‘Decolonizing Light’: Canadian University Project Aims To Redefine ‘Physics As A Social Field’

A Canadian university is embarking on a project to fundamentally alter physics as a science by “decolonizing light.”

A group of researchers across disciplines from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, is working on the project, which seeks to change the way the science of physics is perceived as an academic discipline, according to a report from The College Fix. The project took aim at light specifically because it is ubiquitous across cultures and used in a number of scientific fields.

“The Decolonizing Light project explores ways and approaches to decolonize science, such as revitalizing and restoring Indigenous knowledges, and capacity building,” the website for the project states. “The project aims to developing a culture of critical reflection and investigation of the relation of science and colonialism.”

Established in 2021, the project is led by Tanja Tajmel, a special equity, diversity, and inclusion advisor to the dean of Concordia University and an Associate Professor at the university’s Centre for Engineering in Society. Also leading the project are Associate Professor of “First Peoples Studies,” Louellyn White, and Associate Professor of Physics and Chemistry and Biochemistry, Ingo Salzmann.

The project boasts a roster of 15 collaborators, including: Concordia “Indigenous pedagogy adviser” Donna Kahérakwas Goodleaf; environmental researcher and chemistry researcher Gregor Kos; three representatives from the Kahnawà:ke Environment Protection Office (KEPO), an indigenous environmental advocacy group; University of Toronto astronomer and indigenous activist Hilding Neilson; and 9 graduate and undergraduate workers. The project also features collaboration from five researchers at major universities around the world.

The project also has the financial backing of the New Frontiers in Research Fund. The NFRE is a research fund established by the Canadian government in 2018 to support “interdisciplinary, high-risk/high-reward, transformative research led by Canadian researchers working with Canadian and international partners.”

“This fund seeks to inspire innovative research projects that push boundaries into exciting new areas and that have the potential to deliver game-changing impacts,” the NFRE website states.

In a 2021 paper outlining the project, Salzmann, White, Goodleaf, and Tajmel said that the “unique scientific authority” of physics was the reason they targeted it. “Physics is commonly regarded as the ‘most objective’ and the ‘hardest’ science, it fundamentally defines scientific key concepts such as energy, matter, force, light, space and time, for all the other sciences,” the professors wrote. “For our purpose, it is important to understand physics as a social field rather than as ‘pure knowledge’ independent from social values and decisions.”

The professors chose light specifically “because light is ubiquitous in every society, language and culture. In everyday life, light is a key element that defines familiar aspects like color and warmth. In physics, light is exploited as the primary carrier of information about nature (e.g., in astronomy), used as the primary probe for the fundamental properties of matter (e.g., in spectroscopy),” and researched at major facilities like the Canadian Light Source in Saskatchewan, the professors added.

“The purpose of our project is not to find new or better explanations of light; we are not seeking to improve scientific
‘truth,’” they continued. “Rather, our project initiatives are motivated by the marginalization of women, Black people, and Indigenous peoples, particularly in physics. We regard marginalization as a key problem for social equity as well as for scientific quality. Furthermore, we regard scientific knowledge that reproduces bias and colonial power relations as non-acceptable.”

The project is still active. According to their website, the last event was “An Evening of Indigenous Star Stories with Cree Astronomer Wilfred Buck,” on October 26.

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