Book Review: The Disordered Cosmos

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s book is a social & political manifesto sprinkled with star particles.

We can’t get away from it. Racial strife penetrates everything from health, education, law enforcement, and politics. We are divided along deep racial lines, and no matter how you try to get away from it, it’s always there in some form.

The facts do not display the more profound, hidden problems that racism causes. Racial stress can weigh heavily on a Black person. Being Black or watching national news (or because of national news) can be exhausting. I held a belief that there was a place where race mattered much less than the rest of the world. I always thought that there was one community where race and politics mattered much less: the scientific community. I attempted to hide in a book about theoretical physics and avoid anything about racism. I was wrong.

The scientific community was filled with people whose world of facts and the pursuit of truth shielded them from the minor issues of race and politics. At least that was the hope. Deep in Prescod-Weinstein’s book, she also stated that people out there thought the same as I did. “… it’s not surprising that many of us experience physics, as a social environment, to be fundamentally empathy-deficient, dominated by people who are generally disinterested in racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism that I deal with and that impacts my life twenty-four hours a day, not magically only during the hours when I am not working.”

Prescod-Weinstein takes us into a world that, as a whole, strongly mimics the issues that have plagued the rest of the world. We are faced with a depressing fact; racism is ubiquitous. Trying to avoid it is useless, and it is as common as air. The books I have read by theoretical physicists such as Brain Greene, Carlo Rovelli, and Michio Kaku were straight theoretical science books that rarely strayed into the area of social justice. They did not have to carry the weight of addressing social inequalities while writing their books.

African Americans are sometimes boxed in the community if they take up hobbies such as bird watching or hiking. It is as if Black people must first address all the woes of living in a totalitarian state before doing anything that brings enjoyment. But there’s no joy in being a militant either. There’s a particular stance, or some may say an unwritten rule, that states Black people do not have the luxury to write books about their profession without including how racism has affected their professional and private lives. We cannot stick to writing about our profession and filtering out the things that impacted our lives. But it can be exhausting for both readers and writers. It is good to discuss the things that make us feel uncomfortable because there’s an opportunity to learn.

The Disordered Cosmos is a unique view of the wondrous world of physics as seen through the eyes of a black feminist physicist. The physics in the book are as striking and awe-inspiring as you may think. However, physics takes a backseat to Prescod-Weinstein’s struggles traversing the science community. As a woman raised in East LA with a cultural background encompassing Black American, Black Caribbean, Eastern European Jewish, and Jewish American background, she covers a lot of ground, pointing out the struggles she has encountered. Her physical and cultural attributes, which did not match the white-male model, have come into question throughout her academic and professional career. There is no mystery why chapters covering topics such as black holes, dark matter, spacetime, and the standard model, are side-by-side with chapters covering issues such as racism, sexism, homelessness, wages for housework, and rape.

Rape is a big deal in this book. In the chapter titled, “Rape Is Part of This Scientific Story,” Prescod-Weinstein tells of her rape by an older, unnamed mentor. The incident “…knocked the wind” out of her scientific sails. She refused to name the assailant because he is well known, and she feared she would be more known for who she was raped by than for all of the hard work and contributions she put into her profession. As I was reading the book, I thought that it was strange that Prescot-Weinstein had mentioned several women and Black physicists that had influenced her life, including Jacelyn Bell Burnell, Helen Quin, Chien-Shiung Wu, Vera Rubin, and Arlie Petters. I wondered why she did not mention the most prominent astrophysicist of today and African American science icon, Neil deGrasse Tyson. After reading this chapter, I understood why Prescod-Weinstein did not mention deGrasse Tyson until this chapter. She pointed out that others accused deGrasse Tyson of raping another young Black female when they were both astronomy graduate students. If this were a mystery book, deGrasse Tyson would be the number one suspect of being Prescod-Weinstein’s unnamed rapist.

In another chapter, Cosmological Dreams Under Totalitarianism, Prescod-Weinstein bashes the scientific community for ignoring the role that science played in protecting institutions that facilitated racial totalitarianism by remaining silent about the origins of the instruments, equipment, and tools they were using. Many of these tools were collected unethically by brown and black people across the world. She also points out that runaway technology is responsible for much of the problems we have today and states that global warming is a product of a succession of technological advancements. But when things get heavy, Prescod-Weinstein sprinkles the reader with star particles by explaining the fantastic world of particle physics.

The audience for this book is not limited to the people of color and women who want to become scientists or people who are in the scientific community. This book is for everyone interested in social justice, and accountability to those in power, as told by a Black woman who walked the halls of physics academia that few women of color have traversed. White Supremacy is causing much of the harm in the world, and Prescod-Weinstein does not shy away from it as she states, “This book has, in part, been about what science looks like under totalitarian white supremacy.”.

The Disordered Cosmos is essential reading, not only for the science it contains but for the eye-opening commentary on a segment of academia and science that rarely receives the spotlight it deserves. It reminds us that racism resides in every facet of society, no matter how innocuous it seems from the outside. An obvious question would be can someone be both a scientist and a Black Feminist. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein did not have a choice. Society’s actions will not let her strong commitment to social justice wane. Her love for particle physics, as strong as it is, will have to take a back seat to social justice if it ever came to that. For the rest of us, let’s hope that her love for science continues in the face of adversity. I wonder what kind of scientist she would be if the obstacles of racism and sexism were removed from her life and she would concentrate on only science. I think I already know the answer: she would garner the same fame and notoriety as many of her white-male colleagues, who have the luxury of not carrying the heavy label of “other” on their backs.

Humanist, educator, writer, photographer, and modern-day Luddite. My writing is a living organism.