"Can I understand your book?"

How to challenge your math/science anxiety and read The Disordered Cosmos

Dear readers,

Usually I send out updates about how things are going with the book or other writing items. Today I want to do something a little different: I want to answer some questions I’ve been getting a lot. But first things first. I can’t believe this but The Disordered Cosmos has three starred reviews: Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist. Also, there’s a trailer for the book which you can watch (with close captions!) on YouTube.

And, my virtual book tour dates have been announced (for North America). I hope you’ll come listen to my roving talk show!

Finally, I have writing in the pipeline at American Scientist, Scientific American (two pieces), and of course, New Scientist. Now, for a little hypothetical discussion, just you and me.

Is the book for me?

Yes girl (/person/boy), the book is for you! The book is for anyone who has ever looked up at the night sky and wondered how it all works. You don’t need to know any math or feel like you are good at science. As in, the book is for anyone and EVERYONE who is interested in the universe and/or the social phenomena that affect how scientists do the work of understanding the universe in mathematical terms. I wrote it from my standpoint as a Black queer agender woman who could have used a book (20 years ago, when I knew no physics really!) that was loving toward the possibilities that physics represents and also honest about the way white supremacy and patriarchy shape how science is done.

But I don’t have a physics degree, and I got a C in high school physics.

First of all, let it be known I got a C in a college physics class! (In fact, in more than one.) But importantly, this is a book, not a class. What I want readers to do is sit back and take what they can and feel a little or a lot of wonder at the universe and both how much and how little we know about it. Importantly, science is about what we don’t know! A major part of being a scientist is being comfortable with not knowing what’s going on because our job is to live at the edge of what human’s understand and then push that line forward. We are confused — all the time. It is our job.

We don’t like to talk about it in these terms because there’s lots of social capital in being both pompous and confident, but we scientists are confused all the time. It is our job to wander into the part of knowledge-space where our understanding gets fuzzy and try to create some clarity. But before we get to the clarity, there is the confusion.

I regret that I didn’t spend more time on this in the book. Actually I deleted paragraphs about this that were dotted throughout a few chapters. But I worried that they would distract readers. What I can promise is that I worked hard to make the scientific discussions accessible, and even if they are not entirely comprehensible, if you come to them with an open mind, you can still find them tantalizing.

Okay, but I still find this stuff hard to read.

That’s fine. It’s okay to be confused! And generally speaking there’s no such thing as a stupid question. There are only questions that are easier for me to answer and questions that are harder for me to answer.

But. I also want to encourage readers who feel like they don’t understand what’s going on when they read “science stuff” to ask themselves if they really don’t understand or is it just that when you’re convinced you won’t understand, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I hope my mom will forgive me for using her as an example here. My mom is one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and capable people you will meet. She is also terrified of doing even basic arithmetic, and is convinced she can’t because she simply doesn’t have a head for it. Friends, this is ridiculous. Of course she can. It’s always been so clear to me that at some point in her education someone convinced her that she didn’t have the head for it. It seems to me that this belief became a dominant interpretive framework for her, so dominant that it is self-fulfilling. She “cannot” learn math because she does not believe she can learn.

Okay, so how should I read your book?

Read your book like a person who is smart enough to read it (whatever that means). Read it like a person who is not an expert in physics but who is curious about the universe works. Read it like you know that being good at science is about education and persistence, not innate intelligence.

This part is for my fellow Black folks: read it like white people didn’t want us Black folks to know how to read or do math because they were afraid of what we would know about ourselves if we knew that we could read and do math just fine.

Why should I push against my math/physics anxiety?

Because whoever caused you to feel that way can fuck right off. The night sky is our shared heritage. It is yours too.