The Disordered Cosmos

The Disordered Cosmos

by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
It would be easy to characterize the new book by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein as part physics lesson, part memoir, part revelation of and rally against racism, sexism and colonialism in science.

Yet while “The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred” (Bold Type Books, 2021) contains all of those elements, it serves them up not as discrete “parts” but as a rich, joyful stew of overlapping flavors.

Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and core faculty in women’s and gender studies, grounds “The Disordered Cosmos” in particle physics and cosmology — her primary areas of research — then expands into an exploration of who does (or doesn’t do) science, how science is done, and how racism and sexism in science both reflect and perpetuate a universe of injustice.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
“I wanted to do a holistic look at what particle physics is and what the doing of particle physics and cosmology is,” she says.

A prolific writer who blogs, tweets, pens op-eds and is a regular columnist for New Scientist and Physics World, Prescod-Weinstein says the book fulfilled her dream of writing a popular science book. “It’s one person’s perspective on the doing of science and what we’re learning, how it’s done,” she says, adding, “I offer a very different perspective on that than a lot of people who write popular science do.”

That perspective includes an unvarnished look at how the forces of white supremacy, colonialism and patriarchy have shaped both the “who” and the “how” of science.

The intersection of science and justice, which grew in prominence in 2020 as the twin crises of COVID-19 and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery focused the nation’s attention on systemic racism, is a familiar one to Prescod-Weinstein. In June, Particles for Justice, a group she cofounded in 2018, mounted a Strike for Black Lives response to systemic racism and violence against Black people. The American Physical Society honored her with its Edward A. Bouchet Award, given to a distinguished minority physicist who has made significant contributions to physics research, and the publications Essence, Vice and Nature included her in their year-end retrospectives of high-impact scientists.

For all the challenging subject matter — be it social injustice or particle physics — “The Disordered Cosmos” brims with Prescod-Weinstein’s joy at physics’ capacity to unlock the mysteries of the universe and presents a more optimistic vision for the future. “My hope is that the book opens the door so the Black physicist, the Black indigenous physicist … now has the freedom and spacetime to do that work,” she says. “One thing we [cosmologists] do well is that we capture peoples’ imaginations.”

Beth Potier