March 2, 1999

Robert H. Romer
Editor, American Journal of Physics
Amherst College, Box 2262
Amherst, Massachusetts 01002

Dear Dr. Romer:

We enjoyed Goodstein's analysis of the current state of physics education in the US, as well as his insightful historical assessment of how we got ourselves into this situation [1].  He introduces a new metaphor for American science education, that of "mining and sorting ,,, to discover and rescue diamonds in the rough."  One reason Goodstein finds his metaphor so apt is that "It accounts for the very real problem that women and minorities are woefully underrepresented among the scientists, because it is hard for us, white, male scientists to perceive that once they are cleaned and cut and polished, they will look just like us."  The metaphor indeed illuminates several problems, notably Goodstein's poor data and lack of appreciation for diversity.

First, women and minorities are not underrepresented among scientists; this shameful situation is still the case only in physics and closely related fields.  In fact, the biological sciences now award 51.1% of their undergraduate degrees to women and 11.3% to minorities, as opposed to 31.7% and 8.3%, respectively, in the physical sciences (largely in chemistry) [2].  Furthermore, graduate schools now boast 46.9% women in the biological sciences and 32.8% women in chemistry, as compared to 13.8% in physics [2].  "Physics" does not equal "science," and physicists must take care in extrapolating their increasingly non-mainstream culture to other fields.

The second point is that American physics desperately needs the perspectives of scientists that look different after they're cleaned and cut and polished.  Diamonds are indeed lovely, but never more so than when they are combined with the sparkle of emeralds, rubies, and sapphires!

Beth Hufnagel
Apriel Hodari
NSF Postdoctoral Fellows in Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology Education
Department of Physics
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742 &
1.    David Goodstein, "Now Boarding: The Flight from Physics," Am. J. Phys. 67, 183-186 (1999).
2.    Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1994 (National Science Foundation, 1994).