Liberating Our View of the Night Sky: A Conversation between Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and Ayana Young

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The Center for Humans and Nature is honored to share a recent “For the Wild” radio interview addressing ways in which we can come to respect and protect the expanse of the Cosmos, our home. Ayana Young, radio show host and founder of For The Wild, invited physicist and Black feminist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein to discuss Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s powerful views on the human colonization of Space. This expansive conversation delves into discussion of curiosity and power; how nation-states plan to mine the moon; how corporations are radically altering Earth’s skies by launching ever more satellites into orbit; but also how important simply viewing our night skies are to humanity and how night sky access is truly part of the liberation discourse—we all have the right to Earth’s night sky.

Ayana: What initially drew me to your work was your focus on early universe cosmology. Can you share a bit about your focus here, what we know about the potential “beginning” of the universe, and how theoretical cosmology is really a form of storytelling?

Chanda: Yeah, I like to think of what I do as storytelling using math. I think there are a lot of different ways to tell stories about the universe, and they do different things for us. So, I subscribe to the Sylvia Wynter school of thought that we are biocultural species where storytelling is embedded in who we are as a species. And, as you know, I am not in the school of scientists who thinks that one particular form of storytelling is superior to the others. As a Jew, I think that the storytelling we do in my synagogue is actually really important for helping me to think about my values. And I actually think that the mathematical stories we tell don’t necessarily help us think about our values. And actually when we try and do that mathematical storytelling, without thinking about values, it gets us into trouble.

Ayana: In The Disordered Cosmos, you examine the naming of dark matter and how it is often incorrectly framed as something foreboding and unknown, when in fact this matter is vital to all that exists. Can you share why the term “dark matter” is a misnomer and how this example can serve as a primer to some of the larger work you are interrogating when it comes to the colonial legacy of all academic fields?

Chanda: Light goes through it, so it’s not dark, it doesn’t absorb light the way that objects that have a dark color tend to and it’s simply the absence of anything impeding light in some sense. So if I were to have a bunch of dark matter in my hands, if it was possible to put dark matter in my hands, I would feel weighed down; it would feel like I was holding something that had some weight associated with it, because it has mass, but I would still be able to see my hands because light would go through the dark matter, it would bounce off my hands into my eyes just the way that it would if the dark matter wasn’t there; maybe the dark matter would disturb the light a little bit. But what we know so far about dark matter is that, for the most part, it doesn’t have interactions with light. If it does have interactions with light, they’re very minimal.So when we’re thinking about why is dark matter called dark matter, I want people to really unpack: What is the history of the context in which this term arose? And what were the associations that people in that time period had with dark, in particular, in Europe? How is the word dark being used and circulated socially? And a larger point here is that all of these questions about how we named things are always social questions. They’re not being handed down to us on a tablet from some higher being. These are decisions being made by people, and their cultural context informs what seems normal to them.

Ayana: That is such a good point. It is really important for us to interrogate where language comes from and how that shapes the way we understand things. In the past couple of years, there has been a huge effort by both private companies and the government to begin developing plans and technology to colonize space as a new frontier, instead of extending dominion across oceans, many are now looking to reach above. In terms of colonial processes, I think back to previous conversations I’ve had where Indigenous folks are acutely aware of what the future implications are of colonial processes (how the water is poisoned, the land degraded, etc.) but the implications don’t matter to those who are doing the colonizing, even though they too will be impacted. You also write about this potential reality in terms of space colonization. How are you thinking about future preclusions in terms of the universe?

Chanda: I’m always a bit worried about us humans deciding to go off and do something that we still don’t do well, and doing it in a new location. It’s a bit like putting someone on the freeway when they’re still not comfortable driving on the street. I definitely think that we as a species, still haven’t figured out how to be cool—and literally be cool with planet Earth—and so I have genuine concerns about the push to go beyond Earth and start thinking about settlements. I keep saying “we,” but of course, it’s actually a very small subset of the population that is thinking about using resources to go beyond Earth, while a larger percentage of the population is trying to survive the consequences of those kinds of behaviors here on Earth and even trying to save Earth from those consequences. The rock that is Earth will survive, but the question is whether it will still be habitable for our species in a way that it has been for the last several thousand years. I think we really have to worry about that now. We’re facing global warming. So what does it mean in the middle of a crisis—and I purposefully say man-made crisis—like global warming to say, “Yeah, now seems like a really good time to planet hop and see what happens if we try and shape an environment on a different planet.” We can’t even live in harmony with an environment that’s already ideal for our existence. How much worse does that get when we start doing things like planet-scaping?

Ayana: That’s such a good point. In your book there’s a section about asking who profits and who will perish from these expeditions, and will these missions exacerbate inequalities on Earth? To push forward with space exploration with no critical analysis of how we have treated the Earth is crazy. It’s so short-sighted and it’s really—what’s the word I’m looking for—just the hubris, the ego behind it.

Chanda: I think hubris is exactly right. We often hear technology discussed as a kind of savior. Like, technology always makes life better. But technology is also the reason that we’re in the situation of global warming. So obviously, as a physicist, I’m not a Luddite. I’m a total gadget geek. Personally, I really like gadgets, I’m really into that kind of stuff. But I do think that there has to be careful thought put into what are our values around what we do with our scientific knowledge? What are our values around the kinds of technologies we develop and deploy? And are they sustainable? We need to start asking different questions about our own technologies; we need to make different demands of our technologies. And I think that we’re not there yet.

So certainly when we talk about hubris, I’m thinking about the fact that global warming is a result of technological advancement. Is it a good thing for humanity? No. So when we valorize technological advancement, as always being a positive, I think there’s a kind of hubris in disrespecting the Earth.We need to do much better. And again, I’m saying “we,” but there’s really a small subset of the population that has the power to make all of these decisions on behalf of everyone else. And so part of what needs to change is how the power to make these kinds of decisions for humanity is distributed. For example, China’s been in the news recently because of their moon mission. There needs to be some careful thought about: What does it mean to mine the moon and potentially change what we see when we look at the moon? What does that mean, for us as a species that has evolved with a particular relationship to a night sky that looks a particular way, to suddenly and pretty drastically over a short timescale relative to our evolutionary time, change that. There’s a hubris coming from the very few who are in a position to decide whether to do these kinds of projects, thinking that it’s okay to make those decisions on behalf of the rest of humanity.

Ayana: Yes, I’m with you. There are so many potential impacts when thinking about mining the Moon—spiritual impacts, let alone physical impacts. I’m thinking about how visually our night sky is changing with the addition of more and more satellites, and I know this topic is a bit on the periphery of what you study, so I hope you don’t mind me bringing it up, but the absurdity of it just feels worth underscoring as we talk about space colonization, which is that now our satellites are causing a tremendous amount of space junk or debris, and many are worried about the potential of a “Kessler syndrome,” which is being described as “an ecological tipping point” for certain orbits…I want people to think about the hubris that got us to the point where we’ve managed to litter parts of the universe and what that says about allowing private companies to run wild in the pursuit of development and advancement?

Chanda: We know that companies are “running wild” in pursuit of development and advancement; we know what that looks like here on Earth. We’ve been through that, we’ve actually run that experiment already. Right? People might say, we don’t have to worry about that happening in space. Except, of course, we do. Even in the astronomy community, we’re now having to deal with the fallout from these satellites that Elon Musk has decided to launch. Ostensibly, the official claim is that they’re launching these satellites to provide internet to rural areas, but I don’t believe for a second that they do anything out of the goodness of their hearts. And I am not sure why I should believe that’s the only reason they’re launching these satellites.

What we’re dealing with in the astronomy community is that the satellites are actually getting into our images. So now our ground-based telescopes aren’t as useful as they were. And it’s incredible that, again, a really small group of people got to make that decision on behalf of all of humanity, about what our night sky would look like and what kinds of images we could even take with our telescopes. We actually have to divert resources to creating a computational pipeline that will take the satellites out of our images. So our ability to see the night sky, to actually see the universe with clarity, has already been diminished just in the last couple of years. This is only going to get worse, for example, Jeff Bezos’ company has also been given permission to launch these kinds of satellites. We are literally going to fill our skies with them.

Ayana: Thank you so much for making those connections for us. A few weeks ago, I was outside; it was a beautiful, clear winter evening, and the stars were bright. It was just one of those nights that was so phenomenal. And all of a sudden, I see this line of satellites. And I felt so…I don’t know what the word is—well, impacted for sure. I believe they were the Elon Musk internet satellites. I forget the name of that project. But I want to say Starlink? Yes, yes. And so I was like, “What the hell, like, what am I looking at? How did they get permission to litter everybody’s night sky?” This is crazy to literally change what we see when we look up to the sky. It was actually quite emotional for me to feel so impacted by this and also exploited. I really did feel this heartbreak and also a sense of, we may never come back from this in my lifetime. If this is just the beginning, our whole sky is going to be gridded. Our whole planet will literally be encapsulated by a grid of satellites. And what does that say about our relationship to this Earth? It was really shocking.

I’m thinking about tying this into our conversation on colonial legacy, the sort of current-day militarism that is really rampant in certain sectors of astronomy. And in The Disordered Cosmos, you speak about this history and how astronomy has been funded throughout the ages; you know, in the eighteenth century it was proposed as a tool that would make the slave trade and global economy more efficient, and so now I’m wondering if you could share a bit about the sort of underbelly of it in terms of the military-industrial complex?

Chanda:  Yes, people can read my critiques of science and walk away thinking that I just really hate science, but I am actually a scientist and spend most of my day doing science. I think my call is really for us to be more honest about how science has been used. And I think that , you know, just tying this into the way that you felt, and having your experience with the night sky disrupted by these artificial objects that, again, just a few people got to make the decision to launch into the sky on behalf of everyone else. There have been incidents throughout history where a few people have decided to use our scientific knowledge to negatively impact other people’s experiences and to decide, “You know what? Actually, it’s okay for me to negatively impact your experience because I’m profiting from it.” We can’t change that habit, if we won’t talk about the fact that it exists. We can’t change the fact that this is a tendency in the scientific community, unless we talk about the fact that it’s a tendency of the scientific community. So you can’t address a problem if you won’t admit that there is one. And that’s really what I’m calling people’s attention to: We need to pay attention to the way that slavery and science were sometimes entangled with one another.The way that science benefited from slavery on expeditions, the way that it was used, like astronomical knowledge was used to make ships more efficient in taking kidnapped people to enslavement, and then taking the goods that enslaved people were forced to produce back to Europe and distributing them.

Ayana: Absolutely. In The Disordered Cosmos you explore the future reality that science doesn’t have to be inherently colonial, or in the interest of commodification and imperialism. And, I’d like to delve in this a little bit deeper, because I know a lot of folks have argued that science is fundamentally colonial, and what it does is colonize those who enter into the field, but I think there is beauty and importance in us knowing the world around us, and for many, that does come in the form of academic pursuit and understanding, and so the call to reclaim this space and thought is vital. So, what do alternative ways of being in science look like and how is this also, really a conversation about reclaiming heritage and forms of literacy that have been negated?

Chanda: The word science has so many different meanings, right? Sometimes when we say science, we mean the scientific community, sometimes we’re referring to a collection of facts that are widely accepted by people who are members of that professional community. Sometimes we’re talking about specific techniques. So I think that there are things in there that should be—I don’t know if salvaged is the right word—but certainly, I am a fan of empiricism. It can help us tell stories about the universe, as I said, we’re a storytelling species. So that part, we need to hang on to. And we need to acknowledge that actually it’s something that people have done in different communities around the world for a [long time] you know, there are different astronomical systems in different communities. And if we’re interested in pursuing this mathematical tale, there’s something really beautiful about that, but then we need to really rethink what the conditions are in which we do these things? Why does particle physics or cosmology receive funding? Where does the funding come from? Who are we dependent on?

I don’t think that there is a simple conversation to be had here where science is all good or science is all bad. I think science is a social phenomenon. And it’s made up of people; what science ends up doing reflects who we are and what we end up doing. The conversation we have to have is about what are our values around using science? What are our values as scientists? And how are we going to enact those in our lives? And what impact do they have on other people?

Ayana: Absolutely. I was thinking about these scientific endeavors and reclaiming curiosity.

Chanda: Yes, we need to rethink what we do with our own curiosity. It really is just that simple, it’s great to be curious, but if you’re curious, be aware that your curiosity can lead you into complicated moral and ethical places. If we don’t have a strong framework that gives people guidance on how to handle themselves in those situations, bad things can happen.

Ayana: Like having a framework that’s actually intersectional and holds people accountable so that the curiosity doesn’t spin-off to these horrific hubristic projects. That’s interesting because it seems like the field of science in which people have to work underneath an agreement that if you’re receiving funding, and if you’re in this academic field, and you’re invited in, there are certain moral and ethical, and honestly, spiritual understandings of how the curiosity is funneled through.

Chanda: One of the things that we’re thinking about is whose curiosity matters. I keep banging on about how there’s a small group of people who are making decisions for everybody else. Why is it that one person who, you know, started a startup twenty years ago and had good stock options is suddenly allowed to make all of these decisions for the rest of the planet? Why isn’t the curiosity of someone who wasn’t in a position to access the same resources equally valuable? It’s fine for Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos to be curious people and to encourage curiosity in everyone. What becomes problematic is when some people have more power to pursue that curiosity and exercise control over other people’s curiosity in a completely undemocratic way.

Ayana: I’m just thinking about the words “curiosity” and “imagination.” And so much of what we talk about on the podcast is about being able to imagine another world, being able to imagine a culture beyond capitalism, for instance. If the people who are funded and supported are [the ones] curious about extraction, then that’s what we’re going to get, because the folks who are really pushing imagination towards a more equitable world, aren’t being uplifted and supported by the dominant culture. At the end of the book, you speak about the politics of suffering and the way that feeds into a lack of imagination; and these topics of radical imagination, joy, a simple call to revere our humanity are still as sentient as ever. Can you speak a bit to the reality that we have everything to gain when we [relinquish] white supremacy and start to inhabit mental, spiritual, and emotional states that have been historically disavowed in the Western educational setting?

Chanda: I agree with you that we have everything to gain when we relinquish the social boundaries and power relations that are set up to disempower some in favor of empowering others. And I do think that there will be some people who will experience it as a loss because if you have too much power, relative to other people, then some of the power is going to be taken away from you. I hope that people will be able to appreciate that this means other people can live better and that there is less suffering, whether or not it feels like a personal gain or not. We need to move away from everything needing to feel like a personal gain in order to be important.

I agree that people need to feel fortified in their own cultural context, and we need to get away from narratives that tell us that Western society is the most valuable society. And when I say Western society, of course, there are lots of people in Western society who aren’t white, but Western society is a proxy for (and socially dominated by people who can exist comfortably in the tent of) whiteness, or people who can exist in the tent of whiteness in some way. There’s something really damaging about telling people that their ancestors weren’t enough. And the logical conclusion of it is kind of horrifying, which is that you do occasionally run into people walking around saying, “Well, you know, it’s good that my ancestors were enslaved, because otherwise I would be backwards.” That’s always the implication whether people are comfortable with articulating that or not, which is that colonialism was necessary to civilize us. If we can get out of this mental framing that our ancestors needed to be civilized, then we can actually really start to learn more about ourselves as a species and learn more about our world, and how to live cooperatively with the ecosystems that we find ourselves in.

One thing I found really compelling was learning from Kanaka Maoli, Native Hawaiians, during the height of their struggle around Mauna Kea and the construction of the 30-meter telescope; the cultural context for them was that the land is like the family member. I just keep thinking over and over again, what if this was a value that had shaped people’s reaction to what we now call industrialization? What if it had been a key piece that the land needs to be treated like a family member, that it has to be treated like it is living and breathing and requires respect? Would we be in the same global warming mess? I think the answer is no. And that really raises questions about our understanding of technology in a Western context, which is that maybe Western technologists don’t know how to use the technology in a sustainable way. And that’s a scientific fault.

Ayana: I want to talk a bit about accessibility in terms of our right to the sky. Humans have always turned to the heavens for both practical matters, like direction and orientation, as well as philosophical matters—making sense of the world, communicating with the divine, and imagining what exists beyond our reach. And lately, I think about how our right to know the land, our cosmologies, etc., is one of the strongest ways to be in right relationship with the universe. Could you elaborate on this a bit further and how this understanding of comprehensive accessibility feeds into your work?

Chanda: Certainly, one of the core themes running through the book is the right to know and love the night sky. We’ve discussed, a range of ways people engage with the night sky, even you shared your experience of wanting to just look up into the sky and not having the experience disrupted by satellites. There’s a limit to the Western framework of rights as our analytic standpoint, but I do think at the end of the day, that [framework] encompasses a lot of different things. What do you need to be able to see the night sky? Well, maybe you need to be able to get away from a light-polluted city? Do you have the resources to go out into the countryside? And do you have the resources to access transportation? Do you have the time off? Is it safe for you? Do you have enough food and water? Are you able to take food and water with you? Do you have the kinds of resources to plan your meals ahead like that, there are so many different things that need to be lined up so that people can just simply have that moment with the sky, including is the sky visible, right?

Thinking in those terms about our relationship to the sky, whether or not you believe in the supernatural, that our relationship with it is on some level divine and certainly philosophical. We need to be really careful about how we strip ourselves of some aspect of our humanity if we disrupt that relationship in very dramatic ways, which is something that has been happening, particularly to people who are Indigenous, especially over the last five centuries, whether those people are Indigenous Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas to be enslaved, or whether those are Indigenous people who were in the Americas whose land was being colonized, and the enslaved were being forced to work it. Even just talking in that kind of North-South American context, we have had our relationship with the sky disrupted by colonialism and slavery. And I want to encourage people to reclaim that [relationship] and also to acknowledge that enslaved people must have been looking at the sky too. We knew that they were, because some of them reported using the North Star to get themselves to freedom. It’s widely believed that Harriet Tubman was one of those people, and that she potentially used that to both liberate herself and as an underground railroad conductor to go back and liberate others. The night sky can be part of our liberation discourse and not just part of our fears about what technology is doing to us.

Ayana: Wow, that was so beautiful and relieving to hear. That makes me think about what we were discussing in the beginning of the conversation, how theoretical cosmology is really a form of storytelling. And I’m wondering if any stories come to mind for you.

Chanda:  For me, seeing the Milky Way—the full Milky Way from Chile in the Atacama Desert, which I know has its own history of complexity with the colonial government, and what has happened with the Atacameño people there—it was a magical moment. I’m not a supernatural believer; I don’t believe in magic, but it felt like a magical moment. It was in this moment that I realized that I had been denied that experience because of the resources I had access to and in the way that light pollution has shaped our environments here in the United States. It made me think deeply about, what is it I want for other members of the Black community? What do I want for Black children? I want for Black children to have that sky. Chile’s in the Southern Hemisphere. And the sky is a little bit different than what I expect my ancestors in Africa looked at in the Northern Hemisphere, but my ancestors saw a sky like that. And I realized I had never understood what the world looked like to them, that I had never even thought about what the world looked like to them and never thought about the fact that there’s no way you could see a sky like that and not think about it. Whereas, growing up in Los Angeles, you can see the sky and be like, okay, it’s not very impressive. It has a moon, maybe Venus is hanging around, maybe you can see like one or two stars. But you’re not really thinking, “Whoa, that must have really shaped the way people thought about everything in their world.” But when you see the Milky Way for the first time, you realize that this has shaped so many people’s lives for so many generations behind you, and that we are just woefully disconnected from that experience. And I think part of reclaiming ourselves from the damage that enslavement has done to us is to have that experience of seeing what our ancestors saw.

Ayana: That was so beautiful Chanda. I’d like to end by asking you, as you dream into the future, what does this course of thinking look like in terms of scientific thought, physics, or even, universe literacy?

Chanda: I want us to think again about what resources do people need to get to the point of being able to see a sky like that? What health care do people need? What wages for housework do poor moms need? What schooling, free of racist, patriarchal violence, do children need? What do we need to create the conditions where people feel liberated from the everyday concerns that tend to take up space unnecessarily from them worrying about where their medication is going to come from, where their food is going to come from, whether they’re going to remain housed? All of these things feed into giving people the conditions where they can just look up at the night sky, and enjoy themselves. Enjoy it.

To hear the full conversation in its original, audio form, visit For The Wild.

Image Credit:
Snake River. By Nelson Morley. Courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

  • Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

    Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an assistant professor of physics and core faculty in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire, USA. Her work on particle physics and cosmology focuses especially on the dark matter problem, and she is a topical convenor for the 2021 Snowmass Particle Physics Community Planning Process.

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