Sources of Inspiration
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.
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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