Science, Math and Young African Americans

Farai Chideya speaks with two Duke University students about how science and math are introduced to young African-American men and women.

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ED GORDON, host:

Mathematics may be a color-blind discipline, but mathematicians can apply different cultural lenses to problem solving. That's one reason an annual conference for African-American math researchers highlights and encourages black participation in the field. Young scientists from Duke University attended this year's conference with a presentation about gravitational lensing. Peter Blair and Luke Stewart talked with NPR's Farai Chideya about their project. Stewart began by explaining dark matter.

Mr. LUKE STEWART (Scientist): It is something that we cannot observe directly, but it has a lot of gravitating power and it's said to be distributed in the universe. It has the effect of possibly, like, bending light.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Why would you want to study this? What implications does it have for science and for everyday life?

Mr. STEWART: It is said that it could be left over as a result of the beginning of the universe. For everyday life directly, you might not see the implications, but it helps with the understanding of the actual distribution and the layout of the universe.

CHIDEYA: Let's go to you, Peter. You, from what I understand, are studying black holes and how light interacts with those. What exactly does that mean?

Mr. PETER BLAIR (Scientist): If you can imagine what gravity does to an object, so you have a penny in your hand and you let it go; it falls, all right? And as it's falling, it's accelerating because of the gravitational pull on it. So now imagine that you have an object that is falling into some kind of a supermass or superdense planet, and then as it reaches the surface of that planet, it's traveling at the speed of light. Now think about in reverse light that's passing that planet. Since that planet would accelerate by dropping a penny to the speed of light, then that light that's passing that planet would be sucked in by that planet. And so that's essentially what a black hole is. It's something that's so superdense and so compactified that it traps light that gets too close. And so it's a really fascinating concept.

CHIDEYA: Now let me just turn, before I let you two go, to something that Illinois Senator Barack Obama said.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): The government alone can't teach our kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.

CHIDEYA: What is appealing to you about living this kind of life, the life of the mind where you really are doing new things in the sciences as opposed to seeing that as something that you shouldn't do?

Mr. STEWART: For my parents, I have always had instilled in me that I can do anything that I really set my mind to and that I really am being pushed to excellence both externally and now even internally. Everyone--you should all be pushing toward excellence in our passion.

CHIDEYA: Peter, what about you? Same question.

Mr. BLAIR: I definitely must echo the sentiments of Senator Obama 'cause there is a question of expectations at Duke's campus. I remember one time just chatting with somebody that I knew very casually about what I did, and I told her, you know, I do physics and this, that, the next. And she's an African-American female and she was, like, `Oh, you do physics. That must be really hard. You must be getting Cs and that sort of stuff.' And so that's kind of where the cultural expectation was for this African-American female at Duke of an African-American male in physics. And so there's certainly a question of expectations.

And as Luke was alluding to earlier, like, having that parental influence where your parents expecting you to excel, where you have a mentor who's expecting you to excel, group members who are expecting you to excel, an entire community that's expecting you to excel, like that really puts even more positive pressure on you to fulfill your potential because there are so many other people who are looking to you for excellence that you feel like, `I have to do it.' You know, like, this is something that I need to do and also people are expecting me to do it. So that must suggest that I have the innate ability to do it.

CHIDEYA: Peter Blair and Luke Stewart are studying how light bends in deep space. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. BLAIR: Thank you.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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