Stephon Alexander (Year of Birth: 1971)

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

The matter and energy that we are all familiar with – the sort that scientists can measure, experiment with and explain – make up only 5% of the estimated quantity of matter and energy in the universe. Scientists do not know what constitutes the remaining 95%.  They believe 20% of it to be dark matter and the other 75%, dark energy. These phenomena are as obscure as their names suggest. They do not interact with light, so their properties that can only be hypothesised on the basis of how they act i.e. scientists ‘know’ of their existence by the effects they have on the parts of the universe that can be detected.

Dark matter is deemed to be what is keeping galaxies together and helping to structure form in the universe. In observing how stars form, for example, there is a discrepancy in the necessary amount of matter for that phenomenon to occur; 95% of the matter or mass is missing.

In the case of dark energy, scientists attribute this to rate of expansion of the universe; i.e. such a speed could only be fueled by a particular kind of energy which is not among the known forms of energy governing nuclear acceleration.

Saxophone-playing scientist, Dr. Stephon Alexander, is among the many theoretical physicists working in the area of ‘quantum cosmology’ – applying the laws of quantum physics to understand the universe as a whole system. They are hoping to crack the toughest codes in science, which contain nature’s greatest secrets about the origin and composition of the universe, and why the unknown matter and energy exist.

Alexander was born in 1971 and grew up in pristine Basse-Terre, Moruga, with his parents, Keith, a computer technician and Felician, a nurse.  As a child, he roamed the beaches of the south coast of Trinidad with his grandfather, Stephon ‘Sonny’ Belfon.  He attended Basse-Terre RC School, and remembers being an inquisitive six-year-old whose imagination was fired by local stories of the ghostly terrors known as jumbies. But he was also already getting in touch with his inner scientist. As he played, he wondered why the moon ‘followed him’ when he ran, or what made the stars ‘light up’, or what was the force that animated a worm but not worm-like dead twig. For him, the world of science and its hidden laws was as fascinating as the magical unseen world of folklore.

When he was eight years old, Alexander’s life changed dramatically when his family moved from rural Trinidad to the completely opposite inner city environment of the Bronx in New York City, USA.  His parents wanted him to have the best educational opportunities and to achieve as much as he could academically, and they gave him a lot of freedom and encouragement to explore his scientific curiosity.

Young Stephon was unhappy having been wrenched from the home, friends and family he had known, and thrust into a brave and sometimes hostile new world. His parents, wanted their first-born son who ‘loved school and learning’, to have the best educational opportunities and to achieve as much as he could academically, and they gave him a lot of freedom and encouragement to explore his scientific interests. When he discovered computers in his early teens, he immediately wanted to know not just how to program them, but what made them work at a more fundamental level: “I discovered that physics was at the heart of computers and realized that I could use physics to understand the universe itself. This realization came after I discovered a book about Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity.”

Under the New York public school system, Alexander was deemed gifted in mathematics and physics. He had math and physics teachers that recognized this talent and encouraged him to pursue becoming a physicist.

He learned to play the saxophone at the age of twelve, igniting a deep love for music that not only rivaled his interest in quantum physics but proved to be a portal for him later in his life to explore concepts relating to the origins of the universe and matter. In fact, in addition to considering being a secondary school science teacher at one point, he also contemplated becoming a professional jazz musician, and his only regret in life is that he did not take a year off to completely focus on developing his saxophone playing before finishing his tertiary education.

Alexander graduated from high school with top honours. He received a full academic scholarship to attend the prestigious Haverford College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he studied physics.

But despite his outstanding academic track record, his time at Haverford was marked by growing self-doubt – a dark and very real jumbie that would cloud the young man’s judgment and vision, and trigger an identity crisis that made him question his ability to really excel in the study of theoretical physics.

Throughout his life as a student, Alexander had become increasingly aware of his ethnicity, culture and heritage in the world of science. He had few role models in the sciences, and in Haverford, he alone among his fellow students in the physics department “looked, spoke and thought the way he did.” He laboured through Haverford, attaining his Bachelor of Science (BS) in Physics in 1993 and writing his thesis on the Barkhausen effect – the noise produced when a magnet’s charge is manipulated. His next stop would be Brown University in Rhode Island, where he pursued graduate studies, attaining his Master of Science (MSc) in Physics (1995) and Electrical Engineering (1996). But his lack of confidence and the pervading sense of alienation dogged him during his doctorate. He was daunted by the growing difficulty of the work before him. To compound it, his peers did not seem to think he was that talented in the subject either. He recounts, “Students formed study groups. To be asked to join one meant your peers thought they could benefit from you more than you could from them. That I was never invited or welcomed into any communicated how my peers viewed my abilities, which was even more demoralising.” During the mid-term exams of the notoriously challenging Theoretical Classical Dynamics course, Alexander found himself unable to answer a single question. Downtrodden and considering himself a failure, he packed his things and returned home to the Bronx.

He also took a trip back to spend some time with his grandparents in the comforting places of his early childhood. He went to Maracas Bay often and, after a while, began taking his physics books with him. In that relaxing environment, away from the pressures of university, and reading them at leisure, he went through all of the material necessary for his remaining courses. When he returned to the US, a classmate urged him to at least take the final examinations, which, to his surprise, he passed with almost all As. In 2000, Alexander graduated from Brown with a doctorate in theoretical physics, focusing his thesis on string theory – an ambitious field of particle physics that describes all forces and matter in the universe in terms of continuous, wave-like strands of energy called ‘strings’.

This experience taught him an unforgettable lesson about self-confidence and competition, which he prizes to this day, and it sparked in him a dream he still holds dearly, which is to continue his research in the Caribbean, and personally nurture a new generation of regional scientists.

After earning his Ph.D, Alexander was honoured to have been offered a research position at Columbia University, working with the popularly renowned theoretical physicist, Prof. Brian Greene. However, his heart was set on a chance to experience the world beyond the United States, and he went instead to Imperial College, London, England, as a post-doctoral fellow. He worked with Prof. Lee Smolin, one of the pioneers of loop quantum gravity.

In London, he blended in with the vibrant West Indian community in Notting Hill, London, and often worked on his physics calculations at the local Caribbean-styled pubs, with the sounds of kaiso and reggae in the background. He also expanded his musical horizons by joining a jazz group. It was at that time also that he befriended the famous pop/rock musician, Brian Eno, whose philanthropic work with PTSD-afflicted Bosnian children further stoked Alexander to work toward his dream of a Caribbean institute dedicated to basic research that can have a global impact. He is confident that he can make it happen in time, explaining that, “Theoretical work is the bedrock of all future technology and is easier to sustain and fund than experimental work, which can require expensive equipment and larger amounts of space to sustain. Most of the modern physics that our technology is so dependent on is based on quantum mechanics, the physics of the atomic and subatomic realm.”

But he also realised that to run a scientific research institute of such stature and repute, he would need experience as an educator in training other scientists and would have to establish himself as a leading international physicist.

After two years at Imperial, Alexander returned to the United States in 2002, where he continued post-doctoral work at the Stanford University Linear Accelerator Center in California until 2005, when he joined Penn State University in Pennsylvania as an assistant professor. After lecturing as an associate professor of physics at Haverford, he took up an appointment at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 2012, where he currently lectures as an associate professor.

Most of Alexander’s career as a researcher has been spent expanding his Ph.D dissertation. He is working on an alternative to the Big Bang theory, in order to resolve some of the apparent paradoxes that it presented. One theoretical breakthrough of his is a possible explanation for the disparity between the abundance of matter and antimatter in the universe (which should be equal but is not), by showing how secondary phenomena present at the formation of the universe could create more matter than expected. In his words, “The early stages of the universe’s expansion could generate ripples in space-time itself (gravitational waves), which could “stir” (like stirring tea with your spoon) more matter than anti-matter out of space.  I am proud of this idea because this problem did not have a new solution for decades.”

Along similar lines, another of his theories claims that the electrically neutral particle known as the neutrino, recognised for its role in holding matter together, has a similar role in dark matter and dark energy as well.

In early 2013, Alexander began working with fellow physicist, Antonio Machiano, on a new unifying theory that describes the connection between gravitational force and the “weak” nuclear force which is, among other things, responsible for the decay of radioactive isotopes.

Alexander has published over fifty research articles and three famously cited articles.

As a teacher, Alexander trains and mentors Ph.D. students and post-doctoral researchers from around the world. A strong believer in interdisciplinary research, he has drawn on mathematics, computing and biology in conceptualising his own work.  His short-term goal involves creating a course at Dartmouth called, ”The Music of Physics”. It examines the theory that the universe is like a cosmic orchestra – playing ‘the music of the spheres’ first conceptualised by Pythagoras. Each of the quantum fields underlying matter vibrates like a musical instrument. As they all vibrate together, they create the structures in the universe, just as musical instruments produce sound waves. They maintain coherency and order similar to harmonic resonance in musical orchestration. Alexander’s exploration of this theory through his saxophone playing is one of the distinguishing and more unconventional marks of his research, and has generated him more than a little internet fame!

It is this latter interest that endears Alexander to the research of another icon also featured in this publication, Prof. Brian Copeland. He is elated that Copeland’s work  focuses on an instrument created indigenously (the steelpan), and he feels this can inspire youths to see it as more than a cultural entity and  one whose existence and evolution is a testament to scientific innovation and is relevant to scientific and engineering pursuits. Copeland’s choice of an instrument that itself reflects a combination of the local musical traditions from Trinidad and Tobago’s African and European heritage is important to someone like Alexander who is so strongly concerned about the future of science in the Caribbean.

Alexander believes that  scientists of the region have a stake in the future of the world, and the privilege of exploring that world in ways that no one else can, and Caribbean youths should be encouraged and trained to take up both privilege and responsibility when their time comes. His words of wisdom to them, rooted in his own life experiences and struggles as a scientist, are, “Follow your own agenda, and don’t get psyched out by other people’s performance.  Follow your passion.  Dream big.  Seek out good mentors. Develop a strong foundation in mathematics and the introductory materials in your preferred discipline because you will rely on them in more advanced matters. And don’t be afraid to ask big questions.“