Stephon Alexander interview: Is the universe a self-learning AI?

To solve the big mysteries in physics, we need to embrace fresh perspectives, says cosmologist Stephon Alexander. Here he explains why intuition is so important – and outlines one of his own wild ideas

Physics 8 September 2021

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Jennie Edwards

AS A child, Stephon Alexander was awestruck by the broken-down, graffiti-covered train carriages in the depot opposite where he waited for the yellow school bus each morning. Graffiti artists were his heroes, as were urban philosophers. Later, he joined a hip-hop group. “I used to beatbox in rap battles. They called it dropping science too,” he says.

Growing up in the Bronx in New York City in the 1980s might not be the typical training for a theoretical physicist, but it helped shape Alexander’s distinct style. “That collision of all these different cultures was valued because we saw the product,” he says. Alexander learned to embrace the discomfort of difference and saw the ideas that sprung from it. But as a young Black scientist, he was snubbed by colleagues. His speculative ideas were deemed outlandish by some of his peers.

Alexander sought refuge in jazz clubs, cafes and Zen Buddhist centres. Making friends with biologists, musicians and artists, he forged his own approach to the big questions about the nature of reality – one that valued diverse viewpoints, intuition and imagination.

Today, Alexander is a cosmologist, string theorist and jazz musician. He heads a research lab at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, seeking to unite the smallest and largest entities in the cosmos and unearth what came before the big bang. He is also president of the National Society of Black Physicists.

In his new book, Fear of a Black Universe: An outsider’s guide to the future of physics, Alexander argues that welcoming new voices into the “club of physics” will be essential to breaking new ground. Scientists …