Sources of Inspiration

Question: When did your interest in physics begin?

Stephon Alexander: Well, it began actually way back in my place of birth, Trinidad, in Tobago. ‘Cause when I was- I grew up in a village called Muruga- well, it’s Bastyr- Bastyr, Muruga. And I- when I was a kid- the night sky there was very visible, let’s say. There was very little noise pollution because there wasn’t much electricity in that area. And I used to, as a six-year-old kid, just stare at the sky and, you know, marvel at how beautiful the lights were, you know, the moon and the stars. Of course, I didn’t know what any of those things were, but I used to just look at them and move my head around and say, why are these things following me? I actually got scared of them sometime- so it started there, that sort of looking out in wonder at the universe. And then when I moved to the Bronx- my family immigrated to the Bronx when I was eight- there, you know, again, I noticed that those same stars were there even though my whole world had changed. And so that kind of sticks out in my mind still. Then, soon after that, probably another big influence was my love for video games. At that time, you know, Atari was out- this was the Eighties- and I used to play video games and I liked comic books, you know, Marvel Comic Books, and I always wondered- I said, wait a minute. These Super Heroes, why is it that- I actually thought that, you know, Superman was, you know, could be real and Ironman could be real. I said, well, you know, how does Ironman’s suit really work, for example- how would I make such a thing? And I always thought- and the same thing with the stars- you know, what are those things out there? You know, why is it staying put? Every night, I look out, I see the same stars. Everything around me is changing- what’s going on there? You know, what’s space? What’s time?- I wondered about a lot of things. So, going back to the video games, these video games- how did- you know- how did someone make a video game work? And I realized there’s a very deep connection between imagination- the imagination- and how we could figure things out or even ask about things. And, to me, that became fun. So I sought out to become- I said, I know what I wanna do when I grow up- I’m gonna be a video game maker- video game programmer. So, that kind of was the first thing. As far as, you know, having the quality of being the scientist, right? It was already being developed.

Quesition: What interested you early in your career?


Stephon Alexander: I think one of those questions was, you know, one of the questions I really pondered was light and heat. So, I knew that I saw light- you know, you see a flashlight, you see the light under the Two-Train which is a
train that I took at lot as a kid. And so I knew light was this thing. It was pretty common, all over the place. You could turn it on, turn it off. And heat- I knew that, you know, you have the radiator, so I knew there was heat. But when I saw fire, I said, wait a minute- here is this thing called fire and here’s light and heat together, so I was like- how is it that these two separate things can co-exist and you see the fire flame moving, and I wanted to understand that. So that was the first question. And then actually at some point, I was like- I wonder if that’s kinda going- is something like that going on with these stars out there? Right? Because, you know, they’re really far and like, you know, on a cold winter night, it’s cold. How is this light keeping itself on there in the sky? So, at age eight, I started asking that kind of question. So I didn’t know I was doing cosmology, which was I was connecting things out there to things that are commonplace to us here on Earth. So that was one question that kind of stuck with me until, of course, I learned the answer in eighth grade.

Question: Has religion affected your work?

Stephon Alexander: You know, yes. I grew up in, you know, a very diverse sort of religious background. Trinidad, you know, Trinidad has a sort of a large Indian population, as well as African population, and you know, some of my family members were Catholic, you know, Muslim, Hindu and all these backgrounds- I had different family members I remember going to visit and different family members I’d see, like you know, these Blue Gods and, you know, Krishna and Genasa, and these gods growing up- demigods- and, oh, I’d go to my aunt’s house, I’d see a picture of Jesus, you know. Or I would go and see, you know, at my grandfather who was an Imam, he was very much into the mystical side of Islam. So, I had all these influences, and therefore, I was never able to really choose a religion. But I would say that, as time went on, you know, I started studying cosmology- I could not help but address some of the, if you wanna say psychological issues- associated with the more mechanistic view of the universe, as well as trying to understand the more- if you wanna say philosophical issues. I had to really address those things. And I found that, you know, Eastern philosophy started to really speak to me. And then I started finding that actually a lot of the- there was a mystical side to most religions, actually. There was this mystical side that, to some degree, it’s either suppressed or actually celebrated. So I don’t really have a problem with, you know, with asking those questions, because I think that, you know, the truth is the truth is the truth. We’re in the process of just trying to understand the truth. We shouldn’t be afraid of asking those questions that even appear to be socially unacceptable, depending on what club you might belong to, right? So, the answer’s yes.

Question: Is physics mystical?


Stephon Alexander: Yes, I- you know, I definitely feel like I belong to that club of Schrodinger and Einstein, where there is a sense of deep mysticism in not only just learning- I’m sorry- not just learning about physics and, you know, realizing physics- you know, the field of cosmology, for example- but actually in doing it. So, there is a very, you know, there is a Zen-like thing, okay- to really- to doing this kind of stuff. So-

Alexander talks about his early interest in physics and the questions he investigated from the start.

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Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

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Image: NASA
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An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."