Late in his life, Albert Einstein published the nearest he ever came to an autobiography. It’s scant on actual details of his life, on his triumphs and fiascos, loves and losses. Instead, Einstein wrote an account of what a life in science offers those who commit to it.
Like any good quest story, Einstein’s begins with sense of something missing. “Even when I was a fairly precocious young man,” he wrote, “the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chase most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality.” Against that void Einstein discovered that “out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.” From the time he was 12, he wrote, “The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation.”
I thought of that credo when I read about a pending Supreme Court case called Fisher v. University of Texas, where the court is set to decide whether the university’s affirmative-action policy unfairly promotes less-qualified minority students over white ones. During oral argument, Justice Scalia’s suggestion that a softer, kinder separate-but-equal system might be sufficient for African Americans drew most of the immediate backlash—as it should have. But it was Chief Justice Roberts who made the more subtle attack on the concept of diversity, when he asked “what unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” before musing, “I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation.”