The Disordered Cosmos : Short Wave Maddie talks with physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein about her new book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. In the episode, we talk quarks (one of the building blocks of the universe), intersectionality and access to the night sky as a fundamental right.

The Disordered Cosmos

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1006223211/1006388664" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: ...From NPR.

CHANDA PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: (Reading) Once upon a time, there was a universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: (Reading) We are not sure about how it started or whether there is a reason. We don't know, for example, if space-time is ordered or disordered at the smallest scales, which are dominated by the weirdness of quantum mechanics. Then again, we are not super sure about this, either. For some reason, particles formed more matter than antimatter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: (Reading) That process, which formed a particle type called baryons, is called baryogenesis.

SOFIA: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist and author of the new book "The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime And Dreams Deferred."

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: (Reading) From there, those baryons started to form structures. And from those structures, stars formed. Then the stars got old. And some of them died in super epic, rather fabulous fashion. They exploded into supernovae, making heavy elements, like carbon and oxygen, in the process. Those elements went on to be the basis for all life on Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: It's her job to ask deep questions about how we and the rest of the universe got to where it is today.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: (Reading) Eventually, a smaller type of structure that we call life formed on Earth. Some of the life-forms that evolved were relatively hairless apes that use a variety of methods of communication.

SOFIA: She asks big questions in an all-humankind type of way and also in an individual I am a queer, Black, agender woman marginalized in a field historically and currently dominated by white men, and that difference is important and actively shapes our science type of way.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: (Reading) Some of the ones with less eumelanin have for a long time now been cruel to the ones with more, some of whom we know as Black people. We know why this is, although we don't fully understand the why. But it might be due to laziness or because they are jealous of our boogie. But despite this, Black lives come from the same baryogenesis, the same supernovae and the same structure formation. No matter what the lowest eumelanin people say, Black lives are star stuff. And Black lives matter, all of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: "The Disordered Cosmos" is all of that, a discussion of her research. She specializes in questions about our early universe, including how and why those particles are formed, not all of which we know for sure.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: I wanted to write a book that holistically looks at the doing of particle physics and the doing of cosmology and shares my excitement for it and makes the case for why we should continue to do particle physics and cosmology in the future. But this also requires taking a hard look at what doesn't work right in how we do science and how science happens.

SOFIA: Chanda knows we have the power to change what isn't working about science. In her dream, everyone has access to our night sky. Everyone has the right to be just as awe-inspired as she is by our universe and how we got here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: I'm your host, Maddie Sofia. You are listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: OK. So your first chapter is called I Heart Quarks, (laughter) which I love. So let's talk about these awesome particles because, I think, when I was originally learning about atoms in chemistry, I learned that they're made up of neutrons, protons, electrons. And those are, like, the building blocks of matter, right? But it turns out protons and neutrons are actually made up of something else even smaller called quarks. Can we talk about that? Because I was just like, oh, no.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Yeah. So I think that, you know, quarks need to hire a better publicist, maybe.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: That's, like, part of the problem here, right?

SOFIA: Yeah.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: But yeah. So protons and neutrons are actually composite particles. They are made up of three quarks each. And quarks are interesting because they're rarely found by themselves. You have to get to really high energies. Otherwise, usually, they're in pairs, or they're in triplets.

SOFIA: Right.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: And, you know, the charge of the neutron and the charge of the proton is actually determined by these fractional charges that quarks carry. So yeah, they're - I think they're really fun particles because the physics that describes them is really complicated. It's mathematically really complicated. And we actually...

SOFIA: Right.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...Still don't always know how to calculate with the theory, even though we know how to write down the equation. And...

SOFIA: Yeah.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...I would say that's, like, a quirk of quark (laughter) physics.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Well, I love this because, you know, we knew that protons and electrons had a charge, right? But we didn't really know why for a period of time. And that concept of constantly asking why, which is something, you know, we've been equipped with from a very young age, is very central to being a scientist and, you argue, one definition of being a physicist.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Yeah. I think this comes back to kind of I'm a holistic thinker and my holistic perspective, which is that as children, we haven't been disciplined into thinking, like, why does this particle have such and such charge? - is, like, a different question from why is my teacher racist?

(LAUGHTER)

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: And that's, like, the comparison that I use - right? - in the introduction with a teacher that I had. And I think what's interesting is that we have to be disciplined into thinking those are separate questions. We train children into understanding those...

SOFIA: Sure.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...As separate questions. And I'm choosing the word discipline here because, you know, in the academy, we actually refer to these different lines of thought as disciplines. But I think the production of them as distinct and wholly separate from each other is really a form of disciplining.

SOFIA: Another critique Chanda has of the science classroom came up when we were talking about our experiences in high school chemistry. I mean, I definitely got a, oh, you're not really getting it, so chemistry might not be for you kind of vibe.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Yes. I also had that experience in high school chemistry, so shoutout to all the chemistry teachers who don't talk to students like that.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: So many of us have had these experiences with negative messaging from instructors or students who were doing well in the classes...

SOFIA: Right.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...Who felt...

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...Like this is their fiefdom. I get to be...

SOFIA: Right.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...The smart kid in class. You're the not-smart kid in class...

SOFIA: Right. Absolutely.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...That we have these, like, hierarchies that are totally unnecessary and not really reflective of the fact that the actual doing of science is a practice of being confused a lot.

SOFIA: Oh, my - that was my - I mean, that's it, right? That's the process. It's a process of learning, of testing, of asking questions. And most of the time, that well kind of gets deeper, right? Like, I remember when I started my Ph.D. feeling like, man, am I good at bacteriology? And then the first two years were just a lesson in how much you didn't know and learning to sit with that and be with that. And that is very, very much a part of the process that I think gets lost in translation quite a bit.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: I think one challenge there also is that even if the program that you're in makes an attempt to communicate to the students, you know, feeling confused is something that happens to people, that those of us who are from backgrounds that are at the margins of scientific tradition or even just, like, completely outside of what we would consider...

SOFIA: Yeah.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...To be the boundaries of scientific tradition, maybe hear it differently than people who are used to being seen as, you know, comparable to the insider community. And...

SOFIA: Right.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...So I think that that can hit differently, depending on, you know, whether you come from a family where there are multiple scientists. And you're like, oh, yeah. OK. I hear what you're saying. This is a stage. But, you know, people like me become scientists all the time versus like, oh, am I just the one who's not going to get it, like...

SOFIA: Yeah.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...As a Black woman? Like, maybe that's your takeaway. That was certainly - I had many moments like that. And so I would also say that people need to really think through that your audience is not, you know, a monolith.

SOFIA: Right. Absolutely, absolutely. OK. I want to talk to you about how universities, academia at large, handle trying to bring underrepresented people into STEM and specifically the problematic way that the need for diversity in STEM is framed.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Yeah. I wish the video was on so you could see my face right now.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: 'Cause you're like, how much time do we have?

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: (Laughter) Yeah, like how much time - I mean, really, like, I'm just like that emoji with the teeth. I hope that...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...Evokes the right thing for (laughter) listeners.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Yeah. Yes, it did.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: You know, the argument that is often made at the funding level, like, say, the National Science Foundation, is that we need to broaden participation of people from underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and math, in STEM, because it's a national security issue. If we don't have enough - and I'm putting we in air quotes - if we don't have enough homegrown scientists, then the other people might outcompete us in science. And I'm just saying the other people because you can insert different groups at different time periods. Like, for a while it was, quote, "the Soviets." Now it's...

SOFIA: Right.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...China. And so there's, like, this othering that's embedded in it. But it also articulates underrepresented group people, including Black people, as a national security resource...

SOFIA: Right.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...Which for those of us who are of African heritage in particular, that is in dialogue with and in conversation with the history of slavery, the fact that Black people were brought to the Americas in the first place as a labor resource. And in some sense, the conversation at that level hasn't changed, even if now everybody agrees that we should be able to choose where we sell our labor and that we should...

SOFIA: Right.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...Be able to, like, get paid.

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: So that's different. But fundamentally, the argument is not about our rights and about our...

SOFIA: Yeah.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...Right to enjoy science and participate in the scientific conversation. It's always about, like, how does this benefit us in some capital way?

SOFIA: Right. Right. There's so much conversation about, like, diverse groups of scientists make better science. And there's so little talking about how everybody has a right to be here and should just be able to be here and do science and not as this resource to provide a thing for science, if that makes sense.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Yes. And I think in the context of how our economy and social relations are currently structured, it's not a particularly surprising place that people have arrived at.

SOFIA: Sure.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: In a capitalist economic system, our value is always going to be framed in capitalist terms.

SOFIA: Sure.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: But I think that this is also actually not consistent with, you know, humanizing people. And at the end of the day, part of the case that I want to make in "The Disordered Cosmos" is that thinking about the cosmos can be part of what humanizes us and is part of who we are as a species - that we like to think about the night sky, that we like to tell stories about it, that we want to understand it. That's a very basic human impulse. And so I see some tension between fulfilling our humanity and sticking with this economic mode where people's primary value is contextualized in these, like, capitalist terms, or even that we're thinking about people's value at all as opposed to, like, you're a human, so, like, that's cool.

SOFIA: Yes.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: (Laughter).

SOFIA: Yeah. And I think, you know, that you bring it out so beautifully because - just talking so much about the joy of this experience and, of course, all the other stuff that comes along with being in science. But it's so clear to me in your book how much there is joy in being able to ask these questions and participate in this social experiment that is science that, really, it felt to me that you just want people to be able to do that.

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: I'm just, like, pro-nerd. I want more nerding (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Like, that's part of it, is more nerding for everyone, more nerding (laughter).

SOFIA: God, I love that. OK. All right. OK. So ultimately, this book is about freedom. You write that when you started your blog, The Disordered Cosmos, the namesake of this book, in 2007, that, quote, "I still believed that what I wanted was inclusion in physics. I thought that was what freedom would look like." And over the years, you wrote that that changed. So, Chanda, what's your freedom dream now?

PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: I really want us to take the question of, what would it mean to create the conditions where Black and Indigenous children can go and sit and think about and wonder about a night sky under a dark night sky? What are the conditions that are necessary to make that possible for every single Black and Indigenous child? And I think that's a valuable organizing question because it requires us to think about pollution and food, housing stability, public transportation. You know, when I say pollution, I mean light pollution, too. We're talking disability justice. If someone's in a wheelchair, what does it mean to make sure that, like, their wheelchair can get them to where they need to go, that they have the vehicle that can take their wheelchair there? It's radical in some sense. And so for me, freedom and liberation means we've answered that question in a way that affirms life and that affirms our global interdependent ecosystem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist. Her book, "The Disordered Cosmos," is out now.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Indi Khera. The audio engineer for this episode was Alex Drewenskus. I'm your host, Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR. See you tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.