Prej­u­dice must not hin­der our achieve­ments

Business Day - Business Law and Tax Review - - BUSINESS LAW & TAX REVIEW - Pa­trick Bracher

IRE­CENTLY reread the fas­ci­nat­ing story of the world’s most fa­mous equa­tion, E=mc2 , by David Bo­da­nis. It is an ex­cit­ing ac­count of hu­man sci­en­tific achieve­ment. But the hu­man story is a sad ac­count of lost op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause of prej­u­dice.

Be­fore the term “com­puter” came to mean an elec­tronic de­vice, hu­man com­put­ers were peo­ple whose job it was to com­pute. They would do te­dious cal­cu­la­tions for as­tronomers, ac­tu­ar­ies and sci­en­tists who were the boys in the lime­light while the com­put­ers were be­hind the scenes.

I use the word “boys” de­lib­er­ately be­cause the glam­orous jobs were done by the men while the com­put­ers were usu­ally women, some­times with ex­cep­tional sci­en­tific and math­e­mat­i­cal abil­ity but un­able to get equal op­por­tu­ni­ties. Bo­da­nis prob­a­bly ex­ag­ger­ates when he de­scribes the woman com­put­ers at Har­vard as “ranks of slump-shoul­dered spin­sters in the back­rooms” wast­ing first-rate sci­en­tific tal­ent, but the point is worth em­pha­sis­ing. As Wikipedia puts it la­con­i­cally, “fe­male com­put­ers earned half of what a male coun­ter­part would”.

Ernst Ruther­ford, fa­mous for be­ing the first to de­scribe the struc­ture of an atom, in­fa­mously and cru­elly mocked the bril­liant stu­dent Cecilia Payne in his class at Cam­bridge in days when even the bright­est women were barred from grad­u­ate work in many of the sciences in Eng­land. Payne moved to the US.

The French seemed to do bet­ter. Ém­i­lie du Châtelet, Voltaire’s com­pan­ion, did re­mark­able work care­fully mea­sur­ing the na­ture of en­ergy be­fore dy­ing at age 40 af­ter child­birth. And Marie Curie did work that earned her two No­bel prizes be­fore dy­ing of can­cer from the very ra­dioac­tive sub­stances that con­trib­uted to her fame. But those were rare ex­cep­tions.

When the scin­til­lat­ing but dark­skinned In­dian as­tro­physi­cist Subrah­manyan Chan­drasekhar left In­dia for Eng­land he found the process lead­ing to black holes in the uni­verse. He also found hos­til­ity and a lack of sup­port that led him to move to Amer­ica and a No­bel Prize. He had left Eng­land af­ter be­ing pub­licly ridiculed for what proved to be cor­rect the­o­ries by Sir Arthur Ed­ding­ton (who iron­i­cally had helped Cecilia Payne) in an out­burst that Chan­dra (as he came to be known) said was in part racially mo­ti­vated.

Th­ese sto­ries will be found ev­ery­where and not the least in SA. A few peo­ple do make it to the top de­spite prej­u­dice but many peo­ple are held back at the bot­tom be­cause of prej­u­dice. E=mc2, the equa­tion that Bo­da­nis rightly de­scribes as the most fa­mous equa­tion in the world, shows that the small­est quan­tity of mat­ter can be made to burst with mas­sive amounts of en­ergy.

When I fin­ished the book I got to think­ing how far ahead of it­self the world might be now if so many clever peo­ple had been al­lowed to let their en­ergy flow. Who knows how much en­ergy would have been re­leased into sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery but for un­fair dis­crim­i­na­tion. If only, in the 1920s, we had learnt to use our com­put­ers wisely.

The equa­tion E=mc2 re­minds us that pos­i­tive en­ergy drives hu­man sci­en­tific achieve­ment

Pa­trick Bracher (@PBracher1) is a direc­tor at Nor­ton Rose Ful­bright.

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