Science 2017-05-26T22:25:58+00:00


Quantum Contemplations

When I think about the impact that Einstein’s greatest equation, E = mc2, has on my research, which involves constructing thought experiments about the nature of our universe, it’s hard not to reflect on how I got started in physics. My physicist tendencies go back to my earliest years in my native Trinidad. When I was a little boy in Basse Terre, I often swam in its bay, but I would never venture very far into the ocean. There was something frightening about the Caribbean’s periodic movement, the roaring sound of its waves, and the vastness of the horizon. I considered the sea a living thing, its motion like the heaving back of a giant creature. At night, I would theorize that the starry sky was an extension of the ocean. Even at age five, I was in awe of my natural surroundings, and I constantly wondered about the world around me, just like I do today.

When my family moved to the Bronx in New York City when I was eight, the ocean and the wide, star-filled skies of Trinidad were replaced with the din of traffic and a horizon of skyscrapers. But I quickly found other things to ponder. I recall, for example, being transfixed by the magic of a remote-controlled car I received one Christmas. I didn’t yet know about what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” a natural consequence of the bizarre world of quantum mechanics, though I did consider that invisible forces were at work. Later, in high school physics, I learned that remote-controlled cars work because electricity and magnetism can be generated and propagated to far distances at the speed of light—Einstein’s theory of special relativity borne out. It was magical to finally understand this; I felt like a wizard and my pencil was my wand.

My high school physics teacher, Mr. Daniel Kaplan, was my greatest inspiration. He didn’t care that I and my fellow students were a bunch of immigrant kids with low SAT scores and even lower expectations. A lot of my peers were very aware of the lowered expectations of us and were very sensitive to them. Which is why we were drawn to rare souls like Mr. Kaplan: he took us seriously. I came to school solely to be in his classroom and get my daily dose of his kindness and, of course, his knowledge about the laws of nature.

I had a conversation with him that has had a lifelong impact on me. It started with me asking, “Mr Kaplan, where do space and time come from?” He answered, “To understand that, Stephon, you’ll have to learn Einstein’s theory of general relativity. If you can master Einstein’s relativity, you’ll be a master of space and time.” This was all I needed to hear. I began to read everything I could get my hands on. Ten years later, I completed a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Brown with a specialty in cosmology and string theory. But did I master space and time like Mr. Kaplan promised? Well, the answer is not a straight yes or no.


Everyone has heard of E = mc2, but how many of us realize that our very existence here on Earth depends on the equation? E = mc2, which outlines the equivalence of matter and energy, explains for starters how our sun provides warmth and life on Earth because of the continuous conversion of elements such as hydrogen into radiation energy. What the equation does not describe is how energy is converted into matter and vice versa. To explain that process, one must consider how special relativity works in the quantum or microphysical domain, where my work is involved.

We are well on the way to unlocking profound surprises about our universe.

Special relativity famously tells us that if the speed of light is the same to different observers moving at different relative speeds, then at very high speeds space and time reveal their true faces. The most striking observation is that time is no longer absolute. Different observers can experience clocks ticking faster or slower depending on their individual states of motion. How can this be? Space and time are unified into a four-dimensional reality that is no longer separated into three spatial dimensions and one time dimension, as we commonly think about them. Einstein merged space and time into an entity he called space-time. This means that if you change your relationship with respect to space (by moving very fast) you will automatically change your relationship to time. If you think this is weird, read the next paragraph.

Not only are space and time unified, but space-time itself is relative. This physical reality was revealed when Einstein formulated his general theory of relativity. Under this description of the physical universe, all of space-time itself is dynamical. It is no longer a static stage as in a Broadway play, with actors dancing and singing across it. In Einstein’s view, space-time itself is an actor. It has a script of its own and responds to the actors of energy and matter. In general, it is incorrect to think that things live in a place called space-time. Our experience of objects living in space-time is a relational coincidence. This space-time script of general relativity is Einstein’s field equation. The field equation relates the contents of energy and matter to the dynamics of space-time. Matter and energy curve space-time, and the space-time curvature makes matter move.

This basic definition of general relativity begs a question. We know from E = mc2 that energy can create mass “actors,” which can transform into energy “actors,” but what is responsible for the origin of the space-time “actor?” Where does the fabric of space-time come from? To properly address these questions we need a quantum theory of gravity, an explanation of the microscopic world, which is governed by the rules of quantum mechanics. That’s what I’m here for. I and other physicists are trying to combine into one unified picture the two most important achievements of 20th-century physics, quantum theory and Einstein’s relativity. If we can successfully combine these two theories and generate a quantum theory of gravity, we will solve one of the greatest puzzles of physics and achieve one of the deepest insights physicists have ever had into how our universe works and how the space-time that governs it came into being. My work takes on quantum mechanics, string theory, and relativity in hopes of solving this conundrum.


So how close are we? Currently, there are two main themes in the attempt to formulate a theory of quantum gravity: string theory and loop quantum gravity. At the moment, I am thinking a lot about how these two theories can relate to each other in complementary ways. String theory tells us that matter is like vibrating spaghetti when you get down to very small length scales and that everything, including space and time, emerges from the vibration of these strings. Loop quantum gravity, on the other hand, tells us that at even smaller scales, space and time become atomistic, and there is no space and time outside these atomistic networks of loops. Which is correct? I don’t know. This is why research in these areas is so exciting and challenging.

It is amazing that we have come so far since Einstein’s breakthrough 100 years ago. While we continue to understand how recent observations of the universe’s deepest secrets such as dark energy and dark matter jibe with relativity and our ongoing quest for quantum gravity, we are well on the way to unlocking profound surprises about our universe. I hope to be there every step of the way.

How Chilling With Brian Eno Changed the Way I Study Physics

EVERYONE HAD HIS or her favorite drink in hand. There were bubbles and deep reds, and the sound of ice clinking in cocktail glasses underlay the hum of contented chatter. Gracing the room were slender women with long hair and men dressed in black suits, with glints of gold necklaces and cuff links. But it was no Gatsby affair. It was the annual Imperial College quantum gravity cocktail hour.

The host was dressed down in black from head to toe—black turtleneck, jeans, and trench coat. On my first day as a postdoctoral student at Imperial College, I had spotted him at the end of a long hallway in the theoretical physics wing of Blackett Lab. With jet-black wild hair, beard, and glasses, he definitely stood out. I said, “Hi,” as he walked by, curious who he was, and with his “How’s it going?” response, I had him pegged. “You from New York?” I asked. He was.

Lee had offered up his West Kensington flat for the quantum gravity drinks that evening to give the usual annual host, Faye Dowker, a break. Faye enjoyed being the guest lecturer that evening. Slim, bespectacled, and brilliant, she was also a quantum gravity pioneer. While Professor Dowker was a postdoc she studied under Steven Hawking, working on wormholes and quantum cosmology, but her specialty transformed into causal set theory. After a couple of hours, the contented chatter gave way to Faye as she presented her usual crystal-clear exposition of causal sets as an alternate to strings and loops. Like loop quantum gravity, causal sets are less about the stuff in the universe and more about the structure of space-time itself. But instead of being weaved out of loops, space-time is described by a discrete structure that is organized in a causal way. The causal-set approach envisions the structure of space analogous to sand on a beachhead. If we view the beachhead from afar, we see a uniform distribution of sand. But as we zoom in, we can discern the individual sand grains. In a causal set, space-time, like a beach made up of sand, is composed of granular “atoms” of space-time.My new friend was Lee Smolin, one of the fathers of a theory known as loop quantum gravity, and he was in town considering a permanent job at Imperial. Along with string theory, loop quantum gravity is one of the most compelling approaches to unifying Einstein’s general relativity with quantum mechanics. As opposed to string theory, which says that the stuff in our universe is made up of fundamental vibrating strings, loop quantum gravity focuses on space itself as a woven network of loops of the same size as the strings in string theory. Lee had just finished his third book, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, and was on a mad rush to mail out the manuscript to his editor. I accompanied him through the drizzle to the post office and for a celebratory espresso—the first coffee of hundreds we’d share in the future.

Scattered into the quantum gravity mixer were those working primarily on string theory, like the American theorist, Kellogg Stelle, who was a pioneer of p-branes, as well as one of my postdoc advisors. In mathematics, a membrane is a two-dimensional extended object—that is, it takes up space. A p-brane is a similar object in higher dimensions. The strings of string theory can collectively end on p-branes. And coming at quantum gravity from a yet another route, there was Chris Isham, the philosophical topos theory man who played with mathematical entities that only “partially exist.” Postdocs studying all avenues of quantum gravity filled in the gaps between the big brains in the room. It wasn’t exactly a gathering of humble intellect. It was scenes like that, that made me feel like I didn’t have the chops, the focus, to sit behind a desk in a damp office manipulating mathematical symbols for hours like the others. Fortunately, Chris had shown he believed in my abilities to make a contribution to cosmology by encouraging me to get out of the office and get more involved with my music. Working on physics ideas and calculations in between sets, at the jazz dives of Camden town, I found myself trying hard to believe that it would give me a creative edge in my research. That was a beginning. Ideas started flowing. But something more was about to change.

Dressed in black like Lee Smolin, he had a strong face and a gold tooth that shone every time someone engaged him in conversation.

While Faye gave her living-room lecture, I honed in on someone else I had noticed throughout the evening. Dressed in black like Lee Smolin, he had a strong face and a gold tooth that shone every time someone engaged him in conversation. The way he listened to Faye, with such focus, I assumed he was a hardcore Russian theorist. It turned out he had come with Lee. When Lee noticed I was still hanging around after the talk, he invited me to join them as Lee walked his gold-toothed friend back to his studio in Notting Hill Gate. I was curious what research this friend was going to churn up and what school of quantum gravity he’d slot into. I had to work to keep pace with the animated duo as we walked along well-lit high streets, dipping in and out of dark London mews. This guy was no regular physicist, I soon realized. Their conversation was unprecedented. It started with the structure of spacetime and the relativity of time and space according to Einstein. That wasn’t the strange part. Soon, they were throwing commentary around on the mathematics of waves and somehow kept coming back to music. This gold-toothed wonder was getting more intriguing by the minute.

That was my first encounter with Brian Eno. Once we reached his studio, we exchanged phone numbers, and he generously lent me one of his bikes—indefinitely. At the time, I didn’t know who Brian was, but that changed a week later when I told a friend and band member about him. Tayeb, a gifted British-Algerian bassist and ooud player (an Arabic string instrument), was at first dumbfounded by my shameful ignorance. “Bloody hell, Stephon . . . you met the master.”

Brian Eno, former member of the English rock band Roxy Music, established himself early on as a great innovator of music. He was part of the art rock and glam rock movement, when rock and roll took on a new sound by incorporating classical and avant-garde influences. The rocker look was dressed up with flamboyant clothes, funky hair, and bright makeup: think Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Brian was the band’s synthesizer guru, with the power to program exquisite sounds. The beauty of synthesizers in those days lay in their complexity. In the early days, one had to program them—unlike synthesizers today, with preset sounds at the touch of a button. Popularity hit Roxy Music hard and fast, and Eno promptly had enough of it, so he left Roxy Music, and his career continued to flourish. He produced the Talking Heads and U2 and went on to collaborate with and produce greats such as Paul Simon, David Bowie, and Coldplay, to name a few. In addition, he continued with synthesizers and emerged as the world’s leading programmer of the legendary Yamaha DX7 synthesizer.

I wondered why an artist like Brian would be interested in matters of space-time and relativity. The more I got to know Brian, I knew it wasn’t a time filler, or for his health. What I was about to discover during my two years in London was that Brian was something I’ve come to call a “sound cosmologist.” He was investigating the structure of the universe, not inspired by music, but with music. Often times he would make a comment in passing that would even impact my research in cosmology. We began meeting up regularly at Brian’s studio in Notting Hill. It became a pit stop on my way to Imperial. We’d have a coffee and exchange ideas on cosmology and instrument design, or simply veg out and play some of Brian’s favorite Marvin Gaye and Fela Kuti songs. His studio became the birthplace of my most creative ideas. Afterward, I’d head to Imperial, head buzzing, spirits high, motivated to continue my work on calculations or discussions on research and publications with fellow theorists.

One of the most memorable and influential moments in my physics research occurred one morning when I walked into Brian’s studio. Normally, Brian was working on the details of a new tune—getting his bass sorted out just right for a track, getting a line just slightly behind the beat. He was a pioneer of ambient music and a prolific installation artist.

Eno described his work in the liner notes for his record, Ambient 1: Music for Airports: “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” What he sought was a music of tone and atmosphere, rather than music that demanded active listening. But creating an easy listening track is anything but easy, so he often had his head immersed in meticulous sound analysis.

What struck me was that Brian was playing with, arguably, the most fundamental concept in the universe—the physics of vibration.

That particular morning, Brian was manipulating waveforms on his computer with an intimacy that made it feel as if he were speaking Wavalian, some native tongue of sound waves. What struck me was that Brian was playing with, arguably, the most fundamental concept in the universe—the physics of vibration. To quantum physicists, particles are described by the physics of vibration. And to quantum cosmologists, vibrations of fundamental entities such as strings could possibly be the key to the physics of the entire universe. The quantum scales those strings play are, unfortunately, terribly intangible, both mentally and physically, but there it was in front of me—sound—a tangible manifestation of vibration. This was by no means a new link I was making, but it made me start to think about its effect on my research and the question Robert Brandenberger had put to me: How did structure in our universe form?

Sound is a vibration that pushes a medium, such as air or something solid, to create traveling waves of pressure. Different sounds create different vibrations, which in turn create different pressure waves. We can draw pictures of these waves, called waveforms. A key point in the physics of vibrations is that every wave has a measurable wavelength and height. With respect to sound, the wavelength dictates the pitch, high or low, and the height, or amplitude, describes the volume.

If something is measurable, such as the length and height of waves, then you can give it a number. If you can put a number to something, then you can add more than one of them together, just by adding numbers together. And that’s what Brian was doing—adding up waveforms to get new ones. He was mixing simpler waveforms to make intricate sounds.

To physicists, this notion of adding up waves is known as the Fourier transform. It’s an intuitive idea, clearly demonstrated by dropping stones in a pond. If you drop a stone in a pond, a circular wave of a definite frequency radiates from the point of contact. If you drop another stone nearby, a second circular wave radiates outward, and the waves from the two stones start to interfere with each other, creating a more complicated wave pattern. What is incredible about the Fourier idea is that any waveform can be constructed by adding waves of the simplest form together. These simple “pure waves” are ones that regularly repeat themselves.

Linked by the physics of vibration, Brian Eno and I bonded. I began to view Fourier transforms in physics from the perspective of a musician mixing sound, seeing them as an avenue for creativity. The bicycle Brian lent me became the wheels necessary to get my brain from one place to another faster. For months, the power of interdisciplinary thought was my adrenaline. Music was no longer just an inspiration, not just a way to flex my neural pathways, it was absolutely and profoundly complementary to my research. I was enthralled by the idea of decoding what I saw as the Rosetta stone of vibration—there was the known language of how waves create sound and music, which Eno was clearly skilled with, and then there was the unclear vibrational message of the quantum behavior in the early universe and how it has created large-scale structures. Waves and vibration make up the common thread, but the challenge was to link them in order to draw a clearer picture of how structure is formed and, ultimately, us.

Waves and vibration make up the common thread, but the challenge was to link them in order to draw a clearer picture of how structure is formed and, ultimately, us.

Among the many projects Brian was working on at the time was one he called “generative music.” In 1994 Brian launched Generative music to a studio full of baffled journalists and released the first Generative software piece at the same time. The Generative music idea that came to fruition about a decade later was an audible version of a moiré pattern. Recall our pond ripples interfering to create complex patterns. These are moiré patterns, created by overlapping identical repeating patterns, and there are an infinite variety of them. Instead of two pebbles creating waves, generative music rested on the idea of two beats, played back at different speeds. Allowed to play forward in time, simple beat inputs led to beautiful and impressive complexity—an unpredictable and endless landscape of audible patterns. It is “the idea that it’s possible to think of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you . . . music you’ve never heard before.” Brian’s first experiment with moiré patterns was Discreet Music, which was released in 1975. It remains a big part of his longer ambient compositions such as Lux, a studio album released in 2012. Music becomes uncontrolled, unrepeatable, and unpredictable, very unlike classical music. The issue becomes which inputs you choose. What beats? What sounds?

What I began to see was a close link between the physics underlying the first moments of the cosmos—how an empty featureless universe matured to have the rich structures that we see today—and Brian’s generative music. I began to wonder if structure could have originated from a single starting pattern of waves, like Brian’s generative sound. I needed Fourier transforms and inspiration from Brian’s musical brain. After all, he was playing with the Fourier idea with an intuition that transcended that of most physicists. I wanted to develop this intuition to be able to be creative with it. When I walked up to him as he was manipulating the waveforms that morning, he looked at me with a smile and said, “You see, Stephon, I’m trying to design a simple system that will generate an entire composition when activated.” A lightbulb flickered in my brain. What if there were a vibrational pattern in the early universe capable of generating the current complex structure that we live in, the complex structures that we are? And what if these structures had an improvisational nature? There were some lessons in improvisation I first had to learn.

Jazz of Physics Books Review

Personal life and education

Alexander started his academic career as a post doctoral researcher at Imperial College, London (2000-2002) and later on went to be a post doctoral research at the Stanford University’s SLAC and Institute for Theoretical Physics (2002-2005). In 2005, he became an Assistant Professor of Physics at the Penn State University. In 2008, he served at the Haverford College as an associate professor of physics leading to his present positions of Ernest Everett 1907 Associate Professor of Natural Sciences and associate professor of physics and astronomy at the Dartmouth College.

Alexander also works as a professor at Brown University and has spent much of his career as a first generation advocate. He also advocates historically underrepresented groups in the sciences. He is a member of the editorial board of Universe.

In December 2012, Alexander was the co-author of the paper, Gravitational origin of the weak interaction’s chirality. Focusing on the Lorentz group, the research studied the unification of the electroweak and gravitational interactions and the space-time connection. The paper theorized in similar ways to Plebanski and Ashtekar, those weak interactions on the right-handed chiral half in space-time connection could explain the weak interaction.

The theory devised by Alexander and his co-authors was broken down into two phases. The first is a parity symmetric phase, similar to the studies and workings of Speziale. The next phase is then dependent on whether the parity is broken or not. under the breaking, it shows a Dirac fermion expresses itself as a chiral neutrino.

Around the same time, Alexander co-authored another paper, which focused on the study of electric Time in Quantum Cosmology. The paper formulated and studied the new possibilities of quantum behavior of space-time.

Alexander has mainly worked in continuation to Einstein’s theory of curved space-time to take it to extremes in regards with the connection between the smallest and largest entities in the universe. Being a string cosmology expert, he co-invented the model of inflation called D-Branes. This was based on higher dimensional hypersurfaces in string theory. Alexander has worked as the Director of Dartmouth College’s EE Just STEM Scholars Program, volunteered for public speaking in inner city schools, taught mathematics in prisons and monitors activities relevant to his scholarship.

Full CV Found Here

“Solar” by Miles Davis, with Stephon Alexander at Google

“Solar” by Miles Davis, performed in an impromptu session by Stephon Alexander, tenor sax; Ryan Proch, alto sax; Todd Poynor, flugelhorn; Daniel Raynaud, piano; Mark Goldstein, drums (shown on piano in the image).
May 2016 at Google HQ in Mountain View, while Stephon was visiting to discuss his book The Jazz of Physics.

The Limit Does Not Exist: Stephon Alexander Has A Big Band Theory

We head to the ivy halls of Brown University in Episode 31 of The Limit Does Not Exist to sit down with physics professor and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander. Alexander grew up in New York and attended De Witt Clinton high school in the Bronx, which had a nearly 60% dropout rate while he was a student. But a physics teacher, Daniel Kaplan, got to him and inspired both his path in string cosmology and his love of jazz improvisation.

His dual path in music and physics is as natural as breathing to Alexander, and he insists his work at the intersection of those two worlds is what has given him an edge as both an academic and a performer. His most recent book is even titled “The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Universe.”

Listen to our conversation with Alexander as we zigzag from string theory and D-branes to Wayne Shorter and the “please disease.”

Alexander was on a tight timeline since he was due on stage with his band just five minutes after our interview was scheduled to end, and we were sad to see him go. But he more than made up for it by sending us an original track to include the episode: “Ornette’s Vortex,” performed by Stephon Alexander and Rioux from their album “Here Comes Now.” Be sure to listen to the end to hear this tune.

A few links we think you should check out

Some quotable moments from the episode:

As always, Broke for Free and C-Doc (here and here) provided the tracks for our show.

Thanks for listening. If you have questions, feedback, or want to share your fave equation with us, send us a tweet! And find us on Facebook and Instagram, too! (Hint: there may be a fun giveaway on our Instagram this week…)

Love, lead sheets, and space-time continuums, C & C

Original article at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinawallace/2017/02/06/big-band-theory/#23897f87966f

Scientist’s Profile: Stephon Alexander

Dr. Stephon Alexander asks big questions. How did the space and time that govern our universe come into being? Intrigued at an early age by quantum theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and string theory, he now works to unify them in his search for a theory of quantum gravity.

“There’s a world of phenomena and theories that do very well in making cell phones work,” he explains. “But at the same time, other evidence we are calling ‘dark matter’ is still absolutely mysterious. My discoveries come through calculations as I tease nature into revealing her secrets.”

Alexander has long personal experience confronting the unknown. At age eight his family moved from Trinidad to the Bronx in New York City. “My childhood was full of surprises,” he remembers. “I learned that you can’t always hold on to things; it taught me the idea of embracing the unknown. Our culture tells us to try and control situations. Instead, I’ve always coped with unexpected events by making up theories about why they may be happening.”

After earning a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Brown University, Alexander completed postdoctoral work at Imperial College in London and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He is now an assistant professor in the Penn State Physics Department.

During a typical day, Alexander and colleagues perform mathematical gymnastics, filling blackboards with diagrams and equations. “That interaction as we deal with a completely open slate is my favorite part,” he says. “Highlights come in those moments when I’ve had a crazy intuitive idea … explored all kinds of calculations and subtleties … and then after months of work found that my hunch was absolutely correct. Those moments rarely happen, but when they do, it’s amazing.”

As Alexander explains, the process is intense. “You can get stuck at any stage and then it’s impossible to sleep or think about anything else. For me, playing and composing music can help my mind relax, the way a muscle would relax, and allow me to think more freely.”

Alexander notes many parallels between his passions for the tenor saxophone and physics. “Exploring a physics problem is like jazz improvisation—understanding the basic rules and themes lets you take off in spontaneous new directions. Music allows me to understand physics on a simpler, yet deeper level.”

Alexander also uses music to reach out to young people and make the complexities of physics more accessible. “Music is a wonderful device to communicate the beauty of physics. Matter isn’t a boring, dead, solid thing. It’s vibrating energy that maintains its consistency through resonating, just like a unified harmonious orchestra playing. I like to demystify the Big Bang by breaking it down in terms of sound. By connecting physics with music, I want to inspire young people and open their eyes to new possibilities.”

Thriving in two often unconnected worlds places Alexander in a unique position. “I reject the stereotype that scientists have to look, talk, and act one way and musicians another. I want kids to see that it’s not either/or. There’s an art to doing science and a science to doing art. They’re both creative acts.”

According to Alexander, physics can also bridge cultures. “I see this happening every day since the people I collaborate with come from India, Poland, Russia, Japan, and Iran. Physics is our common language and bond—it transcends political, geographical, and cultural differences.”

Can the questions they seek to solve together ever be answered? “It all comes back to taking risks,” Alexander says. “In physics, theories that may sound ridiculous and unbelievable when they’re first proposed can turn out to be true.”

Orginal Article found in: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/stephon-alexander/

Scientist Stephon Alexander: ‘Infinite Possibilities’ Unite Jazz And Physics

Stephon Alexander didn’t always love music. When he turned 8, his grandmother, who was from Trinidad, forced him to take piano lessons in the Bronx. His teacher was, in a word, strict. “It felt like a military exercise to rob me of my childhood,” Alexander recalls.

Several years went by like that. Until one day when Alexander’s dad brought home an alto sax he found at a garage sale. “That became my toy. Music no longer for me was this regimented tedium,” he says.

Alexander blasted away in the attic. He got good. In the 8th grade, his band teacher — who played the jazz scene by night — offered to help him get into the most prestigious music school in New York City. But he turned it down. “Because I wanted my music to be for fun,” Alexander says. “I didn’t want it to become a job.”

And he never told his grandmother. Later on, in high school, Alexander discovered the subject that would become his career. Physics. He calls it the study of, “How the smallest things inform the largest things in our universe.”

His passion for physics showed. He raked in the degrees, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, fellowships in London and at Stanford University. The physics was mostly work. The music, mostly fun. But there were times when the two collided. Like this one night in Paris, Alexander was stuck on a problem concerning the early universe.

“So I shipped myself to the jazz clubs. You have to create a solo on the spot while conforming to some kind of structure. Well, physics is like that, too,” Alexander says. “In between sets, I would play around with my calculations or just think very freely.”

Sure enough, one night, he watched the audience applauding, which made him think about tiny charged particles slamming into one another – and the solution came to him.The mathematics underlying that gave the properties that look like the origins of the Big Bang,” Alexander says.

He got a publication out of it. But Alexander never mentioned his duality — his jazz-inspired approach to science — to his physics colleagues. He worried they’d stop taking him seriously. “Many times I’d be the only black person,” Alexander says, “and there was always that concern that because I was just different that, ‘this guy doesn’t have the chops.'”

As Alexander became more established, his double life converged into a single one that fuses jazz and physics, using the lessons of each to inform the other. Take this question: How does a quantum particle get from point A to point B? A particle like an electron. In the strange world of quantum mechanics, it can actually take an infinite number of paths between points A and B.

Alexander says it’s like improvising a jazz solo. Each time, he starts on note A and ends on note B.We know that it’s starting and ending at those notes,” Alexander says. “But what happened in between are different possibilities, and there’s an infinite amount of possibilities.”

Stephon Alexander’s Trinidadian grandmother forced him to take piano lessons. His love for music€” and physics developed later.

Ari Daniel for NPR

These days, Alexander is a professor at Brown University. And his grad students all play instruments. And when they gather to discuss science, Alexander says it’s like a jazz session. It feels like a quartet playing Miles Davis tune and everyone gets a chance to solo while the others support the soloer,” he says.

Alexander does physics research every day, plays the Providence jazz scene at least once a week, and he’s merged his passions into a new book called The Jazz of Physics. And his grandmother is proud of him. Alexander says he understands now that the reason she foisted those piano lessons on him years ago was that to her — an immigrant from Trinidad — music was the doorway to a better life.

“For black people in general and Afro-Caribbean people, one mode of economic freedom was music,” Alexander says. Alexander’s grandmother intended music to be a gift for her grandson. And it was…just a different kind of gift than she was planning on, one that allows him to answer the big questions about our universe.

Orginal article found at: http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/06/11/481664722/scientist-stephon-alexander-infinite-possibilities-unite-jazz-and-physics

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