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

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

Public Books

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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