Keynote Title: The Jazz of Physics : Embracing Improvisation in STEM careers
Stephon Alexander is a theoretical physicist at Brown University specializing in the interface between cosmology, particle physics and quantum gravity (String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity). He received his BSc (1993) from Haverford College and PhD (2000) from Brown University. He held postdoctoral fellowships at Imperial College, London and The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and recently was a professor of physics at Dartmouth University.
Dr. Alexander asks big questions, such as How did the space and time that govern our universe come into being? Intrigued at an early age by quantum theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and string theory, he now works to unify them in his search for a theory of quantum gravity. “There’s a world of phenomena and theories that do very well in making cell phones work,” he explains.
“But at the same time, other evidence we are calling ‘dark matter’ is still absolutely mysterious. My discoveries come through calculations as I tease nature into revealing her secrets.”
“My childhood was full of surprises,” he remembers. “I learned that you can’t always hold on to things; it taught me the idea of embracing the unknown. Our culture tells us to try and control situations. Instead, I’ve always coped with unexpected events by making theories about why they may be happening.”
Dr. Alexander also uses music to reach out to young people and make the complexities of physics more accessible. “Music is a wonderful device to communicate the beauty of physics. Matter isn’t a boring, dead, solid thing. It’s vibrating energy that maintains its consistency through resonating, just like a unified harmonious orchestra playing. I like to demystify the Big Bang by breaking it down in terms of sound. By connecting physics with music, I want to inspire young people and open their eyes to new possibilities. Exploring a physics problem is like jazz improvisation—understanding the basic rules and themes lets you take off in spontaneous new directions.”
Thriving in two often unconnected worlds places Alexander in a unique position. “I reject the stereotype that scientists have to look, talk, and act one way and musicians another. I want kids to see that it’s not either/or. There’s an art to doing science and a science to doing art. They’re both creative acts.”
According to Alexander, physics can also bridge cultures. “I see this happening every day since the people I collaborate with come from India, Poland, Russia, Japan, and Iran. Physics is our common language and bond—it transcends political, geographical, and cultural differences.”