The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred

  • Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
BOLD TYPE BOOKS: 2021. 326 PP. £20

The Disordered Cosmos is a story about the beginnings of our Universe, the questions that keep the interests of scientists steadfast and the bitter demise our world is heading towards — not because of cosmology, but because of colonialism, racism and cisheteropatriarchy.

This book does not have a happy ending. It is not the book that cheers you on and tells you everything is going to be okay. But for a Black Mexican queer woman physicist like me, this book is everything. When you move through the world never fitting in, questioning your reality because society constantly tries to erase or rewrite your experiences, a book like this validates your fears, your hurt, your grief, and doesn’t try to gloss over it.

In my pursuit of understanding the Universe through studying the smallest building blocks, I have never come across scientific literature that depicted my reality. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s book was the antidote to that at first sight: the cover depicts a beautiful Black woman immersed in the cosmos.

Phase 1 of the book is an introduction to particle physics, cosmology and the weirdness of physics. I love how accessible Prescod-Weinstein makes these complicated concepts. She grounds parametric resonance in the experience of “pumping your legs at just the right point to make the swing go higher.” And she describes spectroscopy — the study of matter interacting with the electromagnetic spectrum — using the Sun coming out during a rainstorm, creating rainbows.

Even though phase 1 is rightly titled ‘Just physics’, Prescod-Weinstein primes the reader for what is to come. As she discusses quantum chromodynamics, she posits that a Black feminist physicist would’ve never used language like ‘coloured physics’. One of my favourite lines in the whole book is when she describes how “science […] involves writing a dominant group’s social politics into the building blocks of a universe” and that the Universe doesn’t care about “our small planet and the apes that are responsible for melting its polar ice caps”.

In the midst of all the quarks, dark matter and the curvature of spacetime, I turn the page and am stopped in my tracks. At the bottom of the page, I see the figure of a Black girl in an elevator and in a rocket ship. As fascinating as general relativity is, seeing a scientific concept illustrated with Gravity Girl, a figure who looks like me, was life-changing. I reacted in the same way I did to Shuri being a badass scientist in Marvel’s Black Panther: with tears. After committing nearly a decade to the study of physics, feeling like I’ve been in a toxic relationship but not knowing how to leave, Gravity Girl was a vision of what it could be like. A relationship that nurtures, that reminds me of the wonder of physics and a relationship that allows me to just be me.

This feeling of falling in love again with physics was amplified in phase 2. The chapter ‘The physics of melanin’ celebrates Blackness. The answer to what the physics of melanin is leads to the realization that our melanin, “the wonderful biomolecule that historically was used as an excuse to mistreat [our] ancestors”, could be the key to Afrofuturistic technologies such as bioelectric devices that could couple machines to human bodies. Imagine the innovation we could accomplish if Black people were allowed to thrive. Yet, even in this vision of a world where Black people have permission to create and innovate, the harsh reality of the world we actually live in clouds the dream. If our melanin could be the key to new technological advances it would be “stripped for parts,” Prescod-Weinstein worries.

Phase 3 and 4 are tough to read, not because they aren’t engaging, but because the realities of colonialism and the destruction in its wake are depressing. It took me a while to get through, but the way Prescod-Weinstein informs the dehumanizing norms in science with history and politics and highlights how much we as scientists could learn from Black feminism is insightful.

Although the stark realities of where we as a population are heading by prioritizing capitalism and colonialism are melancholic, Prescod-Weinstein articulates a path forward: we must learn from Black feminists. She quotes Alice Walker in Black Feminist Physics at the End of the World, saying, “the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society.” This redefinition of being an outsider — a feeling that I’m all too familiar with — as a gift, as the reason we are able to see the white supremacist structures that are invisible to insiders, will be my lifejacket in these rough scientific waters.

I first crossed paths with Prescod-Weinstein at a women-in-physics breakfast at the 2015 American Physical Society April Meeting. Although I can’t remember her words, I remember being blown away by her authenticity, strength and energy. A year later, I joined Twitter and fell even more in love with how she spoke truth to power. Even though my experiences of isolation, racism and otherness felt validated by reading her tweets, our paths to physics still seemed strikingly different. In my mind, Prescod-Weinstein was a true lover of physics, an exemplary practitioner, whereas I was a fraud surviving by the skin of my teeth.

I needed this book, I needed to know that the person I idolize faced the same struggles I faced; I needed to know that what I went through wasn’t a product of me not being smart enough; I needed to know that I belong.