Where are all the black astronomers and physicists? Racism, isolation keep many away


Canadian astrophysicist Louise Edwards is used to answering some of the toughest questions in the universe. But right now, she’s trying to answer this one: How many black Canadian astronomers does she know?

Edwards, an associate professor in the physics department at California Polytechnic State University, participates in a Zoom call with CBC as she sits in a friend’s brightly lit shed near her home in Berkeley, Calif.

Thinking about the question, she turns her head to the right, facing the white paneled walls. She thinks hard.

“Ummm,” she said, looking away. “There are definitely a few new grad students that I know of.”

She stops and smiles. “I know physicists. And people in astronomy education.”

It’s clear she’s in trouble.

“Yeah, there are very few,” Edwards said finally. “I don’t know if there are other people currently working not as students [but] as Canadian astronomers. I do not know. I imagine I would know them.”

Canadian Louise Edwards is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at California Polytechnic State University. (Rubis Wallau)

Canada is home to some of the most talented astronomers, astrophysicists and physicists in the world. There are Victoria Kaspiwhose work on pulsars and neutron stars earned him the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal in Science and Engineering; Sara Seager, a world-renowned astronomer and planetary scientist from MIT who won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2013 and is a leader in exoplanet research; and James Peebles, who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.

One thing they have in common? They are all white.

Black stargazers are rare in North America, but especially in Canada. Within the community, members share stories of discrimination, microaggressions, and feelings of isolation, which can ultimately deter others from pursuing careers in science.


Monday marked the start of Black in the astro week, which was created in June 2020 by Ashley Walker, a black astrochemist from Chicago. His goal ? Use social media and hashtags to raise the voices of black scientists working in various astronomical fields.

The annual event grew out of an incident in May 2020 in New York’s Central Park. Christian Cooper, a black ornithologist, asked a woman – who was white – to keep her dog on a leash. Instead, she called the police, falsely accusing Cooper of stalking himr. It was the same day George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.

Shortly after the Central Park incident, a social media movement began on Twitter with #Blackbirders. The goal was to increase recognition of black people who enjoy birdwatching and to draw attention to the harassment they often experience. Soon a larger movement began with #BlackinX, where black scientists from other fields were elevated as well.

Last week, Walker co-authored an article in the journal Nature Astronomy titled, “The representation of darkness in astronomy.”

A similar article was published in Wired magazine on June 7 titled “The Unwritten Laws of Physics for Black Women“, which examined the experience of black women in universities of physics.

The thread that weaves through the stories of these scientists is that of isolation. They struggle with being the only black person in a given program or class; their ideas are not valued; and there are few or no black mentors.

According to American Physical Society, Blacks make up about 15% of the US population between the ages of 20 and 24, but only about 3% of those who receive a bachelor’s degree in physics. For doctorates, that number drops to just over two percent.

In Canada, the ratio is similar.

Kevin Hewitt, a professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Sciences at Dalhousie University in Halifax, conducted a survey for the Canadian Association of Physicists (which includes those in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics) in 2020. It found only one percent of respondents aged 18 to 34 identified as black. In the overall Canadian population, 6% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 identify as black.

“Black Canadian physicists, we’re a pretty small number,” Hewitt said. “I personally know about 10 other people, including students and professors.”

high school challenges

Hewitt is active in bringing STEM to young black people. He co-founded Imhotep Legacy Academy, a STEM outreach program in Nova Scotia for Black students. Its programs include the Young, Gifted, Black Future Physicists Initiativea summer camp in Dalhousie.

Kevin Hewitt, a professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Sciences at Dalhousie University in Halifax, poses in his lab on June 17, 2022. (Darren Calabrese/CBC)

Why are there so few Black Canadian scientists in general, but in particular, those seeking a career in astronomy?

One of the problems may lie in the education system.

Take the province of Ontario, for example. Until recently, high schools had a “streaming” program, which directed students to different post-secondary streams. The “academic” courses were more difficult and required for university; “applied” courses prepared students for college and trades; and “essentials” provided support for students to meet graduation requirements.

In 2017, a report led by Carl Jamesprofessor at the faculty of education at York University in Toronto, found that only 53% of black students in the Toronto District School Board were enrolled in university programs, compared to 81% of white students and 80% of other racialized students . students.

Conversely, 39% of black students were enrolled in applied programs, compared to 16% of white students and 18% of other racialized students.

(Radio-Canada News)

“What we found in this study were many of the [Black] parents were talking about how their kids were being channeled into vocational or essential or low-level courses,” James said. Some parents would try “to intervene”, he said, but their concerns fell on deaf ears.

A need for early support

James says another aspect is that certain cultural groups tend to want their children to go into particular high-level professions, like law or medicine. If a child expresses a desire to pursue a course of study outside of what their parents want or know, they may not be supported.

“[Parents] they might know a teacher, they might know lawyers, but they might not know much about engineers. They may not know much about science,” James said. “The question for some parents might be, how can I support my child in these areas if [I’m not familiar] with that?”

Hakeem Oluseyi, an astrophysicist and STEM educator in the United States, prolific in the astronomy community, believes that science literacy and interest in science starts at home.

“What I always say is you can’t educate children without educating adults,” he said. And parents who go so far as to teach their children math and science at home have an even greater advantage.

But James thinks that’s not enough.

“We just can’t look at why and what we should be doing as single parents — because I, as a parent, could do whatever I could,” he said. Even so, he acknowledged that many black kids don’t do well in science because “somebody…didn’t help and support them.”

A lack of black mentors

That’s a big part of the problem. A US Education Advisory Board report (EAS) found that 40% of black students drop out of STEM-related programs across the country. Although there is no definitive reason, the study suggested that it could be linked to discrimination within academia and this recurring feeling of isolation. (Though there is some data on race in Canadian universitiesthere is no equivalent data on those leaving STEM-related studies.)

This does not surprise James.

“You can have the skills and the ability. But at the same time, once you’re in that position, you’re undermined in every possible way,” James said. “How long are you going to live in this situation?

Margaret Ikape, a doctoral candidate at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, says she has had a largely positive experience in her field. But she, too, feels alone in her community.

“You feel like you’re innovating,” said Ikape, from Nigeria. “You don’t see anyone like you who’s done it before you, and so it’s really scary.”

She wishes there were more mentors. “Sometimes I feel like I’d rather talk to someone who would probably understand where I’m coming from.”

Margaret Ikape, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, is seen in her office on June 15, 2022. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC)

That there is discrimination — implicit or explicit — or even a sense of alienation should come as no surprise, says Oluseyi.

“You know, there’s this standard framing of, ‘Oh, [astrophysics is] so racist,” and yadda, yadda, yadda. And I will say that of course it is, because we are embedded in a society,” he said. “And that larger society definitely falls into our domain, and who we are in our domain is a subset of society.”

Back in sunny California, Edwards reflects on her own experience, saying she was lucky in some ways. Growing up in Victoria, British Columbia, a very white city, she had already dealt with a sense of isolation, so it was nothing new for her once she got into the business. ‘astrophysics. But she admits it took her a while to meet another black astrophysicist.

Edwards says Black in Astro Week is a great way to raise black voices and show black kids that not only are there black astronomers and physicists, but there’s a place for them in science.

Edwards expressed his gratitude to Ashley Walker, founder of Black in Astro Week, as well as Vanguard STEM, a similar initiative. “[It] gives a wonderful space to a variety of physicists, scientists and astronomers so that different people can see that, you know, they don’t have to fit a particular mold to do that.”