Meet Stephon Alexander '93, Our Newest Faculty Member
From Trinidad to the Bronx to Haverford to the outer reaches of the universe...and back to Haverford
Stephon Alexander '93 has joined the Dept. of Physics & Astronomy as Associate Professor. He'll return to campus in the second semester of 2008-09, having taught most recently at Penn State University. Focusing on theoretical cosmology, quantum gravity and particle physics, he has studied at Brown University and done postdoctoral research at Imperial College, London and at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory. Alexander also plays jazz saxophone and sees improvisation as an extension of his scholarship. As he points out in the following interview with Communications Director Chris Mills, his interest in music reinforces his understanding of physics, and has also fostered a friendship with renowned musician and producer Brian Eno.
Chris Mills: Let’s begin by learning a bit about your principal research and academic interests.
Stephon Alexander: My research spans a very wide range of topics in theoretical physics but focuses on fundamental problems in cosmology and particle physics, very similar to the type of physics Dr. Stephen Hawking does. Over the last four years, I have been attempting to understand how non-local events when we unite quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity may resolve the dark energy mystery.
Chris Mills: Was that always your principal area of interest? Tell us about your formative years here at Haverford; what inspired you to study in this field?
Stephon Alexander: No it was not. I went to grad school to become a laser jock (quantum optics). In the middle of grad school I entertained becoming a high school physics teacher and even dabbled in structural biophysics at Harvard med. But I was always attracted to the fundamental questions in physics and philosophy but was afraid that I was not 'smart' enough to tackle them. The years at Haverford were crucial -- especially doing research with Prof. Lyle Roelofs during the summers at Haverford. Lyle was a theoretical solid state physicist and taught me how to systematically and creatively tackle theoretical problems. He taught me to respect the quantum. The Haverford years gave a strong back for what I was to encounter in grad school and the five-year postdoc gigs.
Chris Mills: Where did you grow up and how did your secondary education shape your interest in science? Why come to Haverford as an undergrad?
Stephon Alexander: I left Trinidad when I was 8 and attended the public schools in the Bronx (where I grew up). I went to De Witt Clinton high school in the Bronx (other alums are Stan Lee and James Baldwin). I had two very influential teachers at Clinton, Mr. Daniel Feder (math) and Mr. Dan Kaplan (physics and music). When they taught, they were like children at play; this inspired me on the math/physics route. To my surprise, I had gotten into all of the 14 colleges I applied to, including some Ivies, but I knew myself too well: I would go to the big schools in big cities with big names and party too much. I opted to go to the most academically rigorous school in the nation that was small enough to ensure that eyes were on me (some call it nurturing) so that I wouldn't backslide too much.
Chris Mills: What appeals to you about returning to Haverford? How is this a logical next step in an impressive career to date?
Stephon Alexander: Tough question. The logical step for someone on my trajectory is to work at a research 1 university with big graduate programs and lots of faculty in my field -- which is what I did for three years. But when Prof. Suzanne Amador invited me to come to Haverford to give a colloquium, I saw a part of myself in those students. It’s a ford cliché, but Haverford students are special -- their questions were penetrating; they got me; and they are proud intellects. I see high level teaching and high level research as mutually dependent and Haverford is all about that. I resonate with President Emerson’s vision to continue to strengthen the research activities between students and faculty. Also, I love the greater Philadelphia area. This is definitely the dream physics gig.
Chris Mills: How do your scholarly interests figure into the Haverford physics/astro program overall? What can your students look forward to with respect to what -- and how--you teach?
Stephon Alexander: The Haverford physics program and research breadth is diverse and deep. First of all I will benefit from interacting with all the members of our department and hope to be involved in cross disciplinary research. There are currently two new theoretical physicists on board, Peter Love and me, and a theoretical astrophysicist, Beth Willman. Steve Boughn and Bruce Partridge have already established Haverford Astro/Cosmology as a key player in the field, it's good that they’ll be there to guide us newbies. We will work together on research projects that cross-pollinate topics in quantum cosmology, quantum information theory, dark matter, dark energy. Chances are that we’ll be one of the few departments in North America doing this cross boundary research, maybe one of two. On top of other things, Beth and Peter do lots of interesting numerical work and they'll help me incorporate my research in the computational domain. It will be exciting to bring students on board with research projects. I also intend to create a college wide course on the Big Bang theory and modern cosmology for non-physics majors. I am developing a course on quantum physics and jazz improvisation. In general, I think that my classes will be a mix of lots of fun calculations with a bit of humor (even if my jokes may be a bit corny). Sort of like being in a fun house of physics.
Chris Mills: Yes, you’re also a sax player. How does jazz -- and improvisation particularly -- relate to your academic interests?
Stephon Alexander: Big time. I tell my friends that studying and playing jazz sax gives me an edge. You see, a great deal of what I do is figuring out the correct way to visualize a problem so I rely heavily on my intuition. For reasons I can't really explain when I play jazz, I turn from Bruce Banner into a physics hulk (OK I'm exaggerating here). For fun I like playing geometrical patterns on my sax to see what they sound like. I often try them on an audience when I play out.
Chris Mills: How do you play a 'geometric pattern' on a sax? Is that a shape suggested by notation on a staff or a sonic waveform, or what? And what DO audiences make of that?
Stephon Alexander: There is a deep connection between geometry and music. This musing came to me when I first heard John Coltrane's improvisation in Giant Steps, I just had to figure out what made those songs swing so hard and work so well musically. I knew that there was a hidden logic behind the chord changes (otherwise known as Coltrane Changes). In jazz improv there is normally a harmonic movement that tends to repeat itself. But Coltrane’s changes are just mind bending. Over the years I figured out an easier, more geometric way to see these changes. This is because my sax playing has developed into a reliance of finger patterns which I can relate to a finite set of visual patterns. So turning chords, timing and other typical musical notational devices into visual forms helps me to be more creative in my improvisations. I'm also beginning to have some more serious discussions with composer and AI researcher Robert Rowe at NYU on how these geometrical forms (and algebraic topology) may actually play a role in music cognition.
Chris Mills: In what context did you get to know musician/producer Brian Eno (U2, Coldplay, Talking Heads, Roxy Music)?
Stephon Alexander: When I did my first postdoc at Imperial College, London I collaborated with Lee Smolin. Being good friends Lee introduced me to Brian at an informal quantum gravity meeting that took place at the home of Fay Dowkers (a theoretical physics prof at Imperial). We hit it off immediately. Brian is quite an intellectual and amongst other things is very interested in cosmology, quantum mechanics and relativity theory. He told me that he perceives music in multi-dimensions. Most mornings on my walk across Hyde Park to work, I would stop by Brian's studio to hang out. I would tell him the often wrong ideas I was up to and he would always have something useful to say. In the meanwhile, I was learning so much about the science of sound and the mystery behind why Brian is the top producer in the world (in my humble opinion).
Chris Mills: What about that mystery, that sound of his?
Stephon Alexander: I tried to figure it out, but Brian is simply a musical genius. Some of his songs that became generational hits he heard in dreams -- just like how Ramanujan, great Indian mathematician, had proofs revealed to him in dreams. Brian loves African music, especially how the bass interplays with rhythm as one unit. Brian electronically and acoustically sculpts sound with precision and a scientific method that is unparalled.
Chris Mills: On that rare occasion when you wake up and have nothing on the schedule, what do you most enjoy doing?
Stephon Alexander: So much of my Haverford experience was running on the track team and the spirit that Coach Tom Donnelly awoke in me. If my knees aren't bothering me I just love to go on a nice run through the trails. Then when I'm done have a nice cup of coffee and chocolate.
I also like to play my horn alone without any thought about it making any musical sense.
Chris Mills: How well-represented are African Americans -- and particularly African American men -- in the community of physicists and astronomers? If you believe the situation should be improved, what should secondary and higher ed do (or do more of)?
Stephon Alexander: African Americans are not well represented in physics higher education. A fact, in the top 50 physics institutions in the U.S there are only 13 African Americans physicists on the faculty. Black physicists are out there, they mostly teach at historically black colleges. There is a general sense in the African American physics community that the glass ceiling still exists at majority institutions; I think that facts speak for themselves. We need more places like Haverford, Penn State, U Maryland, Michigan that set the example to hire top notch physicists that also happen to be African Americans. Also, I never had a black physics professor. Now I can be that professor and role model for all students including African American ones. I think that it also benefits majority students to learn from faculty spanning a wide cultural range and life experiences; a ninth dimension! Since I strongly believe there is an issue with African Americans in physics, higher ed should simply go out and hire great black physicists, they're out there.