Previously in my craft conversation series: Bryan Washington, Lydia Kiesling, R. O. Kwon and Crystal Hana Kim
No writer has encouraged me to think more deeply about the universe we inhabit—and how we tell its stories—than Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. An assistant professor of physics and astronomy and core faculty in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire, her research in theoretical physics is focused on cosmology, neutron stars, and dark matter; she is also a feminist theorist who researches Black feminist science and technology studies. I began following her writing nearly a decade ago, and since then have had the good fortune to edit and publish two of her many articles. Her book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred—out in paperback on May 10—is a gripping work of science and art that manages to be both clarifying and wildly imaginative (not to mention accessible to nonscientists like me), a testament to her commitment to sharing knowledge and her belief that the work of questioning and understanding the cosmos should belong to everyone.
At its heart, Prescod-Weinstein told me, The Disordered Cosmos is “my proposal for how we can think about science outside of the military-industrial complex, outside of colonialism, how we can liberate this piece of our human storytelling impulse so that we can hold on to it.” Last month we chatted over Zoom about the elements of successful scientific storytelling, how writing was “a hard-fought process” for her, what she believes academics should know when publishing for nonacademic audiences, and why she works so hard to convince everyone—especially Black people and other people of color—that science is for them, too.
Nicole Chung: What came first, your love of science or your love of writing?
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: It’s funny, because some of my earliest memories are of stapling pieces of paper together to make a book—I think a lot of future writers did this. But it’s also the case that my stepmother was cleaning out the basement and found this giant book that my grandfather must have gotten on one of his trips, which I had turned into a journal. I’d filled up several pages with numbers, just like number after number. So that was me as a kid!
When I was 10, my mom took me to see the documentary A Brief History of Time—I’m pretty sure I went into it complaining because I was going to miss Saturday-morning X-Men cartoons. Halfway through, Stephen Hawking was talking about using math to describe the universe and solve problems—specifically to solve the problem of what happens at the center of a black hole, and how this was a problem Einstein hadn’t solved. And it just clicked in my brain: That’s a job? If I’ve got to have a job someday, that seems like a good one, since I can write numbers all day long.
I went to the Cambridge University website and found Hawking’s email address and emailed him to ask how I could become a theoretical physicist. One of his graduate students replied—meta note: Grad students shouldn’t answer their advisers’ emails; that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing!—and said, that’s great that you want to do this. You need to go to a top university, get a Ph.D., and become a professor. So I looked up top universities and came to the conclusion that I had to go to Harvard or CalTech for college and then get a Ph.D. Everything I did from that moment on was organized around this.
Chung: When and how did you start to think of storytelling as part of your work?
Prescod-Weinstein: I was a voracious reader as a kid—at 10 and 11, I read all of Jane Austen’s novels. I liked Egyptian mythology, and one of my hobbies was to rewrite Egyptian myths. But I was getting no substantive writing practice at school. When I graduated from high school, one of my counselors—who was otherwise incredibly delightful and supportive, and is one of the reasons I am where I am today—told me it was a good thing I wanted to be a physicist, because I was never going to be much of a writer. The only writing I really knew how to do was for AP exams. I’d learned how to ace that style, but I hadn’t learned about voice.
When I went to Harvard, all frosh had to take a writing course. I was definitely considered the student in my class who needed the most help. Writing was hard for me. Now I can write 1,000 words in 20 minutes. But it was a hard-fought process; I just practiced a lot, because I wanted to do it. My bar was like, if your sentences aren’t like Jane Austen’s, they’re not good.
Chung: That’s a pretty high bar.
Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah, I was also a snob who wouldn’t read anything written after 1940 until I was in graduate school.
When I started grad school, I had to apply for a National Science Foundation graduate-research fellowship. I sent my essay to my mother, who was an elementary-school reading teacher in the ’70s, and she just shredded it. My mom knew me so well, she was able to reorganize it and make edits in a way teachers couldn’t. I remember that as the moment when I learned how to write, how to accomplish the act of getting it out of your head and onto the page.
A few years after that, I started blogging, because the theoretical-cosmology community was really into blogs—that’s what everybody was doing. Sean Carroll had this blog and wrote a critique of my adviser’s book, The Trouble With Physics, and I wrote a comment criticizing the critique, saying that you guys keep talking about diversity of ideas, but what about people? Sean emailed and asked if I wanted to turn it into a guest blog post. That was the first time anyone asked me to write for a more general audience. Then I started a blog called The Disordered Cosmos. I was making friends with other bloggers, building community. In Santa Cruz, there was a cafe where I spent a lot of time, and one of the guys who used to work there started a publication and invited me to participate. I wrote an essay that I still think is one of my best pieces, about my relationship as a working-class kid from East L.A. with what I thought Pasadena was.
Chung: What are some other publications you’re especially proud of?
Prescod-Weinstein: An essay I recently published in The Baffler, “Becoming Martian,” might be the best piece of writing I’ve ever done. The editors asked me to write about the tension between people trying to leave Earth and those saying we need to save Earth, written from my position as someone who’s critical of space colonialism. I thought, Actually, I’m going to write about the fights I have in my head with Nikki Giovanni. Why did I have such a negative reaction when I listened to her and Kiese Laymon in conversation, and she started talking about growing okra on Mars? I remember thinking, No, that’s colonialism; it’ll mess up the Martian environment—but then I said to myself, This is Nikki Giovanni; why am I hearing her the way I hear Elon Musk? The essay was me wrestling with what she was saying, trying to understand it, and thinking about what this might tell us about how we are in the world and how we can be in space.
Chung: I know that writing is always work, but it’s interesting to me that it didn’t come easily to you—I would not have guessed that, reading your work now. Where did your book come from and why did you want to write it?
Prescod-Weinstein: I left high school wanting to write my own A Brief History of Time; I knew that I wanted to make my own mark in that way. I wanted to write one that was to East L.A., to my people, to my communities, and something that could be for everyone. I thought once I was an important and accomplished theoretical physicist, the ability to do that would just manifest, which is not how it works at all. The reason I ended up practicing my writing so much was because I needed to tell people about the bad things that were happening in science, to me and to other people—in one blog entry, I explained the demographics of Black women in physics, how few there were, and how I figured out from looking at the data that I was probably the only one to earn a bachelor’s in astronomy in 2003. A lot of it was me shouting, and hoping that somebody heard, and the way to do that was online … My agent, Jessica, reached out and asked if I had a book. I said, “I’m not going to talk to you if you want me to write a memoir,” and she said, “You already have a body of work that is the foundation for an essay collection.” That was the genesis of the book.
Having “dreams deferred” in the subtitle, borrowed from Langston Hughes, is recursive, because the book in some sense represents a dream deferred—it’s not my own A Brief History of Time. There’s a piece of that in it, but there’s also a lot of personal essay that uses my story to talk about other ideas. There’s one chapter, the one about sexual assault, that came out as I was trying to write the chapter on dark energy. The point is not that it’s my story; the point is that when you are someone whose social location is the one that I hold, I don’t get to think about that part of my science without thinking about that story, too.
In some ways, the book has opened some doors for me. But I will also say that I almost started crying in front of two Black students on Friday because they were telling me about some of the problems they were encountering in their program, and it was like talking to myself 20 years ago. I don’t think I can ever get away from that aspect of my job. And this is why the piece I wrote for you last year at Catapult was so important—I’ve actually used it to explain to people why they’re asking me to do something shitty.
Chung: You mention in that essay that racism in academia, in science, does not allow you to fully focus on what you want to do. There’s all the research and writing you still want to do, and then there’s this responsibility, this burden you have to factor in.
Prescod-Weinstein: A common topic among Black women academics is how young Black women academics tend to die. Cancer, heart issues—they just seem to catch up with us faster. I think it’s related to that burden and the responsibility. I have to deal with students who say things like, “I’m afraid of how my performance will reflect on all Black people,” and I say, “Look, your white classmates aren’t worried about how this reflects on all white people”—but also, I’m not going to gaslight them and tell them it doesn’t matter, because I know that it does. I also know that the burden can crush you. So I find myself saying, “It’s not fair, it’s not your fault, but it is your problem.” On the one hand, I’m glad I’m here to support them, but on the other hand, I still need to do my work.
Having The Disordered Cosmos come out and seeing how people reacted to it made me very aware of how differently I would be read compared to my white colleagues. I have a book by a white man in physics that’s literally his story of a specific thing that happened to him in science, and he tells you about his childhood; you learn about the key players in his life. You learn very little about me in The Disordered Cosmos. His book was labeled by the Library of Congress as science methodology, and mine was originally labeled as African American biography. I don’t want to swing toward trying to sound like one of them just to stop having discussions about labels with people. But there’s that temptation—like, I don’t want to deal with that; can’t I just be like everybody else? Which can become a discussion about Can I just assimilate? and all the awful things that come with that.
What does it mean to hold space for me, for every Black person, for every Indigenous person that looks at doing science holistically? When I thought about book sales and getting the word out about my book, it wasn’t just about me; it was also about how my book could be used as a comp. I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about that.
Chung: We obviously wrote very different books, but I think about that a lot too—the fact that I didn’t have many comp titles when I wrote my first book. There’s a whole discussion we could have about comps and publishing and racism.
Prescod-Weinstein: I would love to see that newsletter! I’d be happy to come back and talk about it.
Chung: It’s a deal. Do you have advice for academics, especially scientists, who are hoping to write for more nonacademic audiences, as you have?
Prescod-Weinstein: You can’t be precious about your writing. You should get a range of readers and give them permission to tell you what they think and tell you what’s not working. You should also include people who know you well enough to make suggestions. I had friends say to me, “You didn’t say this, but you often do say something like this,” and it was kind of beautiful to have them know me so well that they could remind me of important things.
Chung: You’re a scholar, an expert in your field; you didn’t have to write for nonscientific people like me to have a brilliant career. Did that choice have anything to do with what you mentioned earlier, about how you want science to be for everybody?
Prescod-Weinstein: When I graduated from high school, I had this naive idea that if we solved quantum gravity, it would allow us to derive equations that would tell us how to live better. Obviously I don’t think it’s that simple anymore, and I’m not even sure we’ll solve quantum gravity anytime soon, but I do strongly believe that scientific storytelling is part of who we are as a species, and that everybody can participate in it. I want to say, over and over again, to people who are like me and people who are not, that science is yours, too, and don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not. I feel that my presence in science writing contributes to disrupting that narrative of who science belongs to, what scientific voices can exist.
On a political level, scientists, particularly in my field, are dependent on public support. It’s on us to continue to make our case to the public for why what we do is important and relevant to their world. I think a lot of people don’t see my book this way, because I mention a lot of negative things about how science happens. But in the end, The Disordered Cosmos is also a love note to the universe, and what science can be. In a lot of ways, the book is my proposal for how we can think about science outside of the military-industrial complex, outside of colonialism, how we can liberate this piece of our human storytelling impulse so that we can hold on to it.
Chung: What do you think makes for effective scientific storytelling?
Prescod-Weinstein: The tradition is to use awe to great effect. There’s so much vitriol in science against religion, and yet they use this very religious sensibility that humans tend to bring to everything we do—we are proselytizing to people about a way of looking at the universe. You want people to feel awe; I think that’s important. But I also don’t think we can evoke that without hiding things, so I didn’t have that interest in saying, “It’s all heaven, and nothing terrible ever happens here; it’s just people being brilliant and solving beautiful equations.” I think we can tell the truth. Successful science writing is honest. And then I think that you should be trying to place the reader in it, so that they can see themselves and people like them in the story—part of your task is to invite them in.
Chung: What was your writing process like when you worked on this book?
Prescod-Weinstein: I don’t sit down to write until I have a sense of where it’s going. I have to spend a lot of time collecting thoughts in my head. With my book, I actually put the contractual word count into Scrivener, and then I put in the deadline and which days of the week I’d agreed to write (Monday through Friday), and Scrivener told me exactly how many words I had to reach every day to meet the deadline … I think it was 728 words a day? I frequently went over, so I actually finished the book six months before it was due.
Chung: Amazing. I have never heard that from a writer before.
Prescod-Weinstein: I highly recommend that feature of Scrivener! They could put me in an ad to talk about it.
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