The Disordered Cosmos

From a very young age, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein knew she wanted to be a scientist.

By sixth grade, she’s reading about things called quarks that make up everything we can see in the universe. At 13, her mother drives her away from the city lights of their home in East Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park so she can see the night sky and the comet Hyakutake. A year later, camping in Sequoia National Forest, she sees the Milky Way.

She studies physics and astronomy at Harvard and later earns a PhD researching quantum gravity at the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

Today, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of New Hampshire where she does theoretical research at the intersection of particle physics and astrophysics, with a focus on dark matter.

Her book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime and Dreams Deferred, conveys the sense of awe and wonder about the universe that has sustained her throughout a difficult career.

Difficult, not just because the subjects she delves into are difficult, complex, and counter-intuitive, but because Chanda Prescod-Weinstein also identifies as a Black, Jewish, queer woman working in a field overwhelmingly dominated by white men.

So it’s not surprising that she is also an activist for equality in science, does research in feminist science studies and is a Core Faculty Member in Women’s and Gender Studies at UNH.  

The Disordered Cosmos is about both the science Prescod-Weinstein loves and her experience being a scientist.

Cover of The Disordered Cosmos showing the silhouette of a Black woman containing stars and galaxies.

The Disordered Cosmos:
A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime and Dreams Deferred

By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Bold Type Books, New York, 2021

Since most of us aren’t scientists and don’t really know how scientists do their work, it’s easy to think of science as a pure intellectual pursuit, driven by reason and data and therefore isolated from politics and social division.

But of course, science is also a human endeavor. Both the practice and the practitioners of science are embedded in society and are afflicted with the same biases and prejudices found everywhere else.

Right from the opening chapter, called I 🖤 Quarks, Prescod-Weinstein dives into this tension, exploring three main themes that run throughout the book. First, she gives us an overview of the Standard Model of particle physics and why she loves it so much. She also conveys her discomfort with how science has often supported the military, capitalism and oppression. And finally, she describes how white male dominance of her field has made her working experience almost unbearable at times.

Diversity and Excellence

Let’s look at just one example.

According to her origin story, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is only the 54th Black American woman to earn a PhD from a department of physics. It seems shameful that in 2023 this number is so small and that it’s still necessary to even keep counts like this. But that’s the reality she has experienced and that she’s trying to tell us about. As she says, during her first two years as a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow at MIT, she was the only Black woman in her building working for the Physics department who wasn’t on the janitorial staff.

She describes how one university administrator told her and some colleagues that he cared about diversity, but “not at the expense of excellence.”

“It’s incredible how common comments like this are given and how brazenly racist they are, … Yet these comments explicitly suggest that minoritized candidates for faculty positions tend to be less qualified, less excellent.” [p. 190]

I’ve seen this assumption at work in my own industry. In 2017, a software engineer at Google named James Damore wrote a now infamous memo claiming that women were inherently less capable engineers than men and criticizing Google’s diversity programs as reverse discrimination.

Of course, this is absurd. As Prescod-Weinstein pointedly asks,

“Is science really just white guys sitting around being excellent? Is that really how it happens?” [p. 191]

I love how with one simple question she skewers the arguments against diversity.

Similarly, she tells of male colleagues who refuse to use students’ preferred pronouns. Apparently, some physicists have no trouble accepting the non-binary nature of subatomic entities (photons can be both waves and particles) but can’t accept non-binary human beings.

Other Ways of Knowing

Her critique of modern science goes beyond her personal experience. Prescod-Weinstein also draws attention to how Western science has both eradicated and delegitimized other ways of knowing the world.

A good example of this is the conflict between the University of Hawai’i and native Hawai’ians over the construction of a 30-meter telescope on top of Mauna Kea. It seems some hopeful progress has been made to resolving this dispute since The Disordered Cosmos was written, according to a report from NPR here, but Prescod-Weinstein is sympathetic to the native Hawai’ians’ desire to protect a sacred site, and she argues that construction of yet another telescope atop Mauna Kea is an example of science supporting colonialism.

In other parts of the book she talks about how Black enslaved people possessed and used scientific knowledge, for example, Harriet Tubman using the stars to navigate her path to freedom, or Onesimus, the enslaved Black man who taught whites in Boston how to inoculate against smallpox in the early 1700’s.

All too often, the scientific knowledge and contributions of non-white, non-male people have been ignored, discounted, or erased.

To address these persistent, structural problems, Prescod-Weinstein says we need more than just improved diversity and inclusion programs in colleges and universities. We need to ensure more people have the opportunity to pursue careers in science. This means improving schools across the country, especially in marginalized communities, making it more affordable for more people to attend college, and giving everyone the chance to see the night sky.

Unsolicited Feedback

Given all the horrible treatment she’s endured, it’s amazing Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has stayed in academia at all, let alone had a successful career so far.

But her experience as a Black, Jewish, queer scientist has also led to a powerful critique of the way science is done and the ways scientists behave.

Of course The Disordered Cosmos is also a critique of our society as a whole. It’s a perspective on America, born out of an experience and history different from my own, that I found uncomfortable to read at times. I take that discomfort to mean that I learned a lot from this book and had some previously held beliefs challenged. For one thing, it’s made me more aware of the need to think critically about what is being done in the name of science and whose interests are being served.

It also reminded me of the discrimination and oppression that women, Black, transgender and indigenous people and members of other marginalized groups still experience today, not only in academia, but in society at large.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

The search for the invisible matter that shapes the universe
TED Talk by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, April 2022

The Disordered Cosmos
Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s Substack newsletter

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