A theoretical cosmologist explores the right to wonder upon the night sky
'My relationship to science is sutured to these greater questions of equity and justice.'
Originally published on March 27, 2021.
Theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein studies exotic cosmological puzzles like dark matter and neutron stars. But as one of the few Black women to have earned a PhD in physics, she never loses sight of how much harder she — and others like her — have had to fight to be able to engage in that work.
In a new book, she shares her fascination with untangling the mysteries of the universe, and also her dreams of a society where science is ethical, just, and accessible to all.
Prescod-Weinstein is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and core faculty in women's and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire.
Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald spoke with her about her book The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. Here is part of their conversation.
What is it about particle physics that excites you?
There's something about it that's really magical. It's really interesting that the universe in some ways can be broken down into these very fundamental parts. And the math that we use to describe these fundamental parts is so fantastical. So I think at heart I'm a mathematician. And what I really enjoy in general is that you can use math to describe the universe. It's an amazing language.
One of the things you talk about in your book is how dark matter isn't really dark it's just invisible. Why is that such an important point to emphasize?
I've heard people claim that dark matter sounds scary to people. It gives people a bad intuition for what dark matter is and what the dark matter problem is. So I prefer invisible matter because that's a better intuition for what we're actually dealing with.
So why is invisible matter a better name?
Light goes through it, and when we think about what does dark mean, versus what does invisible mean, dark kind of implies that maybe it has a colour associated with it. But in fact, dark matter doesn't have a colour associated with it. If it did, we'd be able to see it. So if you were to hold out your hands and somebody were able to pop some dark matter down into it, instead of seeing dark matter, you would just see your hands, and it would feel like there was something heavier in your hands, but you would just see your hands
Another topic that you bring up in the book is neutron stars. What makes them so interesting to you?
I know the general public thinks that black holes are kind of the most exotic objects in the universe. But I would actually argue that neutron stars are much more fascinating because they really are these really strange, compact objects of fundamental particles, like quarks. They're like these incredibly compact objects that are incredibly dense, and they're just really weird. I think that's so much more fun than black holes, where you just cross an event horizon and then you don't even know what happens afterwards. The neutron stars, there's all kinds of funky stuff going on inside.
In your book, apart from being a love letter to the universe, you also look at how your experience of exploring it through science hasn't been quite so beautiful. Tell me a bit about that.
I didn't want to be at the centre of any story, but to use some of my own experiences and observations as a launching ground for talking about some of the things that we know about the marginalization that women of colour, for example, experience, that Indigenous people experience, that Black people experience, not just in science, but at the hands of science.
I wanted to grapple with those things because I think if we are going to do our best science, and really be the best species that we can be, as a community of human beings, that we need to confront what doesn't work, and what works poorly, and what works against some of us and in favour of others.
We always like to think of science as objective. You write about how subjectivity is something that can't be ignored in science. Why is that?
One of the great lessons of Einstein's relativity is that there is no observer who is more objective than any other observer. So the disparities that we see in who is participating in science have to be a social phenomenon, that you can't explain it with physics or anything like that. So then we have to look at what are the human social systems that are shaping who gets to participate in science. And when someone is pushed out of science, they take their ideas with them.
How did your personal experiences growing up shape how you view the universe?
I grew up in a family of activists, and so I grew up with a really strong sense of social responsibility. And so that's definitely shaped my sense of what are the problems that I think are valuable to work on. I grew up with a single, Black mother who was struggling financially a lot of the time, and she also made a point of trying to get me opportunities to see the universe, and actually took me out to Joshua Tree National Park so that I could go look at a comet, even though I don't know how she paid for that gas money. And I want it to not be such a struggle for other families, the kinds of struggles that we went through. I know other families have struggled even more than we did.
We are what's abnormal about the universe, and we are therefore incredibly precious.- Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
So I look at the universe and I realize that it's a treasure, and it's a treasure that some people are being denied. And so I think in some sense, my relationship to science is sutured to my relationship to these greater questions of equity and justice.
You write that 'Part of my science is rethinking what I want science to do in the world.' So, what do you want science to do in the world?
I want science to give us a sense of wonder. There is this great line from the film Contact that I think Jodie Foster delivers, along the lines of "the universe is so large and we are so small and therefore insignificant, but also incredibly precious." Most of the matter and energy content in the universe is dark matter and dark energy. And therefore what we can see — stars, us — we are what's abnormal about the universe, and we are therefore incredibly precious. So I think that there's something really majestic about being able to situate ourselves in context of this incredible thing that is the universe.
And I want everybody to have the experience of being able to wonder about it, and to feel like they have the time to be curious, and the space to be curious, and what I might say, the space time to be curious. And right now, some of us have that opportunity, and others have to worry about whether they're going to be able to stay in their housing, whether they have enough to eat. When people are worrying about getting the basics, they can't wonder about the universe.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz.