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Weaving together her own story with reflections on the field, a physicist calls for progress

The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Bold Type Books
2021
336 pp.
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In The Disordered Cosmos, physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein balances on a knife’s edge, inspiring both awe at the elegant laws governing our Universe and fury at the field that has discovered them at great social cost. Readers will discover the fantastical realm of dark matter, quantum field theory, and curved spacetimes that modern physics has revealed, while also confronting uncomfortable truths about the social dynamics that have led to these discoveries. In a field often thought of as having a “culture of no culture,” Prescod-Weinstein emerges as a salient and uncompromising voice of progress too long delayed.

From her childhood home in majority-Latinx East Los Angeles, Prescod-Weinstein would spend the 3-hour round-trip bus rides to high school regaling her peers with tales of the quarks and leptons that make up the world. Her mother, Margaret Prescod, a community organizer and activist, made sure to nurture Chanda’s passion for science, taking her daughter comet hunting in Joshua Tree National Park and to see A Brief History of Time at age 10 ½.

Prescod-Weinstein left East Los Angeles for Harvard College, where she studied physics, astronomy, and astrophysics. She went on to earn a master’s degree in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California–Santa Cruz and a doctorate in physics at the University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. In her current position at the University of New Hampshire, her research focuses on cosmology, neutron stars, and dark matter. In The Disordered Cosmos, she undertakes a wholesale accounting of modern physics, describing the standard model of particle physics, dark matter, general relativity, and cosmology.

As a Black, Jewish, queer, agender woman, Prescod-Weinstein—who also holds a core faculty position in women’s and gender studies—is uniquely suited to articulate the counterproductive, exclusionary, and often toxic aspects of academia, and readers will find phrases such as “loop quantum gravity” alongside “white supremacist ableist heterocispatriarchy.” But the book spends as much time exposing readers to the realities of Prescod-Weinstein’s existence in a field that never anticipated her presence as it does scrutinizing how these realities came to be.

Prescod-Weinstein explores how American and European histories have been framed and how these framings influence who receives credit for scientific progress. She also considers the implications of continuing the scientific enterprise in this mold. Why is it that we learn about so few Black and female scientists, Prescod-Weinstein wonders, for example. Is it because they are a modern creation or a historical afterthought?

The book also interrogates the ways in which colonialism and the ideas of colonized peoples have benefited both science and scientists themselves throughout history. Prescod-Weinstein asks readers to reconsider, for example, the credit given to white scientists for “discoveries” gleaned from the wisdom of Indigenous communities and exposes how scientists have routinely prioritized their quest for progress over the needs of people.

Prescod-Weinstein also offers an insightful and incisive exploration into the way academic science exploits the labor of its least powerful: the underpaid graduate students who carry out the bulk of a lab’s research, the minority professors who spend their nights answering emails from marginalized students looking for hope and guidance, and the custodial staff who support the scientific endeavor at the most basic level. Her own journey, however, suggests that there is little relief, even at the top. As an assistant professor, she reports that she is “tired of the disjointed feelings of liking the ideas but finding it hard to breathe in the community in which [she has] to share them.”

In the end, The Disordered Cosmos calls for a reimagining of physics that not only realizes diversity in science and physics faculties but also creates a future where Black children can gaze at the naked stars, free of smog and city lights. The book, which is challenging and, at times, upsetting, is nonetheless a worthwhile and rewarding read that is certain to earn its place on reading lists for activists and science enthusiasts. But its intended audience—physicists themselves—may prove to be the most difficult to reach.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Physics, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.