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A physicist’s lessons about race, power, and the universe
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When Chanda Prescod-Weinstein was a 10-year-old growing up in East Los Angeles, she came across the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time, which chronicled the life of the physicist Stephen Hawking. Watching it, Prescod-Weinstein says, she realized Hawking “was being paid to use math all day to solve problems Einstein hadn’t worked out.”

For a queer Black Jewish kid from a working-class neighborhood who liked doing math, that seemed like a pretty good deal. “That was really where I got my first taste of the idea that math is kind of like the language of the universe,” Prescod-Weinstein told me.

She’s now an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, where she studies dark matter and particle physics. She’s also on the core faculty of the university’s Women’s Studies department — a seemingly unusual combination that hints at the multifaceted approach she brings to her work.

In 2021, Prescod-Weinstein published The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred, a wide-ranging book that is both a scientific explainer and an argument that unjust power structures shape the world of physics. She tells stories of subatomic particles like baryons, which are the building blocks of atoms; she critiques a trend she’s seen, in which writers compare the mystery and invisibility of dark matter to the lived experiences of Black people. In a chapter called “Rape Is Part of This Scientific Story” — a chapter that grew unexpectedly out of her writing on the dark universe, and that she debated including in the book — she writes about how her own experience of sexual assault shaped her understanding of injustices in her field.

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