Theoretical Physicist Stephon Alexander; E.E. Just Professor @ Dartmouth College

Theoretical Physicist Stephon Alexander; E.E. Just Professor @ Dartmouth College

Late into my junior year at Haverford College, I realized that my life calling was to be a physicist. My senior year, I applied to Ph.D. programs in physics. My grades were average and most graduate admissions committees rejected me, but I was admitted to the University of Maryland, College Park, and to Brown University. I found out years later that an African-American theoretical physicist at Maryland, Jim Gates (who recently won the National Medal of Science), picked out my rejected application, walked it to the Admissions Committee, and suggested that a more careful investigation using broader metrics indicated that they take a second look.

After my third year in the Ph.D. program at Brown, I had to select a dissertation adviser and thus an area of specialization. My classmates did not think too highly of my chances to become a theoretical physicist; the impression was that only the “smart” students got into the theory program. When I nervously walked into the office of Robert Brandenberger, a white cosmologist, to ask him if he would take me on as his doctoral student, I saw many intimidating physics books, but tucked among them was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Robert accepted me as a student and devoted himself to developing me into a physicist of whom he could be proud.

As a tenured faculty member, I feel an obligation to recruit and mentor black and other minority group members, as well as to shape institutional support.

Both black and white physicists “spoke out” on my behalf — not necessarily with words, but with actions. Like other of my heroes, Gates and Brandenberger appreciated the complex world that potentially talented young African Americans (and other underrepresented students) face when they work in worlds where they are not expected to excel. They and others understood that a self-fulfilling prophecy transpires when young African Americansare not invited to social events and study groups where important networking and learning occurs. These struggles for inclusion are still present, and progress is stagnant. For example, at the top 50 research institutions in 2002, 2.6 percent of the science and engineering faculty were black; this percentage decreased slightly to 2.5 percent in 2007.

Physicists study phenomena that have no relevance to race, so one might expect that black physicists would be silent on issues regarding race. This would be incorrect. Organizations like the National Society of Black Physicists have spoken out on issues of inclusivity. Still, in my opinion, some members of the black physics community are silenced by fear of exacerbating their alienation from the majority community that still holds the power to grant access to faculty jobs. As a result, I feel a deep responsibility to speak and act; I would not be a theoretical physicist today if both black and white scholars had not spoken and acted on my behalf.

One of the biggest challenges facing African Americans in the sciences is the paucity of tenured and tenure-line faculty, especially in the physical sciences. As a tenured faculty member, I feel an obligation not only to recruit and individually mentor black and other minority group members, including female scientists, but also to help create institutional structures to implement these goals. Further, I believe that white and male students benefit when we incorporate into the sciences groups that have been excluded; it is important for them to experience a science education from a diverse faculty and with diverse peers.

Finally, I want to suggest that an attentiveness towards African-American students must be generalized into a recognition that not all first-rate scientists were first-rate students of science. All physicists should be on the lookout for talented students who might not have had the best preparation, or whose imaginations might not follow well-trodden paths. Many of the greatest minds might not reach their potential without some help from those who have gone before.


How Chilling With Brian Eno Changed the Way I Study Physics

How Chilling With Brian Eno Changed the Way I Study Physics

EVERYONE HAD HIS or her favorite drink in hand. There were bubbles and deep reds, and the sound of ice clinking in cocktail glasses underlay the hum of contented chatter.

Tavis Smiley Show: The Physicist Joins us to discuss his recent text The Jazz Of Physics.