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Opinion: Now is the time to face race

Paradigm shifts happen and I would respectfully suggest we are going through one.

In 1893, Alfred Werner proposed a system for the structure of inorganic chemical compounds that explained why some species composed of the same constituents exhibited different chemical properties such as colour and conductivity. 

His ideas were met with a great deal of scepticism as the prevailing model at the time was one proposed by Sophus Mads Jorgensen in which inorganic compounds were envisioned to form catenated structures similar to those proposed for organic chemistry. To put that in simpler terms, Jorgensen’s theory had atoms forming chains; Werner’s didn’t. 

The two gentlemen went at it in the literature for several years with Jorgensen being the senior statesman holding onto the past and Werner being the young buck trying to drag the discipline into the future. 

In the end, Werner won out. His evidence and results were undeniable. Indeed, in a story that is likely apocryphal, Werner presented his results at a conference with Jorgensen present. At the end of Werner’s presentation, Jorgensen is supposed to have stood and said “Dr. Werner, you have convinced me. I was wrong. I shall use your system of nomenclature from now on” (or something like that). And he did. He became Werner’s biggest supporter. 

This is not one of the more well-known controversies in the early days of chemistry. Indeed, if I wasn’t trained in inorganic chemistry, I likely would never have heard of it. But the results of Werner’s work led to the development of an area called “coordination chemistry,” which has been much of my life’s work. You may hear more about coordination chemistry in the future as “metal organic frameworks” start to make their way out of the laboratory and into modern technology. 

I mention this story not for its scientific interest but because it is one of the rare examples of a dramatic and complete paradigm shift within science which can be traced to a singular moment in time. Prior to that fateful conference, the majority of chemists believed in Jorgensen’s approach and nomenclature, often ridiculing Werner’s theories. After the conference, it was Werner who was triumphant and Jorgensen’s work became an interesting historical sidenote. 

Paradigm shifts in science happen all the time. It is part of the nature of what scientists do. We almost expect that our best work will one day be swallowed by some future theory or change in our understanding. We are very used to finding out our research has come to naught. And our experiments haven’t worked. 

It isn’t easy to accept you have been wrong. Indeed, there have been some ugly incidences in the history of science where shifting the current understanding of knowledge has taken a tremendous toll both academically and personally. 

There are also some more famous stories. Albert Einstein is probably the most famous physicist of all time and his work on relativity unlocked our understanding of time and space. He explained the cosmos on the grandest of scales but when it came to looking inside the atom where quantum mechanics reigns, he could not countenance what the theories had to say. 

Quantum mechanics depends on probabilities and shifts the world from a deterministic one to a much more random structure. Einstein’s famous retort to the whole idea is captured in his utterance: “The old one does not play dice with the universe.” And yet, that is the way the universe functions. 

Einstein is reported to have come to terms with quantum mechanics eventually but right up to the end of his days he was reportedly trying to reconcile the world of the very tiny with the very large universe. 

Why mention all of this? Because paradigm shifts happen. And I would respectfully suggest we are going through one. 

Over the past year, there has been a major shift in societal understanding around the world on the effects of race and racial inequality. Race is a constructed concept as we are all human beings. But it was a concept used in the “age of exploration” to distinguish between people and place them into groups with no legitimate basis other than to make some people superior to others. 

This spawned thousands of years of racial inequality. When the world’s population was a fraction of today’s and we all lived in separate parts of the world far from each other, we could pretend people from elsewhere were somehow different. 

But in today’s crowded world, where anyone can get almost anywhere in a matter of days, the notion that we are not all one race has seen its day. We need a paradigm shift in our understanding of ourselves and our racial history. Some of the truths are going to be uncomfortable but they are true nonetheless. 

It is time to face up to the truths of the past and shift the paradigm.