A bizarre Cornell course about black holes that conflates astronomy and ideology

January 19, 2023 • 11:00 am

I get notices of weird courses like this every day, but this one is special for two reasons. First, it sounds completely off the wall, combining black holes and race. Second, a colleague of mine, Luana Maroja at Williams College, asked an AI bot what the connection between the two areas was, and the bot produced an amusing response.

First, below is the class at the renowned Cornell University, whose description was sent to me by a colleague. It appears to be cross-listed in both COML (comparative literature) and ASTRO (astronomy), though I’m not sure where your course credits go, whether they can apply to the majors, and so on.  The distribution requirements below (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS) imply that you can get credit for it in Literature and the Arts, Physical Sciences, and Arts, Literature, and Culture—all in the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m not sure if it really does fulfill a science requirement, but it looks like it.

Realize that I’m not familiar with Cornell’s curriculum requirements for an undergraduate degree, and maybe this course isn’t as bizarre as the description. But remember that course descriptions tend to be fairly accurate, and are written to attract students. Click on the course title to go to the page (the descriptions are identical; it’s just that the course satisfies two different distributions requirements).  

And the same course cross-listed in Astronomy

Here’s the course description and details from the online catalogue:

Course information provided by the Courses of Study 2020-2021.

Conventional wisdom would have it that the “black” in black holes has nothing to do with race. Surely there can be no connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness. Can there? Contemporary Black Studies theorists, artists, fiction writers implicitly and explicitly posit just such a connection. Theorists use astronomy concepts like “black holes” and “event horizons” to interpret the history of race in creative ways, while artists and musicians conjure blackness through cosmological themes and images. Co-taught by professors in Comparative Literature and Astronomy, this course will introduce students to the fundamentals of astronomy concepts through readings in Black Studies. Texts may include works by theorists like Michelle Wright and Denise Ferreira da Silva, authors like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, music by Sun Ra, Outkast and Janelle Monáe. Astronomy concepts will include the electromagnetic spectrum, stellar evolution, and general relativity.

When Offered:  Spring.

Distribution Category (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS)

Syllabi: none
  •   Regular Academic Session.  Combined with: ASTRO 2034

  • 3 Credits Stdnt Opt
  • 19548 LEC 001
    • MOnline Meeting
    • Feb 8 – May 14, 2021
    • Battaglia, N., Vaziri, P.
  • Instruction Mode: Hybrid-Online and In Person
    This course has two required meeting days.
    Enrollment limited to students who are able to attend in-person classes in the Ithaca area.

In this case the conventional wisdom is right: they’re called “black holes” because they appear black—no light can escape their terrific gravity.  So surely there is no connection between this and race except for the word “black,” but you know that’s enough to drag race into the mixture. This course is clearly part of an attempt to racialize everything, and it sounds like a disaster. Since there’s nothing but a semantic connection between the two areas, it’s probably a poor welding of physics and Black Studies, livened up with the tunes of Sun Ra and Janell Monáe.

It sounds exactly what we used to call a “gut course”, or, in the case of science, “football physics”—a course meant for those who don’t particularly want to learn anything rigorous, but want to have fun and perhaps get an easy “A.” Now of course some offended Cornell person is going to write in and tell me how rigorous the course is, or that I’ve completely misconstrued the contents. To the first beef I’d say, “No it’s not: you’re combining two wholly different and unconnected areas that should not be taught as a single course. You’re also trying to be trendy without rigor.” To the second I’d say, “Well, all I have is the course description, and if I were a student at Cornell who wanted to learn science, I’d run away from this course as fast as I could.” But we always have people to defend any course, no matter how weird it is.

At any rate, Luana decided to ask the ChatGPT about the connection. This is, you know, the AI bot site that students can use to get their essay written by AI. (See here for a NYT article about the bot and the problems it’s causing.) ChatGPT at the link is down at the moment: I’m not sure if it’s active only in the afternoons and evenings, which I’ve heard, or if it’s in abeyance (there are rumors of a lawsuit against it).

At any rate, the question Luana asked is in bold and ChatGPT’s answer is indented below that:

What are black holes and what is the relationship to race

Black holes are extremely dense regions of space that have extremely strong gravitational fields. They are formed when very massive stars die and collapse under the force of their own gravity. Nothing, including light, can escape from inside a black hole’s event horizon, the point of no return.

There is no relationship between black holes and race. Black holes are a scientific concept that is based on the laws of physics, and race is a social construct with no scientific basis. They are not related to each other in any way.

This would seem to make the Cornell course superfluous, wouldn’t it? It also tells us that ChatGPT is somewhat misinformed about “race”, which is not entirely a social construct (see here and here).

45 thoughts on “A bizarre Cornell course about black holes that conflates astronomy and ideology

  1. I think I will stop following your blog. Just as I no longer want to hear about what is going on in the Amazon forest: all true, but way too much depressing. 😥

    1. Life & the universe… humans are no more depressing than they ever were.

      The most pathetic thing is to hold up your hands & surrender, sticking your head in the sand. If you don’t like it, do something to change it.

  2. The editors of The Onion have serious competition, since these sorts of products from the far left read just like what that parody newspaper would write.

  3. I would say, if it’s an attempt to create just a fun course that explores how metaphorical versus literal concepts in two different fields MIGHT be creatively used to make people think about one or the other in new ways–and as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously–it might be arguably worth a non-science credit or two, perhaps. PERHAPS. If it were done well. But I certainly wouldn’t expect any of my former fellow Physics majors–let alone anyone from the Engineering School–to come near a course like this with a 10-foot pole.

    I remember there used to be a non-science-major oriented course at Cornell called “Why is the sky blue?” that a friend of mine who was an Econ major took. THAT was a fairly serious, if none-too-deep course, and he learned some interesting things. But in the spirit of deliberately misunderstanding metaphorical versus literal language, I would reply to that course’s titular question, “Because all the humans who live below it are morons.”

  4. “…enough to drag race into…”
    At first I was thinking of a “drag race”🤣🤣 Not that that would be any more ludicrous than what this course appears to be.

  5. I’ve heard this idea, that the black in black hole is racist, before. It makes as even less sense than the idea that “field” is racist. I’m sure people would argue that this is why there aren’t enough minorities in STEM. To argue, though, that the idea that the black in black hole, that is blackness as the absence of light, is directly or even metaphorically related to race is absurd, and so is this course.

    1. I believe the renewable energy has been solved. Strap a generator to Sagan and keep offering courses like this. Power the city of Ithaca with no trouble.

  6. This bit of word play provides, as our host points out, still another gimmick for an easy “gut” course vaguely connected to the science world. We have a similar phenomenon in umpteen courses on “feminist” geology, “feminist” climate science, etc. etc.. The unifying feature of all these courses is the substitution of word play for the meld of empiricism and abstract thought that characterizes actual science.

    Sokal and Bricmont nailed this gimmick in “Fashionable Nonsense (1999). Back then, the word-salad gimmick under discussion was called postmodernism. In this century, it was re-packaged as “social justice” with the totemic emblem DEI, and it has spread first to the Schools of Ed, and then to the administrations of academia. Before long, it will reach the engineering departments: consider cis-patriarchalist terms like “control theory” and “yield point”, not to mention racist/sexist associations of units named after Ampère, Volta, Ohm, Coulomb, Watt, Joule, and so on. When the wave reaches this far, watch out.

    1. Way back in the day as an undergrad, I needed a third science course to graduate. I was an English major, with minors in History and Art, and had already taken basic Geology and Meteorology. What to take? Chemistry? Physics? Or “The History of the Atomic Bomb?” Guess which one I took! Hey, it was taught by the physics professor.

  7. Conventional wisdom would have it that the ‘whiteness’ of globular star clusters has nothing to do with caucasians……….

    1. Is conventional wisdom aware that white is just about the hottest color, built on the emissions of sweltering black bodies?

      1. Ah. I was wondering when black-body radiation would get mentioned. I tell you that would go down in many quarters like the Halifax school teacher who got disciplined for using the word “niggardly” to describe the provincial government’s education funding.

        I see the word even has it’s own Wikipedia page.

  8. Onliest possible connection I can think of is the one the inmate who tutored Malcolm X explained over the dictionary in the library at the penitentiary in Charlestown, MA:

    1. Is it just me getting cognitive dissonance over sustained close-ups of two guys with brown faces obsessing over dictionary definitions of “black”. Maybe “coloured” would have been a better word for young Malcolm to look up…and stick with. (I didn’t see the movie. Is the scene invented?)

        1. You should see the movie if you get a chance, Leslie. It’s a wonderful work of filmmaking, featuring a magnificent performance by Denzel Washington in the title role.

  9. Contemporary Black Studies theorists, artists, fiction writers implicitly and explicitly posit just such a connection. Theorists use astronomy concepts like “black holes” and “event horizons” to interpret the history of race in creative ways, while artists and musicians conjure blackness through cosmological themes and images.

    Assuming the “theorists” they’re talking about are Black Studies theorists and not Astro-physicist theorists, this sounds more like a course in the creative use of metaphor than actual confusion of concepts or accusations against cosmology. The astronomy lessons may just provide background. It might be like an elective which examines how artists have used the circular nature of tornadoes as images for emotional upheaval while studying a bit about actual tornadoes.

    If so, it’s not a serious science course, but for non-majors it might help some of the science stick.

    (I see Robert Elessar #3 already suggested this.)

  10. Hmmm. Maybe it’s a way to get Black students interested in physics. (I know. It’s a stretch.)

    One of the courses I taught was called Historical Geology. It was the first course in geology that students took, and it was about the history of the earth and life. To cover all of that, one needed to dabble in physics, chemistry, biology, math… all of the basic sciences. It was awesome in scope and, with the right teacher, a rigorous introduction to all of science. I loved teaching it and thought it was an important course. Students sometimes thought that what they were getting into was “Rocks for Jocks,” but they were in for a big surprise when they got there!

  11. Granted we have a fundermental connection with the cosmos and the evolution of stars but a black hole works more like a blender… eh, perhaps what it doesn’t like at the event horizon and spits out is, the stuff that made up humans… yukky gritty bits.
    Black holes have discerning taste and don’t mention white dwarfs.

  12. I was reading the comments to your 2018 post about race and found this exchange. I know it has nothing to do with the course featured in this post, but I found it somewhat serendipitous.

    Peter Haas
    March 25, 2018 at 10:24 am
    Well, to paraphrase Dick Lewontin somewhat, if God came to you in a dream and told you that you or someone else was a member of a particular race, what would you do next? In other words, how *useful* is the concept of race when applied to humans?

    March 25, 2018 at 10:27 am
    How useful is the concept of “black holes”? Sometimes intellectual understanding is sufficient. After all, the studies of genetic differences between ethnic groups has helped us not only trace the migration of our species, but identify our ancestry, as with 23 & me. You don’t necessarily have to use the word ‘race’, but the recognition that different populations have meaningful genetic differences (see Reich’s piece in last week’s NYT) has been meaningful, and some of those genetic differences correlated with “self reported race.”

  13. I guess that would be the Michelle Wright mentioned in the courses announcement: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/physics-of-blackness The book features this monument of scholarship 🙄

    «Quantum Baldwin and the Multidimensionality of Blackness

    What do James Baldwin and the quantum—a discrete quantity of energy whose non-Newtonian behavior has made it one of the foci of theoreti- cal particle physics—have in common? Notably, in the introduction to their volume James Baldwin: America and Beyond, Cora Kaplan and Bill Schwarz produce Baldwin as a puzzle, difficult to categorize based on his quantum-like, peripatetic movement: “In no department of his life was Baldwin ever won by the concept of ‘a straight line.’ We can see evidence of this in his prose . . . adding subclause to subclause and detour to detour. Even so, when Baldwin was alive many critics were keen to describe the trajectory of his writing life as if it had traveled along a straight line, from A to B.”1 In other words, scholars have mistakenly used a wholly Newto- nian spacetime to interpellate a quantum Baldwin, a misreading that may be limited to (mis)understanding not simply the spacetimes of Baldwin’s travel and written expression but the multidimensionality of his Black- ness: “For too long one Baldwin has been pitted against another Baldwin, producing a series of polarities that has skewed our understanding: his art against his politics; his fiction against his nonfiction; his early writ- ings against late writings; American Baldwin against European Baldwin; Black Baldwin against queer Baldwin.”2 Kaplan and Schwarz pose both an argument and a challenge here that Physics of Blackness and this chapter specifically embrace: James Baldwin is an exemplar of a multidi- mensional Blackness that defies any attempt to make it follow a “straight line.” In addition to arguing that reading Baldwin’s career as a straight line produces a distorted and inaccurate portrayal, the editors assert that attempting to (mis)interpellate Baldwin through a linear spacetime can in effect “split” him into several single-dimensional selves. This chapter argues that using both linear spacetime and Epiphenomenal spacetime can help to reveal the intersections of those selves—the multidimension- ality of his Blackness.»

  14. There’s s slightly off-colour (ha) joke about black holes and race in Woody Allen’s movie “Deconstructing Harry”.

  15. ChatGPT … Well, anyone in France or Quebec would read that aloud as “chat j’ai p’et’e” (accute accents on each e), or “cat I have farted”. Which, ladies and gentlemen, nicely returns us to the Japanese print that ThyroidPlanet introduced us to the other day. One of his finest contributions if I may say so.

    1. I farted a cat once. Just woke up one morning, felt like I had gas, and bam! Cat pops out of my butt. Don’t know how it got in there, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience coming out.

      Anyway, your post made me literally laugh out loud.

  16. In the course description note how “theorists” are name-checked (presumably because they expect students to have heard of them) but no astronomers. No prizes for guessing which will be the dominant viewpoint on that course …

  17. The listing in your post is for the 2021 version of the course … it’s being offered against in 2023 with a toned down description (and different astronomy prof):

    ASTRO 2034 Black Holes: Race and the Cosmos

    Co-taught by professors in Comparative Literature and Astronomy, this course will introduce students to the fundamentals of astronomy concepts through readings in Black Studies. We will experiment with what it means to engage with astrophysics concepts both inside and outside of the disciplinary framework of astronomy—for example, in genres like film, afrofuturist science fiction, and critical theory. Do astronomy concepts lose coherence outside of their scientific contexts, or do they acquire a different kind of sense? Why are humanities scholars everlastingly drawn toward the stars? In particular, what do artists and theoreticians of color gain from turning toward cosmological reflection? Texts will include works by authors like Octavia Butler and Dionne Brand, theorists like Sylvia Wynter and Denise Ferreira da Silva, and others. Astronomy concepts will include the electromagnetic spectrum, stellar evolution, and general relativity.


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