Only one week ago from today, I wrote of The Disordered Cosmos, “This book is particularly intriguing because my perception is that it is about physics, astronomy, Star Trek, and how science needs to be a more accepting space for women and people of color. I just bought it yesterday as my reward for making it through the week, and I am so eager to get started!” I had a decently correct idea of what the book actually is, but in no way was I prepared for what I would learn.
My first impression upon beginning The Disordered Cosmos was that the author’s tone was lighter and more conversational than I anticipated for a book about such heavy topics. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is in no way a rigid, authoritarian scientist, which is what my reading in science has led me to expect from its authors. Her informal tone is what drove me to finish this book in only six days instead of the usual 14 to 30. I really enjoyed it for about the first half, and I felt like I was in conversation with the author. It made it pretty easy to read quickly, so halfway through the week, I decided if I keep up my pace I could finish it in time to review it today. Obviously I did, but powering through the second half of this book became harder and harder.
Let me explain. First of all, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is not like other scientists. She is a Black woman, which means that her experience as a particle physicist and theoretical cosmologist is pretty much the exact opposite experience of that of her white male peers in the astro/physics space. But that’s not what makes her different. She is different because she knows about the ugly, oppressive, colonialist, white supremacist underbelly of science, and she is the only person who has ever clued me in on it to this extent. She essentially grabbed the rose-colored science glasses off my face and smashed them into the ground.
Learning that science is beyond flawed, but deeply broken, hurt me specifically because of who I am and who I have become over the past few years. If there is anything that you know about me from reading my blog, it’s that I love science. You might know that I’m not a scientist in any way but that I’ve daydreamed about maybe becoming one once or twice. I see myself as more of a science admirer or cheerleader, cheering on from the sidelines the brilliant scientists making groundbreaking discoveries. I’m a defender of science from creationism and other forms of pseudoscience.
This passion for science came from my exit from religion and its thought-stifling communities and practices. Anyone who has abandoned young-earth creationism in favor of evolution’s explanation of our beautiful, ugly, complex, diverse life forms will know what I mean. You learn that we don’t just know what we know because it was told to us by an authority figure or from a book. We step out of that world and science feels like a door into the cosmos opening before us, with all of the real, evidence-based answers about our universe there for us to discover.
So imagine my dismay when it feels as though this entire vision was a painting on glass that Prescod-Weinstein shattered with a hammer, only to show me scientists stealing Indigenous land, discounting the discoveries of anyone with too much melanin in their skin, and raping their colleagues. This book showed me one of the ugliest industries I have ever seen. The only reason I admired science so much was because I got to watch it from the outside. I had no idea that it was intrinsically linked to colonialism, capitalism, and a toxic thirst for power. Suddenly, the image of a white man staking his claim in the Moon using an American flag was much less inspiring and much more ominous.
I wondered at times, along with Prescod-Weinstein, why she would even want to be a scientist in such a backward, racist, sexist community. But then I remember the first part of the book, “Just Physics” which is described as, “In which the universe is, for a time, human free.” Oh, how I wished I could go back to that section later in the book, before I knew the rest.
In this first section, Prescod-Weinstein gives us a glimpse into the love she has for particle physics. Many other reviewers of this book lamented that they didn’t really understand the scientific nomenclature in this section. I didn’t either, but I’m either used to not understanding books about physics, or I knew that the details about quarks really weren’t what I needed to take with me. I didn’t need any preexisting physics acumen to understand Prescod-Weinstein’s undying love for particle physics. She loves it more than I think I can explain to you. Something about the Standard Model makes this professional PhD physicist so, so happy, and that makes me happy, too.
The reason why this book is not entirely devoted to particle physics, which is a book I’m sure Prescod-Weinstein would much rather have written, is because I think that her scientific surroundings make it hard to focus on just doing what she loves uninterrupted. It reminds me of those times when I am trying to enjoy a book, only to be distracted by noises that are no fault of my own, like other people’s screaming babies and barking dogs. How are you supposed to focus on what you came here to do with all this noise? When the noise is that of Native Hawaiians protesting for astronomers not to build telescopes on sacred land, for Black mothers grieving for their murdered children, or women trying to make their voices heard without sounding too emotional, Prescod-Weinstein halted the objective science talk and turned our attention toward these more urgent issues. Until they have been addressed, science will not be proceeding as it should.
How can I go on loving science—the science that Carl Sagan showed me—knowing also what Chanda Prescod-Weinstein showed me? I’ve come up with the idea that “science” is only one word that in fact can mean many different things. There is the industry of science that is filthy and backward, authoritarian and colonialist. The science that denies those who differ from the straight white cis male standard. The science that rapes. When I call myself, in my blog’s subtitle, “A Skeptic on a Quest for Science”, that’s… not what I mean. Maybe we should not conflate this industry of deeply flawed scientists operating in a white supremacist patriarchy with Science, true science, perfect science. The science that I fell in love with because it does not make mistakes.
As an atheist, I’ve often encountered other atheists asking religious people, “How can you be religious when religion has caused so much harm to so many people?” The religious people usually reply with, “Religion as it is practiced by humans is not perfect, because humans are not perfect. God is still perfect, and I believe that He is good even when religious people are bad.”
I never imagined that I would be asking myself this same question, and giving the equivalent answer, about science instead of religion. But true Science, the version that isn’t riddled with human flaws, is a standard of near-perfect objectivity, albeit one that fickle humans—yes, even scientists—will never reach. I do not admire scientists who steal Indigenous lands and who rape people. I do admire science as a way of learning about the world, and trying to know what is true as accurately as we can. I love science’s ability to weed out quackery and pseudoscience by demonstrating that two variables do or do not have any correlation. I love the democracy and the equality of it all, that if your idea holds up to scrutiny, then it doesn’t matter if you’re Albert Einstein or a Black queer disabled agender Jewish woman from East LA. True Science doesn’t care who you are. Everyone gets an equal chance to see if their ideas will survive skepticism and experimentation.
I think that my made-up justification of loving Science holds water, but even knowing that, this book is leaving me particularly disappointed and unmotivated to praise science as I have been for years. The topics in this book are very heavy, especially if you didn’t know them before and you really don’t know what you can do to help it get better. I don’t. I wish there was something I could do to make flawed science more closely resemble true Science, but I’m not part of the science community and I don’t really have the power or money on my own to do much. I think the most I can do is to tell you to read this book. I mean that especially if you are a white male scientist or if you know one. Listen to what Prescod-Weinstein is telling you, and don’t take it lightly. If you aren’t concerned for the well-being of Black woman scientists, then at least do it knowing that this is life and death for Science itself.