Yesterday afternoon, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America hosted a book talk featuring Stephon Alexander’s ScM’95 ScM’96 PhD ’00 “Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics.”
In a discussion moderated by host Chris Rose, professor of engineering and associate provost for STEM initiatives, Alexander discussed his challenges and experiences as a Black physicist, his inspirations for writing the book and what impact he hopes the book will have on young physicists.
“This book was a way of inspiring the next generation,” Alexander said. “I wanted to write my own ‘Oblique Strategies’ for young scientists of color, scientists that may find themselves in that stigmatized black space,” he added, referencing the “Oblique Strategies” card deck created by musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt to help artists think outside the box and overcome creative blocks.
The book is “a tour de force … in its insight into how many of the groundbreaking concepts that literally changed the way we look at our reality came from outsiders who had (to) endure various types of stigma,” Rose wrote in an email to The Herald.
An anecdotal approach
Alexander is a theoretical physicist whose research focuses include cosmology, particle physics and quantum gravity. As an established jazz musician, he is interested in the link between music and physics, and he teaches the course PHYS0150 “The Jazz of Modern Physics,” where students use musical concepts to explore theoretical physical problems. Additionally, Alexander is the president of the National Society of Black Physicists.
From an early age, Alexander struggled with being an “outsider” in science. As a child growing up in the Bronx, Alexander dreamed of being a scientist but didn’t see himself represented in the scientific community.
It was the physicist Richard Feynman who first inspired Alexander to pursue a scientific career. Alexander admired the way Feynman “spoke in his genuine Long Island accent, the son of a working class (family) … he didn’t try to hide that,” Alexander said. “He didn’t try to perform as something else, and that was the thing that really inspired me.”
“That was definitely one of the inspirations of the book, that Feynman way of expressing ideas through storytelling and having your own genuine voice,” Alexander said.
In the first part of his book, Alexander used this storytelling approach to write about the challenges he faced early in his career and the role models that helped him persevere. These inspirations included historical physicists like Michael Faraday, whose unconventional ideas were initially scorned by the scientific community, as well as Alexander’s own mentors like Leon Cooper, who actively encouraged Alexander to believe in and pursue his own unconventional ideas.
Breakthroughs in science often involve “crazy” proposals, Alexander said. In this way, coming from a different background and having an “outsider” perspective can be beneficial — it allowed him to better “think outside the box.”
Alexander added that although it might be more comfortable to talk with people that look, talk and think like you, bringing diverse perspectives into the conversation sparks creativity and fuels scientific innovation.
“Embracing the natural discomfort means you’re doing something right,” Alexander said. “It’s a good thing for science.”
“In society and popular culture there is a very specific stereotype of what a physicist looks like … and if someone doesn’t fit that stereotype it can be difficult to be taken seriously,” said Leah Jenks GS, one of Alexander’s PhD students. “I think that Dr. Alexander’s book does a wonderful job of turning the usual narrative on its head and makes a great argument for why it’s actually a positive thing to be an ‘outsider.’”
In the second part of his book, subtitled Cosmic Improvisations, Alexander tackles some of the cutting edge-ideas in modern physics and cosmology.
He paints a metaphor of physics as a “jungle” that can be overwhelming for students to navigate. He encourages students to look at this jungle from a bird’s-eye view so that they don’t get lost in the trees. By focusing on three principles — invariance, quantum change and emergence — Alexander allows students to conceptualize complex physical phenomena without getting lost in the details.
To do this, he uses “thought experiments,” or imaginary experiments used to test a given paradigm that one wouldn’t be able to test in real life. Alexander uses these thought experiments to tackle questions like “Are we a simulation in a quantum computer?” and “Why is the universe expanding?” In one chapter, he posits that the universe exists and expands for the purpose of creating life, using a thought experiment to explain the logic behind this theory.
“I knew that I would not be able to answer some of these questions in my career, in my lifetime,” Alexander said. “So the book was also meant to be a sort of user’s manual … something to pass on to the next generation, saying these are the things we are struggling with, and these are some devices you can use.”