Transcript of Interview with Hakeem Oluseyi: Cultivating a Love for Science

This is a transcript of the video interview titled Hakeem Oluseyi: Cultivating a Love for Science.

Hakeem Oluseyi

00:00

The human ability to create and think and innovate, you know, we're all super dope, right? We all are. We all have it.

Chris Gorski  00:11

Welcome to Inside Science Conversations. I'm your host, Chris Gorski. I'm the senior editor at inside science.org, a science news website published by the American Institute of Physics. This is a show where I talk to scientists and doctors and experts of all kinds about what drives them and what makes them tick and why they do what they do. For this episode of Inside Science conversations. We'd like to welcome Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, an astrophysicist, a professor at George Mason University, and the President of the National Society of Black physicists, Hakeem, thanks for joining me.

00:46

Thanks, Chris. I'm happy to be here.

Chris Gorski  00:49

I contacted you because I read your book. It's really an interesting story about your formative years, your early career. So the first question I want to ask is, How did you do you have a sense of how you became the person who wanted to read everything, memorize everything, learn everything there was about Einstein, where did that come from?

Hakeem Oluseyi 01:08

Yeah, you know, that's a good question. Because I asked myself the same question. And there's, it's, there's two influences, right? One was the fact that my mother was an avid reader, right? She didn't have an identity of I'm intellectual or anything like that. She just love to read books. Right, you know. And the other thing is another coincidence, my mother's best friend had a son who was two years older than me, his name is Darren Brown. And Darren Brown was into reading as well. And also our parents both did, they love to play these daily crossword puzzle books, but there will be more than crosswords in there. They were only interested in the crosswords. So Darren and I, we do the criss cross the logic problems, you know, and sometimes, of course, most of the time I was doing it alone. But we know we're together a lot. So the thing is, Darren grew up to be a Navy officer and was like the second highest ranked African American in the Navy submarine fleet. At the time of 911, I think he was on he was on the XO tour. And then, you know, he wrote, he came up for Captain, there was no ship available. So he ran the Navy base at Ames in San Jose, California. So those people, my mother, being an avid reader, and Darren being an avid reader was sort of like my nerd influences that drew me into books. But I think a third part of it was just trauma. Okay, so the time when I really fell in love with books, I was nine years old. And by that time, you know, I had figured out that humans can be somewhat dangerous, right? And, you know, as a species, right, we're a social species, and we bond and I bonded with books, instead of, you know, humans so much, you know, I tend to avoid humans and read a lot.

Chris Gorski  02:56

So what kind of shape did that take? Was it just anything you could see you are getting into? Or did you did you go towards science and encyclopedias and stuff? How'd you how'd you get there?

Hakeem Oluseyi 03:07

I was interested in the natural world and stuff that's weird. So one of the stories I tell in the book is at a certain point, Darren informs me that if you're under 18 years old, you can't be held to a contract. So I started ordering Time Life books, right? They have those. And what's funny is, you know, I've recently published with Time Life books. I told them the story, but you know, I ordered these books, you know, I was in a Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, all this stuff. And I love comics, Marvel DC Comics, who I learned from my cousin's in Mississippi, they had crates and crates of comics, so I would just go there. And of course, you know, my mother had my sister and me going to church every Sunday, right? And so there you know, you have the Bible stories. So everything that was fantastical just captured my imagination. But the other thing about my home life was you know, I was in that era of you know, children are meant to be seen and not heard, you know, basically get outside you know, don't come in until this dark right if you need a drink of water to get it out the water hose. So you know, I was left alone a lot and you know, sometimes you know, we live with a lot of other families and I ended up living with other families by myself, but there were times where it was just my mother in me. And I was pretty much left alone a lot because she had to work and you know, a little kid by yourself, you're going to get into something right and so you know, I started mixing chemicals at home and you know, I remember I made a reaction where you know, it was a liquid and then there was a precipitate formed, and it changed colors and with new nearly clear, and I was like, oh my goodness, what happened? And I realized that oh, maybe I should take notes like so I just started making my little lab notebook, never even hearing the concept, right. But I just needed to know how did I do that? Right. And so another thing I did was I was trying to do experiment growing up and you know, the year before I was in rural Mississippi, we burnt our trash, you know, people hunted made their own shotgun shells. It was straight dirt road off a dirt road off a dirt road deep country. I got into playing with fire.

Hakeem Oluseyi 05:16

Okay, so yeah, kerosene, yeah, we would like do a lot of stuff like involving oil. Like there was stuff you would do. Like for example, when you castrated baby pigs, you will use dirty oil. You know, you wouldn't put an antibiotic or you will put dirty oil on so you always get your hands dirty and oily, right? So we use gasoline to wash our hands of the oil, we use kerosene and kerosene lamps, right, we will use, right so I was. So anyway, the experiment I decided to do was, see how, this is in New Orleans, see how high I could hold a flame above the wick of a candle and ignite the wick. Alright, so I was holding the flame like millimeters above. And at a certain point, I'm bringing a flame in and it's like five inches above the wick. And suddenly the wick ignites. And I'm like what happened there. And so I started trying to redo the experiment. And eventually I realized that the wisp of smoke, which is really wax vapor, is flammable. And when you put a flame in it, a little ball of flame travels down the west hits the wick and ignites it right. But you know, this was my early exploration. And at the same time, you know, here I am I bonded with books. And the only books in my house at this point are a set of encyclopedias and the Bible. Well, the Bible was a lot more intimidating because it wasn't in modern English. Okay, so I went for the set of encyclopedias. And I was like, Okay, I'll just read them A to Z. Man, I get to E. And I hit Albert Einstein, and I hit the weirdness of relativity. And the thing about it is, you know, the encyclopedia made it clear, this is real. This is not like Marvel Comics. And that to me, was just like, you got to be kidding. What?! I had to know everything there was about relativity. So as we continue to move around, you know, like, literally, that year, I was 11 years old. I was 10 years old, I discovered at the end of the school year, because my birthday is in March, I was 11. All right. And when the next school year started, I ended up spending the next 16 months, living in nine different households, and attending five different schools across three different states. And so there was like a gap in this scientific development, right? It was a lot of trauma again, in that era, and so, you know, when I came back, I was really more into knowledge, than humans. Right. And so, my mother would, you know, we finally settled down in Mississippi, and I, you know, I tell my mother, oh, you know, I wish I could get some books on Einstein, and you know, she would work these shifts at the factory, right, 3d to 11 and 11 and seven, and so we wouldn't see each other, but I'd come home from school, and she'd have like, three relativity books she got from like the library in Heidelberg, Mississippi, the small little library, right. So that's kind of how it started for me. You know, and I had that identity at school. You know, he's the nerd. He's a smart guy, you know, and it all fit together. And you know, they will call me Urkel they will call me Professor, they will call me Einstein.

Chris Gorski  08:27

Wow. So did that sink in for you? Did you think about science as something that you want to learn more about or do as a career,

Hakeem Oluseyi 08:35

Man, the idea of a career right, coming from where I came from. The idea of a career isn't an idea that you actually have? Okay, right. What you're doing is you're getting by, right, you're getting by so you know, we had two factories we had Howard industries made transformers my mother worked, we had the word plant makes them Masonite, right, you know, they would lay off. And you know, and so like, for example, the entire time I was in high school, my sister and brother in law and daughter, they moved into the house with us because it was a recession. And so the only work available in our language, right language we use the way we said it was cleaning white folks houses. All right, so my sister Bridget did. My brother-in-law, Dewayne you know, he had a ruptured disc in his back. So he ended up unemployed. And, you know, we were barely making it. And so because my father had retired, and I got a check, because he had, you know, it was the days of pension. He was a military war veteran, you know, I receive, and that's how my mother survived, right. But we also grew food we hunted, you know, we fished, you know, it wasn't a life where I was like, Oh, I'd like to be an engineer or, you know, but I knew certain things existed. So I used to go around saying, oh, I want to be a nuclear physicist, right? But I had no idea what that really meant. And so luckily, the world came and found me. So we had we were all ushered into the cafeteria, the 10th grade class, and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam was administered to us. A few weeks later, I get called to the principal's office. And he introduces me to the Navy recruiter. And this guy tells me Hey, man,  you know, you killed this test, never seen anything like it. If you enlist, you go nuke, I get your $20,000. Now, that number $20,000 was key to me because my brother-in-law who had achieved the glass ceiling of our community, a low level manager at the plant. I remember hearing my mother brag that he had made $15,000 one year. So here the Navy recruiter is offering me 20k, right? And then tells me if after two years if you re-enlist we give you a $30,000 enlistment bonus and immediately promote you to an E5. Right. So now let me tell you how to perspective worked where I came from. At my high school, we had a maintenance man who was elderly, he retired, this young cat who was sort of like, you know, early 20’s dude who was sort of like part time help ends up getting a full time job. You know what we all had to say about that… he got it may write achieving maintenance man at the highest school was the equivalent of you got in made it like you're set for life. So now this dude is offering me E5 in the military and 30k bonus 20k a year. It's a no brainer. This recruiter went above and beyond, you know, I signed up while I was still in high school. So I was required to go and spend time at the Navy recruiting station. And we would talk a lot and he was like, Man, I'm gonna get you in the Navy Academy. He had never done it. And so we miss deadlines or something. But he's like, I'm gonna find something for you. And by the way, he did take me to get the nuclear test and I aced that. And so then he was like, I found this program for you called BOOST, which stands for Broaden Opportunity for Officers Selection and Training is for people just like you, people from rural America, people from the inner cities, people where we know that education isn't as good as in other places. So we're going to take you in, put you in this program run by the Marines, and give you a year of hardcore academic training. So there were two math classes at BOOST the regular cat class and a remedial class. Guess which one I was in?

Hakeem Oluseyi 12:36

I was in a remedial class. Why? Let me give you an indication. So at my high school, Heidelberg High School, you had Heidelberg High School, all black, except for one guy who transferred in junior year, James Roberts, the one white dude at the school. Galf down the road you have Heidelberg Academy, the private all white school, same situation, opposite side of the county, when Mississippi evaluated all of its schools in the early 2000s. Every school was given a rating one to five, just like we have ABCDEF. Four schools in the state were given an F. Two of them were my middle school in my high school. So to say I was undereducated when I took things like the ACT tests, remember, I'm an avid reader. I'm devouring everything I can find. I'm blasting it except for mathematics. Who's going to teach me mathematics? Right, you know, and so knowing the landscape the way I do now, you know, God bless teachers. But, you know, most math teachers have never been scientists or mathematicians, right? Or anything like that. So if you don't know the goal that you're teaching to, and have a broader understanding of it, making it, shaping it, you know, what really matters. And what we do for the student, you know, so what you end up doing is believing that math is all about numbers. Right? And you know, everything about numbers. But beyond that, you know, there's not much you can do.

Chris Gorski  14:06

Yeah. And so, with all that going on, how in the world did you win a but how in the world did you win a computer programming science fair with a project about relativity? And it's all that?

Hakeem Oluseyi 14:20

Yeah. So also, right, so I discovered Einstein relativity at the age of 10. become obsessed. I'm doing everything I can to understand relativity. Alright, a starting point, I realized I got to understand the mathematics of it. So you know, like, you know, that is simple math. People think it's not right. But Special Relativity Lorentz Contraction saw this, it's really simple, okay. And I was able to figure it out, even though I really didn't understand even algebra, right. I was able to take the arguments and you know, and figure it out. But then, you know, some professors at the nearby University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, decided to do outreach and come to our school. And they told us about something that we had never heard of before, science fairs. And they say you guys should participate. And so it turns out that my girlfriend, so in Mississippi, we don't date back then you didn't date you did what was called courting. And the way that works is on a Sunday, the boy goes to the girl's house, you sit at opposite ends of the couch with family watching you. Right? Then you do that for about three hours go home, you might eat maybe, maybe not. But so you know, she ends up getting a little Radio Shack, TRS80 for Christmas. So I'm like, why am I sitting on the couch with you? I know, you know, everybody's talking about this computer thing. So I go over there. And it came with a little book that taught you the basic programming language. And so you know, I'm writing do loops and things, you know, and then you know, these USM professors show up, they're like, you have to do a science fair project. And I'm just like, Okay, what do I do? Oh, I'll program relativity. Not knowing. You know, I had no idea. I had never heard of modeling or yeah, it's just like, Okay, it's equations, computers, solve math problems. You know, if I can make it graphical in any way, and I'm really rolling, right? So, you know, that's what I did. And so the first year, but we didn't know anything about trifold boards and all that. So the first year a bunch of us went to, you know, we had our school science fair, which I won. Yet, you know, my mini me, my buddy, Andrew McGee, who had all my high school buddies are passing away, man, one guy in the book, he just passed away December, the guy I'm talking about right now Magee, he passed away early 2020, both heart attacks. And, you know, the story of the science fair in my book, I'm the only remaining survivor, okay.

Hakeem Oluseyi 16:44

But what happens is, you know, we go there that first year, and we realized that there was a visual component to the science fair projects, they look like crap. Like, we had no idea. All you know, is what household have three boards, like, you know, handwritten, you know, a torn out spiral notebook paper. So I go there, but I ended up getting an honorable mention. Right, I ended up getting an honorable mention, we go back the next year, I come in first place. I was originally in computer science and the computer science judges like, Dude, we have no idea what you're talking about remove you to physics. So I go to physics. And I come in first place, my buddy McGee, he took a piece of car radiator, put it into a box, put glass panels on it, painted black, put a heat lamp under it, you fade in cold water, hot water came out. He came in second in engineering and in the third guy was named Aristotle Bender. He came in third place in his field. I don't know what it was. So the three of us ended up going to the state science fair, right. And then I came in second place at the regional science fair, because remember, I was originally computer science and moved over. And then there was a story in the book. Man, it was the craziest thing. The second year, we knew we had to have like real wood with hinges and all this, okay. And we had to had color. So we had this plan, where those of us who had done it the year before, went to the town of Hattiesburg the night before. Our big boards would come on the school bus the next day. Would everyone else and my boards were left behind. All right, I guess I'm out. Right. And this kid who was doing it for the first time who had cardboard boards, he was like, no, no, you're not out. You're taking my board. And I'm, you know, I'm trying to resist. He's like, No, dude, you're taking it. So I take it. And so I'm outside. I'm late, you know, it's like literally cardboard held together with scotch tape. And I'm trying to tape my parts on it. And it's windy, and they're just flying all over the place. And there's this the crazy story, man, but 100% True. And there's this family, a husband and wife who are both teachers, with their kids and their school kids, and they're having sandwiches and stuff before we get started, right? And they see this so the kids start helping me grab my papers, you know, and it becomes a little thing, right? Finally, we get it all together and is laying there on the grass. And we all stand up was like Yes!  At that very moment, this huge gust of wind comes along, rips the whole thing up lifted off the ground. It just tears it apart. Right? It is toast. Right? So I'm like, you know, it's fake. I'm not competing today. One of the guys who had actual wooden boards with hinges. He was like, No, man, you're taking my board. And I'm like, no, he's like, Yeah, you are. You're taking my board. And I took his board but at this point, my pages all beat up. Right. So I ended up coming in second place in physics because again, you know, my infrastructure was much better, but my content, you know, it was very beat up looking. So I go to state and I end up winning first place, because now I'm all together, everything's together. My life, you know, had so many crazy challenges, because in some ways I was a child unprotected in the world. And so there are so many people that are looking to take advantage of a kid in various ways. And, you know, able to like, you know, duck and dodge and escape. But you know, you still got to go through that experience, you know.

Chris Gorski  20:31

you know, what I know about your story at this point, which is that you had, you had a lot of innate knowledge and drive, and you kept going, but also you couldn't have there were so many people who helped you along the way, like, in, you know, you got to you had people push you who looked at you over and over and said, You can do this, keep going,

Hakeem Oluseyi 20:52

But understand this man, humans have innate, you look at my situation, look at the person who's walking through a desert, you know, their kid in tow, for weeks at a time, right, you know, the human will to survive the human will, the human ability to create and think and innovate, you know, we're all super dope, right? We all are, we all have it, you know, as an educator, being sufficiently advanced that I, you know, I've had many perspectives, seen it in many geographical areas, you know, all around the world, been in the federal government doing it. You know, I have my own ideas about education and developing human beings and how to get the best out of each other, one of the things that are done incredibly, terribly, we call the gatekeeping. You know, who you let in, and that's what determines, you know, who gets to do it, for Americans is a shame, because we're so well positioned as a nation, you know, you know, I've been to 41 countries. All right. So I see my country in the context of the countries of Earth, you know, I don't know if that's a representative sample, maybe it is. But I see a well organized, incredibly rich nation, that if people bond together to do things, they can make it happen. There's nothing that we can't do.

Chris Gorski  22:14

Right? Well, so when you're in grad school, you get to Stanford, and you're recognizing this, how would imagine the way you describe it, there's a lot of you recognizing the haves and have nots in a new way for you. Right? And somebody sits you down to one of your professors and says, Look, you can do these problems, you're going to get there. How does that influence how you think about education today?

Hakeem Oluseyi 22:41

Here's the thing, what any particular person needs in a particular moment. So what that was, really is something that I've seen in my career that I later, you know, in retrospect, you're like, Ah, here's what's happening. But people who you see who successfully navigated the pathway, if you come from not the standard circumstances where they expect where it's just like plugging go, right, like, my son will be right. Like, I'll give you an example. You know, my son, you know, my mom said, when he was like, four or five, you know, I think he's smarter than you are. Now. I was like, no hell he ain’t, no PhD in physics, neither one of my parents graduated high school, right, you know, the conversation in my house is very different. Right? So, you know, today, you know, he's an AP Physics, AP Calculus. It's not, he'll be plugging go, right? He's ready. He's educated, right? And people talk about being smart. Okay, so here's the thing I one thing I looked at when I got to Stanford. So this is the first time I was introduced to class I had grown up in the deep south. So I thought America's division was race, right? I get to Stanford, people don't care your race. But hey, man, the way you speak, the clothes you wear the thoughts you have, you know, it was a class division, okay.

Hakeem Oluseyi 23:56

But here's what I noticed. I looked around the people around me and I was like, you know, you guys aren't intrinsically smarter than the people I knew in South Central LA, Houstons Third Ward in South Park, New Orleans, Ninth Ward in New Orleans, East end in Mississippi. And you're damn sure not harder working. Right? All these people who think poor people aren't working hard, go to any poor community in the morning and watch and look at a bus stop and see what you see. Right? You know, I've been in that bus stop in a dark, right. So I just seemed an injustice to me. Right. And so I felt like I had discovered something. Oh, my God, did you know that? You know, there's gold in the City of Gold. And that gold was education? Right. I realized that the way we thought about education, you know, since none of us had actually done it, you create a story, right? You know, you don't know anything, unless you actually have done it. You know, and that's one of the big lessons I learned as being a graduate of what it means to actually know something. So you know, you're talking about some country, Iran, you’ve ever been Iran. No, you know nothing about Iran. I don't care what you watched. Right, you got to go to actually know. The summer before I went to Stanford, I did my very first physics research in my life. I went to UC Berkeley, alright. And I worked at the Center for particle astrophysics with Bernard. I met Saul Perlmutter, he was a postdoc when the two poles come get the other guy. And they were really good to me, man, you know, Berkeley, they treated me really, really well. Okay. And the interesting thing was that I applied to Berkeley to grad school and had been denied. At the end of the summer, they were like, Yo, man, if you want to come to Berkeley, we'll make a spot for you. And now get this. I did not know that Stanford was this highfalutin University. I didn't know that. Where I came from. There's three universities that are the top universities in the world, Harvard, MIT, Georgia Tech. After that, you're looking at sports, right? LSU, Ole Miss, right? Or, you know, like me a historically black college. So, you know, the thing was, when I started getting acceptance letters, Stanford offered me 14,500 or 40,760, something like that. My next highest offer for my graduate site was like, 11,500. So you went stand for it, right. And I also knew that they had graduated 30 Black PhDs in physics, so it seemed like, Okay, I'll be safe if I go there because I was, you know, I felt like, at that time in my life, you know, the story I was living in Mississippi was, you know, you're an oppressed minority. These people are, you know, treat you this way. Right. Now, don't get me wrong. I had peers white dudes that I knew because he was participating in extracurricular activities, right? Even though I always had all black high school. Now, white girls and black guys. We pretended the other did not exist, right for our safety. But white dudes, you know, there were some that just loved me. And of course, they were haters, but it's the same way with black dude. Right? Some are lovers some are haters, right? So I didn't feel so I had anti evidence that all not all white people are racist, right. But the time I left Mississippi going up to Stanford, that's what I thought. And I remember having this discussion with my mother on the phone. And she made something that mentioned something about racism, you know, that the conversation was about the difficulty trying to make it you know, and she said something about racism or whatever. And I was like, oh, no, Ma, being white ain't even good enough here. You gotta, you know, it's not about that. That's not what it's about. Right? It was a class thing. And for me, it was about being under educated. But I went in there thinking I might be under educated, but I can outwork all y'all. All right. And I felt that about anybody on Earth. You know, I'm saying I was in the military, I got tested, you know, I'm saying I was doing stuff. So, you know, throughout my life, that was challenging. And, you know, my will was I will not fold. Some people need encouragement. Some people need to be challenged. Some people need to be told you ain't the one. Because for me when you told me you ain't the one, you know, thought popped in my head. Oh I'll show you. Right. I'm more of do than talk. Okay. So, uh, you know, but the thing about it was what I didn't know, was that I couldn't do it alone. Okay, mathematics, physics. They're very subtle.

Hakeem Oluseyi 28:16

Okay. And luckily, Stanford had this program, where the physics department, they brought in one or two students every year in the Graduate School of Physics who weren't as well prepared, but appear to be very talented. Alright. And so they set up different mechanisms for supporting those students. And one mechanism was to hire a tutor for the summer before you took the qualifying exam. And so I had these two dudes, I had Santiago, who was who is now I think, the chief scientist at the Quantum Computing Center at Berkeley. And then there's other this other cat from India, Nigam. All right. [Nigam] was a nerds nerd [he] has told me look, here's what we're going do Hakeem, we're going to be every night, seven days a week. And we're going to do this, let's do it. And [he] taught me how to read physics, you know how to actually take a book and read every single word and letter and equally, you know, before that, you know, I'm highlighting the equations, you know, I didn't really, and you know, and so. Also understand this, you're learning a very different language. You know, I don't know what it is culturally. But you know, how like African Americans and Caribbean Americans have gotten in a 20th century making the music that spread around the world, you know, dominate the world in the form of R&B and then hip hop and all this kind of stuff, you know? So it seems like culturally when it comes to the use of language and things like that, you know, sometimes you know, the flow isn't an equal directions the language of intellectuals went from Greek to Latin to English, and part had to do with the fact of each language being more efficient than the next language.

Hakeem Oluseyi 30:07

Alright, you know, for example, English doesn't have a lot of gendered nouns, right? So the other piece of information is one thing about black Vernacular English in comparison to standard American English. and British English is it’s far more efficient. So what does that mean? It's tomorrow's language of the intellectuals. Mic drop. So because you see the slang, it does flow, right? You know, you look at our, you know, businesses and astronomers talking on Twitter, you know, you'd swear, you know, they're using the slang of the of the black community of a decade ago, right? Five years ago, right. So,

Chris Gorski  30:46

okay, you know, I can  understand, I feel like my, my tweets are probably five or 10 years behind. I all admit to that.

Hakeem Oluseyi 30:55

Yeah, that's one of the things they used to tell us growing up all the time. They're like, Hey, you want to know what the white folks in America gonna be listening to five years from now? African Americans are doing you know what? No, no, it dances they're gonna be doing. But you know what else I noticed? Traveling, you know, first place I traveled out of the country to the other hemisphere was the International School of Space Sciences in Italy, in 1997, in Italy. And you know, the way the Italians were dressing at that time, I was like, Whoa, that's a little risque. In comparison of how we dress in America. Five years later, in American exact same thing. Go to Japan, one year, everybody has a phone, and they're looking at it. And I'm like, What is? What are they doing? It feels like 2007 2008. I'm like, What are they doing? What could you possibly be doing? Looking at your phone like that so much, I just didn't get it. Four years later in America, same thing, everybody's doing the same thing. Right. So culturally, you know, things go in different directions. And basically, what I'm saying is nerd culture and nerd language is so like, unnatural, you know, and then the universe is deceptive. And so physics thinking is not intuitive. Right? Your intuition is going to lead to wrong? The answer to everything is hard work, right? Being in meshed hard work and forget about the humans, focus. And so that's what I was able to do. I was able to curate my humans. I had [Nigam], I had all Walkers group. There was noise, of course, right? And then, you know, a lot of the stuff I did is, I want to undo the injustice. So I was like, you know, running all these different programs or participating in them that we call outreach type stuff, right, both on campus and off campus. So that's what drove me.

Chris Gorski  32:38

Well, okay, so you're talking about the language of physics and, and the language of intellectuals. Now, so a couple of weeks ago, I got I was looking at your tweets before we talked. And a couple of weeks ago, you wrote something to the effect of Albert Einstein. He is still so dope. So how does that stuff at you know, we're talking at least 100 years on it for most for a lot of his work? Right? Yeah. What's making that stand up for you?

Hakeem Oluseyi 33:10

Man, so my buddy, Dahveed Santiago, you know, he’s always like, You gotta do what you got to do, man, really? Whatever. He tells me, you know, he's like, man, you gotta go read the original papers, you know, the stuff that you're doing now. You know, it's diluted, you know, go back and see how they thought. And that is the key thing, their logic, oh, man Einstein’s logic in his papers in his books. I'm just like, dude why am I hearing this for the first time? This is so dope. I've never heard anybody say I've never seen in a book. Why isn't it we get why don't why don't we just take Einstein and yeah, man, I mean, it's just a way they thought through things logically.

Chris Gorski  33:54

So your book, Quantum life culminates, you know, ends with with you getting your PhD, right, right. Yeah. What are the highlights of what comes after the book? Volume Two?

Hakeem Oluseyi 34:04

Yeah, man. So basically, the book is the story of James Edward Plummer, Jr. Right, which was a name I was born with. And then I, you know, I felt like I had transformed as a person, you know, and I wanted to honor my heritage. Now, that got complicated too. The thing about James Plummer, Jr. is that quite often, you know, he didn't have a lot of choices, right. The choices were about survival. And Hakeem Oluseyi you know, speaking of myself in third person, sorry about that is but yeah, also speak of humans that way, right. But it, you know, I have agency, I've had the ability to influence and things like that. So a big part of what I've been doing is, you know, I discovered this, you know, I didn't I didn't want to be a I didn't think to myself, Yes, I'm going to be an educator, or I'm going to motivate you know, thoughts like that. Never occurred to me. I'd never set out to be the educator. But you know, I was teaching at a junior college while working at Foothill College while working in Silicon Valley. And students will come back to me after they've taken my class and they say, oh, man, you know, I didn't realize science was cool. I didn't realize I could get it and understand it. Your hunger and curiosity. That's what's going drive you to continue.

Chris Gorski  35:20

Well, I really appreciate your time. I think we'll let you go. But you know, I really enjoyed your book, a quantum life, my unlikely journey from the streets to the stars. And this time with you. Thanks for Thanks for chatting.

Hakeem Oluseyi 35:35

Thank you for having me.

Chris Gorski  35:36

So that was my conversation with Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi. Please like and subscribe so you don't miss our next episode. I'm Chris Gorski. Thanks for listening.

Transcript of Interview with Hakeem Oluseyi: Cultivating a Love for Science

This is a transcript of the video interview titled Hakeem Oluseyi: Cultivating a Love for Science.

Hakeem Oluseyi

00:00

The human ability to create and think and innovate, you know, we're all super dope, right? We all are. We all have it.

Chris Gorski  00:11

Welcome to Inside Science Conversations. I'm your host, Chris Gorski. I'm the senior editor at inside science.org, a science news website published by the American Institute of Physics. This is a show where I talk to scientists and doctors and experts of all kinds about what drives them and what makes them tick and why they do what they do. For this episode of Inside Science conversations. We'd like to welcome Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, an astrophysicist, a professor at George Mason University, and the President of the National Society of Black physicists, Hakeem, thanks for joining me.

00:46

Thanks, Chris. I'm happy to be here.

Chris Gorski  00:49

I contacted you because I read your book. It's really an interesting story about your formative years, your early career. So the first question I want to ask is, How did you do you have a sense of how you became the person who wanted to read everything, memorize everything, learn everything there was about Einstein, where did that come from?

Hakeem Oluseyi 01:08

Yeah, you know, that's a good question. Because I asked myself the same question. And there's, it's, there's two influences, right? One was the fact that my mother was an avid reader, right? She didn't have an identity of I'm intellectual or anything like that. She just love to read books. Right, you know. And the other thing is another coincidence, my mother's best friend had a son who was two years older than me, his name is Darren Brown. And Darren Brown was into reading as well. And also our parents both did, they love to play these daily crossword puzzle books, but there will be more than crosswords in there. They were only interested in the crosswords. So Darren and I, we do the criss cross the logic problems, you know, and sometimes, of course, most of the time I was doing it alone. But we know we're together a lot. So the thing is, Darren grew up to be a Navy officer and was like the second highest ranked African American in the Navy submarine fleet. At the time of 911, I think he was on he was on the XO tour. And then, you know, he wrote, he came up for Captain, there was no ship available. So he ran the Navy base at Ames in San Jose, California. So those people, my mother, being an avid reader, and Darren being an avid reader was sort of like my nerd influences that drew me into books. But I think a third part of it was just trauma. Okay, so the time when I really fell in love with books, I was nine years old. And by that time, you know, I had figured out that humans can be somewhat dangerous, right? And, you know, as a species, right, we're a social species, and we bond and I bonded with books, instead of, you know, humans so much, you know, I tend to avoid humans and read a lot.

Chris Gorski  02:56

So what kind of shape did that take? Was it just anything you could see you are getting into? Or did you did you go towards science and encyclopedias and stuff? How'd you how'd you get there?

Hakeem Oluseyi 03:07

I was interested in the natural world and stuff that's weird. So one of the stories I tell in the book is at a certain point, Darren informs me that if you're under 18 years old, you can't be held to a contract. So I started ordering Time Life books, right? They have those. And what's funny is, you know, I've recently published with Time Life books. I told them the story, but you know, I ordered these books, you know, I was in a Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, all this stuff. And I love comics, Marvel DC Comics, who I learned from my cousin's in Mississippi, they had crates and crates of comics, so I would just go there. And of course, you know, my mother had my sister and me going to church every Sunday, right? And so there you know, you have the Bible stories. So everything that was fantastical just captured my imagination. But the other thing about my home life was you know, I was in that era of you know, children are meant to be seen and not heard, you know, basically get outside you know, don't come in until this dark right if you need a drink of water to get it out the water hose. So you know, I was left alone a lot and you know, sometimes you know, we live with a lot of other families and I ended up living with other families by myself, but there were times where it was just my mother in me. And I was pretty much left alone a lot because she had to work and you know, a little kid by yourself, you're going to get into something right and so you know, I started mixing chemicals at home and you know, I remember I made a reaction where you know, it was a liquid and then there was a precipitate formed, and it changed colors and with new nearly clear, and I was like, oh my goodness, what happened? And I realized that oh, maybe I should take notes like so I just started making my little lab notebook, never even hearing the concept, right. But I just needed to know how did I do that? Right. And so another thing I did was I was trying to do experiment growing up and you know, the year before I was in rural Mississippi, we burnt our trash, you know, people hunted made their own shotgun shells. It was straight dirt road off a dirt road off a dirt road deep country. I got into playing with fire.

Hakeem Oluseyi 05:16

Okay, so yeah, kerosene, yeah, we would like do a lot of stuff like involving oil. Like there was stuff you would do. Like for example, when you castrated baby pigs, you will use dirty oil. You know, you wouldn't put an antibiotic or you will put dirty oil on so you always get your hands dirty and oily, right? So we use gasoline to wash our hands of the oil, we use kerosene and kerosene lamps, right, we will use, right so I was. So anyway, the experiment I decided to do was, see how, this is in New Orleans, see how high I could hold a flame above the wick of a candle and ignite the wick. Alright, so I was holding the flame like millimeters above. And at a certain point, I'm bringing a flame in and it's like five inches above the wick. And suddenly the wick ignites. And I'm like what happened there. And so I started trying to redo the experiment. And eventually I realized that the wisp of smoke, which is really wax vapor, is flammable. And when you put a flame in it, a little ball of flame travels down the west hits the wick and ignites it right. But you know, this was my early exploration. And at the same time, you know, here I am I bonded with books. And the only books in my house at this point are a set of encyclopedias and the Bible. Well, the Bible was a lot more intimidating because it wasn't in modern English. Okay, so I went for the set of encyclopedias. And I was like, Okay, I'll just read them A to Z. Man, I get to E. And I hit Albert Einstein, and I hit the weirdness of relativity. And the thing about it is, you know, the encyclopedia made it clear, this is real. This is not like Marvel Comics. And that to me, was just like, you got to be kidding. What?! I had to know everything there was about relativity. So as we continue to move around, you know, like, literally, that year, I was 11 years old. I was 10 years old, I discovered at the end of the school year, because my birthday is in March, I was 11. All right. And when the next school year started, I ended up spending the next 16 months, living in nine different households, and attending five different schools across three different states. And so there was like a gap in this scientific development, right? It was a lot of trauma again, in that era, and so, you know, when I came back, I was really more into knowledge, than humans. Right. And so, my mother would, you know, we finally settled down in Mississippi, and I, you know, I tell my mother, oh, you know, I wish I could get some books on Einstein, and you know, she would work these shifts at the factory, right, 3d to 11 and 11 and seven, and so we wouldn't see each other, but I'd come home from school, and she'd have like, three relativity books she got from like the library in Heidelberg, Mississippi, the small little library, right. So that's kind of how it started for me. You know, and I had that identity at school. You know, he's the nerd. He's a smart guy, you know, and it all fit together. And you know, they will call me Urkel they will call me Professor, they will call me Einstein.

Chris Gorski  08:27

Wow. So did that sink in for you? Did you think about science as something that you want to learn more about or do as a career,

Hakeem Oluseyi 08:35

Man, the idea of a career right, coming from where I came from. The idea of a career isn't an idea that you actually have? Okay, right. What you're doing is you're getting by, right, you're getting by so you know, we had two factories we had Howard industries made transformers my mother worked, we had the word plant makes them Masonite, right, you know, they would lay off. And you know, and so like, for example, the entire time I was in high school, my sister and brother in law and daughter, they moved into the house with us because it was a recession. And so the only work available in our language, right language we use the way we said it was cleaning white folks houses. All right, so my sister Bridget did. My brother-in-law, Dewayne you know, he had a ruptured disc in his back. So he ended up unemployed. And, you know, we were barely making it. And so because my father had retired, and I got a check, because he had, you know, it was the days of pension. He was a military war veteran, you know, I receive, and that's how my mother survived, right. But we also grew food we hunted, you know, we fished, you know, it wasn't a life where I was like, Oh, I'd like to be an engineer or, you know, but I knew certain things existed. So I used to go around saying, oh, I want to be a nuclear physicist, right? But I had no idea what that really meant. And so luckily, the world came and found me. So we had we were all ushered into the cafeteria, the 10th grade class, and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam was administered to us. A few weeks later, I get called to the principal's office. And he introduces me to the Navy recruiter. And this guy tells me Hey, man,  you know, you killed this test, never seen anything like it. If you enlist, you go nuke, I get your $20,000. Now, that number $20,000 was key to me because my brother-in-law who had achieved the glass ceiling of our community, a low level manager at the plant. I remember hearing my mother brag that he had made $15,000 one year. So here the Navy recruiter is offering me 20k, right? And then tells me if after two years if you re-enlist we give you a $30,000 enlistment bonus and immediately promote you to an E5. Right. So now let me tell you how to perspective worked where I came from. At my high school, we had a maintenance man who was elderly, he retired, this young cat who was sort of like, you know, early 20’s dude who was sort of like part time help ends up getting a full time job. You know what we all had to say about that… he got it may write achieving maintenance man at the highest school was the equivalent of you got in made it like you're set for life. So now this dude is offering me E5 in the military and 30k bonus 20k a year. It's a no brainer. This recruiter went above and beyond, you know, I signed up while I was still in high school. So I was required to go and spend time at the Navy recruiting station. And we would talk a lot and he was like, Man, I'm gonna get you in the Navy Academy. He had never done it. And so we miss deadlines or something. But he's like, I'm gonna find something for you. And by the way, he did take me to get the nuclear test and I aced that. And so then he was like, I found this program for you called BOOST, which stands for Broaden Opportunity for Officers Selection and Training is for people just like you, people from rural America, people from the inner cities, people where we know that education isn't as good as in other places. So we're going to take you in, put you in this program run by the Marines, and give you a year of hardcore academic training. So there were two math classes at BOOST the regular cat class and a remedial class. Guess which one I was in?

Hakeem Oluseyi 12:36

I was in a remedial class. Why? Let me give you an indication. So at my high school, Heidelberg High School, you had Heidelberg High School, all black, except for one guy who transferred in junior year, James Roberts, the one white dude at the school. Galf down the road you have Heidelberg Academy, the private all white school, same situation, opposite side of the county, when Mississippi evaluated all of its schools in the early 2000s. Every school was given a rating one to five, just like we have ABCDEF. Four schools in the state were given an F. Two of them were my middle school in my high school. So to say I was undereducated when I took things like the ACT tests, remember, I'm an avid reader. I'm devouring everything I can find. I'm blasting it except for mathematics. Who's going to teach me mathematics? Right, you know, and so knowing the landscape the way I do now, you know, God bless teachers. But, you know, most math teachers have never been scientists or mathematicians, right? Or anything like that. So if you don't know the goal that you're teaching to, and have a broader understanding of it, making it, shaping it, you know, what really matters. And what we do for the student, you know, so what you end up doing is believing that math is all about numbers. Right? And you know, everything about numbers. But beyond that, you know, there's not much you can do.

Chris Gorski  14:06

Yeah. And so, with all that going on, how in the world did you win a but how in the world did you win a computer programming science fair with a project about relativity? And it's all that?

Hakeem Oluseyi 14:20

Yeah. So also, right, so I discovered Einstein relativity at the age of 10. become obsessed. I'm doing everything I can to understand relativity. Alright, a starting point, I realized I got to understand the mathematics of it. So you know, like, you know, that is simple math. People think it's not right. But Special Relativity Lorentz Contraction saw this, it's really simple, okay. And I was able to figure it out, even though I really didn't understand even algebra, right. I was able to take the arguments and you know, and figure it out. But then, you know, some professors at the nearby University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, decided to do outreach and come to our school. And they told us about something that we had never heard of before, science fairs. And they say you guys should participate. And so it turns out that my girlfriend, so in Mississippi, we don't date back then you didn't date you did what was called courting. And the way that works is on a Sunday, the boy goes to the girl's house, you sit at opposite ends of the couch with family watching you. Right? Then you do that for about three hours go home, you might eat maybe, maybe not. But so you know, she ends up getting a little Radio Shack, TRS80 for Christmas. So I'm like, why am I sitting on the couch with you? I know, you know, everybody's talking about this computer thing. So I go over there. And it came with a little book that taught you the basic programming language. And so you know, I'm writing do loops and things, you know, and then you know, these USM professors show up, they're like, you have to do a science fair project. And I'm just like, Okay, what do I do? Oh, I'll program relativity. Not knowing. You know, I had no idea. I had never heard of modeling or yeah, it's just like, Okay, it's equations, computers, solve math problems. You know, if I can make it graphical in any way, and I'm really rolling, right? So, you know, that's what I did. And so the first year, but we didn't know anything about trifold boards and all that. So the first year a bunch of us went to, you know, we had our school science fair, which I won. Yet, you know, my mini me, my buddy, Andrew McGee, who had all my high school buddies are passing away, man, one guy in the book, he just passed away December, the guy I'm talking about right now Magee, he passed away early 2020, both heart attacks. And, you know, the story of the science fair in my book, I'm the only remaining survivor, okay.

Hakeem Oluseyi 16:44

But what happens is, you know, we go there that first year, and we realized that there was a visual component to the science fair projects, they look like crap. Like, we had no idea. All you know, is what household have three boards, like, you know, handwritten, you know, a torn out spiral notebook paper. So I go there, but I ended up getting an honorable mention. Right, I ended up getting an honorable mention, we go back the next year, I come in first place. I was originally in computer science and the computer science judges like, Dude, we have no idea what you're talking about remove you to physics. So I go to physics. And I come in first place, my buddy McGee, he took a piece of car radiator, put it into a box, put glass panels on it, painted black, put a heat lamp under it, you fade in cold water, hot water came out. He came in second in engineering and in the third guy was named Aristotle Bender. He came in third place in his field. I don't know what it was. So the three of us ended up going to the state science fair, right. And then I came in second place at the regional science fair, because remember, I was originally computer science and moved over. And then there was a story in the book. Man, it was the craziest thing. The second year, we knew we had to have like real wood with hinges and all this, okay. And we had to had color. So we had this plan, where those of us who had done it the year before, went to the town of Hattiesburg the night before. Our big boards would come on the school bus the next day. Would everyone else and my boards were left behind. All right, I guess I'm out. Right. And this kid who was doing it for the first time who had cardboard boards, he was like, no, no, you're not out. You're taking my board. And I'm, you know, I'm trying to resist. He's like, No, dude, you're taking it. So I take it. And so I'm outside. I'm late, you know, it's like literally cardboard held together with scotch tape. And I'm trying to tape my parts on it. And it's windy, and they're just flying all over the place. And there's this the crazy story, man, but 100% True. And there's this family, a husband and wife who are both teachers, with their kids and their school kids, and they're having sandwiches and stuff before we get started, right? And they see this so the kids start helping me grab my papers, you know, and it becomes a little thing, right? Finally, we get it all together and is laying there on the grass. And we all stand up was like Yes!  At that very moment, this huge gust of wind comes along, rips the whole thing up lifted off the ground. It just tears it apart. Right? It is toast. Right? So I'm like, you know, it's fake. I'm not competing today. One of the guys who had actual wooden boards with hinges. He was like, No, man, you're taking my board. And I'm like, no, he's like, Yeah, you are. You're taking my board. And I took his board but at this point, my pages all beat up. Right. So I ended up coming in second place in physics because again, you know, my infrastructure was much better, but my content, you know, it was very beat up looking. So I go to state and I end up winning first place, because now I'm all together, everything's together. My life, you know, had so many crazy challenges, because in some ways I was a child unprotected in the world. And so there are so many people that are looking to take advantage of a kid in various ways. And, you know, able to like, you know, duck and dodge and escape. But you know, you still got to go through that experience, you know.

Chris Gorski  20:31

you know, what I know about your story at this point, which is that you had, you had a lot of innate knowledge and drive, and you kept going, but also you couldn't have there were so many people who helped you along the way, like, in, you know, you got to you had people push you who looked at you over and over and said, You can do this, keep going,

Hakeem Oluseyi 20:52

But understand this man, humans have innate, you look at my situation, look at the person who's walking through a desert, you know, their kid in tow, for weeks at a time, right, you know, the human will to survive the human will, the human ability to create and think and innovate, you know, we're all super dope, right? We all are, we all have it, you know, as an educator, being sufficiently advanced that I, you know, I've had many perspectives, seen it in many geographical areas, you know, all around the world, been in the federal government doing it. You know, I have my own ideas about education and developing human beings and how to get the best out of each other, one of the things that are done incredibly, terribly, we call the gatekeeping. You know, who you let in, and that's what determines, you know, who gets to do it, for Americans is a shame, because we're so well positioned as a nation, you know, you know, I've been to 41 countries. All right. So I see my country in the context of the countries of Earth, you know, I don't know if that's a representative sample, maybe it is. But I see a well organized, incredibly rich nation, that if people bond together to do things, they can make it happen. There's nothing that we can't do.

Chris Gorski  22:14

Right? Well, so when you're in grad school, you get to Stanford, and you're recognizing this, how would imagine the way you describe it, there's a lot of you recognizing the haves and have nots in a new way for you. Right? And somebody sits you down to one of your professors and says, Look, you can do these problems, you're going to get there. How does that influence how you think about education today?

Hakeem Oluseyi 22:41

Here's the thing, what any particular person needs in a particular moment. So what that was, really is something that I've seen in my career that I later, you know, in retrospect, you're like, Ah, here's what's happening. But people who you see who successfully navigated the pathway, if you come from not the standard circumstances where they expect where it's just like plugging go, right, like, my son will be right. Like, I'll give you an example. You know, my son, you know, my mom said, when he was like, four or five, you know, I think he's smarter than you are. Now. I was like, no hell he ain’t, no PhD in physics, neither one of my parents graduated high school, right, you know, the conversation in my house is very different. Right? So, you know, today, you know, he's an AP Physics, AP Calculus. It's not, he'll be plugging go, right? He's ready. He's educated, right? And people talk about being smart. Okay, so here's the thing I one thing I looked at when I got to Stanford. So this is the first time I was introduced to class I had grown up in the deep south. So I thought America's division was race, right? I get to Stanford, people don't care your race. But hey, man, the way you speak, the clothes you wear the thoughts you have, you know, it was a class division, okay.

Hakeem Oluseyi 23:56

But here's what I noticed. I looked around the people around me and I was like, you know, you guys aren't intrinsically smarter than the people I knew in South Central LA, Houstons Third Ward in South Park, New Orleans, Ninth Ward in New Orleans, East end in Mississippi. And you're damn sure not harder working. Right? All these people who think poor people aren't working hard, go to any poor community in the morning and watch and look at a bus stop and see what you see. Right? You know, I've been in that bus stop in a dark, right. So I just seemed an injustice to me. Right. And so I felt like I had discovered something. Oh, my God, did you know that? You know, there's gold in the City of Gold. And that gold was education? Right. I realized that the way we thought about education, you know, since none of us had actually done it, you create a story, right? You know, you don't know anything, unless you actually have done it. You know, and that's one of the big lessons I learned as being a graduate of what it means to actually know something. So you know, you're talking about some country, Iran, you’ve ever been Iran. No, you know nothing about Iran. I don't care what you watched. Right, you got to go to actually know. The summer before I went to Stanford, I did my very first physics research in my life. I went to UC Berkeley, alright. And I worked at the Center for particle astrophysics with Bernard. I met Saul Perlmutter, he was a postdoc when the two poles come get the other guy. And they were really good to me, man, you know, Berkeley, they treated me really, really well. Okay. And the interesting thing was that I applied to Berkeley to grad school and had been denied. At the end of the summer, they were like, Yo, man, if you want to come to Berkeley, we'll make a spot for you. And now get this. I did not know that Stanford was this highfalutin University. I didn't know that. Where I came from. There's three universities that are the top universities in the world, Harvard, MIT, Georgia Tech. After that, you're looking at sports, right? LSU, Ole Miss, right? Or, you know, like me a historically black college. So, you know, the thing was, when I started getting acceptance letters, Stanford offered me 14,500 or 40,760, something like that. My next highest offer for my graduate site was like, 11,500. So you went stand for it, right. And I also knew that they had graduated 30 Black PhDs in physics, so it seemed like, Okay, I'll be safe if I go there because I was, you know, I felt like, at that time in my life, you know, the story I was living in Mississippi was, you know, you're an oppressed minority. These people are, you know, treat you this way. Right. Now, don't get me wrong. I had peers white dudes that I knew because he was participating in extracurricular activities, right? Even though I always had all black high school. Now, white girls and black guys. We pretended the other did not exist, right for our safety. But white dudes, you know, there were some that just loved me. And of course, they were haters, but it's the same way with black dude. Right? Some are lovers some are haters, right? So I didn't feel so I had anti evidence that all not all white people are racist, right. But the time I left Mississippi going up to Stanford, that's what I thought. And I remember having this discussion with my mother on the phone. And she made something that mentioned something about racism, you know, that the conversation was about the difficulty trying to make it you know, and she said something about racism or whatever. And I was like, oh, no, Ma, being white ain't even good enough here. You gotta, you know, it's not about that. That's not what it's about. Right? It was a class thing. And for me, it was about being under educated. But I went in there thinking I might be under educated, but I can outwork all y'all. All right. And I felt that about anybody on Earth. You know, I'm saying I was in the military, I got tested, you know, I'm saying I was doing stuff. So, you know, throughout my life, that was challenging. And, you know, my will was I will not fold. Some people need encouragement. Some people need to be challenged. Some people need to be told you ain't the one. Because for me when you told me you ain't the one, you know, thought popped in my head. Oh I'll show you. Right. I'm more of do than talk. Okay. So, uh, you know, but the thing about it was what I didn't know, was that I couldn't do it alone. Okay, mathematics, physics. They're very subtle.

Hakeem Oluseyi 28:16

Okay. And luckily, Stanford had this program, where the physics department, they brought in one or two students every year in the Graduate School of Physics who weren't as well prepared, but appear to be very talented. Alright. And so they set up different mechanisms for supporting those students. And one mechanism was to hire a tutor for the summer before you took the qualifying exam. And so I had these two dudes, I had Santiago, who was who is now I think, the chief scientist at the Quantum Computing Center at Berkeley. And then there's other this other cat from India, Nigam. All right. [Nigam] was a nerds nerd [he] has told me look, here's what we're going do Hakeem, we're going to be every night, seven days a week. And we're going to do this, let's do it. And [he] taught me how to read physics, you know how to actually take a book and read every single word and letter and equally, you know, before that, you know, I'm highlighting the equations, you know, I didn't really, and you know, and so. Also understand this, you're learning a very different language. You know, I don't know what it is culturally. But you know, how like African Americans and Caribbean Americans have gotten in a 20th century making the music that spread around the world, you know, dominate the world in the form of R&B and then hip hop and all this kind of stuff, you know? So it seems like culturally when it comes to the use of language and things like that, you know, sometimes you know, the flow isn't an equal directions the language of intellectuals went from Greek to Latin to English, and part had to do with the fact of each language being more efficient than the next language.

Hakeem Oluseyi 30:07

Alright, you know, for example, English doesn't have a lot of gendered nouns, right? So the other piece of information is one thing about black Vernacular English in comparison to standard American English. and British English is it’s far more efficient. So what does that mean? It's tomorrow's language of the intellectuals. Mic drop. So because you see the slang, it does flow, right? You know, you look at our, you know, businesses and astronomers talking on Twitter, you know, you'd swear, you know, they're using the slang of the of the black community of a decade ago, right? Five years ago, right. So,

Chris Gorski  30:46

okay, you know, I can  understand, I feel like my, my tweets are probably five or 10 years behind. I all admit to that.

Hakeem Oluseyi 30:55

Yeah, that's one of the things they used to tell us growing up all the time. They're like, Hey, you want to know what the white folks in America gonna be listening to five years from now? African Americans are doing you know what? No, no, it dances they're gonna be doing. But you know what else I noticed? Traveling, you know, first place I traveled out of the country to the other hemisphere was the International School of Space Sciences in Italy, in 1997, in Italy. And you know, the way the Italians were dressing at that time, I was like, Whoa, that's a little risque. In comparison of how we dress in America. Five years later, in American exact same thing. Go to Japan, one year, everybody has a phone, and they're looking at it. And I'm like, What is? What are they doing? It feels like 2007 2008. I'm like, What are they doing? What could you possibly be doing? Looking at your phone like that so much, I just didn't get it. Four years later in America, same thing, everybody's doing the same thing. Right. So culturally, you know, things go in different directions. And basically, what I'm saying is nerd culture and nerd language is so like, unnatural, you know, and then the universe is deceptive. And so physics thinking is not intuitive. Right? Your intuition is going to lead to wrong? The answer to everything is hard work, right? Being in meshed hard work and forget about the humans, focus. And so that's what I was able to do. I was able to curate my humans. I had [Nigam], I had all Walkers group. There was noise, of course, right? And then, you know, a lot of the stuff I did is, I want to undo the injustice. So I was like, you know, running all these different programs or participating in them that we call outreach type stuff, right, both on campus and off campus. So that's what drove me.

Chris Gorski  32:38

Well, okay, so you're talking about the language of physics and, and the language of intellectuals. Now, so a couple of weeks ago, I got I was looking at your tweets before we talked. And a couple of weeks ago, you wrote something to the effect of Albert Einstein. He is still so dope. So how does that stuff at you know, we're talking at least 100 years on it for most for a lot of his work? Right? Yeah. What's making that stand up for you?

Hakeem Oluseyi 33:10

Man, so my buddy, Dahveed Santiago, you know, he’s always like, You gotta do what you got to do, man, really? Whatever. He tells me, you know, he's like, man, you gotta go read the original papers, you know, the stuff that you're doing now. You know, it's diluted, you know, go back and see how they thought. And that is the key thing, their logic, oh, man Einstein’s logic in his papers in his books. I'm just like, dude why am I hearing this for the first time? This is so dope. I've never heard anybody say I've never seen in a book. Why isn't it we get why don't why don't we just take Einstein and yeah, man, I mean, it's just a way they thought through things logically.

Chris Gorski  33:54

So your book, Quantum life culminates, you know, ends with with you getting your PhD, right, right. Yeah. What are the highlights of what comes after the book? Volume Two?

Hakeem Oluseyi 34:04

Yeah, man. So basically, the book is the story of James Edward Plummer, Jr. Right, which was a name I was born with. And then I, you know, I felt like I had transformed as a person, you know, and I wanted to honor my heritage. Now, that got complicated too. The thing about James Plummer, Jr. is that quite often, you know, he didn't have a lot of choices, right. The choices were about survival. And Hakeem Oluseyi you know, speaking of myself in third person, sorry about that is but yeah, also speak of humans that way, right. But it, you know, I have agency, I've had the ability to influence and things like that. So a big part of what I've been doing is, you know, I discovered this, you know, I didn't I didn't want to be a I didn't think to myself, Yes, I'm going to be an educator, or I'm going to motivate you know, thoughts like that. Never occurred to me. I'd never set out to be the educator. But you know, I was teaching at a junior college while working at Foothill College while working in Silicon Valley. And students will come back to me after they've taken my class and they say, oh, man, you know, I didn't realize science was cool. I didn't realize I could get it and understand it. Your hunger and curiosity. That's what's going drive you to continue.

Chris Gorski  35:20

Well, I really appreciate your time. I think we'll let you go. But you know, I really enjoyed your book, a quantum life, my unlikely journey from the streets to the stars. And this time with you. Thanks for Thanks for chatting.

Hakeem Oluseyi 35:35

Thank you for having me.

Chris Gorski  35:36

So that was my conversation with Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi. Please like and subscribe so you don't miss our next episode. I'm Chris Gorski. Thanks for listening.