Photograph by Diana Rogers
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."
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In Their Words
For me, playing and composing music can help my mind relax, the way a muscle would relax, and allow me to think more freely.
Stephon Alexander answers ten questions about scientists, equations, movies, and more.
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