The Disordered Cosmos — a necessary read for every university physics syllabus

An insider’s outsider perspective of an anti-scientific system of white empiricism

“The universe now has a few humans in a very tiny spot called Earth… some of them are kind of controlling about what gets studied, how, and who gets to participate.” Image source: http://www.cprescodweinstein.com

Astro/Physics is broken. Not because a new phenomenon has been discovered that flip-reversed our working theories. Not because a new theory has arisen that can explain the Universe and all our measurements neatly and succinctly. And not because we have (or have not) understood 42. Astro/Physics is broken because astro/physicists are broken and perpetuate a social environment of toxicity: whether it’s towards women, Black people, other communities of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, persons with disabilities, etc, etc, depressingly, etc.

In her powerful, timely, and necessary book, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein lifts the lid on the ‘frat house’ astro/physics departments around the US — though broadly applicable to institutions in the Euro-American sphere — and gives in, at times, harrowing and unapologetically bold detail, a full account of her on-going precarious position as one of the few (the only?) Black, queer femme, theoretical physics (not-yet tenured) professors in the US. It is, though, the combination of Prescod-Weinstein’s personal and professional history with Black women activists alongside her millenial, I’m-tired-of-this-sh*t, no-nonsense prose that shines through and places this book in the ‘must-read’ category for any aspiring, enduring or seasoned astro/physicist: at no point are we being lectured to from some high altar, nor are we being dragged, kicking and screaming, through this tumultuous journey — it’s one we take together, hand-in-hand, supporting one another at various parts throughout.

The book opens with Prescod-Weinstein’s declaration of love for particles — specifically quarks — and, demonstrating her obvious experience and talent in science outreach and communication, guides the reader through difficult concepts and ideas in theoretical physics with gentle introductions ranging from the small scales of the Standard Model of Particle Physics and the quantum nature of matter to the largest known scales of cosmology and the history of the universe, interwoven with autobiographical anecdotes throughout. We land on what seems firm ground — dark matter — but our legs are swept away with a poignant but straightforward question: why the f*ck do we call it dark matter? And with that, the narrative is set: you’re a scientist whose job it is to question ‘everything’ — except ‘everything’ is highly constrained to the tiny box of things that are ‘objective’: another rote-learned fallacy intricately dismantled by Prescod-Weinstein. In ‘Who Is A Scientist?’ and the preceding chapters, we find ourselves looking in from the outside, attempting to understand why we ask why for some things but not others, narrowing what can be defined as progress and damn the consequences. Later, while detailing her activism at the Thirty Meter Telescope through the lens of the victims of settler-colonialist ‘scientific endeavour’, Prescod-Weinstein patiently remedies our white empiricist-poisoned attitudes with historical context— turning down the capitalist ‘competition, competition, competition’ nodes of our brain while driving home her message of empathy and solidarity: scientific progress cannot be made without collaboration and collaboration is a misnomer without all of us. This collective and unifying idea of how astro/physics was promised to us and how it is supposed to be conducted, acutely settles us at our destination: her vision of an astro/physics community symbiotically studying, exploring, and understanding the Universe.

The book — which in its last phase becomes a manifesto for a new, open, intra- and interspecies embracing, democratic, and collaborative astro/physics — comes at a time where those with power have bled us completely dry and now plan to pursue their settler-colonialist science fantasies on other worlds using ‘scientific progress’. Prescod-Weinstein reminds us of the heinous crimes — both past and present — that have been committed in the name of science on our planet and asks why the astro/physics community remains s̶i̶l̶e̶n̶t̶ complicit.

Prescod-Weinstein has spent years — alongside her breakthrough work on axion cosmology — exploring the sociology of astro/physics with passion, tremendous courage and resolve, culminating in this through-the-looking-glass exposé. Her’s is the voice of a new generation whose scientific curiosities are inextricably linked to their desire to provide a future for the entire human race by retelling the whole story truly, with principles first.

This piece has been edited to better reflect the questions the book urges us to ask in our studies of astro/physics, where previously it implied the book gave us definitive answers. I thank the author for clarification on this.

Othered. And tired. Active physicist. Physics activist.