Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist at the University of New Hampshire, focusing on cosmology, neutron stars, and dark matter. As a core faculty member of UNH’s gender studies program, she also does research in Black feminist science, technology, and society studies. She writes columns for New Scientist and Physics World and was named one of 10 people who helped shape science in 2020 by Nature magazine.
Below, Chanda shares 5 key insights from her new book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred (available now from Amazon). Listen to the audio version—read by Chanda herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Science is about storytelling.
As a particle cosmologist, I use math to figure out the history of spacetime, with a particular focus on the origins and evolution of particles. I get to fill in the cosmological timeline by drawing connections between the behavior of particles during the first few seconds of the universe’s existence and the evolution of the galaxies that we observe today, about 14 billion years later. I work on telling a story about how the universe came to be the way it is, using math.
As far back as we’ve been able to find, each community has had a way of telling cosmological stories. My own ancestors, indigenous Africans who were kidnapped into slavery, and Ashkenazi Jews, had cosmologies of their own. They are not the cosmologies I study now, but I see myself as continuing the tradition of being a community storyteller.
We’re a species that likes to look for patterns, and to tell tales about the universe. Science means responding to that deeply human impulse.
2. We are cosmic weirdos.
The composition of the universe can be broken down into three fundamental categories: normal matter, dark matter, and dark energy. Surprisingly, the first kind, the stuff that is familiar to us, seems to make up only about 4% of the universe’s contents. In other words, the standard model of particle physics, which describes every particle we’ve ever seen in a laboratory experiment or through a telescope, only explains a small fraction of the universe. In that sense, we humans—along with stars, plants, rocks, and everything else observable—are abnormal. We’re special.
“Queerness may offer lessons about how to do science better.”
What’s the other 96% of the universe made of? We’re actually not sure. About 20% seems to be what we call dark matter, which should probably be called “invisible matter,” because light goes right through it. While we can’t see it, we’re still confident that something like dark matter exists because the way stars move in galaxies can only be properly explained by the presence of large amounts of matter that doesn’t radiate light. And the other 75% of the universe is currently thought to be something called “dark energy,” a phrase only recently coined to describe the mysterious fact that the expansion of spacetime is accelerating, rather than slowing down.
If this model is correct, the vast majority of the universe consists of energy and matter that are completely invisible to us and to all our scientific instruments. I think of this as a reminder that just because something feels normal for us, it doesn’t mean it’s normal for the universe.
3. Maybe quantum mechanics actually is intuitive.
Quantum mechanics shows us that particles behave simultaneously as points—like billiard balls—and waves. This central lesson of quantum mechanics has long fascinated and troubled physicists and lay people alike, because to many it seems like a completely bizarre idea. How can something be a particle and a wave at the same time? As a student of physics, this was ground into me regularly: Newtonian physics is intuitive and quantum mechanics is not, because in our everyday experience, objects cannot be two diametrically opposite things at the same time.
But I would argue that what is intuitive is constructed by our experience and not inherent. This is brought to light by a comment made by British drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi. When asked to explain what it means to be non-binary, and whether that’s natural, Amrou pointed to the quantum theory of particles. Just as fundamental particles can be two things at once, Amrou says, so can a gender non-binary person. In other words, a fundamental tenant of quantum mechanics is very intuitive for Amrou.
This implies that the tendency of scientists to assume that neat, static categories are the most intuitive is probably rooted in false assumptions. And it suggests that queerness may offer lessons about how to do science better.
“As we face global climate catastrophe, we must reckon with the fact that science is a tool, and tools can be used for both good and bad.”
4. Diversity in science is important, but only solidarity can save us.
It’s tempting to think that science and technology equal progress, but the reality is more complex. We know that science continues to exclude marginalized peoples, and one of the most impactful achievements of human technology is global warming. We have managed—through the use of technology—to rapidly and irrevocably alter our climate conditions.
As we face global climate catastrophe, we must reckon with the fact that science is a tool, and tools can be used for both good and bad. Science is done by people, and who we are to each other matters. Without a sense of ethics, we can end up becoming a threat to ourselves, our ecosystems, and all life on Earth. In other words, science is a social phenomenon and we put ourselves at risk when we don’t take this seriously. We need to understand that all scientific choices go through people, so it matters who participates in those conversations, and what values are shaping them.
It’s easy to think that we can address the problems that arise in science by discussing diversity and working toward inclusion. And indeed, it’s nice when our classrooms and labs aren’t homogenous. But at the end of the day, focusing on diversity in science isn’t enough if we’re still using science to do harm to other humans, to the earth, and to its ecosystems. In addition to assimilating diverse people, the values we bring to the table in science have to change.
5. Black children have a right to know and love the night sky.
Ultimately, my book is about freedom dreams, and I begin with Black children because my ideas about this are very much rooted in my own experience. I am asking the question of how to eradicate the barriers I faced, so that future generations don’t have to deal with them. I’m also dreaming of ending the barriers that I didn’t have to face because we all have a right to know and love the night sky and understand the questions of particle physics and cosmology.
What would it take to make the night sky accessible to all? This requires radically re-envisioning how our society is structured, to create the space and time for Black, indigenous, and other children to sit and comfortably wonder about the night sky. It means making sure they are spiritually and physically nourished, and have access to clean water, healthy sustenance, secure housing, healthcare, and parents and caregivers who are not suffering under poverty wages and from overwork. It means widely available and accessible public transportation, so that anyone can get to an International Dark-Sky Association designated Dark Sky Place. It means combating climate change so it’s safe for us to go outside and breathe outdoor air for long periods of time.
The night sky is our shared inheritance, and together we can be inspired by it to protect and care for each other—and to dream.
To listen to the audio version read by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and browse through hundreds of other Book Bites from leading writers and thinkers, download the Next Big Idea App today: