Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What is race and does it matter (in astronomy)?

In my last post I gave a peek into my understanding of racism in America, and how I teach that concept to my children. The reading list posted therein also informs much of what follows, so if you’d like references please see the end of that article. See also my introduction on the subject of race in (US) astronomy. With this post I aim to give a quick overview of some key concepts that I'll rely upon in future posts. For people wishing to comment on this, please do me, yourself and the community a favor and first read this excellent reader’s guide on discussing racism. You’ll be surprised how often the first thing that comes to your mind has been previously voiced and repeated ad nauseam elsewhere in similar forums. When in doubt, frame your comment as a question.

The 1927 AAS meeting. In one key respect it is the same now as it was then.
The first concept is that of race. This subject is covered extensively in the easy-to-read textbook Seeing White (see my Twitter challenge #BloggingWhite), as well as in numerous other books, research papers, blog posts, etc. Thus, I cannot do proper justice in the space here, but I can highlight some important aspects of race that should pique your interest as a scientists and citizen:
  1. Race has little to no biological basis. Many lines of genetic research have shown that when humans are divided into various "classical" racial categories (a process that is, itself, fraught with difficulty and ambiguity), that 85% of genetic variation occurs within racial groups, while < 7% of the variability is across racial divisions. At a genetic level, we are an order of magnitude more human than we are any specific race.
  2. While race is not a biological reality, it is very much real because we humans believe in race and act according to racial divisions. This started with the US Census, which needed to identify Black slaves in the South so they could be counted as 3/5 of a human each for congressional representation. It continued as a justification for slavery (slaves are happier when taken care of by white owners!) with the oppressive Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, as well as federal appropriation of funds, employment and military service. It also formed the primary basis of the problematic eugenics movement, and eugenics researchers produced most of the junk "science" that informs even modern conceptions of race. Race divisions continue today in the wealth gap, imprisonment disparities, school segregation, etc.
The key takeaway is: race, while not a biological reality, is a social reality with numerous and far-reaching consequences for how we live and interact in American society. Race is real, but only because we have created it, defined it, nurtured it and most importantly: used it.

These six men all have two things in common: they play in the NBA, and they are Black. Two
are first-generation mixed-race, one is from Africa while the other five are African American.
There is more genetic variation within a race than among races.
That last idea, the use of race is key. Without the concept of race, there cannot be a concept of one race being superior to another. But if society understands race to be genetic and immutable, then it's only a matter of time before one group asserts its superiority. Remember how German society united around the idea of an "Aryan race?" Remember how race has no genetic basis and is pretty much a fairy tale? Remember the consequences of the strong national belief in that superior race? This is why race matters.

Without race available as a tool for dividing up humans into categories, and as a tool for labeling one group as superior (whites) and other groups as inferior (non-whites), then one would be left only with what the founders of our country wrote, namely: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." Without the concept of white and non-white, then it would, indeed, be self-evident, as well as scientifically evident that all people are born equal.
Look at this and tell me race doesn't matter...
However, we live in a world with limited resources. In the 17th--19th centuries, the American South saw an opportunity to gain wealth, resources and power through the trade of agricultural products, cotton being king among those products. I don't need to go into the details of what went down after Black people were labeled subhuman and pressed into forced labor to build our country. But the institution of slavery couldn't exist without the social construct of race. 

Racism is the framework that has allowed and continues to allow white people to accumulate an unfair advantage over non-white Americans, as I detailed in my previous post (and references therein). Seeing White examines this process using social constructionism. The basic idea is that race does not need to matter, but it does because it's an effective tool for appropriating power, resources and wealth for white people while leaving non-whites out of the game. Having constructed this social reality, consequences such as a wealth gap and elevated poverty rates among non-whites quite naturally follow. The construction of race/racism causes inequality which in turn results in good things for white people and bad things for non-white people.

It's worth stating this again: the construction of race leads to racist policies that disadvantage non-whites in our society, resulting in non-whites having less; less wealth, lower incomes, less availability to health care, shorter life expectancies, living near poverty, and being excluded from positions of power in our society. It's not because non-whites have inferior cultures (the so-called "culture of poverty") and choose to occupy a lower class in our society. Rather, they have been pushed into a lower class by a system that provides them with fewer opportunities and more contingencies than a white person with otherwise identical starting conditions.

Racism, sexism, homophobia. All of these are tools that allow one group to amass wealth, resources and power while denying equal access to others. I could point out numerous examples in history, but most people know about them already. And that's the problem: because those nasty things are viewed as happening in the past, we shrug them off and think, "Jeez, how stupid were those people? Silly Nazis, subjugation is for kids!" But here's the thing: There was no magical moment between the past and present during which everyone suddenly had a software update. Views have evolved, but slowly. Primarily, we are products of our past, we inherit our cultural practices and beliefs from our ancestors. 

Don't believe me? Ever hear that Americans are devout, hard-working, fiercely independent people? To whom do we usually attribute these good traits? The Puritans and Founding Fathers and all those heroes of the past, of course. All of these good things that we believe about ourselves as Americans are usually the things we venerate in our ancestors. And we act accordingly.
Behold: our moral ancestors!
But when it comes to things like racism? Bah! That's all in the past. That happened hundreds of years ago. That has nothing to do with me! Well, I'm sorry to say that unless you spent a fair fraction of your education studying these matters, you're destined to inherit the thinking of the past. Why? Because it's the default setting for our country and society.

Also kinda relevant in shaping modern American morality...
Sadly, as I see it, this inheritance is precisely what has happened and continues to occur in astronomy, both in the past and present. Astronomy is like a microcosm of America. In the US, it has a system of governance distributed among several branches, including the AAS, NSF/NOAO, NASA, etc. These organizations set policies, and distribute resources like telescope time, funding and jobs. Like resources and wealth in the US, the resources in the astronomy community are scarce and competition is fierce. And like the governing bodies in the US, a perusal of the people in charge quickly reveals a distinct lack of color. For example, the AAS council has 19 members, of which 18 are white.
The officers of the AAS Council: representative of the demographics of astronomers in 2014,
representative of the demographics of American power/leadership, but not representative
of the demographics of America. The other 9 members of the council are not pictured.
In addition to being a part of America of and subject to the same race-based rule sets that govern society in our country, Astronomy is a part of academia, which relies to a large degree on elitism. People in academia consider themselves elite thinkers, the best at what they do. Further, they perceive their system as being a meritocracy. If your identity is built on the concept of exceptionalism and if you considers one's institution to be elite among higher learning, then the temptation to believe that your characteristics are superior will be extremely strong. Particularly if everyone around you shares those characteristics. It's a self-supporting system built on sorting the elite from the non-elite.

(This is why I'm so focused on the nature of intelligence. In truth, intelligence is less genetic and much more about hard work and dedicated practice. Brilliant astrophysicists are taught/advised, mentored/trained rather than simply born. But in some of my past discussions with senior-level astronomers I have noticed the implicit assumption that certain groups of people are genetically more likely to be successful astronomers.)

When I tell (white) people I'm the first Black professor to attain tenure in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Physical Sciences at Harvard, they tend to respond with something like, "What?! In 2014?!" As if this specific time in history is so far separated from the era of segregation. In fact, this is the same country in many respects as it was in 1960, or in 1901, or in 1860. Much of the software is still installed and running just fine in the background. The primary difference is that sometime between now and the 1964 Civil Rights Act---other than the abolition of legal segregation---is that white society decided they would no longer talk about race. And having done that long enough, recently there's the belief that we are now in a post-racial society, all without having to do anything!

That would be nice. But as someone who feels the effects of race and racism every single day, let me give you my observation: We are no more in a post-racial America that we are in a post-America America. Race isn't real in any scientific sense. But it is very real in our society. Ignoring this simple fact has far-reaching consequences in society, as well as in the little subset of American society that we call astronomy. 

In my future posts I'll talk about how a mostly white sub-society such as astronomy comprises individuals who are, in the main, blind to the benefits of their whiteness. From there I'll take on the myth of meritocracy, the sad story of how affirmative action became a bad word among even liberal astronomers, how racism is a systematic/institutional problem that affects individuals on a daily basis, and eventually I'll get to solutions to the problem of racism in astronomy. 

Update: I previously wrote that I was the first Black person to attain tenure in FAS at Harvard. I meant the physical sciences, and I meant no disrespect to my Black colleagues in other schools/departments in FAS.

Anticipated Questions/Comments and Some Responses

  1. Wait, isn't race important from a medical perspective. Don't some races have different diseases than others?

    This is not as straight-forward as you may think. Take sickle cell anemia, which is known to be present at high rates in individuals of African decent. It's a Black disease, right? Well, not quite. Greek people also have this disease, as well as almost all groups from warm or especially tropical regions. This is because sickle cell is an adaptation to malaria, and is therefore regional, not racial. Diseases like hypertension are common among African American men, but not among African men. This is because hypertension is related to the added stress of living in a racist society (See Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele). Some close-knit cultures are susceptible to genetic diseases due to limited genetic variation within their groups due to, e.g., strict rules against intermarrying.
  2. But I'm color blind! I don't see race.

    Well, you live in a racist society; a society built on the existence of race and that uses race as a basis for various rule sets. Being color blind in America is like being rule-blind in a game of football. Also, I should note that this is far easier to say as a white American than as a non-white American. It's like being a billionaire and saying that money and possessions don't matter.

  3. Can't non-white people be racist against white people? Everyone can be disrespectful to anyone else.

    As I'll tackle in an upcoming post, racism and prejudice are related, but definitely are not the same thing. One can be prejudiced but not racist. Racism = prejudice + Power. A black man can hate a white man, and that's prejudice, and perhaps even bigotry. But after his moment of hatred, the black man goes back into a world in which he is less likely to be hired because of his race, and the white man goes back into a world relatively full of opportunities. The black man is more likely to end up in prison for an offense for which the white man would get probation. The key to racism is that it lies along the vector of the Power differential. Also, note that individual results may vary due to statistical fluctuations. Barak Obama is many-sigma away from the mean for Black Americans. However, even he and his family are nonetheless still subject to racism on a regular basis.
  4. Well, I'm not racist! I don't hate non-white people. I treat everyone equally.

    That's great! Perhaps you've read dozens of books on the topic of race, racism, white privilege and US history. But if you haven't done your homework, your concept of non-racism will be awfully thin. If you've done your homework, the question becomes: what are you doing to actively combat racism in your world? Being nice to everyone is...nice. But there are no passive participants in the fight against racism. This is simply because society is based on race by default. Racist rules are the default setting. If you're a white person conscious about these issues, I hope you'll join in and help rather than simply claiming to be the good-guy/gal and then stepping back to the sidelines.
  5. Didn't you run into Goodwin's Law in mentioning the Nazis?

    There are laws (legal), there are laws (scientific) and there are laws (silly memes). I'm sure Goodwin is an excellent attorney, but I missed the scientific or legal basis of his law.

    Give that my post is about race, I feel that referring to one of the most egregious cases of state-sanctioned racism is appropriate. Also, given the average American is much more familiar with Nazi Germany than they are about racial covenants, redlining, block busting, lynching and other facets of good ol' American state-sanctioned racism, I made the conscious decision to stick with what people know.
  6. I'm from [country other than America]. I don't see what the big deal is, and I'm definitely not to blame for any of this. Also, you don't talk about race/racism in other countries, such as those in which white people are the minorities.

    As a US citizen with little to no experience living in or doing astronomy in other countries, my perspective will necessarily be on the state of affairs in the US. As for not seeing the big del, while you didn't set the rules for the game, you certainly are subject to them, whether you want to admit it or not. If you are, say, Chinese, then I'm sure you've noticed how few US professors look like you, despite the large number of Chinese immigrants in our country. If you're from Europe and white, you're going to miss a lot of this because you'll get to enjoy the benefits of being on the empowered side of the equation. This is all relevant to anyone wishing to navigate academia in America, whether you were born here or not.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Two MINERVA telescopes dancing the night away!

Soon to be at Mt. Hopkins, as nicely narrated by Rick Hedrick of PlaneWave Telescopes.

Here are Telescopes #1 and #2 in Pasadena undergoing testing, snug in their LCOGT-designed Aqawan enclosure (image thanks to Jon Swift):

Monday, September 15, 2014

Explaining racism to my child

As I often do on the weekend, I recruited my oldest sone, Owen, to help me with running an errand. I like hanging out with him and he likes riding in the front seat and feeling like a big kid. Plus, there's the magic of the car ride, which somehow causes kids to open up and talk more than they do when face-to-face in the house.

On the car's audio system we were listening to Blackalicious' "Supreme People." The chorus is pretty straight-forward---"Su-preme (Supreme, Supreme) [x8]", audio here---but something dawned on Owen:

O [looking at the media player display]: Ohhhhh! They're saying "supreme, supreme!" I thought they were saying "seriously? seriously?"

me [smiling]: Yup. That would be funny if he was saying "srsly?!" like you and Marcus do.

O: What does supreme mean?

me: It's similar to being super, or impressive, or very good at what you do. It can also mean that you're the best. 

O: Oh.

me: Do you know who he's referring to when he says that?

O [thinking]: Well, it says supreme people, so maybe he's talking about his friends.

me: Yup. But actually he's talking about an entire group of people. Can you think of who those people might be?

O [long pause]: Black people?

me: Yeah, that's right. Do you know why he might want to say that over and over?

O: No.

me: Well, it's because some people don't think that Black people are very good at things. They think they are inferior just because they are Black. Do you know which group of people often thinks that?

O: Yeah, white people.

me: Yes, sadly. They don't even know they're doing it a lot of the time. But we Black people can feel it. All the time. So we have to pump ourselves up, like Gift of Gab does in this song. We're actually supreme in all that we set our minds to do.

O: Well, I think it's like chess. There are black pieces and white pieces. And I think both sides are good, and I think both sides can win half of the time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Blogging about race, America and astronomy

I realize that my blogging frequency has been way down over the Summer. This is due to many factors, including spending more time with my family, having an incredibly productive research team, and because I've been spending a lot of time reading. Over the past year, I have read more than a book per month on the topic of race, racism and Black history. Why this sudden interest? you might ask. Well, my interest, while intensified lately, has always been thoroughly piqued. One cannot grow up in America as a person of color, and particularly as a Black person with our 400 year history of oppression, struggle, and courage, and not notice a few things.

But more recently as a professor, I have found myself in a position to make a difference. Since my very first NSF grant proposal, I have always advanced a Broader Impact statement geared toward the advancement of people of color in astronomy. I have always recognized the value of diversity in advancing science and the paucity of color in the annals of astronomy is obvious to anyone with a conscious and a knack for critical thinking. 

So I decided that I should embark on a fuller journey to understand the intersection of race and science, but first I needed a well-posed question. My question was rather simple: Why has there been no growth in the number of Black astronomers over the past 30 years? Or in simpler terms: Where are all the Black folk in astronomy?

Answering this straight-forward question required me to embark on a journey of learning. Just as I did last year when I became interested in asteroseismology, but lacked a formal education in the subject since it wasn't covered in my grad-level Stars class, my race-centered question required me to do some serious research. Every time over the past two years that I have sat down to write on the subject of race in astronomy, I have found myself staring at a blank page. I felt things emotionally, I had anecdotes to tell. But I lacked a framework of understanding race. Hell, I didn't even understand what "race" and "racism" really are, at least from an academic perspective, even if I understood them at gut-level as a Black man living in America.

My inspiration has come primarily from the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates (pronounced tah-nuh-hah-see coats), a blogger, writer, thinker and ninja-level arguer over at The Atlantic. Reading his posts, I always felt like a child listening in while the grown-ups discussed Matters of Importance. His writing style is informed from his experience on the streets as much as from his Howard University education, and as such it is in your face, raw and tough to swallow, especially for the ignorant, of which I was a long-time club member. But in one of his posts he gave his reading list, and it occurred to me: You know what? I'm smart, I'm an academic, and I have a Growth Mindset. If I want to learn and grow, then I need to invest the time and effort. As it is in science, so is it in history, psychology, sociology and African American Studies.

So in I dove and my life and worldview have been forever changed. So be forewarned: I will be blogging once again. And as before, I will continue seeking a better way of doing business in astronomy. But the past year has resulted in profound change in how I see the world around me, and I won't always slow down to bring readers up to speed. If you are confused, disoriented, baffled or offended, then I have a challenge to issue: pick up a book or 10 and get caught up! But if you feel a burning need to ask a question, ask away, but please do so with respect and more than a Tweets worth of words. Write paragraphs and only advance defensible arguments. You are not entitled to your opinions. You are only entitled to those that you can defend.

If you do join the conversation, I promise there is a huge reward in it for you, particularly if you have ideal beliefs such as the notion of a scientific meritocracy, as well as justice, fairness and equal opportunity in general. Most astronomers fancy themselves liberals or even progressives. If you are in this group, then know your identity will be challenged as I write and if you read. But know that an informed life is always better than a blissful life of ignorance.

I invite you to join me on this journey of exploration, learning and progress!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Kepler: Back from the Dead

This is a guest post from my graduate student, Andrew Vanderburg. Over the past few months, Andrew has been focusing his attention on data collected by the crippled Kepler Space Telescope.  After being disabled in May of last year by the failure of the second of two reaction wheels used to point itself, Kepler has been given new life thanks to some brilliant work done by Ball Aerospace and the Kepler team. Here's my previous post about the K2 Extended Mission. 

Below, Andrew describes his work, which is documented in a recently accepted paper available here and which has recently been incorporated into the Kepler team's guest observer tools. Also, be sure to check out his website, where you can access corrected K2 data from an engineering test conducted in February on this interface. Who knows, you might even find a transiting planet!

Since its launch in 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has revolutionized the field of exoplanetary science with the discovery of thousands of planet candidates, many of which are smaller than the Earth. Kepler’s science operations were prematurely halted, however, when the spacecraft was disabled in May of 2013 by the failure of the second of four reaction wheels used to point and stabilize the telescope. Because Kepler’s scientific punch came from its high precision enabled by its fine pointing control, many people assumed that Kepler’s exoplanet discovering days were over. 

Fortunately, the Kepler team and Ball Aerospace thought otherwise. Over the next six months after the failure of Kepler’s second reaction wheel, they devised a way to control Kepler with only two reaction wheels, balancing the spacecraft against the constant stream of photons and particles being ejected from the Sun, and correcting any imbalances with very precise burns of Kepler’s thrusters. Their brilliant work has led to the new (and recently approved) K2 mission, in which Kepler looks in new fields, moving every 75 days to look at a completely new set of stars, to search for new planets.

Graphic from the Kepler/K2 team describing the K2 mission strategy

One of the biggest uncertainties about the K2 mission was: “How well can Kepler measure photometry in this new operating mode?” If Kepler’s worsened ability to point itself degrades the quality of its data, it may be harder for the K2 mission to accomplish its goals of finding exoplanets in new environments and around different types of stars. When the Kepler team released data from a 9 day engineering test of the new operation mode taken in February, we attempted to answer that question. 

After four years of being spoiled by ultra-high-quality photometry from Kepler, our first look at the K2 data came as a bit of a shock. Unlike the pristine Kepler data, K2 data (shown below compared to Kepler in the first plot) had wild jagged features contaminating the light curve, which made it hard to see all but the deepest planet transits. In order to continue searching for small planets in the K2 mission, something would have to be done to improve the quality of the photometry.
Comparison of Kepler (bottom) and K2 (top). Raw K2 data is much noisier than Kepler data.
Fortunately, it turned that there was a way to improve the quality of K2 data. The additional noise in the data was caused by the spacecraft moving back and forth ever so slightly as it rolled due to a slight imbalance between the spacecraft and the Solar wind. Every six hours or so, Kepler’s thrusters fired to bring the telescope back to its original position. We found that even though raw K2 photometry was noisy, it was noisy in a predictable and consistent way, which meant there was a way to improve it. 

We did this by comparing the star’s brightness measured by Kepler at every position during its roll to other measurements taken nearby. When we corrected K2 data using other measurements taken nearby, we found that the quality of data was greatly improved, as we show in the image below. Overall we were able to improve raw K2 data by a factor of 2-5, and got back to within at least factor of 2 of Kepler -- for stars of a particular brightness between 12th and 13th magnitude, K2 performed with 35% of Kepler’s precision. K2 should be able to continue hunting for small exoplanets and doing impactful science even without two of its reaction wheels. 

Correcting the light curve based on the motion of the spacecraft substantially improves K2 data.

We have released our processed K2 data to the community and built a web interface to easily view and explore it. We encourage the community to take a look, explore, and learn the quirks of K2 data before the real science begins with data from the first K2 campaign fields. To learn more about our technique, download our paper describing the technique here.