Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (author), Joniece Abbott-Pratt (narrator)

Hachette Audio, ISBN 9781549133961, March 2021

This is simultaneously a book about about physics and in particular dark matter, and an account of what it's like to be a black American woman of Caribbean extraction in the world of science, and in particular in physics.

Prescod-Weinstein loves physics, and started loving physics as a child, looking up at the night sky. Later in the book, she notes that her childhood in Los Angeles gave her no idea what she was missing until later in life, when she was a working theoretical cosmologist and astrophysicist. When, in the course of the book, she's talking about physics, she's often expressing joy and excitement.

When she's talking about being a black American woman of Caribbean extraction working in physics, not so much.

Prescod-Weinstein is only the 63rd black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the United States. The more challenging parts of this book to read or listen to, but also very educational, are the parts where she's talking about the reality of being a black woman in science and especially in physics.

Her mother worked long hours and scrimped, saved, and did without, to send her to an elite high school where she could get the academic background and the connections to get into a distinguished college to begin her serious pursuit of a career in physics. She got a BA in Physics and Astronomy at Harvard in 2003, a master's degree in astronomy at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2005, and after a change in research direction, her Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo in 2010.

And all along the way, she encountered obstacles that her white, and especially white male, fellow students and colleagues did not. Being assumed to be there for diversity. Being questioned on her basic competence far more. Having her ideas often dismissed, and then the same idea being accepted readily when in it came from a white man.

Being raped. She isn't graphic in describing it, and does not name the man, but that trauma put a large obstacle in being able to continue her studies and her work. She had to overcome that to continue, but the trauma isn't gone.

Among the more "routine" challenges is the fact that women in academic departments tend to be stuck with the "emotional labor" of making things work, and as the only black woman, often the only black person in any group, she's always the designated person for any minority woman to seek out, or to be referred to, when they have questions and problems that white faculty and project leaders can't address.  She values that work, and believes in its vital importance, but it also takes time, energy, and intellectual bandwith she could be more directly devoting to science.

It's an interesting book, sometimes difficult, but well worth reading or listening to.


I bought this audiobook.

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