Book review – The Jazz of Physics – Stephon Alexander

Every now and then a little gem of a book comes along with a great concept, and this is no exception, the sub title says it all: “The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe” and a fascinating concept it certainly is.

Jazz of Physics

Review – The Jazz of Physics – Stephon Alexander

Well Physics was my best subject at school and music was my evening study. So this book really interested me. It is surprising just how many top flight physicists are also great musicians, Einstein played violin to a high standard, his love was Mozart. From the other angle, John Coltrane was intensely interested in mathematics and physics, which drove his unique take on Jazz.

This is the journey this book takes you on, in many ways the personal journey of the author, from growing up in the Broncs with Rasterfarian dreadlocks to meeting his first mentor who’s office had a picture of Einstein on one wall and Coltrane on the other.

My biggest surprise was reaching chapter 6, an entire chapter about Brian Eno and cosmology! Brian loaned Stephon his bicycle indefinitely and one of the great things about this book are the stories Stephon tells.

You are not going to get away with an easy read on the physics side, though everything is understandable and well explained.

I really loved this book and the writing style is very compelling, it hits the right balance between the physics, the music and the stories. I feel Stephon has a lot more to say on the subject, and look forward to any follow ups. The question is who would I recommend this book to? Just about any musician who wants to see a little further into the links with physics and Jazz, and free thinking.

About the Author – Dr Stephon Alexander

Stephon Alexander

Stephon Alexander was born in Trinidad, and moved with his family to the Bronx when he was eight. He went through the public schools in New York and counted himself lucky to have had the science and math teachers he did. He remembers many of his high school teachers as having advanced degrees so they could talk about everything from the fundamentals of physics, to what was cutting edge.

“I think growing up in a very diverse background in the Bronx really made a difference because in my field, it’s so international,” Alexander said.

After he finished high school, he went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Starting out he was unsure of what path to take.

“I had really no ambitions to become a physicist,” Alexander said. “I knew I liked physics, and I knew it came a little bit easier than some of the humanities. But I didn’t really think I was going to be a physicist.”

Then during his freshman year, he met physics professor Lyle Roelofs, who became a role model for Alexander.

“He worked me very hard. He had very high expectations but at the same time he made it known to me that physics was available to me if I wanted to pursue it.”

At around the same time, Alexander was introduced to Jim Gates at a National Society of Black Physicists meeting. Gates made a major impression on Alexander. He realized that people of any ethnicity could be theoretical physicists.

Alexander delved into studying physics, and was involved with research for three of the four years he was at college. After receiving his BS, he went to Brown University initially with the intent to study experimental quantum optics.

Stephon Alexander with Tenor Saxophone
Stephon Alexander – Tenor Saxophone

Once he arrived though, his focus changed and he started researching neuroscience with Nobel Laureate Leon Cooper. Alexander got his first real taste of cosmology when he decided to write his dissertation on neural networks applied to large-scale structures in the universe.

He traveled to Imperial College in London for his postdoc, where he studied how cosmic inflation could arise from string theory. During the summers, he worked on string theory at Columbia University with Brian Greene.

After his stay in London, Alexander traveled to SLAC to continue pursuing the connection between the origin of matter in the universe and inflation after the Big Bang. It was there that he started thinking about handedness in nature. Only one force, the weak force, has a preferred handedness. Alexander postulated, however, that gravity might be a sort of sister force to the weak force and might also have a preferred handedness in certain quantum regimes.

“It’s going to be a new unified theory between gravity and the weak interaction,” Alexander said.

After SLAC, Alexander held faculty positions at Penn State and his alma mater Haverford, before accepting the Ernest Everett Just 1907 Professor of Natural Sciences chair at Dartmouth.

When not unraveling the mysteries of quantum gravity, Alexander has been also been delving into the mysteries of music. He’s been working with mathematicians at Berkeley looking for organizing principles that might apply to music harmonic structure.

“Why and how music works in terms of principles of physics?” is the central question he’s been looking at. “It’s also a good teaching tool. It’s a good way to get students interested in physics.”

He’s also been working on his own jazz album with a producer in New York.

“It’s important for me to pass on the torch and to mentor other minorities in physics and in particular to identify and have some PhD students of my own from those backgrounds.”


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Book Credits

Author: Stephon Alexander © 2016
Publisher: Basic Books
ISBN-13: 978-0-465-03499-4
Format: Hardback 256 pages

Links (Website)


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