Seeing the Wonder

Times Higher Education, March 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Seeing the Wonder


The intense focus needed for groundbreaking scientific research is blind to prejudice, says Hiranya Peiris

Last week, the scientific community held its collective breath when the BICEP2 Collaboration announced the first evidence of events moments after the Big Bang which, if confirmed, offer insights into the origin of the universe and everything in it.

This was an amazing moment that comes along maybe once a generation. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the space scientist and renowned science communicator, and I were invited on to the BBC's Newsnight to convey the wonder of this discovery to a broad audience.

Not everyone saw the wonder: a columnist hiding behind a pseudonym in the Daily Mail alleged "Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity. So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who've detected the origins of the universe - giggling Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris."

Maggie and I are both women with dark skin. If this is worthy of mention at all, it should be to celebrate that individuals in modern British society are achieving their potential, regardless of their appearance or heritage. Likewise, the BICEP2 team is composed of men and women of multiple ethnicities from around the world, all with hard-earned expertise. These scientists are working together to uncover the secrets of the universe, as opposed to peddling an impoverished and outdated worldview from behind a fake name.

The blatant untruths displayed in the Mail piece are damaging to the public perception of science and scientists. They discourage women and people from different backgrounds from studying and engaging with science. Given the support across the political spectrum and at the highest levels of government for getting more young people interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, it is remarkable how a few moronic sentences in a daily newspaper with wide circulation can reinforce incorrect stereotypes; that science is a "white, male" occupation and that people who look like me are not qualified to have a voice. …

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