A black physicist rethinks the “dark” in dark matter

While many children were running around playing tag or video games, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein was thinking about particle physics.

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 both physics and women’s and gender studies departments at a higher institution.

In his new book, “The disordered cosmos: a journey through dark matter, space-time and delayed dreams“, Prescod-Weinstein invites readers into the universe as she sees it – and as a self-proclaimed queer black woman, she sees it differently from many people.

The chapters of his book – including “The Physics of Melanin”, “Black People Are Luminous Matter” and “The Anti-Patriarchy Agender” – show his attention “to the intersection of astrophysics and particle physics” and at the intersection of physics and 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 these discoveries.

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

Women and people of color, she notes, are systematically excluded from the history of science, despite their important role in progress that white men are credited with doing. Prescod-Weinstein asks us to consider how science would be different if scientists came from more diverse origins, and whether 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: The subtitle of your book mixes dark matter, space-time and delayed dreams. How do these three things intersect for you?

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

I also wanted to be honest that this was going to be part of the larger social context and not just the larger physical context. This larger social context is that of delayed dreams. It’s both a commentary on social issues that I bring up in the book, but also a commentary on having to bring up social issues.

CNN: What do you mean?

Prescod-Weinstein: “Dreams deferred” refers to a series of poems by Langston Hughes, on the The black experience 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 and dreamed of particles, I never dreamed of writing a book about popularization of science that also problematizes how science occurs. And yet, here I do this work.

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

Prescod-Weinstein: I had a political vocabulary that was perhaps a little unusual for a kid 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 sometimes went on picket lines 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 there, and life isn’t just 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 things.

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

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

CNN: You note that whites sometimes find the term ‘dark matter’ creepy 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 it’s not a good name for it, because it misrepresents the properties of the thing. It is not dark; it is in fact invisible.

The problem with a question like yours is that it’s speculative fiction. Back when dark matter got its name, there were almost no black men and literally zero black women with doctorates in physics. So we have no idea. Another 40 years would elapse between when dark matter received its name around 1933 and when Willie Hobbs Moore received his doctorate in physics in 1972 from the University of Michigan; she was there first african american women get a doctorate in physics.

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

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

Prescod-Weinstein: Elmer Imes was the second African American to get 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 for quantum mechanics. When you place the story of how quantum mechanics came to be accepted as the correct model of physical reality, Elmer Imes should be part of that story.

The way physics students typically learn about the history of the field is through stories their teachers tell them in class and through stories that dot 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 runs African American women in physics and followed 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 publishers have a very big role to play here when writing 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 who look like you have made a difference in your path?

Prescod-Weinstein: I speak in the book of the meeting Nadia mason, an incredibly accomplished condensed matter experimenter at the University of Illinois, 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 the elected few. 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.

I don’t want to downplay the importance 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 we create the conditions so that every child has access to a dark night sky and the ability to sit and marvel below? This has very profound implications, as it requires thinking about public transport and how people access the night sky. It requires thinking about pollution and whether dark night skies continue to be possible. And that has to do with thinking about patriarchy: making it safe to be outside under a darkening sky.

This is to ensure that parents do not work 80 hours a week because their jobs do not allow them to live. 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 some pretty thorough critiques from the scientific community, deep down I’m still a really passionate scientist who is excited about the fact that we can use mathematics to describe the universe. It’s such an amazing thing that it starts with learning to count when you’re 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 of freedom. I hope someone from the next generation can actually live out my dream of discovering 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 the accomplishment of Willie Hobbs Moore. She was the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in physics.


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