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Black scientist rethinks ‘black’ in dark matter


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

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

His book chapters – including “The Physics of Melanin”, “Blacks Are Luminous Matter” and “The Anti-Patriarchy Agender” – show his focus “at the intersection of astrophysics and human physics. particles “and at the intersection of physics and particle physics. Black feminist thought and anti-colonial theory.

His book is a tour of particles like quarks and leptons, as well as the axions in which Prescod-Weinstein specializes, but it also explores the various structural oppressions that affect who can study and discover them – and even who can name those discoveries.

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

Women and people of color, she notes, are routinely excluded from the history of science, despite their important role in the progress that white men are credited with. Prescod-Weinstein asks us to examine how science would be different if scientists came from more diverse backgrounds and if it incorporated Indigenous scientific knowledge and voices.

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

This conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.

CNN: Your book’s subtitle combines dark matter, space-time, and delayed dreams. How do these three things fit together for you?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I’m an expert on dark matter, and so of course dark matter – an invisible form of matter that we think makes up 80% of the universe – is going to be a big part of it. And dark matter exists in this larger context of space-time, and this is how Einstein’s theory of relativity forces us to think of space and time, as existing in relation to one with the other.

I also wanted to be honest that it would be part of the larger social context and not just the larger physical context. This larger social context is deferred dreams. It is both a commentary on social issues that I bring up in the book, but also a commentary on the need to raise social issues.

CNN: What do you mean?

Prescod-Weinstein: “Dreams deferred” refers to a suite of poems by Langston Hughes, about the experience of blacks under white supremacy in America and in all its facets, and that there are still limits to the way we live. One of the things that drew me to particle physics and particle physics as a career path when I was 10 was that it seemed so far removed from the issues my parents were facing.

When I was young, dreaming of particles, I never dreamed of writing a popular science book that also problematizes how science occurs. And yet, I do this work here.

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

Prescod-Weinstein: I had a political vocabulary which was perhaps a little unusual for a child who was interested in physics. My parents were both political organizers. I was raised by a black feminist thinker who also did black feminist organization. She spent a lot of time dealing with the problem of the criminalization of poverty in the United States. I also went on picket lines at times with my father, who was a union organizer and at one point a union leader. I saw a lot of bad things and I heard a lot of bad stories.

Particle physics just made it look like there was a universe out there, and there’s more to life than what’s messed up on our little planet. And it was really exciting – that maybe there was a way to get away from the bad things.

But it turned out that it wasn’t just my job to do the things in physics that turned me on, but to reflect on what I was doing in a larger social context and the impact of my work on the body. community as a whole.

The question that ultimately interests me is how can we have good relationships with each other and what role do scientists play in the types of relationships we have with each other? But also: what role can particle physics and cosmology play in promoting good relations?

CNN: You note that whites sometimes find the term ‘dark matter’ scary and disturbing, and that for terms like this and others, ‘a black feminist physicist working in the 1960s would never have used that language. “. How would these terms be different if scientists had been and are now a more diverse group?

Prescod-Weinstein: My biggest pet peeve around the phrase “dark matter” is that that’s not a good name for it, because it misrepresents the properties of the thing. It is not dark; it is in fact invisible.

Black scientist rethinks ‘black’ in dark matter
The problem with 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 zero black women with a doctorate in physics. So we have no idea. It would be another 40 years between when dark matter got its name around 1933, and when Willie Hobbs Moore received his doctorate in physics in 1972 from the University of Michigan; she was the first African American to earn a doctorate in physics.

But it’s an interesting question to ask, and I think it’s a question we need to ask ourselves, knowing that there will never be a clear, definitive answer. And at the same time, we have to tackle those alternative futures that have been excluded because of white supremacy, because of patriarchy.

CNN: Can you give an example of someone whose future in physics has been restricted due to white supremacy?

Prescod-Weinstein: Elmer Imes was the second African American to earn a doctorate in physics, which he did at the University of Michigan in 1918. His work as an experimenter actually played a very important role in providing evidence. of quantum mechanics. When you put the story of how quantum mechanics was accepted as a correct model of physical reality, Elmer Imes should be part of that story.
Black scientist rethinks ‘black’ in dark matter
The way physics students typically learn about the history of the field is through anecdotes their teachers have told them during class and through anecdotes that are littered throughout their textbooks. But black people have our own community historians, like Dr. Jami Valentine Miller, the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University. She leads African American women in physics and follows black women with doctorates. in physics and related fields. Many of these stories are transmitted through oral communication, although no one has had the opportunity to write them up for publication.

I think editors have a very big role to play here when they write their quantum mechanics textbooks. I think we’ve been waiting a long time for a black story in American physics.

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

Prescod-Weinstein: I speak in the book of meeting Nadya Mason, an incredibly accomplished condensed matter experimenter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is also a black woman. She shares my heritage: a non-Jewish black parent and a white Jewish parent. Meeting Nadya was extremely important to me, but we were both the kind of students who entered Harvard. This type of representation is particularly useful for a few elected officials. But if you have a situation where you live in a bubble of the chosen few, effectively the power relations are unchanged. Yes, it is important to see examples. But if these examples are exceptions, then you have a problem.
Black scientist rethinks ‘black’ in dark matter

I don’t want to undermine the meaning of my accomplishments because I know I have worked hard and overcome obstacles. I also know that as a fair-skinned woman who graduated from Harvard, I experienced less racism because of my appearance.

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

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

Prescod-Weinstein: It starts with a very simple question: How do you create the conditions for every child to have access to a dark night sky and the opportunity to sit and marvel below? This has very profound implications, as it requires thinking about public transport and how people access a dark night sky. It requires thinking about pollution and whether a dark night sky continues to be possible. And that has to do with thinking about patriarchy: making it safe to be under a darkening sky.

It’s about making sure parents don’t work 80 hours a week because their jobs aren’t earning them a living wage. It’s about making sure everyone has access to good health care, clean water, food, because it’s hard to just take advantage and wonder when you’re poisoned or when. we are hungry.

Black scientist rethinks ‘black’ in dark matter

At the end of the day, although I have pretty extensive critiques from the scientific community, deep down I’m still a scientist who is really passionate and excited that we can use mathematics to describe the universe. It’s such an amazing thing that it starts with learning to count as a toddler and ends with being able to describe to my students how gold is made in stellar explosions.

Each generation is responsible for doing the job of trying to push the boundaries further in freedom. Hope someone from the next generation can actually live my dream of enjoying getting to know the universe and telling its stories, without being distracted by racism, transphobia and other forms of oppression.

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