Professors Call for Abolishing Physics Term ‘Quantum Supremacy’ to Fight Racism

Professors Call for Abolishing Physics Term 'Quantum Supremacy' to Fight Racism

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Two professors are calling for abolishing the physics term “quantum supremacy” because it is “uncomfortably reminiscent of ‘white supremacy.’”

In an op-ed, titled, “Physicists Need to Be More Careful with How They Name Things” for the Scientific American, St. Anselm College physics professor Ian Durham, University of Bristol math professor Karoline Wiesner, and freelance journalist Daniel Garisto call for doing away with the physics term “quantum supremacy” in an anti-racist measure.

The popular term, coined in 2012 by quantum physicist John Preskill, refers to quantum computers outperforming classical ones. It has nothing to do with racism, which the authors of the op-ed even acknowledge, but say that it is “uncomfortably reminiscent” of “white supremacy.”

“We believe that the physics community should be more careful with its language, for both social and scientific reasons,” write the authors in their op-ed. “Even in the abstruse realms of matter and energy, language matters because physics is done by people.”

They continue:

The word supremacy — having “more power, authority or status than anyone else” — is closely linked to “white supremacy.” This isn’t supposition; it’s fact. The Corpus of Contemporary American English finds “white supremacy” is 15 times more frequent than the next most commonly used two-word phrase, “judicial supremacy.”

The authors go on to say that because a very small percentage of blacks, Latinos, and women have bachelor’s degrees in physics, the term can add “insult to injury.”

“In the U.S., when only 2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics are awarded to black students, when Latinos comprise less than 7 percent of engineers, and women account for a mere 12 percent of full professors in physics,” the authors note. “As things stand, ‘quantum supremacy’ can come across as adding insult to injury.”

The authors did, however, go on to acknowledge that linguist Steven Pinker disagrees with banning the term, arguing that it “makes academia a laughingstock.”

“The prissy banning of words by academics should be resisted,” Pinker says. “It dumbs down understanding of language: word meanings are conventions, not spells with magical powers, and all words have multiple senses, which are distinguished in context.”

“Also, it makes academia a laughingstock, tars the innocent, and does nothing to combat actual racism & sexism,” Pinker adds.

The authors of the op-ed, however, argue that while it is true that the word “supremacy” derives its meaning from convention, they still believe that the context of “quantum supremacy” is “that of a historically white, male-dominated discipline.”

“Acknowledging this by seeking better language is a basic effort to be polite, not prissy,” the authors insist. Therefore, they go on to propose an alternative term: quantum primacy.

The authors add that while abolishing the term “quantum supremacy” would not in itself diversify science, it is a small step toward making the scientific community “less white and male.”

“These kinds of linguistic hotfixes do not reach even a bare minimum for diversifying science,” the authors write, “the most important work involves hiring and retention and actual material changes to the scientific community to make it less white and male.”

In a similar bizarre move made within academia, Fieldston School — an elite prep school in New York City — has renamed “Newton’s laws” to “the three fundamental laws of physics” in order to “decenter whiteness” from physics.

You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Facebook and Twitter at @ARmastrangelo, on Parler @alana, and on Instagram.

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