life's numerous problems. And of course, our country's criminal class would be composed of people who had lower intelligence, for more intelligent people would just know not to commit crimes.
Even when I read through Part III of the book, where the authors presented the IQ distributions of white and black people, and I saw the distribution for black people was shifted to the left of that for white people, I was neither surprised nor troubled. I knew enough about SAT score statistics and retention rates to have been able to guess what these distributions would look like ever before I saw them. And at the time, I did not view these results as significantly as the authors did.
The difference in [IQ] test scores between African-Americans and European Americans as measured in dozens of reputable studies has converged on approximately one standard deviation difference for several decades. Translated into centiles, this means that the average white person tests higher than about 84 percent of the population of blacks and that the average black person tests higher than about 16 percent of the population of whites. (p. 269, The Bell Curve)
Against their argument, I did not think that the weight of statistics said something fundamental about black people, but rather said something fundamental about the selected metrics and the educational resources black people had access to. Surely, if you deny a group of people education, cultural history, and self-respect for centuries, they will not do well on tests of cognitive ability created by the descendants of those who denied them such things. Almost by definition, they cannot do well lest their historical and continued discrimination be accurately viewed as the deep evil it is. This was my external response to the Bell Curve's arguments. Or more honestly, this was a reflexive response, one I had known was standard in countering certain narratives about the "black-white" academic gap.
But beyond its familiarity, this response should have proved convincing enough because of what I was and where I was. I was a black student at MIT, and I was doing just fine here. In fact, I had done well in school all of my life, and thus existed as my closest counter-example to Murray and Hernstein's conclusions.
But, statistical conclusions freely grant exceptions, and just because a few crabs escape a barrel does not mean that they and all of their less fortunate friends are destined for some place other than a dinner plate. Moreover, there was the fact of what I really thought about the results, thoughts revealed by my path to MIT. I was at MIT working to become a physicist, and yet, in high school, I had never taken a physics class. Instead, in my last two years, I had labored past midnight countless times, petitioned to take classes at the University of New Orleans, disdained video games and friends and used Christmas and my birthday to lobby my parents for books, books which I then carried to school each day in order to work through them during lunch and class time. I had worked and worked, and by the time I had come to MIT I knew what it had taken to get here. But what I did not know—and did not ask myself—was whether I had committed to all this effort because I felt I had to make up for something, whether I was doing the intellectual analog of weighted inverted sit-ups, all the while believing that if I did enough I would be able to compensate for all the things other people were already born with.
Throughout my first year at MIT I studied physics on my own in addition to doing my regular coursework. Over spring break, I stayed on campus and spent the week writing up a modern solution to a quantum field theory problem the British mathematician Freeman Dyson had solved more than 60 years ago. I sent the problem-solution and four others in particle physics to half a dozen professors at MIT's Center for Theoretical Physics and asked for a summer internship. All said no. One offered to talk to me. He and I talked throughout the summer. He gave me papers to read. I tried to understand them. He explained how my understanding was wrong. I went back and tried again. Fall semester of the new term, I began working with him on a research project, enrolled in a graduate quantum mechanics course, a quantum field theory course, and a seminar on modern topics in high energy physics.
At last, I thought to myself, I was finally doing what I had come to MIT to do: Learn theoretical physics and lay the foundation for a research career. Moreover, I had proved my freshman advisors wrong. They had assumed a junior level quantum mechanics course was too difficult for a freshman and here I was taking graduate level courses as a sophomore. I took a stupid sort of pride in this fact, but remained largely ignorant of what it meant beyond mere appearances.
It is strange how this effort to prove others wrong about one thing inevitably requires that you assume they are right about some deeper things. Someone says "you cannot handle this work." Then you do the work and thereby demonstrate, against their estimation, that you could have handled it all along, but what remains uncontested is the assumption that the work was worth doing, that their opinion of you matters, that the metric by which you were initially judged negatively is a suitable metric at all. The process amounts to escaping one cage only to find yourself in another, the former created from other people's assumptions of you and the latter created from the belief that those assumptions were relevant in the first place. It is an infernal, ultimately pyrrhic, contest where even if you win in a local sense, you walk away having given up something more important.
And the principal result of my rapid rise through the curriculum at MIT was that I was beginning to lose sight of much of what I had loved about physics. Each day I was learning things about my education which conflicted with my idealism about education itself, and my sense of myself as a "good student" was caught in a contest between my previous attachment to physics and my growing aversion to how physics was being taught to me.
When you learn physics on your own, your mind is given time to steep in the fundamental questions of the discipline. Are our representations of the laws of physics inevitable? How do we know when we understand something? What is the common structure of all physical theories? You explore for yourself, over weeks or months, ideas that physics courses often gloss over in days. From such engagement, you walk away with an appreciation of physics partly grounded in what it says about our world, but more deeply grounded in the fact that it is capable of saying anything at all. You see beauty in the knowledge, but also in the idea that knowledge can be created, that an understanding which did not exist at one point can exist at another, that the world so seemingly nonsensical and chaotic is actually governed by a system which is specific and possibly understood through discernible and extendable patterns.
And if you spend some additional time reading about the history of physics, you walk away with the more troubling knowledge—troubling because it thrusts on you responsibility—that all of the theories of nature, all the elaborate mathematical models which lend structure to reality have been created not by gods of intellect, but by mortals like you with insecurity, with failings.
In physics courses most of these elements are missing. There is no time for any steady engagement with the philosophy of knowledge underpinning many ideas of physics. Instead there is often the sense that such philosophy is not relevant to the practice of physics at all. And what one gets of the history is the uncritical hagiography that most people already know. Little is done to humanize the famous scientists, to make the student understand the life conditions which made their work possible, to recognize that he or she can do good work too.
In the physics courses at MIT, the things which had drawn me to the subject—the larger meaning of being able to create knowledge and the fact of that knowledge's creation at the hands of mortals—were largely absent, so I had to latch onto what my courses tacitly claimed was the essence of physics. And the essence consisted of problem-solving and question-answering, the limited investigations that built the analytical skills seemingly necessary to know subjects like electrodynamics and quantum mechanics.
Years into the physics major, it was clear that such skills were just the physics analog of the abilities that Murray and Hernstien in The Bell Curve had claimed that certain demographics (of which I was not apart) had in spades, and that working through an assignment was much like working through a domain-specific IQ test, complete with artificial assumptions and time limits. I had always known such skills were important in physics, but not until I studied physics in college had I experienced them as totalizing.
Each semester, I spent less time thinking about physics and more time solving problems. It did not take long for me to begin seeing physics as a transactional exercise in which I was required to constantly prove to authority figures that I could solve problems that I had little interest in. In truth, this is the bargain of any education: If you are to become a physics major at MIT, or any school, you have to work according to the educational philosophy of the institution. You could go to a different school, perhaps not go to school at all, and find a more flexible approach to your education. But then after all of your studying, you would not walk away with one of the central purposes of that education: The accreditation that you take with you and then show to all manner of people who do not know you but know your institution.
I had accepted this bargain, but with what had previously contributed to my interest in physics remote, I found that I could not muster the motivation to make good grades for their own sake. And yet at the same time it had become fatefully necessary to prove to myself and to others that I was still intellectually capable of doing the work. And so I kept working.
MIT’s main building is severe and overly efficient, optimized for accessibility and space but seemingly indifferent to how it feels for a person to walk through it. At times I thought this austerity was quietly beautiful, like the logical beauty of a proof, but at other times I found it oppressive. During bright and sunny days when I could go from class to class without ever having to step outside, I would look out through the building windows and see students throwing frisbees or flying kites on the main courtyard. I often sat inside and watched such students for long stretches of time, not because I wished to be in their place but because their place, their apparent state of mind—unworried, free—seemed so different from my own, as if I had looked through a window and instead of seeing what was merely outside, had peered into an alternate universe.
By my third year, what I had seen as the substance of physics seemed irrelevant, and the superficial facts of my situation assumed new importance: I was one of the few black students completing a physics major in the department. I had spent many years working by myself in quiet rooms, but it was only then that I realized how alone I was. In one instance I was in the junior year lab course and my partner had dropped the course a week into the semester. Typically students worked in pairs in this course to share the 18 units of workload consisting of writing lab reports and preparing experiments. And if an even division of students was not possible, instructors typically formed one group of three. But somehow the instructors decided that it would be good for me to work alone throughout the semester rather than join an existing group of two.
The isolation, as it always does, made the work more difficult. I considered leaving the major, even leaving MIT, but I could already hear the explanations: The work was too much for him. He could not cut it. MIT was not a good "match" for him. I could not let these stories become my reality. It would be an affirmation of all the things I had read in The Bell Curve, things I had brushed off a few years ago because back then they had seemed so far from what I thought to be true.
When students look around them, they see that blacks and Latinos constitute small proportions of the student population but high proportions of the students doing poorly in school. The psychological consequences of this disparity may be part of the explanation for the increasing racial animosity and the high black dropout rates that have troubled American campuses. In society at large, a college degree does not have the same meaning for a minority graduate and a white one, with consequences that reverberate in the workplace and continue throughout life. (p. 448, The Bell Curve)
With love gone, what remained was a battle between apathy and insecurity, both of which were dangerous victors but only insecurity having the power to save me from academic probation. Ultimately, it would be better for my subsequent career if insecurity won—these were the calculations I had learned to make—but I knew just as well that something would be lost in the contest.
There is an intellectual chauvinism in physics in which certain fields are placed higher than others in a cognitive hierarchy. Generally, the more mathematical the field, the more illustrious it is and the more intelligent its practitioners are considered to be relative to the general community of physicists. By this rendering, experimental biophysicists are at the bottom of the hierarchy and high energy theoretical physicists are at the top.
Physics departments communicate this ranking by how selective professors are in choosing their students; in general, it is harder to become a student in high energy theory than anywhere else in the department. The current irony in this intellectual ranking is that in the past decade, experimental biologists have developed a gene-editing method that all scientific agencies recognize will feature prominently in the ethical and technological questions of this century, while high energy theorists are trying to explain to those same agencies why their work is still relevant even though their last major accurate prediction was made 40 years ago.
That this hierarchy is false does not change the fact that it exists, and like all hierarchies, it works most dangerously on the young who are ever so conscious of prestige and ever so susceptible to substituting status for meaning. As an undergraduate, I was not immune to the cultural prejudices of my subject and I even agreed with them. I had spent so much time learning quantum mechanics and quantum field theory that I wanted to put all this material to use, even if the areas where these subjects could be used concerned phenomena largely irrelevant to most people, and, if I thought about it, to me as well.
So when I sought out research advisors, I focused primarily on particle physicists. The advisor I found was a new professor at the time, perennially enthusiastic and brimming with an energy that made me, a decade his junior, always feel old. When I began working with him, I did not know how to start a research project on my own, but he assured me that I didn't need to. He said that the job of a beginning physics student was not to develop and pursue his or her own research ideas but to complete projects proposed by the professor. In this way, the student was an apprentice, and only after having proven himself many times would he be allowed to strike out on his own.
He even gave me a cautionary tale about too much early independence. He told the story of one of his peers during graduate school, who even as a student, was an incredibly creative physicist. But this student also liked to work independently of his advisor and rather than receiving projects from that advisor, as is standard, decided to publish a dozen papers based on his own ideas. Because this student was so independent, his advisor did not know or did not care about his work and thus did not write him a good recommendation letter for his next position. In the end, this promising student could not find a job after he graduated. My advisor told me this story to reveal the folly of too much independence, but he overestimated my pragmatism. In my mind, a graduate career spent publishing research that was personally interesting would be leagues more fulfilling than any alternative even if that alternative led to better long-term career outcomes.
But I was still far from being able to select and execute my own projects, so I worked on the projects I was assigned. All of this work culminated in a senior project in my last year at MIT, and naturally, this project was an off-shoot of my advisor’s research interests.
The motivation for the project: If gravity has a quantum manifestation, then the graviton exists. If the graviton exists and supersymmetry also exists, then another particle called the gravitino must also exist. And if the gravitino exists and if supersymmetry exists with specific properties, then yet another particle called the pseudo-goldstino must also exist. The task of my thesis was to study the properties of the pseudo-goldstino and use these properties as a model for dark matter, that invisible material that permeates all of us and most of the universe.
Do not be scared by the jargon. Just revel in it. That is mostly what I did. Years before, I would have claimed that doing such work was a dream, but now that I was tasked with doing it, all I wanted to do was sit in the library and read Marvel comics.
This project was mathematically advanced, but it was intellectually dishonest: I did not believe in the speculation upon speculation which was the foundation of the work, but I still did it, and as a result, my disillusionment with physics grew deeper still. It accrued over the weekends I spent in empty classrooms trying to squeeze some semblance of structure from a collection of ideas relayed to me by my advisor. I had no idea what I was doing, and this, I believe, is typical for anyone starting off in research. More troubling however was that it slowly became less clear why I was doing it. At times when I would be deep in a calculation I would wonder if I was really interested in the work itself or interested in proving to my advisor that I could do the work. There was a simple test: Had I not been assigned this problem, would I be seeking an answer on my own? Would I be so attracted to the question that even without the provided structure and guidance of a more experienced professor, I would attempt to answer it? The answer was as clear as it was disquieting.
Physicists like to think that faith and belief have nothing to do with what they study, and it is true that the religious interpretations of these words do not exactly apply in physics. But it is also true that anyone who enters into an uncertain task must begin with some conviction that the task is worth doing. Physics research is filled with uncertainty, and what propels physicists forward in their attempt to replace uncertainty with knowledge is a faith in a mathematically ordered universe. But this faith manifests differently for different people. One person's sense of a basis for mathematical order might not be shared by others, and some people are willing to have faith in a speculative theory of physics even without the evidence needed to support it. This difference in faith is fine so long as those who do not have it do not pretend that they do. That is, it is assumed that if you work in an area of physics you are operating in "good faith" and proposing theories you believe have a chance of being true, for why else would you propose them?
Toni Morrison once said "If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it." If one believes this, then the contrapositive must also be believed, that is "You must not write something that you would not want to read even if it has not been written yet." But research practice—perhaps the entire culture of academia—sees such advice as irrelevant. Publications, like grades, advanced courses, and pedigrees are less seen as valuable in of themselves but as signifiers of value. Means to ends.
I did not have faith in the work I was doing. I could not mirror the multiple leaps in conviction others in particle physics were so adept at, and yet I completed the thesis as though I was a full convert. This pretension was unconscious but strategic: By that point, physics had little to do with what I valued or what I believed, and everything to do with proving to the communities around me that I could efficiently execute their values.
I had loved physics when I entered MIT, and I did not when I left. What had MIT done to me? What had I done to myself? By the time I was ready to graduate in the summer of 2013, I wanted nothing to do with the subject. But I had spent the past six years preparing to become a physicist, and my identity was so tied to the achievement of this goal that I could see nothing else. More strangely, I had been accepted to graduate school and was on the verge of beginning a physics PhD at Harvard in several months. In the face of these contradictions, I ran away. I deferred my admission for a year and retreated home to New Orleans to see if I could cobble together an alternative career.
In New Orleans I lived in my childhood home and immediately started looking for jobs. I soon learned that a Bachelor's degree in physics with a focus on the more theoretical areas of the discipline was not in high demand. I applied to SpaceX, and after being promptly rejected renormalized my expectations and began applying to companies that wrote and sold science textbooks. I scoured Indeed.com and found entry level positions that required years of experience. In the end, unable to find a job, I returned to my former high school and offered to be an unpaid tutor just to give me a reason to leave the house. It was strange being there in that way, like a prodigal son who had left with dreams of wealth and renown, only to return in disgrace. When my former teachers would introduce me as an MIT student, I could not help feeling like a roach exposed to light.
At this point, I had a lot of free time and decided to return to physics and try to find again what I had thought was so beautiful about it. I downloaded online textbooks and began working through problems in classical mechanics and quantum mechanics, but soon realized that if I was ever going to continue with physics, I would have to move beyond the ways I had studied it at MIT. But I had no idea how to do this. From my four years at MIT, all I knew how to do was answer other people's questions. I had little idea how to pursue my own interests, how to ask or answer questions for myself.
I started off small by taking physics problems I had read in textbooks and trying to modify them to ask new questions. A scenario:
A raindrop falls from the sky through a cloud of uniform and stationary water droplets. The water droplets attach to the raindrop non-elastically, increasing its mass and slowing it down. What is the raindrop's velocity after a long time?
The answer is nuanced but simple, and, if you can find it, there are half a dozen other questions you can ask: What if the raindrop is a large sphere? What if gravity is not assumed to be constant? What if the cloud of water droplets is not stationary? What if the cloud is not-uniform? What if we lived in n dimensions instead of 3? I posed these questions to myself and went through a cyclic process of trying to answer them, failing, and then modifying them before trying again. I kept going in this way for many months, finding problems in textbooks and using them as foundations for my own investigations. I moved from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics and then to general relativity. All the while tutoring at my high school and wondering if my relationship with physics had improved.
It took more than half a year to realize how selfish I was being. A few months before I was expected to begin at Harvard, I read Carter G. Woodson's The Miseducation of a Negro. I started the book partly because of the title. I was a Negro, and I felt that I had been thoroughly miseducated, but for reasons I thought Woodson—separated from me by time and discipline—could not articulate. This turned out to be presumptuous. Woodson's century-old characterization of black people in higher education was still apt, almost too apt for me to bear. He disparaged the tendency of black students to go to prestigious institutions, and, in imitation of their white peers, major in frivolous subjects like English, Classics, or Philosophy, all the while ignoring majors like Engineering or Business, only to return home and find that they could neither get a job in what they had studied nor contribute to the needs of their families and communities.
At the time that I read Miseducation, my mother was in Alabama for nursing school, and my sister was in Washington D.C. for a research internship. My father and I were the only ones at home. He had not had a job in many years, deciding instead to study for medical exams, but it was months after I had returned to New Orleans that I realized that he was using EBT cards to buy our groceries. Now say what you will about the superficiality of prestige and accreditation, but a degree from MIT should have made it more likely than not to find a job, a job which could have supplemented my family's income and kept us off food stamps. And yet here I was so blinkered by my desire to become a physicist that I had long ago stopped looking for one.
Woodson's work was a mirror allowing me to at last see how ugly I had become. And seeing my reflection immediately broke something, something that, in retrospect, was a weak support for everything it carried. Even after MIT, I still had a residual sense of myself as a future physicist and this sense had carried the weight of both my fears of inadequacy and my hopes for identity. But over my year in New Orleans, that sense had gradually and unnoticeably eroded until it could not support anything. After reading Woodson, I stopped doing physics and began believing that physics was what stood between me and the reality of adulthood. In the prior months, and during my last years in high school, my bedroom had been a quiet and reassuring place where I had learned about the mathematical order of the universe. Now, I could not sleep there for the same reasons that people do not sleep in graveyards. And yet the shame of my past blindness swaddled me, and after putting away all my physics notebooks, I found I could pick up nothing else.
August came and I had to decide whether to renege on my commitment to go to graduate school or to attend and begin an education I knew I would not complete. On a late summer day, my father and I were the only ones in the house. I announced that I wanted to stay in New Orleans and find a regular job because I was no longer interested in physics and could not gain anything but insanity by going to Harvard. He disagreed. He told me that the young do not appreciate opportunities because they seem to be ever present, but that after a while one realizes that this isn't true. I wanted to tell him that I saw a future that he could not, and that this "opportunity" felt more like a sentence than anything else. But I had grown tired of struggling against other people, of even struggling against the pedestrian inertia of a day. Two days before my departure date, I packed my clothes in silence still believing that I could somehow make a last ditch effort to escape to somewhere else, perhaps intentionally miss my flight and negotiate for more time to make a decision. But instead of escaping, I was taken to the airport, put on a plane and delivered onto the front steps of a graduate dorm.
Before I started graduate school, before I even started MIT, my interest in physics had acted as a sort of beacon for me, directing and focusing me on the work necessary in becoming a physicist rather than on the external conditions which might support or impede that work. But by the time I came to Harvard, the light of this beacon was mostly extinguished, overused as it was to guide me to places I did not want to be. And in the resulting darkness, I felt lost, and I began to do what I had never done before: look for assurances from other people. I no longer had any personal attachment to physics, but here I was in a Physics Ph.D. program. Perhaps if I could show all the administrators and professors who had brought me here that they had not made a mistake, I could use their confidence in me as a substitute for an identity.
During that first year, I sought solidity in the constant rhythm of assignments. I took the standard introductory graduate courses and spent each weeknight working myself into exhaustion. By Friday I could do nothing else but spend the weekend in my room, showerless and half-asleep, only leaving to visit the basement vending machines to buy pre-packaged pound cake. The following Monday I would look around my dorm-room floor, cluttered with clothes and cellophane, feeling at last a propulsive revulsion to get up and do something. I would then flee to the university gym where I cycled or ran or lifted the shame away, only to begin accumulating it all again the subsequent weekend.
The process was successful if at all maladaptive. Somehow, I more than passed all my classes that first semester, and this escape from failure made me realize that I was perhaps not as lost as I thought I was. But this was only a marginal victory: The purpose of a Ph.D. is not to pass classes, but to do research. And the way students begin research in science is by attaching themselves to a professor who can assign them the projects that they work on for half a dozen years and which will serve as the foundation for their dissertation and career.
Finding an advisor can be like a protracted courtship process complete with the stage of innocuous flirtation coming before repeated meetings which itself precedes a declared commitment. Typically, a student begins by looking for someone whose research interests match his or her own, but at that time I felt nothing towards physics, felt nothing towards most things, and I no longer knew what it meant or felt like to be interested in something. The only thing I was propelled by was a fear of failing in some ill-defined but certainly catastrophic way and thereby affirming all the claims about race and ability that by then had formed the backdrop to everything I did.
On elite campuses, the average black freshman is in the region of the 10th to 15th percentile of the distribution of cognitive ability among white freshman. Nationwide, the gap seems to be at least that large, perhaps larger. The gap does not diminish in graduate school. If anything, it may be larger. (p. 447, The Bell Curve)
In January, I started meeting with a new professor in the applied physics department, and after some time he assigned me a project. I cannot say I had an overwhelming interest in it, but by this time I had realized that students—perhaps people in general—do not need to be interested in the work they are doing. They just need to do it well enough to satisfy the people who have more power than they do. But somehow apathy always manages to seep through. I wrote long convoluted mathematical documents on the work, tried to answer the questions he set for me, tried even to guess questions that he would be interested in before he thought of them, but even after half a year, nothing resembling a conclusion appeared on the horizon.
Eight months into our work together and a few weeks into the fall semester, the professor called me in and told me that starting that semester he was working with a new student and that his group was full. He meant this as an act of kindness. It was the start of my second year and by telling me that he could not be my advisor so early on he was affording me the opportunity to find someone else.
But I was sticky. By this point, I had done so much work. Could it all be for naught? No. I wanted to get something concrete to which I could point to years down the line, something that would convince me that all the previous effort was not a waste. I told him that I wanted to write a paper representing the culmination of all I had done, but he told me that the work was far from complete. And so I accepted the duty of finishing a project that I had little interest in. That year, I lived off campus, and the days soon stretched into a repetitive shuffle. Each morning I would wake up past ten, leave a house in the heart of Brighton, walk ten minutes to the bus stop, and take a 20 minute bus ride to Harvard Square. At Harvard, I walked through the Mass Ave gates, across the college lawns, past the science center, and beyond the Physics department. In need of a place to work, I would climb the steps into the law school library believing that irrespective of what I had failed to do for days or months prior, at least today would be productive. And no more than one hour into my work, a cloud of lethargy would descend, and I would move to a couch to rest my eyes, for just a moment, only to find when I opened them that the day had turned into night.
I was not taking any classes or teaching, so my entire sense of an academic self was grounded in a failing project. I was floundering. I tried to take solace in a quote from Junot Díaz: "If you are not lost, you are in some place someone else has already found." The advantage of such found-places is that they often come with maps lending security to a journey which is otherwise fraught. The disadvantage is that by following such maps you may be led to places you don't really want to be, and are simultaneously denying yourself the opportunity to discover something new, something personally affirming which would allow you to create maps of your own. But inspirational words can only frame a mindset: What remains is the work which the mindset can only encourage the body to do, and nothing but patience and focus and courage and faith could lead to the ultimate completion of that work. But by then, I was fading day by day. I had wanted to find again that spirit of diligence which was first solidified so many years ago during the MITES program, but I instead found, after MIT and after giving up on physics, that trying to build an identity by only doing what I was told and taking pride in doing it well no longer worked. And now I was going through the motions of a graduate student, no longer even believing that these motions would take me to some place much better than where I was.
Anyone who finds him or herself in some professional tradition in which people who look like them are not frequently found often searches, perhaps unknowingly, for an indication that they have not been incorrectly placed, that they are supposed to be—or at least allowed to be—where they currently are. At MIT I was initially too focused on the work to pay particular attention to the demographic optics of the classrooms I occupied, but when I came to Harvard the coincidence of my waning interest in physics and my return to Cambridge after a year away made me strangely more focused on these superficial markers of appropriateness and fit.
But what my mind was drawn to was not reasons why I should be here, but indications from peers, professors, and strangers that I did not belong. Of course I found such indications. The denizens of Harvard square giving me wide berths when I tried to ask for directions. Professors who were dismissive of reasonable questions. Peers who responded in silence when I told them "Good morning."
I tried to confront these experiences with equanimity and positiveness, by laughing and smiling more, by being overly polite, by trying to reassure everyone around me that they did not need to be afraid and that I was—or at least had the potential to be—just like them. There was little reward in debasing myself in this way. The peers who ignored me continued to do so. Professors still furrowed their brows in annoyance when I raised my hand.
What is the explanation for what I perceived as this icy reception from one of the more self-avowedly liberal corners of America? It is possible that it was mostly in my head. Perhaps I was experiencing anew that often unarticulated but undoubtable consequence of past discrimination: A background of paranoia that makes you wonder whether the scorn you perceive is really just you reflecting your insecurities off of other people.
So yes. Some of this is likely on me. And by far, the majority of my interactions with people of the city or the university were neutral or positive. But it is also true that today, although everyone knows what it means to be labeled a racist, few people know what exactly racism means. The result of this half-knowledge is that we have a society in which clearly racist people can say with complete seriousness that they are not racist. Liberals rightly see such people as deluded, but much less is said about liberals' own delusions, the way they lie to themselves in order to maintain guises of moral superiority while continuing to support, if only passively, ideologies they claim to reject.
I think most liberals in academia do not have an explicit belief in the premises or conclusions of The Bell Curve, but like all people, they are attuned to patterns. You spend enough time in demographically lopsided classrooms and your mind begins to wander towards questions, questions which attempt to frame what you see and experience, but which do not frame themselves in ways that rule out easy answers.
If you see enough of a certain type of person in a particular space, you begin to make associations between that space and the characteristics of the people who occupy it. In the same ways, you make associations between said space and the people who are absent from it. It might be fine if these associations remained as they are—just as naked correlations—but the meaning-seeker in all of us looks for reasons behind these associations, and without rigor and attentiveness, often turns the correlation into a truism by claiming it itself is the very reason why it exists: Certain demographic groups are underrepresented in science because they lack the intellectual capacity to do the work, and we know they lack the intellectual capacity to do the work because they are underrepresented. The logic is circular, but no one comments upon it, partly because they do not recognize that they have employed it and partly because, like all circular logic, it appears self-consistent and thus does not seem to require interrogation.
And even when the previously absent group begins to occupy the old space, these explanations persist. A person in the community never says to himself or to anyone else that this other person does not belong here, but one recognizes that a pattern has been violated and, not knowing how to deal with the dissonance, attempts to remove the violating entity from his reality. Hence, it is through looks, a failure to look, silence, and the curtness of answers to questions that teachers and peers subtly convey the simple assertion "You are not supposed to be here." But this silent challenge does not really concern whether one should be "here," but whether one should be anywhere at all different from where they apparently belong, that where the person is and what they are doing is somehow dissonant with their place in the world.
My mind interpreted all of these incidents, the slights more graciously seen as the natural friction of all human interaction, the gap in silence when a greeting is proffered and then ignored, as happening because of the optics I had previously ignored: I was black in a place that black people were not supposed to be, and my environment was just reacting appropriately. Against effort, and against reason, I had substituted the existence of a pattern for its inevitability and extrapolated the sensible conclusion: Not only could I not be a physicist, but I could likely not be many unknown things as well, and all the dreams harbored in youth were foolhardy and naive, failing as they did to take into account the intellectual limitations of my race.
This sense of disenchantment with physics, my being let go from my first project, the feeling that I was being rejected by Cambridge and my graduate student peers. All this is perhaps what led me to start reading James Baldwin in the fall of 2015. Around that time, Baldwin was being referenced in news reports and essays, and from the snippets of his biography, it was clear that he too was out of place in his time. He was black. He was queer. He was oddly situated along any axis in the space of his more well known contemporaries. Was he a civil rights leader like King and X? Was he an African American writer like Wright and Ellison? Was he a public intellectual like Chomsky and Orwell? Or was he, like Vidal, an individual of dubious moral character who could potentially corrupt children?
I did not know. I wanted to find out. The first thing I read was "Sonny's Blues." The story seemed to come to me as if it was shouted across a valley. The narrator is a black school teacher trying to help his students in ways he thinks he failed to help his brother Sonny. Sonny had abandoned school and found drugs, crime, and their inevitable consequences. But he had also found music. Sonny tries to explain to his brother what music means to him, how it is the only thing keeping him alive. His brother does not understand. He does not see how one could build a sustainable life through music. All he sees is the places Sonny goes and the people he associates with. It is not until the end that the narrator finally glimpses what Sonny is capable of and why he is so attached to this way of living.
"Sonny's Blues" was like the recounting of a man who is fighting against rough waves and only periodically breaking through the surface for air. Both the narrator and the brother were struggling, the former with how to manage his brother's life and the latter with how to manage his own. Each had different notions of what a solution should look like, and, by the end, although it seemed as if the narrator had been swayed by his brother's approach, the future lay before both of them like a great jungle. And further complicating the solution, but existing in the background for it was never stated, was Sonny's blackness. It was almost as if race was the air that they breathed, permeating their existence so completely and so perennially that it did not deserve comment.
The story was good, but every famous writer has at least one good story. Perhaps it was a fluke. After "Sonny's Blues", I found an article entitled "On Being White...and Other Lies." There, Baldwin discussed the metaphorical "price of the ticket" paid by European immigrants for a trip across the Atlantic and into American Society. He claimed that when coming to America the price that needed to be paid was explicit in the country's laws if not in the trip detail. Assimilation is needed for a cohesive political and national identity, and this assimilation involves accepting the customs and beliefs of the culture one seeks to be a part of. For America, there was the idea of whiteness and its antithesis in blackness, and newcomers to this country who had never experienced such a dichotomy were required to learn to live with it, to even live it itself, in order to truly become Americans. In this way, immigrants discovered upon setting foot on this land that they were not Italian, Irish, German, or Polish but rather that they were white and as white people they were not the same as black people. This was Baldwin's point: The price these citizens had to pay for coming to America was the gradual relinquishing of their ethnic identities, and thus the process in which Africans were brought to this country, erased of their origins and then given new identities came full circle to dictate the way all individuals who came to this country were processed through it.
This was something that I had never heard anyone argue before: Dehumanization as a double-edged sword. You deny someone their identity, origins, and history, and you replace it all with caricature. Then you try to make the caricature the only reality there is not only by making sure that they live by it, but also by claiming that they have always lived by it, and before you know it, you find yourself chopping off all the aspects of your own identity which might limit your ability to police the caricature.
By this point my experience with Baldwin was two-for-two. I now needed to find a longer piece, something which could let me see how his powers were stretched and maintained in an extended argument. The work I chose was The Fire Next Time. It is not a coincidence that I chose Baldwin's most well known work; I found it in part because it was so well known. But from my later reading of Baldwin's other essays and novels, I now realize I probably could not have gone wrong with any other selection. Written as a letter to a nephew, The Fire Next Time discusses race and racism in America circa 1960s. But unlike most black writers at the time, Baldwin's focus was not on how racism affected black Americans but on how it warped the reality of white Americans.
Baldwin’s writings—effervescent and clear, if somewhat dogmatic—were the most evocative things I had read from any writer in a long time. Through him, I saw the falseness in the ideas about black intelligence, and I was able to see this falseness as independent of my unquestionable need as a black person to see it as such. He had somehow given me permission to accept myself without conditions and to have this self-acceptance be implicit and not held hostage to anything I would or would not accomplish in the world. I could at last simply live a life.
Baldwin was a writer, and I was not, and nor was I trying to be one, but this didn't matter. From his work, I managed to find affirmation for the idea that I could be a physicist. It was clear that he was faithful to the very letter of what scientists are purported to be faithful: he posed and explored questions that had never been publicly articulated. He was a scientist in spirit if not in practice, and this gave me some confidence that I too could be a scientist.
Moreover, Baldwin had never gone to graduate school, never even gone to college. And so all these American narratives about education and intelligence and race seemed to founder when one considered him. Knowledge of his work inoculated me against my own virulent insecurities gestating from youth or communicated by my navigation through MIT and Harvard. I may have been the lone black student in my graduate year, one of only six black students in a department of more than 200, but I had nothing to prove about intelligence or ability because Baldwin had already proved everything.
One does not fall in love one day and then, on some other, wake up and find that love is gone. Rather on that fateful day you recognize that love is gone because it had been slipping away for months or years, and you are only now realizing it. The process of reclaiming love is similarly slow, but not at all as passive. It requires effort and focus and time in amounts difficult to anticipate, all for the supposedly simple goal of mending bridges that have fallen into disrepair more often due to neglect than to fire.
I was a third of my way into my physics Ph.D. before I began to see physics again, before I began to feel what I had previously felt when I learned the subject. The anticipation of new knowledge, the quickening of the heart and mind when confronted with a question that is understandable but not completely understood. To find again this perspective on physics and to renew my perspective on myself I had to leave the subject, had to go somewhere else for a time and find an identity that made no reference to physics.
Baldwin was a conduit to this new place, and reading his work proved to me that I had nothing more to prove to others. By then, narratives of diligence and effort, narratives I had held sacred like a holy shield to protect me from demons both internal and external, revealed themselves to be the cages they always were. In these stories, one worked hard not because some other thing was valuable but because one needed to show others that the worker had value. I initially blamed my education and society for confining me to these narratives, but Baldwin suggested there was a better way to deal.
Once I was able to accept my role—as distinguished, I must say, from my ‘place’—in the extraordinary drama which is America, I was released from the illusion that I hated America. (“The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American” in Nobody Knows My Name)
After being fired by my unofficial advisor, I initially looked for another one. I went through the department websites for Physics, Applied Physics, and Mathematics at Harvard and reviewed the dozens of research descriptions of dozens of professors. Instead of finding something I was interested in, I found myself imagining a familiar cycle: The professor would propose a project, I would work on the project with the goal of impressing him or her and not because I was actually interested in the work, and eventually the confluence of poor motivations and insecurity would be reflected in the quality of work and I would be fired again.
It was a road I had known and I did not want to walk it again. So I tried to envision a different starting point, one that could end somewhere better.
In a computational methods class I took my first year, we were asked to solve a problem by writing a program. After solving the problem with the suggested method, I sought out an alternative approach, one that was grounded in equations rather than in computational algorithms. I found a solution but it was messy, and after the course ended, my mind often returned to the calculation as though it was a stack of dishes left unwashed in the sink. In my first year, I was able to push the problem from my mind by claiming to be busy with my assigned research project, but in my second year I had time to think about the problem again.
I began by looking for ways to extend the question beyond its original statement in the assignment. I looked at special cases, considered alternative computational solutions, slogged through brute-force calculations until I built up the intuition that made them unnecessary. I put into practice many of the heuristics I had learned about posing and answering questions, all things I had learned during my year in New Orleans between MIT and Harvard. There were countless dead ends and false starts. At one point I sat at my window in a house south of the Charles river and wondered whether I was destroying my academic career. I was a year and a half into graduate school without a research advisor, and instead of looking for one I spent my days playing around with models that were part of no larger research agenda. But I saw no alternative. I had tried to do what was expected of graduate students, and I had failed. What I was doing now seemed like the only option left. Like before, I still was not sure where I was going, but this time it felt like I had a new compass. The more time I spent working on this problem, the more my fear of affirming other people's biases or affirming my own insecurities melted away and the more I started to see the value in the work itself.
I had hoped to work through all my questions by the end of winter break, but the nature of research is that questions beget answers which only beget more questions. January came and went, the semester started, and I kept working on the project. By the time spring break came, I had accumulated enough results to believe that I was working on something important. I wrote up the work and sent it to the Director of Graduate Studies in the department, both for advice and to show him that, although I was nearing the end of my second year without an advisor, I had not been idle. He referred me to three other professors each of whom referred me to one other professor in the Chemistry department. In my first meeting with that professor, he had anticipated most of my motivations for the project and most of the ways I sought to make it more interesting. He suggested other questions I could ask, other ways the problem could be motivated. Weeks later I asked him to be my research advisor both for this project and for my time at Harvard.
Six months after joining my new advisor's research group, I published a paper on the work that I had started two years earlier in that computational methods class. The questions in this paper served as the foundations for another paper, and then another one. Questions begetting answers begetting more questions. Soon I became attuned to the steady beat of how research is done. It is terrifying to not have a clear idea of what you are doing at the beginning, but you have to learn to exist in this uncertainty long enough to find something, anything, that points you in a more concrete direction. You do this often enough, and faith grows to mollify the terror, and you learn to find your way even in complete darkness.
In Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941–1999, Shirley Jackson recounted that during the late 60s while the mostly male MIT population was ostracizing (at least, academically) the minority female population, the mostly white female population was ostracizing her. And yet to clarify her experiences at the institute, she added
My experiences...were not all bad. There’s always a tendency to want to accentuate the struggle, but in the end it couldn’t have been a total struggle or else I wouldn’t be where I am.
I suppose this is true of all struggles, the way they tear you down, but also have the potential to make you into something more than what you were. You believe you will not survive them, but then you do, and the ultimate result of surviving is that your world expands in direct proportion to your initial disbelief.
In May of 2019, I graduated from Harvard, and by then it had become clear that while I was making my way through my education, my education was also making its way through me. I had ideas of what academia was and how I was supposed to exist within it, and those ideas ran headlong into what truly existed, and in the turmoil of the confrontation I had to abandon some beliefs and also decide that others were not worth abandoning.
To this day, Gattaca is still one of my favorite films, particularly because of what it says about systems and how systems work on people. Vincent left Earth, but he never really escaped his society's sense of his inferiority. Through focus and doggedness, he had managed to create a path for himself, but he had to do so within a space program that had preemptively declared him to be inferior. The fact that he ultimately reached his goal places his diligence as an essential element in interrogating how his society viewed him. But I think his success should be beside the point, for had he failed, what then would the wider lesson be?
In the past decade, social psychologists have introduced and popularized the idea that hard work rather than raw talent is needed to succeed in any field. This idea is often pushed on underrepresented minorities in science, who—if the history of mostly European and mostly male science is to be believed—are seemingly devoid of the gifts of genius that would make large amounts of hard work unnecessary. One could also interpret this focus on diligence as an attempt to better align the world with a meritocratic standard focused on what people can actively achieve rather than on the passive qualities they are born with. Indeed, Angela Duckworth's argument for "grit" doubles as an argument for why what we see as intellectual talent is so nebulous as to be incapable of useful definition. It would be much better, the grit-supporters say, to focus on things that people can actively develop and which are more relevant to how much they accomplish regardless of inherent skills.
My problem with this idea is its naïveté. It ignores the way societies create paved paths of hard work for some and mountains to climb for others, and it does not take into account how people actually form their identities, how intractable these identities can be, and how said identities can subsequently steer a life. I had bought into the “grit” narrative ever before I knew it existed, but no matter how hard I had worked, when I began to fail, the insecurities that the hard work was supposed to make irrelevant returned, and I found myself resisting not only my failure but the sense, still uncontested, that failure was somehow fundamental to who I was. What is often unarticulated about the process of becoming a scientist is that it must start with the belief that one is capable of completing it. It is easy to look at science as done by others, until you are the one who must begin and push through a project. That moment is filled with both uncertainty and possibility. To navigate the former and engage fully with the latter requires you to believe in yourself, even in the absence of evidence. But the effect of our cultural narratives on intrinsic ability, the effect of the falsely-concerned rhetoric in confronting those narratives, and the effect of The Bell Curve and all the people who entertain it as innocuous social science, is to give evidence for the other side, to give evidence to the belief that regardless of effort, regardless of application, you will fail anyway, since by the nature of your identity you have already failed in some existential way.
The natural sciences have a variant of the idea that one’s work and one’s sense of self are unrelated. It exists in the belief that nothing can be considered objective—and thus relevant to the study of the natural world—unless it can be measured, and everything that can be measured must be objective, and, finally, that the way we have framed and modeled the natural world has, unlike other fields of knowledge, nothing to do with the softer matters of human identity. Logic, the structure of the universe, the central dogma of biology. Reasonable arguments can be made that these subjects which exist "out there," apparently independent of us, have nothing to do with the ways our societies have constructed racial and gender categories. But such arguments only apply if we believe that the spaces in which this science is done also exist independently of us, that this science is done by people who somehow can check their identities at the door. No. These spaces are our spaces and everyone who occupies them carries into them the remnants, conscious or not, of the cultural identities they have been developing their entire lives.
In the summer of 2017, almost a decade after I had first come to MIT, I returned to MITES as an instructor. I was tasked with introducing rising high school seniors to oscillations and waves, the very subject which was my own introduction to physics.
The central question of the course was "How does one model the variety of periodic phenomena which we see on and beyond Earth?" As simple starter systems, I presented a mass attached to a spring, a ball rolling in a semi-spherical bowl, and a pendulum. Later in the course, I showed how the equations used to model these systems could also model electromagnetic radiation and the paired evolution of predator and prey populations.
Physics is like this. Simple systems are often governed by equations which when generalized can encompass complexities far beyond their initial purpose. Thus an equation which merely models a child on a swing set can be extended to model gravitational waves or the potential cyclic expansion and contraction of our universe.
The lessons we learn in life are prone to similar extrapolations. A lesson of identity internalized during a six-week stint on a university campus can extend beyond those six weeks into years, even decades, that subsequently affect how one sees and lives a life. And even knowing this, and knowing how MITES's implicit messages about diligence and prejudice affected me, it was not until a year later, when I was at the end of a second iteration of the course that I thought it relevant to convey a better lesson of identity to the students. When it came to it, I told them that there will always be people who think that they know them better than they know themselves, and who consequently try to set expectations of performance for them, often much lower than their own. The saving grace in all this was that one did not need to live within this external ignorance, and I hoped that the students' work helped them to see this.
Like my own MITES instructors, I too had created a course requiring amounts and quality of work incommensurate with the time students had to complete it. But my reasons for doing so were different. At the end of my course, I told the students that given that they had made it through, they hopefully now recognized that they were more capable than they had thought they were and thus much more capable than others think they are. And I hoped they were beginning to learn the most important message of all: that one works hard not to convince others but to convince oneself, not to fight narratives whose mercurial nature implies they will always adapt and be resistant to attack, but to render such narratives irrelevant by recognizing that, as Baldwin says, one's role is not one's place.
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