A week before final examinations last semester, Pomona College’s Physics Department hosted an event called “Decolonizing Physics,” organized by Professors Jorge Moreno and Janice Hudgings. The event took place on the campus of Pomona, a small, elite liberal arts college in Southern California on December 12.
This event follows from an event of the same name last year, and the discovery that a core physics class has a “decolonization” requirement in which students had to “learn and discuss implicit bias, microaggressions and other similar topics.” It is understood that this “Decolonizing Physics” event consists in part of this class’s students presenting their projects on these topics. Furthermore, this project is again a required module for PHYS101, a class that all students who wish to get a degree in physics from Pomona must take and pass.
The Independent repeatedly reached out to Moreno to enquire about the intentions and benefits of this event, but has received no response.
One Pomona student who spoke to the Independent on the condition of anonymity revealed that he had dropped an Astronomy class taught by Moreno due to “overt racism.” The student recalled that, during their first lab class, Moreno asked that “folks with white or male privilege should be quiet and give others space so that they feel comfortable enough to talk and ask questions.”
The Independent asked Isaac Cui, a junior and physics major at Pomona, for his thoughts on the event. On whether or not the event helps students to actually improve their understanding of physics or not, Cui said that he does not “think there’s necessarily direct learning about physics or astronomy concepts per se from this type of work,” arguing that it’s important to learn about “the complex histories of physics and astronomy, and about how different people understand the same underlying phenomenon.”
“The historical work of specific women or scientists of color, would fall under this category. I think this category helps people understand the fields of physics and astronomy, because it gives people context into how the field developed and why it did not develop in certain ways.”
Cui also discussed what he understands as the definition and aim of “decolonization,” arguing that it attempts to address who gets credit for certain research due to “power dynamics within the academy [physics] and across history,” adding that one should ask “Is there systematic bias in who gets credit? If so, why?”
According to Cui, learning the history behind physics—one of the main points of the event—is important “because there were particular ways in which we got to where we are now, and those histories are helpful in understanding how to advance the projects of physics and astronomy.”
“I think one obvious example is with the development of nuclear bombs and, more generally, nuclear energy. It’s hard to imagine that someone can teach nuclear fission and fusion without explaining why these techniques were developed—and that history helps explain why nuclear energy is such a politically toxic subject, even though nuclear energy may be critical in replacing fossil-fuel dependence and curbing climate change. I think it would be quite detrimental to one’s physics education if that history were not taught,” Cui added.
Another physics student at Pomona, who wished to be unnamed, told the Independent that he saw the event as an opportunity to show that “so much has been contributed by non-[E]uropeans.” The student added that “Everyone knows the names of Einstein and Newton, but not so many people know who Satyendra Bose is or who Donna Strickland is…”
Despite there being countless STEM (Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering) scholarships available for women only, and an ever increasing proportion of scholarships being available only to minorities, many students and faculty still believe there is systemic bias within these fields.
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