Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Scientific Citizenship

The blog has awoken from a light slumber (any soporific virtues science may have certainly doesn't stem from this exciting, hip outlet). Anyway, these past few days I was at Fermilab in Batavia IL for the 2008 Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Congress, along with 550 other attendees.

This year's theme was "scientific citizenship". Civic scientists aren't holed up in isolation in their labs performing calculations and experiments and ignoring the rest of the world. They are actively supporting both scientific and non scientific causes and involved in local and maybe even national politics. Most importantly, they are visible in and accessible to their local communities.

Turns out Einstein was a renegade civic scientist when it came to race, as I discovered in a lecture by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, co authors of the book Einstein on Race and Racism.

History has largely concealed Einstein's anti-racism activist persona, but these two authors dusted off hundreds of old documents and dug the facts out of decades of rubble.

For example, Einstein was co-chairman of the New American Crusade against Lynching at a time when institutionalized segregation was the norm in his own town of Princeton, New Jersey, and his place of employment (Princeton University) did not accept black students, or women.

Einstein would walk the streets of Princeton's black community in solidarity, mingling and talking with its denizens. According to Jerome and Taylor, some of the older community members actually knew Einstein and remembered him fondly.

He even spoke at Lincoln University, an all-black college in Pennsylvania in May of 1946. While the written speech vanished, photos taken by a few African American journalists confirm the event.

Fighting injustice is not an act most people associate with scientists. But oh how it should be, seeing as the world's greatest scientist was a compassionate and dedicated social activist.

Einstein once remarked, " The more I feel an American, the more this situation plains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out". After the lecture, Sigma Pi Sigma members signed a letter upholding Einstein's pledge to to speak out against racism.

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