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August 19, 2022

Whose Physics Is It Anyway? Q&A with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Why physics and astronomy communities must take diversity issues seriously in order to do good science.
by Nicola Jones
FQXi Awardees: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
April 20, 2018
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Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
University of Washington
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist with a keen interest in diversity. As a post-doc at the University of Washington, her passions run from statistical mechanics to the philosophy of science. With a PhD in early universe cosmology from the Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Prescod-Weinstein has academic publications on everything from dark matter and the origins of cosmic inflation, to the complicity of German scientists in Nazi Germany. In 2016, she was awarded an FQXi grant of over $100,000 to investigate how physics and astronomy communities decide what to study, and how the observers—be they black, white, male, female or nonbinary—affect the observations.

People often say that science and math at their purest are blind to politics, and are all about objective truth—what do you think about that?

I just think this is really silly. A lesson we can take away from Einstein is that there’s no observer that’s objective relative to other observers. And no one person is more the arbiter of what the laws of physics are than anyone else. I don’t know if that’s what drove Einstein’s anti-racism activism (which almost no one ever talks about), but that’s an important thing to think about.

Social problems drive what gets funded and what doesn’t. In the 18th century, astronomy really took off, in part, because governments were really interested in how to ship goods—and people—between Africa’s Ivory Coast, the US and Europe. That’s what really drove astronomical observation, to help calculate distances and improve trade routes. In the 19th century, energy was a really big problem, in part, because of the end of slavery, which was a white supremacist perpetual motion machine. There’s no moral purity there.

In 2010, you became the 63rd black American woman to earn a PhD in physics (compared to about 2,400 white women, and 22,000 white men). How did you end up there?

I was actually really inspired by A Brief History of Time—not the book, the documentary. I saw it when I was 10, in a theatre in LA, and I realized there were questions Einstein hadn’t worked out and you could get paid to study these questions, and that sounded like the perfect job for me. I actually emailed Stephen Hawking when I was 11 about how to be a theoretical physicist, and one of his graduate students replied.

The reaction in my family was mixed; my black family was really excited. It was my father’s side, the white Jewish side, where people had questions and concerns. My grandma was 15 when the WWII atomic bombing of Nagasaki happened, and I think that was really formative in her view of what physicists did.

A lesson we can take
away from Einstein is
that there’s no observer
that’s objective.
- Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
How did you get into studying diversity in science?

I really feel I was forced to go in that direction. When I was 17, I wasn’t thinking this was my goal in life; fighting was not part of the plan. I was exposed to the National Society of Black Physicists and realized what a fantastic resource it was; I wanted to give back, and became active in 2005. Then, in 2009, I was at the Women in Astronomy conference, and listening to people saying over and over again that the news was good, the numbers were increasing. And I had to say: have you looked at the numbers? It’s white women whose numbers are increasing. Someone said, "I don’t even see why race matters when we talk about women in science."

It’s more intuitive for some people to see how sexism affects outcomes in fields like medical research. Most of these discussions shy away from tackling physics in any serious way. Yet it’s the part of STEM (along with computer science, engineering and math) that’s least gender and race diverse, so there’s something going on there. (Diversity statistics are available from the National Science Foundation.)

Would you call yourself a social scientist?

It does seem to have worked out that way, doesn’t it? I don’t have any degrees in social science, but I also spent my childhood doing things like following my grassroots activist mother to the UN; I sat in on a meeting with my mom that she had with Hillary Clinton, when Bill Clinton was president. Communities often have expertise that comes from home-grown training that might not be academic in nature.

I think I’m just being "a scientist." Fundamentally I’m pro-empiricism. My frustration is that many of my colleagues are limited about how they will apply empiricism; they won’t apply it, for example, to whether race matters, to look at those numbers. I turned to social science only because my colleagues were really falling down in this area. People think they can trust their gut when it comes to issues of diversity—inevitably someone at the table says, "well maybe minorities just somehow aren’t interested"—even though the data doesn’t support this. You can’t just go with your gut; it doesn’t work that way when we study the atom.

Thirty Meter Telescope protest, Maunakea, October 7, 2014
Hawaiian cultural practitioners, environmentalists, and activists
gathered to stand against the groundbreaking ceremony for the
telescope. Mayor Billy Kenoi talks with Hawaiian protectors, as
policemen stand in the background.

Credit: Occupy Hilo, Wikimedia Commons
One of the issues you have studied is native Hawaiian protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), planned for the top of Maunakea. What is the crux of the debate?

For some of the protectors (the name of the protest group), the issue is that this is their land, and they are sick of being told by colonizers what to do with it. For others, it is about the sacred nature of the land. It all starts with colonialism, and a significant part of the tension is that there is a refusal to even recognize that. Scientists often try to frame the debate as science vs religion, or even "modern science" versus "anti-science religion." It sets the indigenous community up as fundamentally anti-modern, which is a pretty racist axiomic starting point.

I have seen a lot of missed opportunities that would have seen this play out very differently. During the height of debate about this, I was in groups of about 15,000 people answering questions about why scientists even wanted this telescope in Hawaii rather than Chile. They wanted to understand why scientists felt so strongly about it. The astronomers didn’t have the same curiosity about why the protectors felt so strongly.

What do you think should happen with the telescope project?

As an outsider, it’s not my place to say "this project shouldn’t happen." My role is to advocate for doing science in a way that puts people first, even when they don’t have a lot of social power. Why does the TMT have to happen on the timeline set out? I understand people have careers, but are those reasons good enough to not stop and build community consensus?

The court cases are still unfolding. There are still barriers. Realistically it looks like it will go forward without community consensus, but I would have said that four years ago and that’s not how things have unfolded.

You have described yourself as black, cisfemale, and genderqueer, living with chronic pain and pansexual. Have these things played a role in your career?

I don’t particularly enjoy listing these things off all together; it makes me look like some sort of aberration. Men don’t get asked about being a cis-gender, white, upper middle class man, you know? It feels like a double standard. It is what it is. What excites me is that these days young people don’t feel they have to be confined to binaries when it comes to gender identity or sexual orientation; I’m not sure what the trend is for race.

White, European males seem to have dominated the scientific discourse in recent centuries; what pieces are missing from this version of history?

Ibn Sahl, for example, was an early Persian mathematician (940-1000AD) during the Islamic Golden Age. He first formulated what is now known as Snell’s Law, though we don’t teach it that way. And an enslaved black child, Edmond Albius, first figured out how to artificially pollinate vanilla plants, in 1841. That revolutionized the entire planet. As far as I’m concerned, he was a child genius. When we think about the foundation of the American economy and American science we should look at un-named figures.

Artist’s impression of the proposed Thirty Meter

Credit: Thirty Meter Telescope
Should we be conscious of social, gender and race issues when deciding who to fund?

Having sat on NSF funding panels, I’ve sat through some of these conversations. Particularly now that funding is more scarce, we have to distinguish between applications. Reviewers need to be aware of structural bias, which does not announce itself. You cannot offer a counterbalance if you don’t have the information about how it’s playing a role. You can’t ignore part of your equation just because it’s messy.

How will you use your FQXi grant?

I’m a particle theorist who does math all day, and my co-investigator, Sarah Tuttle (also at the University of Washington), is a telescope builder. We think about observation in very different ways. Essentially our idea was to try to understand the dynamic between discrimination and the physics and astronomy community, and who gets to be the observer.

We have a lot going on. A research assistant who is working on her masters in public health (Daysha Gunther) is going to talk to black and native women who have physics PhDs, to see how and why they came up with their dissertation topics. My hypothesis is that we are losing scientific knowledge because of racism and sexism. But my primary hypothesis is that I’m going to be surprised. Another research assistant (Iris Viveros-Avendaño, women’s studies) is creating curricular materials to introduce these topics into university classrooms.

Is it possible for astronomy, physics, and science as a whole, to be fully diverse, or will there always be strain?

Humanity has proven we are a species with ingenuity. There are many things we are capable of changing, should we decide that’s what we want to do: how we vote; which politicians we push to the fore; how we treat our spouses. Science too doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s a thing people do. We have to be honest about that. And then decide whether we like what’s coming out of that feedback loop, or whether we need to make changes.

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