Ask an Astrophysicist (with Dr. Chanda Prescod Weinstein & Joseph Earl Thomas) | Crooked Media
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June 08, 2023
Stuck with Damon Young
Ask an Astrophysicist (with Dr. Chanda Prescod Weinstein & Joseph Earl Thomas)

In This Episode

This week on Stuck with Damon Young, Dr. Chanda Prescod Weinstein, Theoretical Physicist and Black Feminist Science and Society joins Damon for a conversation rooted in religion, science, identity and the comprehension of the universe around us. Then in Dear Damon, author Joseph Earl Thomas and Damon consider a listener’s aversion to driving while black. 





Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: As a Black Caribbean person, even though I don’t believe in the supernatural, there are certain rules that I follow just in case. [laughs] Right? 


Damon Young: Like, for instance?


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I was telling my mom recently about someone that I thought she might meet, and I had seen that that person was collecting some items that might have some bad spiritual energy attached to them. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And I literally called my mom and I was like, I don’t believe in any of that stuff. But just in case, don’t fucking touch that person. [laughter] 


Damon Young: Just in case. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Just in case. 


Damon Young: Just in case shit happens. [music plays] All right. Welcome back, everyone. to Stuck with Damon Young, the show where we asked the important questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why did Judas rat to Romans while Jesus slept? Okay that wasn’t from me. That was Ghostface Killah. But those questions are still relevant because we still need those answers. So anyway, on today’s show, we’re joined by astrophysicist and award winning author Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, as we ponder some of the mysteries of the universe. We also discuss why it’s so important to grapple with, I guess, the social fabric of our existence before we have an accurate understanding of the physical universe and the cosmos. And then acclaimed author Joseph Earl Thomas joins us to help a person curious if their anxiety about driving while Black is justified. We also share some of our own experiences getting followed, getting pulled over. [laughs] And which brand of car is an effective cop magnet. All right y’all. Let’s get it. [music plays] Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an Associate Professor of Physics and Core Faculty Member in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Her book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred is the Winner, of the 2021 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Chanda. I need your help with something. I might need more help than you could provide, but since I have you here, I figure I might as well ask you. Okay. So back in 2012, I was at a friend’s birthday party right and they had gotten a section at a club, we’d all, hanging out drinking, had a really great time. And then afterwards, me, this friend, friend’s sister, and I drove to, like, this 24 hour buffet to, you know, to eat to sober up, to talk about the night, to recap and then you know we went our separate ways back home. But I’m telling the story because I do not remember. What happened between leaving the club and getting to the restaurant like that memory is completely gone. Like, I blacked out. And that’s that was the last time that I drank and drove because it was just so dangerous and reckless. And now. I have suspected. That maybe I’d died that night. And what I’m living now is some sort of simulation. [laughs]


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I really thought aliens were coming, I mean, I was literally on the edge of my seat. [laughs] But I thought aliens. 


Damon Young: They might have came. Maybe that happened and maybe that was the cause of the blackout. And so I guess I’m asking you because I feel of all the people I know, you might have the best answer, like, how can I be certain that I am actually alive? [laughs] Right now. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah, this is definitely a question for Lawrence Ware because this is like a philosophy question. 


Damon Young: I mean, I feel like it’s more of a physics question though, or maybe physics and philosophy. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I mean, there are certainly physicists who believe that we actually do live in a simulation. Like, that’s a thing. Like I’m thinking of like Max Tegmark at MIT, if you like this is he even, I think, wrote a book about this, I’ll be honest and say, I haven’t read the book [laughs] because I don’t know if it helps me. 


Damon Young: We’re all family. I just told you about whether or not I [laughs] I’m not even sure if I’m actually alive. So you can [laughs] it’s open for you to share if you haven’t read a book. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah, I guess for the sake of my professional success, maybe I shouldn’t be admitting those sorts of things out loud. [laughs] But I guess I will say, like, I have always kind of ignored stuff like that because I don’t feel like it helps me at all. And to think that I might live in a simulation and that like God is just like some evil genius who wrote this like awful computer simulation where like global warming happens, like what would a shitty coder like [laughter] if that’s what’s going on. 


Damon Young: So your response is like, it doesn’t matter that I still believe that I have the same level of consciousness that I did before that night, and since I think it’s the same, then it doesn’t actually matter whether or not it’s the same or not. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I guess the question that you’re asking me kind of touches on my relationship with like spirituality in some sense, like I’m a practicing Jew. I also don’t actually believe in the supernatural, like, I don’t believe there’s a supernatural being out there. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Or at least I don’t feel that kind of faith. I also am not omniscient, so maybe that’s totally what’s happening and I don’t know about it [laughter] because I’m just like some random asshole like here on earth, right? 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Like, that could be the situation I am on board with somewhere in the Talmud, I guess. Like some rabbis had an argument about whether people were a good idea and they came to the conclusion that people were a bad idea. And I think I’m on board with that. [laughter]


Damon Young: Okay. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So but generally speaking, I try and avoid thinking about these questions because, like, I can’t write down an equation for that. And as a theoretical physicist, I want to be able to write down an equation. 


Damon Young: Well, and I’m glad you bring that up in part of your answer. You know, you mention that your practicing with the Jewish faith. And so how does that reconcile with your work, your spirituality, and I guess your belief on things? You know, if you can’t necessarily quantify them or you can’t measure them, if you can’t create an equation for it, then it’s not something that is real. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I mean, again, I will just say, generally speaking, the great thing about being Jewish is that so I’m ethnically Jewish, right? 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Like I’m born to it, right? And I’m an Ashkenazi Jew. And one of the great things about being Jewish is that you don’t actually have to believe in God. Like, that’s actually not one of the rules. [laughter] You don’t have to believe in any of the, like, supernatural. The real thing is, is, you know, whether you follow the rules. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, right? 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So there are some things that some people believe are rules that I don’t follow, but I’m a Reconstructionist Jew. And one of the things I like about being a Reconstructionist Jew is that we believe in continuously engaging with the questions of what it means to be a Jew in modern civilization and to be part of an evolving civilization of Jews. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So it is the case like I’m working on a new book right now, and 100%, when I was starting to write the chapter on the Big Bang, I went back and read Bəreʾšīt which is the first part of the Torah. That’s the in the beginning section. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So it’s still for me, it’s a literary reference point. And it’s also like when I feel stuck on like a values question or an ethical question, I still think with the Torah. So for me, that’s that’s how it comes into play. 


Damon Young: There’s this relationship, there’s this collision, perhaps even a tension between spirituality and science. Right? And it doesn’t always have to be a tension. Sometimes it can have a symbiotic existence in someone’s consciousness in someone’s brain. And so I guess for you, I’m curious, like, which has informed the other the most? Has your spirituality informed your work more or your work informed how you, your spiritual practice more, or is that even a hard question to quantify? 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I would say I think that my spirituality has informed my work in in that I think like my relationship to Judaism makes me think about the ethical questions that come up in my work. Right. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And I think one of the things that religion can offer people, regardless of what your relationship to the supernatural is, is that it can provide you an ethical framework to think with. 


Damon Young: Hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: As kind of like, if I don’t know what I’m doing, I go back to this thing. And so I think, for example, a lot about the example of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the stuff that he got into and the particular features of his Jewish upbringing. There is another physicist who is a contemporary of his, Isidor Rabi, who said that he thought Oppenheimer’s problem was that he couldn’t properly grapple with being Jewish and that he was trying to assimilate and that this was one of his political problems that led to the issues with the government that he ran into later in the way that he experienced them emotionally. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And so I think about what is my relationship to my work and what are my ethical responsibilities, in part by thinking about what was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s experience as a Jew grappling with those questions. So for me, as a Jew, I think about things in those terms. I will also say as a Black Caribbean person that like, even though I don’t believe in the supernatural, there are certain rules that I follow just in case. Right. Like. [laughter] 


Damon Young: Like, for instance. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I was telling my mom recently about someone that I thought she might meet, and I had seen that that person was collecting some items that might have some bad spiritual energy attached to them. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And I literally called my mom and I was like, you can’t touch that person. Like, don’t touch them. I think it’ll be fine because I don’t believe in any of that stuff. But just in case, don’t fucking touch that person. [laughter]


Damon Young: Just in case. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Just in case. 


Damon Young: Just in case shit happens. I guess I’m curious about this. Particularly someone who does the work that you do with your background, you know, particularly to questions about spirituality. Because I, I realized, I guess late last year maybe this wasn’t a new realization, maybe this was a new articulation, or me finally being able to find the words and have the courage to express this out loud. Just about how my general anxiety has always informed my faith. Right. Where my belief in God and even how I approach Christianity was more based on fear. And like, you know, I looked at God as like, not as a provider, not as like the creator, not as not as love. Right. As you know, I guess Christian faith informs you to do. But as you know it, God is like the teacher that was assigned in school. The tension that can keep you there if you fuck up, right? A hall monitor, a warden. And so I had to unpack that and really ask myself, is this entire relationship with God, with spirituality? Is it just a product of my own anxiety of how I exist in the world where I am? I’m a worrier, and so is did I construct a God that I guess you build a God after your own image? Or maybe you built like an aspirational God, right? And I think that the God that I built wasn’t necessarily of my own image, but of my own fears. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I mean, I guess I have to ask how old you were when you first started conceiving of this, because it’s like hard for me to believe you did this by yourself, right? 


Damon Young: Well, how old was I when I came to the realization or how old was I when I first conceived of God in this way? 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah. I mean, I guess. How old were you when you first conceived of God in that way, when you started having that kind of. I mean, it sounds like you had the realization that for many years you had been experiencing these feelings of fear and anxiety, right? But like, does that go back to your childhood or did you not start feeling fear of God until you were an adult? 


Damon Young: Well, I think I feel like that’s kind of like asking me, when did I first what did water taste like the first time you had it? Because like, I think that that was my entire understanding of God from the time I first was able to know that there was possibly [laughs] an omnipotent being that exists. Right. And so my first four year old, five year old, however old me is thinking, oh shit, if I fuck up. Then this person’s going to see it. If I cuss, [laughs] you know what I mean, if I don’t eat my lunch [laughs] if I cheat on a spelling test, he’s going to see it. And it wasn’t oh, you know, I have these gifts with writing and with basketball, and I have these, you know, these parents who not all of my parents had two great parents, I didn’t equate that to God. I equated like the oh shit, if I fuck up, this is the person who is going to witness it. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I guess like the reason I was asking you that question is because the way you articulated it was as something that you had done by yourself. But I think that that’s something that’s taught, right? 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Like, that kind of relationship with God is taught. And what you’re making me think about is one of my favorite memoirs is Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament, which like amazing title. [laughter]


Damon Young: Amazing title, wow, okay. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: About growing up Orthodox Jewish in a completely Orthodox Jewish community. I think in Monsey New York and about how he was like terrified all the time. All the time. Because there are all these if you’re orthodox, there are all these prayers you have to do all the time. And he was constantly worried about messing them up. And the thing is about, like specifically the Jewish conception of God. And I think that this is kind of broad, is like if you forget, it’s not just your problem, it’s the whole community’s problem. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Like two people like, fuck around and the entire community finds out. That’s like the Jewish relationship with God. And so he was constantly like, oh, if I do this one little thing, like, my entire family is screwed, right? [laughs] But I think part of what makes them more interesting for me as an outsider to that experience is that you really see how much of that is taught and something that I have had to kind of grapple with, particularly as a Reconstructionist Jew, is that I have Jewish friends who grew up Orthodox. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Or who grew up in Jewish communities that were less open minded, less accepting than mine, that that’s also a form of Judaism, and that they’re going to have a very different relationship with like, I love my Judaism. There are actually days when I’m like, can I quit being Jewish? [laughs] And actually because I’m ethnically Jewish, I can’t really. But I definitely have those days. But for the most part, I think it’s a really powerful framework for me. I’m totally over the top about Passover. Like anyone who’s been to my house for Passover Seder knows that I’m like, I go really hard. 


Damon Young: You go hard. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: But I have to accept that other people have a different relationship with it. But I think that that part is social. Like there’s nothing in the Torah or the Bible that sounds like you have to be fucking miserable to be religious. 


Damon Young: I feel like that part, the social part, obviously you can’t divorce yourself from it, right? And so again, even four or five year old, your first encounter in God, you know, you learn about God from something, from somewhere, from somebody, something that you consume, something that you read, something that you’re taught. Now, I can’t necessarily pinpoint like, okay, this is what did it, because we weren’t necessarily regular churchgoers, but in fact, the most I was ever in church was when I was at Catholic school. And it’s a workout. It’s like doing yoga when you go [laughs] to church at Catholic school, stand, sit, kneel. You know, do a whole lot of movement. But I guess this question, you know, I was thinking about this when thinking about talking to you and particularly about how one of the fulcrums of your work is, that we can’t really begin to understand the physical universe until we attempt to understand, like the social fabric of how we exist. Right. And so I’m curious, like for you, once you had that revelation in terms of how these two things were connected, were there any parts of the physical universe that you thought were concrete, understood, decided that you began to question once you made that connection between understanding them both? 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: You know, it’s interesting that we’re kind of thinking about maybe origin stories of how we arrived at certain conclusions, because my stepmother recently cleaned out her basement and brought me a box of my stuff that included printouts with my edits on it of my application to college, of my my college essay. And I expected this to be a terrible piece of writing that I was going to be really embarrassed about because my college counselor actually told me when I was going off to college and she was an amazing woman. May she rest in peace. [laughs] But she said to me, It’s a good thing you want to be a physicist because you’re never going to be much of a writer. [laughs] That was that was how bad my writing skills were. 


Damon Young: Oh wow. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: At that point. But what was interesting about reading the essay was that I was already starting to formulate some of these ideas about the relationship between our social dynamics and how we understand the physical world. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And I had no recollection of making those connections at the age I was 15 when I was drafting that essay. I had no memory whatsoever of kind of that continuity of thought. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And I will say that at that point in time, the thing that I do remember believing is that I really believed and I realized this is going to make me sound a little bit I don’t know what the right word is. Extra is not enough [laughter] unhinged maybe?  I thought that if we solved quantum gravity that this would help us solve our socioeconomic problems. Like I really believed in the propaganda about the power of the theory of everything in an almost religious way. I actually think that those of us who became fundamental particle physicists and cosmologists, which is what I do, is I really believe that for us there is almost a spiritual kind of religious feeling about it. And I really had to be kind of forced to reckon with the fact just by looking at my experiences in the classroom as a college student, that it wasn’t just about doing calculations, but it was also about how we treated each other in the classroom and that like race and gender mattered in the classroom, mattered in the research laboratory. Your disability status. I had a very early lesson with that when I was 19 that your disability status matters in the laboratory. And for me, that was like a super rude awakening. I was like, not, I mean, I was young, I was 17 when I started college, but I was like not ready for that. I had a very idyllic kind of idealized view of things. 


Damon Young: And I guess, you know, when you pull back and you think about it like it seems almost like, of course, if these standards were established by white men and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be believed without a shadow of a doubt all the time in these things that we consider to be objective truths while we have to consider the source. And I think that, you know, that applies to so much of what we know, what we believe to be true in terms of like history, language, English, economics, government. But I think with science and math, it’s a bit different. I think there’s a bit more hesitancy to apply those same sorts of that same sort of cynicism to that, because if there’s a theory [laughs] and if there’s an equation that checks out, then obviously it is true, then this obviously is the right thing. And what you’re saying and what you’ve been saying is that actually we should be questioning that too, we should question everything. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah. I mean, maybe I can give you a more recent example, which is that I just finished teaching a graduate quantum mechanics class. So this is a class that all of our first year PhD students have to take. And, you know, coming back to things that I avoid thinking about. Quantum mechanics has these very serious and deep interpretation issues that mechanics like physics from an Etonian perspective, like an old school, what we would call a classical physics perspective just doesn’t have. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And the one maybe that you and and listeners might be most familiar with is that when we write down equations for motion in physics, I can say very specifically this object is in a specific location, and it is going a very specific speed. Right. 


Damon Young: I just want to say really quickly that I that I appreciate that you assume that I know what you’re talking about here. [laughter]


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Well. 


Damon Young: I just, I’m not saying whether or not I do, but I appreciate that you’re like, you know what this is I know you’ve heard of this. You and in your listeners know what I’m talking about, but continue. [laughter]


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I mean, so where I’m going with this is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that one thing that changes when—


Damon Young: Of course. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: —you introduce quantum mechanics is that you can no longer very definitively measure the location and the speed of something. At the same time, you have to pick one that you’re going to be certain about. 


Damon Young: Mmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: You can’t be certain about both of them at the same time. And this can seem like a little bit outside of our everyday life because like you’re rolling in your car, you’re like, I know where I am on the freeway. I’m like a quarter of a mile from this exit. And my speedometer is telling me how fast I’m going. So I know those two pieces of information at the same time. And in quantum mechanics, we can’t know those two pieces of information with the same amount of certainty. And this actually is very deep implications for what exactly is going on when we say we are engaging in a measurement of reality. 


Damon Young: Mmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And what even counts as reality and what is the relationship between the observer and reality. And I will say that that’s something that really, for the first 20 years of my career as a physicist, I was like, I am not going to think about that in any deep way because that is just going to mess with my head. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And then while I was teaching this class, I actually had to kind of grapple with it because I had to be able to talk to my students about the way that it made them feel right. And so it’s not just a calculational issue. It actually was like, how does that make you feel? And it is an unresolved interpretational issue. And so, you know, one question that people like to ask me, like media organizations sometimes are like, I’m going to trick her, I’m going to really get I’m going to be like so do Black people have a different theory of gravity because you say that race and gender matter. And I’ll be like, no, but it may be that we have reached the epistemological like the knowledge limits of how Western frameworks are able to interpret these ideas. And the philosophical answer to these interpretational issues is going to come from outside of that way of thinking. 


Damon Young: Last point, can you expand on that? 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So the question of, you know, in quantum mechanics, we start asking these questions of when you make an observation. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Like so that the famous one is what I call the quantum cat, because Schrodinger was not a good person. So we’re just going to go with the quantum cat. It’s also known as Schrödinger’s cat sometimes where you don’t know until you open the box if a cat inside it is alive or dead. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So if you think about just that thought experiment, it raises a question of did you choose the cat’s existence by opening the box and looking at it? That’s one of the interpretational issues in quantum mechanics, which is, are you as the observer, prompting reality to come into existence? And I think that this actually loops back around to the question that you asked me at the beginning about living in a simulation, right? Like whether we are all coming into existence because some maybe higher dimensional being is observing our existence and that’s what’s causing us to exist. We think of this as kind of, you know, a paradox in physics. And so that raises the question of how is that paradox going to get resolved? 


Damon Young: Yeah, it reminds me a bit and this might be minimizing. This is definitely minimizing [laughs] but it reminds me a bit of like a kid playing peekaboo where kid closes their eyes and the universe is gone, like nothing is there and then opens their eyes back up and it’s like, holy shit, everything is back. And, you know, that is actually a question that I’ve had, a recurring question I’ve had since I was a young kid, is whether is the universe here for me now feels like such a narcissistic sort of question to pose, you know, very navel gazingly. But, you know, I guess that’s on brand, but it is something that I’ve always pondered. If it isn’t, then how would I know that it’s not? Because, again, if perhaps all of this disappears once I close my eyes and then I open my eyes again and then it comes back and there’s no way for me to know that’s not true. There’s no way for you to know that’s not true for you, that once you go to sleep, then everything goes to sleep. Everything ceases to exist until you wake back up to you regained consciousness and it’s back again just for you. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I mean, this reminds me of some other confusion that I had as a child. You can tell by the story that I was raised by the television [laughter] because I really thought that, like when you turn the TV on, that the actors were like, okay, now is the time to do our lines and move. Like, I thought all television was like television. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: For a really long time. And I knew that there was something wrong with this because I was like, how do they know? When I especially, like, I watched a lot of MTV from like when I was like three or four years old and I was like, how do they know that like I wanted to hear in 1988, my favorite music video was Rod Stewart’s Forever Young. Like, I remember that. How did they know that I wanted Rod Stewart to do that music video right now? Like, that was [laughter] so I mean, I think that’s certainly one way of being in relationship to reality is thinking that, like, you’ve created the reality. And then I think for most of us that means our mind or whatever has created a pseudo nightmare for us to exist in constantly, I don’t know, maybe that’s just me feeling a little bit cynical about how things are right now, but I don’t think that this is what I would be choosing. But I also think that this is why the arts are so interesting from a scientific standpoint. They’re interesting for their own reasons, right? But from a scientific standpoint. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: This is kind of what art does for us, is it allows us to do that thought experiment and push it. And so, like The Truman Show actually is kind of like that experiment. How does the main character experience this constructed reality that it turns out it isn’t real at all. And how does he figure that out? And so there are external actors there, right? So it’s not the same situation, but it allows you to carry out the thought experiment to its logical conclusion. And that’s one of the reasons that I think that speculative fiction, SFF, whatever you want to call it, is so powerful and important. 


Damon Young: Wow. Okay, so you’ve given both 43 year old me and four year old me, a whole lot to grapple with in this conversation [laughter] a whole lot to ponder, a whole lot to consider, you know, before we leave. I want to congratulate you. You just had a new book deal announced in your latest The Edge of Spacetime. Do you have a release date for that yet? 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I don’t know if I’m allowed to share that out loud. I actually forgot to ask. I had my first editorial meeting with Lisa Lucas and he’s the publisher of Pantheon and Maria Goldverg, who’s going to be the editor I’m working with. And that was like the one thing I forgot to ask them. It’s going to be a couple of years. So I think that that’s that’s, that’s probably fair to say. 


Damon Young: Yeah, I don’t I don’t even know why I ask that question because, you know, release dates, they again they exist it’s almost like dark matter [laughter] they’re just out there and no one knows what to make of them, they change. It is what it is. But can you tell us a bit about this book? 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah. So The Edge of Spacetime is in part I’m, me making the case for why this fundamental questions and physics like the nature of spacetime. What is spacetime? The nature of quantum mechanics, these interpretational issues I was just telling you about, why these fundamental questions are still such important humanist questions, and I want to help the audience understand why I find them exciting, why they should find them exciting, and why it’s not all about just making commercial products. Because I really do think that some of these, like exciting basic questions can get lost in the capitalist mix. And I also want it to be an accessible book that welcomes in people who are science anxious and math anxious. And I will just say that Big K.R.I.T.’s Cadillactica album is playing [laughs] a really big role in the writing process. 


Damon Young: Okay. All right. I mean, is it in your head while you’re writing or are you listening to it? 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I’m listening to it. I’m going to be writing about it. 


Damon Young: Okay. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Because Cadillactica is just like this really beautiful Afrofuturist work of art that is about the Big Bang, but it’s also about musical origin stories. It’s a love note to Black Southern identity and relationships with music. There’s so much happening, but I love the way that he plays around with the Big Bang. So literally right now, the Big Bang chapter that I’ve been working on is called Big Bang Ho, which is a refrain from My Sub Pt. 3 which I just please, everybody go out and listen to that song right now. But also I’m going to be thinking about Missy Elliott’s Work It. I’m going to be using that to talk about symmetry. So they’re going to be a lot of musical anchors, and some of it’s probably going to be old school because like, like I’m thinking about Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y for the quantum gravity chapter. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: My childhood is I’m old, I’m 40 now [laughs] so like it’s going to show in my musical selection. 


Damon Young: I mean, no, you’re seasoned. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Seasoned. 


Damon Young: Right. Your experienced. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I’ll take that. 


Damon Young: Yeah. Generally speaking, we run away from old. Old. It’s just an adjective. It’s been connotated as like a negative thing. It’s just. It’s just a thing. It’s just a thing. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Yeah. I find that for me, music has been the thing that has made me feel the most aged. Maybe I just like [laughter] have a hard time keeping up with with some of some of these little new artists. Like, I just [laughter] like, I think I’m still, you know, thinking about Def Jef who I knew as a kid. Right. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: And but I also think I will just say one of the reasons that some of this work is on my mind right now and I’ve returned to Cadillactica in particular, is because we’re in this moment where people are thinking about Afrofuturism a lot. And so of course I’m thinking about Afrofuturism a lot. And the term was coined in an essay slash series of interviews put together by thinker Mark Dery. But the name of the essay is called Black to the Future, and that’s from a Def Jef song, I think it was on his album, Just a Poet with a Soul, right? So I think part of what I’m thinking about with this book is trying to kind of in the spirit of Sankofa like return to my roots of what excited me about looking at the universe from the margins, from its boundaries, from its edges as a child, and bringing kind of the way that I thought about these questions in relation to music and culture with me as I move forward professionally and hopefully my audience gets to come with me on that journey. And so I think that’s why that stuff is in there. 


Damon Young: Well, thank you. We will be on the lookout for that. You know, whenever, you know, again, book release dates are so nebulous and so, you know, almost like donkey at these windmills we chase them [laughter] and and then they change form and then we realize it wasn’t even a windmill. So where can people find you?


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So people can find me on Instagram @chanda.prescod.weinstein, you can also find me on TikTok, although I still don’t really understand how to use TikTok. I just got on it  [laughs]like a few weeks ago. You can find me at the same handle. I’m not even going to try and spell out my Twitter handle, but I think probably the place I’m most active is on Twitter, and you can just find me by searching for my name. 


Damon Young: All right. Chanda, this was great. Thank you so much for coming and for again, helping. If I could go back and have like the five or six year old me sit in on this, but there’s maybe a five or six year old listener of Stuck with Damon Young [laughter] who is having this same anxieties and just wants to know about the universe. And you have helped them, you know, come to like a greater understanding. So thank you for that. 


Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I hope so. [laughter] I you know, I hope also that I’ve helped them understand that you can be a theoretical physicist who says fuck a lot because that’s me. And I’ve been doing [laughter] that since I was a kid. So thank you for having me on and letting me do that. 


Damon Young: [laughs] All right. [music plays] Up next for Dear Damon, we’re joined by the homie Joseph Earl Thomas, and we try to help a person who was curious if their anxiety about driving while Black is justified. But first, Damon hates. [music plays] I’ve always been one of those people who says that they hate small talk and that that is mostly true. In fact, I was one of those annoying motherfuckers who, at the beginning of the lockdown, the beginning of the pandemic, was writing shit about silver linings. Like, well, at least you don’t got to talk to people at coffee shops, shit anymore because we’re not going to coffee shops and we’re not talking to people when we do go out. And so, yeah, I was one of those annoying motherfuckers and I would like to repent because I’ve realized over the past couple of years actually, that I actually don’t hate small talk. What I hate is small talk that is a space filler. I like small talk when it is meta, when it’s small talk that is basically an indictment [laughter] on small talk. Right. And so you have conversations about the weather. You have conversations about, you know, what’s happening in the neighborhood, what happened in some basketball game last night. But they’re conscious of how ridiculous small talk is. And so you’re having a commentary about the conversation that you’re having while you’re having a conversation. And I actually enjoy that. I actually enjoy it. And that can only be done when it’s someone that you see on a regular basis, right? And that you engage with this small talk with. And so it becomes a little game. And so I guess what I hate, it’s a small talk that is almost like nervous energy where nothing is said, nothing is communicated, nothing happens. It is this fucking  dark matter of communication, of discourse. And I hate that shit, but I don’t hate the conversations that you have with someone that you are used to seeing and you’re talking about nothing but you know you’re talking about nothing. And the conversation becomes entertaining based off of the ways that you’re describing the nothing that you talking about, because that’s, you know, that’s how you bond as a society. You know, you have these conversations the meta, conversations with people that you see. And I think that right there, it’s the social lubricant, right. That keeps us together and that makes us whole. I don’t hate small talk as much as I used to, or at least I hate small talk in that context, but I actually kind of like it in the other context. [music plays] So this week on dear Damon we’re joined by acclaimed author Joseph Earl Thomas. It’s also you know he’s a friend now and not like a friend the way [laughs] I was talking about with [?] but actually a friend. Joseph what’s good man? How are you doing? 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yo what’s up, man? How you doing?


Damon Young: I’m good. I’m good. I’m good. I’m in some pain right now. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Okay. Okay. What’s going on? 


Damon Young: My body is breaking down on me, man. I think it’s a combination of playing too much basketball and doing too much sitting. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Okay. 


Damon Young: Right. I need to. I feel like I need to do a bit less of both. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: I was about to say. You talk about, you know, basketball being your metric. Before when we was talking about this last time I saw you, so I was like this nigga hooping every day. I can’t do that. [laughter] I play like one day I’m out for like a week and a half. 


Damon Young: See I’m, I was hooping beginning of the year I was hooping three days of the week and now I’m down to two because like, okay, so last time I played was Saturday morning and my shoulder, like my shoulder is already fucking with me. Like my shoulder all the way up to my neck and it’s even messing with my collarbone and I think I just exacerbated things and now it’s like still sore my range of motion is limited. But, we we didn’t get on a talk about my broken body. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Listen, I’d love to hear about it another time. [laughter]


Damon Young: I’m cured but you’re good though? 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah I’m good. I mean, I’m feeling the same way on the body movement, so I’ve been doing a lot of lying down [laughter] and bought to get back into a yoga situation, because this, I get it. I get it. 


Damon Young: All right, Morgan the producer, what we we got this week? 


Morgan Moody: Dear Damon. What are your thoughts on driving while Black and experiences with cops while behind the wheel? I have a car and a license, but I’ve normalized using my car very little. My friends think I’m being dramatic, but I feel like less of a target now than I did when I drove daily. And that was before the pandemic. What do you think?


Damon Young: It’s an interesting question? I’m curious. I guess my main curiosity is why this person feels more safe now than they did pre-pandemic? 


Joseph Earl Thomas: I kind of want to know where they live at, that’s what I want to know. 


Damon Young: I was thinking that, too. I was definitely thinking that, too, because it’s easy to reduce race and racism to a binary like Black people do with racism. And then that’s just it. Black people behind the wheel of car deal with driving while Black. And that’s just it. But there are factors. There are extenuating factors where you live matters, what type of car you drive matters, and without getting in to some sort of respectability, fuck shit, we can’t ignore the fact that context, environment, situation, all that shit does matter, right? So yeah, I was also curious about where this person’s coming from, where they live. If again, they talk about being more safe now than they were pre-pandemic. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah, as soon as I heard that question, I was like, dang, you know what? When I used to drive this like 98 Grand Prix in North Philly when I was broke, it was just regular all the time. If I was on Broad Street, you know, you would kind of expect it. But now that I’m in this, like, you know, soccer vehicle, you know [laughter] with the extra row of seats and, you know, I’m in a different school district. It’s not as all the time. So that’s kind of the first thing that comes to mind. Right. 


Damon Young: So how many times have you been stopped or followed in a way where you’re like, you know, what this motherfuckers definitely behind me because of who I am. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Probably about like 11, 12 times. 


Damon Young: Okay. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Some of those times where I was actually speeding. So I don’t know how much those count [laughter] but probably like 11, 12 times that’s happened. 


Damon Young: Yeah, my count is probably like in the dozens, although I guess to your point also, it decreased dramatically in the last like five to ten years. My first car was a Mercury Mountaineer. Those basically look exactly like the old Ford Explorers, like they’re indistinguishable from Ford Explorers from far away. And I got stopped a few times. I got followed a few times while I had that. Then my next car after that was a Dodge Charger. [laughter] Okay. You would think. You would think I had an advertisement on the back of my car for free donuts, you know what I mean, a nigga is selling free donuts as much as I was followed and stopped by the cops while I was driving the Charger. Now Charger, you know, is the official car of dope boys also. I mean, that’s just the way it is and in most neighborhoods. So there’s that. But again, you know, driving a Charger, my God, I never get that much attention from the police. And sometimes it would just be parked somewhere and a cop would come over and be like, oh, I just wanted to see who was driving a car. I really I really liked that color. [laughter] And then they start talking about like torque and horsepower and, you know, what type of engine you guy and all this shit, like they’re giving me a pop quiz to see if this shit is really mine, right? Whereas I had the base Charger I didn’t have, like the big engine Charger, I had a Charger with, like, the fucking lawnmower engine, you know what I mean? But they’re asking me about Hemi’s and and horsepower and what not. But then my last two cars that I’ve had since the Charger, I have seen getting stopped decreased dramatically. Now, with those cars, I’ve had car seats in them, which maybe matters, maybe, maybe makes a difference, you know, but niggas get stopped with car seats all the time, too. And again, I’m just sharing data. I’m not necessarily filling in the hypothesis about, okay, this car will get you stopped less, this car will get you stop more. But in my experience, the Charger was the car that I was getting followed all the time then. I drive like a Benz SUV now and I never get followed or stopped. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah, you know, I mean, it’s hard to say, right? Because you know that, like, niggas will get pulled over, get stopped, you know.


Damon Young: Yeah. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Killed for anything. You know, I think it’s also true still because remember, right, we had a lot of conversations about like tenured professors at universities can stop like university police for dumb shit. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: It’s also true that there’s just a lot more cops where I used to live. There’s a lot more. They’re everywhere, right? 


Damon Young: Yeah. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: In a way that’s not exactly the same now. And I wondered that question too the thing you said, Damon, about the car seat. Right? Because I don’t know. I don’t know what the difference is with that. Now that there’s all these car seats in my car. Right. If that has ever made a significant difference, probably not. But I think most of the time it’s like, you know, I’m not driving by where those cops are looking for niggas as much [laughter] as I used to be, you know what I mean. 


Damon Young: Well, you know, and you bring up a good point too about like the level policing that exists in different parts of the country where, you know, and that’s one of the things that really that really stands out when you’re in New York City is like, there are cops fucking everywhere. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yes. 


Damon Young: In New York City and also in Philly and also like it feels like the mid-Atlantic cities, but particularly New York City. You could not walk a block, drive two blocks without seeing a cop without seeing a cop car, without seeing a cop on foot. You know, there are just cops everywhere. Right. And that sort of policing just doesn’t exist at the same, you know, now you have aggressive police, you have terrible police. You have, you know, the existence of police, which, you know, is is a whole nother conversation. But in terms of the number of police officers that you see in New York City, like, again, it’s one of the more conspicuous things about visiting that city, that it’s different from any other place that I’ve been. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah. It’s mad creepy. Every time I go, I’d be forgetting. I’m like, damn, y’all do have cops like, every other block. 


Damon Young: Like everywhere. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: You see a yes, like a group of them. They’re like, hanging out and shit. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: You know, I don’t. I don’t really understand it. I was thinking about this other thing, too. Damon. Right. That I think is true. If you like, you know, you slightly change your class background, but if you live in like a white neighborhood where folks in the neighborhood are suspicious of you, it’s very different from you change your background like now, a lot of folks in my neighborhood is like mostly Black and Jewish, but don’t like—


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: —you know, middle class like strivers of whatever. So it’s not strange to see me in a neighborhood in the same way it is if I go to like, you know, upper kind of like Bridesburg or some of these neighborhoods where there’s pool parties and shit all the time [laughter] that you see [laughter] every time I think that that that part of the setting has a lot to do with it, right, too. 


Damon Young: Well, yeah. And the policing, over-policing, it has a lot to do obviously with anti-Black racism, white supremacy and a by-product of all of those things is, you know, a Black person existing in a space where we are not supposed to be, you know, it’s like, okay, well, if you’re in this space, okay, I’m used to seeing you there. You’re not unusual, you’re not a threat. You’re not as much of a threat. But if you’re in this other space, if you’re in this predominately white suburb, some something ain’t adding up. Let me let me go investigate that. Let me go check it out and see what was happening there, what you’re about. Let me just follow you and run your plates and make sure you got no warrants. Make sure that car is yours. I’m not going to stop you, but I’m just going to let you know that I’m here. That I’m seeing you. Right. Gene Demby had a really, really great Twitter thread a few years ago, and I use it to explain police harassment, you know, driving while Black. You know, the people who don’t necessarily understand, you know, what the big deal is because they look at the stats and it’s like, well, statistically, you know, white people are harassed too, white people are followed, too. White people are shot by police while driving, too. And it’s like, yeah, that’s true. All right, whatever. But what ends up happening and again, this is from Gene’s thread, is that let’s just put some numbers out there. The typical white person, lets say the typical white person in her lifetime is followed or stopped five times. Okay. And let’s say the typical Black person is followed or stopped 15 times. Okay. So right now you already have three times more engagements. And because you have three times more engagements, you increase the likelihood that you are going to engage with that trigger happy cop. You know, because most of you know, most cops are probably just going to want to go home at the end of the day and clock in clock out, whatever. But when you increase your interactions with police, then you increase the likelihood that you’re going to have an interaction that ends badly. You increase the likelihood of that overtly racist cop, that inexperienced cop who is terrified, you know, that person who is just looking for a reason to stop somebody because they need to fill certain quotas for the year. And so that’s where it comes. It’s like you just increased the number of engagements, the interactions, and then eventually something might happen. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah, and that’s hard to capture, right? Because you don’t see or hear about all the times that are just like mundane, you know what I mean? The kind of everyday stuff. I think we do pay a lot of attention to like the big kind of kind of grandiose moments, right? But like every time that, you know, somebody runs your place and then you got to yeah, they’re like, oh, your registrations expired. You know, I should. [laughter] I should fuck you up for this other thing. But this is like the whole money kind of aspect of it, too. The kind of like financial extortion that you deal with on the low in addition to like the humiliation constantly that goes on too that, you know [?] have time to talk about sometimes. 


Damon Young: And then there’s also let’s say you’re stopped or let’s say you’re getting followed and then you get pulled over and the cop says, you know, I stopped you because you were driving erratically like, motherfucker, I was driving erratically because your ass was behind me. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah, anxiety. 


Damon Young: [laughs] That’s why. That’s why you motherfucker made me anxious. You make me nervous. I’m looking okay. Is there any parking lot I could get to really quickly? Is there? You know, why is this motherfucker following me. Do I need to drive like Jason Bourne to see if he’s gonna still be [laughter] following me? You know, you. You are the one who is causing myths right now. You. You. This is entrapment, you know what I mean. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: It is. 


Damon Young: I feel like Jay Z, what is the Jay Z in the 99 Problems video. [laughter] 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yo it really is though. Well, this made me think of like I was like, who are this person’s friends, too, right? Because damn, you know, the friends maybe can recognize that this is a problem that’s caused by reality. Right? So even if you aren’t getting pulled over more often, you might feel like that’s the outcome or the likelihood. So it creates a situation where you are, where you start responding constantly to the fear for a lot of folks. 


Damon Young: Yeah, I feel like being so anxious about potential police harassment that you don’t drive at all that, you know, that’s unusual. It seems unusual, but it’s not like unreasonable. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah. 


Damon Young: Right. It’s not an unreasonable thing. It’s not the sort of thing that that I wouldn’t understand. Even if I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t go that far. I would get it. And so if this person’s friends don’t even get that, don’t understand that. Again, I’m curious if they’re Black. I’m curious if they’re native born Blacks, also if they are Black. You know, because they’re they’re, you know, can be some, you know, some respectability things happening with, you know, sometimes with Black people who are not from here, but who live here now. So all of those things, I think, matter. But again, I don’t think it’s particularly I don’t think it’s unreasonable. It’s an unusual reaction, but a reasonable action to unreasonable conditions. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Right. Right. That’s a good way to put it, too. But and that’s you know, that’s the other thing I was thinking about with geography. Right, too. Because I’m like, if you live in Philly, you can’t just not drive. You know, if you live in New York, sure. Like, that. 


Damon Young: Yeah. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Makes perfect sense. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: But you can’t you can’t really do that here or in a lot of the cities. 


Damon Young: Yeah. All right. Joseph, Earl Thomas, thank you for coming through. You know, you’re are you still you’re still tour— You’re still doing stuff for your book, right? 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yes, I’m still out here seemingly every other day doing book stuff. So I’ll be around. I think my next thing is like conference in Atlanta in like mid late summer. 


Damon Young: Which conference? 


Joseph Earl Thomas: For the National Book Club. 


Damon Young: Okay. Yeah, I think I was there in 2019. It’s like a conference of like Black book clubs and booksellers. It was a really good time at a really it’s a it’s the event that’s kind of distinct from a lot of the book world, like publishing world stuff, because one, it’s all Black and this also just older. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Okay.


Damon Young: You know, you have all you have an older population there are people who you know, don’t necessarily, you know, necessarily see as some of the other, you know, literary function and awards and banquets and things of that nature. So it was you know, it was it was a really good time. And can you tell us a bit about your book. Too


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah. Yeah. So Sink is a memoir. It’s a coming of age memoir about growing up in Frankford, in the Frankford section of Philly. 


Damon Young: Mm hmm. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: From the age of about like 8 to 13. So it has a lot of like sort of [?] and a lot of kind of humor on one end and thinking about difficulty primarily through the lens of a child. 


Damon Young: Yeah, I feel like you’re underselling it a bit. [laughter] It’s a brilliant book is also extremely funny to the way that you describe things and also the perspective who you’re telling the story to. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve read in like the last five or ten years. If you haven’t read it, please check it out. We did a book event together with him when he was in Pittsburgh, coming to the city we did at City of Asylum here. And, you know, a great crowd, great turnout. But again, please go out and cop Joseph Earl Thomas’ Sink. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Thank you, man. You do a better job at describing it than me. So.


Damon Young: I mean, you should be. [both speaking] You should be. I mean, you’re on tour man. What are you saying in front of people? 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Listen, you know— [laughter] That’s a good question because, I be, like, damn am I gonna go back and look at this? I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s a good question. 


Damon Young: You know, I’m not going front, though, because, like, I had, like my whole spiel that I would give to people about like my book and then I read like Kiese’s blurb, Kiese Laymon’s Laymon blurb and he called it like a tragicomic. Boom. I started using tragicomic in every description of the book, tragicomic made it in there because again, so, you know, if you get you got some good blurbs, you know, steal from them. 


Joseph Earl Thomas: Yeah, I’m a start doing that. [laughter] I’m a start doing that, too. 


Damon Young: All right man. Good seeing you.


Joseph Earl Thomas: All right. Thanks man. [music plays] 


Damon Young: Just want to give thanks again to Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Joseph Earl Thomas for coming through. Great conversation, great guests, great people, also great writers. Please check out their books when you get a chance to. Also listen, subscribe anywhere you get your podcast Stuck with Damon Young is available, so please hit those buttons, hit those banners. Click those digits, whatever you need to do [laughs] to share and spread the word of Stuck with Damon Young. Also, if you’re on Spotify, we have the interactivity questionnaires where you can answer questions that have been posted by us about the episode. So please check that out on the Spotify app. And again, if you have any questions about anything whatsoever, hit me up at All right y’all. See you next week. [music plays] Stuck with Damon Young is hosted by me, Damon Young. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Madeleine Haeringer. Our producers are Ryan Wallerson and Morgan Moody. Mixing and mastering by Sara Gibble-Laska and the folks at Chapter Four. Theme music and score by Taka Yasuzawa. And special thanks to Charlotte Landes. From Spotify our executive producers are Krystal Hawes-Dressler, Lauren Silverman, Nicole Beemsterboer, Neil Drumming and Matt Shilts. Special thanks to Lesley Gwam. [music plays]