When Nature declared Chanda Prescod-Weinstein “a force in physics” in 2020 and the American Physical Society presented her with the Edward A. Bouchet Award a year later, both acknowledged her contributions to theoretical cosmology and particle physics.
But they also recognized much more: Prescod-Weinstein’s drive to make physics more inclusive and her co-creation of the Particles for Justice movement, which — in the aftermath of police officers’ killings of George Floyd and other Black people — led to an international academic strike and shutdown on June 10, 2020. Since then, the group has spoken out against attacks on Black and LGBTQ+ people and the targeting of African American and women’s and gender studies and equity efforts.
In her 2021 book “The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred,” Prescod-Weinstein describes her path to becoming both a physicist and an activist. Growing up in East Los Angeles and raised by a single mother, Prescod-Weinstein became fascinated by math and physics and also acutely aware of racism and sexism — even more so once she entered Harvard College.
“As I progressed through college, graduate school, and teaching, I learned quickly and painfully that physics and math classrooms are not only scenes of cosmology — the study of the origins and inner workings of the physics universe — but also scenes of society, complete with all of the problems that follow society wherever it goes. There is no escape,” Prescod-Weinstein writes.
Now an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and member of the core faculty in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire, Prescod-Weinstein will present Clark’s Presidential Lecture on Oct.5.
In anticipation of her lecture, we asked Prescod-Weinstein about her life and work.
For whom did you write your book, “The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred”?
“The Disordered Cosmos” is for everyone. It’s an introduction to the world of particle physics and cosmology, both the ideas and the perspective they give us on the universe, as well as the actual doing of the science, the practices and experiences of the people. I wanted to give everyone a holistic look at what it means to do particle physics and cosmology at this point in time.
How do you explain “dark matter” to someone who doesn’t understand physics? And why should “dark matter” probably be called “invisible matter”?
It’s really as simple as saying that the matter that we can see — visible matter — is a small fraction of what’s actually out there. We know this from a plethora of astrophysical observations. It’s a great lesson on how the universe is always more fascinating than we assume it is. The problem we are facing is sometimes called “the missing matter problem,” but more frequently, it’s known as “dark matter.” It has this name for historical reasons, but there’s no reason to assume it has a dark color. More likely, it’s comprised of a particle that’s largely invisible, and light goes right through it.
What advice would you give to a young person from a marginalized background who wants to become a scientist?
Persistence is the most important quality a scientist can have. No matter who you are, you’re going to be confronted by a hard problem at some point. The question is whether you dust your shoulders off and get back up again. People who have experienced marginalization are actually experts on facing challenges and not letting them get in the way. So, that’s a strength that marginalized people bring to the table.
The other thing I will say is that sometimes people are going to come to college or grad school having had access to more and better resources, and that gives them a leg up in knowing the material. The only way out is through: Don’t worry about what they know. Worry about learning the material.
What role should activism play in academia, and why?
Academia is deeply broken and enmeshed with structural racial capitalism, colonialism, transphobia, and heterocissexism. We need to be organizing to face these challenges everywhere that they arise, and that includes in academic spaces.
You have a great sense of humor that comes through in your talks and on social media. How do you keep your sense of humor despite the racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism you have experienced and observed?
It’s nice to know someone thinks I have a sense of humor since I spend a lot of my time being treated like a feminist killjoy by people who are resisting necessary change!
On Yom Kippur, I read a poem by Dana Shuster, “For a Grandfather.” It has a line, “Inadvertently he planted gentleness and humor.” I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, and I think I picked up my sense of humor from my Grandpa Norman, who was raised in the same Yiddish Brooklyn that produced comedian Mel Brooks — and many others. I think Black people and Jews are experts in finding humor even during the most dire moments. As a Black Jew, I’ve inherited both traditions.
You are a physicist who is open about your Jewish faith. How can religion and science coexist — or at least, how do you reconcile their coexistence?
I’m ethnically Ashkenazi Jewish, so I come to it not as a belief system but as an identity I was born to. Jewishness isn’t just a religion, it’s also a series of cultural and ethnic identities — for example, Sephardim, Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews), and Mizrahim. I am also active in my synagogue and am actually writing these answers while listening to morning prayers. But I’m an agnostic atheist. I don’t have any faith in the supernatural. In Reconstructionist Judaism, the branch I practice in, G-d is not necessarily a supernatural presence, but rather a concept that holds space for how we spiritually connect with our sense of what the universe is about, what life is about. For me, Jewish texts are an important ethical guide, something to think with.
Why do you think a lot of people are afraid of science, especially physics?
I think we live in a culture that’s very hierarchy-focused, and that includes intellectual hierarchies. For almost a century, the messaging about physicists has been that they are geniuses, and there are very few geniuses. So people think physics is a geniuses-only thing.
How can scientists best communicate their research to the public in an era where science has come under attack?
We have to actually do it! And academic institutions need to place real value on doing science communication. A lot of early career scientists want to do it but are discouraged because often it counts against you when you go up for tenure if people think you’ve spent “too much” time on science communication.
In 50 years, how do you think people will look back on this moment in history? Are we moving backward or forward? In other words, what would Langston Hughes think?
Langston Hughes would be excited by all the socialist organizing, and he would want all of us pushing for a better world to “hold fast to dreams.” Personally, I hope that in 50 years, there will be people to look back on this moment. That’s my goal right now: for the next generation to have a world at all.