stephon_h_alexander's picture
Professor of Physics at Brown University; Author, The Jazz of Physics

I grew up in the northeast Bronx, when in the ‘80’s pretty much everyone’s heroes were basketball sensations Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Most of my friends, including myself fantasized about playing in the NBA. True, playing basketball was fun. But another obvious incentive was that aside from drug dealers, athletes were the only ones from our socioeconomic background that we saw earning serious money and respect. Despite my early tendencies toward science and math, I also played hooky quite a bit, spending many hours on the P. S. 16 basketball court. There, I would fantasize of one day, making my high school basketball team and doing a 360 dunk. Neither happened. At 15, in the middle of a layup, I stumbled and broke my kneecap, which forced me off the basketball playground for a half a year. I was relegated to homework and consistent class attendance.

Most of my street-court pals didn’t end up graduating from high school. But, although they were far better ball players than I, only one made it to the NBA. A few others did get scouted and ended up playing in big ten basketball teams. To this day, whenever I return to my old neighborhood, I see some of my diploma-less pals doing old school moves with kneepads on.

The year of the broken knee led to a scholarship from a private donor for a summer physics camp for teens called ISI (International Summer Institute). The camp took place in the Southampton, Long Island an environment far different from what I’d ever experienced. Most of the other kids were from foreign countries. I made strange new friends, including Hong, a South Korean boy who spent the summer trying to compute Pi to some decimal point or other. Or the group of young chess players being coached by a Russian chess master. I took college physics. Most of these students went on to become excellent scientists, one of which I am still in touch with. At some point, I met the organizer of the summer camp, a gentleman wearing a leather jacket in summer who turned out to be Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow(who coincidentally went to my neighboring High School). He gave us a physics/inspirational talk. During that talk, I realized that there are other types of Michael Jordans, in areas other than basketball and, like Shelly, I could be different plus make a good living as a scientist. More importantly, us teenagers really bonded with each other and, in a sense, formed a young global community of future scientists.

When I returned to the Bronx, I couldn’t really talk much about my experience. After all, a discussion on the Heisenberg principle is far less interesting than ball-park trash talk. I began playing less basketball and eventually went on to college and became a physicist. I could not help feeling a little guilty. In the back of my mind, I knew the real mathematical genius in my neighborhood was a guy named Eric Deabreu. But he never finished high school.

What if there were a global organization of scientists and educators dedicated to identifying (or scouting) the potential Michael Jordans of science, regardless of what part of the world they are from and regardless of socioeconomic background? This is happening on local levels, but not globally. What if these students were provided the resources to reach their full potential and naturally forge a global community of scientific peers and friends? What we would have is, among many benefits, an orchestrated global effort to address the most pressing scientific problems that current and future generations must confront: the energy crisis, global warming, HIV, diplomacy to name a few. I think an inititiative that markets the virtues of science on every corner of the planet, with the same urgency as the basketball scouts on corners of street ball courts, would change the world. Such a reality has long been my vision, which, in light the past efforts of some in the science community, including Clifford Johnson and Jim Gates and Neil Turok, I believe will see come to past.