​​“Articulating scientific questions is social,” Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein writes in The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, a fascinating and hard-to-classify book that blends clear and cogent writing about the science of theoretical physics with piercing critiques of the cultures in which that science occurs. In her work as a theoretical physicist, Prescod-Weinstein articulates scientific questions about dark matter and space-time, as well as social ones about who gets to do physics and the power relations involved in how it’s done. In The Disordered Cosmos, Prescod-Weinstein brings these scientific and social questions together. Informed by Black feminism, she moves from discussions of quarks and leptons to explanations of the roots and history of patriarchy, from hidden figures to the insights of observational astronomy.

One of the few Black women in her field, Prescod-Weinstein has had a remarkable career. Originally from East Los Angeles, she is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, where she is also core faculty in women’s and gender studies. She has held research positions at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics & Space Research and the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT, as well as a postdoctoral fellowship at the Observational Cosmology Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. For a time, she was editor-in-chief at the online experimental literary magazine The Offing.

She brings this varied and multifaceted background to bear on The Disordered Cosmos, which is part science book, part personal narrative, part cultural critique. But this work is more than the sum of its parts. The Disordered Cosmos calls on us to consider the harmful power relations far too many of us are far too willing to accept, and — through its probing inquiries into who gets to ask scientific questions and do scientific work — offers a compelling vision of a more expansive and inclusive universe. Early in the book she offers two big dreams for Black children: “to know and experience Blackness as beauty and power” and “to know and experience curiosity about the night sky, to know it belonged to their ancestors.” She writes, “That, too, is freedom.”

Chanda and I talked over Zoom in early June about dark matter, the season of Star Trek that’s “queer as fuck,” and why it’s important to be aware of whom you’re writing “not just for but to.”

Lacy. M Johnson for Guernica

Guernica: The Disordered Cosmos is very much about the insights you have gained from your work as a cosmologist. Perhaps we could begin by talking a little about what that work means and what you do?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I spend a lot of my time, when I’m not doing bureaucratic stuff, thinking about dark matter, and how we solve the dark matter problem, which is that 80 percent of the matter in the universe is invisible stuff that light goes right through that we can’t see. This is a “problem” because we don’t know what that matter is, we don’t know what particle it is, so we also don’t know things like what its mass and quantum spin are. We have ideas about where it is in the galaxy, but we’re not even 100 percent sure about that, so where and how to locate it is also something that I think about.

Guernica: In the book, you explain how dark matter is a misnomer because it isn’t dark, it’s invisible. But it’s also still theoretical and hypothetical, though some scientists like Vera Rubin have found evidence for it. Would you explain what form this evidence takes? If we can’t observe invisible matter, how do we know it exists?

Prescod-Weinstein: Essentially, the gist of the first substantive evidence was — and this is Vera Rubin, along with Kent Ford, because the papers were co-authored — if the only matter that’s in a galaxy is the luminous matter, then the stars [would] orbit the galaxy […] in a certain way.

But what they observed is that the stars were moving as if there was a lot more matter in the galaxy than what was luminous. That suggested that there was a bunch of matter in the galaxy that we couldn’t see. That was the first set of data where people were like, “Oh, this is a real problem.”

That’s actually no longer our strongest piece of evidence for dark matter, but that was the first substantive piece of evidence that convinced people that this was a problem that needed to be pursued.

Guernica: What’s the newer evidence?

Prescod-Weinstein: We have a plethora of data at this point. One [example] that I discuss in the book is how gravitational lensing is far less likely to occur if there’s no dark matter. Gravitational lensing occurs when there is something that is so massive between us and something that we’re observing that it causes space-time to bend and behave like a funhouse mirror. This means that what I see is multiple images, for example, that are distortions of that distant galaxy. The distribution of dark matter will, in some ways, govern how those distortions appear to us.

But the strongest piece of evidence we have is from something called the cosmic microwave background radiation. This is light that has been streaming through the universe since the universe was about 400,000 years old.

To give a sense of scale, the universe is about 14 billion years old. So the cosmic microwave background radiation is basically from when the universe was pooping in its diaper. For a while, the universe was opaque to light because it was so dense that a photon, a particle of light, couldn’t travel very far without running into something. At about 400,000 years, the universe becomes transparent to light, and the light starts flying freely through space-time. The way that the energy is distributed in the light has imprints on it of the structure of the universe at that point in time. We have pretty good theories that can calculate exactly what that energy distribution should look like. To make the data match our theory, you have to put dark matter into the equation. It’s really one of the most beautiful matches between a model and data that you will see anywhere in physics; the error bars are tiny, and the lines line up perfectly.

Guernica: In one of my favorite sections of the book, you describe a moment when you got to meet Dr. Rubin, who asked you, a graduate student, how the dark matter problem could be solved, and perhaps that’s part of what gave you permission to begin dedicating yourself to the work you do now. It seems to me that, with this book, you are doing that same work for other people, extending out a hand to your readers and inviting them to engage in these questions with you.

Prescod-Weinstein: Dr. Rubin modeled a particular approach to engaging with people, and I hope that I am reproducing that behavior, because I think it was a good one, and modeling it for others. Even though she passed away a few years ago, that’s one of the ways that we keep her imprint on the field alive. There was not just […] the scientific data that she collected, and [the fact that] she continued to work on a daily basis in her eighties, but there’s also her style of doing science. Part of what the book is about is our style of doing science. Who are we as scientists to each other? What kinds of relations are we in with each other?

I think it was so important at the moment, when I saw her modeling that for me, because it reminded me that it was actually okay to be like that. I don’t think that I had a lot of examples of big-name people I had been around who had set that example of being open and welcoming. Not just open in sharing your ideas, but open to other people. I feel responsible, as someone who benefited from that, to keep it going.

Guernica: You explain the science so clearly and expertly, and also write beautifully about how it intersects with your life. At the same time, I’ve been surprised and maybe a little annoyed to see your book called a memoir, because I think some people will call anything a memoir if it’s written by a woman who talks even a little bit about her life. How do you think about your book and what it aims to do?

Prescod-Weinstein: It’s funny that you asked me this question today in particular because I’m reading Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli, which is a book about quantum mechanics. With no hesitation, that’s how I would describe it: it’s a book about quantum mechanics. It also contains these really troubling stories about Schrödinger, who apparently got multiple students pregnant. Rovelli casually mentions that Schrödinger had a — I can’t remember exactly how he says it, but it’s something like “an unusual interest in pre-teenage girls,” which is new information for me. Literally, 90 percent of the work that I do right now is using the nonlinear Schrödinger-Poisson equation.

What’s interesting to me is that, ostensibly, this is a book that’s supposed to teach the public about quantum mechanics, but I kept going over that one particular part about Schrödinger, and I’m like, “Why did that need to be there?” I don’t want him to hide this truth about Schrödinger, but also I don’t actually think that he gives an honest assessment of the implications of this. He just drops it there and then continues, like, “Okay, well that’s just a weird fact about him, back to the physics.”

That’s in part one, and then in part two, he begins with his own journey of why he chose to be a physics major at the University of Bologna. What’s interesting to me about this is nobody’s going to write about Rovelli’s book and call it a memoir unless that’s what I decide to say in my review. Nobody’s going to call it a biography of Schrödinger. I might say it’s a biography of quantum mechanics, but nobody’s going to say it’s a biography of a person, nobody’s going to say it’s a memoir, nobody’s going to say it’s an autobiography, none of that.

Guernica: So you think there’s some bias there?

Prescod-Weinstein: What I’m saying is that what makes my book different as a science book is that it’s in part for people who don’t always read science books, and who maybe felt like science books were not written to them or for them. In that way, it’s heavily influenced by Kiese Laymon, because he has talked a lot about being aware of who you’re writing to. For me, there’s this very clear direction of thinking about who I am writing to — not just for but to. I wrote to an audience that was maybe picking up a science book for the first time and was going to draw unexpected connections between what I had written and the things that they usually read, and if what they usually read is memoir, I can see how they might make that connection.

At the same time, Bryan Keating’s book was a memoir of how he didn’t get the Nobel Prize, and it got categorized as “Science Methods” by the Library of Congress, whereas my book was initially categorized as “African American biography.”

Guernica: That moment just now, when you were talking about Schrödinger and separating him from his equation, is something that you do often in this book — explain the brilliant ideas that are foundational to physics and simultaneously critique the people who came up with those ideas. Could you talk a bit more about that? Because I think it’s relevant to the ongoing conversation about what we should do with the work of terrible people.

Prescod-Weinstein: It depends on the situation — not for the reasons that rape culture apologists usually say it, but because sometimes it’s easier to navigate than other times. I don’t know if you’ve been catching any of this on social media, but there’s been this whole discussion about Geoff Marcy, who seemed likely to win the Nobel Prize in Physics at some point for his contributions to work on exoplanets — which is the study of planets that are not in our solar system — because he is, in many ways, responsible for the field’s existence. But he was recently found responsible in a Title IX investigation for various forms of sexual misconduct.

Last week, it was announced that he was kicked out of the National Academies of Science, which was a really big deal. The same week, one of his former PhD students, who’s now a full professor at Caltech, published a paper with him as a co-author, which has created a huge drama in the astronomy community. The former graduate student, who was the lead author on the paper, tweeted an explanation of why Marcy was given co-authorship. There’s no mystery about what the reasoning was, and the reasoning was just that “this was a guy who collected some of the data, so we decided to include everyone.” I think this is a clear case: the dude did not need to be made a co-author. This is an easy one.

But Schrödinger, I don’t know. His name is in every quantum mechanics textbook. Literally, anyone with a physics degree has been trained to identify certain things as the Schrödinger equation. That’s a much harder thing for me. Do we try to subtract his name out of our vocabulary? Maybe there’s a case for doing that, but if I’m the only person who decides to stop using his name when identifying the equation, it becomes a communication problem because nobody has any clue what I’m saying.

That has to be something that the community makes a decision on, and it requires a community to organize around. It will require some problem-solving of, actually, what word do we use in its place, if that was a decision that we were going to make. That, in my view, is actually not as easy of a problem to solve.

Guernica: Do you feel like the utility and the usefulness of the equation can be separated from the person who discovered it?

Prescod-Weinstein: This is very tricky, and gets into really interesting territory. Often feminist philosophers of science treat physics as what they call an “epistemic exception” because the laws of physics are true. They’re universally true; it doesn’t matter who the observer is. The law of gravity is not different because you’re white and I’m not. The law of gravity progresses the same. I think that, therefore, the laws of physics can’t belong to one person or one group of people.

Guernica: There’s a part of the book where you talk about this — the difference between physics, the laws of which don’t contain judgement or bias, and physicists, who sometimes do. I’d like to ask you about that section, specifically about the chapter “Rape Is Part of This Scientific Story.” Do you feel okay talking about that chapter?

Prescod-Weinstein: Yes.

Guernica: I know, from corresponding with you a little while you were working on the book, that you were hesitant to include this chapter. I’m really grateful that you did. Would you talk about how you made that decision and why you felt it was important?

Prescod-Weinstein: My life as a scientist requires navigating the presence of the man who raped me. Sometimes it’s just in my head, the moments that I get triggered, but it also arises in other ways. One of the reasons that I included the chapter was my reckoning with the fact that that happens to other people too. Survivors of other types of sexual violence told me that it could have been useful to them to see something like this chapter. It is also the case that, when I talked to you about it, I was, like, “I’ve written this thing. I don’t even know what to do with it.” It was not planned to be part of the book. It just came out. But one of the things that you said to me was that it gave me some control over my story because I was the one telling my story on my terms.

That has really stayed with me through the entire process of publication. Ultimately, I told my story and I didn’t do it in a vindictive way. I didn’t name him either. Although not naming him is complicated. There is always this element that if you name names, or you seem like you’re going to name names, that people always assume that you’re doing it because you want to be vindictive. That’s the very, very public narrative. And I’m not interested in carceral responses. I don’t want to punish him, and it’s not like everyone would believe me if I did name him. What I do want is for him to choose to take responsibility and transform the experiences of the people he has harmed. But he refuses, and that’s incredibly hard on me.

Not naming him to people who are organizing events means I have to say no to stuff because he’s going to be involved, and psychologically I need to not be associated with him or activities involving him. I know that if I name him to people in a way that spreads publicly, people who have power over me professionally will debate my integrity and even my sanity. He still has power over me professionally, too, and has access to substantial fiscal resources that I don’t. Also, the junior researchers in my group depend on my reputation. I worry my letters of recommendation for them, my grant applications, and my peer review submissions could be improperly assessed — not on their merits, but instead based on a perception that I lied to get some guy in trouble. My scientific contributions would be devalued.

I wish I could do more to transform the circumstances of the situation. There has been this debate recently about Lady Gaga, who as a victim of a rape said that she was not comfortable with naming the perpetrator. People are blaming her, like, “Well, if that person rapes somebody else, it’s her fault.” It’s the fault of the rapist. It’s always the fault of the rapist. That’s all stuff that I’m still navigating with this chapter being out in the world. I think on some level, when I was talking earlier about who we’re writing to, maybe I’m partly writing to that person and saying there is still time for him to take responsibility and — as you wrote in The Reckonings The Reckonings to live his life in service of other people’s joy.

When I read that line in your book, it gave me more peace with the situation, even though I continue to struggle with the professional and psychological repercussions associated with avoiding him. Not because it made everything go away, but because I was like, “I have a thing that I can direct my energies toward, a thing that I want from the situation now that’s clear and feels wholesome.” I want him to stop taking up space and make room for my joy.

Guernica: I’m so glad that line spoke to you. And speaking of your joy, I want to ask you about Star Trek, because it seems like you really love it, and I’m hoping you might talk about what it is that you love about that alternate hypothetical future?

Prescod-Weinstein: Star Trek’s very imperfect. There are all these authoritarian things that they haven’t worked out. There are also no gay people until “Discovery.” But it is also hopeful, and it pushes the boundary, and it reflects to us who we are and says we can do better. And even if its vision of what better means is limited in certain ways, it poses questions to us: What would you imagine? What is your future, where we are in better relations with each other, where we endeavor to be in good relations with each other — where that is a central value?

For all of the problems of the Federation and its maybe authoritarian impulses, we can at least say that on some level, the Federation’s central value is being in good relations with [those] who we know and with those we do not yet know. The world would be such a better place if that was a core operating principle for us here in the United States.

Guernica: Which series do you think best embodies the best parts of Star Trek?

Prescod-Weinstein: I think “Deep Space Nine” is probably the most powerful series. People love to hate on “Enterprise,” but I actually think that “Enterprise” has some really good plot points. I think that season three of “Discovery,” which has Star Trek’s first Black woman lead in Sonequa Martin-Green, was maybe the single best season of Star Trek that has ever been made, because it is a love note to Black life, to queer life, to chosen family. It’s queer as fuck. I have to [call out] the significance of Wilson Cruz […] I think I was, like, twelve or thirteen when My So-Called Life came out. He was the first queer person of color I saw in television. I think one of the reasons that that show got canceled was actually because they were like, “Yes, and we’re going to celebrate this brown gay teenager.” Wilson really did something with that character. I also suspect that he was made to suffer in his career because he was openly gay.

In season three of “Discovery,” as Dr. Culber, Wilson Cruz stewards the next generation of queerness on television. For older millennials like me, and also Gen-Xers, we have seen the arc of what is possible in representation on television through him. Seeing him now, he’s out, he’s proud, he’s brown. He stands tall with confidence. He’s confident in his words. He’s confident in the queer family-building he’s doing and in the mentoring that he’s doing with this young genderqueer and trans character. And that season ended up airing in a moment when we needed a love note to Black people and to queerness.

Guernica: Finally, there’s a moment in the book where you describe the work you do as an act of faith. Will you say a little bit more about what you mean by that?

Prescod-Weinstein: Yes, because, look, I’m one part of the universe that is trying to figure out another part of the universe. As far as I know, there is no universal law that says that it should ever be figure-out-able. It could be that I devote my entire life to working out what dark matter is, but there’s no rule that says it has to get worked out on the timescale of my lifetime. It might get solved in 200 years, long after I am dead.

But also, in the epigraph of the book, I quote my mother, who once told me that people need to know that the universe is bigger than the terrible things that are happening to us. As far back as we can go in recorded history, every community on the planet has told stories about the sky and about where we come from, and why we are here. To the extent that anything I do has some pure intention — which is a very fraught comment to make — I’m working in that vein that this is part of who we are, and what I do is helping us to hold on to part of what makes us who we are as a species, and, therefore, part of our humanity.

Lacy M. Johnson

Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, and activist. She is the author of the essay collection The Reckonings (Scribner, 2018), the widely acclaimed memoir The Other Side (Tin House, 2014), and Trespasses (University of Iowa Press, 2012). Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, Guernica, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University and is the founding director of the Houston Flood Museum.

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