Sunday, October 29, 2006

Diversity in Science

Last week I read Chanda's guest post at CV about diversity in science. I was about to write a comment, but it got way too long, so I decided to promote it to a post on its own.

Let me begin with a disclaimer:
All members of our society should have equal opportunities to become scientists, irrespective of their race, gender, religion, or affiliation to other minorities. If you really need a reason for this, read the human rights. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case, neither in the US, nor in Europe. The cause for this is partly that higher education is money-wise often not favourable1, and sadly in many cases there do exist correlations between belonging to a minority (e.g. immigrants) and being faced with a difficult social background. Other reasons are traditions (physics is a boy-thing), peer pressure (white and nerdy), conflicting ethical values (does the bible mention dinosaurs?), and of course prejudices against minorities (small town guys are stupid).

Since my weekend has only 48 hours, these are the points I don't want to discuss today. What irritates me about the discussion on diversity in science is the entanglement between the issues of minorities in our society, the social diversity in the community of scientists, and the diversity on the 'marketplace of ideas'. An entanglement that should be approached with caution.

Diverse Diversities

Chanda's writing reminded me of the time when I was a graduate student. For a year or so, I was lucky to be part of a more or less frequently meeting group in which we would just discuss physics-related stuff. I learned a lot in these meetings, which in my opinion make a very nice example for the merits of diversity.

There were five people who reliably participated2:

  • Dr. Who, with a PhD in astrophysics and a diploma in mechanical engineering, whose invaluable skill was making estimations with a minimum of input. Typical sentence: 'Obviously A goes with the 3rd power of B, then X is approximately Y - modulo factors of 2 Pi or so, don't trust me on the signs.'
  • Dr. 2B, about to finish his PhD on quantum field theory, who had a natural talent for teaching. He liked to pass on whatever he'd read in a didactic and understandable way. We'd let him talk whenever we were in need of some motivation, because his fascination for physics was truly contagious. Typical sentence: 'Last week I read this cool paper...'
  • Dr. No, a nuclear physicist who returned to Germany after some years in the land of plenty, only to find flaws in everything. Unfortunately, he was most often right. On the other hand, he was the kind of guy who had ~100 publications at the age of 30, and reportedly drafted, wrote and posted a research paper within 24 hours. Typical sentence: 'But then the universe wouldn't exist'.
  • Prof. Dr. Senior, with a permanent position and a little detached from the recent research. He efficiently provided us with missing links by always knowing who had worked on this or something like this, or giving references to original works on related context. He was also going on our nerves with political advises as to which topics were recommendable or not, and endless stories about the days back then. Typical sentence: 'This reminds me of the time when...'
  • Then there was me. My role was it to look confused, ask for details on the allegedly obvious statements, (which I usually ended up figuring out alone), or to blow completely unrelated sentences into thin air, which could make the whole discussion completely spin off into another direction. If I have a typical sentence, nobody told me, but it probably ends with a question mark.

Besides me, all members of this group where German speaking, Christian, heterosexual, white men without visible disabilities.

On the other hand, I count myself a member of various minority groups: I'm a vegetarian, have freckles on my nose, am proud to drive a car with manual gear, and my clothes size is seriously underrepresented in North American stores.

I think this example makes it very clear that one needs to distinguish between different types of diversity, that I will call 'job-related diversity', and 'demographic diversity', the latter of which can be divided in 'readily detectable' and 'less detectable'. The influence of diversity on the efficiency of work performance is subject to active scientific research since at least a decade or so, though mostly for management in companies.
Some references I can recommend are e.g.

Diversity in Science

Of course, these investigations do not all apply to the science community, but the categories of diversity are useful nevertheless. Let's give it a try:

  1. Demographic diversity

    • a) readily detectable:
      • gender
      • race
      • religion
      • citizenship
      • disabilities
      • social background
      • family status
      • ...

      b) less detectable:
      • life experiences
      • sexual preferences
      • moral and ethic values
      • social skills
      • political orientation
      • hobbies
      • ...

  2. Job-related diversity:
      • education (when/where/what)
      • job experience (how long, what)
      • rank (student/postdoc/tenured/permanent)
      • external goals ( publications/appreciation/income...)
      • internal goals: (wisdom/curiosity/contribution to wellbeing of society... )
      • tasks (teaching/researching/typesetting/numerics/laboratory work/public outreach...)
      • connections (integration in community, friends, coworkers...)
      • organization of work (always working on 5 topics at least/obsessed with zing-zong theory and nothing else3)
      • divergent/convergent thinking
      • teamwork (prefers single work or group work)
      • rigor (fast and furious sketch of ideas/slow and thorough through all the nasty details)
      • temper (secure player/high risk-taker)
      • ...

(These are some points that immediately came into my mind. Feel free to let me know if you think I missed something essential.)

There is a good reason why demographic diversity is desirable on a very general level: it makes for an open-minded community that embraces differences. I'd say demographic diversity reflects in the climate at the work place. I want my colleagues smiling and motivated, and not scared to go to work.

But what we also see from the above list are two things:

First, it is not at all clear why and how demographic diversity should relate to job-related diversity.

In some cases one might be able to establish correlations. E.g. I would expect that on the average people with children are less risk-taking, or that a difficult social background disfavours a high number of connections.

However, in general the relations will be weak and I don't think these are topics we want to consider when hiring people. I don't want to end up wondering if a preference for heavy metal music goes better with solid state physics, or whether classic music is a more appropriate choice for string theorists.

Second, it's not at all clear that diversity (of whatever type) is a guarantee to increase progress.

Indeed it isn't. Diversity is not a cure for every problem but it comes with difficulties of its own. To put it simple: scientific controversy is healthy, and constructive criticism is a challenge that prompts new ways of thinking -- which is good. But constant disagreement hinders progress and doesn't get us anywhere. If we want to use the merits of diversity we'll have to balance its use.

As an example, consider how job-related diversity has been promoted in inter-disciplinary categories, like theoretical biophysics. This is a great thing, and I find these seminars often very interesting and inspiring. I always appreciate to hear something new. But for my everyday work, I don't want to be tied to that biophysicist and his proteins.

What Can We do?

Job-related diversity:

The bottom-line of the above is that job-related diversity needs to be managed wisely. We want to use the whole variety of different approaches, but not wash out focused work on specific problems. This brings me back to what I've pointed out earlier (see Science and Democracy, Science and Democracy II): our community has grown very much, very fast, but lacks a proper administration and management. It's about time we investigate under which circumstances science works best.

Indeed, I do think that we have a lack of job-related diversity right now. You can improve the situation yourself. Try this:

  1. Go to your colleague three doors down, and have a discussion about his/her work4.
  2. Register to a conference that's not directly related to your work, even if that means, you won't get a talk. Drop the thought that this is a waste of time.
  3. If you're organizing a conference, invite researchers from related fields to give plenary talks.
  4. Read a paper by someone who you haven't met in person.
  5. Don't call someone a crackpot just because you don't like the subtitle of his book5.
  6. Do actually look up some of the references from 100 B.C. that your white-haired colleague mentioned.
  7. I await your suggestions...

Perimeter Institute is a prime example for an excellently balanced and managed use of job-related diversity.

Demographic diversity:

Chanda has given a very nice list of what you can do here. I'd like to add some points. The first is that a serious problem are financial barriers to higher education. If you live in a democracy, what you can do is register to vote, and vote the right person - or better, become politically active yourself.

However, the representation of demographic diversities in theoretical physics isn't a problem we can solve without taking into account sociological and traditional barriers that I mentioned in the beginning. As I've pointed out elsewhere, just demanding that demographic diversity should reflect in the scientific community without realizing that the society might not yet be ready for this, is pretty short sighted, and can actually be counterproductive.

But a considerable amount of these barriers is based on wrong or missing information about what it means to be a theoretical physicist. If I average over my experiences, many people seem to think a theoretical physicist is something between an astronaut and a daydreamer. After mentioning what I do for a living, I have actually been asked whether I could maybe repair the fridge, or explain the weather forecast. And then there are those who just conclude I am still a student, or something-like-that6.

What you can do is to spread the fascination of understanding the laws of nature, and examining the mysteries of our universe. And explain how that works in pratice.

It is in this regard that I appreciate every popular science book which succeeds in bringing our work into the attention of the wider public, and also books that feature theoretical physicists as main characters.

And finally I have made a nice circle to justify why I spend my time writing pieces for the blog.

Footnote 1: This was the reason why there were no tuition fees for German Universities for a long time. In principle a good idea, though with foreseeable backlashes. Lately it has been improved just to end up even worse.

Footnote 2: Names changed.

Footnote 3: Zeig mir den unteren Topf.

Footnote 4: Here, discussion doesn't mean you try to convince him of what you wrote in your last paper, but half of the time you should l-i-s-t-e-n. Even if he's a postdoc from Nowhereland.

Footnote 5: If you want to know what lets me doubt whether I want to stay a physicist, listen to this, e.g. at 22:10 min. How diverse were the opinions in this room that it seemed a good idea to laugh? How come that during the whole hour nobody spoke up and said, look, backstory or not, there's a considerable amount of truth in Swoit's and Wolin's books. See also Clifford's and Peter's post.

Footnote 6: Recently, I have been promoted to an expert on wireless networking.

TAGS: ,, ,


  1. Besides me, all members of this group where German speaking, Christian, heterosexual, white men without visible disabilities.

    Uncle Al suggests adding a Hungarian Jew to the mix. It worked for the Manhattan Project - and Teller had his right foot off at the ankle for a fashionable cripple component. "8^>)

    "Look what compassion has dumped on us."

  2. that is an amazing photo! everybody, go click on the link, there's more. great post!

  3. Great post! I was going to reply about that very point over at CV but never got around to it.

    "You're a physicist, no? The sink is clogged again! Fix it!"

  4. On another note, it's also clear that demographic diversity, which usually implies cultural differences, and job-related diversity coincide a lot stronger in the humanities, the cultural science side of the university.

  5. Footnote 5: I had a similar reaction. Though in my case, I was happy I had left physics. But, Bee, I hope you don't leave physics.

    (If you do, I should teach you the secret handshake of the camaraderie of ex-physicists :) )

  6. In regards to the picture...I used it in relation to illustrate a point as well

    Sometimes we might need visual aids. So, I thought I would add this in relation to the question, on how would we see these dimensions, if we accept the gravitons in the bulk? Aug 7, 2004 3:46 pm

    Whether it's right or not, I was trying to make sense of theoretical ideas

    Equality at all levels is important. .

  7. If you do, I should teach you the secret handshake of the camaraderie of ex-physicists...

    Ohh! How come I don't know the secret handshake. I've been an ex-physicist several times.

  8. Hi B,

    I appreciate you posting a response to my blog. I've been thinking about it for a day now. Here are a few thoughts that have come up in that process.

    I don't think I ever explicitly say that I know for a fact that demographic diversity will change ideas. But much as I don't know that it will, you don't know that it won't. I think this is a really important thing to recognize.

    Obviously, no one will argue that physics has rarely had a shortage of creative ideas and creative approaches (except maybe recently, some might argue), and for the most part, science in the western world has been pursued by men of European descent. That doesn't mean that the addition of the other 90+% of the planet isn't a boost to the process. I'm sure your group of German scientists was a good one, but how do you know it couldn't have been better?

    Clearly, this is a difficult thing to test unless we actually carry out the experiment -- we diversify and find out. And if we're wrong about it improving the process of scientific discovery, at least we've ensured that the world is a little more just and equitable.

    Moreover, I think it is problematic to say that diversity of music listening tastes is comparable to ethnic diversity. Economically, socially, and politically, these two kinds of diversity are wildly different for reasons that I think are too obvious for me to state here.

    As both a woman and a member of the Black community, I think in a sense it's really important to separate out the issues that impact both communities. Being a woman has different ramifications than being Black. It's true that in my essay I make an argument that places women and underrepresented minorities in the same pile, but that was by force of space. Had I more spacetime for that essay, I certainly would have taken the time to go into the details of how the experiences converge and diverge.

    In my own particular case, I have rarely really faced any challenge because of my gender, but I've openly and fairly regularly, had to deal with issues that come up because of my ethnic background.

    Anyway, I guess what I am trying to say is that one should be careful about conflating these experiences and the larger context of how they are generated and where they are lived.

    Take care!

  9. Hi Arun:

    If you do, I should teach you the secret handshake of the camaraderie of ex-physicists :)

    Thanks :-))
    I'll keep that in mind!

    Sometimes I think tough that's all just a conspiracy. One day, I'll get a call that says: Look, we've finally decided to accept you into the inner circle. Here's the deal: we've found the TOE already 20 years ago, and everything that's happened in physics ever since is just a plot for the public. You can either join us and become a major player, or we'll plant a chip in your brain, and you'll never get anywhere.

    Hi Kea,

    does that mean, the process is reversible? From what I've seen, if you're out and off, you're out and off.



  10. Hi Chanda,

    thanks for your comment. A clarification:

    I don't think I ever explicitly say that I know for a fact that demographic diversity will change ideas. But much as I don't know that it will, you don't know that it won't. I think this is a really important thing to recognize.

    No, you didn't, and I didn't explicitly say you did. In case it came across as such, that wasn't my intention.

    From reading the comments on CV I just got the impression that the issues I addressed above got mixed up by various readers of your post. (As well as there was some confusion about the meaning of statistical average.)

    I actually agree with you that starting from today's initial conditions, demographic diversity is very likely to increase job related diversity in science.

    I just think one should be careful how one argues for one or the other, or we'll end up with discussions like whether native Americans think differently than Chinese women, and which might be more suitable for physics, if that's genetically or socially caused, and if we should take that into account in the selection process.

    What I was trying to say is simply: if we're searching for the best scientists out there, we should judge them by their scientific skills. Full stop.

    That there are minorities who are in need of support is sad but true, and it's great you are so active in this regard.



  11. Hi fh,

    "You're a physicist, no? The sink is clogged again! Fix it!"


    You know what: become a postdoc in the US, and you'll have to learn quite a lot you'd never have thought about. Maybe I've just bad luck, but ever since I left Europe, I've constantly had problems with the plumbing in my apartments. By now I know what to do when the sink is clogged... (it involves a lot of yelling at my landlord).



    PS: See also the Insinkerator ;-)

  12. Science is one of the few areas in culture that ought to remain unconditionally color-blind. To do otherwise would be to unwisely place science upon an anthropomorphically-driven, not to mention, racially-driven landscape.

    To impose such a reckless policy upon the landscape of science will only lead to the denigration of the scientific method. More specifically, to inject the "race card" into the "science-mix" not only will dampen the fundamental component of objectivity in science but will - in turn - roll back any progress being made on the road towards scientific discovery.

  13. Hi B,

    Thanks for your response. I agree in theory that we need to judge people purely on their scientific talent, but that's hard for a variety of reasons.

    Do we test people? Well the problem with tests is that statistically women and minorities do worse on math/physics exams than white men. Taken on face value, this just means that I should be a lot worse at physics than my classmates, but my guess is that there are other things at play. Until (if ever) we find a way to filter out these influences, we will always be in trouble with "objective" evaluations like testing.

    Do we do it without tests? I would argue yes, but there's a tremendous caveat here which is that you have to find some way of ensuring that the subjective evaluation isn't discriminatory.

    I'll share a story about the history of the university admissions process at Harvard. At the turn of the 20th century, one was required to take a comprehensive exam to be admitted to Harvard. Anyone who passed the exam was generally offered a place. Jewish immigrants from Europe started doing really well on this exam in large numbers. Harvard's leadership became terrified that they would be "overrun" with Jews and end up like Columbia, which was nearing a student body that was 50% Jewish.

    To avoid enroling a large number of Jewish students, Harvard and Princeton invented what is now essentially the modern admissions process at US universities. They began to evaluate other factors, like one's extracurricular activities. People who were not Jewish were members of the "right" clubs, ones that did not admit Jews, and it was a way of separating them out without openly doing so.

    Having said all that and noting that I am keenly aware about the dangers of a subjective process, research is finding more and more than objective processes just don't work. And they particularly don't work for people who are underrepresented in the field, which is one reason they are underrepresented -- another leak in the pipeline.

    As for talking about genetic differences, I tried to plug this hole in the blog in one of my comments. People who want to engage in a debate about genetic differences are not worth my time, as far as I am concerned. However, I do think it's worth noting that having a different background necessitates different development and a different view of the world. This can only be advantageous in broadening the scope of scientific progress. People who come from different cultures, in this respect, certainly have something unique to offer.

    That doesn't mean we evaluate their work through the lense of "this idea is a Black idea," but it does mean we evaluate the issue of diversity through the lense of "what do Black people have to offer? Probably a lot." Here people may differ from me, but I don't think the goal is necessarily to assimilate, but to integrate. And this is true for both ideas and people.

    Much as I am proud to be Black and have no desire to fit the mold that white-dominated American scientific culture has established for me, I am proud to be an independent thinker who wants to generate new ideas, not just be told what my ideas should be.

    In both cases, many of us face the issue of assimilation: assimilate, follow the rules, and we promise you survival. Dare to be independent, and we may destroy you. This is exactly what happened to me recently in the company of some physicists who insisted that I had to take their view of my racial identity. The moment I dared to beg to differ, I was labelled an oversensitive minority. The emotional, political, social, and unfortunately scientific challenge this posed was tremendous, as unfortunately one of the more offensive commentators was a potential collaborator.

    I will say I learned a lot from that experience though. The most important theme that stands out to me is the question of how we enter the community, again this issue of assimilation v. integration. I could have chosen to assimilate to their perspective, but that would have required me taking on their fundamental view that because of my background, I wasn't capable of being objective. Since this is a skill that is highly valued in our community, taking this view of one's self can only be detrimental to one's work. I came to realize that over the years, this message has been sent to me repeatedly, and I imagine that my experience is neither singular, nor the worst of the bunch.

    Anyone familiar with Chandrashekhar's story about the white dwarf mass limit and his arrival at Cambridge knows that similar things happen in the scientific community. In his case, science historians posit that it had a deep and lasting effect on his psychological health for the rest of his life. Though he continued to be productive, his confidence never quite recovered and he suffered from many bouts of depression.

    In the end, I think we are only hurting ourselves if we don't acknowledge this fact: science is a human pursuit. When humans are involved, pure objectivity is a mirage. As I was reminded by a wise member of the PI faculty recently, we are better served to acknowledge this fact, take it into account, and work with and around it. This requires open discussion and acknowledgement.

    We don't live in a perfect world, and we should in some ways be thankful for that. If beautiful symmetries weren't broken, after all, we wouldn't be here to understand them. I hope that more and more of the physics community will stop pretending that we are objective and realize that as humans, we have subjective issues to deal with, and that yes, they can, do, and have interfered with the scientific process on many levels.


  14. Hi Bee, great post
    Diverse diversities
    Diverse theories
    Diverse opinions
    Diverse realities
    Diverse dimensions? universes?
    Diversity of lifeforms
    Fiversity of lifestyles
    Diversity of disciplines (academia)
    Diversity of colours
    Diversity of wavelengths

  15. Hi Bee,
    you know Christine Dantas is celebrating the first anniversary
    of CBI Christine's Background Independent...

    and has invited submissions for guest posts for 3rd Nov on her blog

    You may have missed the deadline, for entries 1200 GMT 02 Nov 2006, but I'm sure she would make an exception if you wanted her to post

    Great paper!

  16. Hi Quasar,

    Thanks for letting me know about CBI's birthday! No, I must have missed it, I've been kind of distracted lately. That's actually a good suggestion, I could indeed send her some version of that 'paper'.

    It's not really a paper though, just a writeup from a talk I gave at the SUSY. I realized after posting that by cutting 20 pages down to 4, I ended up with only 1 equation, which moreover happens to be an equation that is completely superfluous. I hope it's understandable in some way. For a more detailed description of my work on this topic, see The Minimal Length Scale. Best,


  17. Just wanted to add this link here for more perspective on my comment previously.

    If one sees the "color wheel," in a different way, one may see a "little differently" then?

  18. The diversity in physics history:

    (1) Archimedes - discovered principle of buoyancy in the bath, was killed when he ordered an enemy soldier to keep away from his circles in the sand.

    (2) Kepler - he was an astrologer, his mother was arrested for witchcraft. He claimed Earth is attracted to sun by magnetism, and claimed that the planets make music as they orbit the sun in a mathematical way. He wrote to Galileo in 1610 about spaceships sailing on the heavenly aether, and suggested that he would make a map of the moon for space explorers, while suggesting Galileo should use his telescope to make a map of Jupiter for the same purpose:

    ‘There will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered the art of flight. Who would have thought that navigation across the vast ocean is less dangerous and quieter than in the narrow, threatening gulfs of the Adriatic , or the Baltic, or the British straits? Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky travelers, maps of the celestial bodies - I shall do it for the moon, you, Galileo, for Jupiter.’

    - Letter from Johannes Kepler to Galileo Galilei, April 1610,

    (3) Galileo - was placed under house arrest for heresy (perfect example of need for diversity). Galileo wrote to Kepler a letter that would place him (Galileo) firmly on Dr Baez's "crackpot index":

    ‘Here at Padua is the principal professor of philosophy whom I have repeatedly and urgently requested to look at the moon and planets through my glass which he pertinaciously refuses to do. Why are you not here? What shouts of laughter we should have at this glorious folly! And to hear the professor of philosophy at Pisa labouring before the Grand Duke with logical arguments, as if with magical incantations, to charm the new planets out of the sky.’

    - Letter of Galileo to Kepler, 1610,

    (4) Newton was a crackpot alchemist who also fiddled the speed of sound (he missed out the adiabatic effect which introduces a dimensionless factor of 1.4, but he still claimed to get exactly the right result, by selecting fiddled experimental results to match his flawed theory;

    On the mysticism of Sir Isaac Newton's laws of nature, R.S. Westfall (author of the major Newton biography, "Never at rest" published by Cambridge University Press in 1980):

    "The forces of attraction and repulsion between particles of matter, including gravitational attraction ... were primarily the offspring of alchemical active principles."

    - R.S. Westfall, "The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Career", pp 189-232 of B. Righini and W.R. Shea (eds.), "Reason Experiment and Mysticism in the Scientific Revolution", Science History Publications, New York, 1975.

    Now Newton wrote more nonsense on alchemy than on physics it seems, 650,000 words of manuscripts like "Alchemical writers" (a list of 113 alchemists and their stuff), "De Scriptoribus" (a bibliography of 80 alchemical books", and Newton's own experiments are described in his unpublished manuscripts "Alchemical propositions", "Clavis", "Praxis", "Vegetation of Metals", and the weird "Essay on the Preparation of Star Reguluses".

    Newton chose the term "force" from the love/hate alchemical theory of magnetism. After his alchemical experiment of Feb 1696, Newton wrote in "Praxis" that he had discovered the "philosopher's stone" and had created mercury out of nothing, "multiplying" metallic mercury by a factor of four just by using ammonium chloride! He was a real crackpot!

    See also B.J.T. Dobbs, "The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy", C.U.P., 1975, and K. Figala, "Newton as Alchemist", in History of Science, v15, 1977, pp 102-37.

    On line info:

    More about Newton's lies about the speed of sound:

    (5) Maxwell's equations:


    “From a long view of the history of mankind – seen from, say, ten thousand years from now – there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

    – R.P. Feynman, R.B. Leighton, and M. Sands, Feynman Lectures on Physics, vol. 2, Addison-Wesley, London, 1964, c. 1, p. 11.

    However: “Maxwell’s four equations” were first written by Oliver Heaviside in 1875-93 (vector calculus form; Heaviside had five equations but conservation of absolute charge was dropped after the discovery of pair production of matter + antimatter from gamma rays in 1932) and the original twenty “Maxwell” differential equations are actually due to Ampere, Faraday (Faraday’s curl.E = -dB/dt means exactly what it sounds like, Faraday discovered precisely that induction effect; the curl of the electric field is directly proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic field strength, or vice-versa, and the “-” comes from Lenz’ law), and Gauss. Heaviside himself invented the Maxwell equation “div.B = 0″ (no magnetic monopoles, which is suspect due to Dirac’s study of 1932).

    So Feynman was fooled. Really, all Maxwell did in the 1860s was to take Faraday’s induction law (curl.E = -dB/dt) and Weber’s 1856 empirical finding that the reciprocal of the product of magnetic and electric force constants is equal to light speed, and connect them together by inventing a solid vacuum “aetherial” displacement current I = dD/dt where D = permittivity*E, E being volts/metre. Hence, from Ampere’s law Maxwell had curl.B = uI = u*dD/dt where u is permeability.

    Solving curl.B = u*dD/dt with curl.E = -dB/dt for a wave then gives a wave speed of c.

    The idea behind this came entirely from Michael Faraday, who wrote a paper called “Thoughts on Ray Vibrations” in 1846 which physically predicted light was waves of oscillating electromagnetic fields, without using any mathematical equations!

    Furthermore, Faraday had investigated displacement currents in liquid and other dielectric materials, which were vital to Maxwell, who writes in his Treatise that he read Faraday’s detailed notes carefully before starting to theorise mathematically. Further, Maxwell corrsponded with Faraday during the 1850s.

    However, Maxwell did not even then manage to predict c! He got it NUMERICALLY wrong by a factor of the square root of two in trying to come up with the mathematics in his first major publication:

    A.F. Chalmers’ article, ‘Maxwell and the Displacement Current’ (Physics Education, vol. 10, 1975, pp. 45-9) states that Orwell’s novel 1984 helps to illustrate how the tale was fabricated:

    ‘history was constantly rewritten in such a way that it invariably appeared consistent with the reigning ideology.’

    Maxwell tried to fix his original calculation deliberately in order to obtain the anticipated value for the speed of light, proven by Part 3 of his paper, On Physical Lines of Force (January 1862), as Chalmers explains:

    ‘Maxwell’s derivation contains an error, due to a faulty application of elasticity theory. If this error is corrected, we find that Maxwell’s model in fact yields a velocity of propagation in the electromagnetic medium which is a factor of 2^{1/2} smaller than the velocity of light.’

    It took three years for Maxwell to finally force-fit his ‘displacement current’ theory to take the form which allows it to give the already-known speed of light without the 41% error. Chalmers noted: ‘the change was not explicitly acknowledged by Maxwell.’

    So, was Feynman right to credit Maxwell with discovering the laws actually discovered by Ampere, Faraday, Gauss, and Heaviside, and only screwed up by Maxwell?

    Maxwell screwed up everything. His screw-loose gear cog and idler wheel aether led him to suggest, in an Encyclopedia Britannica article, the Michelson-Morley experiment as a way to determine the existence of absolute velocity of light. He failed to predict that such an aether would contract the instrument in the direction of motion, shortening the light path that way, and preventing interference fringes! It was the null result from this gormless experiment which led Einstein to falsely dismiss the spacetime fabric in 1905. By the time he realised that there was some reality in a vacuum, it was too late and a new Machian prejudice had set in. Mach “discredited” (sneered at) the spacetime fabric together with atoms and electrons, because he claimed anything you can’t directly see with your eyes (visible light) should be excluded from science. This led to Boltzmann’s suicide. All Einstein was doing in 1905 was riding the wave of Machianism. By the time he grew up, in the 1920s, he accepted some kind of spacetime fabric but claimed it must be a continuum, and that quantum theories are lies. Only in 1954 does Einstein admit in a letter to Michel Besso:

    “I consider it quite possible that physics cannot be based on the field concept,i.e., on continuous structures. In that case, nothing remains of my entire castle in the air, gravitation theory included, [and of] the rest of modern physics.”

    The continuing errors in Maxwell’s theory are two in number:

    (1) currents aren’t continuous, they are composed of particulate electrons or other discrete charges. Hence you can’t say that current I = dQ/dt. When the amount of charge flowing past any given point in a circuit is low (less than 1 electron per second, for example), I = dQ/dt is nonsense. You can’t apply calculus meaningfully to inherently discrete situations, without error at the low limit.

    (2) Maxwell’s displacement current concept,

    I = dD/dt = permittivity*dE/dt,

    is negated by the discovery in quantum field theory that the vacuum can’t get polarized below about 10^{20} volts/metre of electric field strength (IR cutoff).

    Hence, radio waves (which weren’t first discovered by Hertz, they were first demonstrated years earlier over many metres in London to the Royal Society, which dismissed as a “mere” Faraday induction effect), are not Maxwellian waves!

    Radio waves don’t have to exceed 10^{20} v/m to propagate by Maxwell’s aetherial displacement current mechanism!

    The true mechanism for what Maxwell falsely believed to be displacement current is a Yang-Mills exchange radiation effect: see

    Displacement current doesn’t physically exist, as Maxwell and Hertz believed, in radio waves. The term dD/dt actually represents a simple but involved mechanism whereby accelerating charges at the wavefront in each conductor exchange radio frequency energy but none of the energy escapes to the surroundings because each conductor’s emission is naturally an inversion of the signal from the other, so the superimposed signals cancel out as seen from a distance large in comparison to the distance of separation of the two conductors.

    ‘Our electrical theory has grown like a ramshackle farmhouse which has been added to, and improved, by the additions of successive tenants to satisfy their momentary needs, and with little regard for the future.’

    – H.W. Heckstall-Smith, Intermediate Electrical Theory, Dent, London, 1932, p283.

  19. Hi Chanda,

    Sorry for the late reply. I've been kind of distracted lately, and yesterday blogger decided to take a downtime the exact second I finished my answer. Which brings me again back to the question: where do dead comments go, and is this an information-loss problem?

    Anyway, thanks for the story about Harvard. I am genuinely shocked! The root of the problem however seems to be that it is possible to have 'clubs' (not sure I know what that is) that don't accept Jews at all. Is that legal? And then there are unfortunately those who take advantage of that. This certainly is an issue that can't be solved from within our community. I admit I just don't understand why someone would be bothered by a student body of x% of some religion or the other. If they don't like that, how about they just stop raising this data?

    You, and the wise PI faculty member, are right that we are human beings. And it is hard, if not impossible, to judge on someones scientific skills in a completely objective way (how would we ever know?). However, this shouldn't be used as an excuse not even to try. We can at least make sure that we try to be as objective as humanly possible. And there is certainly a potential for improvement over the present situation.

    it's worth noting that having a different background necessitates different development and a different view of the world. This can only be advantageous in broadening the scope of scientific progress. People who come from different cultures, in this respect, certainly have something unique to offer.

    In principle I do agree on this. I just want to point out that there are several weak links in this string of thoughts, that are subject to change from one generation to the next, from one country to the next. E.g. a different background necessitates different development, depends on what you mean with background. This can only be advantageous in broadening the scope of scientific progress. I'd certainly say it's not a disadvantage, but a priory, I don't see any correlation between, say, being Jewish, and having ingenious ideas for theoretical physics. I share your concern that the present selection process isn't color blind, but I find it dangerous to argue for hiring minorities because this is the way to achieve scientific progress.



  20. Clarification!

    This was a policy that was instituted in the early 20th century. The same admissions process is used, but obviously admissions standards have evolved and changed.

    I have a lot of problems with Harvard, but I would say that as far as encouraging diversity in the admissions process, they are a model for the rest of schools in its "league," especially public schools in diverse states, like ahem, UC Berkeley and UCLA :)


  21. Hi Chanda,

    what happened to 'bra talker'? Sorry for the stupid comment above, I could have gotten it out of what you said that this is part of history. Anyway, I guess it tells a lot about my hopes for the future of our so-called civilization that I even consider it possible this was not so long ago. E.g. I know that there are 'Bruederschaften' (brotherhoods) on German Universities that don't allow women (they do lots of sword fighting and stuff, and that's not for girls, right?). Many of them require approval by a committee before you can become a member, how does that look if 100% of that committee are Christian and you are Muslim? I also know that there have been discussions on and on whether and how pupils and teachers are allowed to show signs of their religion (crosses/stars/Muslim headscarf, etc). These are all things that bother me, in the first line because it seems so absolutely useless. Sometimes I think people just need a reason to be upset to make life less boring. Best,


  22. Fascinating article. Earlier, I read a comment that implied that there was objectivity in science and that race should play no part in choosing scientists. This is an ironic combination of statements considering the the "Father of Modern Science," Sir Francis Bacon, and what he had to say about cultural influences and objectivity. The goal is not pure objectivity, but rather to recognize the cultural influences in our observations and compensate. It's hard to recognize your own biases when you either refuse to see that they exist or are missing people who share different life experiences.

    I also find the idea that scientific ideas are created by single, great minds that can be identified in a hiring practice to be a bit misleading. Science "progresses" through the collective work of people; this collective work is strengthened by the challenging of assumptions and diversity of a group. You mention this process on a "career" level, but do not support it for demographic background. Interestingly, Cornwell and Stoddard find that crossing career borders and crossing cultural borders generates the same state of challenge to our assumptions... and history mostly shows the benefit of having diversity in both areas.

    I've just finished reading Sawyer's Group Genius (2007), so this is pretty fresh in my mind. Just thought I'd throw my perspective into the mix. Thanks for the great read!

  23. When I was considering physics long decades ago there seemed at first glance to be simply no place for anyone with a special gift for topology, ironically. So physics was out for me! At the lower levels of education in physics, there was no mention of anything having to do with topology, just then.

    From the point of view of an outsider there are all sorts of trade-offs you don't mention (except maybe in your excellent example of a small diverse group) that become diversity; such as "maths lead to ideas vs ideas lead to maths", knowledge of history or philosophy of science, respect for tertiary sources, sheer stubborness, religious/metaphysical family background, exposure to science fiction, exposure to formal logic, experimental experience in an unrelated field, exposure to more than one human culture/resistance to group influence, etc, etc. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these "choices." (Forgive me if some of these do overlap with your categories.)

    My experience with the academy is that the power relationship implicit in the ratio of graduates to hires makes any visible diversity in ideation impossible. Degree of followership is what impresses instead. Sort of the opposite of science, "On the word of no-one" and all that; but there you go.

    Peter Woit paints a very dark picture of extremely specific conformity within physics in "Not Even Wrong" and my own experience elsewhere in the academy certainly doesn't contradict that view.

  24. Hi Russell,

    Yes, that's true. There is more narrowmindedness than what I've addressed here. In a certain way, this is one of the benefits of introducing 'measures' for scientific success - these measures don't care about personal dislikes and provide some objectivity. Unfortunately, though the intention might have been good, these measures develop a life on their own, and eventually only reinforce a very narrow selection of 'ideal' scientists.



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