PHYSICS IS NOT
a conversation with
From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge").
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Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is assistant professor of physics and astronomy and core faculty in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire. Her research in theoretical physics focuses on cosmology, neutron stars, and dark matter – but her interests span disciplinary boundaries, and her new book The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred also engages with Black feminist science, technology and society studies. The Disordered Cosmos is a vibrant, insightful and much-needed examination of the way knowledge is produced by the scientific establishment, considering the history of physics and looking at who is included and excluded from the community, and how. This interview, with Adam Ferner, has been edited for clarity.
Your new book, The Disordered Cosmos, interrogates the ways in which oppressive systems like white supremacy and patriarchy function through scientific practice. I wanted to start with some of the thinkers who have been marginalised and disenfranchised through the work of academics who might otherwise see themselves as “progressive”. You write extensively about Maunakea in Hawai’i as a site of colonial expansion and Indigenous resistance. Could you explain for the readers how the knowledge production of Native Hawaiians (kānaka maoli) has been co-opted by Western astronomers?
To give the broad brushstrokes, Hawai’i was colonised by the United States in the 1890s and was eventually integrated as a state. In the 1960s, astronomers started capitalising on this by building telescopes on Maunakea, which is one of the best places in the world to see the night sky. Its high altitude means it is above some layers of atmosphere that get in the way of what we would call “good seeing”. From the beginning there were objections – this is the story that was told to me by the kānaka maoli and I have no reason to disbelieve them. Those objections have become more visible to the scientific community more recently because of social media. I learned about the objections through a Yahoo search when I was an undergraduate in 2001.
One of the ways astronomers justify building on Maunakea, despite the objections of Native Hawaiian cultural knowledge-holders, is that Native Hawaiians used the stars to navigate to Hawai’i in the first place. They’re Polynesians who crossed the Pacific and astronomy is their cultural heritage – therefore (the astronomers say) building telescopes on Maunakea is a “natural” extension of this heritage. This argument ignores the fact that we have different cultural contexts for how we use the stars and the astronomers’ sense of what is a continuation of Native Hawaiian heritage is not the Native Hawaiian context.
So while ostensibly honouring a tradition and history, one value system is being imposed on another. This relates to another question I wanted to ask you. Something that struck me reading the book was how the astronomers frame the disagreement with the kānaka maoli in terms of “science versus religion” – which as you point out “is a polite way of saying ‘modern versus primitive’”. With this in mind, I thought it especially interesting that you include a bracha [a Jewish blessing], in the preface and in the final chapter. The blessings start with the usual formulation, “Baruch ata adonai” and in the translation, which you include below, you parse “adonai” [typically used to name God] as “Universe” and later “Living Universe”. Could you tell me more about this, and the place of faith your research?
I would consider myself to be someone who doesn’t particularly believe in the supernatural. I try to be open-minded about the fact that I don’t know everything, but I have seen no empirical evidence for it. Nonetheless, I’m very active in my synagogue and I maintain a Jewish household. For me, being Jewish is a cultural heritage and – as an Ashkenazi Jew, whose family escaped pogroms and Nazi Germany – a values heritage.
I grew up taking Passover [the festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt] very seriously. It took me a long time to realise that as a Black Jew, I interpreted Passover very differently to Jews who are not Black. Historically, we know that slavery in Egypt didn’t really happen, so for a lot of Jews it’s an allegory, but for those of us who are Black it’s a real thing. I can point to people in my lineage who survived slavery.
My mum is from Barbados, another island nation like Maunakea that has suffered under colonialism. Black people are there because of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In considering my role in the dialogue about Maunakea, I asked myself: If it was Barbados would I want people to stand with us? The answer was: yes.
I think that Passover and Jewish traditions play a really big role in seating my understanding of the importance of solidarity. Without solidarity we don’t survive. I think this is a difficult lesson that Jews have grappled with throughout the ages, and particularly during the Twentieth Century, when it became very real in a very horrifying way. I’m a reconstructionist Jew and seeking justice is very much embedded in our approach to Judaism. I don’t know if this makes me a religious supremacist of some kind, but I really think Judaism is an ethno-cultural religious school of thought, which allows people to take things from it without introducing the supernatural.
I’ve just finished reading Angela Saini’s book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, and one thing that stood out to me was the discussion around the Nazi experimentation on concentration camp victims. In the light of what we know about the Holocaust, I wondered whether Jewish people might inhabit a certain epistemic position in relation to science; does it encourage us to be more suspicious?
When we look at the relationship that Black people – Jewish or not – have with science versus non-Black Jewish people, one thing that’s really noticeable is that, going into the Third Reich and the Nazi era, non-Black Jews were actually really well-integrated into the German scientific establishment. Einstein, for instance, was already a world success. German physics was ruined by the Nazis. Aryan physics was also a really bad idea, but by the time Aryan physics came along they’d already screwed-up. Germany went into the 1930s being the epicentre of global physics and by the end of the decade, it was a dumpster fire. The United States became the epicentre because so many German Jews moved there. These historical moments affect our view of science. Looking at them, we think, “Okay, ethics matters in how we do physics”. But I think this idea was already embedded in the Jewish community. Science was a thing that Jews did.
Sometimes I see people discussing me on social media saying, “Why does she talk so much about the barriers she faces as a Black person when she’s actually Jewish and there are loads of Jewish scientists?” This raises questions about how Black Jews are able to locate ourselves in this sphere, in relation to our Jewishness, particularly for me as a patrilineal Jew. Black Jews are more likely to have our Jewishness questioned. I go to astronomy departments to give talks and find myself having conversations with white Jewish faculty members who ask me which of my parents is the Jewish one – and I’m like, “I thought we were talking about dark matter!” They don’t even know I’m a patrilineal Jew but the presumption is that I’m not halachically Jewish. In that sense, it’s hard to be Jewish first if you’re Black because the rest of the Jewish community will never allow you to be…
…which is ironic, given that, as Lewis Gordon points out, historically, white Jewish people have been the minority.
Exactly. There’s lots of discourse about why this has unfolded the way it has. The Jewish community’s relationship with whiteness has the potential to teach us a lot about how whiteness works discursively and how it situates people in relation to power. People can move into whiteness. This is something I’ve articulated in conversations with Ashkenazi Jews, and some Sephardim, discussing whether they are white or not, and looking at the way they might talk to a Black Jew like White gentiles might have talked to non-Black Jews a century ago.
I’d like, if I may, to continue following the thread about names – which is also not irrelevant to Jewishness. In Russian Jewish folktales, names have an incredible power: it’s by learning a person’s name, for example, that the Angel of Death can seek them out and take them to world beyond. Names are important, and one thing you do wonderfully well in the book is to explain where they come from and the ways that certain terms can function to exclude certain bodies from scientific spaces. How do you think naming practices might be changed for the better?
The analogy I’ve been using a lot is that this stuff isn’t handed to us on tablets from a mount. We treat a lot of our nomenclature and our discussions as if they’re carved in stone and we hand them to our students from the mount at the front of the classroom, on the tablet of the chalkboard. We don’t say, “This is why things are the way they are. Humans did this”.
Thinking about the phrase “dark matter” specifically, I really want people to unpack Europe’s relationship with the word “dark”. Lord Kelvin was one of the first people to have articulated some concept of “dark bodies” in the 1880s, at a time when all sorts of things were happening between England and India. At the same time people were talking about the “dark continent”, and Belgium was doing terrible things in the Congo. “Dark” and “darkness” are not neutral terms. They certainly weren’t neutral back when people were first toying with them. I want people to have this conversation. I want people to ask, “Why is that name there? Is it the best name?” There are other more mundane examples. We use the term “symmetry breaking” in particle physics and I think the phrase can be a barrier to understanding the concept it describes. We also use the word “anomaly”, but it doesn’t necessarily connect with our ordinary everyday understanding of what an anomaly is.
I’ve actually just had a meeting with an undergraduate who’s working in my research group, and this student was asking me about a Swiss watch analogy in a popular science article. I was like, “Yes, this is a very classed, generational reference point”. If you come from a working-class background like I do, nobody had a Swiss watch. And the generation in university today hasn’t grown up with analogue watches as the epitome of nice watches – for them, a nice watch is, whatever, the ten thousand dollar Apple watch.
So with respect to “dark matter”, the thought is that the term has political implications because it opens these hermeneutic links to various white supremacist views – and simultaneously it creates diagnostic obstacles to actually understanding a phenomenon?
Yes. So in the case of dark matter, we call it “dark” but if you put a clump of dark matter in my hands, if we were somehow able to do that, I would still be able to see my hands. It would just feel like there was something weighing them down. Light tends to go through it. Light might have some interaction with it, but it’s so mild we still haven’t seen any evidence of that interaction. So when we call it “dark”, we’re giving people bad intuitions about its properties. I think the natural thing to say is that it’s dark because outer space is dark! Or it’s dark because it’s related to not being able to see. But it’s important to remember that the word “dark” evokes different associations for us based on our experiences. For those among us who are dark-skinned, the word “dark” can evoke a very different association than for those of us who are what we might describe as pale or even someone who’s a light-skinned Black person like me. I didn’t grow up with people making nasty comments about my dark skin. So for some people “dark” is a colour, it’s associated with a colour – it’s not invisibility in the physical sense.
There’s this interesting connection between the concept of darkness and the concept of invisibility and the notion of invisible labour. Dark matter exerts some influence in the world, but it’s not seen. This reminds me of the politics surrounding the translation of the English word “ghost-writer”. In Spanish and French, ghost-writers are still sometimes referred to using the n-word. There’s this idea of an invisible and racialised presence doing the background labour.
The thing I also want people to think about when we’re talking about invisibility is the word “spook”. Until the 1960s, it was a slur against Black people in the US. It’s actually one I heard while I was living in Canada – so it’s not ancient. The only reason I was able to understand it then was because I’d read Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door. I knew there was this historical context for Americans, otherwise I might have had no idea what was going on. There is this narrative of Black people as ghosts and darkness – but again these are negative associations and they’re predicated on rendering invisible the humanity of Black people. One thing I talk about in the book is my concerns with people saying Black people are like dark matter because Black people are invisible.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is one of the most important and formative pieces of literature I’ve ever read. Part of what makes Ellison’s book so powerful is the way it shows how invisibility is a social phenomenon. By contrast, dark matter is invisible. That’s its nature. There’s no social phenomenon causing that – it is its nature. It is not the nature of Black people to be invisible. It is not the nature of Black people to be ghosts or to be seen as ghosts. That’s a function of white supremacy. We need to understand that you can hide the mechanism of invisibilisation through those kinds of analogies. We need to be clear that there is a social mechanism, which is completely unlike what is awesome about dark matter.
I also don’t want people walking around having bad associations with dark matter! Or associating dark matter with white supremacy! I want people walking around seeing dark matter as cool stuff that’s happening in the universe.
Yes! And I’ve never been as excited about physics as I was reading your book! One of the reasons for this, I think, is that despite being aware of all these pervasive issues, you actually seem quite hopeful. I think about these problems and how deeply entrenched they are, and I feel very pessimistic. But your book seems to suggest that we can still meaningfully pursue scientific projects. Is that right?
I guess I would say yes and no. Science will always be a human phenomenon. There’s no way to take us out of the equation. When we’re in the room, we’re in the room. My hope is that we can become more aware of the ways in which our presence shapes what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, who we’re doing it with, who we’re doing it to and who we’re doing it to without consideration for. All these things need to become more manifest, rather than normalised. The way we normalise things is, if we’re being polite, “dysfunctional”. If we’re being honest, though, they’re dangerous.
We have to ask ourselves why we should study the cosmos. Is it because we think it might lead, coincidentally, to the building of new, “fabulous” weapons? Or is it because this is part of what we do as a species – we look at the sky and we wonder? Here, I’m going to reference the philosopher Sylvia Wynter. She calls us homo narrans. We’re a storytelling species. We’re bio-cultural. We’re not a simply biological phenomenon, we’re a cultural phenomenon as well. Storytelling is, and I don’t know if this is too essentialist, but it’s part of our bio-cultural DNA. That includes storytelling with mathematics, which is what I do.
I’d like to continue picking at this thread about naming practices. In the book you examine how naming practices privilege certain people while disappearing others. One example you mention is Mather House in Harvard College, named after Increase Mather – a slave owner, who is memorialised, while the enslaved Black scientist, Onesimus, who introduced his son Cotton Mather to community vaccination, is not. You speculate on other contributions that may have been rendered invisible too, like those of the Serbian physicist Mileva Marić, who is largely unremembered, while her husband, Albert Einstein, is not. My impression is that you’re drawing a connection between these misattributions and the individualism that emerges from the neo-liberal framework within which most academics are working; thoughts are had by individual minds, those of the rational human subject who is typically (and problematically) conceived of as a white European man. On this model, theories aren’t produced collectively, but by lone thinkers. Do you think that great thoughts can be had by single minds?
I actually graduated from Mather House, so this isn’t an abstract issue for me. Upstairs, I have one of the Mather pins that we get on graduation, which indicate we are alumni of the House. This is a feature of my life. I continue to be categorised by Harvard as a Mather’s student.
The thing is that Onesimus almost certainly isn’t the person who came up with the idea of inoculation, it’s a piece of information he’d been taught, that he knew, that he then passed on. I see that as Onesimus’ heritage – in the same way that I didn’t come up with general relativity but I can explain it to my students now. It’s part of my cultural heritage as a physicist – and maybe as a Jew, but that’s a separate debate. I don’t think any of us comes to ideas by ourselves. It’s not possible.
Einstein’s relativity is such a great example of this. He relied heavily on the mathematical work of people who were already thinking about manifolds and the mathematical version of curved space-time. In some sense, what he had to do is figure out the physical picture. Once he’d done that he went to the mathematicians and said, “What’s the math that goes with this physical picture?” We give Einstein a lot of credit for general relativity, but general relativity was a collective effort that he honed. I don’t think saying this detracts from Einstein at all. One of the things that makes him such a powerful example of independent thought is that he took the Michelson-Morley speed of light experiments very seriously, and instead of looking at this constant number and thinking there must be some kind of aether he took them literally and said the speed of light is constant and looks the same no matter what frame you’re in. He was like “What’s the simplest picture here, if I assume this piece of data is correct?” So I don’t think I’m detracting from Einstein by saying that, once he’d begun down that path, he also had to work with the product of mathematicians like Hermann Minkowski – he needed their work to complete his picture.
This leads me on to some thoughts about co-authorship and collaborative scientific practice. It’s common for papers in science to be co-authored – in academic philosophy, much less so (and this strikes me as a failing of the discipline) – so the discussion of attribution also made me think about disciplinary boundaries, especially between physics and philosophy. You mention in the book that Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was one of the texts that made you fall in love with physics. In one of his last books, Hawking commented that “philosophy is dead”. By itself, this isn’t a desperately helpful comment. Moreover, reading your book I thought the kind of big picture thinking you’re engaged in is incredibly philosophical in tone. When philosophy is done well, maybe it’s indistinguishable from good practice in any field? Your book is an excellent example of philosophy done well. Do you have thoughts about philosophy as an academic discipline? Do you think there’s a place for it? Cards on the table, I’m not sure I do!
So we probably disagree about this! I’ll come at this by sharing a personal story. When I was applying to Harvard I was aware that it helps to have letters from people who have gone to Harvard. The science teacher I had in fifth grade had gone to Harvard – so I asked him to write me a letter of recommendation. He made a point of showing me the letter, which is unusual. In the letter he wrote, “While I believe Chanda has the potential to make contributions to theoretical cosmology, as is her dream, I also believe she will make contributions to philosophy of physics”. I was mad about this for years! I was really grateful to him for writing the letter, but I didn’t really care for philosophy, it wasn’t something I had been very enmeshed with. But in the end, here I am, I published a paper on social epistemology at the start of 2020. I’m not doing philosophy of science in the traditional sense – I’m not doing interpretations of quantum mechanics or thinking about Mach’s principle – but I’m finding that philosophy is very helpful in giving me a vocabulary for articulating the injustices I was experiencing in physics.
Miranda Fricker’s notion of epistemic injustice is a wildly important concept, even if the original articulation of it ignored some really important features, which people like Kristie Dotson have now started to add in. Dotson’s concept of epistemic oppression is really key. Alexis Shotwell’s Knowing Otherwise is also really important, even though when it came out I criticised the ways she fails to address race. Alexis and I are friends so we can have that conversation – and when she wrote Against Purity, I could see she had clearly heard what I was saying.
Social philosophy has given us a much-needed vocabulary and it’s helped me articulate my notion of white empiricism. There’s this wide gap between what I think empiricism should be, and the kind of empiricism I actually see in practice as a scientist. That gap is, in some sense, filled with white supremacy. It’s clear that social phenomena are shaping epistemic outcomes and I continue to find the epistemic framing a really powerful one, and one that we need philosophy to articulate.
I agree that this is one of the areas academic philosophy is making a contribution, and Fricker and Dotson’s work is incredibly useful – and it relates to a question I had about one of the most powerful and troubling chapters in your book. In “Rape is Part of This Scientific Story”, you write candidly about your own experience of sexual assault and the effects of rape on your scientific practice. There was one sentence that stood out to me particularly – which I won’t quote in full – “…I’m afraid of the people who want to know who he is and also are committed to not believing it was rape, and I’m afraid that I will believe them” (p.205). It was the final clause that really made me realise how corrosive the effect of sexual assault is, in a life, and also in scientific practice and why it’s important, essential, to have this chapter in a book about physics, because that sense of self-doubt is a form epistemic violence that impacts analysis of experimental data, as well as so much else.
The person who first set me on the path of thinking about this particular question is Dr Jarita Holbrook. She’s an archeo-astronomer and does a lot on the history of astronomy in Africa. She’s also a Black woman astronomer and is currently based the University of Western Cape in South Africa. At one point she said to me that one of the things that happens to Black students in physics is that we experience some kind of racist incident and we go to our white colleagues and we explain that this racist thing happened, and the white colleague says, “Are you sure that you interpreted that correctly?” So, at a time when they’re supposed to be building their skill-set as confident observers and competent interpreters of data, Black students are having their capacity to interpret information – information that is right in front of their faces – questioned by people who don’t have the same access to the data, but who are socially empowered to question it. And of course, there’s another layer for those of us who face sexual violence on top of that.
One of the first things I did today was read a Black woman’s account of her rape by someone – I’m not going to name him because I don’t know if it was him, but the rumour is he’s a Black man who’s very popular in the scientific communications community and who’s been very active in equity, diversity and inclusions efforts. I know there are going to be people who will read her account and say, “But you didn’t fight him off, so is that rape?” To me it’s very clear, he pushed her up against a tree… and I don’t know if you want to include this in the interview, but maybe it’s important… Actually, the fact that I’m even debating with myself about this is important! He pushed her up against a tree and she said, “I don’t think we should do this” and he proceeded to penetrate her anyway. Part of my feeling about this is that “yes means yes” is a really important framework – and why wouldn’t you want someone to be enthusiastically saying yes?
The word that I haven’t said yet is gaslighting. We’re constantly being trained to be expect to be gaslit, and therefore we gaslight ourselves before someone else can do it. And I think that you’re right that I am much more likely to question myself because I have been forced to account for myself in all of these ways that my colleagues haven’t.
At the start of the book, you write, “I have learned to manage living with the Isaac Newtons of the world: those who are good at physics, but who are not good to people” (p.7). As I read it, you present a compelling argument to say that good physicists have to be aware of the moral and ethico-political dimensions of their field. Do you think you can be a good physicist if you’re not a good person? Or do you think the neglect of systemic biases makes you a bad physicist?
I really appreciate you identifying the hole in that comment, which almost goes against things I’ve said elsewhere. I think there are real questions there about what we mean when we say “good”. This, again, is where philosophy comes in and may provide us with a framework for thinking about these issues. Clearly Newton was good at maths – he was good at the actual act of calculating – but imagine he had received a manuscript showing some of the things that mathematicians were doing in India. There’s certainly evidence to suggest that Indian mathematicians were thinking things that were Calculus-adjacent earlier than Newton. Would he have discarded them? I do have to wonder: are there epistemic outcomes he would have ignored because they didn’t fit his social worldview? Were there limits to his competence as a scientist? How do our biases and internalised oppressions create limits to our competency? In some sense, this is what I’m trying to articulate with the white empiricism framework, which says that whiteness is actually damaging our competency as empirical thinkers.
I came to write about white empiricism because I kept picking up books that seemed like they were going to say what I was thinking – but didn’t! In Sandra Harding’s Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? she has this chapter – “Why ‘Physics’ Is a Bad Model for Physics” – and the whole time I was reading it I kept thinking, she’s going to get there, she’s going to get there, she’s talking about how all of these ethical and social decisions are shaping what scientists are working on. I’m like, at some point she’s going to say that this shapes what we know about science. But it wasn’t there! Every time I read the chapter it’s this incredible emotional roller-coaster! I’m like, “This is so good, she’s right on the money”, and then I’m like “It’s coming!” But it’s not there! Similarly, in Lorraine Code’s What Can She Know? she repeatedly comes back to Harding’s articulation of physics as an exception in feminist philosophy of science. And I thought, “Folks, why the gap?”
I have my own pet theory, which is not at all carefully empirically investigated, but I think physics may have seemed untouchable because they didn’t know physics. And the thing I suppose I can do uniquely is speak as a physicist.
I think that’s one of the staggering achievements of the book. My training is in philosophy of biology and metaphysics, and I went to so many conferences where people would just talk past each other or misuse each other’s vocabulary. But you’re able to pass between the different fields in a way that looks effortless, but is so rare. Thank you for talking to me, and thank you for the book!