Roberts, Race and Physics

I’ve been stewing for a couple of weeks about what was said by Fat Tony and Chief Justice Roberts during oral arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest attack on affirmative action.

Scalia’s hankering after the good old jurisprudence of Plessey v. Ferguson receive much notice, but I was (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my day job) at least as troubled by Roberts’ musing on the importance of diversity to a physics classroom.

Much of Roberts’ train of thought was no doubt shaped by prior jurisprudence on the criteria by which preferences could be accepted, but his specific choice of the physics classroom as a presumed space in which diversity would not show a particular benefit to the assembled students seemed to me to reflect a common and pernicious mistake, and error about both the practice of science and the ways diversity actually produces its effects.

So I wrote about it — and The Atlantic put it up on their site today.  Here’s a taste:

Roberts’s question about the “benefits” minorities might bring into a physics classroom suggests a classroom in which nothing outside physics may usefully impinge. That is, at best, a fatally narrow view. Roberts is thinking only about the answers, not the process of arriving at them. Actually doing science involves everything about the person doing the work—as, for example, the way Einstein turned his anger and pity for his father, a casualty of the rat race, into the goad that led him to so much of modern physics.

The piece turns on two stories: that told by Einstein in what he called “Notes for an Autobiography” and another, by the physicist Kaća Bradonjić, whose history I learned last week at a Story Collider performance.  She talked about childhood, war, exile and general relativity — and it was both wonderful, and the crystallizing narrative that captured, for me, the difference between thinking about physics (any inquiry) as a body of results, and physics (any inquiry) as it’s being done, contingent in time, space, and the individual minds and lives of the people doing it.


Anyway — y’all might enjoy, and if you’re interested, now you know where to go.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766

71 replies
  1. 1
  2. 2
    Baud says:

    When you’re a high level Republican, diversity isn’t all that important to your success.

  3. 3
    KG says:

    In fairness to Roberts, he’s a lawyer, and most of us know very little about science. We retain expert witnesses to explain it to us, to our clients, and to the jury. And most of our work with experts tend to focus on answers rather than process.

    Also, in a more general sense, those of us who don’t have much experience in science after high school or sophomore year of college, probably think the same way. The idea that a person’s own experiences actually help and/or hinder in the discovery of answers in “hard sciences” is probably foreign to most non-scientists. Hopefully there’s some briefing (or something said at oral arguments) that will push back against that idea.

  4. 4
    dr. bloor says:


    In fairness to Roberts, he’s a lawyer, and most of us know very little about science. We retain expert witnesses to explain it to us, to our clients, and to the jury. And most of our work with experts tend to focus on answers rather than process.

    He’s not chasing ambulances or trying to get someone cleared of a criminal charge. He sits on the highest court in the land, the last word in matters that will shape our country for years to come. I find the Republican majority’s politics on the court reprehensible, but their lack of intellectual curiosity and rigor is nothing less than disgraceful.

  5. 5
    Anoniminous says:

    I don’t know about Physics. I do know Biology. Walk into any Biology Lab in the country and diversity is a given since the basic requirement is brains, not a white pen-is.

  6. 6
    Schlemazel says:

    That is a poor excuse for a small mind. Even if I cannot envision the benefit to garbage collecting from a diverse work force I can envision the advantage to a society that does not limit garbage collection to one race, one gender, one religion or one social class. Same thing for medicine, physics, law, and really any field you care to mention. I know the US would sure benefit from more diversity on the USSC than its current parade dominated by old, white, conservative Catholic, men – whether the USSC would or not is irrelevant.

  7. 7
    Matt McIrvin says:

    There’s a benefit just in demonstrating to everybody that minority students can and do study physics. The cognitive distortion inherent in not knowing that makes everyone fractionally stupider.

  8. 8
    Mnemosyne says:

    The LA Times had a great follow-up article that pointed out that most of the underrepresented (aka minority) faculty in the sciences graduated from MIT, Harvard, or Stanford. None from UT.

    And, of course, there’s the guy who just couldn’t hack it at UT and had to go to Princeton for his PhD instead — Neil deGrasse Tyson. Only in Scalia’s world is UT a better science school than Princeton.

  9. 9
    realbtl says:

    As a retiree from one of the national weapons labs I can say that, even among the admittedly white male physicists and other scientists I worked with, I’ve seldom worked in a more diverse environment. From strait-laced uptight conservatives to flat out weirdos.

    I think this comment of Roberts’s shows the paucity of his life experience.

  10. 10
    Baud says:

    Speaking of diversity, MSNBC has apprently decided to go all Republican all the time.

  11. 11

    That was an asinine comment by Roberts. As the sole woman in many of my higher level physics grad and undergrad classes, I can tell you that it was an isolating experience.

  12. 12
    Schlemazel says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:
    but to follow the Chief assholes line of “thought” that didn’t hurt physics at all therefore you should stop whining & get a degree in home ec or nursing where you belong.

  13. 13
    BillinGlendaleCA says:

    @Baud: Guess I can cross them off my TV watching list.

  14. 14

    @Schlemazel: You don’t know what the people who don’t go into physics now because it so lacks diversity would have contributed to it.

  15. 15
  16. 16

    What’s the benefit to physics of having a white male student? Or to the Supreme Court of having a white male judge?

  17. 17
    Baud says:

    @BillinGlendaleCA: Maddow might still be watchable. Chris Hayes isn’t there this week, but his show is heavily Republican even when he is there.

    When Hayes had his weekend show, he would bring in all these interesting panelists. Now, it’s always Robert Costa, the libertarian guy from Reason magazine, and perhaps one other Republican for variety.

  18. 18
    Mnemosyne says:


    My brother’s goddaughter just got hired at Lawrence Livermore, but IIRC she’s an engineer, not a scientist. Being Latina helped her get scholarships and interviews, but she had to be able to do the work, too. And she can.

  19. 19
    maeve says:

    Not planning for diversity is also a way of saying “we don’t need those people” – there are enough smart/talented people in the majority/accepted population so who cares about the rest.

    I was a physics major (in the 70’s) in a large midwestern university – as a (white) female I was probably in the 10% minority. It was hard just being a minority – I remember a lab partner who totally ignored me. I applied for a couple research/study positions but felt put on the spot when asked what my “experience” was and was shy and didn’t push it. I did have a summer research position at a national lab my junior year – where (probably due to affirmative action) females made up about 30% (in all areas of science not just physics).

    I ended up having grades in the top of the class, good GRE scores and went to one of the top universities in the country for a Ph.D. A professor at my undergrad college asked me “why did we never hear about you?” – Well, you never noticed me – and I was was torn about wondering whether this was “discrimination” or my fault because I wasn’t “pushy” enough.

    So there’s a reason why “minorities” can do better in colleges where they are not the absolute minority – and its not because its “easier” and more suited to their “limits’ – its also because being in the absolute minority is hard. Spending your congitive resources on wondering whether you really fit in takes a lot of energy.

  20. 20
    oldgold says:

    Roberts, Scalia and Thomas are frequently and sharply criticized by liberals. They richly deserve it.

    Strangely, the worst of the bunch by some distance, Sammy Alito, seems to escape much of this criticism.

  21. 21
    Baud says:

    @oldgold: You kidding? Alito is criticized all the time.

  22. 22
    Mnemosyne says:


    That’s because Alito usually sits back and says, “Me too” rather than writing his own opinion or speaking up during arguments.

  23. 23

    Does that idiotic Roberts even know the prejudice and discrimination faced by the likes Maria Meyer, Emmy Noether and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar because they did not look like the majority of physicists.

    For those who don’t know Meyer and Chandrashekhar are Nobel Prize winners and Noether’s theorem is of seminal importance to the current conception of theoretical physics in terms of conservation laws.

  24. 24
    BillinGlendaleCA says:

    @Baud: OK, I’ll still watch Madow; actually I like Alex(she be cute). I don’t mind Costa when he’s there to give the Republican take on the race, he’s actually better than most of the other hacks. Hays was much better on the weekend show, he had better panelists and he really does need the 24 hour rule.

  25. 25
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @oldgold: It’s because Alito is utterly predictable. He is a complete shit.

  26. 26

    @Mnemosyne: Wasn’t he the one who shook his head at the State of the Union and mouthed “that’s not true” when Obama said benefit wouldn’t go to undocumented immigrants?

  27. 27
    Baud says:


    he does tend to be quieter at arguments than Scalia and Roberts.

  28. 28
    Baud says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    He shook his head, but it was over Citizens United.

  29. 29
    Baud says:

    Oh wow. I just noticed the trackback/ping back feature on the blog. This post as been linked to.

  30. 30

    @Baud: His behavior was inappropriate and offensive.

  31. 31
  32. 32
    Schlemazel says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:
    I do realize that but Mr. Roberts does not because he can’t imagine how physics could benefit from diversity. small mind, really tiny mind incapable of greater thought.

  33. 33
    Steve from Antioch says:

    So you use the stories of two white folks to illustrate the importance of diversity in physics? Okay ….

  34. 34
    Gian says:

    The Washington/Amazon Post did an article based on some polling a couple weeks ago. The gist of the polling was that whites try to raise kids to be color blind, while minorities feel obliged to prepare their kids for the real world.

    Unpacking all of that is more than I can do right now, as it has all kinds of implications.

    However, as the Uncle of a kid in Texas, who went to a highly competitive school, I can understand some of the arguments, although I doubt the Justices had any idea of this. College is damn expensive. Parents in the school I’m talking about would send kids to community college to take courses over the summer that they would take again in high school, just to guarantee the “A” and a shot at the top 10% UT admission and tutors, etc. My niece didn’t get this kind of super-prep. But the point I’m trying to get to… the damn education is so expensive that people will do this to get the top tier state school admission.
    When I ponder that, I can’t help but think there’s under-supply in the college education market.

  35. 35

    @Schlemazel: I know that you know. The you was generic. No offense meant.

  36. 36
    Trentrunner says:

    @BillinGlendaleCA: Costa is actually an excellent reporter. If you’ve been able to glean his politics from that reporting, you’re a more astute observer than I.

    Notice how whenever Chris Matthews (and less often, Hayes) try to get him to editorialize, Costa responds with facts and more scoops that he gets from his apparently deep bench of Republican sources. I follow him on Twitter, and I always know what the Republicans are doing before it’s announced anywhere, even Drudge. That’s reporting.

  37. 37
    divF says:

    Bravo, Tom.

    Many of the essential components of success in science and technology – curiosity, persistence, passion, challenging conventional wisdom, the ability to collaborate – are outgrowths of personal histories and cultural experiences, as well as a broad range of cognitive skills. Diversity is key to cultivating our scientific ecosystem.

  38. 38
    BillinGlendaleCA says:

    @Trentrunner: He used to be at the National Review, so that’s where I’d glean his politics, but he does have excellent Republican sources and you’re right doesn’t color it.

  39. 39
    Suzanne says:

    @KG: In general, IME, people seem to think that anything they don’t know about is easy and straightforward. Roberts should be able to climb out of his own head long enough to realize that he is wrong.

  40. 40


    most of us know very little about science.

    I know plenty about psychology, and Robert’s argument is what we call ‘rationalization’, and Stephen Colbert would call ‘truthiness.’ He knows in his heart that blacks don’t belong in prestigious schools, so there must be some argument that will explain it. Logical arguments just don’t feel convincing.

  41. 41
    Linda Featheringill says:

    “Physics, like any worthwhile inquiry, is not just a body of facts and methods. It is a way of being in the world that requires the full range of human experience.”
    [from the article]

    The riddle of the universe is much too complex to be fully unraveled by just one type of person. We need all sorts of people looking at and examining everything.

  42. 42 says:

    I know this is not an education related but I deal with a lot of wholesale construction related businesses. Not Fortune 500 cos. but bigger than just mom and pop businesses. Probably 50-300 employees. Inevitably the management is all white. There might be 1-3 women but minorities – rare. You’ll see hispanics on the lower end jobs(partly because they’re bilingual) and possibly some blacks, again on the lower paying positions. The only place I’ll see minorities in management is government and healthcare. I just wonder if RW judges on the courts think everything is fixed because they’ve all worked only in government for decades and they live in D.C. which is heavy with government jobs.

  43. 43
    Snarki, child of Loki says:

    @Schlemazel: “[Roberts has a] small mind, really tiny mind incapable of greater thought.”

    Which is why he got appointed to the USSC by Republicans, rather than doing something worthwhile and intellectually challenging, like physics.

  44. 44
    alce_e_ ardilla says:

    Its the difference between physics as a Liberal Art, in the fullest sense, and physics as glorified engineering,

  45. 45
    Betty Cracker says:

    Well said, Tom.

  46. 46
    Schlemazel says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:
    Sorry, guys can be so touchy, you always have to be careful what you say around us ;)

  47. 47
    Suzanne says: I’m on the design side, but your experience is the same as mine in the AEC industry. Contractors and consulting engineers are overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly white. I had an electrical subcontractor talk to me like I was an idiot, then back down when he realized I was right. Lovely.

  48. 48
    I'mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet says:

    @Iowa Old Lady:

    Or to the Supreme Court of having a white male Catholic judge who attended Harvard or Yale Law School?



    Anyone who doesn’t think diversity in the Sciences matters should read things like The Man Who Knew Infinity and Tractatus Logico Philosphicus.

    Science and Engineering don’t advance by continuing to do the same old things that have been done in the past. Science isn’t rote repetition of what has come before. New people are needed to generate new ways of thinking and new ideas.

    Scalia and Roberts apparently have no desire to look forward and make things better, they seemingly want to recreate some past that never was. I’m not surprised that they don’t understand the need for diversity at universities (and elsewhere in society).


    [edit: fixed emphasis tags]


  49. 49
    jl says:

    @Frankensteinbeck: I agree Roberts was rationalizing. Even if you stupidly limit what goes on in any college education to intro physics classes where an emphasis is on learning basics and calculating correct answer to potted HW and exam problems, it was a BS comment.

    A hundred years ago, he would have wondered what a Jew could have added to a math or physics class, since they would add no creativity to the subject (which is what you would want to foster at a ‘top school’), just sterile talmudic logic chopping. Really, no advantage in diversity there. (Edit: and historically, that was a rationale to keep Jews out of the top schools fostering French or German or whatever national BS school of thought was desired in various countries in hard sciences and math).

    Too bad they don’t teach economics, or political science or business or finance or geography, or ecology, or engineering, or industrial design, anthropology or history, or medicine at colleges and universities. It would have been a hoot to hear why the bigot cynic Roberts wonders how diversity could add anything in those fields.

  50. 50
    batgirl says:

    @Gian: Funny thing was the top 10% was a way to get around the Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action to create diversity, and I’m guessing that this this “screws” the “middle-class white boy” at a top suburban school more than the old policy.

  51. 51
    Debbie says:


    Alito’s the white Thomas.

  52. 52
    Swellsman says:

    I did enjoy, Tom, thanks. I also forwarded the Atlantic link to a friend of mine, a physicist to whom I have gifted The Hunt for Vulcan, which I also enjoyed very much.


  53. 53
    Gvg says:

    Not science but 2 reasons for diversity; my father worked for defense contractor Martin Marietta, which had then a policy of not having more than 30% engineers from one school because they had found it caused a kind of group think that wasn’t useful. It would have been easier to hire mostly from the local college but they recruited from many school. Schools tend to each have a certain style of thinking.
    In business school they taught us to avoid too many alike because it contributed to dangerous group think. The example they gave was the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Reenactment exercise was disguised as something else like a race car prep but it was Columbia. Diversity means more than race. It’s everything that we group ourselves by.
    All kinds of problems get solved better when you have many angles working on it.

  54. 54

    Physics question
    Einstein’s General Theory celebrates 100 years, gets a lot of press. Maxwell’s Electromagnetic theory completes 150 years and gets barely a mention. Why?

    I have other questions too. and a kitteh!

    Good night. Kthx bai.

  55. 55
    dnfree says:

    @Matt McIrvin:

    When I was a physics minor, back in the 1960’s, there was one other female student in the department–a major. We soon found that we had to be each other’s lab partner if we wanted to actually learn anything from an experiment. A male lab partner would automatically relegate us to the “gofer” role, as in “You go to the storeroom and get the potentiometer and I’ll set up the circuit.”

    I think there are more women in physics now (at least I hope so), but learning to work collaboratively with people who don’t look like you goes way back.

  56. 56
    I'mNotSureWhoIWantToBeYet says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: Maxwell’s equations have funny symbols that scare people away. Einstein can be reduced to E=mc^2 and “explained” the atomic bomb, so it got lots of popular press.

    Both are important, of course, but JCM has almost certainly had a greater impact. The world would still be a very big place without radio and its cousins…

    But you knew that! :-)


  57. 57
    jl says:


    ” E=mc^2 ”
    I think that is special.

    But a main gist of the general can be expressed in symbols for tensors that look cool without too many weird symbols. I forget what they mean unless I read what the tensors mean, and then immediately forget again.
    G = (8pi)/(c^4)R something something something.

    But you can’t go wrong science PR-wise by having one dang letter on the left hand side. That’s for sure. Einstein had a knack.

  58. 58
    Adam L Silverman says:

    Not to reduce everything to culture, but… One of the things that we do know is that creativity – not the innate urge to be creative, but rather the manner in which it is expressed is socio-culturally bound. Different groups and societies produce different types of music and art and cuisine and literature and even, to an extent, the way history is recorded and reported (and many other things) because of these socio-cultural difference. Have a group of people working on a project, from a number of different backgrounds (diversity) doesn’t just work against group think, it also opens up the potential ways to achieve a problems solution or make a breakthrough that advances knowledge.

    Having more women involved in decision making and problem solving brings better results/solution. Without seeming to be biologically reductionist, this is posited in the different ways that women learn to communicate and work within a group setting. It was really for this reason, though it wasn’t articulated and I doubt it will ever be, that combat roles were formally opened to women. Given the way that general officer promotions are done in the Army and Marines, with a significant prejudice for personnel with both combat arms and command in combat experience, opening up combat arms positions to women increases the pool for generating general officers from. This will bring an important element to military senior leadership and decision making that is too often lacking right now – even if it takes a decade or so to really take effect. And the same goes for having more people of color promoted to higher positions. Having a broad range of experience, including personal lived experiences, is important for problem solving in teams, as well as for decision making at higher echelons.

  59. 59
    burnspbesq says:

    A reminder: if even half of the approximately 80,000 Floridians who voted for Nader in 2000 had voted for Gore instead, John Roberts would still be a partner at Hogan Lovells. Remember that if you’re tempted to sit out 2016 because the Dem nominee is impure.

  60. 60
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    John Roberts might as well be an MBA. He’s got all the creative insight of a beancounter.

  61. 61
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: I think it’s really because of a quirk of mass-media celebrity culture. Maxwell’s achievement was not widely lionized by the press, and its applications by such people as Hertz and Marconi got more attention. (Also, in its original form, it was quite opaque even to physicists: the versions of the field equations we know and use today are more the product of Gibbs and Heaviside, aren’t they?)

    Einstein got a hook, in the form of Eddington’s 1919 eclipse expedition. Special relativity, despite E=mc^2, didn’t immediately make Einstein famous to the general public. What made him a celebrity was this bizarre astronomical observation that apparently verified his theory that space-time itself was curved. That’s weird and counterintuitive and sounded terribly profound. So the newspapers played it up, and Einstein became a celebrity synonymous with “super-genius”, supplanting Edison and Newton before him.

    And then, decades later, he became the world’s most famous German Jewish emigre, and also associated with the atomic bomb both through E=mc^2 and through putting his name on the letter to Roosevelt (though he actually had nothing else to do with producing it).

    So suddenly this thing that people identified with Einstein reshaped the entire history of the late 20th century in this ominous way, and he was not only the icon of the super-genius but also, to some extent, of the Promethean scientist who meddles in things Man was not meant to know. And since he had come to America, the American media liked to quote him a lot, and ask him about politics and such, and he also became something of an icon of pacifist internationalism as well.

  62. 62
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @jl: You can write Maxwell’s equations in tensor form just about as simply. It’s just not the way they’re usually written.

  63. 63
    frosty fka Bro Shotgun etc etc says:


    Contractors and consulting engineers are overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly white.

    Funny, our water resources engineering division (consulting) recently hired 5 EITs. 2 men, 3 women. Not one white anglo-saxon male in the bunch.

    At the PM and PE level though, yeah, pretty much male and white.

  64. 64
    Original Lee says:

    @Suzanne: @Matt McIrvin: When I was an ASTM committee officer, I had many meeting attendees assume I was staff and ask me to make photocopies for them. The meeting where I brought my spouse was highly amusing because he was the only male on the field trips, which were mainly to gardens. I was lucky in that when I was with scientists, most of them assumed I knew what I was doing. When I was with engineers, not so much. Now I’m with lawyers most of the time, and most of them (male and female) tend to assume I’m an idiot because I don’t have a law degree.

  65. 65
    TriassicSands says:

    So, John Roberts is an idiot. I never would have guessed. I imagine Roberts has no appreciation for diversity, because he’s probably never experienced any in his lifetime. He’s probably been forced into more diversity sitting on the Court than at any other time in his life.

  66. 66
    TriassicSands says:

    Roberts featured prominently in the recent NYTimes articles about how corporations have privatized one part of the law and made it nearly impossible for people to file class action law suits. Roberts was the lawyer for a corporation trying to get the SCOTUS to OK forced arbitration, which favors the corporations. He lost. Then, he became Chief Justice and ruled on a case that did just that.

  67. 67
    Elizabelle says:

    This was a great thread. I marvel at the scientific smarts of many here, and at the duplicity and malfeasance of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney John Roberts.

  68. 68
    Barry says:

    @KG: “In fairness to Roberts, he’s a lawyer, and most of us know very little about science. We retain expert witnesses to explain it to us, to our clients, and to the jury. And most of our work with experts tend to focus on answers rather than process.”

    In more fairness to Roberts, he”s not held in isolation from world, seeing only the other justices, clerks, and lawyers arguing cases. And he’s probably got far more leisure time than a regular judge.

    If he’s ignorant, it’s a deliberate choice.

  69. 69
  70. 70
    henqiguai says:

    @alce_e_ ardilla (#44):

    Its the difference between physics as a Liberal Art, in the fullest sense, and physics as glorified engineering

    Which may very well explain the comment made by my professors in my undergrad Physics program at Howard University: “We’re not teaching you ‘physics’, we’re teaching you how to think!” All of ‘um. Used to piss me off ’cause I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to ‘think’ through all those damned problems. I miss those times.

  71. 71
    Nancy says:

    Enjoyed the Atlantic piece, can’t comment there. Your writing opened a door for me to walk through as I choose. I can think about what I’ve learned from this and apply it to my world, little as I may really understand about physics—or I can make snarky remarks a la Scalia or stay in my limited mental frame like Roberts. It is a choice.

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