Stephon Alexander is an Associate Professor of Physics at Haverford College, focusing on theoretical cosmology, quantum gravity and particle physics. He is also an Assistant Professor (Adjunct) of Physics at Penn State University. Stephon has studied at Brown University and done postodoctoral research at Imperial College, London and at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory. He is on the Board of Directors for the Network for the Improvement of World Healthare, an action-driven organization that forges global partnerships to address local health challenges. He also plays jazz saxophone and sees improvisation as an extension of his scholarship.
Stephon Alexander: Yeah. You know, particle physics- one of the things that was, for me- there was a time actually in grad school where I didn’t know that I wanted to become a physicist- I was just like, what am I doing? I’m wasting my time here- I’m gonna be sitting behind a desk doing this stuff? You know, maybe I should get out into the world and actually help humanity in some way. And then, actually the day I decided that I was gonna leave- I was gonna- I was packing my books up. I noticed on the desk of- we all- first-year- second-year grad school, I was sharing an office with a bunch of other graduate students- I noticed on that desk a book called Quantum Field Theory, and I said, quantum field theory- opened the book and it starts off, quantum field theory is, you know, is analogous to a picture of matter, okay? Like a gigantic orchestra- that the vibration of the field, this particular field, okay? Gives rise to the different forms of matter, and the interactions- the standard model is an example of a quantum field theory, actually. So it’s the underlying paradigm of matter and energy vibrating in this gigantic orchestra and the appearance of matter, or substance, in all these things are just really this orchestra’s field, vibrating. And immediately I was- I said to myself, wow, like you mean, physics is no different in this way than music, meaning that, you know, really good music, if I have an orchestra or a band, there are things going on individually between the players- I mean, with the player playing the music- but then there’s this overall effect of the whole, and the harmony that’s generated with the whole. And so, that view of physics actually made me realize, it only took me that, you know, I should continue on because I need to learn quantum field theory. So I stayed on, and learned quantum field theory. But as I continued on, this whole thing with music came back again. Because in hindsight, which is like eighteen years later, since starting graduate school, I believe eighteen years later- yeah, seventeen years later- I have come to realize actually- if I will dare to say- music is sort of like the physics of emotions. It’s basically the science of music, if you wanna think of it- if you think of music as an art form- but it’s also a science of emotions. A great musician is able to play with emotions- evoke certain emotions. Maybe they might wanna, you know, there’s a range in which that can be controlled, but the point is music has evoked emotions for us, different types of emotions- feelings and emotions. Now, physics- when we think about physics- we think about this mechanistic thing, right? You know, matter and who cares about matter? What does it have to do with the feeling, the emotion, let’s say, music has to do with. But, you see, when we go into the fundamental questions about- that physics is really asking- questions of how is matter really created, for example? How is this thing created? And we look back at the correlation of how is it music, we can’t help to think, to wonder about the, you know, about the actual, the mystery- okay?- behind psychology, for example. I mean, how interesting would it be that actually the source, you know, of the- if you may allow me to speculate now- if you allow me to speculate- but I’m gonna do it anyway- that the mystery as to why we like music, or why there’s something universal about music and harmony across cultures- and why matter is manifested, and images manifested in our universe, in this harmonious picture, as physicists describe, might have a similar route, and in a sense, the mystery- some of the mysteries in psychology having to do with, you know, thought and thinking and consciousness- you know, we know music, or this wave-like property, definitely has something to do with that. But we also know that physics has to do with this wave-like property of the field, for example, or string theory, or loop quantum gravity- you know, pick your theory of the day. But there’s still a mystery there. And I think that science, you know, is also about that human quest, to sort of like, you know, in some ways, also- you know, I also turned to science as a way of providing answers to a world around me that had a lot of suffering. I mean, growing up in the Bronx, there was a lot of bad stuff going on that I saw around me, and I just really wasn’t willing to just accept, you know, other people’s take on it, that it had to do with some bad guy out there that I can’t see, and some good guy out there with a beard that I can’t see- running the show. I wanted to, you know, sort of see for myself, and that’s kind of where I’ve been ultimately led to, but I don’t have answers to that. You see, that’s another question that I dare ask, which is, you know, is there a fundamental relation between fundamental physics cosmology, particle physics, the creation of substance and psychology?
Question: How does jazz fit in?
Stephon Alexander: Yeah, one of the things that fascinated me the most about quantum mechanics is that there is a view in which, you know, quantum mechanics is very much- when you look at the heart of quantum mechanics, has this probabilistic feel to it. So, I’ll give you an example- the electron moving around the hydrogen atom- you see these nice pictures of these electron clouds, all right? You know, the orbitals of the electron. And, you know, even when you take chemistry, you’ll see these orbitals. Well, what you find is that those things- those pictures- are solutions of a wave equation of the electron. But what is it? What kind of wave is this electron representing? It’s a probability wave, so it’s a wave of probability. So that wave is not that the electron, the interpretation there for quantum mechanics is matter, is still in a sense point-like- like this electron- but there’s a wave of probability and that’s the thing I can, you know, that is, if you wanna say, the most fundamental description of quantum mechanics. There’s a probability wave- that everything exists in this wave of probability. And that’s what’s interesting about music ‘cause music is all about, you know, waves, basically. I mean, at least, at its core, resonance waves, harmony, all these- and time, right? How those things play itself out in time. But if you look at quantum mechanics now, there’s this probability thing. So you can ask yourself, well, what is the thing that comes closest to probability in music? And it’s improvisation, because an improviser, you know, I could totally, as an improviser, which is something that I enjoy doing very much as a hobby- you know, I get my sax out and I’ll just improvise something. Now, depending on who’s listening, they might perceive that as complete randomness. Someone else may perceive that thing as, you know, that’s sensical- like this thing makes a lot of sense to me. I get it. Who is correct? So, there’s a relativity there, in that sense of that improvisation was more fundamental than, you know, the perception of something random or something that made sense. So if you now take that to the domain of quantum mechanics, you can say, well, maybe nature is improvising, and maybe we think the best we could ever do is make probabilistic statements, but nature’s smarter than us. And maybe, you know, this wave-like property of the probability of matter existing in quantum mechanics, that interpretation, it might be cooler to think of it as an improvisation. So that’s, you know, one way in which I like to link in improvisation, especially if the universe- nature was really cool and funky- then the universe would be a really good jazz improviser.