Stephon Alexander – Fear of a Black Universe
This week, we’re getting into cosmic terrain here on The Glenn Show with my guest and Brown University colleague, theoretical physicist Stephon Alexander.
Steph takes his inspiration not just from other physicists but from artists and musicians as well. And I can report from personal experience that he is a tremendous jazz saxophonist. For him, there’s nothing superficial about the relationship between science and art. His first book, The Jazz of Physics, explores the connection between music and the elemental forces that hold our universe together. Steph’s project reminds me of one of my favorite books, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which explores the role of self-reference in science, art, and music. Apparently I’m on the money, and Steph explains the central role of self-reference in his books.
Steph and I both work in quantitative fields that demand measurable excellence of their participants, so I ask Steph what he thinks of racial and ethnic disparities in math-heavy areas of study. He describes his own experience as a teacher and as an undergrad, and how he learned that he would not only have to master the material but overcome lowered expectations that would only have held him back. Steph takes us through his latest book, Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics, which looks at the role of innovative “outsiders” (among whom Steph counts himself).
Blacks may be “outsiders” in physics now, but the same was once true of Jews, and Steph talks about the inspiration he takes from the great Jewish physicists. This leads us to discuss some of my own ideas about stigma, and we have a good laugh about the times when stigma has led people to underestimate us. And finally, the question you’ve all been waiting for: What exactly is the Higgs boson, and why is its discovery such a big deal?
I’ve learned a ton from talking to Steph, and I hope you will, too. I’m sure this isn’t the last time you’ll see him on TGS.
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0:00 Glenn and Steph’s jam session
2:29 Steph’s adventures in the multiverse
6:40 The parallels between black art and physics
12:34 The centrality of self-reference in Steph’s work
18:26 Is there a racial dimension to how excellence reveals itself in students?
32:34 How Steph learned to level up
41:04 Steph’s new book, Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics
48:50 Steph’s admiration for prior generations of Jewish physicists
56:48 How Glenn and Steph navigate stigma
1:10:43 What is the Higgs boson?