Learning to Dream Again
Have you ever had a dream that scared you? Not a nightmare, but a life dream.
I still remember my first encounter with my life dream. It was in my high school science class — freshman year in 1987 or 88. The details are hazy but the feeling still lingers. Dreams can be that way.
It was something Ms. Carlton said that made a new thing happen in my brain. For the first time, she prompted me to make a connection between something I was learning in her class and something else I was learning in another class, around the corner, and down the hall. The connection was unexpected. It brought a new feeling of surprise and delight. It was like feeling the impact of two separate continents slamming together in my mind. I felt it! At that moment — through the simple act of discovering that two separate parts of my world were actually connected — my whole universe got bigger.
I still so clearly remember what it felt like. There was joy at my discovery— like an internal giggle of delight — and I wanted more of that.
As memorable as that remains, it wasn’t my first encounter with wonder.
Small-town Oberlin, Ohio, offered many childhood moments to delight in the magic and mystery of the natural world. The night sky was dark enough for me to see the Milky Way from my front yard, even near the street light.
And I still remember — and regret — how I had asked my mom to wake me up on the night in 1986 when Halley’s Comet last made its closest approach to Earth, but then groggily asking her to let me keep sleeping. Lord willing, I’ll live long enough to see the comet’s next return in 2061. Just 40 more years…
Throughout my childhood, I had already begun to hear the early call of my life’s dream which at that point was more of a general yearning than a clear vision. At that early age, my hazy, dreamy dream didn’t scare me yet. And these encounters with wonder continued into adulthood.
Like when I had become a Physics teacher myself in Chicago: I was sitting alone in my lab at the end of the day, having just set up a demonstration of non-linear vibrations — a wobbling, unbalanced disk attached to an oscilloscope.
As I sat there staring at the oscilloscope screen, watching new patterns traced by the chaotic vibrations, it was like I could hear a mental airlock open inside my mind — a hiss and a whoosh! —like the sound you hear in movies as astronauts step toward the vast openness of space. Though it wasn’t exactly a moment of full discovery (I knew that I didn’t really understand what I was looking at), still it was beautiful and inviting. It made me hungry for more! I knew I didn’t understand it and I knew I wanted more of it!
Again, a moment of wonder was calling me to expand my known universe.
And on and on the joy of discovery has gone in a growing timeline of encounters with the magic and mystery of the natural world, and a growing realization — a dream, really — that since childhood I have wanted to spend my life having more and more of these moments.
Our Universe is amazing! I mean, did you know that on the north pole of Saturn there is a six-sided storm that’s been spinning for decades?! A hexagon on top of the ringed planet…in our solar system! And did you know that scientists have not only developed a theory for how fluid dynamics produce this surprising structure, but they have also been able to reproduce the pattern in a laboratory using a rotating column of water? What?!
And you’re telling me that I could have a job where I spend the rest of my days peering more deeply into the magic and mystery of the natural world?
Sign me up for that!
So What Happened?
How did I come to fear my dream?
Well, I actually was an Astrophysicist once, after college. That was my job title. Then I left.
I left because I was tired of being lonely, tired of being the only Black person in the room as a student and as a scientist. I was tired of the bitter, painful irony that I had been the only Black student in any of my math and physics courses in four years at Yale despite the fact that it was at Yale that the first Black person, Edward Alexander Bouchet, earned a PhD in any subject in the United States, which he did in 1876…in physics.
But more than my loneliness in the sciences, I had chosen to leave my life’s dream behind because I couldn’t justify how my work as a scientist would help people. I couldn’t see any clear connection between the wonder of science that lit me up and the issues in society that broke my heart. I was afraid that pursuing a life of discovery meant giving up on the dream of ever helping anybody. And I could see a lot of things in society that needed a lot of help.
So, because I couldn’t see how pursuing the wonder of science would help people, I left my dream behind.
I then spent more than 20 years trying to help make society better. Helping people learn. Helping people teach. Helping people discover. Helping people help other people. And learning a ton about how not to help.
I’m proud of the work I did.
But that internal itch wouldn’t leave me alone. As scary as my life dream remained, it never went away.
Now, a quarter-century after college, I’ve just embarked on a return to a life of wonder in the sciences. In the fall, I’ll be entering UChicago’s Physics PhD program. Even as I make this major mid-career transition back to physics, the dream still scares me.
Why does it scare me?
Because I know that, even though it’s been 25 years since I graduated from college as a physics major and 145 years since Bouchet earned his PhD, and even though we’ve had our first Black president in the interim, still the sad fact remains:
According to data from the American Institute of Physics, the percentage of Black US presidents is still HIGHER than the percentage of Black US physics PhD earners.
That shouldn’t be.
It’s time for a new dream. For me, it’s not just time for a personal dream (I’m already living that) but a dream for science itself. I want to believe in a new kind of science that commits to better sharing its power, benefits, and wonder with all people.
That’s why I became a Civic Science Fellow. Like the 14 other fellows in our inaugural cohort, I’m hungry for science to be something more in society. Throughout my fellowship, I have been working hard to invite new voices into the conversation. By hearing more of these visions from more people, I am hoping to live into new possibilities. I have a dream of seeing progress happen more quickly than I’ve seen in physics since 1876.
When I imagine a better future for science I want to see the widespread and commonplace encounters of Black people delighting in the magic and mystery of the natural world. Our collective investment in the capacity of Black people to do what lights them up will be just one indication of the value of Black lives in science and society.
How to Get There
To achieve the dream, I want to see Triple-A Improvement in science — acknowledgment, action, and accountability.
1. I want to see robust ACKNOWLEDGMENT of injuries to science and society.
I agree with people who say “I’m tired of talk. I want action!” Yes! I want action, too.
But there can sometimes be something missing when we jump right into action without taking the important first steps that should always accompany any response to human injury: acknowledgment. When my loved ones are hurting — especially if I’m the one who hurt them — they need me to take action, yes, but not before I let them know that I see them and their pain. Our corrective actions should not skip over our acknowledgment of the harm that’s been done and its impact on the people who’ve endured it and who are enduring it still.
Truly meaningful improvement in science begins with the acknowledgment of the dreams that have been lost; of the people who have been excluded; of the erasure of contributions and advancements that were never made or that were made and never recognized or celebrated. Action, yes. But acknowledgment first.
And robust acknowledgment means more than saying it, though words do matter. Robust acknowledgment means doing something now to recognize that these harms are not bygone figments of the historical past, but persistent issues that people are still experiencing today. For example, the proactive recruitment and retention of underrepresented scientists should, I believe, fall under the category of robust acknowledgment, as should providing adequate mental health supports for those whose needs have been neglected.
Any action that is about making up for past and present wrongs is a form of robust acknowledgment. Want to improve science’s relationship with society? Start with robust acknowledgment of the ways that the scientific enterprise has fallen short.
2. I want to see institutional commitments to ACTION.
Whereas robust acknowledgment is about addressing the injuries incurred in the past or being committed in the present, our commitments to institutional action should be about the future. What does it look like to practice and support science in a way that shares wonder more widely? How might universities support institution-wide commitments to broader impacts, for example, instead of asking individual scientists to devise broader impact plans on their own? How might external funders support institutional investment in these commitments to action? The institutional actions we take today are about ensuring a different experience for people in the future.
What kind of action — and what kind of future — would I most like to see?
Being Black in physics has often felt like being subjected to private emotional earthquakes that throw me to the ground without warning as I go about my day. These earthquakes often go unfelt by those around me. Their epicenter is the deep unseen cracks in the racist foundations of our world. I feel these quakes and tremors at all kinds of moments, expected and unexpected, throughout my day in science (and in society, for that matter). Even though I’m committed to pursuing and sharing wonder despite this sad reality, the emotional whiplash and instability of my everyday ongoing experience of being a Black man in the sciences and in America — it does take its toll.
So I want to see action that makes the sciences a more stable, supportive environment to work in. And of course, I want the same for society. How about this as a baby step: I want people in the sciences to stop calling me a minority all the time — a word that repeatedly identifies and defines me as “fewer than” or “less than.” I don’t want to be identified or defined by a statistical measure as if it is not context-dependent or able to be changed.
And some associated acknowledgment would also be nice: a recognition of what it feels like to live and work with these destabilizing private earthquakes and how damaging that can be to creative productivity.
3. I want to see sustained ACCOUNTABILITY to those who have been most negatively impacted.
So action is good and necessary. But for action to be sustained, it must be done for the benefit of people to whom we are willing to be openly and continually accountable. Who has been hurt? Who has been left out? Who is carrying the burden of past missteps? Name them. But don’t just acknowledge them. Be brave enough to be accountable to them. Commit to lasting action through lasting accountability to real people.
For example, if an academic institution uses a Native American land acknowledgment at its conferences, how might that acknowledgment also be matched by an ongoing commitment to be accountable to indigenous people who apply to that institution’s academic admissions process? Or if we ask people to share their personal visions for how science should be conducted differently in the future, what accountability are we committing to those people who have shared their visions with us?
I want to hear new voices sharing diverse articulations of the future of science. I want to see through the eyes and imaginations of others what it might look like to better share the power, benefits, and wonder of science. I want to feel the heat coming from the flames of their hopes and hunger for something better. I want to smell what they’re cooking. I want to be inspired by their dreams!
And I want to be accountable to these storytellers to do what I can to help make our collective dreams a reality.
For my part, when I think about the goal of better sharing science’s power, benefits, and wonder, I know where my own flame burns brightest: I’m on Team Wonder! Despite the pain of persistent isolation within the sciences, I am on this planet to delight in the magic and mystery of the natural world and to shine that God-given light to the rest of the world for as long as I’m blessed to be here.
I still want to see Halley’s Comet before I die. I can imagine myself pointing up at the night sky in the year 2061 with my adult children at my side and, perhaps, my grandkids in my arms. On that night, I want them and so many others to know the pleasure of hearing that airlock burst open inside their minds — whoosh! —as they step awestruck toward the threshold of some new discovery. I want more people to feel the thrill of separate conceptual continents slamming together inside them, connecting them to the known universe in a new way.
Can you feel it too?