From ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ to ‘Fear of a Black Universe’
Physicist Stephon Alexander on how being an outsider leads to better science
Close your eyes, think of the words “eccentric genius,” and one of the first images is doubtlessly that of Albert Einstein. He is defined by his characteristic hair and aloofness, too smart and preoccupied with space and time to be consumed by the minutiae of daily grooming.
But the idea of genius is often affected by the same social forces that influence what we perceive as alien, illegal or unsophisticated — race, gender, class and other statuses that place individuals and cultures on the wrong side of the line between accepted and outsider.
Stephon Alexander is a theoretical cosmologist and professor of physics at Brown University who has learned how to embrace being different while also succeeding in established spaces. His research challenges conventions of gravity, spacetime and the fabric of the universe. Doubling as a jazz musician, Alexander uses his musical perspective to inform the kind of physics that he does. In his 2017 book, The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, Alexander compared the constraints of physics with music:
Contrary to the logical structure innate in physical law, in our attempts to reveal new vistas in our understanding, we often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking.
In his new book, Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics, Alexander takes it a step further, bringing readers on a whirlwind ride through the nature of reality, modern physics and the true meaning of being an outsider.
Alexander spoke to The Undefeated about his book, what he means by a “Black universe” and modern questions in theoretical physics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you walk me through the process and motivation behind Fear of a Black Universe?
I first authored the title as a joke. When an agent asked me what I think the book should be called, one day I said, ‘Fear of a Black Universe.’
In hindsight, I think it was one of these subconscious things — that had to be the title. And then when we start thinking about quantum mechanics, the dualities and concepts like superposition — the idea that a concept could have many meanings. And I know in literature there is some device where you can have an ambiguity in the title of things. And so in my book, there’s some of this multiplicity, which I felt was perfect given the ways that I look at the universe.
Of course, the title is a homage and reference to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. That album had a tremendous impact on me. You have to remember that I come from an era where I used to wear African medallions and I was listening nonstop to Public Enemy. The album really influenced me, but more than that, the era. People forget that when hip-hop was new, it really was a culture that everyone was afraid of. It was authored by mostly young, Black and Latinx folks in inner cities, and had a raw energy that intimidated people. And so Fear of a Black Planet embodied a lot of these sensibilities, but came right out and said it — you all are afraid of us.
But that isn’t where my reference to Blackness ends. The experience of being Black is like a rite of passage, you have to go through things and emerge on the other side. You have to dig deep and strive for that excellence in the face of challenges that you might be facing. And the fact that expectations may not exist for you as a Black man or a Black person, a Black scientist.
And then the other key resonance that that title was about the category of Blackness in a broader sense, like in America, that plays itself out as stigma. And as Black people, we have to deal with stigma, and these other things.
That’s a reality — that you’re constantly feared, a threat to the status quo. And so, part of what I was getting after with Blackness had to do with authoring ideas that are edgy or potentially threatening. That as a scientist, you can generate ideas in the name of research, in the name of breaking new ground, that may stigmatize you. That may kick you out of the club, so to speak, because you’re not necessarily following the herd.
And I don’t mean being actively defiant, but becoming stigmatized in the process of trying to make a difference. And the book was also exploring that with other great breakthroughs in physics, people like Michael Faraday and Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger. I’ve learned that they had to navigate that space as well.
So in the book, Blackness is a metaphor for the process of embracing that true outsider status that comes with risk-taking, generating ‘Black ideas.’
Hence, Fear of a Black Universe. This is a fear, not only of Black people, but of nontraditional personalities and perspectives.
You’re not satisfied with telling another story about a lonely Black person in a white world. You take pride in being original in the science that you describe. What are some modern ideas in physics that excite you?
Part of my mission is to remind people that unusual backgrounds and experiences can really help to foster new ideas in all of these disciplines. And so, while my background may not show up in the minutiae of my theoretical physics, my identity plays a role in how I think, and so is a character in a lot of things.
With regards to new physics ideas that excite me, I think one of them is probably best summarized by a story.
One of my mentors is Leon Cooper, who won the 1972 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on conductivity. For context: Leon solved this problem that was almost 50 years old, that Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman and a lot of greats worked on.
He has always remained close to me. And I’ve always been in touch with him throughout my career. I’ll often go check in with him when I’m at various crossroads.
Years ago, I’m talking to Leon in his office at Brown University. He asks me what I’m working on. After hearing my answer, he looks at me, disapprovingly, and says:
‘You know what you need to do? You need to find a real problem and work on a real problem. People are afraid of working on hard problems because they’re told it’s impossible. And I think that people are not working hard enough.’
I mean, he’s going off on me. The man doesn’t mince words. He’s a New Yorker like me, one of the reasons that I identify with him.
My interpretation was that I was flattered that he was challenging me to that level. Instead of me taking it negatively, I took that as he respects my intellect so much that he’s basically challenging me to pick the hardest problems, the problems that appear to be impossible, and try to solve them.
He finishes his rant, walks up to a blackboard and writes some equations about the big bang on the board, using some clever mathematical tricks. And I’m looking, and I think to myself, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting.’
So a few years went by and it turned out that that thing that he was telling me ended up being the kernel of some ideas surrounding the following paradox: We think that quantum mechanics is something that operates on the microscopic scale. And there’s some cases in material systems like metals, superconductors and superfluids where quantum mechanics can operate. But when we start talking about scales of people and buildings and planets, the world is classical, and quantum mechanical effects get washed out.
But this idea — that I was inspired to pursue by Leon Cooper — claims that at the scale of galaxies, quantum mechanics reappears like a phoenix. And so, there’s a chapter in a book called ‘Quantum Galaxies’ where I talk about this.
One of the hot topics in diversity and inclusion spaces is how we can get more young people of color to have a different image of what a scientist is. You seem to think that being accessible, or cool even, does not clash at all with the image of being smart and scientific. How did you land on this perspective?
I’d love to take credit for this, but this really does come from my background.
My family immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago in the late 1970s. I moved to the Bronx at age 8, and was raised there during the 1980s. And so, a lot of what was going on with the development of hip-hop culture was happening right in the neighborhood. And one of the elements in that culture — that I don’t feel like people have highlighted enough — was the importance of having knowledge. That is, on the streets, having knowledge of self and the universe was applauded.
I used to take the bus from my neighborhood to my high school, DeWitt Clinton High School. I used to work on my calculus homework on the ride. And here I am, on the bus, doing my calculus homework. And remember — this is the 1980s — all sorts of folks would walk through that bus, including some not-too-friendly characters. But a lot of the people on the bus would be all about ‘dropping knowledge.’ And they would notice me doing my homework.
And from time to time they would engage me, ‘Man, what’s up with that mathematics, brother.’ And I would reply: ‘I’m studying derivatives and integration.’
And one day a guy said to his friend: ‘This guy is doing supreme mathematics.’ And from that point on, they basically protected me. Treated me as one of their own, and so I always felt welcome in my community.
This is the same group of guys that encouraged me to go to college. They were like: ‘You need to go to college, get that knowledge and come back.’
That sentiment stuck with me. I’ve always wanted to bring my knowledge back to the community in whatever way that I could. I never held this idea of a conflict between being authentic and being smart and seeking knowledge. These ideas were never paradoxical growing up in the Bronx.
Now, the media portrayed that differently — that our culture was anti-intellectual. But that was not the case where I came from. Being smart has always been a part of being from the streets.
One of the things you emphasize is how to embrace being an outsider. What perspectives can you offer to people who are struggling?
I hope that I said it all in the book! But jokes aside — I think Black excellence is a precious idea and must be protected. And in many spaces, I’ve found that we can be drawn to safe and comfortable ideas because they feel like they have greater odds of success. One of my career goals is to break this idea — it’s OK being an outsider. Let’s embrace it and lean into it. I think that’s where our genius lives.