Physicist Stephon Alexander

The physicist joins us to discuss his recent text The Jazz Of Physics.

Stephon Alexander is a theoretical physicist specializing in the interface between cosmology, particle physics, string theory and quantum gravity. He is currently a professor of physics at Brown University. Alexander received his BSc (1993) from Haverford College and PhD (2000) from Brown University. He has previously held faculty positions at Pennsylvania State University, Haverford College and Dartmouth College.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with physicist and jazz musician, Stephon Alexander. More than 50 years ago inspired by Albert Einstein, John Coltrane put physics and geometry at the core of his music. Today, Alexander returns the favor by exploring the link between jazz and modern physics and cosmology in his new text, “The Jazz of Physics”.

Then we’ll revisit an in-studio performance by multiple Grammy winner, Dee Dee Bridgewater, from her project, “Dee Dee’s Feathers”, a performance from her. You don’t want to miss it.

All of that coming up in just a moment.

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Tavis: Dr. Stephon Alexander is a professor of physics at Brown University and a lifelong student of jazz. In his new text, he explores these two passions and explains how music, jazz and improvisation are connected with modern physics and cosmology.

It’s called “The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe”. Professor Alexander, an honor to have you on this program, sir.

Stephon Alexander: It’s a great honor to be here.

Tavis: Let me start with this. I’ll come back to the text in just a second. What strikes me first and foremost as most fascinating, before we get to your pedigree and your professorship at Brown, is that you are obviously a person of color. I know that you are the son of working class immigrants in New York City from Trinidad.

I know from my research that you were considered slow as a child and here you are as a professor of physics at Brown. How does that happen? Why aren’t there more people of color who look like you who find that passion and end up in this particular field?

Alexander: Yeah. There are many factors, but I think the most important factor is a simple thing, which is really projecting to young people, especially young people of color that they have it. They have it, and you have those expectations.

And you also have the expectations that they ought to, you know, learn the skillset necessary to become great scientists, but that’s not the end. The end is all the exciting stuff that they can partake in in the scientific enterprise.

Tavis: Why do you think, then–because I think you hit the nail on the head–why then are there such low expectations of students of color when it comes to the sciences? Are we deemed as less smart? Not talented enough? Not worth of the effort? Why?

Alexander: Well, you know, when we look at the media portrays, this was something I was sensitive about when I was a young person. A lot of the scientists, even if they didn’t look like me, they didn’t act like me, they didn’t talk the way I spoke, these things matter.

So I think that it also matters that if a teacher sees a kid walking in with like, you know, baggy pants or whatever, there may be a presumption that that kid can’t do differential geometry one day. So I think those things are very real.

Tavis: What, then, is the challengesince you are now a professor yourselfwhat then is the challenge to educators to not underestimate, to not have such low expectations of certain students? What’s the challenge to educators?

Alexander: I think one challenge is to get students of all backgrounds working together in different ways.

Tavis: Okay. Like?

Alexander: Well, one of the things I do is I get students to just loosely investigate a problem together with the expectation that they are encouraged to make mistakes, and that making mistakes is actually a really good thing because, after all, we learn how to walk and how to speak language by making mistakes.

Mistakes is one of the great driving forces behind innovation in the sciences. Because a lot of students tend to feel inadequate at the risk of making mistakes or some students may judge another student to be not as good if they make a mistake, so getting that out of the way is an important thing for me.

Tavis: So as a child, something caught your attention. Something excited you. Something made you interested in this field of study that most of us shy away from. What was that moment?

Alexander: Well, there were a few, but one moment was a high school physics teacher, Mr. Daniel Kaplan.

Tavis: It’s always a teacher. See? That’s why I asked that question.

Alexander: That’s right.

Tavis: There’s always a teacher who makes a difference in somebody’s life, yeah.

Alexander: That’s right. Because at the time, I was struggling with the passion for both music and science and I didn’t really see myself fitting into either of those categories. But Mr. Kaplan was both a musician, a jazz musician, and he was a physics teacher.

Just having him as an example of a person that was able to have both things and also the fact that those things had certain relationships with each other was important. But also, Mr. Kaplan, regardless of how idiotic I may have come across at that age, treated me as if like I had something. That was important at that age. That was at age 15.

Tavis: That usually makes a difference, yeah. when they express a belief in you. That’s all it takes is somebody to believe in you.

Alexander: And he was also considered to be like the smartest teacher in the school. Why does the smartest teacher in the school think that I have something?

Tavis: So when did you decide then that this was the track that you were in fact going to pursue?

Alexander: Actually, right around that time in high school. But when I went to college and I started taking–of course, there’s intro stuff that can come across to be rote and boring, a block going down an incline plane.

But once I took quantum physics, for example, as a sophomore, this whole world, this whole alternate reality opened up for me. It really spoke to the imagination that I grew up in the Bronx, you know, these cats hanging out talking about, you know, aliens coming down to Egypt and…

Tavis: Tell me more about those animated notions that you were hearing or dealing with as a child in the Bronx. Tell me more about that.

Alexander: Like a lot of kids, I would cut class to go play basketball because everybody wanted to be Michael Jordan at that time. And during that bus ride, there was another group of kids who called themselves the Five Percenters.

They were very disciplined and they believed in something called supreme mathematics and dropping knowledge. You know, some of us also read comic books, Iron Man and all these things. So we had this imagination that far surpassed the things we were learning in school.

So that’s why, when I went to college and I took these modern physics things, there were a lot of concepts or similar imaginations that I was exposed to growing up in the Bronx. So I think that’s why it’s important to, you know, awaken that imagination in young people when they’re taking six classes.

Tavis: So I hear that, but I’m also trying to process this. You’re growing up in the era of just a burgeoning growth of hip-hop and yet you end up being a lover of a different genre of musicnot that you don’t love hip-hopbut you end up being turned on by a different genre of music. How did that happen?

Alexander: Well, yeah. It happened because I started to see connections between those two things. So my favorite rapper and still emcee is Rakim.

Tavis: Okay. He is one of the best. When it comes to flow, it’s hard to beat him.

Alexander: This is my opinion, my humble opinion.

Tavis: Okay. I’m with you on that, yeah.

Alexander: But Rakim, you know, his delivery and his cadence was like Charlie Parker. You know, like his rhythmic concept, you know, his flow, as you said, was like a bebopper, a bebop sax player, Wayne Shorter, you know. So after growing up listening–I was very attracted to Rakim’s music in particular.

And then soon after that, I was exposed to the music of John Coltrane by Mr. Kaplan and then Ornette Coleman. So my ears heard similarities between hip-hop and jazz. I always felt that, you know, hip-hop is nothing more than a sort of continuation of the jazz tradition.

Tavis: So, to your text. It’s called “The Jazz of Physics”, but do physics usher us into an appreciation of jazz, or jazz ushers us into an appreciation and better understanding of physics, or both?

Alexander: Both.

Tavis: Okay, tell me more.

Alexander: Well, one of the things that I write in my book, the book was a reconciliation process for me. But while writing the book, I was searching for different ways in which jazz and physics were connected.

And right under my nose–that’s why the word secret is in there. There was a secret that I was unaware of, but it was right under my nose, which was I discovered that my colleagues who did research with me, other theoretical physicists, we were improvising with equations and concepts.

We were improvising with concepts that we had mastered, known concepts, to create something new just like, you know, jazz musicians, the cats that I would play with and I would learn from would be improvising with their mastery of scales, rhythm, harmony, to create spontaneous music in the moment.

But the other thing I realized pushing the analogy further was that there were things, that what made jazz great was that at places like Minton’s Playhouse, African Americans were very inclusive with that music. Anyone was allowed onstage to play and, if you’re good, you’d be called back. In fact, making mistakes was a big part of the process of innovation that allowed bebop to develop.

I felt that this is kind of interesting because physicists do this, but if we do more of it, if we make physics more inclusive like jazz music, we cast more light on the process of taking a mistake and turning the mistake into an interesting new direction.

Tavis: And how do you do that in the classroom specifically? How does one do that?

Alexander: Well, what I do in the classroom is sometimes I’ll like deliberately make a mistake on the blackboard, okay? Sometimes we have to derive something and sometimes I’ll pretend that it was deliberate. Sometimes it wouldn’t be deliberate [laugh]. But then what I’ll do is I’ll embrace that and I’ll say, “Okay, let’s work on this mistake together.” So in other words, they see in me someone who is…

Tavis: Improvising.

Alexander: Improvising, yes. They would want to mimic that. So the idea is you get them comfortable in mimicking this sort of improvisational spontaneous delivery. Having said that, it’s important that you do master the concepts and the equations, but that becomes the sort of means to the end, and the end is all the fun you’re having being spontaneous.

Tavis: So, finally here, when you’re not in the classroom teaching, you’re onstage playing saxophone.

Alexander: I’m playing, but I’m forever a student of the music. So I’m playing, that’s right. I’ve been very fortunate to have some great musicians like Will Calhoun take me under their wings and allow me to play with them.

Tavis: You’re doing fascinating work, man, and I am honored to have you on the program to try to better understand it and certainly appreciate it. The book is called “The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe” written by Brown professor, Stephon Alexander. Mr. Alexander, good to have you on the program, and all the best to you, sir.

Alexander: Well, thank you, sir.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Alexander: It’s a great honor.

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Last modified: June 1, 2016 at 2:45 pm