What makes a person dream of becoming a theoretical physicist? In Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s case, it was growing up with activist parents. Her mother, Margaret Prescod, has headed up various advocacy groups, including International Black Women for Wages for Housework, and is the host and producer of Sojourner Truth, a public-affairs radio show in Los Angeles. Her father, Sam Weinstein, is a labour organizer.
As she tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer, “I spent my entire childhood being confronted with things that weren’t going right in the world and things that needed to be better about the world. And I think part of what was attractive to me about doing cosmology and particle physics was here was a thing that was beyond these human concerns … something that was bigger than all of us but interested all of us. Where do we come from: Why are we here? These really big esoteric questions.”
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Now a physics professor at the University of New Hampshire, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has conducted research on such topics as axions, dark matter, and quantum fields. She’s also an advocate for Black women, and LGBTQ people in STEM.
In 2016, she called on the American Astronomical Society to issue a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. “For every person of African descent, particularly those who are darker than I am, but myself included, walking out your front door in a country where we know there is bias — from not just police but vigilantes on the streets — is an act of bravery,” she tells Kiwanuka. “So to get to your lab, you have to walk out your front door, you have to be willing to engage the outside world and engage society. So what I was looking for from my professional societies to say — they keep telling us that diversity and inclusion matter, but Black scientists aren’t just Black scientists inside their classrooms or inside their laboratories: they’re also Black scientists when they’re at home, when they’re walking down the street.”
Women and people of colour continue to be dramatically underrepresented in STEM fields — physics in particular — and, according to Prescod-Weinstein, promoting diversity and inclusion means “having a conversation about recognizing that the lives of those people matter, even when they’re not explicitly in scientific settings.”
In 2018, Prescod-Weinstein spoke out about the sexual-misconduct allegations against Neil deGrasse Tyson, a prominent Black scientist and one of the best-known physicists in the world. When she was a graduate student — the only Black graduate student in her department — she’d emailed Tyson looking for guidance. She’d been encouraged by his response, had seen him as a role model. But, she wrote in Scientific American, “All of the men who have harassed or assaulted me have said similarly encouraging things, so the fact that I have had multiple positive interactions with Tyson over the years doesn’t make it harder to believe that he is guilty of serious misconduct.”
Prescod-Weinstein knew that she would face criticism. “I was aware that, because he was African-American, because he was a Black man, that there were going to be people who’d say, ‘Don’t talk about it’ — because you’re bringing down the race, and you have a responsibility to protect Black men regardless of what they may or may not have done, and what’s alleged that they have done.”
She was also mindful that “partly because he wasn’t white, it was easier to believe that about him.” Her goal. Her goal, she says, was “to try and put some nuance into the conversation and say, this is a man who’s had a positive impact on me as a fellow Black person, and, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that we can ignore these allegations.”
Prescod-Weinstein believes that it’s “a lack of mentoring, a lack of representation, a lack of support” that makes people feel unwelcome in physics. “Eventually, they walk away,” she says. So what got her through? “I’m really stubborn … You have to be unusually stubborn”