"Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is one of the leading physicists of her generation, at work on the origins of spacetime at the intersection of particle physics and astrophysics. She is also one of the fewer than one hundred Black women to earn a PhD in physics. In The Disordered Cosmos, Prescod-Weinstein shares with readers her love for physics, from the Standard Model of Particle Physics and what lies beyond it, to the physics of melanin in skin, to the latest theories of dark matter - all with a new spin and rhythm informed by pop culture, hip hop, politics, and Star Trek. Prescod-Weinstein's vision of the cosmos is vibrant, inclusive and buoyantly non-traditional. As she makes clear, what we know about the universe won't be complete until we learn to think beyond the limitations of white-dominated science. Science, like most fields, is set up for men to succeed, and is rife with racism, sexism, and shortsightedness as a result. But as Prescod-Weinstein makes brilliantly clear, we all have a right to know the night sky. By welcoming the insights of those who have been left out for too long, we expand our understanding of the universe and our place in it. The Disordered Cosmos is a vision for a world without prejudice that allows everyone to view the wonders of the universe through the same starry eyes"--
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Discussing the theory of quantum gravity and its importance beyond the sciences, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein describes how it did not necessarily matter in 1910, but is now absolutely essential for GPS and other technologies. She continues, “I tend to find that each person, whether they are a scientist or not, gets excited about spacetime and the fact that it’s curved for different reasons… So maybe it matters for humanity because we are the total weirdos who would care” (pg. 65). The major theme of The Disordered Cosmos, however, is the interplay between society and the sciences.
To this end, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein writes, “Part of science… involves writing a dominant group’s social politics into the building blocks of a universe that exists far beyond and with little reference to our small planet and the apes that are responsible for melting its polar ice caps” (pgs. 22-23). Examining the need to break down the white, Euro-centric views in science, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein continues, “What I really wanted everyone to understand is that Black thoughts, like Black lives, matter” (pg. 110). She also discusses how popular culture offers an ideal of what may be even as it highlights issues within our society. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein writes, “I’m not the only Black scientist who identified with Shuri when the film Black Panther came out – so many of us spent our whole childhoods dreaming of becoming her, only to realize that in a white supremacist society, it feels impossible. Shuri is what happens when Indigenous intellectual curiosity is not stifled. America is what happens when it is” (pg. 111). As Dr. Prescod-Weinstein summarizes, “Science is inextricably tied to power” (pg. 197). Furthermore, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein writes, “There is a strange contradiction among scientists: science is supposedly about asking questions, except about scientists and how science is done” (pg. 222). She therefore concludes, “I understand why other scientists don’t want to be confronted with the fact that science is inextricably tied to everyday, human, social phenomena” (pg. 236).
Dr. Prescod-Weinstein sums up the issues at the heart of academia: “Academia is still a capitalist nightmare that takes the life out of people who are conscious of its problems” (pg. 140). Further, “Our academic and economic structures are set up with capitalist incentives to keep it to yourself when you realize something is wrong and to favor quick, superficial work over work that requires deep, plodding thought. Those who get a little power within these structures are rewarded for their silence” (pg. 159). She continues, “It is never going to get much better until there is significant structural change in the power dynamics that dominate North American society – and global society. Until there is a reckoning with the reality of the world in which science is done, only a small elite will be able to succeed economically. And only a few will be able to spend their days at colleges and universities, supposedly doing science” (pg. 246). Writing of the larger implications for society, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein concludes, “Now that the inevitably of progress has been proven a lie, it is time to confront the colonialism and anti-Blackness and xenophobia that are foundational to what America is and why it exists. Now is the time to confront the history of gender and misogyny and how enforcing a gender binary in an essentialist manner was part of the violent colonial project” (pg. 252).
The Disordered Cosmos is a must-read for any historian of science and particularly for those in the sciences or who are committed to the cause of social justice.
Prescod-Weinstein loves physics, and started loving physics as a child,
When she's talking about being a black American woman of Caribbean extraction working in physics, not so much.
Prescod-Weinstein is only the 63rd black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the United States. The more challenging parts of this book to read or listen to, but also very educational, are the parts where she's talking about the reality of being a black woman in science and especially in physics.
Her mother worked long hours and scrimped, saved, and did without, to send her to an elite high school where she could get the academic background and the connections to get into a distinguished college to begin her serious pursuit of a career in physics. She got a BA in Physics and Astronomy at Harvard in 2003, a master's degree in astronomy at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2005, and after a change in research direction, her Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo in 2010.
And all along the way, she encountered obstacles that her white, and especially white male, fellow students and colleagues did not. Being assumed to be there for diversity. Being questioned on her basic competence far more. Having her ideas often dismissed, and then the same idea being accepted readily when in it came from a white man.
Being raped. She isn't graphic in describing it, and does not name the man, but that trauma put a large obstacle in being able to continue her studies and her work. She had to overcome that to continue, but the trauma isn't gone.
Among the more "routine" challenges is the fact that women in academic departments tend to be stuck with the "emotional labor" of making things work, and as the only black woman, often the only black person in any group, she's always the designated person for any minority woman to seek out, or to be referred to, when they have questions and problems that white faculty and project leaders can't address. She values that work, and believes in its vital importance, but it also takes time, energy, and intellectual bandwith she could be more directly devoting to science.
It's an interesting book, sometimes difficult, but well worth reading or listening to.
I bought this audiobook.