The Physicist and Social Theorist Fighting for Equality in Science

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has peered into the deep past of the cosmos, while also working toward a just and equal future in the scientific community.
December 4, 2020, 2:00pm
​Image: Michelle Urra
Image: Michelle Urra
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For Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, activism is a family tradition. Growing up in east Los Angeles as the child of a labor organizer and a women’s rights activist—and the grandchild of feminist writer and activist Selma James—she was always immersed in the hard work of advancing progressive causes.

Looking back, Prescod-Weinstein said in an interview, this exposure to the exceedingly human challenges of activism might help explain why, as an adolescent, she fell deeply in love with the sublime concepts of cosmology: a field devoted to unraveling the origins, evolution, and fate of the universe. 

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She recalls enthusiastically recounting to her peers, on high school bus trips, all the cool things she’d learned about the standard model of particle physics from books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

“I really liked the idea of being able to reduce things to their fundamental parts,” Prescod-Weinstein said in a call. “I witnessed and heard a lot of storytelling and narratives around the ways in which the world was messy, disordered, and messed up.”

“For me, there was something really attractive about this thing that seemed like it had nothing to do with people and was super-organized and just really elegant,” she added.

Over the past two decades, Prescod-Weinstein has followed that passion for cosmology and particle physics to extraordinary heights. After racking up degrees from Harvard College and the University of California, Santa Cruz, she received her PhD from the University of Waterloo as a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

She now serves as an assistant professor of physics and a core faculty member in women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire. (She’s also a certified Pilates instructor, an avid watcher of horror movies, and “a hardcore Star Trek fan,” in her words, with some impressive memorabilia to prove it).  

A leading expert on delightfully trippy subjects such as dark matter, particle astrophysics, the early universe, and quantum gravity, Prescod-Weinstein has won many awards and honors, most recently the 2021 Edward A. Bouchet Award from the American Physical Society. Her first book, entitled The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, just received a Kirkus starred review in advance of its publication in March. 

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Prescod-Weinstein has also earned a devoted social media audience on Twitter and Medium as an outspoken and lively advocate for equality in science—and beyond—with a talent for breaking down complex scientific and social issues. 

In the midst of this summer’s outpouring of raw grief and anger over the murder of George Floyd by police, and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, she helped organize and promote the Strike for Black Lives on June 10. The strike attracted widespread attention and tens of thousands of participants not only in the United States, but around the world

While she started her scientific odyssey with the idea that cosmology might provide an ethereal escape from the tangled morass of human society, her outlook has changed dramatically. She now calls her earlier views on science as being somewhat removed from human concerns “super naive” and “extremely wrong” in retrospect. 

“I think that in some sense, I had bought this propaganda—hook, line, and sinker—that science was this apolitical thing,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “The part that I still hang on to from that is that I took seriously the idea of being empirical about problem solving. I really bought that we should use data, that we should take data seriously, and that we should apply data to the problems we see in front of us.”

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“I think that is, at its best, what it means to do science and to be a scientist,” she added.

What is lacking in the academic community, in Prescod-Weinstein’s view, is the application of that same empiricism—which has detected exotic subatomic particles and glimpsed the early universe—to social and civil issues, such as misogynoir, sexual harassment, homophobia, and prejudice in all forms. 

Instead, the progression of both science and humanity is obstructed by what she calls “white empiricism” in a recent article in the feminist academic journal Signs.  

“I accused the physics community of practicing not real empiricism, but practicing white empiricism, where certain pieces of data get discarded when we're having conversations about social and civic issues—and with a level of comfort that people would never have if we were talking about an official science or official physics question,” she said.

“In some sense, I think this is rooted in who gets to be a scientist, and whose thought is automatically accepted as scientific thought.”

Though activism is something of a multi-generational heirloom in her family, Prescod-Weinstein has blazed her own trail as a social theorist and faced unique hurdles as a Black, Jewish, queer, and agender woman in a field that is still dominated by white men and colonial frameworks. 

She remains troubled that so many of her budding students are still plagued by the same forms of discrimination and erasure she’s had to confront throughout her life and career—while hopeful that she can serve as a beacon to them.

“At this point, I'm very aware that a lot of the issues that I faced have not changed,” she said. “Something that has changed is now students have someone like me to come to.”

“There's definitely a piece of this where we just need to circumvent the academic structure to communicate with students” and say “this is how you survive,” Prescod-Weinstein concluded. “You are not the only one.”