“We are the cosmic weirdos”
How can we see space differently?
Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein answers
Three people, one big question. In this edition: astro science stars.
Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist getting to grips with the first few minutes of the universe. Dark matter – which should really be called ‘invisible matter’– is her jam. She is also a feminist theorist, the author of The Disordered Cosmos, and co-led the call for the Particles for Justice Strike for Black Lives in 2020. Her main focus is theoretical cosmology, which is that small matter of the origin and evolution of spacetime, as in, the very first few minutes of the universe. As we enter a new era of astronomy, and to tie in with Season 01: THE BIG BANG, TOPIA asked Chanda: How can we see space differently?
Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein‘s 3-minute noodles
“What is dark matter? How did it originate? Why does most of the matter in the universe seem to be this invisible thing that we can’t see? I think these are really interesting questions.
Spacetime is a problem. When I think about space, I think spacetime. We know that spacetime is expanding, we know that the expansion of spacetime is accelerating. It’s picking up speed. And we don’t know why that acceleration is happening. That was actually the question that I tackled for my PhD dissertation. And it continues to be an unsolved problem.
We can have a different relationship to space. What I would encourage people to do when they look at the night sky, is to be conscious of the fact that you may be seeing stars and planets – and if you’re using a telescope, maybe you’re looking at galaxies or stars that are far away – and might think that’s all that there is out there. But no matter how good your telescope is, there’s a bunch of invisible stuff that’s governing how the rest of it moves.
I like to tell people that we are the cosmic weirdos. Everything that you can see is a small fraction of what’s out there. And that means that we’re weird. We’re not what’s normal. Thinking in those terms can really reframe what our relationship to space is and what’s inside of space.
My hope is that my book helps us see ways of being in better relations with each other. What we know about the universe can inspire us to be better with each other. I think science can serve our humane interests, in which it hasn’t always. And so I wanted to be honest about that. From my point of view, it’s a holistic look at particle physics and cosmology.
A Black scientist is Black while they’re doing science, we’re Black when we leave our houses, we’re Black when we walk down the street, we’re Black when we’re worrying about our family members getting pulled over by police officers or ourselves getting pulled over by police officers.
When people say, “Oh, I really care about diversity in science and inclusion in science”… if you’re not talking about what it means to be Black, in general, you’re not really attending to all of the issues that affect our ability to actually get our science done. In some ways, the overarching message of the June 10th Strike for Black Lives was that we can’t compartmentalise these different aspects of human existence. The challenge that we put forward was to ask people to take a day to begin planning how they were going to contribute daily to changing the material conditions under which Black scientists do our work.
If Stephen Hawking hadn’t been seen as a unique genius, he might not have gotten all of the support that he needed to do the things that he did. And it should not be the case that you have to be seen as extraordinary before you’re allowed to participate as a disabled person.
Space is not a particularly inclusive environment. There’s a reason that we continue to have the stereotype of a white man as the scientist. I think that’s the archetype for everyone. And even though awareness of Stephen Hawking is fairly ubiquitous, in English speaking places anyway, it’s still fairly unusual for disabled people to be acknowledged in the sciences. So it’s not just about race and gender identity in under-representation.
Physics has a really long way to go. The data that we see about physics and astronomy really indicates that trans folks in particular have a really tough time, and that Women of Colour, and Trans People of Colour particularly, have a tough time. It’s always struck me as a very strange juxtaposition that we study these really interesting and exciting and beautiful ideas about the universe and then there’s just such nastiness associated with the community that does that work.
What would it take for every single child, regardless of their identity, to have access to a dark night sky? That raises all sorts of questions – what do our public transportation systems look like? Does the rail have to work on a regular basis? Does the rail have to be accessible to disabled people who have differences in mobility from those of us who walk around? I really think that when we ask ourselves what it would mean to make a dark night sky broadly accessible and available to people – and have the opportunity to just sit and wonder underneath it, and not have to worry about their material circumstances – that means we need a better social safety net. It means we need better public services.
What’s so good about this?
Space is big. Sometimes it’s hard to get our heads around. But the ideas that these three astro stars have not only help us understand our universe and where we’ve come from, they’re also forging new paths to make science more inclusive. We shouldn’t settle for a narrow idea of what a scientist is, and we can affect that change by making changes outside science labs. These scientists are showing us not only how to see the universe differently, but how to see humankind differently. Space isn’t just for astronomers. It’s for everyone looking into the night sky.
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.