The Common Heritage of Humanity

Dr. Stephon Alexander (photo by Josiah Mannion Photography)

Dr. Stephon Alexander is a Professor of Physics at Brown University and former President of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP). He had previous appointments at Stanford University, Imperial College, Penn State, Dartmouth College, and Haverford College. He received his BSc (1993) from Haverford College and his Ph.D. (2000) from Brown University.

He is a specialist in the field of string cosmology, where the physics of superstrings are applied to address longstanding questions in cosmology. In 2001, Dr. Alexander co-invented the model of inflation based on higher dimensional hypersurfaces in string theory called D-Branes. He also co-pioneered a modified theory of general relativity based on Chern-Simons theory.

Dr. Alexander also explores interconnections between music, phy­sics, mathematics, and technology through recordings, performance, teaching, and public lectures. He has performed and collaborated with Will Calhoun, Brian Eno, Marc Cary, Vernon Reid, Ronnie Burrage, and Jaron Lanier on these intersections.

He is the author of two books, The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe and Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics.

This text is excerpted from Dr. Alexander’s improvised remarks as he accepted the Isaac Asimov Science Award at the American Humanist Association’s 82nd Annual Conference.

THANK YOU SO MUCH for this honor. It’s a real pleasure. All my life, it felt like there was something wrong. Now I realize, I’m a humanist. As I’m talking to you, this idea makes sense. I definitely know I got that from my mother, who was a nurse in the Bronx and had that spirit of service and saving people’s lives. That is where it all comes from, my mother and my father. So first I want to thank my parents and my grandmother. My book, The Jazz of Physics, begins with my grandmother and music lessons…the piano I didn’t want to practice.

So where do I begin? What should I do? I’m an improvisational person by nature. And for things that matter to me, I like to improvise. In quantum field theory class this semester, there was a lot of preparation, and I just got in the mood where I was like, “Let me just talk.” Okay? But I did put some thought into what I’m going to talk about. And I think what I want to do is kind of give some vignettes.

The first thing I want to do, maybe it’s to center us, is say the following thing: When I was a kid in Trinidad, we heard all these stories, Caribbean folklore, about—and I think a lot of cultures have this—these creatures lurking and we were scared of them. There was a lot of magic in that that had nothing to do with ordinary life. After all these years of being a physicist—I’ve been a research physicist for the last twenty years—it’s amazing that we’re thinking about the entire universe, what’s out there.

So what I’m about to tell you is based on the physics and mathematics and the engineering and all the things that humanity has come together to make. We make something like this digital device [holding up his cell phone], this quantum device, the cell phone that you use. Our understanding of the physics of this device leads you to accept the following two observations that I’m going to tell you.

The first observation is about the cell phone. When you talk to somebody in, say, Italy—I’m sure many of you have friends overseas or whatever—you can try to call them now and, if they pick up, an electromagnetic signal gets relayed to outer space at the speed of light, and then it gets relayed in front of hundreds of satellites, GPS satellites, back to that other country and back to you.

Right. What if I was to tell you that that is not possible? Not if time, according to Albert Einstein, wasn’t bent. So you’ve probably heard the idea that space is warped, but actually the GPS system is based on the warping of time itself and the physical reality of the warping of time, like the precision of those satellites, relies on our understanding of how time is warped.

So, if you go on your phone later and actually google that idea, then you can spend a couple of hours on the sound, the magic, of that that we rely on with our technology and society and the collective human intelligence. And we use that. It’s not magical. It’s a fact and it’s very persistent. I would say there’s a mathematical precision behind that but also, conceptually, it’s deeper than the mathematical tools that we use.

Here’s the second observation: I want everyone to touch the table. Now, if you were to take a quantum mechanics class with me, I would spend the entire semester to convince you that actually what you’re touching is mostly empty space.

A gentleman asked me about quantum entanglement. It’s still a mystery, even though we understand a lot of it, as to why your hand should not just go right through the table, which is mostly empty space. And what I mean by that is, if you look at an electron, like an atom, like hydrogen…most of an atom is empty space.

Let me give you a sense of what I mean. I take a proton and an electron that becomes hydrogen. I can, of course, make helium. I can make whatever, just based on electrons, protons, and neutrons. I want you to get a sense of what hydrogen looks like. Imagine placing yourself in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Think of the emptiness. How vast and huge it is compared to you. That is the electron in the space occupied between it and the proton. So what you’re touching is mostly empty space, and yet we take that for granted. So, there is a lot of magic out there and I just want to kind of center you with that. And now, let’s get on to something.

“My approach with my students and with people in general is, “You know what? There’s nothing really special about me. And so far, there’s nothing really special about you. We all have our thing to bring to the table.” But I want students— especially Black and brown students, because we’re missing out on their contributions—to say, “If this idiot can do it, I can, too.”

Why am I here? This award is great, but I’m one of these people like Groucho Marx: I don’t want to be a member of the club that accepts me as a member. I’m worthy. I’m just a regular guy. And I think that’s been one of the big themes of my life.

When I was a kid, we moved to the Bronx and basketball was big. The basketball courts…this was in the eighties, so, the GOAT, Michael Jordan. Everybody wanted to slam dunk like Michael Jordan. Of course, we were in the public school park. I mean, you’ve been in New York, I’m sure a lot of us, you probably see the public school parks: concrete, a metal pole, that kind of thing.

I remember, I was always a weird kid and I would always be the last to be selected in the basketball team. So everybody was like, okay, “I want, I want Jamal.”  Because he’s taller than me and he’s faster. I was always the last guy and I always felt dejected. It’s like I remember that emotional feeling of not being accepted, not feeling welcome, right? Not—there was another word—invited, welcome and belonging.

Fast forward, I’m in high school now. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School. At that time in the 1980s it had about 6,000 students. And let’s say that it wasn’t a great situation. I’m not going to say good things about DeWitt Clinton. Tracy Morgan went to my high school right around the time I was there. And a lot of amazing hip hop artists went through. I’m not going to name drop. There’s a whole story about that. But I remember my math teacher.

We had this teacher, Mr. Daniel Fader. How many of you know what Papa Smurf looked like? He looked just like Papa Smurf. You know, he was just a short man with a big white beard. Seriously, a big white beard. He did have glasses. He was bald and he wore—every day—a white shirt and black pants. And he was skinny, but he had, like, a belly…Now, my high school was mostly Black and Latino.  But the thing that I only realized later on in life—every day, rain, snow—Mr. Fader would walk to work. He was of his generation. He dreamt of becoming. He had his own dreams. He wanted to become a number theorist. So he went to City College to study number theory which is very high-level mathematics. And then—what’s the word —there was a tragedy occurred in his life, and it’s kind of personal. It involved the death of a child. And anyway, we kind of were aware of that.

But here was the thing…I mean, first of all, many of us were broke kids. I mean, we were just in that school with a sixty percent dropout rate, right? And this guy came in as if we were mathematics young whizzes. He didn’t teach math in the way of this is, you know, Pythagorean Theorem, and this is trigonometry…

He was like, “All right, guys. I’m going to show you a trick of the trade here.” And he basically lived vicariously through us. He was like, “Okay, Alexander, you know, if you do this, maybe you can join my research team.” I was like, “We’ve got a research team at Clinton?”

So there was this whole vibe where Fader engaged us as his minions, his mathematicians. We were learning these tricks of the trade, you know? He was like, “All right. You know how poker really works? I’m going to show you the math behind the poker games. Don’t ever get played by those crooks over there. Let me show you the mathematics behind it.”

There was never a sentiment with Mr. Fader that we were lacking. In fact, there were times where we’d cheat on the math exams. He’s like, “Hey, you know, your exam looks really similar to Alexander’s. I’m just saying, if you’re going to do it, do better than that.”

When I went to college, though, I went to a very good school. They were recruiting kids at MIT. It was hardcore. People won Putnam Awards and things like that. I was competitive there, because I learned tricks of the trade from Mr. Fader. I got that in a public school in the Bronx, New York.

So the point in that story for me is what I want to call “radical mentoring,” because the way Mr. Fader approached us was like, “Look, you’re going to have to learn this stuff so you can learn the atomic orbitals of the hydrogen atom.”

I’m like, okay, he actually expects that I should know this stuff? Think about that kid that was rejected on the basketball court. So here I am being embraced in this kind of way, right? I’m talking about this notion of radical mentoring. There’s a quote by Abdul Salam in Stockholm after he accepts a Nobel Prize in physics, the first Pakistani Muslim [to receive that award] who was also ostracized from his community.

Dr. Stephon Alexander (photo by Josiah Mannion Photography)

His statement was: “Scientific inquiry is a common heritage of humanity.” Now, I want you to understand, when I first heard this I’m in college and I’m the only Black student amongst the physics students. And I’m also now feeling not just the rejection on the basketball court—but now the rejection of, “You can’t study with us because we don’t think you know anything.”

They made a presumption that still persists, right? There’s this presumption that I have nothing to contribute to the study group. For me to hear that, it was as if his Nobel Prize actually was about unification…it wasn’t just a Nobel Prize. It was one of the most important Nobel Prizes of 100 years.

And for Abdul Salam to say that was very validating for me. He wrote books about the contributions of mathematics and science from the Arabs, from Africa, from China, from India. For me, growing up in the context of the United States or the West, as a young person, I’m taught that science comes from Europe, right?

Of course, a lot of it does. And that’s great. That’s part of the human family. But my friends also learned that, and hence why they may have presumed that I had nothing to contribute. And so to hear that statement: “Wait—scientific inquiry is a common heritage of humanity.” When we think about a scientific enterprise spanning our planet right now, that’s a very important lesson for people to really embody, you understand. Not to just intellectually know, but to know in their bones.

And so that’s something. I’m a human being. I’m fallible, I got my issues, whatever. But that’s one thing I own, right? And another thing I own is that I’m very comfortable being around other Black people who are smarter than me. So here I am, this student not feeling like I’m fitting in the physics game. I had dreadlocks back then. My locks were about fifteen years long, fifteen years old. So it was a real thing. I was trying to be the real thing.

So there was this meeting in Washington, DC in the 1990s, and I get there. It was the first meeting I went to for the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), which was formed in 1970. You probably heard about Ronald McNair, George Carruthers, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Shirley Jackson. Cynthia MacIntyre. These are former NSBP members. Walter Massey. The list goes on and on. And I was now at this meeting. I’m in Washington, D.C. at this meeting in a conference room similar to this—with hundreds of other young, Black physics students from around the country, mostly from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And I’m like, this is crazy, I don’t fit in here either. So here I am and everybody’s doing the physics stuff and I’m sitting by myself again. So I’m like, okay, maybe I’m just really weird. I saw this guy sitting there by himself, and he had a big ’fro. I had my dreads.

Dr. Stephon Alexander accepting the Isaac Asimov Science Award from AHA Board member John Hooper at the 82nd Annual Conference in Denver. (photo by Josiah Mannion Photography)

I was like, “Well, surely this guy here, you know, is somebody I can talk to. He’s eclectic.” And so I go up to his older guy and I said, “So who are you?” And he goes, “Well, I’m just a regular dude.” So I said, “Okay, I’m ready to talk to this guy.” We’re talking and I say, “So what do you work on? What do you do as a…?” He goes, “Well, you know, I just work on this thing called supersymmetry data.” This was the year 1990. He goes, “Anyway, here, take my number. And, you know, if you ever want to call me, you can call me.” This is back in the days where you had a landline, not cell phones.

So I go back to campus and I’m like, “Yeah, you know, this guy’s telling me Duck Tales. He doesn’t…he’s not really…I’m going to call and test to see what’s what.” So I call, and the phone picks up. It’s a woman’s voice. “Hello?” “Yeah, I’m calling to speak to Professor Gates.” And then she goes, “Well, actually, Jim is, you know, Jim has a headache and he can’t really…” I said, in my head I was like, “I knew it.” And then about a half an hour later, the phone rings. “Hi, this is Jim.” And that guy became my mentor. This is Jim Gates, who was Obama’s science advisor for eight years. He went to MIT, the first cohort of Black physicists that went to MIT, along with Shirley Jackson and McNair.

And Jim…from my perspective he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. You can google this guy. He’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. But his point was, you see from the perspective of that young man, that the young person could think, “Wow, I can do this, too. Like even as another Black person he’s so untouchable, unreachable.” But he’s just said, “I’m just a regular dude.” And over the years, Jim became my mentor. Later we wrote papers together. He became a collaborator, he became a colleague. We were professors at Brown together. And, in fact, I spoke to Jim earlier tonight about what I was about to say. We talk a couple of times a week. And my approach with my students and with people in general is, “You know what? There’s nothing really special about me. And so far, there’s nothing really special about you. We all have our thing to bring to the table.” But I want students—especially, especially Black and brown students, especially because we’re missing out on their contributions—to say, “If this idiot can do it, I can, too.” Did we, African-Americans and Black people, did we really deserve to be written out of the scientific quest?

And of course, in my books, The Jazz of Physics and Fear of a Black Universe, in my research and the courses that I’ve taught the answer is: we can look at things like you look at jazz music and the development and the invention of jazz music and the innovations in jazz. There’s a subset of that community that if you look at what they’re doing, and you look at science—you’ll be blown away that it looks like quantum physics.

On June 22nd, I will be engaging and playing and talking with a jazz musician, an NEA Jazz Master named Donald Harrison. We’ll be talking about something called Quantum Improvisation, engaging in this radical conversation surrounding Charlie Parker and quantum physics.

So I want to leave things more open for the next generation to investigate and explore all the ways we contribute to the scientific enterprise and truly realize and see that it is indeed a quantum. According to Abdul Salam, scientific inquiry is a common heritage of humanity.

Thank you very much.