Instead of dropping out from Dewitt Clinton high school in the Bronx, New York, like 60 percent of the students there, Stephon Alexander aimed for Cornell. But his guidance counselor declined to give him a Cornell application, telling him "I don't think you have what it takes to get in." But Alexander persisted, and ultimately it was science that allowed him to "escape from the realities of inner city life." Of the 14 schools he applied to, Alexander got into every one...including Cornell, which offered him a full scholarship. He declined.
Alexander, now a research associate and member of the theoretical physics group at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, searches for answers to big, long-standing questions in science, such as whether extra dimensions of space shape our universe. In his talks with students, Alexander tells them he loves science because "science has to do with your imagination. ... And the people who do it come in all different shapes and sizes."
A Young Mind Explores
The oldest of six children, Alexander was born in Trinidad, in the village of Moruga. His mother, a nurse, and father, then a detective, moved the family to New York when he was 8 to find better educational opportunities for their children. Alexander always enjoyed solving problems; when he was 10, he taught himself how to program the old Commodore computers his father brought home. "I wanted to understand how things worked," he says. "I was being a scientist without even knowing it, in trying to have fun and make my own games."
When Alexander entered high school, he was influenced by Daniel Kaplan, a teacher who taught both music and physics. Kaplan helped Alexander see how science creates harmony in the world. "It's important to ... find a mentor. It's ideal if it's a person of color, but it can be anybody, someone you resonate with, [who] appreciates you and points you in the right direction," Alexander says.
Alexander decided to go to Haverford College after high school because of its rigorous physics program. During summers at Haverford, he researched theoretical solid state physics and ran computer simulations on the dynamics of atoms and molecular surfaces. "There are a lot of summer research opportunities out there; students should definitely explore. Don't reject yourself by saying you're not good enough. Apply first and see what happens. Enthusiasm takes you a long way," he says. "And don't be afraid to contact scientists even if you don't have a Ph.D., as long as you're respectful and sincere. A lot of researchers would be ecstatic if a young person contacted them to ask them about their work. It could open doors for you."
Interacting With Students and the Scientific Community
After completing his B.S., Alexander went to graduate school at Brown University, where he was introduced to quantum field theory and general relativity "and really fell in love," he says. While earning his doctorate there, he made time to visit high schools to show teens that science and math could lead to enriching careers. "It's important for those kids to see someone like themselves because when they're watching TV and see scientists, they don't see a guy like me. But we're out there." Children, he notes, love science. "It's amazing how many kids interact with me and realize how cool science is. And when you are forced to explain your research to laypeople, it forces you to understand your work in a way you normally would not, which I would say benefits my own research."
Alexander did postdoctorate work across the Atlantic, at Imperial College in London. "It was one of the best things I ever did, gaining international experience," he says. According to Alexander, schools in Europe are in some respects more technical, and he picked up techniques there that he now uses in his research. Moreover, interacting with researchers from other countries taught him diplomacy. "I was one of the few Americans out there and learned how to represent my country to the international scientific community," he says.
While in London, Alexander met Lee Smolin, an expert in quantum gravity, a field that strives to unify all the forces of the universe under one theory. Through Smolin, Alexander also met celebrity avant-garde musician Brian Eno. "He's a very bright guy, who has always appreciated incorporating ideas of modern science into his music and art," Alexander says. "I learned a lot from him on how to think outside the box."
Following Einstein's Footsteps
Currently, Alexander's work focuses on the long-standing problem of why more matter than antimatter exists in the universe. He and colleagues propose that immediately after the big bang, a burst of inflation in the universe's growth (lasting only a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second) created quantum ripples in the fabric of spacetime that generated this matter-antimatter asymmetry. Alexander and his group are working on ways to test their ideas using a satellite, the Planck Surveyor, planned for launch in 2007.
If Alexander's work sounds hard, that's because it is. "I would say, as a reality check, that science is not an easy path. You're going to have obstacles in many different forms," Alexander says. He recommended against comparing oneself with others too much--" 'Other people are taking calculus while I'm only taking algebra now,' for instance. You have your own agenda," he says.
Although Alexander's research takes him to the extreme edge of physics, balancing his career and personal life is key. "I play the tenor saxophone. It's good to have a hobby where you do something creative no matter what," he says.
Alexander loves working in science. "Think wild thoughts. At the end of the day, it's a big part of being human. We're put here to explore and to have fun with it."
Charles Choi is a freelance writer and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.