This Black queer physicist is shining a light on dark matter

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Photo provided.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting some of the many incredible LGBTQ+ women of both the past and present, women who overcame unimaginable obstacles to change the world.

“As queer people, the thing that we offer is another way of being in the world,” says renowned theoretical physicist and Black feminist scholar Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. If diverse minds are excluded from science and academia, this valuable perspective can be lost.

Prescod-Weinstein, 40, teaches and conducts pioneering research on dark matter — one of physics’ biggest mysteries — at the University of New Hampshire. Innovation is at the heart of everything she does, including the cross-disciplinary writing of her PEN Award-winning book The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred to her advocacy for equity and inclusion in science and beyond.

"The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred" by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

The seeds of Prescod-Weinsein’s illustrious career were planted when she was 10 years old. One fateful day, her parents dragged her to the movies to see A Brief History of Time, a documentary about the life and work of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. 

“I already loved math, so I was like, ‘Oh, wait. You can get paid to do math all day? And math describes the universe? And you can solve problems that Albert Einstein didn’t work out? That seems like a really good deal,’” she told LGBTQ Nation with a laugh. “I had gone into the documentary complaining, and I came out of it begging my mom for a copy of the book.”

Enthralled, a young Prescod-Weinstein emailed Hawking himself to ask how she might become a physicist. One of his graduate students replied with some advice. By age 12, Prescod-Weinstein had mapped out her entire career trajectory. She’d even researched colleges that offered financial aid, which she knew she’d need since her family “didn’t have the money” to put her through years of higher education.

But Prescod-Weinstein — who is a Black, queer, agender woman and uses she/they pronouns — entered the field “with a little-kid mindset of, ‘I just want to be a theoretical physicist.’” What she didn’t foresee were the social dynamics she’d have to navigate as a result of her intersecting identities.

Expanding the universe through a queer lens

dark matter
Two sets of Chandra X-ray Observatory images (L) and Hubble Space Telescope images (R) of the giant galaxy clusters Abell 2390 and MS2137.3-2353. The clusters are located 2.5 and 3.1 billion light years from Earth respectively. Most of the mass is in the form of dark matter. Photo by NASA/Getty Images.

Historically, physics has not welcomed women, LGBTQ+ people, or people of color. Prescod-Weinstein cites the book Pythagoras’s Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War, in which author Margaret Wertheim likens the field to a kingdom or priesthood. As a byproduct of this legacy, “you get this [biased selection] of who gets to be important and who is considered rational enough to participate.”

Today, women still earn significantly fewer physics degrees than men. It’s even worse for physicists of color. A 2020 report from the American Institute of Physics found that less than 4 percent of all undergraduate physics degrees go to Black students — a racial gap that has actually widened in the past two decades.

Fifteen percent of early-career physicists identify as queer or trans. The first study of LGBTQ+ physicists, published in 2022, found that they encounter disproportionately high rates of exclusion at work. These negative experiences often drive them out of the field, perpetuating its homogeneity.

This culture of sameness and ostracization isn’t just harmful to individual physicists; it also creates problems for the discipline at large. Physicists from marginalized groups tend to offer alternative points of view, which promote creative thinking and problem-solving in their research and beyond.

“As queer people, the thing that we offer is another way of being in the world,” Prescod-Weinstein explained. If diverse minds are excluded from science and academia, this valuable perspective can be lost.

“As queer people, the thing that we offer is another way of being in the world.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

When Prescod-Weinstein earned her Ph.D. in physics in 2011, she became the 54th Black American woman in history to do so. Since then, she has completed postdoctoral research fellowships with prestigious institutions like NASA and MIT. She is a professor of physics and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire and a researcher at MIT.

Despite these impressive credentials, Prescod-Weinstein says she has been tone-policed by peers. In fact, Prescod-Weinstein began exploring Black feminist science, technology, and society studies — her other academic niche, which she writes about extensively in The Disordered Cosmos — “organically, and in a sense out of necessity.” The work of Black feminist theorists gave her a new vocabulary and framework to understand the prejudice she was experiencing in science.

But this unfair treatment hasn’t precluded Prescod-Weinstein from making major contributions to her field. If anything, it has motivated her to model success and innovative thinking for other marginalized scientists.

And succeed she has. Today, Prescod-Weinstein is one of the world’s pre-eminent researchers tackling the study of dark matter. This strange, “completely invisible” type of matter makes up an estimated 80 percent of the universe, but “it doesn’t behave like any matter that we’ve ever looked at,” Prescod-Weinstein said. 

Physicists only know that dark matter exists because of its imprint on other spacetime. Prescod-Weinstein likened it to an invisible nonbinary person in a spacesuit: “The suit is hanging off them in the shape of a person, so we know they’re there, but the enby is invisible to us. And that’s the dark matter problem.”

Determining its composition would usher in a paradigm shift for physicists — and could have ripple effects in fields like medical technology, which also benefit from developments in particle physics.

Prescod-Weinstein’s innovative work helped popularize a possible explanation for dark matter: the axion, a hypothetical particle. “When I started researching the axion, it wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now,” she said. Over the past decade, it has become one of the most talked-about niches in physics. “And as it became more popular, I was one of the people who knew something about it.

Since Prescod-Weinstein has dual degrees in physics and astronomy, she can communicate with experts in both fields, expanding the reach of her research. In fact, she has helped astronomers understand the significance of the axion particle for astrophysics.

“I see myself as a synthesizer,” they said. “I’m not the only person on the planet with that dual background, but I’m one of the few people who can act as a translator between the two communities.”

Outside of her scholarship, Prescod-Weinstein is also a champion for equity in physics, which she views as integral to the future of the field. She is a committee chair of the National Society of Black Physicists; a founding member of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy (SGMA); and an organizer with Particles for Justice, a leaderless collective of physicists pushing for diversity and inclusion in science.

“Your relationship to the cosmos is a thing that’s worth fighting for.”

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

In June 2020, Particles for Justice orchestrated a global Strike for Black Lives following numerous instances of fatal police brutality against Black Americans. Organizers called for all usual academic work to cease for one day so students and staff could engage in meaningful conversations about anti-Black bias in science and the world at large. At least 3,100 academics around the world participated.

The strike made national headlines, but more importantly, it bridged the gap between anti-racism in theory and praxis. Participants were encouraged to connect with local grassroots groups that were already doing this work.

“In the science community, I think [the strike] was the first time in a long time that there was a mainstreaming of the message, ‘You have a responsibility to your community,’” Prescod-Weinstein said. “It’s not just something for people who are activists.”

Ultimately, Prescod-Weinstein hopes her scholarship and organizing work will help foster equitable and accepting work environments for marginalized physicists. 

Nobody should be deterred from pursuing a career in physics because of their identity, they added. “Your relationship to the cosmos is a thing that’s worth fighting for.”

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