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The Cosmic Improviser

Physicist and jazz musician Stephon Alexander believes that embracing outsiders is imperative for unlocking the mysteries of space and time.

Stephon Alexander
Stephon Alexander

To jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander, listening to John Coltrane has always been a spiritual journey and a philosophical exercise. Increasingly, it’s also become a scientific endeavor.

Alexander, an accomplished musician who’s collaborated with Brian Eno, Will Calhoun, and Erin Rioux, is also a theoretical physicist who teaches at Brown University and heads the National Society of Black Physicists.
A specialist in quantum cosmology—which weaves together cosmology and fundamental theories, such as string theory and quantum gravity, to study the origin and evolution of the universe—Alexander explored the relationship between jazz and the cosmos in his 2016 book, The Jazz of Physics. Music and physics may seem an unlikely pairing, but Alexander argues that seeking new sources of inspiration and embracing unusual ideas are necessary for all scientific disciplines to thrive. In his latest book, Fear of a Black Universe, he addresses unsolved mysteries in physics—from the cosmic origin of life to the relationship between consciousness and the fabric of the universe—while making a compelling case for bringing new ideas, and new people, into the scientific fold.

What came first for you, jazz or physics?

Music came first. I started playing classical piano at age 8, then picked up the saxophone at 12. At that time, jazz wasn’t too serious for me; it was just a fascination and a hobby. But as I got older, becoming a better improviser in the jazz tradition started to feel like a science project, and I started to notice certain parallels between jazz and physics. In both fields, you’re trying to master a very complex tradition that’s built on the backs of giants—Coltrane, Einstein. There are well-defined rules and formulas that you have to use. But once you learn them, you can create new physics or new music.

Most people probably don’t think of physics as an improvisational art.

Physics is an incomplete subject. To actually do physics—to explore what we don’t yet know—you have to be creative. And when you’re researching things that are unknown, you never know what the answer might be or what form it might take. It may be completely outside of the field, or completely inconsistent with certain paradigms that we currently rest our science in. That’s why it’s essential to bring in ideas from different fields—like biology, psychology, and music. For me, making analogies between music and physics challenges me to look at the latter in a different light, and that’s helped push the boundaries of my research.

Has the field always been OK with that kind of boundary-pushing?

There are always going to be certain ideas that are stigmatized—if you start talking about the relationship between spirituality and physics, for example. There are social penalties to stigma: being shunned or at least not being as fluidly welcomed into certain social circles. That’s what society does. It penalizes “deviance”—in this case, ideas that are deemed to be nonscientific, crazy, or “woo woo.” To avoid penalties, a lot of people acquiesce to social pressure and evade those kinds of ideas. That’s why historically a lot of great ideas have come from minds that were already sequestered or suppressed.

What else, besides ideas, can cause physicists to be sequestered from the group?

You don’t see a lot of Black people or women in physics at the moment, in part because of stereotypes that dictate what a scientist should look like and talk like. Many people are still socialized, at a deep psychological level, to be more comfortable with brilliance coming from a male body or to believe that people of a darker skin tone are less capable.

I’ve experienced throughout my career, in subtle and not subtle ways, people treating me as if I were less capable. When I’ve tried to share some of the ideas I’m brimming with—I’m volcanic with ideas—the standards have often been applied differently, and what I say has either not been accepted or carried more scrutiny. I call it “passive deviance.” I can’t control how someone perceives me simply because of my body and my genetic makeup. I’m deviant by default.

Early in your career, how did you deal with colleagues who ignored or excluded you?

It sucked. But at a certain point, I had an aha moment. I realized, It’s perfectly fine for me to be the passive deviant. I don’t have to worry about being kicked out of no club—I’m already out of the club. And once I no longer cared if I were accepted, I realized it was my job and my duty to explore those ideas that might help physics move to the next level. I also realized that if I don’t have to put a front on to be accepted, the better my brain is able to cognitively function. It helps me have a well-timed engine so I can do crazy, 15-dimensional equations.

You argue that pursuing diversity is imperative for science to advance.

The variety of human experience—including our races, our genders, our cultures, and everything else—is itself useful for furthering science because it creates different ways of thinking. And that is what elevates science—not everyone having the same point of view. If we really care about the quality of the science being done, that variety should be seen as a value, rather than as some kind of compromise. The more people are allowed to be themselves, the better science we’ll get out of them.