This month, I interviewed Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on the intersections of black intellectual history and STEM. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical astrophysicist specializing in early universe cosmology. She is the 63rd black woman in the United States to earn a PhD in Physics. She is currently a Research Associate in Physics at the University of Washington, Seattle and the editor-in-chief of The Offing, an online literary magazine.
Greg Childs (GC): What were some of the formative texts or life moments that helped you decide to pursue STEM research?
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CPW): When I was ten, my mom took me to see the Errol Morris documentary, “A Brief History of Time,” which was about the great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his ideas about the universe. I hadn’t wanted to see the film because I thought documentaries were stupid, but half way through, Hawking was talking about black hole singularities and how we don’t really understand the physics at that point in spacetime. My mind was blown by two things: there were things Einstein hadn’t figured out, and you could get paid to worry about things Einstein hadn’t figured out! I was sold. I came out of the theater begging my mom to buy Hawking’s book of the same title, but she was worried it would be too hard and discouraged me. Her brother, my Uncle Peter, bought it for me as an 11th birthday gift a few months later. After that, I looked Stephen Hawking up and emailed him to ask how to become a theoretical physicist. One of his grad students responded. Here I am 23 years later doing theoretical physics.
GC: You engage with a broad range of important black thinkers and creators in your writings, from Sojourner Truth to C.L.R. James to Prince. How has your engagement with African-American history and philosophy impacted the way you theorize about the universe or lecture on astrophysics?
CPW: Long before I even knew what physics was, the history of the African diaspora had been knitted into me through my family, my name, and conscious education. This necessarily means that I have never considered doing physics or being a physicist separately from the unfolding story of Blackness.
My mother, Margaret Prescod, is probably the most influential thinker in my life. She emigrated from Christ Church, Barbados to New York City in the early 60s and came of age organizing, first as a student, and then as a teacher and Black Panther breakfast volunteer in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. This meant she was running with Black feminists like Wilmette Brown, who was friends with feminist organizer Selma James, the wife of Afro-Trinidadian Pan-Africanist C.L.R. James (who is known as Nello to family). My mom fell in love with Selma’s son/Nello’s step-son, and I am what’s left of that marriage!
When I was born, Selma (who is a white Jew) insisted that I be named after Sojourner Truth, so I carry Sojourner as one of my given names. I think Selma intended the name to be a reminder of the political path I was meant to be on, but I suspect my mother was mindful that for Black women, as Audre Lorde said, “survival is the greatest gift of love.” Sojourner, both the name and the person, has been a tremendous source of strength and inspiration for me.
My childhood was full of conversations between Selma, my mother, Wilmette, my father, and many others that I couldn’t make heads or tails of at the time. But later my memories of them became salient when I decided to start reading Nello’s and Selma’s mid-20th century writing about sex, race, class, colonialism, and West Indian history.
For example, I decided to write about the Haitian Revolution for a college course on the French Revolution, using The Black Jacobins as the basis for my work. At the time, I didn’t really have much of an appreciation for Nello’s stature in the academic community. To me, he was the grandfather who talked art with me (we shared a love of Picasso), had been the reason why my father grew up mostly outside of the US (Nello was deported in the early 1950s), and had died when I was seven.
I had taken the course because I was an amateur history nerd who had a particular interest in European enlightenment-era history. But I was also a Black student in physics at a predominantly white institution, which meant I was trying to engage the material while experiencing unsettling experience after unsettling experience, from “you don’t look like a physics major” to being told that I didn’t belong in the Black community because of my Caribbean roots. Reading The Black Jacobins established an important connection between my American birth and childhood steeped in Black American history, my interest in European idea production, and my West Indian heritage.
GC: In your essay “Women in Astronomy: At the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality,” you argue that efforts to treat race, class, and gender as separate analytical categories is “akin to suggesting that an inseparable differential equation can be magically transformed into a separable one. It’s complete nonsense, it has no place among scientists.” These lines suggest that scientists should not only take “intersectionality” serious because it is the right thing to do but because there is a scientific rationale for doing so. I find this very intriguing and am wondering if you care to elaborate on this?
CPW: I think there are a couple of ways that this analogy works. One is that in theoretical physics, the Holy Grail is to find quantum gravity, in effect, the theory that is the intersection of gravitational physics (Einstein’s General Relativity) with quantum mechanics. It is very clear that we intuitively believe in the ultimate and critical importance of a holistic perspective, which in some basic sense is what intersectionality calls for. It is also well understood in physics that different physical effects come into play at different energy scales — that is, the features of a system can determine which physics has to be taken into account, and because the rules of the game change as we shift the energy scales. At high energies, we can’t ignore virtual photon exchanges because they are a salient feature of the system. Similarly for Black women, their Blackness is a salient feature of their social existence.
But in a more basic way, scientists are supposedly driven by the data. If we know that Black people have had a different historical experience and social positioning in this country from white people, is it not immediately obvious that the evolution of Black women’s positioning is necessarily different from white women’s? To miss this fundamental deduction is to be guilty of assessing the data using a faulty prior: assuming that there is no need to differentiate between white women and Black women, that racialization is not a feature of our experiences. This faulty prior is crucial to maintaining a white supremacist society, of course. White physicists and astronomers regularly tell me that they don’t see why their race matters. They sound ridiculous, but it’s not surprising either.
Taking the scientific method seriously, one hopes that scientists would be particularly concerned about exactly these kinds of biases. But generally speaking, they aren’t inherently skeptical of how their social positioning affects their analyses of their environment.
Looping back to uses of physics in relation to intersectionality, I’ve noticed that there is a trend to use analogies from physics, especially quantum mechanics and dark matter, to try and talk about Blackness. So far, none of this work seems to involve actually talking to Black physicists, and a couple of us actually know a lot about the physics here. So let me say as an expert on dark matter: dark matter is generally a terrible analogy for Black people, although I do think Alice Walker got it right in her poem about Jesse Williams. When you consider that dark matter doesn’t reflect or emit light and think about the way modern photography was designed to only image white people well, you start to see that this comparison can actually be a reproduction of white supremacy. I certainly think that the way theoretical physicist Lisa Randall has been comparing Black people to dark matter is painfully problematic.
GC: You recently compiled a “Decolonizing Science Reading List,” which in some ways parallels the efforts of the “Charleston Syllabus” and the “Ferguson Syllabus. Could you tell us a bit more about the compilation of this reading list and perhaps some of the transformations you envision coming out of this effort?
CPW: It’s interesting that you mention Charleston in this question because I posted my reading list in April of last year, a couple of months before Charleston happened, but I do think it has a relationship to those events now. I originally compiled it in response to a lot of people asking me what I was reading to contextualize my work around decolonizing science, and instead of writing everyone an individual email, I just decided to make a blog post out of it, which is how my blog entries often start.
Around the same time, I began preparing a speech on colonialism and intersectionality for the inaugural Inclusive Astronomy conference. The conference arrived, I started a long day at the conference by giving the speech, and came back to my hotel room to see the news that someone had shot up a church in Charleston.
The next day, a room full of mostly white scientists watched me and other Black scientists hold back wailing as we cried silent tears, trying to make sense of what had happened, while also trying to stay focused on the task at hand
That I had to navigate looking and being professional in the very public setting of a conference that was about broadening participation in astronomy really changed things for me. Part of decolonizing science has to be understanding that for Black scientists, navigating these moments as well as every day incidents like traffic stops is a feature of our professional existence. When people ask what does Black Lives Matter have to do with the American Physical Society and the American Astronomical Society (my two professional societies, which have both chosen not to put out statements of support), this is what: we are working under the duress of fearing for our lives, of regularly experiencing tremendous grief, and often having to figure out how to perform that in front of our white colleagues, knowing they will judge how we handle ourselves.
Previously the list had been about highlighting what we didn’t know about scientific history and also drawing attention to the ongoing debate about the building of a new telescope on Maunakea in Hawai’i. I also wanted to highlight that non-white peoples have always been scientists and that in some sense, the current generation of minority scientists are part of a massive reclamation project. After that conference, it started to feel like an essential part of understanding how I would get science done.
At this point, the reading list forms part of the basis of my new FQXi-funded research project: “Epistemological Schemata of Astro | Physics: A Reconstruction of Observers,” which is somewhat based on my speech at Inclusive Astronomy.
GC: As a scholar who produces scientific writings for popular audiences and beginners, what are some texts that you might recommend for young students or academics who have an interest in astronomy or astrophysics?
CPW: The books that have been the most important inspiration to me were Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Even though both are at this point out of date, I think in terms of the wonder and humanity they communicate, they stand the test of time. I also encourage people to read Sagan’s Billions and Billions, which are his final meditations on humanity and science before he died. Sagan truly believed that we could overcome the impulse to be harmful to one another and that science could make positive contributions to that. He had a lot of ideas that I would now label as colonial, but I also see much of what he said as moving in the right direction.
I don’t recommend Richard Feynman to people because A) I’ve never found him to be a particularly compelling writer (sorry fellow physicists) but B) He was apparently a serial sexual harasser and gender discriminator. Both Sagan and Hawking engaged in questionable behavior toward their first wives, but nothing on the scale of what Feynman did, as far as I know.
Another book that was formative for me but which I haven’t returned to since reading it as a young college student is theoretical astrophysicist Janna Levin’s memoir How the Universe Got Its Spots. It is an unusual text because of its frank and detailed portrayal of Levin’s love life, but she also writes beautifully and meaningfully about the scientific questions which drive her.
More recently, Priya Natarajan, a friend who is a professor of astrophysics at Yale, has put out Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, and I think she may be the only woman of color scientist to ever write a book in English on astronomy and cosmology. I haven’t read it yet (sorry Priya!) so I can’t say much about the text, but I can say that Priya is a tremendous scientist who is not about scientific community orthodoxy, a very independent person and thinker.
I’m looking forward to having a text by a Black woman or non-binary person to recommend!
Greg Childs is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of History and African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. He is particularly interested in the formation of black political life and knowledge productions by people of African descent in the Americas and the Atlantic World. He is currently completing a book entitled, Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.