Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s Jewish Universe

A conversation with the Black Jewish theoretical physicist on her new book, "Disordered Cosmos," and her fight to make the night sky accessible to all.

Who gets to access the night sky? It’s a seemingly simple question, yet one I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I read Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s new book.

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist whose work focuses on cosmology, neutron stars, and dark matter (though she makes a compelling argument for why dark matter shouldn’t be called “dark matter”). You may already be familiar with her, if you’re one of the over 80K people who follow her on Twitter, where she grapples with racism, Judaism, science, politics, and often where all those things intersect. Her new book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, is one of our most anticipated Jewish books for spring 2021 because of how Dr. Prescod-Weinstein brings her unique and necessary perspective to science as a Black Jewish scientist, and how she writes for a more just world.

Throughout the book, she details how she grapples with the universe. “I don’t personally believe in the supernatural, but I still think that there’s something valuable about grappling with this larger question of what is the fabric that we make? And, in some sense, that’s what the book is about,” she explained to me over the phone ahead of the publication of Disordered Cosmos. “I don’t think that I separate my thinking as a Jew from my thinking as a scientist, in that sense, because I’m grappling with the universe, and Judaism is grappling with the universe.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about everything from why her book is not a memoir to the impact of Jewish astronomer Dr. Vera Rubin to the Jewish concept of olam (the world) to why Passover is the best Jewish holiday, naturally.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I love how you open and close the book with a Hebrew prayer. Can you talk about why you wanted to include that in your memoir?

I should say I don’t think of the book as a memoir. I even have a discussion in the introduction about why I think people are going to frame it as a memoir, and why that doesn’t happen to white people who write books about science. I even ended up having a public back and forth about how the Library of Congress was originally going to categorize the book as “African American biography” and I was like, but who is it a biography of?

Oh wow, so what did it end up being categorized as?

It’s now categorized as a science book, and as a book on science methodology. I put the discussion specifically about memoir-ization in the beginning, because every time a scientist writes a book about popular science, they put part of themselves into the book — we necessarily do that. What’s interesting to me is that white men do this, and people are like, oh, that’s science. And then anybody else does that, and they’re like, oh, that’s a memoir.

You walk away from the book knowing very little about me. You know certain stories about things that are relevant to ideas that I’m thinking through in science. You know certain pieces of information that help frame some of the thinking that I’ve done, but otherwise you walk away with very little sense of what my my personality is, what my relationships are like, you don’t know anything about my friends. There are just all sorts of things that would be necessary if it was a memoir. On the flip side, another way of thinking about it is that when scientists are writing popular science, maybe it’s all memoir! Maybe we need to kind of expand how we envision popular science.

So that said, as a Jewish person, the tradition is we open everything with a prayer, and we close everything with a prayer — whatever kind of book it is, we open and we close with that.

That makes sense, and my apologies for calling it a memoir. I don’t have any real background in reading science methodology books, to be completely honest, and I really appreciate the clarification.

In [Disordered Cosmos], I have a paragraph-long discussion about how people are going frame this book as being somehow different from what Carl Sagan did. But Carl Sagan was putting a very personal imprint on his storytelling, right?

I was just about to ask you, you write about Sagan’s communication style, and Disordered Cosmos is a nod to his book Cosmos. Can you talk about how his style as a white Jewish man influenced you, as a Black Jewish agender woman?

Carl Sagan was a really important figure for me when I was struggling with my place in physics in college. Reading Cosmos the summer between my freshman year and my sophomore year gave me a sense of grounding of, why am I doing this? Carl Sagan was really good at helping people situate themselves in the larger context. He was a very important reference point. From a Jewish perspective, there’s a cultural thing happening there. I don’t know what he would have thought about it; he was very much against talking about the supernatural.

I don’t think when I was first reading him that I understood him as a Jewish thinker. Later, when I read his final book, Billions and Billions, some of that cultural context shines through. [It’s] an essay collection that he wrote essentially on his deathbed. He’s thinking about what the world is that he’s leaving behind, what are his hopes and dreams for the children that he’s leaving behind. There’s a very memorable line at the end — I can’t remember if he wrote this part, or if his widow Ann Druyan wrote this part — where he was saying goodbye to his daughter. He says something like, “Beautiful Sasha, you are enormous gorgeous.”

And that phrase, “enormous gorgeous,” has always stayed with me, I’ve used it a lot. It encompasses his worldview; even though he was talking to his daughter, I think that’s how he felt about the universe.

One of the comments that my spouse made to me recently is that we have this word that appears a lot in Jewish liturgy, olam, which can be interpreted to mean “the world.” But it can also mean the universe; it can mean eternity, it can mean vast space. And in some sense, we already have this word in Jewish liturgy that sort of says spacetime. So maybe we’re primed a little bit to feel like, okay, that’s not such a wild idea. We already kind of use all those concepts interchangeably when we’re praying.

What does your Jewish identity mean to you? Does it shape the work that you do?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m a Reconstructionist Jew, so that means always thinking about what is the life of Judaism, what is the relationship between Judaism and the wider world, because I feel like that is [founder of Reconstructionist Judaism] Mordecai Kaplan’s legacy. My Judaism roots me in my values, and that’s a really important thing. Science is a social phenomenon, so I have to figure out, how am I going to approach managing a group? How do I approach interacting with people? I don’t get those lessons from my textbooks on quantum field theory. I’m getting that framework from my family and my community context, and part of my community context is my Jewish context. Actually, I should say, going back to the question about the prayers, my rabbi helped me pick those prayers out.

I saw that in the acknowledgments, that’s so wonderful. What was the thinking behind the ones she chose?

[My rabbi,] Rabbi Toba [Spitzer], said to me, “Since your book is about the night sky, why not the Maariv? Why not the evening prayer, where we welcome in the evening?” And then she looked at the book and said, “I think that the Traveler’s Prayer is the right one for the ending.”

One of the things that I really appreciated — and I guess this is a super Reconstructionist thing — is she sent me a couple of different English interpretations, but then really said to me, “You have freedom to interpret this as you will.” And you can see, if you look at the Maariv, the English translation that I put there is really kind of a creative interpretation by me; I take out Adonai, I take out God, for the most part, and I insert the universe. I use the phrase “living universe.”

I was thinking through, how do I want Judaism to speak to my book? And how does my book speak to who I am as a Jew?  I just thought it was very important to do things in the book that were Jewish, as a way of saying, I can write a book about science, I can signal my Jewish identity, and also, I don’t need to talk about God.

I was really struck by this passage in your book: “We cannot talk about the wonders of the night sky without talking about the fact that people are running for their lives beneath the same celestial structures that I get paid to think about every day. I do not want to wait to find out how this story ends if we don’t get in the way because I know, and as a Black Jew feel in every fiber of my being, what happened when Germans did the same.” I was just hoping you could talk more about why it was important for you to emphasize this?

That paragraph — or pieces of it — comes from a talk that I gave at Occidental College. Occidental College is in northeast Los Angeles. It’s in my old stomping grounds — I grew up in East LA; my best friend grew up in Eagle Rock, which is where Occidental is, so I had really grown up in that community. And I was very conscious of going back to that community, and how much gentrification had completely transformed it.

I was also dealing with awareness that the community that had been there, which was primarily Latino people, was tied to this very public conversation that we were having. There were conversations about people being kept in the camps on the borders. And I know referring to them as concentration camps is an extremely sensitive subject. I have certainly been one of those people who’s been like, let’s be really careful about what language we are using here. But at some point, you’re having semantic debates while people are being tortured. And what I needed that audience to know is that while it was great to think about cosmology, we could not just sit in East LA and be like, “Isn’t this all beautiful?” while people were being tortured, and while people were literally walking hundreds of miles to the border only to be put in these camps. Or worse, deported back to places where maybe they were going to be killed, or raped, or raped then killed. And also DREAMers who are being sent to countries where they don’t necessarily speak the language, where they don’t have community. Just this incredible human suffering. So I felt I could not go home and talk about science, and what’s beautiful, without talking about what’s ugly.

The fact that I came to it the way that I did is very strongly influenced by the fact that as a Black Jew, I think very much through my family’s history of enslavement — not as a rhetorical story, but as a real thing that happened less than 200 years ago to my family. And so I was thinking about, what did it mean to be enslaved under the stars? Here in the United States, people could use the stars to run away to freedom. In Barbados, where we know that my mom’s family was enslaved, it’s a 14 by 21 mile Island; there was nowhere to go. Running away was actually really hard.

What does it mean to you to fight to “make the night sky accessible”? I loved that phrase from the book.

All of these fights that we’re having right now about children in cages, families in cages, mothers in cages, whoever’s in a cage.. while people are in cages, they’re definitely not looking at the night sky. All of our struggles about food, healthcare, secure housing, abolition, the end of incarceration as we know it, all of these things are eventually about being able to look at the night sky.

People look at the sky when they have the chance to. What I’m thinking about is how do we give people the freedom to see themselves as someone who can really sit and think about it? What does it mean to create that spacetime for people? Spacetime is apt here, not necessarily in Einstein’s relativity sense, but in the sense where people need to be in a place where they can see the sky, and people need to be in a situation where they have time to just sit and think about it. And that means you’re not working three jobs and only getting five hours of sleep.

Telling stories about the night sky is part of our humanity. We’re a storytelling species, as Sylvia Wynter has said. We need to make sure that people have the spacetime to be that part of their human self.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far? 

I taught Intro to Astrophysics in the fall of 2019. And it was my first time teaching as a professor, and it was really scary for me. There were challenges along the way; I’m pretty sure I had a student who wasn’t happy about my race, because he seemed to be fine with his white woman professor. But it was a real joy at the end of the semester to see how much the students had learned. So for the final project, I assigned them to pick an atomic element, and then they had to do a 10-minute presentation on that atomic element’s cosmic journey. It was so much fun watching the students give a presentation. And that was really the moment where I could see they learned things.

Maybe one of them will write a book in 20 years and say, this was the class that set me on the path.

I hope so! There were so many talented students in that class. One proud moment, I will say — and I won’t give names or institutions — but there was one student who came into my office to ask me a question about the homework. And I asked her how finding a graduate school was going. And she basically said, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do or where she was going to apply. And I basically said, “Look, you need to apply to this extremely top institution A, and extremely top institution B.” And she was like, “Oh, I can never get into those places.” And I was like, “You have to apply.” And she’s attending one now! And as far as I know, despite this year being this year, she’s happy with her choice. That was a really proud moment for me, because a very short conversation with somebody can really alter their path for the better. And I hope that I’ve done that for her. I love those moments with students. I really, really love those moments with students where you can really say something that is meaningful and valuable to them.

That actually makes me think the part in the book when you write about meeting Dr. Vera Rubin, who asked you how you thought the dark matter problem could be solved, and how no one had ever asked you that before. What was that moment like for you? 

I definitely think that she was showing me: This is a way to be in the world when you meet younger folks. I actually should say, I have a Jewish Vera Rubin story that’s not in the book.

Oh my gosh, please tell me.

By the time that I met Vera, I had actually been to a Passover seder at her son’s house. One of her sons is a geologist who lives in the Santa Cruz area. I had a Jewish roommate my first year in Santa Cruz. And he was like, “Oh, I have this friend, I’m going to Passover seder at his family’s house. Do you want to come with me? They said that I can bring you.” So I get there, and they’re like, “Oh, we hear you’re a graduate student in astronomy. Our mom is an astronomer.” And I’m like, “Who’s your mom?” and they’re like, “Vera Rubin.” And I’m like, “You’re fucking kidding me.”

When I finally met her, I was like, “I went to Passover seder at your son’s house.” One of the things that I don’t talk about in the book — I guess this is an example of things that I might put in a memoir, but they don’t go in that book — [is that] I do think I faced challenges as someone who is Black in physics, but, and this is going to set off all the conspiracy theorists, being Jewish has been helpful. I have at points connected with senior scholars who were Jewish. I remember sitting over lunch one day and chatting with Lenny Susskind, who is a physicist at Stanford University. He grew up in the same kind of milieu that my grandfather grew up in. Similarly, I was able to say to Vera, I was at your son’s Passover seder. Sometimes there’s things that identify us to each other as a kinship. The interesting thing about Passover — it’s by leaps and bounds my favorite holiday.

Tell me more about your love of Passover!

People come to my house, we have the big seder. There are changes that I make — we serve sake during dinner so that people can drink during dinner. Everybody’s really wasted by the end. My Passover seders are epic. For me as a Black Jew, it took me a long time to realize that I interpreted the holiday differently than white Jews did.

A big piece of Passover is welcoming the stranger, right? That’s part of our story. We actually set a place at the table for Elijah, we open the door for Elijah, who isn’t a stranger, but in some sense, he is. There is the narrative of — one of my middle names is the Sojourner — of being a sojourner in a strange land. The tradition of giving people who don’t have a place to go during Passover, like their family doesn’t celebrate, or they can’t go home, is a strong Jewish American tradition.

In some sense, the fact that Vera’s son was willing to welcome me into his house like that is actually connected to Vera saying, “Let me welcome you into dark matter.” I do see a connection there. It’s a family value that we welcome people into our spaces. That is our task. We know what it is to be a sojourner, to be a stranger in a strange land, and we welcome people into our space.

I love that idea. And it makes me so sad that we’re about to have another Zoom Passover coming up.

I have to say those have been particularly hard, because I’m the only observant person in my family. I don’t have the same kind of family thing. My dad is a strongly Jewish-identifying person. He’s also very much a political Jew. I just want to acknowledge that the Zoom Passover seders are hard in a multitude of ways. One, you miss all the things. And two, for people for whom family is complicated, which I think probably queer people feel this especially, that this just makes it worse. Because your friends are maybe going to their family seders, and not having their friends seders in the same way and that kind of thing.

What is your greatest hope for this book once it’s released? 

I hope people find it useful. Whatever that means. I hope it ends up in the science section of bookstores, and I hope it also simultaneously ends up in the African American Studies, and the Women and Gender Studies sections. This sounds like I want my book to throw up on the bookstore. But really, what I mean is that I want people to not see these topics as bifurcated from each other.

In that sense, I’m also thinking about Chanda at age 17. What is the book that would have said to her: Your interest is okay and beautiful, and your dreams are okay and beautiful. The thing that Carl Sagan didn’t do was tell me what a life in science for someone like me would be like, and how to handle that. I don’t know if my book is a particularly good guide on how to handle that. But I hope that my book at least says you can do it.

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