Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Pedro Villanueva. Anthony Nuñez.
These four names—all recent black and Latino victims of police violence—stare out at a college classroom full of budding astronomers. Written above them on the chalkboard is the now-familiar rallying call “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a Friday morning in July, and John Johnson, a black astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has written these words as part of the day’s agenda. Later this afternoon, they’ll serve as a launching point for a discussion about these specific killings and the implications of systemic racism.
It’s something you might expect in an African American history class, or maybe a class on social justice. But this is a summer astronomy internship. Most astronomy internships are about parsing through tedious telescope data, battling with an arcane computer language in a basement, or making a poster to present at a conference: skills meant to help you get into grad school. The point of this class, which is made up entirely of African-American and Latino college students, is something very different.
The Banneker Institute is an ambitious new program meant to increase the number of black and Latino astronomers in the field—and to ensure that they are equipped to grapple with the social forces they will face in their careers. Undergraduates from all over the country apply to the Institute, which pays for them to live and work at Harvard for the summer. During the program, they alternate between specific research projects, general analysis techniques, and social justice activism—hence the names on the chalkboard.
Johnson, who studies extrasolar planets and is pioneering new ways to find them, started the program two years ago as a way to open up a historically rarefied, white, male enterprise. In 2013, Johnson left a professorship at Caltech to move to Harvard, citing Caltech’s lackluster commitment to diversity.
His own interest in the topic, he says, came out of the same basic curiosity that drives his research. “I’m really curious about how planets form,” says Johnson, whose research has helped astronomers revise their attitudes about planets around dwarf stars, which are now considered some of the best places to search for life. “The other thing I want to know the answer to is: Where are all the black folks? Because the further I went in my career, the fewer and fewer black people I saw.”
When he looked up the diversity statistics, Johnson became even more convinced: first that a problem existed, and then that something needed to be done about it. Not just for the sake of fairness, but for the advancement of the field.