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Astrophysicist Natalie Gosnell says the field is paralyzed by “systemic racism and white supremacy”

Academia is plagued by rampant white supremacy, but some scientists are putting forth the effort to call out the racism that has shaped the field of astrophysics.

A Colorado astrophysicist who says the science is paralyzed by “systemic racism and white supremacy” and “very violent and hyper-masculine” terminology — such as “vampire star” or “cannibal star” — says these issues have to be addressed from the classroom to the public.

“As an astrophysicist, I’m a product of institutions that are steeped in systemic racism and white supremacy,” Natalie Gosnell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physics at Colorado College, said in an interview published in the school’s newspaper this month.

Gosnell, who earned a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is a recipient of the prestigious Cottrell Scholar Award, asserts that “tenets of white supremacy” like “individualism and exceptionalism and perfectionism” influence everything from the methods of physics research to the language used by scientists.

These concerns are explored in “The Gift,” a new immersive experience created by Gosnell, Janani Balasubramanian and Andrew Kircher that debuted at the New York Public Library on Dec. 6.

Through visual, audio, and reading materials, “The Gift” tells the story of two orbiting stars. As the first star dies, its mass is transferred to the second, causing it to swell. The death of the swollen star allows the second to burn brighter and bluer. She said these kinds of stars are known in her discipline as the “bad boys” of the universe.

In her interview with Colorado College News, Gosnell disagrees with the “very violent and hyper-masculine” vocabulary — like “vampire star” or “cannibal star” — associated with the mass-transfer process. Gosnell recalled using that terminology during a Discovery Channel appearance early in her academic career.

“I think because science and art have been so separated, and there’s […] systemic issues within science, the metaphors that are often chosen [to discuss science] are very violent and hyper-masculine,” she says.

“It felt like I was masquerading, essentially, as what an astrophysicist was supposed to be like,” she said. “We can make different choices about the metaphors that we use, in the stories that we tell, which is where … the inspiration and goal behind ‘The Gift’ comes from.”

Gosnell also integrates creativity into the classroom to make physics learning more equitable. According to evaluations of her own teaching methods, all students — not just the white males who generally dominate the field — develop a stronger sense of "physics identity" by the end of the class.

We are happy to see academics like Dr. Gosnell use their experiences and privilege to call for reform of academia and challenge the status quo of racism in astrophysics, a field that has been dominated by white men for far too long.


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