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Contributions from ‘outsiders’ can benefit science, physicist-musician says

Cosmologist and musician Stephon Alexander told science writers that his love of jazz and physics was inspired by John Coltrane, who “took his love of physics and mathematics out on his saxophone.” (Image from PIXNIO, Creative Commons CC)

Cosmologist and jazz musician Stephon Alexander asked for three volunteers from his audience of science writers and gave each a pitch at which to sing. With a wave of the hand he set the trio off in harmony. After a moment, he silenced the impromptu chorus with another motion.

“That is a jazz chord. That’s why it sounds so rich,” Alexander said Oct. 24 during the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s New Horizons in Science briefing at the ScienceWriters2022 conference in Memphis, Tenn. “There’s a lot of tension there, and it explains quantum mechanics.”

Specifically, a principle called superposition.

“These individual waves can be added up to create a more complicated wave,” he said. “The idea of superposition lives in nature, in threads that become so interconnective and more complicated.”

Alexander’s presentation was the latest in a string of interviews, lectures, and appearances to discuss his most recent book, Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics.

“The book is about outside thinking, outside being, what it means to be an outsider,” he said.

Titled “Fear of a Black Universe: Cosmology, Race, and Jazz,” the talk also tied in lessons from Alexander’s earlier book, The Jazz of Physics.

Alexander uses his writing, music, public speaking and appearances in documentaries to broaden the impact of his research on the origin of stars and the cosmos. With a smile, the Brown University professor talked about how his books help build a bridge to quantum physics for the general public by exploring themes such as the math behind musical lyricism, and racial colorblindness of higher-level math and physics.

He aims to influence the next generation of physicists by focusing on a problem-solving approach he calls outsider thinking. It involves welcoming voices historically excluded from advanced mathematics and cosmology research—such as individuals who are part of racial, ethnic and gender minority groups. Science will continue to benefit if it makes room for the perspectives of outsiders, Alexander said in an interview after his presentation. “We all have the quality of the outsider in us.”

At the heart of Alexander’s research are the connective waves that make up all matter. He has found that beyond dry experiments to solve traditional equations, music theory can give a refreshing perspective on physics.

From hip-hop and jazz to cosmology

Alexander’s jazz-influenced physics journey started in the Bronx, where he grew up, and took him to Providence, R.I., where he heads a research lab at Brown. Hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 hit “My Melody” helped an adolescent Alexander embrace his “inner nerdness” and pursue physics. “My melody’s in a code, the very next episode/Has the mic often distorting, ready to explode,” Alexander rapped.

“He’s talking about how his rhymes are like a supernova explosion, the most powerful event in the universe,” Alexander said of Rakim. “The most popular hip-hop artist of my time made it okay, gave me permission to love science.”

Later, in college, Alexander was introduced to the music of John Coltrane, whose free-form jazz was inspired by Albert Einstein. He sees dramatic similarities in the work of the two. “[Coltrane] was not only an admirer of physics and Einstein’s work … he codified some of the most complex chord changes in music, improvising over these extreme chord changes.” Coltrane, he added, “took his love of physics and mathematics out on his saxophone.”

Opportunities for a Black man to pursue a formal physics education and research were limited during Coltrane’s lifetime. MIT’s Black Students Union formed in 1968 and started leading efforts to increase enrollment of Black students—but Coltrane had died the year before.

While there have been some improvements over the years, the rate at which racial and ethnic minorities earn degrees in physics is still low. In 2020, such individuals accounted for 16% of all bachelor’s degrees in physics awarded in the U.S., up from 9% 20 years earlier, according to the American Physical Society. But a recent investigation by Undark magazine showed that Black enrollment in physical sciences graduate programs remains stubbornly low.

Alexander does his part to bring in “outsiders,” welcoming any student with an interest in and aptitude for exploring the origins of the universe. The diversity among undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and other trainees in his lab reflect that vision and mission. For him, team members are each like distinctive notes that together create beautiful harmony—in science and music.

Victoria M. Kaufman (she/her, @rockosophy, birdsrocksbliss.com, [email protected]) is an avian field biologist for Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc. Kaufman wrote this story as a participant in the ComSciCon-SciWri Workshop at ScienceWriters2022.