Public Thinker: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on Dark Matter and White Empiricism

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2019-09-18 18:59Z by Steven

Public Thinker: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on Dark Matter and White Empiricism

Public Books
2019-09-17

Lawrence Ware, Co-director of the Africana Studies Program; Teaching Assistant Professor and Diversity Coordinator in the Department of Philosophy
Oklahoma State University


Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Photograph by Lisa Longstaff

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is one of fewer than a hundred Black American women to earn a PhD from a department of physics. Being part of an all too rare group has given her a glimpse into the way the world of physics works—through not just equations and experiments but also human social interactions. The child of grassroots political organizers, Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist and a self-taught Black feminist philosopher and scholar of science, technology, and society studies. She is also vocal about social problems within science and the way science contributes to problems in the larger world. I caught up with Dr. Chanda, as she is known to many on Twitter (@IBJIYONGI), via Skype, and what follows is a discussion that goes from dark matter to how whiteness operates in physics.

Lawrence Ware (LW): Can I ask you to explain to me, almost like I’m an eight-year-old, what you do?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CP): I think about the origin of spacetime and the origin of everything inside of spacetime. It’s the question of how we get from the beginning of the universe to us sitting in the rooms that we are sitting in now. How do we get from point A to point B? And does the universe even have a beginning? What happened at the very beginning?

LW: But I am still very confused about what you do. Help me understand.

CP: I just do math all day.

LW: How do you bring your interest in race and gender into conversation with what you do with physics, then?

CP: When I was 10 years old, I began getting really excited about theoretical physics. And I was really excited about doing theoretical physics specifically because I thought it would get me away from human problems. My parents were both activists; I spent my entire childhood hearing about the ways the world is messed up. I think I saw theoretical physics as an exit from having to worry about the human condition.

Then, when I was in high school, I became aware that I might stand out in my classes, because my background was a little bit different from that of the typical physicist. I was aware that there weren’t a lot of Black women in physics. I had never heard of one. This generation might have a very different experience now, because of Hidden Figures, but there was nothing like that when I was in high school.

So I thought I would just stand out, but I didn’t really think much of it. I had no intention to go into college thinking about race or gender or anything like that. And then I started experiencing racism and sexism in physics environments and started trying to make sense of it. That was how it started to come together…

Read the entire interview here.

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How this theoretical physicist is advocating for women of colour in STEM

Posted in Articles, Gay & Lesbian, Interviews, Media Archive, Videos, Women on 2019-07-11 19:17Z by Steven

How this theoretical physicist is advocating for women of colour in STEM

tvo
Toronto, Canada
2019-07-11

Carla Lucchetta

Nam Kiwanuka and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Nam Kiwanuka interviews theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein talks to The Agenda in the Summer about her identity as a queer Black woman, the importance of mentorship, and why advocacy is a vital component of her work

What makes a person dream of becoming a theoretical physicist? In Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s case, it was growing up with activist parents. Her mother, Margaret Prescod, has headed up various advocacy groups, including International Black Women for Wages for Housework, and is the host and producer of Sojourner Truth, a public-affairs radio show in Los Angeles. Her father, Sam Weinstein, is a labour organizer.

As she tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer, “I spent my entire childhood being confronted with things that weren’t going right in the world and things that needed to be better about the world. And I think part of what was attractive to me about doing cosmology and particle physics was here was a thing that was beyond these human concerns … something that was bigger than all of us but interested all of us. Where do we come from: Why are we here? These really big esoteric questions.”

a couple and their child
Chanda at age four with her parents Sam Weinstein and Margaret Prescod
​​​​​​​(Los Angeles Times/ucla.edu)

Now a physics professor at the University of New Hampshire, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has conducted research on such topics as axions, dark matter, and quantum fields. She’s also an advocate for Black women, and LGBTQ people in STEM

Read the entire article here.

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Hidden Figures is a Black, not white, Women’s Story

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2018-06-30 03:02Z by Steven

Hidden Figures is a Black, not white, Women’s Story

Medium
2017-11-22

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein


NASA Administrator Charles Bolden presents an award to Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician, physicist, and space scientist, who calculated flight trajectories for John Glenn’s first orbital flight in 1962, at a reception to honor members of the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, VA. Afterward, the guests attended a premiere of “Hidden Figures” a film which stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. (image: a brown skinned man in a suit handing a plaque to a brown skinned woman in a wheelchair with a brown skinned woman standing behind the wheelchair.)
NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

It’s important to know the difference between “marginalized” and “hidden”

These remarks were made in my role as respondent to a paper on the (white) women students of (white woman) astronomer Maria Mitchell at the 2017 Society of History of Technology meeting. They were well received by the person whose work I was commentating on.

I will respond by offering a history of my own knowledge of women in astronomy. My interest in the Hidden Figures has been strongly shaped by my own experiences as a Black woman working at the intersection of physics and astrophysics. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 2000s, I was aware of the white women who had acted as computers for the Harvard College Observatory — this was history that astronomy undergraduates were privy to and that someone (I don’t remember who) took some effort to ensure that at the least women undergraduates learned about. The idea that their history or role was hidden, for this reason, has always seemed jarring to me. They were not hidden to us even as we recognized that more broadly they were a site of disinterest for many, but it was always made clear to me as an undergraduate that while their opportunities were limited, white women astronomers had been part of early American astronomy and that they had played a significant role in my own sub field, cosmology. (As in, without Harvard Computer Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery of the cepheid variable luminosity relation, Hubble could not have discovered the expansion of the universe. Of course, I didn’t learn until much later that Leavitt was a deaf adult, and it is interesting what parts of her story were left out.)…

Read the entire article here.

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I Owe Black Canada

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Canada, Media Archive on 2017-03-11 04:02Z by Steven

I Owe Black Canada

Medium
2017-03-05

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein


Nova Scotia on the drive from Halifax to Peggy’s Cove, 2010. Formerly enslaved Black people from the American colonies were promised that they could farm this land in Canada if they fought for the British during the Revolution. (source: me) [image: rocky terrain with Atlantic Ocean in the background, lots of moss and short pine-looking bush-trees]

Coming to understand the real but not real border

In a move that many told me was a major professional mistake, I dropped out of one of the best astronomy PhD programs in the United States to pursue research at the relatively new Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, switching to the PhD program at University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. I had never heard of Waterloo, although I’ve come to understand that in math and engineering circles, it’s kind of a BFD, with the largest mathematics faculty in North America (multiple math departments!), and the most extensive engineering co-op program in North America.

Being one of about 10 Black grad students across all departments at UC Santa Cruz, it didn’t cross my mind to be picky about how many Black students there were at Waterloo. It also didn’t occur to me that it would take a rather traumatizing search before I could find anyone who could actually cut my hair without asking me stupid questions like, “Can you put a comb in that?”

I didn’t know Canada, although I thought I did. Here’s what I knew about Canada: that it was like the US but people said “sore-ry” instead of “sawry,” that people sometimes mistook my Los Angeles-British colonial accent for a Canadian one, that some of my cousins on the Barbados side lived north of Toronto, that it was the end of the underground railroad, that they had single-payer health care, that as a child I had to watch Canadian TV to see the diversity that reflected my real life, and that overall this all meant they were more civilized than the US. In other words, I believed what I would now call the Canadian national myth, rather strongly…

…Hanging out in the other bookstore in Waterloo, I found out that the author, Lawrence Hill, would be doing an event with Afua Cooper, who had just published another book, I picked up, The Hanging of Angelique. Cooper’s book was about the Black enslaved woman who burned Montreal down (well, we think anyway). I made a note to show up at their event come hell or high water.

Hill, a light skinned Black man whose white American mother and Black American father had come to Canada when his father got into the University of Toronto for grad school, talked about discovering the hidden Canadian history of the Black Loyalists, as they are known. Cooper, a dark skinned Black woman and an established poet in addition to historian, talked about uncovering the often ignored and hidden history of Canada’s own horrible past with slavery…

Read the entire article here.

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Black Semitic Girl Reader At The Airport

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, Social Justice, United States on 2017-02-08 21:14Z by Steven

Black Semitic Girl Reader At The Airport

Medium
2017-02-07, 21:00 PST (Local Time)

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Theoretical Astro|Physicist

Where books become bombs

Seattle International Airport—Just spent 20 minutes being physically searched at Seattle airport, body searched, and at one point being spoken to and surrounded by seven — yes seven — TSA agents while being informed my backpack had bomb making materials in it. A few thoughts:

  1. My bag was flagged at the X-ray machine because I had too many books in my bag.
  2. Then the chemical testing machine told them that there were bomb making materials in my bag. Remember, they were only looking because I had “too many” books
  3. Then a second machine told them that my 2014 model MacBook Pro had extra bomb making materials on it.
  4. They checked my hair, my breasts, and between my legs.
  5. Then they told me they would have to do it again…

Read the entire article here.

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A Black Female Astrophysicist Explains Why Hidden Figures Isn’t Just About History

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2017-01-19 01:09Z by Steven

A Black Female Astrophysicist Explains Why Hidden Figures Isn’t Just About History

Gizmodo
2017-01-17

Rae Paoletta


Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson in Hidden FiguresImage: 20th Century Fox/YouTube

First, it beat Star Wars: Rogue One. Now, for the second weekend since its wide-release debut, Hidden Figures—the true story of three black female mathematicians at NASA—is number one at the box office. It’s raked in roughly $6o million so far, and counting.

The inspiring story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan has reenergized the ongoing conversation about the importance of inclusivity in STEM. Though we’ve long done away with the Jim Crow laws depicted in Hidden Figures, black women in are still notoriously underrepresented in mathematical sciences, including physics. A quick look at the numbers proves it: between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics. Only 66 black women did.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein was one of those women.


Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Image Credit: GR21 LOC

In 2010, Prescod-Weinstein became the 63rd black American woman to ever earn a PhD in physics, from the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Now, as a theoretical astrophysicist who’s worked at MIT and, more recently, the University of Washington, she is an advocate for black women and non-binary people in STEM…

Read the entire interview here.

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The Physics of Melanin: Science and the Chaotic Social Construct of Race

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2016-12-20 02:10Z by Steven

The Physics of Melanin: Science and the Chaotic Social Construct of Race

Bitch Media
2016-12-19

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Research Associate
Department of Physics
University of Washington, Seattle

It could have been earwax. It turns out that the texture of a person’s earwax is not determined by environment but rather is written into a person’s genetic code. Some of us have hard, dry earwax, some of us have goopy earwax, and some of us have a combination. Thus, 500 years ago when it seemed useful to Europeans to start organizing people by skin color, they could have gone by earwax instead. Had they, for some reason or another, been fascinated by earwax, chattel slavery might have been organized around whoever had the earwax that was deemed less valuable. Race might have been defined by our ear excretions.

Inferior Science

Hundreds of years after the advent of chattel slavery, it’s easy to see why race is defined by skin color. Skin color offers a highly visible cue that makes sorting easy—at least until rape proliferates. The variation in human skin tones is due to a pigment called melanin, which comes from the Greek word melas, “black, dark.” Melanin is found in most living creatures, and when it is studied scientifically, researchers usually use the ink of Sepia officinalis, the common cuttlefish. Our social sorting by skin color can be put in more technical terms as a question of how much melanin our bodies produce and maintain as part of our epidermic structure.

Of course, in 2016, melanin content is not the only reason for one’s identification or racialization as Black. Today, Blackness is recognized as a cultural identity that is entangled with a historicity rooted in melanin content but not limited to it. In one study, the same picture of a woman with dark skin was racialized differently when her skin was lightened, and especially when her nose was made smaller. Studies show that phenotypic stereotypes about nose shape, hair texture, and hair melanin content function as cues in tandem with skin melanin. Meanwhile, what we have learned from studying dna and biochemistry tells us that sorting people by skin color is arbitrary for many scientific purposes, and that race is more about how we organize ourselves than about any absolute scientific truth. As the Africadian George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate, tells it, “Black is maple brass coffee iron mahogany copper cocoa bronze ebony chocolate.” Black identity is a sociogeographic construct with a real but tenuous connection to science.

Technically, melanin is a set of biomolecules that we think are synthesized by enzymes and that are notably very visibly colored. There are three types of melanin: the most common, eumelanin, which appears black or brown and occurs in skin and hair; the less abundant pheomelanin, which is on the yellow-to-red spectrum; and neuromelanin, which appears in high concentrations in the human brain, but the function of which we essentially don’t understand at all. For the most part, it seems, we don’t understand melanin…

…Today, many of us would agree there is no scientific basis for the animus toward eumelanin-abundant people, only economic convenience. The timeline is consistent with this perspective, since race was invented hundreds of years before the 19th-century discovery of melanocytes—the cells that produce the pigment we call melanin. Before that, racial construct was a chaotic mix of hatred, cruelty, greed, and perversity. In a classic example of the illogical nature of racial construction, we have Thomas Jefferson, who owned his Black mistress (or what many of us today would call “sex slave”) Sally Hemings and their children, waxing on about whiteness: “Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the one [whites], preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black, which covers all the emotions of the other race?” In other words, the still highly esteemed founding father of the United States preferred the expressive faces of free white people to the stoic faces of enslaved Black people, and he believed these apparent differences were due to race, not relative states of freedom and captivity…

Read the entire article here.

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Yom Kippur Haftorah: Black Lives Matter

Posted in Articles, Judaism, Media Archive, Religion, United States on 2016-10-19 18:53Z by Steven

Yom Kippur Haftorah: Black Lives Matter

Medium
2016-10-12

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein


The opening chapter of a handwritten Book of Esther. source: Wikipedia

You shall love people — including Black people — with all your heart

I shared this with my synagogue during Yom Kippur 5777 Shacharit services.

To grow up Black in America is to know that your humanity is always in question.

I have a lot of memories of this from my childhood, but one stands out in particular.

When I was 15, I was thrown out of a New Year’s Eve party because Black people — or as they repeatedly shouted at me, N-words — were not welcome.

Later, when I was an 18 year old college sophomore, a white Jewish leader of Harvard Hillel yelled at me that I was an anti-Semite because I was at a peace rally organized by Arab students. She could not imagine that someone my color was an Ashkenazi Jew too.

Now at 34, every time my mother calls me, I think it’s to tell me one of my cousins is dead. Or in jail. A couple of weeks ago a phone call from a cousin was in fact about another one who was in jail, falsely accused by a white person who wanted to teach her a lesson…

Read the entire article here.

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Black Intellectual History and STEM: A Conversation with Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2016-08-29 18:00Z by Steven

Black Intellectual History and STEM: A Conversation with Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

AAIHS: African American Intellectual History Society
2016-08-29

Greg Childs, Assistant Professor
Departments of History and African and Afro-American Studies
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

This month, I interviewed Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on the intersections of black intellectual history and STEM. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical astrophysicist specializing in early universe cosmology. She is the 63rd black woman in the United States to earn a PhD in Physics. She is currently a Research Associate in Physics at the University of Washington, Seattle and the editor-in-chief of The Offing, an online literary magazine.

Greg Childs (GC): What were some of the formative texts or life moments that helped you decide to pursue STEM research?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CPW): When I was ten, my mom took me to see the Errol Morris documentary, “A Brief History of Time,” which was about the great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his ideas about the universe. I hadn’t wanted to see the film because I thought documentaries were stupid, but half way through, Hawking was talking about black hole singularities and how we don’t really understand the physics at that point in spacetime. My mind was blown by two things: there were things Einstein hadn’t figured out, and you could get paid to worry about things Einstein hadn’t figured out! I was sold. I came out of the theater begging my mom to buy Hawking’s book of the same title, but she was worried it would be too hard and discouraged me. Her brother, my Uncle Peter, bought it for me as an 11th birthday gift a few months later. After that, I looked Stephen Hawking up and emailed him to ask how to become a theoretical physicist. One of his grad students responded. Here I am 23 years later doing theoretical physics.

GC: You engage with a broad range of important black thinkers and creators in your writings, from Sojourner Truth to C.L.R. James to Prince. How has your engagement with African-American history and philosophy impacted the way you theorize about the universe or lecture on astrophysics?

CPW: Long before I even knew what physics was, the history of the African diaspora had been knitted into me through my family, my name, and conscious education. This necessarily means that I have never considered doing physics or being a physicist separately from the unfolding story of Blackness…

Read the entire interview here.

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Ep 10 – Thriving as a Social Media Activist

Posted in Articles, Audio, Media Archive, United States on 2016-04-24 01:32Z by Steven

Ep 10 – Thriving as a Social Media Activist

Black Women Who Lead
2015-11-29

Marsha Philitas, Host

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow & Visiting Scholar
Department of Physics; MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In this episode, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, the 63rd Black American woman to earn a PhD in Physics shares her experiences surviving and thriving as a social media activist and a woman of color in a white, male dominated field.

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