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A physicist’s lessons about race, power, and the universe

In her book The Disordered Cosmos, Black queer scientist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein argues that physics can be more universal.

The physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein looks at the camera while standing in front of a painting depicting two dark-skinned women hanging laundry in front of a field of stars.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, explores how society and physics influence each other in her book The Disordered Cosmos.
Courtesy of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Neel Dhanesha covered science and climate change at Vox. Prior to Vox, Neel was an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine and an assistant producer at Radiolab.

When Chanda Prescod-Weinstein was a 10-year-old growing up in East Los Angeles, she came across the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time, which chronicled the life of the physicist Stephen Hawking. Watching it, Prescod-Weinstein says, she realized Hawking “was being paid to use math all day to solve problems Einstein hadn’t worked out.”

For a queer Black Jewish kid from a working-class neighborhood who liked doing math, that seemed like a pretty good deal. “That was really where I got my first taste of the idea that math is kind of like the language of the universe,” Prescod-Weinstein told me.

She’s now an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, where she studies dark matter and particle physics. She’s also on the core faculty of the university’s Women’s Studies department — a seemingly unusual combination that hints at the multifaceted approach she brings to her work.

In 2021, Prescod-Weinstein published The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred, a wide-ranging book that is both a scientific explainer and an argument that unjust power structures shape the world of physics. She tells stories of subatomic particles like baryons, which are the building blocks of atoms; she critiques a trend she’s seen, in which writers compare the mystery and invisibility of dark matter to the lived experiences of Black people. In a chapter called “Rape Is Part of This Scientific Story” — a chapter that grew unexpectedly out of her writing on the dark universe, and that she debated including in the book — she writes about how her own experience of sexual assault shaped her understanding of injustices in her field.

I recently asked Prescod-Weinstein about being one of the few Black women in her field, how concepts from physics apply to our lives, and why dark matter is a complicated metaphor. She spoke to me from her home office in New Hampshire, at a desk covered with books, notepads, and at least two figurines of Star Trek’s Lieutenant Commander Uhura. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Early in your book, you write that particle physics continues to teach you that “the universe is always more bizarre and more wonderfully queer than we think.” How do you see queerness in the universe?

Yeah, I think the universe is weird, man! There are so many things about it that are counterintuitive. What we do in science is exist at the boundary of what humanity understands about the universe, and you try and push that boundary forward. And that means living in the place where things are not known, and that means being confused and asking a lot of questions. So science is really a practice of question asking.

Queerness is just like that. Queerness is living at that boundary of what is known and unknown. There are certain understandings of queerness that in 2021 seem antiquated. And similarly, there were scientific ideas back in 2000 that we know better than now. We know what the mass of the Higgs [boson] is now. We did not know that in 2000. So I think there’s a real way in which queerness and science track with each other.

You describe yourself in the book as a “griot of the universe, a storyteller.” Could you explain what that means?

Griot is a West African word that I think comes up in a few different languages across the region. As I understand it, it’s traditionally a community storyteller and oral historian, and I think that’s what I do. I’m a storyteller about the universe. I’m using a very particular language — mathematics — with a set of rules associated with it. But all forms of storytelling have rules that we impose on them.

You write a lot about invisibility — literally, in the case of dark matter, and metaphorically when it comes to the contributions of women, nonbinary folks, and people of color in the field of physics. At one point, you write about physicists who draw a comparison between dark matter and the lived experiences of Black people. Can you talk a bit about that?

I literally have this chapter called “Black People Are Luminous Matter.” I have a very clear agenda there that I wanted to hit home. We’re not magical Negros. We feel pain. We feel pain just as much as white people do, despite a widespread belief from medical students and doctors.

I wanted to look at our physicality, not as a uniform thing but in its breadth. There are a lot of different ways to be Black. But all of them come from baryons, and none of them come from dark matter.

How are baryons and dark matter different?

When I say baryons, I mean the stuff that everything we can see is generally made of. When I talk about dark matter, I’m talking about this invisible, transparent thing that seems to dominate galaxy structure. But it’s literally invisible. It doesn’t have a color.

Is there a better metaphor to be found in physics?

Yeah, if you really want a cosmic analogy for race and racism, weak gravitational lensing is much more useful.

Essentially, one of the big lessons of general relativity is that spacetime tells matter how to move, and matter tells spacetime how to curve. So when you have matter in spacetime — say, the sun — the spacetime is being distorted by the presence of that matter. Your spacetime is actually bending. If you get a lot of dark matter together, it can bend light as though it has gone through a funhouse mirror. The light looks like it’s coming from one place when it’s actually coming from another.

This is called gravitational lensing, and the most fantastical version of it, when you really have a lot of dark matter, is that you can actually see multiple images of a galaxy. There’s only one galaxy, but your telescope sees multiple images because the photons are riding on very funny paths. Sometimes it’s really dramatic and you see multiple images, and sometimes you just see distortion. The question always is, “Is that gravitational lensing, or is that galaxy just weird?” The way that you figure that out is you do statistics. You look at everything and say, “Are all of these distorted in a way that is consistent?”

I’ve been a Black Jew around white Jews. It’s very easy to be, like, “Are you sure that when that white Jewish professor was asking you if you’re really Jewish, it was because you’re Black?” But get a bunch of Black Jews together and talk to them about their experiences, and you’re like, “Ah, we all seem to experience that same distortion, and how people think it’s okay to talk to us.” That’s systemic. It becomes a lot harder to deny when there’s a systemic picture there.

The cover of the book The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred, which depicts a photograph of deep space superimposed on the silhouette of a Black woman in profile.
The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred” was published March 2021 by Bold Type Books.
Cover design by Pete Garceau

You write about the difficulties of joining the field as one of the few Black woman physicists in the country, and the shame you still feel about your B-minus college average. This really spoke to me — I didn’t know cosmology professors have imposter syndrome! How do you keep working through that?

I should say that I don’t actually think I have imposter syndrome. We often tell people that they have imposter syndrome when people are correctly identifying: “Oh, I don’t belong here.” The system is not built for them. And that’s correct. There is some fundamental sense in which you do not belong.

Should you feel like you belong? Should the space be a place where you do belong? Yes. But are you wrong for assessing that you don’t? No. That means your capacity for analysis is working. I actually think that we need to be telling people that their ability to identify that is actually a sign of competency.

I like that reframing. Throughout the book, you point to scientists assuming their work is free from the messiness of society and politics and history. You show us that culture and society are deeply embedded in physics, but few people are willing to have that conversation. Is that starting to change?

I guess there are two different answers to this question. I feel like things are dramatically different than they were 15 years ago, and I also feel like there’s been very little change. I have a chapter on sexual misconduct and specifically the impact it had on my daily life. We’re still at the point where whisper networks are essential, and that relies unreasonably on women and other minoritized-gender people to do the labor of sharing information that could cause us professional problems if people find out that they are the ones sharing the information.

This brings to mind the name of another chapter, called “Wages for Scientific Housework.”

Absolutely. The victims or survivors, however they see themselves, who come forward do an enormous service to the community. It’s an incredible piece of emotional housework and labor to push astronomy to be a better place and safer place. And people who have survived serious incidents of sexual misconduct, myself included, live with an enormous amount of guilt about not naming names in public. But it’s really like, do you feel like climbing on a cross or not? Or do you want to have a life and be doing this work? You know, I like math. I still actually really like math. I want to be able to do that in peace, and it seems like this is the more peaceful option than the alternative.

Your book ends with a letter to your mother and a section from the Torah. How do your family and your faith fit into your work?

Until I was 10, I thought being Jewish meant you were a labor organizer, because that was the kind of Jewish family I came from. I know it’s super dorky, but it’s also 100 percent what I thought, coming from an organizing family. I think their influences imprinted all over the book. I don’t think I would be a scientist who thinks so deeply about these social questions if I hadn’t been raised to ask all of these questions, and to think expansively about what it means to understand the world. That’s not just a mathematical question. It’s not just a physical question. It is also a social and a political question.

Correction, January 18, 3:40 pm: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s home office. It is in New Hampshire.