A Black Female Astrophysicist Explains Why Hidden Figures Isn’t Just About History

A Black Female Astrophysicist Explains Why Hidden Figures Isn’t Just About History

First, it beat Star Wars: Rogue One. Now, for the second weekend since its wide-release debut in the US, Hidden Figures — the true story of three black female mathematicians at NASA — is number one at the US box office. It’s raked in roughly $US60 million ($79 million) so far, and counting — and it won’t even hit Australia until February 16.

Image: 20th Century Fox/YouTube

The inspiring story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan has re-energised the ongoing conversation about the importance of inclusivity in STEM. Though we’ve long done away with the Jim Crow laws depicted in Hidden Figures, black women in are still notoriously underrepresented in mathematical sciences, including physics. A quick look at the numbers proves it: Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics. Only 66 black women did.

Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein was one of those women.

Image Credit: GR21 LOC

In 2010, Prescod-Weinstein became the 63rd black American woman to ever earn a PhD in physics, from the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Now, as a theoretical astrophysicist who’s worked at MIT and, more recently, the University of Washington, she is an advocate for black women and non-binary people in STEM.

A self-described modern day “hidden figure”, Gizmodo caught up with Prescod-Weinstein to talk about being a black woman in a white man’s field, and to get her take on the box office sensation Hidden Figures.

Gizmodo: What are you currently working on? What projects in your career are you most proud of?

Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: As far as things that I’ve accomplished at MIT, working on a paper that looked at how axions could form and condensate on an astrophysical scale… that was really fun. I really like that paper of mine.

If I think about everything I’ve worked on in my career, there was only one thing I wasn’t really excited about, or one paper that I felt kind of “meh” about. Even for that particular paper, I would say the question we were trying to answer was an important question — it just wasn’t one that set my heart aflutter.

I think to be able to continue doing this kind of work, especially if you are someone who is overcoming various forms of discrimination, you need to be excited about what you’re working on. Otherwise, the discrimination isn’t worth it.

Gizmodo: What were some of your initial thoughts after watching Hidden Figures?

Prescod-Weinstein: I actually haven’t seen [the movie] yet, but I’ve talked to people about it extensively — I have the book. I wrote the introduction for a young adult book that was co-written by Duchess Harris, who is the granddaughter of Miriam Mann, who is one of the people in the book.

So I’m very familiar with the story.

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Gizmodo: Much of the movie centres around how Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were repeatedly discriminated against by their white male (and female) colleagues. Were there points in your career where you experienced similar incidences of racism and sexism?

Prescod-Weinstein: I’ve written extensively about this on my blog, but I think there’s a recurring theme. There were times when I was treated differently in overt ways because of my race and my gender. [Even with] some of my classmates at Harvard — some of my classmates who went on to study physics with me — it was very clear to me during the prospective students weekend that they thought the only way someone like me could have gotten into Harvard was because of affirmative action.

Before I had even started as a college freshman [the first year of university], it had been made clear to me that some of my classmates didn’t believe that I was there for my own merit, and they had no basis for that. They hadn’t been in a classroom with me, they didn’t know that my maths teacher had written in my letter of recommendation that in his 30 years of teaching, I was the most talented mathematician that he had ever taught.

I think one of the things that’s hard about racism — about discrimination in general — is that if you grow up in American society, by the time you’re an adult, you basically have a PhD in identifying racism, because you’ve experienced it so much. You’ve been around it so much.

When I started high school — the high school I ended up graduating from — I started a month late, because my parents were divorced, and I was with one instead of the other. As a 13-year-old ninth-grader who just skipped a grade, I was already ready to take Algebra II, which is usually an 11th or 12th grade course. So I got put in an Algebra II course, and the maths teacher there — who ended up being my only maths teacher in high school — said, “There’s no seat for you in this class. You can’t be in this class.”

I went to my counsellor, and my counsellor wasn’t there, so I went to my vice principal’s office. And the vice principal — who was black — looks at me and says: “OK, I guess I will put you in the Algebra II Honours class, because I know there are enough seats in that class.” He walked me over to my counsellor’s office — she was a white woman — and she looked at him and said in front of me, “There’s no way she can do this course.”

Do I know that she said it because I was black or because I was a girl? No. But if you talk to black women and white women, black men and white scientists, there’s a pattern: Those of us who are black women have heard these things more frequently.

Gizmodo: A study from the National Science Foundation reports that between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men have received physics PhDs. In that same time frame, 66 black women have received physics PhDs. You’ve tweeted about these statistics before, but how do the numbers make you feel?

Prescod-Weinstein: I know I’m not supposed to say this, but like shit.


When I say it makes me feel like shit, I mean that every time someone asks me about that number, I have to suppress tears. For me, that’s a very emotional thing, because speaking of Hidden Figures, it’s a hidden statistic. It’s not talked about. I think the only reason it’s been talked about in the press at all over the last few years is because I wrote that one tweet and it got some people’s attention.

I think it brings up a lot of stuff for me. In addition to reminding me of all the experiences of isolation that I had as a graduate student, the experiences my mentees had as graduate students or the ones who are still in graduate school continue to have, it also reminds me of all the conversations I’ve had with people who are working on “diversity”.

When I’ve tried to highlight to [these people] how few black women were earning PhDs specifically in physics — but also in astrophysics and related fields — they have said to me things like, “I don’t see why race matters.”

I heard that as a graduate student, when I was more actively involved in some aspects of the National Society of Black Physicists leadership, interacting with some of the people at our so-called “sister societies” and getting the feedback that people didn’t think we were worth focusing on because there weren’t enough of us. That’s a value statement.

I don’t know if I have words to describe what it’s like to have people make you invisible because you are already so invisible. And for them to say, “You’re already non-existent, so let’s not talk about how non-existent you are.” It doesn’t even make sense, but it’s also extremely psychologically painful.

Gizmodo: In that sense, do you feel the title of Hidden Figures resonates with you personally?

Prescod-Weinstein: Absolutely. I absolutely think that we are hidden. I think that what people seeing the movie or reading the book may not realise is that we’re hidden because there are so few of us, but that even in today’s diversity discourse, we are often hidden because of weird statistical arguments and the politics of the diversity community, which I think often unfortunately errs on the side of focusing on what are the needs of people engaging in diversity work rather than “what are the needs of the people diversity work is intended to serve”.

Gizmodo: Do you think Hidden Figures is a movie about history, or a critique about the current state of science?

Prescod-Weinstein: I think too often in the national conversation about race, we tend to be very linear in terms of how we think about historical progress — that if things were bad in the 1960s, that they must be the same or better now. I think that this is complicated and nonlinear in significant ways. The group in Hidden Figures worked as a group, they knew other black women mathematicians at work — I have never worked with another black woman on a research project and until fairly recently, I didn’t even have the opportunity to.

Until last March, I had never been supervised by a woman. My current post-doc adviser is the first woman research adviser that I’ve ever had. I’m six years out from my PhD and that’s how long it took for me to work with another woman, and she’s white.

The idea of being supervised by a black woman who is already tenured faculty and working in my field is actually literally impossible, basically.

Just to give context to that, someone posted in a Facebook group recently — a black woman — that she was “so excited” to write a tenure letter for a fellow black woman and to give her a strong recommendation. And while that’s fantastic, there will be no black women writing tenure support letters for me. But I now add to my bucket list that one day, I can write a tenure support letter for a black woman who is junior to me. That’s one of my professional goals now.

So one of my anxieties about [Hidden Figures] is that people will walk away from it and situate it in the 1960s, not 2017. They won’t realise that the last black American woman to get a PhD in theoretical cosmology left the field immediately upon graduation from her PhD program. I think the story is different now — not because things are better, just different.

Gizmodo: How can we make science a more inclusive space?

Prescod-Weinstein: I think that the press has a very big role to play in this. Over the last few years, after my interview with The Huffington Post went public, I started getting letters from people saying, “I didn’t know someone like you existed. I’m going to tell my kids about you.”

One of my frustrations about [the coverage surrounding Hidden Figures] is that the press hasn’t gone adamantly after the black women mathematical scientists of today. I do think that we were starting to hear about black women who are engineers or in a lab… but I want kids to know there are also black women who do calculus all day and even fit the stereotype of the old white man with lots of papers who is walking into things. That’s occasionally me.

One of the things we can do is, in the celebratory storytelling of these incredible women, that we not forget that children and young adults need modern examples that they can relate to in a more day-to-day way.

I want for the young women and non-binary people and men out there to have what I did not have; I did not know about any black women working in physics when I was a high school student. A thing that’s very exciting for me is that I can be that person for someone else. And that enriches my work.