Black physicist rethinks the “dark” in dark matter

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When many children were running around playing tag or video games, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein thought about particle physics.

She fell in love with the discipline after her mother took her to see “A Brief History of Time,” Errol Morris’ 1991 documentary about the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. She was just 10 years old.

Almost 30 years later, she is the first black woman to hold a tenure-track faculty position as an assistant professor in theoretical cosmology at the University of New Hampshire. Prescod-Weinstein is one of the few core faculty members in the country for both physics and women’s and gender studies at a higher institution.

In her new book “The disordered cosmos: a journey into dark matter, space-time and postponed dreams“, Prescod-Weinstein invites the reader into the universe as she sees it – and as a self-proclaimed queer black agender, she sees it differently than many people.

Her book chapters – including “The Physics of Melanin”, “Black People Are Luminous Matter” and “The Anti-Patriarchy Agender” – show her focus “at the interface of astrophysics and particle physics” and at the interface between physics and black feminist thinking and anti-colonial theory.

Her book is a tour of particles like quarks and leptons, as well as the axions that Prescod-Weinstein specializes in, however it also examines the various structural suppressions that affect who is allowed to study and discover them – and even who can name those discoveries.

As examples, she cites terms such as WIMP – weakly interacting massive particles – and its relative MACHO or massive astrophysical compact halo objects. “You can tell that physicists love an acronym,” she wrote, “and that the physicists who invented WIMP and MACHO were almost certainly men.”

Women and people of color, she notes, become in spite of her important role in progress attributed to white men. Prescod-Weinstein urges us to think about how science would differ if scientists were out more diverse backgrounds, and if it incorporated indigenous scientific knowledge and voices.

We spoke to Prescod-Weinstein about their ideas and their hopes for future scientists.

This conversation has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.

CNN: The subtitle of your book combines dark matter, space-time and postponed dreams. How do these three things fit together for you?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I am an expert on dark matter, so of course dark matter – an invisible form of matter that we believe makes up 80% of the universe – is going to have a huge impact on it. And dark matter exists in this larger context of space-time, and so Einstein’s theory of relativity requires that we think of space and time as existing in relation to one another.

I also wanted to be honest that this would be part of the larger social context and not just the larger physical context. This larger social context is postponed dreams. This is both a comment on the social issues I raise in the book and a comment on needing to address the social issues.

CNN: How?

Prescod-Weinstein: “Dreams deferred” refers to a series of poems by Langston Hughes about the Black experience under white supremacy in America and in all its facetsand that there are still limits to how we live. When I was 10 years old, particle physics and particle physics appealed to me as a career path because I seemed so far removed from my parents’ problems.

As a young person I dreamed of particles, but it was never my dream to write a popular science book that also problematizes how science happens. And yet I do this work here.

CNN: Tell us more about your parents and how their work influenced you.

Prescod-Weinstein: I had a political vocabulary that might be a little unusual for a kid interested in physics. My parents were both political organizers. I was raised by a black feminist thinker who also runs black feminist organizations. She spent a lot of time studying the problem of the criminalization of poverty in the United States. I also picketed at times with my father, who was a union organizer and at times a union official. I’ve seen a lot of bad things and heard a lot of bad stories.

Particle physics just made it seem like there was a universe out there, and life isn’t all about what’s messed up on our little planet. And that was really exciting – that maybe there was a way to get away from the bad stuff.

But it turned out that it wasn’t just my job to do the things in physics that got me excited, but to think about what I was doing in a larger social context and how my work affected the larger community.

The question that ultimately interests me is how we can be in good relationships with one another and what role scientists play in which relationships. But also: What role can particle physics and cosmology play in promoting good relationships?

CNN: You find that whites sometimes find the term “dark matter” scary and ominous, and that for terms like this and others, “a black feminist physicist who worked in the 1960s would never have used that language.” How would such terms differ if scientists had been a more diverse group and were now?

Prescod-Weinstein: My biggest annoyance with the term “dark matter” is that it is not a good name for it because it misrepresents the properties of the thing. It’s not dark; it is actually invisible.

The thing about a question like yours is that it is speculative fiction. By the time dark matter got its name, there were almost no black men and literally no black women with PhDs in physics. So we have no idea. It would be another 40 years before dark matter got its name around 1933 and Willie Hobbs Moore received his doctorate in physics from the University of Michigan in 1972; she was the one first African American Mrs do a doctorate in physics.

But it’s an interesting question, and I think it’s one to ask, knowing there will never be a clear, definitive answer. And at the same time we have to deal with these alternative futures that have been sealed off because of white supremacy, because of patriarchy.

CNN: Can you give an example of someone whose future in physics has been constrained by white supremacy?

Prescod-Weinstein: Elmer Imes was the second African American to do a PhD in physics, which he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1918. His work as an experimenter actually played a really important part in providing evidence for quantum mechanics. If you locate the history of quantum mechanics as the correct model for physical reality, Elmer Imes should be part of that story.

Physics students usually learn the history of the subject through anecdotes their professors told them during class and through anecdotes scattered around their textbooks. But blacks have our own church historians, like Dr. Jami Valentine Miller, the first African American woman to graduate from Johns Hopkins University with a PhD in physics. she runs African American women in physics and persecutes black women who have PhDs in physics and related fields. Many of these stories are transmitted through oral communication, even when no one has the opportunity to write them down for publication.

I think publishers play a really big role here when they write their quantum mechanics textbooks. I think a black history in American physics is long overdue.

CNN: Would more physicists who look like you have made a difference in your path?

Prescod-Weinstein: I talk about the meeting in the book Nadya Mason, an incredibly accomplished condensed matter experimenter at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who is also a Black woman. She shares my inheritance: a black non-Jewish parent and a white Jewish parent. Meeting Nadya was incredibly important to me, but we were both the kind of students who came to Harvard. This type of representation is especially helpful for the chosen few. But when you have a situation where you live in a bubble of a chosen few, the balance of power is effectively unchanged. Yes, it is important to see examples. But if these examples are exceptions, then you have a problem.

I don’t want to undermine the importance of my accomplishments because I know I’ve worked hard and overcome barriers. I also know that as a fair-skinned woman with a Harvard degree, I experienced less racism because of how I looked.

I don’t believe that representation or diversity and inclusion necessarily lead us to a material change that actually changes these power relations. What we need is a different balance of power.

CNN: You talk about making the “night sky” accessible to all children. What does that mean for you?

Prescod-Weinstein: It starts with a very simple question: How do we create the conditions for every child Access to a dark night sky and the opportunity to sit underneath and marvel? It has very profound implications because that requires thinking about public transport and how people can access the dark night sky. It requires reflection about the pollution and whether a dark night sky is still possible. And it has to do with thinking about patriarchy: making it safe to be outside under a darkening sky.

It has to do with the fact that parents don’t work 80-hour weeks because their job doesn’t pay a living wage. It’s about making sure everyone has access to good health care, clean water, and food because it’s hard just to enjoy and wonder when you’re either poisoned or hungry.

At the end of the day, even though I have quite extensive criticism of the scientific community, I’m still a scientist at heart who is really passionate and excited about the fact that we can use math to describe the universe. It’s so incredible that it starts counting when you’re a toddler and ends up describing to my students how gold is made in star explosions.

Every generation has the task of pushing the boundaries further towards freedom. I hope that someone from the next generation can actually live my dream who enjoys getting to know the universe and telling its stories without being distracted by racism, transphobia and other forms of oppression.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Willie Hobbs Moore’s performance. She was the first African American woman to do a PhD in physics.



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