‘Discomfort can break ground’: physicist Stephon Alexander on the value of difference

As a Black scientist in a traditionally white field, the Brown University professor has often been ostracized. But to move forward, he says, science must embrace diversity

As a Black physicist, Dr Stephon Alexander has been doubted, spoken over and met with intentional silence. The tenured Brown University professor has even faced this treatment from his students.

This is par for the course for many Black professionals in traditionally white environments, but Alexander happens to excel in an especially insular field that was once thought to be too advanced for people like him. In the 70s, the American Physical Society, the country’s most recognized organization of physicists, remained silent as some members claimed that people of African heritage were incapable of engaging in physics because of their inferior intellect – a damning assertion in a field that requires supporting colleagues as they make huge conceptual leaps.

In his second book, Fear of a Black Universe, which was released on Tuesday, Alexander argues that the lack of racial diversity in physics harms individuals and the field. He says there’s a sense that there’s one way science is done, but actually that is just how it has been done by the mostly white, male and privileged people who have had the opportunity to become scientists. The fear of deviating from that standard inhibits scientific discovery.

Theorists like himself – the “high priests” of physics, as he calls them – engage in pure thinking, an elite savant-like realm. Alexander epitomizes attributes of those not usually let in. He has an undeniable Bronx accent that is spoken with the staccato of a Baptist preacher. He’s a jazz musician who floated around a world of Afro-centrist hip-hop as a high-schooler in the early 90s. The title of his book is a reference to the rap group Public Enemy’s Black empowerment album Fear of a Black Planet. Alexander wrote his book in the same format as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which he was given as a teen and became like a Bible to him. His ability to draw from different worlds, he says, makes him both an outsider and more valuable to the science community.

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During your time as a postdoc at Stanford, you felt so ostracized that you went to cafes to do your calculations alone. What did that casting out look like?

Explicitly, three physicists are talking to each other about something technical on the blackboard and they’re in my office and I sit and wait for like a half an hour, and then I start saying something and then they just continue talking over me.

A lot of what we do is soundboarding, so the activity of theoretical physicists is that it’s a cypher. In hip-hop you keep a cypher. There’s a space where people get to riff, but if you’re not welcome into that cypher, if you’re not encouraged or if you say something wrong, it could be met with silence. If you already know you don’t belong in that space or you suspect that, silence is interpreted as “get out”, literally. I just stopped going into the office altogether. Cafes were an environment where I was able to think more freely.

There were certain physicists at Stanford who highly supported me and who highly engaged me at that level and said, “This guy is interesting,” rather than saying, “He makes me uncomfortable.” It was just like: “This is really interesting. I want to understand what’s going on in this guy’s head and I see value in that.”

Stephon Alexander seated
‘I should be interested in talking to people that know things that I don’t know, because it might help advance me in my blind spots.’ Photograph: Benedict Evans/The Guardian

So you missed out on having sounding boards, which is crucial in your field, but what did the scientific world miss out on because you weren’t comfortable collaborating with your peers and they were uncomfortable around you?

This has to do now with the importance of embracing discomfort, especially cultural discomfort. I mean, I just couldn’t help but talking the way I talk sometimes. I had long dreadlocks at that time. I would even wear Afro-centric types of garb. I think simply they’re missing out in the sense of learning how to appreciate the tensions, the discomforts that may at first appear when you engage with others who are different. In the scientific community, if you’re a Black person, I think that we’re still not used to really valuing our intellect and that what we might be bringing to the table simply by being us could be valuable in terms of advancing their science. I think that there’s a real presumption that there’s nothing or very little to be of value, except maybe for us to entertain them.

Why is engaging “the other” so crucial in physics?

If I’m the master of something – let’s say I am the master saxophonist like John Coltrane, or I’m the master mathematical physicist like Chris Isham – why do I want to talk to people that know exactly what I know? I should be interested in talking to people that know things that I don’t know, because it might help advance me in my blind spots. This is crucial in furthering physics.

I think there are certain social and cultural norms that when groups of people get together they all intrinsically agree to and, by definition, those norms in science and in physics mean to exclude certain ways of thinking or ideas. Let’s say, for example, that my style of doing physics suggests taking the most speculative, out there ideas. I’m talking about aliens or whatever it may be, let’s say, and I want to be able to put that on the table to be considered.

You mention in the book scientists of any race or background fear presenting a theory too out there, too wild. How might a Black physicist actually have an advantage here?

There’s a certain kind of mathematical standard or a way of thinking in the canon of knowledge of your training to draw from, and the fear can simply be that if I go outside of that or if I start talking about spirituality it’s sort of like: “No, this is science. This is about physicalism or realism. Why are you talking about the spirit world?” Then the immediate thing is to say this person might be the laughingstock, might be shunned, may be stigmatized. He’s seen as inferior because, at the end of the day, there’s a standard of how a smart physicist is supposed to act like and be like and talk like.

I’m just shining light to say: you guys might want to think that you’re being logical and objective, but you don’t realize that you’re functioning as a social order with the dynamics of what social orders do, which is to punish deviants. And if I’m coming in without even trying to be deviant but by simply being Black or talking with a Bronx slang accent it’s already making me a passive deviant, and you want to punish me and kick me out of your club without giving me a chance. The hidden advantage is that if I know that I’m already not a part of your club, but I’m still participating in the club, then I don’t have to be afraid of being kicked out like so many others. It allows me to present wilder ideas.

Is there a theory you feel was less rooted in the status quo and became widely accepted?

In my book I talk about the founding of quantum mechanics. As a student I was taught quantum mechanics; it was presented to me as sort of, in hindsight, this is the logical foundation in mathematics. But the discovery of it required an engagement of eastern philosophy … Austrian physicist [Erwin] Schrödinger, one of the founders, was highly involved in looking at debated philosophies. As physicists, people are made fun of if you engage with other ideas or other modes, other ways of thinking, but what is to be gained is that it challenges, conceptually, how you may approach a problem. And so for me, it’s helpful just knowing that piece of history around this theory of quantum mechanics – that the discomfort of engaging other philosophical traditions, spiritual traditions, actually was a key to breaking new ground and founding what we now call the basis of modern technology, which is quantum physics.

You mention Schrödinger, known for the Schrodinger’s cat paradox. It gets at the issue of projecting one reality, because there is only one point of observation, when we actually need to accept the possibility of more than one reality existing at once. This is also one of your main points in the book.

Absolutely. The diversity of realities, let’s say, or ideas. I’m using that synonymously – that diversity of realities and that reality is perspectives, ideas, concepts, techniques, new techniques. If you don’t allow space and the opportunity to present those things without filtering it out, without presuming or running away from it being unwelcoming, then you never have the chance to then survey and say, “OK, that could work, or that could stick.” I think that hip-hop and jazz were examples where I grew up that were very much a part of the tradition. It allowed people to express themselves, say what they need to say, bust a rhyme, flow, freestyle, whatever it was, solo, and 90% of the time much of it kind of came and went. But every now and then, something interesting would come out and the tradition had mechanisms to then use that and incorporate that into the canon. That’s something I feel that we in physics and science can do more of.

You straddle two worlds now, and that started as you were growing up. When you were 15, your physics teacher was the first teacher to tell you you were smart. Did you lose your street cred? Was it a problem in your neighborhood or at home to be the smart physics kid?

alexander playing saxophone
Alexander is a jazz musician who floated around a world of Afro-centrist hip-hop as a teenager. Photograph: Benedict Evans/The Guardian

Both of my parents – my dad was a cab driver and a computer tech on the side, mom was a nurse – and my community thought I was going to be the first to go out into this unknown world. They were just very supportive, and I think my mother always felt like: “OK, my son is a bit strange, but he’s smart.” I have this undying curiosity, I was just a curious person and one thing I have to give my parents credit for, with the very limited resources that they had, they always allowed me to sort of explore these interests.

This idea of being part of that hip-hop culture in the Bronx when I was like 17, it wasn’t like, “Oh, you need to be a tough guy, you need to be a gangster,” no. It was like, “What’s the knowledge? Are you dropping knowledge here?” The community protected me, they looked out for me because they valued the difference I was bringing to the table. That’s something I think that’s highly missed. That somehow there’s some dichotomy between being street and rocking knowledge – it’s no dichotomy. And to me, going back to the days when I used to be in that studio with that hip-hop group Timbuk3, I was encouraged to go off to college.

One of your mentors, the physicist Dr Jim Gates at Howard University, made an important discovery around the theory of supersymmetry with another scientist of color, Dr Hitoshi Nishino, and it went largely unnoticed for over a decade. How common is that?

I was there when Jim realized that the work was not cited and he wrote one of the authors directly. Then they cited it, but it was kind of too late. That’s why I wrote about it in this book, to celebrate that it was [Gates and Nishino’s] discovery.

That is exactly the phenomenon that Black people experience in other fields where we’re not supposed to occupy these spaces. This is the reason why I quoted the research called the diversity-innovation paradox in the book. It’s a study of 1.2 million scientists that shows that minority scientists innovate more. It’s just a fact. So here’s this big paradox that, wait a minute, if we innovate so often how come we don’t know about that, about these innovations? It’s not promoted.

That’s discouraging to hear, I’m sure, for young Black physicists, but you write in the intro you want this book to serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement for people who feel disenfranchised and unwelcome in our scientific communities.

What I wanted to do with this book was sort of survey, sort of ingrain, write it in the Black tradition to say I’m not going to water anything down. I want this to be in the hands of everyone and, yes, it’s a dense read, but I worked really hard to make it as accessible as possible. Just like Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which was something that stayed with me over the years – the first time I read it I didn’t get much of it, but I just kept reading it. I wanted this book to function like that, especially for young Black people.

I want to read this to you – this is going to blow your mind. Hawking, the last paragraph: “If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Contributor

Summer Sewell

The GuardianTramp

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