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Physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein tells the stories of the stars

By Kobo • November 19, 2021Kobo in Conversation Podcast

"It's my job to tell the story of the universe using these mathematical techniques, using data that becomes available from particle physics experiments and telescopes.

But at the end of the day it's storytelling, so I am a griot. I'm a griot in the way that people in my position can be."

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist and the author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. In that book she not only explains in layperson's terms the phenomena she observes as a scientist, but also how she observes science as a social and fundamentally human activity, with all the messiness that entails. We spoke with her about many things, including her East LA upbringing, and how she sees herself and people like her among the generations of humans watching the stars.

The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

One of the leading physicists of her generation, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is also one of fewer than one hundred Black American women to earn a PhD from a department of physics. Her vision of the cosmos is vibrant, buoyantly non-traditional, and grounded in Black feminist traditions.

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Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a committed lifelong bookworm , and she shared with us the many books that she loved as a child and enjoys now.

  • "I actually heard about A Brief History of Time through the Errol Morris documentary my mom took me to. I probably complained the whole way. [...] Halfway through the documentary Stephen Hawking was talking about solving physics at the centre of a black hole and how this was a problem that remained unresolved that he had spent his career working on, and Einstein hadn't worked it out. [...] Walking out of the movie theatre I was like, 'I have to have this book.'"
  • "At age 10 [...] I was reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the first time."
    • "I also read Alex Haley's Roots for the first time."
  • In childhood she started "a lifelong love affair with Jane Austen," that continues to this day: "I was reading Northanger Abbey last night."
  • Feeling out of place through her first semester at Harvard, Carl Sagan's Cosmos, "ended up sustaining me."
    • As did the perspective of The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald on the privileged classes: "yes, he was part of the milieu he was writing about, but he wrote about it critically."
  • "Kaitlyn Greenidge's Libertie is an absolutely phenomenal novel."
  • I'm not really a fantasy reader, but I picked up Legendborn and couldn't put it down. I made my spouse read it and then kept interrupting him to ask what part he was on. I'm super-stoked about the second book, Bloodmarked."
  • "Maybe my favourite short story of all time is 'Star Babies' by Elizabeth Crane."

In writing The Disordered Cosmos, she took inspiration from a wide range of writers.

  • Carl Sagan provided inspiration with his final essay collection Billions and Billions: "a love note to science and to humanity, and a 'damn it, people, get yourselves together' note."
  • As well as Janna Levin's "deeply personal" How the Universe Got Its Spots.
  • Though not read as a science book, Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America "does things you don't expect, like having a chapter with him exchanging letters with people. That's one reason there's a letter at the end of The Disordered Cosmos."
  • On keeping up the fight for social justice in science, she quotes prison abolitionist Miriame Kaba: "Hope is a practice."

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