Public Thinker: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Looks to the Night Sky


My notes on The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, began on small paper squares that were about 10.5 x 10.5 cm. The paper squares allowed me to take fairly concise notes on key themes raised in the book; because of the size of the squares, I could reposition them as I read, which meant the themes were moveable and could change according to the time and place of my reading.

Partway through the book, I moved to lined three-ring paper, because the 10.5 x 10.5 cm thematic organization was stifling. I was losing my way. Thematic categorization—here is spacetime; here is melanin; here is Black feminism; here is, here are, phase(s); here is the one equation; here is diaspora and computing and song and nuclear physics and night sky—delimited the expansive intellectual work Prescod-Weinstein puts forth in this text. The lined three-ring paper offered more space; I was able to write out exact quotations at length and also write out ideas in my own words, mostly thinking about how to imagine the planet through curves and bendability.

Disordered Cosmos is a series of stories (cosmologies) and geometries and temperature variants and rapid expansions; these cosmologies, geometries, temperatures, and expansions are underpinned by racial-sexual violence, punitive evaluation metrics, the living memory of slavery, love, work. Particles, I think, hold everything together.

In her book, Prescod-Weinstein illuminated what I did not know and what I cannot know, and sharpened where I know from; she also showed me that the discipline of physics, and her work as a Black feminist physicist who studies quantum-gravity worlds, can forge meaningful interhuman and interecological and interstellar collaborations.

The kind of collaboration she offers is wide-ranging and painful and expressed through interdisciplinary promise. This is a book about how particle interactions are animated by the plantation. It is a book about how the racist contours of scientific knowledge provide the conditions that enable us to hold on to, and study, the liberatory inventions of Black scientists. It is a book that thinks about how wages and work and Blackness and identificatory politics and physics are entangled, and how this entanglement might, and can, reorient how we care for the planet and for each other. I am out of my depths.

In fall 2020, I had the chance to talk with Prescod-Weinstein about my book, Dear Science, and she gave me all kinds of space and time and energy so that I could share some of my ideas. I read Disordered Cosmos shortly afterward, and she agreed to continue our conversation—this time, with quarks and light dimensions and future-energy-distribution mechanisms, and the Blackness of it all, in mind.


Katherine McKittrick (KM): I would love to begin at the end of your book, because it ends in the same way that Dear Science ends—with a letter. I found this really powerful and courageous, and in some ways this ending tells us how to read, or reread, your book—and how to begin it again!

Can you talk about ending this project—or, at least, this iteration of your many research projects—with a letter to your mother?

 

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CPW): There are so many layers to why that letter is there and what it represents to me. Most superficially, I wanted to surprise my mom. Before it was too late to take it out of the book, I let her say “yes” or “no.” Still, she didn’t know about it until we were in the copyediting stage.

I felt that this was a big present I could give her. And, after nearly 40 years of guiding me in the world, she was owed a very big, very public “thank you.” It was also important to me to put on record what her contributions and sacrifices were, and to acknowledge that my scientific journey began with her. Her unwaged caring work has been scientific work, too.

There is also a bit of a story here: once, when I was in high school, she was on TV with Afeni Shakur. I was freaking out, because I was a big Tupac fan. And my mom tells me later, “Yes, I told Afeni that you want to be a theoretical physicist.” I was so embarrassed! I thought, Oh man, now Tupac’s mom thinks I’m a dork.

The idea for the letter was Tupac inspired. Also, I get now that probably my mom was just very proud to tell Afeni Shakur about her daughter. I shouldn’t have been embarrassed at all.

KM: I like this a lot, because it widens the context of the letter to also encompass friendships and dreams. The letter almost explodes outward.

This moment in the text also allowed me to think about how your presentation of physics, throughout the entire book, cannot be delinked from everyday human interactions. In the book, you write that “science and society co-construct one other.” But I think there is more going on here. Your life story is also imbricated with physics, and physics makes you who you are.

So, there is coconstitution at the level of society—nuclear physics, for example, reflects certain societal logics which, in turn, shape aspects of nuclear physics—but there is something more happening. You cannot tell this story without particles.

Can you talk more about how the stuff of physics animates other parts of your life: your commitment to resisting white supremacy, your close attention to unpaid labor, and other topics that are seemingly unrelated to physics?

 

CPW: I’m sure someone’s going to say, “I knew it!” But the truth is that I’m trying to synthesize all the ways through which I relate to the world. And that required figuring out how these different parts of my life—familial, intellectual, and political—could be put in conversation with each other.

My relationship with physics is everywhere in my life. I remember realizing, while I was taking my second quantum-mechanics class in undergrad, that I no longer looked at lights the same anymore. I guess a physicist might expect that my relationship with lights would have changed after I took Electromagnetism, which is the class where we first learn the science of light. But what changed everything was realizing that light is also a particle, and that every light source is emitting photons. I never saw the world the same after that.

So, of course, I’m also trying to figure out what it means to have your entire perception of the world altered by this understanding, one that is produced by a field that is so politically fraught. I also know that being dazzled by physics is what keeps me doing it and succeeding in it professionally, and, furthermore, I know that white supremacy likes to capitalize on people “making it”—i.e., succeeding in the field—like that.

So I’m constantly returning to this question: How do I resist that co-optation, while also holding on to this beautiful way of knowing the world?

KM: Can we talk about spacetime?! Please!?

This part of your research really excites me, because it momentarily touches on geography and concepts like time-space compression. Scholars including Neil Smith and Doreen Massey get us partway there: they study scale; they study space and time as speeding up, slowing down, and, thus, being deeply contextual. And in Black studies, this attention to fluctuating temporalities is also sharp, as seen in the work of Kara Keeling, Paul Gilroy, Richard Iton, and more. Black time is different; it is lagging and fast and bending.

Can you break down how spacetime might be Black time? Does “race” even have spacetime? Does embodied knowledge even matter to the spacetime of physics?

 

CPW: I recently heard someone say that spacetime was a white construct. My immediate response was that Black people work with spacetime, too. Black physicists are real!

I object to the idea that physics is a white thing, into which Black people are only being integrated. That idea situates Europe as the only place where rational, mathematical analysis of the physical world ever occurred, even as we know that this is not the case.

There is also a case to be made that Europe’s scientific success—at synthesizing what we now call “science” into a series of disciplines—actually occurred because colonialism made them information collectors. In that sense, the European peninsula of Asia was functioning for a long time as a clearinghouse for global knowledge, but one where they failed to cite original sources and didn’t acknowledge how many peoples contributed to what they knew.

 

KM: Yes! So spacetime is like a massive wavering net that is differentially expressed and experienced?

 

CPW: It’s important to distinguish between social time and physical time. What purpose are we asking a concept of “time” to serve?

Even in physics, different times matter in different scenarios. In the early universe, spacetime expanded faster than the speed of light, for such a small fraction of a second that you have to put almost 30 zeros after your decimal to write it out. Spacetime is still expanding now, and the rate of expansion is increasing, but it’s happening much more slowly, on a very different timescale, this time taking billions of years to have a visible impact. There are also repeating times that matter to us, like the Earth’s orbit around its star, the sun. And the sun’s orbit around the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

To me, this physical time is distinct from social time. Black people have died from COVID-19 much more quickly, on a shorter timescale, than white people typically have. That’s not because time flows differently for us, but because, as Monica Huerta recently put it to me, the power structures that organize our time treat us differently.

Importantly, one of the lessons of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that no observer is privileged relative to another observer: given the same equipment and circumstances, all measurements should be available to all of us. How do we feel and respond to what we observe, though? That’s beyond physics. Like Charlie Parker’s bebop, the way he used to swing—that’s a way of playing with sound in time.

KM: So, physical time is like a set of curvy extrahuman coordinates, and social time, tethered to the overlapping flows of colonialism and capitalism, is what shapes Black life and our attendant temporalities. In this way, Black time is not “authentically Black” (or essentially bound to a particular body or geography or whatever). Rather, it is experiential or, more interestingly, as with Parker, a creative expression.

This kind of insight around racial authenticity speaks to your work on the physics of melanin. You provide a really nuanced analysis that draws attention to the impossibility of race, as a naturalized category, without the obfuscations of racism and race thinking.

Has this part of your research shaped your ideas about mentorship? I feel like you are not only recasting race in/and science, but you are also teaching Black and Indigenous students how to understand race, within the context of science, anew.

 

CPW: I’m helping to lead a national particle-physics planning process right now called Snowmass. Within the topic I am coleading (Dark Matter: Cosmic Probes), I am probably, by this point, known for being the convener who tells everyone, “This is your chance to share your big dreams for the future of particle physics.”

In some sense, the chapter “The Physics of Melanin” is about freedom-dreaming and loving our skin and loving melanin, however much or little we have of it. When I am mentoring Black and Indigenous students, I want them to always feel rooted in love for their people and, therefore, for who they are, as well as for the powerful ancestral work that has made all of us possible.

 

KM: Yes! Because freedom dreams are tied to the work of building on existing practices of liberation and rebuilding our collective worlds. For Black scholars, the university is not just a place of ideas, but a practicing of these ideas.

Are you saying that what we know about particle physics, what we share with each other about dark matter, for example, can also lead to new conversations about belonging?

 

CPW: All of these conversations should always come back to filling in the gaps in what we know, the gaps we see when we look at the night sky and when we look at each other.

I can look at you and say that you are a collection of quarks and electrons. I am also a collection of quarks and electrons, arranged somewhat differently. When I look at the sky and enjoy it and wonder about it, I am doing something my ancestors did. We can imagine knowing these pieces of information as adding to our practices of being present, with both the living and the ancestors.

KM: This is beautiful. It tethers specificity, and collections of quarks and neutrons, to a very generous sense of place.

So there is a connection—rather than a disjuncture—between materiality and possibility. As I was reading Disordered Cosmos, I noticed many references to “rules” within physics, mathematics, and related fields.

And yet, in your book you talk a lot about how data and numbers, the stretches of time or the graininess of stars, are sites of measured possibility. Rules are spun, rethought, reimagined. Gravity is revised. Can you talk about the tension between rules and breaking rules?

 

CPW: Physics has a bunch of really important rules that are absolutely correct, until it turns out they aren’t correct. It’s very exciting! You never know what’s next.

Physicists are naturally conservative when it comes to big ideas. We’re skeptical. I’m like that, too. We’re always saying, “Convince me that your new idea actually does the job better than the older ones.” But also, people get very excited by ideas that seem to do the work well.

Strangely, though, physicists have a hard time identifying the social rules they’ve put in place, as well as the fact that those rules are maybe unnecessary or don’t have a good foundation.

 

KM: This reminds me of what you said about physical time and social time. Or am I way off?

 

CPW: No, you’re not. A great example here is the debate about the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. Some cultural-knowledge holders and other Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) don’t want another telescope on the Mauna. Other people, who are advocates for a certain kind of economic development in Hawaii, want it. And astronomers (almost none of whom are Indigenous), of course, are pushing to start building now.

The question this always raises for me is—and Kanaka political scientist Uahikea Maile has articulated this in his writing, too—why are we operating on colonial time? The cosmos is expanding, yes. The expansion is accelerating, yes. But if the telescope gets built in 30 years, we’ll see mostly the same sky, except with different supernovae.

People talk about building the telescope with an urgency that is entirely social and economic, not physical. And that means astronomers get invested in this way of thinking because their careers are attached to this project going forward, and if that means benefiting from colonialism, then, “oh well.” Or they spend a lot of time convincing themselves that “it’s fine,” that they are helping Hawaiians. It’s really condescending.

KM: My big question is this. Does particle interaction produce visibility?!

 

CPW: I love this question because the answer is yes, sometimes it does. If we define visibility as producing photons—light—then certain interactions produce light.

Take, for example, the hypothetical dark-matter particle I work on, the axion! We think that if an axion flies through a magnetic field it will decay into two photons, which is a way of producing visibility.

Generally speaking, particle-physics experiments are always looking for interactions that are “detectable.” We can build a detector that will be able to see the expected end products of the interaction. As an example: maybe we start with neutrino antimatter and a proton (which is made of quarks); we let them interact; and, on the other end, we get a positron (electron antimatter) and neutron (which is made of slightly different quarks). If you throw an electron into this mix, the electron and the positron will destroy themselves and leave gamma rays (very high-energy photons) behind.

What I’m describing is inverse beta decay and the way neutrinos were first proven to exist, in the Cowan-Reines neutrino experiment. Essentially, the gamma rays were a visible signature that the antineutrino had been there.

 

KM: For me, this is an exciting and new understanding of light and visibility. I immediately think about Simone Browne’s groundbreaking research on lantern laws, which were instituted to see—and track—Black people at night in 18th-century New York City.

But, I also have to pause, because in a way I am translating both Browne’s work and what you have shared. The conceptual leap might be too fast: the axion moving through the field is not the same as a Black person moving about at night!

This is a long way of asking: What are your thoughts on scientific terms being used as metaphors, or concepts, that complement or support social theory?

 

CPW: Browne’s work on surveillance and how Black people were unconstructed as people, or constructed away from humanness, is incredibly important. And I interpret her title, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, to mean “matters related to being dark in a white-supremacist world.” I see it as a play on words, but not necessarily a metaphor for the cosmological or particle-physics concept of dark matter. The plural changes it for me, because we would never pluralize the physics concept of “dark matter” in that way.

KM: Yes, and Browne talks about dark matter, but then she moves to and through dark matters—the plural—to invoke incidents and episodes, rather than mass and volume.

 

CPW: More broadly (and this comment isn’t at all about Browne’s work): when it comes to using metaphors or concepts from physics to develop social theory, I want people to move with caution regarding what work their metaphor does, particularly on Black scientists.

I’ve experienced a profound feeling of frustration as I’ve watched Black scholars talk about Blackness and physics without reference to the existence of Black physicists. Or when they articulate their project as a reclamation or appropriation of physics away from whiteness, even while, in a sense, reifying whiteness by only referencing and acknowledging white scientists in the process. With regularity, those white scientists are people who have been actively harmful to Black scientists.

When it comes to dark matter in particular, I’ve found that people who are invested in these metaphors between Black people and dark matter are actually invoking what I feel is a bad physical definition of dark matter. This definition understands the “dark” in dark matter as a reference to color. But actually, in physics, “dark matter” is just a not very good name for what should be understood as “invisible matter” or “clear matter.” Sadly, this means people are walking away from these metaphors with a misunderstanding of what is genuinely fascinating physics.

Here, maybe, there is a discursive disagreement between me and others, because they might say, “Well, Black people are often invisible.” Yes, but not physically so. And the rendering of invisibility is an active social process that has no parallel in physics: nothing is causing dark matter to be invisible. That is simply its nature.

Black people are not fundamentally invisible. That is not our nature.

There are two ways of reading Black invisibility; one of them is futuristic and one is not. I am a futurist in the end.

Here is an example of this social invisibility in physics that I discuss in the book: a few years ago, some colleagues I’m very fond of wrote a paper where they did a thought experiment that invoked a hypothetical “dark scientist.” I had to email them and say, “Hey, dark scientists are real, not imaginary!” They changed it immediately. Black people were readily rendered visible to them by my email. By contrast, if we are ever able to detect and see dark matter, it will be because of careful collective work, not because of who or what we carelessly forget.

KM: This gets at the complexity of Black life, which moves between being disregarded (the dehumanizing process of invisibilization) and grappling with one’s existence, or one’s Black livingness (Black creative-existential-physiological-ontological presence). Much of this movement is done under the non-Black gaze. The careless forgetting, the violence that racial difference incites, the clumsy metaphorization: all of this really signals the weight of symbolism and how it expresses a much more monumental history—one that is, as Toni Morrison reminds us in her brilliant book Playing in the Dark, tied to our plantation histories.

 

CPW: Sometimes white scientists see this metaphor in use and run with it in ways that are harmful, including the situating of Black people as an ontological, physical Other. They feel justified because, they say, “Well, I heard a Black artist say this.” Of course, Black people are not a monolith, but this is how I see it as a Black dark-matter expert. I want people to be careful about how their metaphor moves in the world. How does it serve Black people who are interested in science, both laypeople and scientists?

 

KM: You have really opened an interdisciplinary door for me, one that challenges me to think more capaciously about collaboration and also to pay attention to writing practices that are open.

Your book was difficult for me to read! But it was also very welcoming, so what I did not know and what I do not know did not prevent me from continuing to read, take notes, learn, and also sit with concepts that I could not quite understand. These deep quantum theories are explained in ways that are, for someone outside your field, both opaque and generous. The reordering of spacetime is shaped by dreams and carbon-based life forms and stories of incredible hopefulness that are tied to the living memory of slavery.

Can you talk about your writing practice as an interdisciplinary practice?

 

CPW: I love the suggestion that I have an actual writing practice. I’m very oriented toward the question, “What has to get written right now because I’ve got a deadline?” And I just switch into that mode as necessary. I am realizing more and more how that’s been limiting for me in a certain way. It’s been three years since I wrote any fiction, and I think that’s what happens when you don’t have a writing practice—things get left behind that shouldn’t be.

I will say that my writing is very tied to my reading. I write a lot in the margins of the nonfiction books I am reading, and book margins is where I do a lot of my idea drafting. I have also benefited enormously as a scientist from the science, technology, and society writing and the social-commentary writing that I’ve done.

I think writing grants is easier for me than for others. That doesn’t mean I’m more successful! But I think I suffer less during the process. Or perhaps more, because I am more attuned to the details of each sentence? Hmmm.

KM: I appreciate this. I love producing and reading marginalia. It is a way to identify all sorts of curiosities.

I wonder, too, about the connections you make between fiction and nonfiction and deadlines, because I have to ask if anything is, really, left behind. Does the work in the marginalia shape creative possibilities? Does your nonfiction work get expressed, somehow, in your fiction? I would think, yes, it has to, there are traces …

 

CPW: The best short story I produced is about two X-ray astronomers who are looking for signals of dark matter interacting with neutron stars. Okay, I say “best,” but the one time I submitted it somewhere, it got rejected (with helpful feedback).

I’m going to keep pecking at it, because I do think it captures something that I haven’t communicated elsewhere in my writing about the relationships we have with each other. Certainly, it also captures a moment in my training as a scientist, and I wonder, if I hadn’t written it when I did, whether I’d remember those feelings. So much of being in academia is hard, and there’s a lot about the experience of being a postdoctoral fellow that I’d like to forget.

 

KM: For me, Disordered Cosmos wades carefully through what should be forgotten. It pairs the brutality of the academic world with a more monumental story about collaboration and possibility. It allowed me to un-forget—and here I am thinking about relational violences, not just the stories that you tell, but those that I, we, have experienced—without dwelling on unkindness or letting harm envelope us.

 

CPW: I worried a bit about this, that in the book I wasn’t saying enough about how awful things are. But I also didn’t want the book to be #BlackandSTEM tragedy porn. I think that’s what some publishers that I turned down wanted it to be. I also figured that people ask me enough about that stuff in other public forums, so that my thoughts on the topic will be recorded in other ways. I don’t want to have to make my book about that, too.

There is of course something valuable about recording reality as it really is. But, in the end, my book is not meant to be a snapshot of a moment in time or of a life in science.

I see it instead as one iteration of Black scientist freedom dreaming. I am saying enough to give people an overview of what I have had to live through. But ultimately, I am thinking bigger than (and here I’m paraphrasing my mom’s quote in the epigraph) the horrible things that are happening to us.

Also, I’m not at that place mentally anymore, that place where I just want to grieve. There is a place for that, and a lot of the writing that I did, which helped me get to the point of even having the opportunity to get paid to write a book, did that grieving. Now I want, as Mother Jones said, to fight like hell for the living, and for the future living, too.

 

KM: What are you listening to now?

 

CPW: Sampa the Great’s “Final Form” is regularly on repeat in my office. When she sings, “Great state I’m in / in all states I’m in / I might final form / in my melanin,” it feels like a Black-girl-physicist theme song. Because, in quantum mechanics, we are often concerned with the initial and final states of a system. It’s like she’s saying, “Being Black is a great final state for your spirit to land in.”

 

This article was commissioned by Ben Platticon

Featured-image photograph courtesy of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein



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