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Important Faces of Diversity in Science

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Diversity in science is important and valuable, and has been shown to improve scientific results. Learn about some of the important faces of diversity in this field. Then take a quiz to see what you've learned.

Diversity in Science

Diversity in the context of this lesson means a variety of people from different backgrounds, races, genders and experiences. Although it is a lot better than it used to be, it's fair to say that the majority of scientists are white males. There are many possible reasons for this. Perhaps it's because white males tend to have better educational opportunities, or there is a stigma of 'nerdiness' around science in some cultures. Maybe people who are not white males are not made to feel welcome in the scientific community. Or perhaps it is some combination of these reasons, or others not mentioned.

Why is lack of diversity a problem? Well, putting aside what it says about the inequalities in society, and how a system that produces so little diversity cannot be fairly balanced, it is a problem because science is damaged by this lack. Research has shown time and time again that diversity produces better results. A team of scientists that contains men, women, different cultures, and different backgrounds, is far more likely to be successful because each member brings different experiences and assumptions. Creative thinking is limited by what you see in your life. In fact, studies have shown that when we are working with people who are different from us, we prepare more carefully and make better efforts to present arguments.

Since this is about science, let's put some numbers to the problem. In the United States, 51% of people working in science-related fields were white and male as of 2010. 18% were white female. That means only 31% were of any other race. It's important that young students have role models of their own race or gender, who have done great things in science. Let's go through a few examples.

Historical Faces of Diversity

Perhaps the most famous female scientist is Marie Curie. She is famous for coming up with a theory of radioactivity, for techniques of isolating radioactive substances, and for discovering polonium and radium. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only person to win two Nobel prizes in different sciences (physics in 1903, and chemistry in 1911). She was also known for her good deeds. In fact, she had her Nobel prizes melted down, and the gold was sold to help the poor. When the First World War started, she set up mobile radiology medical clinics to help soldiers. Marie Curie was one of the most virtuous and impressive scientists in history.

Marie Curie
Marie Curie

One of the most important black scientists in history is Benjamin Banneker. He was an African-American mathematician, astronomer, and inventor who put together the first working clock in America. Born in 1731, he lived at a time when African-Americans were not generally given control over their lives. He produced almanacs (thanks to his astronomy knowledge) that were highly successful, and exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson about slavery and racial equality.

Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker

A famous example of a Latino physicist would be Luis Alvarez, who won a Nobel Prize in 1968 for his experiments in particle physics. He's particularly well-known for developing the so-called 'bubble chamber' that allowed physicists to see trails of the paths of particles in particle interactions. He published many significant papers on particle physics.

Luis Alvarez
Luis Alvarez

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