Reviews Physics World  October 2021

Frames of reference and objectivity

Immanuel Adewumi reviews The Disordered Cosmos: a Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Universal wonder Despite a society that told Chanda Prescod-Weinstein she didn’t look like a physicist, she still managed to fall in love with the subject as a child. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Prazis Images)

As a Christian, I often consider my faith to be my frame of reference. I’m a Yoruba from Ilesha in Osun State, Nigeria, and was born and raised in the city of Lagos, but I moved around a fair bit during my early years. I attended two British international schools in Nigeria before going to the UK, where I completed my secondary education at Sevenoaks School in Kent. My first degree was in physics at Imperial College London.

I mention all this because I think it strongly informs my engagement with a fundamental concept that the theoretical cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein explores brilliantly in her new book The Disordered Cosmos: a Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. The concept is that the development of knowledge, be it scientific or any other kind, cannot be completely separated from its social, historical or political context. While this idea is already backed by much historical and scientific evidence, The Disordered Cosmos portrays it from many more viewpoints than I have ever considered.

After beginning the book with a section on cosmology and particle physics, Prescod-Weinstein delves into the culture of the mainstream scientific community, and how it has influenced the progress of science. To illustrate this, she draws deeply on her personal experience as an academic physicist who is a Black feminist, raised by generations of powerful women, and a descendant of Indigenous Africans. Prescod-Weinstein rigorously and extensively makes the case for an urgent paradigm shift in the way we engage with science, knowledge and technology, and how we define what is now popularly known as Afrofuturism – the exploration of the interplay between African culture and technology.

Frames of reference, as Prescod-Weinstein lays out, are present in many wide-ranging fields of study. Perhaps most obviously to physicists, they are a core concept in special and general relativity, but they recur elsewhere: in the highly abstract group theory they are called representations; in the Bible they are referred to as prophecies and visions; in modern English they are often called perspectives; and in feminist theory they are called standpoints.

Although these different examples cannot be mapped perfectly one-to-one onto each other – due to their varying contexts, which inform their axioms and resulting inferences – they share a fundamental similarity: they primarily mean to look at something that is either concrete or abstract from just one among many possible viewpoints. Prescod-Weinstein draws several parallels between the examples, and although I do not agree entirely with all the analogies and equivalences made, I do believe there is a lot of truth in her analysis, which is deserving of further philosophical and scientific study.

Among the most important questions that Prescod-Weinstein discusses is how we can achieve a world where people can hold opposing views without erasing each other’s identities, or forcefully imposing one belief system over another. The Disordered Cosmos suggests one salient solution: sacrifice. 

From the perspective of emotional and intellectual resilience, Prescod-Weinstein describes “scientific…and emotional housework”, detailing various personal experiences from her career. She explains how they showed her not only that science is a collective effort that includes non-scientists, but also that pushing for better engagement with science for historically marginalized people means sacrifices must be made. The additional burdens experienced by researchers from minoritized groups – giving up research time to serve on “diversity, inclusion and equity” committees, acting as a mentor to researchers from minority groups – are rarely acknowledged by hiring committees or in performance metrics.

These anecdotes reminded me of when I had my first major paradigm shift, during my time at Sevenoaks School, prompted by my realization that we live in a world of finite resources driven by different interests competing to control them. The International Baccalaureate (IB) programme I studied there focuses on stimulating the mind not just towards learning, but also probing and questioning the process of learning itself. Interestingly, Prescod-Weinstein invokes the concept of “ways of knowing”, which I first came across in an IB module on the theory of knowledge. The Disordered Cosmos is only the second place I have ever seen the phrase used in that way.

Elsewhere in the book, Prescod-Weinstein describes some of the struggles she faced while studying physics and astronomy at Harvard University. Concerned about the treatment of Black employees, she fought tirelessly for the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, eventually winning higher wages for janitors, but these extra efforts impacted her performance academically. She still completed her course, however, and the year she graduated with a degree in astrophysics, she was the only Black American in the US to do so.

As an indigenous Nigerian, I experienced a huge culture shock when I moved to the UK and started school at Sevenoaks, so I feel keenly attuned to these struggles. I often feel like nothing could ever have prepared me for Sevenoaks. Being an indigenous Nigerian means that, unlike Prescod-Weinstein, my predecessors were never barbarically shipped off the coasts of West Africa for slave labour. Nevertheless, I have also suffered the detrimental effects of capitalism.

The sections of The Disordered Cosmos that recount the careless mining of uranium on Indigenous reservations and the fallout left for Pacific Islanders after nuclear weapons tests reminded me of how an Italian company in 1988 dumped hazardous waste in the land of Koko within Warri, where my mother is originally from. This poisoned the rivers and surrounding lands and caused international uproar.

Another probable result of urbanization and the associated pollution that I personally had to live with, is that my younger brother and I had asthma as babies until our preteen years. We had inherited it from our father whose asthma was so severe that he had to carry an inhaler. My mum prayed earnestly that we would all be healed, and this is exactly what happened. This is one of the many miracles we have experienced, which is why I believe in Jesus Christ. This is one area where my beliefs diverge from Prescod-Weinstein, who is a humanist.

Nonetheless, I have immense respect for her, and with this book she achieves an astonishing blend of scientific depth and an intricate understanding of the interplay between science and society. I would like to live in a world where scientists – and people in general – can agree to disagree cordially and respectfully. Like Prescod-Weinstein, I want to believe that science and technology can help to bring this about. It is something I continue to work on, and I do not think I or any Africans need permission from others to define who we are, or how we make our future engagements with science.