Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The SEP in Astronomy

In his 1982 novel Life, the Universe, and Everything, Douglas Adams described the SEP.
The following is a thinly veiled transmogrification of his text.

“I think,” said the First Astronomer, “that there’s an SEP at work in our field.”

He pointed. Curiously enough, the direction he pointed in was not the one in which he was looking.

“A what?” said the Second Astronomer.

“An SEP.”

“An S ...?”

”... EP.”

“And what’s that?”

“Somebody Else’s Problem.”

“Ah, good,” said the Second and relaxed. He had no idea what all that was about, but at least it seemed to be over. It wasn’t.

“Over there,” said the First, again pointing in one direction and looking in another.

“Where?” said the Second.

“There!” said the First.

“I see,” said the Second, who didn’t.

“You do?” said the First.  “Can you see the SEP?”

“I thought you said that was somebody else’s problem.”

“That’s right.”

The Second Astronomer nodded slowly, carefully and with an air of immense stupidity.

“I want to know,” said the First, “if you can see it.”

The Second Astronomer experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with the First. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. The First Astronomer took him by the arm.

“An SEP,” he said, “is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.”

“Ah,” said the Second, “then that’s why ...”

“Yes,” said the First, who knew what the Second was going to say.

”... you’ve been jumping up and ...”


”... down, and blinking ...”


”... and ...”

“I think you’ve got the message.”

“I can see it,” said the Second, “it’s Exclusion! It's Exclusion by race and by gender!”

The strangest thing about the Exclusion in Astronomy was watching the Somebody Else’s Problem field at work. Both Astronomers could now clearly the Exclusion for what it was simply because they knew it was there. It was quite apparent, however, that most of their colleagues could not. This wasn’t because it was actually invisible or anything hyper-impossible like that. The technology involved in making anything invisible is so infinitely complex that nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand million, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a billion it is much simpler and more effective just to take the thing away and do without it. But actually getting rid of Exclusion was very hard work that required sustained effort from the entire community over many decades.

The Somebody Else’s Problem field is much simpler and more effective. This is because it relies on people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, or can’t explain. With a simple Somebody Else’s Problem field on it, most astronomers contentedly walked past the Exclusion, round it, even over it, and simply never have noticed that the thing was there.

And this is precisely what was happening.

Since Douglas Adams' comedic description of the SEP phenomenon, the idea has been widely adopted in many fields, notably psychology. In our own field of Astronomy, we are confronted with the  Exclusion -- the pervasive and systematic underrepresentation of those who are not white men -- every day as we walk the halls of our workplaces. Once you see it, it is as clear -- and as terrifying -- as a spaceship sitting in the middle of a cricket pitch. And, like the sudden appearance of a spaceship, it, too, should motivate you to take quick and decisive action. 

But, for many of us, our brains putter on with the assumption that this is indeed Somebody Else's Problem.