Black physicist rethinks the 'dark' in dark matter

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EXCERPT: In her new book, "The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred," Chanda Prescod-Weinstein invites readers into the universe as she sees it -- and as a self-described queer agender Black woman, she sees it differently than many people.

Her book chapters -- including "The Physics of Melanin," "Black People Are Luminous Matter" and "The Anti-Patriarchy Agender" -- show her focus "at the intersection of astrophysics and particle physics" and at the intersection of physics and Black feminist thought and anti-colonial theory.

Her book is a tour of particles like quarks and leptons, as well as the axions that Prescod-Weinstein specializes in, but it also explores the various structural oppressions that affect who gets to study and discover them -- and even who gets to name those discoveries.

She points to terms like WIMP -- weakly interacting massive particles -- and its relative MACHO, or massive astrophysical compact halo objects, as examples. "You can tell that physicists love an acronym," she wrote, "and that the physicists who came up with WIMP and MACHO were almost certainly men."

[...] CNN: You note that White people sometimes find the term "dark matter" scary and foreboding, and that for terms like that and others, "a Black feminist physicist working in the 1960s would never have used this language." How would such terms be different if scientists had been and were now a more diverse group?

Prescod-Weinstein: My biggest pet peeve around the phrase "dark matter" is that it's not a good name for it, because it misrepresents the properties of the thing. It's not dark; it's actually invisible.

The thing about a question like yours is that it's speculative fiction. At the time that dark matter got its name, there were almost no Black men and literally zero Black women with a doctorate in physics. So, we have no idea. It would be another 40 years between when dark matter got its name around 1933, and when Willie Hobbs Moore got her doctorate in physics in 1972 at the University of Michigan; she was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in physics.
But it's an interesting question to ask, and I think it's one that we have to ask, knowing that there never actually will be a clear, definitive answer. And at the same time, we have to grapple with these alternative futures that were foreclosed because of White supremacy, because of patriarchy.

CNN: Can you give an example of someone whose future in physics was curtailed because of White supremacy?

Prescod-Weinstein: Elmer Imes was the second African American to earn a doctorate in physics, which he did at the University of Michigan in 1918. His work as an experimentalist actually played a really important role in providing evidence for quantum mechanics. When you're situating the history of how quantum mechanics came to be accepted as a correct model for physical reality, Elmer Imes should be part of that story.

The way that students of physics typically learn the history of the field is through anecdotes that their professors told them during class and through anecdotes that are littered throughout their textbooks. But Black people have our own community historians, like Dr. Jami Valentine Miller, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University. She runs African American Women in Physics and has been keeping track of Black women who have a doctorate in physics and related areas. A lot of these stories get transferred through oral communication, even if no one has been given the opportunity to write it up for a publication.

I think publishers have a really big role to play here when writing their quantum mechanics textbooks. I think that we are long overdue for a history of Black people in American physics.

CNN: Would having more physicists who look similar to you have made a difference in your path?... (MORE)
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BACKGROUND: The Science Wars of the 1990s (which probably didn't wholly fade in the 21st-century as that popularly suggests) was ultimately grounded on the postmodern side with the continental idea that tribal society [including language, customs] shapes our reality as much or more than the latter shapes the former.

Different population groups could thereby construe or represent their environments and "what's going on" in divergent ways, to one degree or another. Especially in terms of a dominant population-group enforcing its particular worldview on subordinate economic classes and ethnic classes. With respect to the New Left of the 1960s-70s and contemporary, revived social justice activism having inspirational ancestry derived from the Marxist fixation with cultural hegemony, the roots of today's systemic discrimination conspiracies hypotheses that are treated as fact.

Thus, the supposed menace that PoMo posed of undermining the consensus reality view which science revolves around that it is examining and describing situations objectively or impartially.

So, while scientists and their supporting philosophers back in the '90s reacted against this movement with outcries of anti-intellectualism, fashionable nonsense, etc... What's now both hilariously ironic and terribly foreboding (in this era of the mainstream Establishment, universities, and the R&D of industry bowing down to Woke) is current scientists incrementally surrendering to the many offshoots of postmodernism.

Intimidated enough, or contingently buried under their own white (male) guilt complex enough on a qualifying individual basis, to potentially -- at some point -- even accept the "alternative science" and upgraded pre-modern myths of non-Western societies and thought orientations.

As these scientists are variously accused (even by themselves or their administrative bodies) of "European tribe" cognitive biases, racism, sexism slash patriarchy, LGBT+ phobia, etc. The very real threat of losing their jobs, being demoted, of being stigmatized, of having funding cut for not conforming to an institution's proactive social justice policies, is sufficient to make an impact on them that the old ire of religious-based campaigns (such as creationism) didn't succeed at in bygone days.

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Origins of social constructionism: In 1886 or 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that, "Facts do not exist, only interpretations." In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann said, "The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance" between people and their environment. Each person constructs a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone's pseudo-environment is a fiction. People "live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones." Lippman's "environment" might be called "reality", and his "pseudo-environment" seems equivalent to what today is called "constructed reality".

Social constructionism has more recently been rooted in "symbolic interactionism" and "phenomenology". With Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality published in 1966, this concept found its hold. More than four decades later, much theory and research pledged itself to the basic tenet that people "make their social and cultural worlds at the same time these worlds make them." It is a viewpoint that uproots social processes "simultaneously playful and serious, by which reality is both revealed and concealed, created and destroyed by our activities." It provides a substitute to the "Western intellectual tradition" where the researcher "earnestly seeks certainty in a representation of reality by means of propositions."

In social constructionist terms, "taken-for-granted realities" are cultivated from "interactions between and among social agents;" furthermore, reality is not some objective truth "waiting to be uncovered through positivist scientific inquiry." Rather, there can be "multiple realities that compete for truth and legitimacy." Social constructionism understands the "fundamental role of language and communication" and this understanding has "contributed to the linguistic turn" and more recently the "turn to discourse theory." The majority of social constructionists abide by the belief that "language does not mirror reality; rather, it constitutes [creates] it."

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