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”.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.