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Paths around the world

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The cover of The Disordered Cosmos –

Scientists have to be brave, and they aren’t much braver than Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. In her glorious book The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime and Dreams Deferred, written in casual yet meticulous prose, she makes us fall in love with particle physics.

For this unique work in popularizing science, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein was shortlisted for the 2022 OCM Bocas Prize (Non-Fiction) and is participating today in the NGC Bocas Lit Fest festival program.

This renowned and scientifically fiery assistant professor of African-American physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire is of Barbadian descent and is the step-granddaughter of noted Trinidad and Tobago philosopher and historian CLR James. .

Like James, his father’s stepfather, his philosophical approach allowed him to see the big picture, so that although his skillfully crafted book deals with theoretical physics, it is a deeply personal in which the author takes us with her in the task of illuminating the universe with reflections on the fact that science is not neutral, it is shaped by society and politics, and that who is a scientist is determined by who one happens to be. She confidently allows herself to go where the societal and historical evidence takes her, and we are left with a unique exposition of a world in which who can see, who can dream turns out to be a pressing question.

The author argues, in response to his revealed theory, that everyone has the fundamental right to understand and experience the universe in all its beauty and complexity, not just the privileged.

The book has been chosen five times as Best Science Book, Best Nonfiction Book, or Best Physics Book, won the 2021 Los Angeles Times Book Award in Science and Technology, and was a finalist for PEN/EO Wilson Literary Science. Writing Award 2022.

This means that the very world she scrutinizes and finds insufficient accepts her analysis that, as in most fields, science is riven by racism, misogyny and inequalities of race, gender, class, nationality. and disabilities that are deeply rooted in social, economic and academic structures.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein –

The first black woman to hold a tenure-track academic position in theoretical cosmology, she writes, “Physics and math classes are not only scenes of cosmology… but also scenes of society, with all the problems that follow the society wherever it goes. There is no way out.”

For her, the only way forward is to create “a place for black children to freely enjoy particle physics and cosmology”, and that means “radically changing society and the role of physicists within it”. Few of us have thought of science as power, but it is, and Prescod-Weinstein reflects vividly on how “science has become a practice of control.”

For us at TT, where we talk on a very different level about the shortcomings of our education system, the analysis stops us. We realize that the real conversation about how we prepare our citizens for the future is almost beyond us.

That’s not to say we don’t have the intellectual capacity to be brilliant like Prescod-Weinstein or Tonya Villafana, who was educated in TT and is now head of global franchise, research and development, at AstraZeneca, leading clinical programs on vaccines that put her at the forefront of covid19 vaccine development, but we still need to take the time and space in schools to spot that flare and encourage it, even if the big breaks occur later outside the TT.

Prescod-Weinstein is participating in the same NGC Bocas Lit Fest talk and call to action (5-6 p.m.) as award-winning Guyanese-born British author Anita Sethi, whose new book I Belong Here: A Journey along the Backbone of Britain (a Bookseller of the Month) is the first in a trilogy that blends memoir, nature writing and current events to explore identity, nature, place and belonging. Sethi uses the British landscape as a lens through which to ask questions about the world we live in and each individual’s place in it.

She was the unfortunate victim of a racially hateful verbal attack on a trans-Pennine train in 2019 and it prompted her to reclaim her own space in Britain by recording her hike along the Pennine Way, which crosses the north of England and also connects north with south, east with west.

Sethi realizes that the world of adventure or nature writing, such as in particle physics, as revealed by Prescod-Weinstein, is the domain of “privileged white men”, which reinforces the prejudice that people of color only belong in urban settings. She began to challenge this point of view and this reality. She had her attacker arrested, charged and brought to trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced, which is not the usual result of verbal racial hate crimes.

It is perhaps no coincidence that both writers had to deal with the traumatic fallout of the violence – Prescod-Weinstein was raped by a fellow scientist – and for both the only possible way to cope was to continue and allow staff to become political in their respective fields.

The virtual festival ends tonight, is free, streaming on YouTube, Facebook and www.bocaslitlfest.com