Interview with Stephon Alexander – PLaNCK! 29

Here the complete version of the interview with Stephon Alexander, published as short version in the issue 29 of PLaNCK!

You can read the interview also in italian language at the link: Intervista a Stephon Alexander – PLaNCK! 29





Today, science is made of people from all around the world, who meet and exchange ideas. This is why it is important to always listen to others, but we also need to learn not to be afraid of sharing our ideas and talk about what we are passionate about, even when it might sound “weird”. This is one of the most important things for Stephon Alexander, scientist and musician from North America: let us get to know him!


Stephon, tell us a bit about yourself and your story!

I was born in the Caribbean, in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, but I grew up in the borough of the Bronx in New York. I am a physician and a jazz musician, both things are crucial in my life and they influence one another. Nowadays I am working and teaching at Brown University in Providence, in the northeast of the United States of America, but during my career I travelled a lot: for example I have been to London and I came to Italy several times… I love your food! My job is very international and I collaborate with many European scientists.


What do you work on in your job as a scientist?

I am a researcher in the field of cosmology, which studies the Universe and the laws of physics that explain what it looks like and how it changed in time. In particular, I try to understand what the Universe was like in the first istants it existed.


You also were President of the National Society of Black Physicists. What is it?

It is an organization that has existed since 1978 and promotes the professional development and excellence of black students and scientists in the field of physics. For example, we have a summer program which allows students to go to New York to do research or to attend seminars organized by the Santa Barbara University, in California. We want people to meet and discuss their scientific ideas, feeling supported by one another. Whoever believes in this idea and wants to support us can be a part of it; our next goal is to become more international.


Can you tell us something more about the connection between science and music?

When you think about it, both science and art are important parts of music. From a scientific point of view, it is a physical phenomenon, made of orderly sounds that we human beings give a meaning to. Music manipulates sound and turns it into stories and emotions with which we can express ourselves and share a part of us with others. And not only that: in all of science there is something artistic! Of course, the scientific method and experiments are important… But when it comes to science, we also need to be creative, innovate, talk with other people and create a community. Science and music have these things in common without a doubt.


What does “being creative” mean in science?

Even in science, imagination is important: sometimes, for example, I think about a physical phenomenon that is understood by everybody and I wonder how it might be explained differently, from a different point of view. Or I wonder what it would be like to live in a Universe where the laws of physics work differently. Creativity allows us to always ask ourselves new questions and imagination is something that helps us find answers. It is a part of us, ever since we were children… And being a good scientist to me also means not being afraid of using my imagination.


You said earlier that in science it is important to create a community. What do you mean?

When I talk about “community” I mean a group of people, no matter how many, with whom we can talk about science and be ourselves. It is like having friends we can tell anything to and who accept our ideas, both the good and the bad ones. Creating a community means finding people we can express ourselves with without being afraid of being judged.


What do you think are the greatest challenges for science today?

I think we need to be aware that nothing important can be obtained easily. Every time we create something new we feel joy, but at the same time we encounter challenges. These challenges often lead us to talk to people we are not comfortable with or we do not like. It is important to work on overcoming awkwardness and annoyance and having an open mind: that is where scientific progress begins, when different scientists, who sometimes work in very different fields, share ideas and listen to one another.


And you certainly have a lot of ideas to share! You’re not only a musician and a scientist, but also a writer…

Yes, I have written two books. The first one is called The Jazz of physics. It is about my journey as a jazz musician and a physicist, about the connection I have created between music and science. When we try to understand what the Universe is like, sound waves are part of the physics we use to explain it: with my book I meant to share this idea with those who love music, at the same time telling something about music to those who study physics. The second book, instead, is called Fear of a Black Universe and it is about problems that we still have to solve and things we still have to understand in physics. It describes how sometimes the most revolutionary discoveries were made by people who had “black ideas”, which means ideas who were not supported by everybody. With this book I want to encourage young people not to be afraid to explore even the weirdest ideas, those that, at a first glance, might make others laugh.


What message would you leave to our readers?

Follow your passions, work hard and always remember science is something that brings together all human beings and each of us makes it!