Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on making the ‘disordered cosmos’ add up

‘The first Black woman on the tenure track in theoretical cosmology’ tells Matthew Reisz about her struggles to reconcile a pristine childhood image of science with the reality she confronts by using selective citation to marginalise racist or sexist scientists

April 15, 2021
Composite image lady walking into the Black hole concept with deep universe galaxy, planets, stars.as a metaphor for Making the ‘disordered cosmos’ add up.
Source: Getty montage

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s new book is both a journey to the frontiers of cosmology and a story of unrequited love.

Now assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, Prescod-Weinstein (pictured below) fell in love with her subject – and decided to become a theoretical physicist – at the age of 10.

“I saw the [1991] Errol Morris documentary about Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time,” she tells Times Higher Education. “Going in, I had no concept you could get paid to do math and I knew I really loved to do math. School physics had been very conceptual and not at all mathematical and the documentary introduced me to ideas that math was a career path and that we could use it as a language to describe the universe.

“Halfway through the documentary, Stephen Hawking was talking about singularities at the centre of black holes and how they were an unsolved mystery that Einstein had not worked out. Nobody had told me there were things Einstein didn’t know! My 10-year-old conception was that Einstein knew everything.”

Like Hawking, she decided, she would devote her career to discovering what is at the heart of black holes and so fill the gaps in Einstein’s knowledge.

Today, as Prescod-Weinstein describes in The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred (Bold Type Books), this has largely come to pass. She is “the first Black woman to hold a tenure-track faculty position in theoretical cosmology”. And, as a “particle cosmologist”, she explores “the biggest picture there is…us[ing] math to figure out the history of spacetime” – including the “really fun physics” of neutron stars, whose extraordinary density is the equivalent of “sticking two and a half suns into a space the size of Los Angeles”.

Cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred (Bold Type Books)

So The Disordered Cosmos is both the story of a childhood dream achieved and a dizzying guided tour of the universe as we now understand it. Yet it is also an analysis of how the discipline Prescod-Weinstein loves so much has, in her view, never quite loved her back.

As a working-class and “queer, agender Black woman” whose “analytic frameworks [are] mostly inherited from the Euro-American imperialists and settlers who kidnapped my ancestors from Africa and enslaved them”, she writes, she has often been humiliated, marginalised and made to feel that she does not fit the image of a proper scientist. She also gives a brief but harrowing account of being “raped at a science conference by a scientist”, noting that she can’t avoid the issue even in a book celebrating the wonders of the universe since “rape happens in science, all the time”.

Along with looking at the historical links between the physical sciences and colonialism, Prescod-Weinstein describes her opposition to plans to build the Thirty Metre Telescope on land sacred to Native Hawaiians – about whom astronomers frequently express the view that they don’t know what is good for them. She urges her fellow scientists to reflect more seriously on “Native Hawaiian ways of looking at the world – one of the key lessons I have been taught is that the land is considered part of the family, so in decisions about land use you think about the wellbeing of that family member. Would climate change even be occurring if, at every stage of industrialisation, that had been a key part of the conversation?”

Another area of intolerance in science that Prescod-Weinstein is keen to flag is the refusal of some professors to use the pronouns requested by their transgender students. Rather surprisingly, she links this to the way quantum mechanics feels bafflingly counter-intuitive to most people. When the Iraqi-British drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi appeared on the UK’s Channel 4 News last year, she notes, he said that “[subatomic] particles themselves are non-binary and do things that contradict each other all the time”.

“If something can be a particle and a wave at the same time,” Prescod-Weinstein goes on, “why can’t people also have a non-binary gender? I’m thinking that Al-Kadhi probably has an easier time with quantum mechanics than someone who is very committed to thinking in binary ways. From hearing his analogy, which was widely circulated on social media, a bunch of people developed an intuition for quantum physics they had never had before.”

Even the language of physics, in Prescod-Weinstein’s view, often feels alienating. It was "almost certainly men", she writes, who found it amusing to come up with acronyms such as Wimps (weakly interacting massive particles) and Machos (massive astrophysical compact halo objects). And she is very disconcerted when the field of quantum chromodynamics, which makes merely metaphorical use of the notion of colour, is referred to even in textbooks as “coloured physics”.

There are also problems in Prescod-Weinstein’s own specialist area, dark matter. For one thing, that label is “scientifically not great” because it belies the fact that dark matter, if it exists at all, is actually transparent. “I go and give talks on my research and it’s part of my task to give people a sense of what this thing is,” she says. “It’s literally wasting my time because I have to explain that if I have a clump of dark matter in my hand and look down on it, I can still see my hand. My hand will feel weighed down by it.” In that sense, it would be less misleading to call it “clear matter” or “transparent matter”.

But the biggest problem with the term “dark matter” lies deeper. The Disordered Cosmos reports the occasional claims of white scientists that although dark matter is totally “benign”, it “sounds scary and foreboding to the general public”, though such comments may “really [be] telling us more about the way [those scientists] relate to the idea of ‘dark’”. Prescod-Weinstein also notes that the great British mathematician and physicist Lord Kelvin speculated about “dark bodies” in 1848 and would like a researcher to explore “how he uses that phrase in his other writings”, given that “his story is very entangled with the British Empire”.

On the other hand, she is also unhappy with the way people working in black studies have sometimes adopted dark matter as an analogy for the immense but largely “invisible” black contribution to certain areas of culture. This is a misleading comparison, she believes, because while dark matter is elusive by nature, black writers, for example, have been deliberately ignored.

The Disordered Cosmos may well be the first book by a black scientist to try to cut through the unhelpful intuitions of both black and white people about dark matter and explain what we actually know about it. In doing so, it also advances a more accurate – if rather complicated – analogy for the nature of racism based on the phenomenon of weak gravitational lensing.

Activists protest a planned telescope for Moana Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii in front of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)  as mentioned in the copy.

It can hardly be disputed that some scientists have been sexist, racist, abusive, complicit in colonialism or otherwise horrible people. But if they also provided important building blocks in the development of a field, how would Prescod-Weinstein like a researcher today to react?

“When it comes to citations,” she points out, “there are certainly choices we can make. If there’s a classic paper [by someone objectionable] from 1971 that is really important, which means that it has been cited and summarised hundreds of times, I might decide to cite one of those [later] papers instead of the original one. The information is still there, but I have decided to obscure that person’s name from the bibliography.

“There was a paper which came out by someone I knew had behaved quite awfully towards lots of people. I actually read it but decided I wasn’t going to do any work based on it because it was not necessary for me professionally. I’m not going to make it easier for that person’s work to be propagated.”

That decision was relatively easy for her to take as a theoretical physicist, Prescod-Weinstein admits, “because so much of the work we do is speculative”. Things became more difficult “when there’s a question of throwing out or ignoring data” (generated by objectionable individuals). Yet even here the need for “independent verification” means that more than one group is often working on the same problem. That gives researchers the option to “cite the other group and not the group with the person who’s not OK in it. We can’t throw away the science, but within the sphere of citation we do have some flexibility about how much someone benefits from the work they do.”

Furthermore, Prescod-Weinstein points out, when academics are organising talks and conferences, they can decide “who gets a platform to publicise their results and put that on their CV, which becomes important in going up for promotion and tenure. So I do have choices which don’t involve dismissing the science but do involve not promoting a person any more than science requires me to.”

As well as being the morally right thing to do, Prescod-Weinstein believes that this approach is the right one for science because “when people treat others badly in science, they are in fact doing damage to science. People are leaving the field because of their behaviour.” In other words, when assessing someone’s contribution to the scientific edifice, “you don’t just look at whether they built a very nice wing to the house but [also] whether they put a wrecking ball through the rest of it”.

How readily such a suggestion will be taken up, however, is open to question. Equally, it is hard to imagine a realistic way of addressing the claim that, as Prescod-Weinstein writes, colleges, universities and other workplaces will never be “healthy intellectual environment[s] for Black women...as long as capitalism structures our social relationships”.

She concedes that she doesn’t know whether “things are going to dramatically change tomorrow or if it will take 20 years”. However, she does not see that as a reason for despair, citing the long timescales she is familiar with as a scientist.

“With dark matter, we also don’t know if we are going to figure it out tomorrow or in 50 years’ time,” she says. “What we can do right now is keep hacking away at the problem as something we care about and are interested in. That’s what we do as scientists: we work at the boundary of what is known and what is not known and we keep trying to chip away at it. We can all play a role in doing that work on some of these larger social questions.”

In that sense, she will never cease pushing science to live up to the pristine image of it that she acquired as a child.

“I wouldn’t be here any more if I thought it was unsalvageable,” she reflects. “Hope is a practice and some days I really have to work hard at it, but we have the tools available to us. If we can build the Large Hadron Collider and figure out quantum field theory, we can definitely [reform science]. It’s a matter of priorities and making the decision that this is who we are going to be.”

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Making the ‘disordered cosmos’ add up

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