‘Disordered Cosmos’ author on lack of diversity in college admissions and STEM fields

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Some of the most recognizable names in science are white men: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, even Bill Nye. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is one of the few Black women in astrophysics. She teaches at the University of New Hampshire, and she explores the intersection of science and race in her new book titled “The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred.”

Prescod-Weinstein says at age 10, she realized she was meant to become a theoretical physicist after watching Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” at the Laemmle Theatre in West LA.

“I didn't want to be at the movie theater. I thought documentaries were silly. I wanted to be watching X-Men cartoons,” she tells KCRW. “But halfway through the documentary, Hawking was talking about figuring out what happens at the center of black holes. And I was like, ‘Wait. That's a job. You can get paid for that. You can do math for a living [and] figure out things Einstein didn't know. And so I was pretty much sold at that point.”

As she walked out of the theater, she begged her mom for a copy of Hawking’s book, which shares the title of the documentary. 

Prescod-Weinstein says it’s the first challenge she faced in her journey to become a theoretical physicist.

“She [mom] was basically like, ‘Yeah, but it's for adults, you might get confused.’ I don't think at that point, I had any sense there are things that I can't do.”

She ended up attending Harvard, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics in 2003. She was the only Black woman in America to receive that degree that year. 

Prescod-Weinstein points out that other Black women were likely missed in the official National Science Foundation count. But whatever that number was, she says it had to be small due to lacking resources. 

“I was very, very lucky. Between the ages of 11 and 17, I only had two math teachers, and they were both people who spent a lot of time on me. And I think that a lot of people who don't have that kind of support or don't have that kind of background, it's easier to be like, ‘Well I'm just going to go do something where I'm more encouraged, where I feel more supported,’” she says. “[At Harvard] I had access to all kinds of opportunities and astronomy that students that other schools don't get.”  

When Chanda Prescod-Weinstein was a kid, she realized, “You can do math for a living [and] figure out things Einstein didn't know.” Photo courtesy of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein.

Racial disparities in college recruitment and STEM majors

Prescod-Weinstein grew up in East LA but attended high school in West LA. She says she saw firsthand how colleges and universities allocated resources when recruiting students, which affected the way race, ethnicity, and identity manifested in academia.   

She recalls Harvard having lots of recruiters for West LA but only one recruiter for East LA and a part of South Central. 

“It tells you a lot about where they think — let's put this in air quotes — ‘their kind of people’ are going to come from. Even though I'm Black, most of my community in East LA was Chicano and more broadly Latino. And so that says a lot about who is even encouraged and welcomed to come into these academic spaces.”

Prescod-Weinstein says that the disparity continues into the classroom. Often, Black students and students from other underrepresented groups enter college with an excitement about majoring in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). But those feelings can wane and students leave those majors, she notes. 

“Fellow academics like to blame K-12 teachers a lot for not doing enough to get students involved in STEM, for not doing outreach. But actually, we're the problem. And I hate saying we because I hope it's not actually me personally. But it's my fellow faculty,” she says. “People are really excited about science. They feel like the scientific community is not excited about them, or welcoming to them, except sometimes using Black people for experiments. We've been talking a lot recently about the Tuskegee experiment.”

She adds, “The distrust ... comes out of these kinds of medical abuses. Sometimes doctors are the only scientists that people ever meet in their career. And so if they have a bad experience with a doctor, that can really speak to how they feel about who scientists can be to them.” 

The science of skin color

After discovering she had a vitamin D deficiency, Prescod-Weinstein says she began learning more about her body and the relationship between melanin and skin color. 

“I approached, for the first time, my body as an object that merited exploration from the point of view of a physicist. And it continues to be, I would say, an emotional journey in the sense that I already had a PhD before I started asking very basic questions about, how does melanin work? It's an incredible biomolecule.”

She explains that different types of melanin exist, such as brown and black melanin, and each person’s skin is composed of different combinations. And skin absorbs light particles, or photons, and the particles that don’t get absorbed are bounced back to the eye.

“The colors that we see are determined by what's getting absorbed, and what's getting absorbed is determined by how much melanin you have in your skin and what type of melanin.” 

Science at its best 

Prescod-Weinstein suggests the most powerful aspect of science is its ability to motivate society to look for the best solutions. 

“At its best, science is a wonderful, deeply human mode of storytelling. We tell stories about the world in a way that's repeatedly verifiable,” she says. “We develop ideas where we use falsification as a standard for how interested we are in those ideas. … Science is us. Science is part of who we are, it's one of our activities. And I think it can inspire us to be at our best.”

In “The Disordered Cosmos,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein looks at the intersection of science and race. Photo courtesy of Bold Type Books. 

Read an excerpt 

Excerpt from “The Disordered Cosmos” by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein


A Bedtime Story

Once upon a time, there was a universe. We are not sure about how it started or whether there is a reason. We don’t know, for example, if spacetime is ordered or disordered at the smallest scales, which are dominated by the weirdness of quantum mechanics. We are pretty sure that during the first sliver of a trillionth of a second it expanded very rapidly so that for the most part it looked the same in every direction and looked the same from every position. It was sameness everywhere. Except that particles started to blip out of nothing due to random fluctuations caused by quantum effects, maybe in spacetime, we are still not super sure about that. Then again, we are not super sure about this, either: for some reason those particles formed more matter than antimatter. That process, which formed a particle type called baryons, is called baryogenesis. From there those baryons started to form structures, and from those structures stars formed. Then the stars got old and some of them died in super epic, rather fabulous fashion. They exploded into supernovae, making heavy elements   like carbon and oxygen in the process. Those elements went on to be the basis for all life on Earth. Earth is a planet, one of the structures that formed around stars from the leftovers of supernovae. Eventually, a smaller type of structure that we call life formed on Earth. Some of the life-forms that evolved were relatively hairless apes that use a variety of methods of communication. There are about 7 billion of these apes, with various levels of eumelanin and pheomelanin in their skin and hair, giving them a range of colors. The apes also have a lot of different hair textures. Some of the ones with less eumelanin have for a long time now been cruel to the ones with more, some of whom we know as “Black people.” We know why this is although we don’t fully understand the why, but it might be due to laziness or because they are jealous of our boogie. But despite this, Black lives come from the same baryogenesis, the same supernovae, and the same structure formation. No matter what the lowest-eumelanin people say, Black Lives Are Star Stuff and Black Lives Matter—all of them.

Despite the facts of this story, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about the universe. In science, we tend not to think in these terms—imagining the subject (us) and object (universe) to be distinct. This way of thinking is something we inherit from European thought, specifically the ideas of René Descartes. When we study the Andromeda Galaxy, we record its details as Cartesian thinkers, seeing it as something apart from ourselves and our home in the Milky Way. But at the same time, we are in a very technical sense bound up with Andromeda. It has its own story: it is the Milky Way’s nearest major neighbor, and its existence does not trace back to a common origin with the Milky Way. Yet, in the future, these two galaxies will merge because they are bound together in a gravitational potential, which we can think of as a well in which they are both slowly spiraling downward, destined to eventually meet. Don’t worry—this collision isn’t set to be fully underway for another 4 billion years, and it won’t be the kind of violent chaos that we imagine when we think about the word “collision.” This isn’t two cars smashing into each other, quickly and violently. Rather, it is stars and gas and (maybe?) dark matter particles reorganizing themselves into a new formation, guided by their gravitational relationships with one another.

This story is maybe our story. I say maybe because around the time that this collision occurs, our sun will be dying and our solar system will be destroyed in its death throes. Before its life ends completely, the sun will expand the amount of space it takes up, changing what constitutes the habitable zone of this solar system before eventually destroying the earth entirely. By then, we may have self-immolated anyway, but perhaps we will have just relocated to another solar system in a galaxy far, far away, using technology that is completely unimaginable and even unbelievable to me now. Or perhaps we will be in a solar system closer by, still in the Milky Way, in which case we will be carried along with the collision. The observations that our progeny will use to watch this phenomenon slowly unfold over the course of millions of years will require careful calculations about their location relative to all of the action.

As it is, we already do this. We are always studying our location in the universe, even when we tell ourselves that we are simply looking outward, beyond ourselves. In our attempts to learn more about the structure of galaxies, we spend an enormous amount of time looking at our own and wondering if it is normal. We are still unsure whether the Milky Way is an average spiral galaxy or whether there is something special about it. Even though we are not the center of the universe, because indeed the universe has no center, we are the reason that we bother with the universe at all. Our location in all of it matters.

Some of us wonder about where we belong more than others. I am a descendant of Indigenous Africans whose connection to the land was forcibly severed through kidnapping and the colonization of their bodies. West Africa is enormous and full of so many different peoples. I do not know and will likely never know for sure which Indigenous communities my ancestors came from, so the question of location remains fraught for me. I am also by and for East LA (east of downtown Los Angeles), and forged from Black American, Black Caribbean, Eastern European Jewish, and Jewish American histories. Today I split my time between where I live on the Seacoast region of New Hampshire and where my spouse lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Los Angeles, Cambridge, and New Hampshire are colonial names for the homelands of the Tongva, Pennacook, Wabanaki Confederacy, Pentucket, Abenaki, and Massachuseuk Nations. These locations and the people rooted in them matter in this universe too.

I am also a scientist who as a child terrorized her single mother by persistently questioning everything. I am a born empiricist, someone who by nature (ask my mother!) takes seriously that information should be collected and then provided as a mechanism for explaining why the world is organized in the ways that it is. This commitment to rationalizing order often seemed to center on my household chores, but I also wanted to know why mathematics so accurately described the universe and how deep that relationship goes. That question, along with the need to have some kind of career because I knew that bills had to be paid somehow, is why I decided at age 10 to become a theoretical physicist. It is also a question that remains the subtext of my work as a theoretical physicist nearly 30 years later.

But I also wanted to know why my third-grade teacher had left all the Black children with two Black parents off the playbill for our class’s forthcoming modernist production of Strega Nona (produced and directed by actress Conchata Ferrell z”l), where I was to play one of Macbeth’s three witches. Mrs. M threw me out of class for asking the question, but at the time I didn’t think of it as a challenge to her authority. I simply wanted to know if she was a racist. I was curious. I had watched my mom’s grassroots organizing combating racism and sexism, I had experienced racism by her side trying to get motel rooms on road trips, and I just wanted to know if I had discovered an instance of it on my own.

When I was 10, I thought that I could keep my curiosity about the mathematics of the universe and the existence and function of racism separate. But it was not to be. A hard lesson I learned as I emerged from my mother’s home into rarified academic settings (first stop: Harvard College) was that learning about the mathematics of the universe could never be an escape from the earthly phenomena of racism and sexism (and now that humanity is moving deeper into our solar system, racism and sexism are no longer earthbound). As I progressed through college, graduate school, and teaching, I learned quickly and painfully that physics and math classrooms are not only scenes of cosmology—the study of the origins and inner workings of the physical universe—but also scenes of society, complete with all of the problems that follow society wherever it goes. There is no escape.

In physics, matter comes in different phases. For example, water and ice are different phases of the same chemical—liquid and solid. A phase transition occurs when matter changes from one phase to another. We see such a phase transition occurring when water evaporates: the liquid becomes gas. When it freezes, the transition is from liquid to solid. Phase transitions also occur in environments that feel far less mundane to us, for example, when a massive star goes supernova and converts from plasma to a neutron star that is some combination of superfluids and solids quite unlike those we find on Earth. Similarly, I had to undergo incredible intellectual phase transitions to conceive of what it meant to go from being a Black girl who loved but did not understand particle physics to a queer agender Black woman who loves—and is one of the chosen few to understand how much we don’t understand— particle physics. My new understanding that society would follow me into the world of physics was also something of a phase transition for me.

This book will reflect these different phases in order to provide a holistic picture of the ways of knowing that we call particle physics and cosmology. I used to think physics was just physics, separate from people. I thought we could talk about particles without talking about people. I was wrong. At different points I came to understand physics as something that involved people, and that particular understanding has gone through different phases of its own. Studying the physical world requires confronting the social world. I know personally that social barriers impact the practice of science, its results, and the people who comprise the community we call “science.” In this book, I will reflect to readers both my love for science and the difficulties people like me face in holding on to that love. For this reason, what follows is broken into four phases: Just Physics, Physics and the Chosen Few, The Trouble With Physicists, and All Our Galactic Relations

This book is also part of a long tradition of scientists taking a moment to share with the wider world how they see science. Historically, scientists have aimed to give readers a sense of what communications researcher Alan G. Gross calls “the scientific sublime”—a feeling of awe at the universe and our place within it. This was a hallmark of Carl Sagan’s science communication style, and I think it is why his documentary and book Cosmos captured the world’s imagination and sustained me through difficult moments during college. Almost always, the scientists who have had the opportunity to share their views on science have been white men. Necessarily, as a Black agender woman, I see science differently than my science communication ancestors have because contrary to the usual lore, who you are matters in science. When you’re looking at the world from the margins, a persistent feeling of “the sublime” can feel out of reach as you struggle against mundane and pervasive forces of oppression. It may, therefore, be tempting to cast this book as radically outside the popular science genre because I go beyond the sublime to acknowledge the big role that social phenomena play in science. Some will point to my own life as the central narrative of this text, but while you will learn some things about me along the way (and other scientists too), I am not the point. Much more interesting is the question of how we get free.

What does freedom look like? When I put this question to artist Shanequa Gay, she told me, “Freedom looks like choice making without having to consider so many others when I make those choices.” I hear in Shanequa’s response a deep cry for space to self-actualize, to not always be stuck in survival mode. A sketch of Shanequa’s painting, We Were Always Scientists, appears at the beginning of this book; I commissioned that painting partly because I was trying to figure out my own answer to this question. I asked Shanequa to envision unnamed Black women scientists under slavery. I wanted to challenge the idea that “scientific thought” has been the exclusive purview of Euro-Americans and those of us who have been trained in their knowledge systems. I also wanted something to remind myself that I belonged in my physics department office, and to remind myself that even in the worst conditions, Black women have looked up at the night sky and wondered.

Those women whose names I do not know, who may or may not be part of my bloodline, are as much my intellectual ancestors as Isaac Newton is. In fact, it is through the lessons those women passed on that I have learned to manage living with the Isaac Newtons of the world: those who are good at physics, but who are not good to people. These ancestors also serve as a reminder that the universe is more than our attempts to manipulate it. I don’t have to end up like Newton, who served as warden of The Royal Mint in the late 1600s and was said to enjoy his ability to burn at the stake, hang, and torture coin counterfeiters. I don’t have to end up like J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant and tragic theoretical physicist who oversaw the creation of the first nuclear weapons and spent the rest of his life trying to undo the damage. I believe we can keep what feels wondrous about the search for a mathematical description of the universe while disconnecting this work from its historical place in the hands of violently colonial nation-states. With this book, I hope to map out for myself and for others an understanding that creating room for Black children to freely love particle physics and cosmology means radically changing society and the role of physicists within it. In the end, I have two big dreams for Black children and others, besides clean water, good food, access to health care, and a world without mass incarceration:

  1. To know and experience Blackness as beauty and power
  2. To know and experience curiosity about the night sky, to know it belonged to their ancestors That, too, is freedom.

Blessed are You, Universe, who brings in the evening with a word, in wisdom opening the gates and with understanding changing the times and seasons, ordering the stars along their paths in the sky. Creator of day and night, rolling back light from the dark and dark from the light, You make the day slowly fade and bring in the night, dividing between day and night, how great is Your Name. Living Universe, may we always feel your Presence in our lives. Blessed are You, Adonai, who brings in the evening.

Excerpted from “The Disordered Cosmos” by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Copyright © 2021 All rights reserved.