The Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin has once again exposed the unresolved problem of race in America. Particularly telling were the comments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia. Roberts asked, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” And Scalia said, “Most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.” In case that was not sufficiently inflammatory, he continued unfazed: “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re … being pushed ahead in … classes that are too … fast for them.”

What Roberts has overlooked is that many of the most brilliant physicists, particularly the theorists, have been outsiders, at least in thought. Their “minority” perspective played a critical role in their success. In physics research, being an outsider can be an advantage when seeking answers to unsolved problems. Of course, being an ethnic or racial minority does not automatically make one a minority thinker. But it does come with unique experiences that could yield remarkable success in research.

The value of outsider thinking is quite clear when one considers how physics advances. For the most part, undergraduate physics education focuses on a codified set of solved problems. Research, on the other hand, exposes students to the unknown. The skills to excel at the latter have little to do with those required for whizzing through the former. Physics departments are replete with examples of problem-set whizzes who floundered in research. The ability to come up with new ideas that inform unsolved problems is a key factor in determining success in research.

The building blocks of modern physics as we know it—quantum mechanics, field theory, and general relativity, for example—all arose from individuals who stepped outside the established line of reasoning. That spirit is exemplified by Howard Georgi and Sheldon Glashow in their immensely influential 1974 grand unification paper, which contains the disclaimer, “Our hypotheses may be wrong and our speculations idle, but the uniqueness and simplicity of our scheme are reasons enough that it be taken seriously.” Such a frank admission of the risk involved in doing physics is rare.

A key element that determines a person’s ability to make such leaps is the comfort level with being different—even iconoclastic. Minorities are by definition outside the majority culture. Hence, taking risks that would set us further apart from our peers does not feel unnatural. That is, it is easiest to go against the grain when you are not part of the grain!

The outsider status can be used as a great motivating factor to beat the system. Consider, for example, the 1965 physics Nobel laureate and boyhood genius Julian Schwinger. The jacket of Schwinger’s 1970 book Particles, Sources, and Fields (Addison-Wesley) begins with the quip, “If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.” Clearly his outsider status was heartfelt. The 1905 physics Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard, well-known as an anti-Semite, denounced relativity as being derived from an “alien spirit” and dubbed the whole of Albert Einstein’s work as part of a “Jewish fraud.” Undoubtedly what Lenard recognized, in a through-the-looking-glass way, is that Einstein’s minority or outsider status may have been the very thing that enabled him to construct the most brilliant and important theory in physics to date. The “alien spirit” that catalyzed Einstein’s derivation of relativity may be the very same outside-the-box mindset that illuminates the thinking of at least some minority theoretical physicists today.

So to answer Roberts’s question, central to advancing physics is the ability to be an outsider. For minority physicists, a tendency toward outsider thinking is not fabricated. It is part of who we are, and it is the very thing that is unique to our experience.

It’s now 2016, and we have a black president, yet those uninformed comments come from people who are supposed to be the top legal minds in the country. At the very center of what should be a prudent, deliberate consideration of delicate legal matters that affect millions of lives, we find instead insensitive stereotypes that can only detract from the ultimate goal of justice.