Return to the lab

As coronavirus restrictions have been easing over the past few months, increasing numbers of researchers are starting to return to labs and begin experimental work again. Nature Reviews Physics organised a photo competition, inviting submissions of photos which depict lab-life in the era of COVID-19.

Here are some of our favourite entries:

 

Safety first – particles from outer space second! In this picture you see Claire Antel (left) and Lydia Brenner (right) in the lab of the FASER Experiment at CERN. This new dark matter detector will be installed 100 meters underground before the end of this year. This picture was taken on the 10th of July when we for the first time managed to test the detector by measuring cosmic ray particles. You can see the normal protective gear we always have to wear, such as steel-reinforced work boots and helmets, as well the face-masks that are now mandatory in all indoor work areas at CERN. You can also see that we have to maintain distance at all times, which makes working on the same small machine, between us in the picture, slightly more complicated, but we managed. Submitted by Lydia Brenner

 

Luca Naticchioni (INFN) and Maurizo Perciballi (INFN) working on the installation of a new underground seismic station at the candidate site for the Einstein Telescope in Sardinia, Italy (Sos Enattos – Lula, August 2020). Submitted by Maurizio Perciballi.

 

Marco La Cognata is mounting experimental set-up for a Nuclear Astrophysics experiment at INFN Laboratori Nazionali del Sud (in Catania, Italy). The 27Al beam for this experiment was the first delivered in Italian laboratories after the lock-down. Taken in May 2020. Submitted by Sara Palmerini.

 

Part of the SMOG2 group installing, in front of the LHCb detector, the first gas fixed target at the LHC. LHC will have not only beam-beam but also beam-gas interactions. A new frontier for quantum chromodynamics and astroparticle physics, LHCb cavern, CERN 6th of August 2020. Submitted by Pasquale di Nezza.

And finally, our winning photo is:

 

Optical alignment of microscopy setup at IIT GENOVA. Immediately after Italy announces a little relaxation (mid of May 2020) for the researcher to continue their research activities following the strict norms and regulation advisory. Submitted by Rajeev Ranjan

Congratulations Rajeev! Rajeev will be receiving a one-year personal subscription to Nature Reviews Physics. Stay tuned for our next photo competition which will announced soon via Twitter – follow us @NatRevPhys for more information!

Why mental health discourse must transcend the pandemic

Mental health of societies is justifiably under the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, psychiatrist Debanjan Banerjee of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) Bengaluru is sceptical that the important issue may be pushed back into obscurity once the crisis ends.

Debanjan Banerjee

Being a psychiatrist, I have been overwhelmed with the explosion of data, discussion and debate on mental health from even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by WHO in March 2020. Surprisingly, a virus has suddenly helped peak interest in an aspect of public health that has long been overshadowed in our societies by stigma and neglect.

In the last six months, there hasn’t been a single day that I haven’t been invited for webinars or media appearances on mental health or read a research paper or article around this. Various online fora discuss the ‘pertinent matter’ daily. I have discussed, debated and advised on topics ranging from psychiatric disorders to psychological effects  of COVID-19 on populations or special groups (based on age, gender or social status), as well as the future implications of the pandemic. Mental health journals are publishing special supplements related to psychiatry or psychological problems of COVID-19. Like many of my peers, the fertile ground created by the virus has resulted in several publications to my credit in these journals.

The rising curve of ‘COVID-19 related mental health’ provides a tough challenge to the slope of the COVID-19 case curve itself. But has it helped our service delivery and in estimating the mental health problem in this crisis? Perhaps not. Mental and psychosexual health has always been important. Did we need a pandemic to open our eyes to that?

“To worry or not to worry”

That is the most common question I face in public online discussions and media interviews. Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted psychological health, or are we overestimating the threat? –people seem to be quite confused about that.

So here’s a rational approach to unpack this question – unlike other natural or human-made disasters, pandemics are not ‘a one-shot’ events. The mortality and morbidity continue to rise for months to years, and the rippling effects span the socio-economic, political, psychological and psychosocial dimensions.

COVID-19 related fear, health, anxiety, stigma, stress and sleep disturbances have affected the world’s population. Added to that are financial constraints, disruption of social structure, the effects of physical distancing, lockdowns and the ‘misinfodemic’ (misinformation epidemic).

Population-based research in India, China, UK, USA, Brazil and Italy has established the worsening of psychological status due to the pandemic. Though limited data exists on people already suffering from mental disorders before COVID-19, hypothetically they might be more vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress and trauma. Besides, many of them might lack access to mental healthcare and medications due to travel restrictions. The other vulnerable groups are the frontline workers, the students, the children, elderly and socio-economically impoverished groups, including the migrants.

Interestingly, even though generic measures of ‘stress’ and ‘quality of life’ get reflected in classical quantitative research, the needs for mental wellbeing are mostly similar across the world.

One size does not fit all

I read somewhere that “COVID-19 is a great equalizer”. Of course, it is not.

The needs of a migrant labourer stranded in an overcrowded railway platform are far different from a rural healthcare worker with no access to personal protective equipment (PPE). The factors governing resilience vary widely between someone trapped with an abusive partner and suffering violence during the lockdown and an adolescent deprived of intimacy with his/her partner for months together. In short, COVID-19 has ironically highlighted the crevices in our understanding of what mental health constitutes, the same understanding that has surreptitiously governed the attitudes of the general population and physicians alike for a long time. Beyond the rigid diagnostic criteria of psychiatric disorders and the ‘medicalization’ of mental health, the pandemic displays that psychological wellbeing is as abstract as the ‘mind’ itself and also highly individualized.

It is natural to be worried or anxious during a pandemic. Anxiety is the natural defence to deal with the crisis, and being ‘perfectly composed’ is a myth. The grey but vital line of what constitutes ‘acceptable stress’ and what needs professional help can be markedly polymorphic, again depending on personal and social circumstances.

Contrary to common advocacy recommendations, no one suit fits all. When the socially unprivileged are deprived of basic amenities like food, water, shelter and security, these needs seek much urgent attention than anything else. Mental health is intricately linked with physical, sexual and social health. Divorcing these contexts and giving it a purely ‘psychological’ shape is an injustice to the human mind itself.

Mental health: A piece of the pie

Feeding off the confusion and anxiety around COVID-19 is an alarming new brigade of life-coaches, happiness experts, faith-healers, counsellors, motivators, speakers and theorists – each claiming that they are the best ‘distress-relievers’. This is of grave concern.

Some of these healing methods and their purveyors have been controversial and merit scientific scrutiny. Psychological health, seen as an accommodative arena, has traditionally been an attractive breeding ground for numerous such ‘professional experts’ in mental health. Improvement in any medical disorder (including psychiatric disorders) depends largely on the patient’s trust in the therapist or the doctor-patient relationship, and this factor is exploited many times in advertisements and endorsements about such professions.

Faulty advice can harm patients of psychological distress and disorders. The underlying societal stigma and marginalization against the mentally ill have only helped putting them “away from the society” for ages. The same stigma is prevalent against those testing COVID-19 positive or those working on the frontline exposed to viral risk. Stigma and prejudice are an integral part of the ‘collective mental health’ and are often under-detected, as they cannot be categorized as ‘disorders’.

Social problems that affect mental health – poverty, homelessness, gender-based discrimination, ageism, domestic violence, deprivation of human rights and social injustice – are often politicized or discussed for academic obligations but rarely addressed with sincerity, either at an individual or administrative level. These lacunae get unmasked during a biopsychosocial threat like COVID-19, further re-enforced by the socially-dissociated storm of sudden mental health promotion and awareness.

It is important to realise that mental health can only be conceptualized as holistic psychosocial and psychosexual health. A number of factors are involved in the genesis of stress and trauma during a crisis. That necessitates an assumption and bias-free approach, sensitivity, empathy towards the underprivileged, administrative enthusiasm and collective understanding of the importance of mental health irrespective of the pandemic.

Will it fizzle out?

Mental health, unlike many other disciplines, is quickly capitalised and politicised for short-term gains. My scepticism is that, like any other piece of popular news, the relevance of this ‘hot and in-demand topic’ will fizzle out soon after it has served its purpose.

The most recent example of such event-driven concern is that of a Bollywood film star’s death by suicide, which gave way to the usual conspiracy theories alongside online awareness drives around depression and suicide prevention. I received numerous calls with inquiries on the ‘psychological premise’ of suicide and how it can be prevented.

What we fail to understand is that like diabetes, hypertension, strokes or heart attack, psychiatric problems are also better prevented. The approach of prevention starts right when a child is born, or a family is started. Environmental influences, parenting, education, upbringing and social interactions have as much a role to play in the genesis of mental health problems as genetics. But unlike genetic influence, the other factors can be modified, which gives us a wider angle of interventions. It is rather pointless discussing and criticising suicides with hypotheses about how they could have occurred, as one can’t second guess or retrospectively prevent the premature ending of a life.

The debate around psychological wellbeing during the pandemic will continue enriching our academic and professional lives.  However, whether the numerous webinars, articles, guidelines, Ted talks and public lectures will penetrate the concrete social shell to destigmatize mental health is doubtful.

When the pandemic ebbs, this heightened sensitivity about psychological concerns should not. That might help global mental health and sharpen our preparedness for such crises in future.

Nature India’s latest coverage on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic here. More updates on the global crisis here.

Curating during a contagion

Almost 90 per cent of the world’s museums are facing closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aditi Ghose, an Education Assistant at Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Kolkata, says museums will have to become emotionally intelligent and responsive to stay relevant through the crisis.

A COVID-19 themed exhibition at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, Kolkata.

BITM

In the middle of a pandemic, imagine planning a science exhibition that explains the contagion to people. What should it feature — test-kits, ventilators, surgical masks and PPE suits? Does the museum have enough supplies to create exhibits? Can the exhibits be sanitised and safely displayed for the audience? Will enough people turn up?

Museums are having to deal with all these imponderables in between frequent shutdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 90 per cent of the world’s nearly 60,000 museums are faced with full, partial or eventual closure. Most museum staff are working from home, cataloguing, processing and preserving artefacts.

Juggling to protect collections, absorbing financial blows and protecting staff and assets while staying engaged with the public, museums are still aspiring to stay relevant. The museums which have closed down due to poor financing, sponsorships or funding, are no less vulnerable than those partially open. On 29 March 2020, Vincent van Gogh’s famous work ‘Spring Garden’ was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in Netherlands during lockdown.

The International Council of Museums calls museums “institutions” owing their origins to the Wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosities featuring collections of natural history specimens, artefacts and curiosities, amassed by princes, dukes and other men of stature, museums have always provided sources and spaces for scholarly communication and informative entertainment.”

Museums are repositories of cultural memory gathering material objects and information to guard against its anticipated losses. Around the world, the treasure troves of our times sit proudly among those preceding ours, in climate controlled environments, in glass boxes, on wooden shelves and under shaded lights.

In reality, however, only about 10% of museum holdings ever go on display. Also — just like the records of book in a library point to its location without revealing the full contents — objects in museums are kept separate from their catalogued details, often offsite. The COVID-19 pandemic offers the opportunity to narrow this gap through digitization of rare photographs, videos and other content.  Digital objects are the blueprints — collected, documented and interpreted well — allowing deeper and richer experiences for visitors, especially during lockdowns. They open the museum doors to a global audience, who neither had such an opportunity in the past nor may have in an uncertain future. To survive the crisis, museum professionals across the world must embrace the flexibility of opening up museums to the digital realm.

During the lockdown, explanatory multi-lingual programmes organised by museums are seeking to engage audiences online.

BITM, Kolkata

A one-dimensional transfer of knowledge from museums to its stake-holders — such as through overnight virtual museum tours or mobile applications — does more harm than good. The needs of audiences have changed, as has the audience composition itself. As crisis keeps people at home and they turn to museums for their science knowledge repositories, it is worth creating digital content. Instead of uploading digital copies of existing galleries online, making ample usage of the autonomy, multi-layered multimedia and linked content that the new medium provides might help museums reach entirely new audiences. A website doesn’t have walls, a gallery doesn’t have tabs. The faster we understand this difference  and stop replicating our gallery contents online, the easier it will be to contextualise information.

These are tough times – for museums as well the audience they cater to. Amidst the prevailing confusion, institutional body language could be the powerful unspoken and unwritten message that museums could convey. “In the mist of chaos, museums break the walls that keep us apart,” assures Beryl Ondiek, Director of National Museum in Seychelles. Museums that survive this pandemic will emerge with deeper connections to their audiences and communities. A well-defined, battle-tested sense of purpose, will make them stronger than ever – and also strengthen those they serve. As Anne Marie Afeiche, the Executive Director General of Lebanon’s Council of Museums points out,”We will come through this and we are keeping in mind, for after COVID-19, the reprogramming of activities in our museums, because by saving culture, we save society, it’s diversity, it’s vitality and it’s creativity”.

What’s missing in the global COVID-19 news reportage are the stories behind the stark numbers of those dead or infected. These stories should take centrestage while planning for an exhibition on COVID-19 — the oral histories and the first-hand experiences of people. When the intensity of the crisis needs to be conveyed in a public exposition several years from now, a well curated collection of empty cartons of PPE suits, a jumbo-sized sanitizer jar, a handmade mask or perhaps a hand-written shopping list of essential items will be telling. Likewise, by engaging our audiences emphatically in our closed musums, respecting their voices, allowing them choices and approaching a fresh, unprejudiced attitude towards opening our doors, shall go a long way in keeping museums exciting. The Smithsonian Museum is actually collecting such coronavirus ‘artefacts’ to document the pandemic and plans on letting oral history shape the exhibition.

Closer home, the National Council of Science Museums is also curating an interactive digital exhibition on the pandemic.

Creating, hosting or managing museums has never been fast, easy or cheap. Making them digital or interactive will also not be. Once museums have survived these uncertain times, they need to become more emotionally intelligent and responsive. Museums have to become good listeners.

(Aditi Ghose can be reached at aditincsm@gmail.com)

Nature India special issue on COVID-19 is out

For most of us, 2020 will be marked as the year of great imponderables. We seem to know as much about the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and its effects on the human body and societies at large, as we don’t. Ever since the virus broke out, ‘uncertainty’ is one of the most commonly used words in conversation, news reportage and emails.

Across the globe, very few lives have been untouched by the direct or indirect effects of the novel coronavirus. China, the most populous nation on Earth, bore its brunt as the virus jumped into human populations in the country’s Hubei province in late 2019. Though China reacted quickly to contain it, the contagion had spread via international travellers.

India, the world’s second most populous nation, reported the first case of the novel coronavirus on 30 January 2020. The number of people becoming infected by the virus began to rise quickly, prompting the government to impose a two-month complete shutdown of the country – the longest ever in its history.

An enormous population, a weak healthcare system, and traditionally meagre investments in scientific research and development meant there was enough reason to worry. However, the severe economic and social fallouts, like elsewhere in the world, forced the government to allow a regulated easing out of lockdown.

Nature India started reporting on COVID-19 in India from the outset. As the pandemic began unsettling every facet of life from healthcare to education and community life to businesses, our coverage embraced a new normal, going beyond pure science to a parallel reflection of its links with society, culture and life.

Nature India’s special issue on COVID-19, therefore, seeks to consider answers from the future. In a rapidly evolving pandemic, some of the articles in this special issue bear a time stamp. However, they will hopefully remain relevant for a long time to come as chronicles of the biggest human crisis any of us has faced in our lifetimes.

As we scrutinize India’s response to the mammoth healthcare challenge, we also look at vaccines and drugs being tested across the world in a hope to arrest the respiratory infection. We dive into the science of how the immune system responds to the virus and question if submitting genome sequences to global repositories at record speeds makes any sense without accompanying patient data. We explore how the packaging of the future would look like, and explain how to care for the elderly and critically ill in times when hospitals are struggling to accommodate COVID-19 patients.

Everyone has a COVID-19 story to tell. We feature some extraordinary everyday stories — a doctor on the frontline handling COVID-19 patients in a Delhi hospital, a scientist in the southern state of Kerala who hasn’t been able to start her dream laboratory due to the lockdown, and an Arctic explorer who endured months of darkness and isolation in the north pole before coming back to a world struck by a new virus.

This special issue also features the story of Ayurveda, and why it is time for India to apply scientific rigour to the study of the ancient system of medicine. We talk of the importance of socially influential groups, scientists, and religious leaders, in spreading the right messages and scotching misinformation in a public health emergency.
In many countries including India, the pandemic is testing the limits of science and of human perseverance. It is taking a toll on our mental health – how we live, work and communicate are set to change for a long time to come.

Science will hopefully find a solution to this unprecedented human suffering soon.

[Download the Nature India special issue “COVID-19 Crisis” free here.]

(For Nature India’s continuing coverage on the the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 crisis, please visit our special page.)

Nature India 2019 annual volume is out

Cover design: Marian Karam

Critics of India’s space programme have, in the past, demanded justification for sending rockets into space while the urgent issues of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and poor health cry for attention and funding. India has maintained that her space programme runs on less than a tenth of NASA’s budget, making it one of the most economical in the world and producing development-based benefits for the country’s environment, weather predictions, education, agriculture, and health.

Therefore, it was surprising when India’s ambitious, but unsuccessful, voyage to the far side of the Moon in 2019 did not publicly reignite that discussion. Instead, most of the 1.3 billion-strong nation stood in solidarity with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when the Moon lander, Vikram, lost contact with the Earth station and later crash landed. A misty-eyed Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoled a tearful ISRO chief K Sivan. The country grieved, hoping and praying there would be a successful run to the Moon in the coming years.

We capture these tears, tribulations, nail-biting drama, and the science behind India’s shoe-string-budget space programme in this year’s cover story.

Talking of the science-economy relationship, we also analyse in one of our features the direct macro-deliverables from government research funding and look at the best ways in which a resource-poor country such as India can ensure tangible benefits from each rupee spent on scientific research.

Gender issues in science have always been important in India. In this issue, we reflect on why a better balance of men and women in leadership positions could lead to higher profitability in scientific enterprises; and also shine a light on India’s gender-skewed science awards. Two stories, about an anthropologist who made important revelations about indigenous Andamanese tribes, and a biologist working on pheromones of snow leopards and tigers, offer fascinating insights into the lives of pioneering women scientists and their science. We also speak to biologist Chandrima Shaha, the first woman elected president of the 84-year-old Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in January 2020, about her vision for mentoring more women in science.

In 2019, we used the term ‘Day Zero’ for the first time to denote the dystopic water emergency that the world is facing today. That’s the day when a city’s taps dry out and people have to stand in line to collect a daily quota of water. Climate change-triggered extreme heat, drying aquifers and extreme weather events have become the new normal for much of South Asia. We look at what this might mean for children, who will continue to endure the toll of climate change for a long time to come. On a more positive note, we explore how some undaunted farmer citizen scientists are finding new ways of adapting to climate-resilient crops.

The Nature India photo contest themed ‘food’ saw breath-taking entries from across the world that demonstrate the deep links between food, health, environment, nutrition, and happiness of communities. We present some of the top entries.

Nature India annual volumes select the best research highlights, news, features, commentaries and opinion pieces published through the year. Through this thoughtful selection, the editors at Nature Research bring to our readers a ready reference of the latest in India’s science.

We look forward to your feedback.

You will find more on our our archival annual issues here: 20182017, 2016, 20152014 and 2007-2013. To subscribe to the Nature India annual issues, please see here or write to natureindia at nature.com.

Building blocks of life from space

Narendra Bhandari, a planetary scientist formerly with the Indian Space Research Organisation, recollects the time when he fortuitously became part of a meteorite detective team.

Narendra Bhandari with a meteorite fragment.

We spend crores of rupees trying to go to the Moon and other planets and bring back rocks. But nature is bountiful, even lugging space debris to our door step free of cost.

I regaled in one such gift a few summers back.

Just before sunrise at 5.15 a.m. on 6 June 2016, a rock of extraordinary type fell from the skies in the farm of Bishan Mehta of the Mukundpura village. The sound woke up the whole village, located in the outskirts of the pink city of Jaipur in Rajasthan.

I was driving down from Ahmedabad to Udaipur in Rajasthan when I heard about the meteorite fall on radio. I called Rajendra Prasad Tripathi, my friend who had recently retired from Jai NarainVyas University, Jodhpur and had settled in Jaipur. Tripathi immediately went to the site and surveyed the small foot-deep pit that the meteorite had created. To his dismay, the Geological Survey of India had swiftly collected all the pieces of the 2.5 kg meteorite. Not one to give up, Tripathi went home to fetch a kitchen sieve and filtered the sand from the bottom of the pit. He found two small pitch black chips, easily distinguishable as meteorite pieces owing to their colour.

Within a day, three of us – Tripathi, Ambesh Dixit of Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur and I – measured the pieces using Mossbauer spectroscopy- to be sure the rocks were a rare type of carbon-containing meteorite, somewhat similar to the famous rock that fell at Murchison, in Australia, in 1969. About 2.5 per cent carbon content made this black, fragile, coal-like rock a scientific treasure.

A fragment of the Mukundpura rock , about 3 cm x 2 cm. The greyish surface on the left is due to heating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Dark black colour of the interior suggests presence of carbon, which contains organic molecules including amino acids, the building blocks of life. Mineral grains appear white.

Anil Shukla

When we analysed the minerals and chemical composition, it became clearer that this was going to be an important rock to study. Soon, we embarked on a detailed study with N.G. Rudraswami and colleagues at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, and found several amino acids in it. Amino acids, the chemical molecules from which biomolecules can be formed, are the building blocks of life.

We found evidence of water activity on various silicate minerals indicating the presence of abundant water on the asteroid where this rock had been lying for most of its life time, till it was kicked off by another space rock to come to Earth. Isotopes of carbon and nitrogen confirmed its extraterrestrial origin from the interstellar space.

M. S. Kalpana at the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad soon joined the effort, bringing a different set of expertise and technically sophisticated machines to complete the description of the extraterrestrial rocks. The team work paid off and using many techniques of mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, we were able to identify over 40 organic molecules of polyatomic aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, including some fatty acids, and naphthalene.

These molecules are formed in the interstellar clouds from which our sun and planets were made 4.5 billion years ago. It is surprising that these organic molecules, easily destroyed at high temperature, survived the chaotic and complex processes in the severe environment that resulted in the formation of the Earth. Obviously the rock had not gone through much heating, may be it stayed below 100 degrees Celsius on the asteroid harbouring water, which saved the organic molecules, albeit with some alteration.

Hundreds of meteorites fall on the Earth every year, but what we received were among the rarest of rare rocks – only five such have fallen in India, the last one about 75 years ago. The Mukundpura rocks are now kept at Geological Survey of India museum in Kolkata.

These messengers from space packed with valuable information can tell us how life appeared on the earth. Together, we found over 15 heavenly rocks of different types in the past 30 years, many of which are described in my book Falling Stones and the Secrets of the Universe.

Strange rocks, like the ones that fell at Piplia Kalan and Lohawat in Rajasthan, tell different stories of their origin from different asteroids and their journeys to Earth. They increase our horizon of knowledge on space and fetch us extraordinary material for laboratory studies. These rocks tell us fascinating storiess of how it all began — the formation of the Sun, Earth, planets and life.

(Narendra Bhandari can be reached at nnbhandari@yahoo.com.)

Strike4BlackLives

Post compiled by Ankita Anirban.

10 June 2020 is #Strike4BlackLives and we urge you to participate in this strike. Organised by a group of physicists, led by Brian Nord and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, this is a day to #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM in solidarity with Black colleagues, Black students and Black people who are excluded from academia. Learn more about the strike here.

“As researchers, teachers, students, and staff we devote an immense amount of our time and mental energy to learning more about the world and ourselves within the framework of our own discipline. The strike day gives us the space and time to center Black lives, show solidarity with academics with marginalized ascribed identities, to educate ourselves about the ways in which we and our institutions are complicit in anti-Black racism, and to take concrete action for change.” –  Particles for Justice call to action.

Thousands have pledged to join the strike, including the arXiv and the American Physical Society. Today, take time to pause your academic work and reflect on your role within the academic institution. Talk to your colleagues, organise within your department and work to become anti-racist.

In the UK, just 1.7% of first year physics undergraduates in 2016 were Black and an IOP report from 2012 shows that for PhD- holding researchers, the number is even lower at 0.1%. If you are not Black, take a moment to count how many Black physicists you have come across in your academic career.

Source: https://cx.report/2020/06/02/equity/

It is clear that academic institutions are in need of radical structural change. Yet with so few Black voices within the system, there is an urgent need for non-Black allies to take an active role in campaigning for change.

Here we provide some starting points we have found useful for learning more about racism in academia, how racism and science are inextricably linked and the case for a more inclusive and pluralist science.

Being Black in physics

For non-Black academics, the first step to understanding the extent to which racism pervades academic life is to hear the stories of Black academics. One place to start is the  #BlackintheIvory hashtag on Twitter which has been used to share experiences of Black academics.

Op-ed: The ‘Benefits’ of Black physics students by Jedidah Isler, New York Times, 2015

News: Why are there so few Black physicists? by Ryan Mandelbaum, Gizmodo, 2020 

Perspective: Curiosity and the end of discimination by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Nature Astronomy, 2017

Blog: Ain’t I a woman? At the intersection of gender, race and sexuality by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Women in Astronomy blog, 2014

Addressing the inequalities and discrimination within academia requires structural change. As an individual, you can campaign within your department to recognise the need for this change and enact it in policies regarding hiring, mentoring and support for Black students. When organising a conference or a new collaboration, reflect on your choice of participants and strive to include more Black voices in the conversation.

500 Women Scientists – Black History Month

Fellows of the National Society of Black Physicists

Who are the Black Physicists? A historical list

Science and colonialism

Modern science as we practise it today has inextricable links to empire, colonialism and the slave trade. Here are some accessible resources which introduce how colonialism has shaped science:

Podcast: BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – on astronomy and the British empire

Blog: Black Women Physicists In the Wake by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, 2017

Reading list: Decolonising science reading list compiled by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Building a more inclusive science

In addition to recognising the historical impact of colonialism on science, it is also important to acknowledge the influence it continues to wield within scientific practice today.  Here are some resources that re-centre Indigenous science:

Australian Indigenous Astronomy 

Blog: The fight for Mauna Kea and the future of science by Sara Segura Kahanamoku, Massive Science, 2019

Comment: Towards inclusive practices with indigenous knowledge by Aparna Venkatesan et al., Nature Astronomy, 2019

Article: Challenging epistemologies: Exploring knowledge practices in Palikur astronomy by Lesley Green, Futures, 2009

Article: ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ and ‘Science’: Reframing the Debate on Knowledge Diversity by Lesley Green, Archaeologies, 2008

Long Reads:

Superior by Angela Saini.

Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician by Katherine Johnson

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence by Erica N. Walker 

A different kind of dark energy: placing race and gender in physics, BSc thesis by Lauren Chambers, Department of African American Studies, Yale University