Physicist Stephon Alexander on his book “Fear of a Black Universe”

Stephon Alexander

Close your eyes, think of the words “eccentric genius,” and one of the first images is doubtlessly that of Albert Einstein. He is defined by his characteristic hair and aloofness, too smart and preoccupied with space and time to be consumed by the minutiae of daily grooming.

But the idea of genius is often affected by the same social forces that influence what we perceive as alien, illegal or unsophisticated — race, gender, class and other statuses that place individuals and cultures on the wrong side of the line between accepted and outsider.

Stephon Alexander is a theoretical cosmologist and professor of physics at Brown University who has learned how to embrace being different while also succeeding in established spaces. His research challenges conventions of gravity, spacetime and the fabric of the universe. Doubling as a jazz musician, Alexander uses his musical perspective to inform the kind of physics that he does. In his 2017 book, The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, Alexander compared the constraints of physics with music:

“Contrary to the logical structure innate in physical law, in our attempts to reveal new vistas in our understanding, we often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking.”

In his new book, Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics, Alexander takes it a step further, bringing readers on a whirlwind ride through the nature of reality, modern physics and the true meaning of being an outsider.

Alexander spoke to The Undefeated about his book, what he means by a “Black universe” and modern questions in theoretical physics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Question: Can you walk me through the process and motivation behind Fear of a Black Universe?

Stephon Alexander: I first authored the title as a joke. When an agent asked me what I think the book should be called, one day I said, ‘Fear of a Black Universe.’

In hindsight, I think it was one of these subconscious things — that had to be the title. And then when we start thinking about quantum mechanics, the dualities and concepts like superposition — the idea that a concept could have many meanings. And I know in literature there is some device where you can have an ambiguity in the title of things. And so in my book, there’s some of this multiplicity, which I felt was perfect given the ways that I look at the universe.

Of course, the title is a homage and reference to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet.

The experience of being Black is like a rite of passage, you have to go through things and emerge on the other side. You have to dig deep and strive for that excellence in the face of challenges that you might be facing. And the fact that expectations may not exist for you as a Black man or a Black person, a Black scientist.

And then the other key resonance that that title was about the category of Blackness in a broader sense, like in America, that plays itself out as stigma. And as Black people, we have to deal with stigma, and these other things.

That’s a reality — that you’re constantly feared, a threat to the status quo. And so, part of what I was getting after with Blackness had to do with authoring ideas that are edgy or potentially threatening.

Q: You’re not satisfied with telling another story about a lonely Black person in a white world. You take pride in being original in the science that you describe. What are some modern ideas in physics that excite you?

Part of my mission is to remind people that unusual backgrounds and experiences can really help to foster new ideas in all of these disciplines. And so, while my background may not show up in the minutiae of my theoretical physics, my identity plays a role in how I think, and so is a character in a lot of things.

With regards to new physics ideas that excite me, I think one of them is probably best summarized by a story.

One of my mentors is Leon Cooper, who won the 1972 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on conductivity. For context: Leon solved this problem that was almost 50 years old, that Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman and a lot of greats worked on.

He has always remained close to me. And I’ve always been in touch with him throughout my career. I’ll often go check in with him when I’m at various crossroads.

Years ago, I’m talking to Leon in his office at Brown University. He asks me what I’m working on. After hearing my answer, he looks at me, disapprovingly, and says:

‘You know what you need to do? You need to find a real problem and work on a real problem. People are afraid of working on hard problems because they’re told it’s impossible. And I think that people are not working hard enough.’