The billionaire space race and patriarchy in physics, with Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Ground Controller Command engine to start, two, one. 

Enthusiast Go Jeff, you are going to space!

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. You know, it must be nice just shuttling off to space and leaving behind a planet full of racial disparity and food insecurity, a pandemic, poverty and pollution created in part by the fact that you don’t have to pay your fair share of taxes. I know I’m not the only one rolling my eyes at this. Y’all have read the headlines. “The billionaire space race is the ultimate symbol of capitalist decadence.” “The space race for Bezos, Branson, Musk is a mere vanity project.” And my favorite, “Leave the billionaires in space.” This may be the summer of space but y’all Black folks have been calling out this flying circus since the summer of soul. Here’s a clip from Quest Love’s new documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, in which a TV reporter asks people in Harlem what they think about the fact that a man has just landed on the moon. 

Festival Attendee I think it’s very important, but I don’t think it’s any more relevant than, you know, the Harlem Cultural Festival here. I think it’s equal. 

Reporter What are your thoughts?

Festival Attendee As far as science goes and everybody that’s involved with the moon planning and astronauts, it’s beautiful. You know? But like me, I couldn’t care less.

Reporter This means more to you than that?

Festival Attendee Much more. Cash is wasted as far as I’m concerned in getting to the moon, it could have been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem and all over the place, all over this country. So, you know, like never mind the moon. Let’s get some of that cash in Harlem. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And this is why I always say Black folks know America better than she knows herself. Oppressed people intricately understand the systems that repress us because our very survival depends on that understanding. And it’s not just that corporate giants are wasting their undertaxed money on giant phallic space travel when we have so many problems here on Earth. It’s that the world’s richest straight white dudes are getting to drive the agenda on space exploration for their own selfish sake. Like I’m not against space. Hell, I think it’s magnificent. You’ll hear more about that later in this episode. But I’m against this “me first” approach to space, which kind of takes everything that’s not working here on Earth and just exports it into the universe. Honestly, I wouldn’t even mind if they stayed up there and just let us fix what they broke down here because we are UNDISTRACTED

On the show today, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. I’ll be talking to the acclaimed physicist about the ways in which racism and sexism shape science, as well as her perspective on billionaire space travel. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein It’s sort of strange that people somehow think like leaving Earth’s atmosphere is like a baptism of some kind where you get cleaned and like the colonialism just washes off as you leave the atmosphere or something like that.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, it’s your “UNtrending News.”

Ohio congresswoman, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a champion for the people, Joyce Beatty, was arrested last week while protesting on Capitol Hill. She joined a small group of Black women activists who marched inside a Senate office building to peacefully push for voting rights legislation. They linked arms as they walked in, singing spirituals and chanting phrases like free the vote and fight for justice. 

Activists We shall not be moved. Fight for justice!

Brittany Packnett Cunningham They were calling for the Senate to pass the For the People Act, the democratic elections reform bill that was blocked last month and to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Shortly after Congresswoman Beatty and eight others, including our good friend LaTosha Brown, were arrested, Congresswoman Beatty’s Twitter account posted “hashtag good trouble,” a nod to the late civil rights activist and congressman who died one year ago at the age of 80. Nearly 350 voter suppression laws across the country just a year after John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian passed away is not just disgusting, it’s intentional. The GOP is playing in our faces and some of these Democrats, y’all ain’t riding hard enough if you ask me. So you need to do what we elected you to do. Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer, why don’t you take a page out of Congresswoman Beatty’s book and get your House and Senate in order. Pass the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and D.C. statehood. I’m dropping some phone numbers in the episode description right now so all of you can call your senators and tell them Joyce Beatty and John Lewis sent you. 

Sports Announcer 1 Here comes Allyson Felix, Allyson is racing her way back into the top three. 

Sports Announcer 2 It might be Father’s Day, but the moms are the stars of the show today. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Now, six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix is helping out her fellow athlete moms through a grant program. The American track and field star has partnered with her sponsor, Athleta, and the Women’s Sports Foundation to create a fund which will give Olympian moms ten thousand dollars to help with their child care needs. Nine recipients have been chosen so far, including hammer thrower and badass activist Gwen Berry. In recent years, Allyson has spoken out about a number of issues athlete moms face, like her being assigned roommates during competition while needing to care for her toddler. And in 2019, she wrote a powerful New York Times op-ed criticizing her then sponsor Nike, for its practice of slashing athletes’ pay during and after childbirth. 

Allyson Felix I am a strong Black woman and I fight for my daughter and for all women. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I’m grateful for Allyson’s goodwill and her thoughtfulness, and I’m also annoyed that she should have to do this in the first place. The Olympic Games, its sponsors and the host cities, they make a pretty penny off of those athletes’ sacrifices. Quality child care should be the norm, not some charitable exception. And Allyson, as you return to the Olympics for the fifth time with your daughter, we’ll be cheering for all that you do on and off the track. 

Finally, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Al Green — not that Al Green — are proposing legislation to rename American landmarks which currently have racist names. We’re talking about more than fourteen hundred rivers, lakes and mountain peaks that include offensive slurs for Black people, Latinx people and indigenous folks. 

News Anchor 1 One mountain is drawing the attention of some state lawmakers. Negro Mountain.

News Anchor 2 Negro Creek Road.

News Anchor 3 Negro Bar State Park.

News Anchor 4 Negro Head Rocks.

News Anchor 5 Runaway Negro Creek. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Apparently more than 600 landmarks still have the word “Negro” in them. The bill, called the Reconciliation and Place Names Act, would establish an advisory board of civil rights experts and tribal organizations to review these questionable landmarks and oversee the process of getting them renamed. I think it’s easy to think about these things as just symbols, but this is about national memory. It’s about culture, helping to set what’s acceptable and what’s not, and doing it in subtle and obvious ways. So let this be a step in how we see and treat Black people, Latinx folks, and our indigenous siblings. 

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein about the connections between space, science and social justice right after this short break. 

And we are back. So first Richard Branson and now Jeff Bezos, the billionaires have really been busy blasting off into space and there’s a lot of excitement drummed up about the world’s richest white guys and their suborbital joyrides. However, my guest today wants us to imagine a world where people of all ages, backgrounds, genders and ethnicities have equal access to the beauty that is space. Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire and the author of the new book, The Disordered Cosmos. In it, she argues that the ability to see and study the night sky shouldn’t be a luxury, but a fundamental part of what liberation looks like. As one of the few Black American women to hold a Ph.D. in physics, she definitely brings a refreshing approach to exploring the cosmos. Chanda, thank you so much for joining us. I’m so excited to talk to you. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Thank you so much for having me. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Okay, so before we get into quarks and leptons, I really want to start with you. You grew up in East Los Angeles and you say you were 10 when you decided to become a theoretical physicist. Like, I didn’t even know what that was when I was 10. But here you are making this beautiful life choice after watching a brief history of time about Stephen Hawking. What was it about physics that made you fall in love with it? 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein I already knew I really like doing math. I was very, very excited about math. And I had been taking some science electives at my — my public school. And I think my teacher told my mom that I seemed to really like the physical science stuff. And so my mom took me to see this documentary, A Brief History of Time. And in the middle of it, they were talking about how Einstein hadn’t figured out what happens at the center of a Blackhole and that we use math to do this kind of research and that this was what Stephen Hawking’s job was. And I was like, yo, I need a job when I grow up. And that’s a job that I can have where I get to do math all day and I get to figure out things that Einstein couldn’t figure out. It was like an amazing collision of all the things that I felt like I needed out of life in one place. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that. I love that. You also said that you were attracted to particle physics because it seemed so completely far away from the problems that your activist parents were working on and dealing with. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein I do think in hindsight, obviously, I was 10. I wasn’t really having deep, complex emotional conversations with myself. But in hindsight, my assessment of the situation is definitely that, you know, it seemed like it was something pure and far away from the problems that society has. And I was getting exposed to the problems of society a lot, not just because of like where I grew up and the struggles that my mom and I were having like socioeconomically and the racism that we had experienced, but also because it was a constant topic of conversation in my family. So the idea of something that allowed me to get a break from that seemed like pretty exciting. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And then dun, dun, dun, it turned out that they weren’t all that separate after all. I’m wondering when it became apparent to you that learning about the universe and racism were actually just not separate matters. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein It took me a long time to fully accept it. And I think part of that is I was resistant. And we’re trained into this mythology about how science is separate from politics and science is separate from society. That’s part of how we’re socialized, I think, just as the general public. And then I think students of science, in particular, are socialized into that. And I think on top of that, you know, I had a vocabulary for talking about racism and sexism and homophobia, like on the street and in social interactions. But I didn’t really have the vocabulary to talk about how all of those things operate at a structural level. And so it was as I was a graduate student and I was kind of examining the experiences that I had had in college and the experiences that I was having in graduate school, that I had to find the words to describe what I was witnessing and sometimes experiencing. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So one of the things that I really love about your book, to your point, about finding the words and giving people this language, you really just bring space down to earth, right? Forgive the pun, but, you know, you — you explore the mysteries of the universe in ways that are really accessible. And you’re also examining how these more earthly phenomena of racism and sexism shape science. So — so break it down for us. What are some of the ways the field of physics has been shaped by systems of oppression? 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein One of the examples that comes to mind when I think about what shaped me and what caused me to go out and look for the vocabulary was when I was a graduate student at the University of Waterloo in Canada and there was a woman there who was a postdoctoral fellow, which meant she already had her Ph.D. and she had a kid. And she was harassed for having a kid by — by her supervisor. When she was thinking about having a second kid she was told that, you know, they expected her not to be stupid enough to do something like that. And, you know, the one comment I’ll make about that is that it shaped my sensibilities as a graduate student about what kinds of things I was allowed to do if I wanted to have a career in physics. But also, ultimately, it was such an emotionally devastating and professionally devastating experience for her that she left physics. So when we talk about the impact on physics it not only impacts, you know, the physicists in terms of, you know, witnessing what kind of community we are a part of, but also literally she had been considered one of the most talented people of her generation in the topic that she was working on. And there were whole lines of thought that she started spending less time on because she was basically pushed out of working in the field professionally, even though she continues to occasionally write papers with her husband, who has gone on to have quite a good career as a theoretical physicist. And so that’s an example of how the actual things that we learn about physics are shaped by how people are treated in the discipline 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And your positioning, your intentional positioning as a Black feminist physicist, what questions are you asking with that kind of framework? Like, I just really want to know more about how you apply your Black feminist framework to science. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein You know, I think a lot through Patricia Hill Collins’ book, Black Feminist Thought. And I — 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham The Bible, in other words. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein And, you know, I’m almost at the point where I need to buy another copy of the second edition because I marked up the chapter on Black feminist epistemology so much that it’s reaching the point where I don’t have space to make notes and underline anymore. But I’m thinking a lot about the specific ways that Black women in North America and more broadly in the Black Atlantic, in general, have articulated how information is gathered and how we understand ourselves as knowers and understand other people as knowers, so a really good example of this is that one of the things she points out is that for Black women, it’s really important that when someone is making a claim about how something works, that it’s something that they have direct experience with. And that that’s a specific feature of Black feminist knowledge production. And I think that that’s something I think about a lot in the context of physics, how do we articulate who knows something and how they know something and how we trust claims that people are making about their science and about their ideas. And I want to note here that I say that I come at this from a Black feminist framework with but the language that I’m using also comes from indigenous thought and indigenous women’s thought. And so I think part of being a Black feminist thinker also means being open to these other ways of thinking through our problems. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that because obviously, as we’ve discussed, the field of physics is shaped by systems of oppression. But what’s beautiful about what you argue is that physics can also be part of our liberation, that it has an essential role to play. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein I think this is really important. And I’ll just say for people that we’re recording this the day after Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic went to space. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Now, you know, I’m going to ask you about it. Yeah, go ahead.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein I feel like I have to air quote space a little bit right? Because there’s sort of a debate about like how far into space did they really go or is it really just the upper atmosphere? And I’ll just say for people that that’s an interesting scientific question of where does Earth end and space begin? That’s actually not a simple thing. And the boundaries for that are — have political components to it, like why certain lines are drawn where they are. And the reason that I’m bringing this up is that Richard Branson made this comment when he came back about how one day he hopes that there will be equal access to space for people regardless of race or gender or ethnic background. And I was like, oh, that’s really nice. That almost sounds like someone on his team read my book, The Disordered Cosmos, where I talk about the right to know and love the night sky. And in particular, I center Black children in thinking through what social conditions would need to change in order for Black children to have access to a night sky. And I think through what does access means. So the reason I’m picking on Branson and his team a little bit is that you know, this is like a nice comment to make. But this is also a billionaire who definitely, or I guess I should say, in my opinion, has not paid sufficient taxes and that when we talk about equal access to the night sky, whether it’s traveling to it or, you know, just being able to sit under a night sky and see a dark night sky that requires talking about equal access to food, equal access to quality housing, to clean water, to the wheelchair that you need if that’s your mobility device, to public transportation that can get you to a dark night sky, to a climate where the sky isn’t being blighted by artificial constellations that SpaceX is installing without talking to anyone about it first. There are all of these other things. And so one of the things that happened on social media yesterday is that people were like, why would we worry about equal access to space when we don’t even have equal access to food? And one of the points that I want people to understand is that thinking about the fact that we evolved under the night sky and the night sky is important to us as a species and therefore it’s important for our humanity to maintain our connection to it can motivate us to think about what are the substantive social structural changes that we need to make so that people can experience their fully human connection with the night sky. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So let me go ahead and ask you about this now since you mention billionaire Richard Branson. Because to your point, there are structural needs that — that this moment highlights, given that a billionaire is taking his money to space. But we also know he’s not the only one. Right? Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, other billionaires are taking their funds to space. I’m wondering if you’re concerned at all about the same kind of colonization that happened here on Earth, also happening in space at some point in the near future. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein 100 percent. I think it’s sort of strange that people somehow think leaving Earth’s atmosphere is like a baptism of some kind where you get cleaned and like I don’t know, the colonialism just washes off as you leave the atmosphere or something like that. But that’s not how that works and absolutely, I think that their approach to it, particularly, I would say Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk has been highly colonial. I will say that, as is characteristic, Richard Branson, I think, is much better about thinking about how it looks. And — and in some sense, I think one of the reasons that Virgin Galactic did this commercial flight first is because I think that they were somewhat less ambitious in terms of what they claimed that they wanted to do in terms of taking people up. Whereas we have Elon Musk out here talking about Mars. Right? And going to Mars and colonizing Mars. And even if he wasn’t using the language of colonialism, I think until we are at the point where we understand why using the language of colonialism is a problem, that we will continue to have a problem until we have turned that cultural corner where, you know, maybe instead of saying “discovered” or saying “learned about” right, the universe exists whether we’re looking at it or not. So there are very few things that we are really discovering. And discovery is so wrapped up with colonialism that I think that we want to talk about “learning about.” And then we want to talk about what are learning about these various things doing for us. So I’m not opposed to learning about Mars. I’m not even necessarily opposed to visiting Mars. But I want us to think carefully about why we’re doing it and who it serves. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, who does it serve? So — so back to the issue at hand, because you have been an unapologetic and outspoken advocate for Black women and LGBTQ folks in science. And last year you helped organize a day-long academic strike in support of Black Lives Matter. But I’m really curious, like, are you — are you frustrated at all? Do you find it a burden having to take on this role of the activists as a Black, queer woman in science rather than just, you know, getting to devote all of your energy to researching dark matter? 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Yes, there’s a part of me that wishes I could just think about the dark matter all the time and, you know, including not having to spend as much time writing emails about administrative stuff as I do because our universities don’t pay administrative assistants anymore or not at the same rate that they used to. But it’s also the case that I think in the future that we should be building toward, that we will all have to do this work of making our communities livable. The goal can’t be that eventually, one day some of us are just thinking about science, because I think that you know, articulating some people get to think about science all the time and other people don’t is actually where we start to run into trouble. So I think it’s always going to be the case that it’s part of our job. Right now, my big frustration is that a lot of the burden falls on me and other Black people in physics who are outspoken and not just within physics, but more broadly in society, that too much of the burden for making our communities well falls on the people who are least responsible for creating the problems in the first place. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein So that’s not to say that I don’t ever want to be responsible or that we shouldn’t ever have to do anything. But the problem is, is that not everybody is playing their part. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That makes plenty of sense to me. Look, it’s been — it’s been a little minute since I was in science class. And when you’re not talking about diversity, inclusion, equity, liberation you’re talking about and studying dark matter. So, remind me what it is again. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein So the cool and the weird thing about the universe is that the universe is mostly made of stuff that we can’t see. So, you know, we might think that what’s normal about the universe is stuff that emits light. When we look up at the sky, we see stars. When we look around Earth, I’m looking at some trees right now. I’m in my office that has way too many books in it. A lot of stuff that I can see. We are actually the cosmic weirdos because the majority of the matter in the universe is something that we call dark matter. It’s about 80 percent of the matter in the universe. Dark matter is a little bit of a misnomer because it might make you think that it has some kind of dark color or that it absorbs light or something like that. But actually light goes right through it. So it should probably be called invisible matter or transparent matter.. So this — this form of matter is completely dominant. It’s most of the matter in the galaxy. It dominates how galaxies evolve. And that’s not to say the stuff that radiates the luminous matter like us and like gas and stars. That’s important too so I’m not saying it’s not important, but dark matter is a really major component of what galaxies are made of. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I mean, you’re also the first Black woman to hold a faculty position in theoretical cosmology and one of only a few Black women to have earned a Ph.D. in physics. And toward the end of your book, you talk about the importance of including more Black women, more Black non-binary people, more women of color in the field of physics, which of course, is dominated by white men and really these colonial frameworks you’ve been talking about. What will it take to make that happen and what will it take to make sure that we enter the field of physics in the ways that we should? 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein I appreciate you saying in the ways that we should at the end of that question, because I think that there are really two scenarios that we are looking at. You know, there’s redecorating the table of power, which I’m probably poorly paraphrasing Adrienne Rich there right? But there is basically coloring in the structures as they exist now and saying, oh, yeah, we have Black women, we have Condoleezza Rice. She’s highly accomplished now. There’s that version of events where it’s like, okay, yeah, but she was in the Bush administration and, you know, that was not a good look. So I think that the question that we have to ask ourselves is not just about welcoming people into physics, but what physics we welcome them into. In terms of — and by physics here, I mean community. What are our values, what is our orientation towards supporting human life and the ecosystems that we depend upon? And I think that that has to be part of our conversation. And I think, you know, maybe this is going to sound unfair, but those of us who are Black, those of us who are indigenous, those of us who have experienced historical marginalization, can bring the perspective of why these structural changes are really important into physics. So rather than assimilating, we can actually just show up and say, yeah, particle physics is awesome, but we’re going to do it like this. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham What does that “like this” look like? What are those unique perspectives that the Black folks can really bring into this space and bring into physics that you feel like are missing? 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein You know, I think that one difficult conversation that we have to have is about the dynamics of patriarchy within our community. Right? That patriarchy doesn’t have a color line. I think the other thing that we — we really need to spend more time on is talking about colorism in physics. You know, why is it that, for example, me, the first Black woman to hold a tenure track faculty position in theoretical cosmology, I’m light-skinned. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And that’s not to say that I haven’t worked hard. But also the barriers would have been worse for me if I had been darker. So these are all conversations that I think we — we can be having and we should be having and that we bring to the table. And then at the end of the day, I think we know how to be uniquely motivated by the question of what would it take for a Black child to have access to a dark night sky. And by access, I mean that they’re not hungry. So they can really sit and look at the sky and not be worried about whether somebody’s coming home, about their parents being overworked, about not having enough to eat, about violence in their community from the police or anybody else. We know how to ask those questions because our movements have been doing it for centuries. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, you say that the main message of your book is freedom, and I’d love to just hear your thoughts on that as we end. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Yeah, I was definitely thinking through Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams and that Freedom Dreams is what Black liberation movements do. And so I’m thinking about what is the role that physics and astronomy can play in freedom dreams and also understand that for those of us who are Black and find ourselves enchanted by physics, enchanted by astronomy in these like deeply technical like we want to sit down and work out the math kind of ways. These are what our freedom dreams look like. And we have to make sure that our community conversations make room for that and that we — we struggle for the right to have those mathematical freedom dreams, too. And not in a way that’s assimilationist, but it is in a way that supports the liberation of our communities and the thriving of our global ecosystem, which, you know, has traditionally been treated like something that we control. But it is actually something that we depend upon for our very survival. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, Dr. Chanda, you are so brilliant and I am so grateful for all the ways that you are working to free us more and more every day. And thank you for reminding me of what dark matter is. Don’t judge me. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein I love talking about it. I also really love telling people that it’s invisible and not actually dark. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham All right, invisible matter it is. Thank you so much for all that you do and for spending some of your time with us. 

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Thank you so much for having me. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire and the author of The Disordered Cosmos. Y’all, as if colonialism could just be washed off like some sort of baptism as these billionaires leave the Earth’s atmosphere. No. I appreciate that. Dr. Chanda is not against space exploration. She just wants us to think carefully about why we’re doing it. And most importantly, who does it serve? As it stands right now not all of mankind, that’s for damn sure. So if want-to-be astronauts like Branson and Bezos and Musk really want to compete with one another, how about they race to pay their fair share of taxes and pay their workers a livable wage and race to stop busting the unions that those workers want to build? Oh, and stop destroying the only habitable planet we’ve got so that every child can have access to the night sky. In the words of Dr. Prescod-Weinstein, “Creating a just society on earth is the best way to build a just future for space.”

That’s it for today, but never tomorrow. 


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I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.