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  • D. Maurice Kreis

A Treasury of Divisive Concepts: The Disordered Cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a killjoy.


By that I mean that Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, where she is also on the core faculty in women's and gender studies, has a new book. And in the book she rather casually demolishes a myth that so many people cherish in these troubled and fractious times.


"As a physicist," she reports, she is still a loyal frequent flyer at Star Trek conventions but always finds herself at such gatherings "explaining to fellow fans that warp speed travel -- travel at the speed of light -- is probably not going to happen."


Everything else about Prescod-Weinstein's new book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred is absolutely captivating, even if you are, as I am, (to borrow her phrase) part of the "white supremacist heterocisnormative ableist patriarchy." But telling people that even the Vulcans wouldn't be able to travel at warp speed is just too much of a downer.

"Then again," Prescod-Weinstein muses, "physicists have often been wrong in the part about what is possible, so maybe we will be wrong again." Exactly! I don't give a damn about Star Trek or traveling at warp speed. But I enjoy feeling like anything can happen -- for example, that a book like this could emerge from New Hampshire of all places -- the very same state where, just days ago, the House of Representatives adopted a state budget that bans the "propogation" of certain "divisive concepts" such as the notion that "New Hampshire or the United States [are] fundamentally racist or sexist."


Beyond that, it is not really for me to judge or even to describe The Disordered Cosmos. For one thing, much of it is simply beyond my understanding. The first four chapters consist of a friendly introduction to astrophysics -- or particle cosmology, as the author describes her field of endeavor. "To borrow a word from the Indigenous communities that my Black ancestors probably come from, I am a griot of the universe -- a storyteller," Prescod-Weinstein explains -- and tell the story she does. The trouble is that my mind lacks the breadth to follow her on the trip. I cannot, for example, grasp what it truly means to say that "[g]ravity is not a force but rather an artefact [sic] of a curved spactime" or that "[m]atter causes spacetime to bend around it."

It matters not that I will never wrap my brain around leptons, quarks, photons, weak Bosons, gluons, or the Higgs boson (i.e., the list of particles in the "standard model" of particle physics. The introductory journey through theoretical physics seems intended to reclaim this subject from the grasp of those who seemed to own it when I was in high school: middle-aged white men who wore short-sleeved Oxford shirts with plastic pocket protectors; science majors all who carried themselves as if they occupied an elite realm that others could never occupy and were thus consigned to wallow in more quotidian realities like politics, literature, or even law.


It's not because I am into self-flagellation but rather because I am a fan of naked honesty that I admit I am a middle-aged white guy myself and thus, I assume, not really someone whom Prescod-Weinstein was thinking of, or hoping to inspire, as she wrote her book. She and I have a couple of noteworthy things in common: We are both atypical New Hampshire professions and we both have Jewish ancestors. I learned some interesting stuff about Jewish tradition from The Disordered Cosmos, such as the custom of identifying certain people with the suffix "z''l." It turns out that the letter z, followed by a couple of apostrophes, followed by the letter l, is an abbreviation for a Hebrew phrase that means "of blessed memory."


But, mostly, Prescod-Weinstein's reality diverges pretty sharply from mine. Indeed, a few of her contentions are going to take some further thought for me to accept. I've never bought the idea that there are any racial implications to the adjective "dark" except in relation to people. So, where Prescod-Weinstein is troubled by what physicists refer to "dark matter," especially because it apparently is most of the matter in the universe, I'm indifferent. Similarly, I am still thinking about the analogy the author draws between the ambiguities of particle physics and the nonbinary nature of gender. Prescod-Weinstein refers to herself as "agender" even as she forthrightly admits she presents herself to the world as what is commonly understood as a woman; I wonder whether she, like so many of us, is still sorting this gender stuff out.


Still, Prescod-Weinstein's explanation of why someone like me should jump on the "preferred pronouns" bandwagon is the most persuasive one I've seen. (Admittedly, I am usually debating this question, if at all, with the teenagers and undergraduates in the family.) Condemning academic colleagues who refuse to follow the pronoun preferences of their students, she writes:


First-year college physics students are expected in just one semester to not only memorize Newton's laws of physics but also to alearn how to apply them. If we can have the lofty expectations that our students will master the basics of gravity -- a deeply mysterious force that pervades the entire universe -- then surely they are owed mastery by their professors and classmates of a couple of letters that get their pronouns right. . . .


To say that you have a philosophical objection, as some faculty have taken to doing, is a form of cruelty. Who gets hurt whem someone is called by a name that is comfortable for them to answer to? Absolutely no one.


For all the ruckus about how "the millenials" are too sensitive, they people who insist on using "she" when someone knows they are better described by "he" or "they" are the ones who are weak and cannot get it together. . . . [T]he intensity of the reaction against respecting the pronouns and gender identities of trans and genderqueer people reveals a selfish proclivity to refuse to let humanity grow and to let its children breathe.


Reading prose like that reminds me of something: Most nonfiction writing is crap. Lots of people know lots of stuff and some of them write about it, but few manage to do so with any degree of elegance or passion. The very opposite of your classic book-length data dump, The Disordered Cosmos is one of the best works about, or even implicating science, I have ever encountered.


Which brings me around to Chapter 11, "Rape is Part of This Scientific Story." The author reports that she "accidentally started this chapter in the middle of writing another one, about her "relationship to cosmic acceleration." Apparently that topic took her back to her graduate school days and forced her to think about the fact that she was raped during her second term.


"I didn't want to write about being raped in the middle of a chapter about the dark universe," Prescod-Weinstein recalls. "No one wants to read about rape in a chapter about how cool particple physics is. But it begged a question: how is rape part of my scientific story? Because it clearly is."


I'm not going to characterize how rape is part of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein's disordered cosmos. You will have to read Chapter 11 yourself. I will just say that as someone who has neither raped nor been raped, and as a non-scientist, I found Chapter 11 to be astonishing and powerful. "Are men really so fragile that they can't control themselves?," the author asks. "It's in the context of these thoughts that I do science. I think about what else is out of control. The expansion of the universe, for one."


Wow.


Recently I have formed the habit of carefully parsing the "acknowledgements" section of any book I read. It seems connected to my habit of reading obituaries; I like to know about who is getting and receiving gratitude. In the case of The Disordered Cosmos, there is the author's beloved mother, the usual cast of colleagues and mentors, plus this: 'i also thank the many people who have kept my living and workspaces clean, organized, and functiolnal over the past twenty years. . . . I have depended on janitors, housekeeping, garbage collectors, dining service workers, food delivery workers, farmworkers, and administrative staff."


Wow again. Wow because this kind of writing and thinking exists within a state whose House of Representatives recently adopted a biannual state budget that has appended to it a new statutory ban on the teaching or, within state government or public schools, even the discussion of so-called "divisive concepts," among them the notion that we live in a nation that is racist or sexist. It is, indeed, a disordered cosmos.


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[In something like the same spirit of Professor Prescod-Weinstein's acknowledgements, I disclose that the photographs I used to illustrate this post are of two sculptures created by the artist Lee Williams of North Bennington, Vermont. I saw and photographed them last summer in the annual NBOSS (North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show) of the Bennington, Museum. Somehow they said "physics" to me, and then I remembered the two works are called "Irradiation #1" and "Irradiation #2." Williams has written that "[t]he title can be interpreted as not only as the way an object is exposed to radiation and light but also as the process of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment." Yet another wow!]



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