I am such a junkie for popular science books, especially popular physics books. The Disordered Cosmos appealed for a few reasons: I want to read more popular science books by people of colour; from the description, it sounded like it also would address discrimination within the fields of science; and I enjoy Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s tweets.
The first few chapters are heavy on physics. It is tempting to be lazy and call it your “standard” rendition of particle physics. Yet Prescod-Weinstein carefully layers in connections, even in these early chapters, to the themes she will make more prominent in the later chapters. She discusses her own attraction to physics at a young age, and she relates how the knowledge she shares here is as socially constructed as other concepts, like racism and race. For instance, she criticizes the very term dark matter, arguing instead for the name non-luminous matter, because “dark” matter is not only a misnomer (it isn’t actually dark), but it also reinforces the idea that “light” (i.e., white) is the default and “dark” (i.e., black) is something strange.
Prescod-Weinstein also works to undermine the Great Man presentation of history. A lot of science books fall into the trap of treating scientific discoveries as a linear story of great men (and, sometimes, a couple of women) having eureka moments and building on what came before. While Prescod-Weinstein certainly names names, she is more interested in establishing an over-arching understanding of what we knew, collectively, at the time of a discovery, making connections between things like Minkowski’s block time and Einstein’s relativity. She is not the only person to strive to do this in her presentation of the history of physics, of course, but it’s great to see how she chooses to focus on certain aspects of the story. As a specialist in both cosmology and dark matter, of course, she especially illuminates us on what we know (and don’t know) about the earliest days of the universe, along with what we know (and don’t know) about what makes up the bulk of our universe.
These first few chapters are edifying (and essential—I’ll come back to that); however, it’s really the later chapters of The Disordered Cosmos that truly make it shine. The book shifts in part-memoir, part-polemic as Prescod-Weinstein gets very personal and very political, and I love it. She tackles racism, misogynoir, sexual assault, and more. She calls out astronomers and other scientists for their complicity in ongoing colonialism in Hawaiʻi.
In doing all of this, Prescod-Weinstein pulls back the curtain on “science” itself. Those of us who are not scientists or not directly involved in the business of science often forget that this knowledge is ultimately produced, held, and transmitted by humans. So science can be biased because humans are, ourselves, biased. When we read a science book, whether a popular science book or a formal textbook, we’re reading the story of science as filtered through one or a small number of humans’ perspectives. Add in the fact that, historically, most of those humans have been straight, cis, white men, and you start to see why the picture of our universe that we have used science to assemble in these past centuries might be rather incomplete.
It is tempting to lament, then, about the loss to science that has occurred because we have failed to cultivate more women, more scientists of colour, more trans scientists. Yet Prescod-Weinstein cautions us against this line of thinking, and this is where The Disordered Cosmos truly feels breathtaking in its radical stance. You see, it is one thing for marginalized scientists to point out the lack of representation in the academic systems that drive scientific inquiry. But the solution can’t just be “fix the leaky pipeline, and let the science continue.” Science itself is the problem. That might feel hard to accept for those of us who have grown up viewing science as neutral, like I was just discussing.
This is why the first chapters, the ones that cover scientific knowledge, are essential to this book, why The Disordered Cosmos is not simply a memoir of Prescod-Weinstein’s journey through academic and particle physics as a Jewish, queer, agender Black woman. In those first chapters, she models for us how she thinks our story of science could be told. We have to find the human connection within physics and with the greater universe. I know that sounds backwards given the great lengths physicists have gone to over the decades to paint physics as the ultimate, untouchable, most objective of all the disciplines. But that’s how you get atomic bombs and telescopes on sacred mountains. That’s how you justify medical experiments on Black people. When science becomes only about seeking knowledge, at any cost, it becomes the problem. Prescod-Weinstein’s solution isn’t just to improve representation in science; it is to have us question, dismantle, and rebuild the very structure of our scientific disciplines.
Anyway, this is one of the best non-fiction books I have read this year. Combined with Bitch, I’ve now read two kick-ass books about science (and issues with science) by two amazing women scientists. If you’re looking to shift your worldview and get more radical, both of these books are for you.