Physicist to meld music and science in classroom
By Amelia Acosta, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, April 4, 2012
When Stephon Alexander was 12 years old, the wife of a New York Yankees baseball player insisted her husband give up his rarely used saxophone. Alexander, a physics professor recently hired as the Ernest Everett Just 1907 faculty chair, began to play that very same saxophone after his father purchased it for him, around the same time that his middle school science classes ignited his love for physics.
Now Alexander explores the connections between music and theoretical physics and shows students without strong science backgrounds how they too can connect physics to the things they love.
“I want to be a professor to all students, whether they’re interested in physics or not,” Alexander said. “To me, a big part of the liberal arts education is to engage in the various disciplines and see how all disciplines connect.”
Alexander was born in Trinidad and grew up in the Bronx, where he played in his high school jazz band and excelled in science. He attended Haverford College as an undergraduate, majoring in physics and minoring in sociology, and completed his PhD in theoretical physics at Brown University, getting a “backup masters” in electrical engineering in case physics could not secure him a job, he said.
Today, his research focuses on questions in a field known as theoretical cosmology.
“I study how the world of particle physics and quantum gravity effects can be tested using measurements in cosmology,” Alexander said. “We know there is dark energy and dark matter out there, but we want to know what their identity is and what fundamental physics says about that. Combining the theoretical with the fundamental physics shows us how these things fit the pattern of what we already know exists.”
Before returning to teach at Haverford, Alexander explored different fields of physics to determine which he found most interesting. He studied at Imperial College in London and Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center, studying everything “from biophysics to string theory” before getting his first faculty job at the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos at Pennsylvania State University. He spent three years there before returning to his alma mater as a professor in 2008.
Although he is excited for the “beautiful” Dartmouth campus, Alexander said he anticipates his summer move will be a “big change.”
“Haverford is closer to metropolitan areas, and nowadays I sit in jazz clubs in New York once a week,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to doing some playing and talking shop with Dartmouth students and making new friends amongst the faculty. Hopefully I’ll get to play at one of the local dives.”
Alexander’s faculty chair position is part of the E.E. Just Program, designed to increase the number of minority students majoring in the sciences. The program is named for Ernest Everett Just, a member of the Class of 1907 and one of the first African-American Dartmouth graduates.
Alexander is already planning to bring “really cool and prominent speakers” to the College to foster minority participation in the sciences.
“Jim Gates, a member of President [Barack] Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a well-known African-American physicist, will be coming to address the whole Dartmouth community,” Alexander said. “Events like these create a network and a perspective where students see that there’s a larger world where they can participate, especially in the sciences.”
This “large network of mentors around the country,” is one of the strengths Alexander will bring to the College, according to Associate Dean of Faculty for the Sciences and computer science professor David Kotz ’86.
“He’ll certainly bring a very strong science expertise, as he’s a fantastic theoretical physicist who will fit in well with the other faculty working in theoretical cosmology,” Kotz said. “He’s very passionate about finding ways to increase participation in the sciences by minority groups and people from non-traditional backgrounds, be they those without a strong science background or first-generation college students.”
Alexander’s appreciation for diversity extends to his approach to academics, he said.
“I’m looking forward to creating a new class called ‘The Music of Physics,’ which will be geared towards all undergraduates,” he said. “I want to be able to show the exciting connections between music and science in general.”
The physics department is working to create a new space open to all students, which will help to bring students from diverse backgrounds together, according to Alexander.
“We’re hoping to open the E.E. Just Center for Theoretical Physics in the fall of next year,” he said. “There will be blackboards all over the place, overhead projectors, instruments everywhere and informal cross-disciplinary seminars.”
Because Alexander was a “senior hire” and his position comes with tenure, the search process worked differently than in the average situation, Kotz said.
“Number one, we wanted the person who was going to fill the position to be an excellent faculty member capable of world-class research and excellent teaching,” he said.
Dartmouth’s combination of emphasis on undergraduate teaching and research opportunities made it an ideal choice, Alexander said.