A bold new book by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein combines her love of physics with a strong analysis of the inequalities rife in science
14 April 2021
Bold Type Books
THIS isn’t just a popular science book. There is plenty of physics in it – from the big bang and relativity to particle physics, it is all there. But attention rapidly shifts to the author’s other preoccupation: social injustice, such as inequalities, prejudices and the kind of social grooming and timidity that also hinder us from calling out these vices.
The author of The Disordered Cosmos is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, a core faculty member in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire – and a New Scientist columnist. This gives her an excellent position from which she can both engage in rich detail with science’s most fascinating theories and grapple with human and inhuman social failings.
She works patiently to disabuse readers of the delusion that their favourite pop-sci ideas – those lofty products of cerebral ingenuity and academic brilliance – are immune from the prejudices pervading society.
Prescod-Weinstein’s heritage is a mix of Black American, Black Caribbean, Eastern European Jewish and Jewish American histories. She identifies as agender, and has a history of debilitating health conditions. The inequalities she covers in her book are issues she has dealt with at first hand.
Some readers may question whether, say, a black person wouldn’t have chosen the term “dark matter”, or the colour analogies used in quantum chromodynamics, a theory sometimes referred to in textbooks as “colored physics”. But it is hard to dismiss the broader issues Prescod-Weinstein argues: inequalities around race, gender, class, nationality and disability.
Diversity and inclusivity are today’s buzzwords, but she quotes Jin Haritaworn and C. Riley Snorton in their appraisal of trans politics theory, and questions whether it is enough for the scientific establishment to aim to be inclusive if what people are included in retains what she calls “a strong relationship with totalitarian, racialized structures”.
“The author disabuses readers that favourite popsci ideas are immune from everyday prejudices”
Despite the obvious conflict between her love of physics and her outrage at some of the social and personal injustices she sees in institutions propagating physics, the different focuses of the book aren’t necessarily competing for airtime. And Prescod-Weinstein often uses physics explanations as a springboard or analogy for the social issues she wants to discuss.
Take the description of “non-binary” wave-particle duality in the double-slit experiment, which precedes her dissection of attitudes to people identifying as non-binary or otherwise. “It should be obvious that when you refuse to respect someone’s pronouns you are making a statement about what’s important and what is not,” she writes. “To tell students that it is too difficult is an egregious, brazen lie.”
Although there are times when discussions of minority politics get quite dense, perhaps more so than the physics, on the whole, the book feels very intimate – I sometimes felt like I was reading her diary. This can be a treat, such as when she is musing over some charming quirk of particle physics: “I tend to think of bosons as pep squad particles: they are happy to share the same quantum energy state… Fermions? Not so much.”
At other times, it gets more uncomfortable, as when she lays bare episodes of anguished introspection, self-doubt and emotional fatigue caused by traumatising experiences. It is all recounted to serve a point, but is incredibly personal and confiding.
So no, her book isn’t a typical popular science read and she makes some comments that may prove unpopular. Beyond the already ardently persuaded, it will be interesting to see how much a broader readership may be convinced by the arguments she presents.
Article amended on
19 April 2021
We have corrected our description of questions the book raises about some terms used in physics.
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