For Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, The Story of the Universe Is Also the Story of Blackness
"The Disordered Cosmos" sees Black history and experience through the lens of physics, and vice versa
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Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s book The Disordered Cosmos is a book we’ve been waiting for for a long time: a science book, directed at Black folks, connecting our individual lives to the universe at large. I read it last fall, after the long summer of uprisings and constant change, and it challenged my questions on how we do this movement-building together. It’s all connected, and it begins—maybe, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein and her colleagues are still figuring that part out—with the cosmos.
The Disordered Cosmos engages with some of the most consequential questions we can ask: what and where do we come from? How do we map our origin story? How can we make a liberation plan for the future? I had the pleasure to engage Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s work and talk to her about her lineage and family, her work as a physicist, and the math that makes Black folks possible. Whether you’re a perpetual student of science or someone who’s been shut out of the broad dialogue, The Disordered Cosmos has a story to tell. And it’s here for all of us, if we want it.
AF: This was such a deeply satisfying book to read. In your chapter “The Biggest Picture” you say “To borrow a word from the Indigenous communities that my Black ancestors likely hailed from, I am a griot of the universe—a storyteller.” There’s a symmetry to how you balance personal narrative and science that help cohere this large complicated origin story of the universe. Yet you start the book with how it maybe began and juxtapose it against the timeline of your intellectual development from childhood to know. How did you decide on that approach and why was it important to include it?
CPW: There are a lot of really talented science journalists out there who specialize in communicating science to the general public. What’s different when a scientist is doing that work is that we are bringing to the table our very personal perspective on the doing of science. It’s impossible to do that dispassionately when it is your life’s work. Because this book is a holistic look at the doing of physics, it is very tied into the evolution of my own understanding of physics and what it means to do physics. Also, I think there’s something valuable in admitting that the book is going to challenge people’s perspectives on science and that I can identify with their sense of shock and maybe disappointment.
AF: When you’re doing the memory-work of writing, sometimes it feels like you have to go back, get that left-behind possibility and travel back to where you need to be. I realize I’m also asking: how does it feel to be a time traveler?
CPW: There are two answers to this question. My scientific work focuses largely on how to understand the first three minutes of spacetime’s history by looking at the last billion years or so. This means trying to draw connections between 13 billion years of history and understanding how the very small gets imprinted on the very large. This kind of time traveling using reasoning based on math and certain types of empirical evidence is super awesome. There is also the kind of time travel that is required constantly of me to look back at the challenges I faced in working toward becoming that kind of time traveler, and that’s more painful. I’m actually working on an essay right now about how my mentoring work—and academia’s refusal to change— means I never get to let the past just stay in the past.
AF: Especially now that it’s the catch-phrase-question of the moment in everyday conversation: what even is time? Like, how are we not, collectively, always asking this question?!
CPW: The funny thing about all of these questions about time is how ill-equipped physicists are to answer them. There is no point in a physics curriculum where physicists are asked to think carefully about the meaning of time. If we ask about it, we’re sent to the philosophy department. Same, generally speaking, with interpretations of quantum mechanics. I think there’s a big disconnect between public perception of the kinds of questions physicists work on and the kinds of questions we’re even allowed to ask in class. That’s a long winded way of saying I haven’t thought too much about time in any fundamental sense. For me it’s a parameter that follows a rule: we can’t reverse it or go backwards. I like following the work of thinkers like Julian Barbour who are trying very hard to better understand it in a physical sense. I encourage people to check out his new book The Janus Point, which looks at time in the context of thermodynamics.
AF: Your desire for a holistic approach to cosmology and particle physics in and of itself is a Black Feminist futuring, and adds some elasticity to how we see the world. In “Black Feminist Physics at the End of the World” there’s incredible grief and anxiety alongside imagining into curiosity and play and pleasure. I think of two lines from Lena Blackmon’s epigraph that opens the book “here is what is true:/ a black body radiator be in thermodynamic equilibrium which is to say/ a black body be at rest yes let the black bodies rest”. We have to ask big questions to deal with these very real problems. Do you have big questions for future joy?
CPW: I hope in a future that it is more normal for physicists to think about time and about interpretations of quantum mechanics. The proliferation of questions about these ideas—and the rise of analogies which use them—indicates that this is something that people enjoy thinking with. It’s so unfortunate that physicists aren’t in a better position to provide support on how to think about these things from the perspective of people who work with quantum mechanics and its consequences on a regular basis. I want to add that part of what is so incredible about Lena’s poem is that she wrote it as someone who is thinking through both physics and analogy. She’s a talented materials scientist and a talented poet. The poem works in both ways. I want a Black feminist future where other folks can experience the kind of multilayered joy that I did in being able to understand her work on both levels.
AF: I love that, as a dual seeing! You said the reason why you love your cosmology work is because it feels like being the keeper of a deeply human impulse. I think our impulse is to find those patterns that lead us to something.
CPW: It’s interesting how important patterns are in science and also how Black people’s ability to identify patterns is constantly questioned. I will never get over how brazen this juxtaposition is. We know what it’s like to be Black in a white supremacist world and yet we are constantly gaslit about whether it means anything at all. Holding fast to our storytelling ability is therefore a form of resistance. Particle cosmology has been my North Star. It keeps me focused on what makes me human. To see past the struggle, to the possibility of joy.
AF: Absolutely, I hear you. Joy is a possibility we work toward. I think of that joy when I think about the way you thread your relationship with your mother. In epigraph, throughout the book and ending with a reverent letter to you mother, I can’t help but go back to your comfortability in juxtaposition (and sometimes your worry of its limitations). But the insistence of tenderness, especially for fiery Black women feels like a way of reclaiming our whole selves, and the grace to do that reclamation. What led you to end on a letter?
CPW: That letter has so many different impulses in it. The first one was that I wanted to thank my mother, and I wanted to do it in a big public way. It’s a long-winded way of saying, “You’re gonna remember her name.” I wanted to be clear that Margaret Prescod who feels that she is an idiot at math has made contributions to science, by being part of the community that shaped me as a scientist. I also wanted to experiment also with writing to her, and this was inspired by Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy, where he writes in the second person. And actually the letter started really differently in early drafts. Then one day I was thinking about how the Lagrangian is this fundamental tool in theoretical physics, and I hadn’t discussed it at all in the book. I wanted to try my hand at explaining it to my mom. And I feel it is very much in the spirit of my mom’s mission in the world, that by sharing it with her, it becomes a sharing to the whole community. We weren’t supposed to learn how to read or do math, and here I am, writing down Lagrangians. We’re allowed to write down big equations and understand them and dream with them. Making sure we actually get to is part of my freedom dream for Black folks—and everyone else too.