A Quantum Life: My unlikely journey from the street to the stars
THEY called him “the professor” because, by the age of 10, he was already reading every book he could lay his hands on. In the sixth grade, he scored 162 on an IQ test at school. Still, by the time he was in his teens, the certified genius was dealing weed and carrying a gun for protection.
“If anyone had told me I’d grow up to be an actual professor at MIT, UC Berkeley, and the University of Cape Town, I wouldn’t have believed them,” writes astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi in his inspiring memoir A Quantum Life. The book follows his “unlikely journey from the street to the stars”.
Born James Edward Plummer Jr, Oluseyi was often uprooted as a child, and learned to survive in some of the toughest urban neighbourhoods across the US. He also lived in rural Mississippi, a state where older African American people still addressed white people, including children, as “ma’am” and “sir”.
“Albert Einstein and I would have been friends,” he recalls thinking when he read about the scientist. Einstein, too, was told to “stop staring into space”, and his family moved often. He also featured when Oluseyi taught himself to program at high school. He coded concepts of Einstein’s theory of special relativity into a game and won first place in physics in the Mississippi State Science Fair.
To fund college, he joined the navy. But after two years, he was discharged with atopic dermatitis, which barred him from serving on ships. An old friend encouraged him to enrol at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. The pair sold drugs there and dropped out, but Oluseyi re-enrolled.
This time, David Teal, a white, Harvard-educated professor in the historically Black college, took an interest in Oluseyi, urging him to attend a meeting of African American physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The experience felt like an “alien abduction”, writes Oluseyi, but it gave him a clear goal: to apply to graduate programmes.
“Every year,” he writes, “the Stanford physics department took in one student like me – a diversity admission who wasn’t at the same level of academic preparation as the rest of the class.” It would take a lot more than hard work alone to earn his PhD there, but he was up for the challenge (and later a change of name).
“It would take a lot more than hard work to earn his PhD, but Hakeem Oluseyi was up for the challenge”
Besides, his doctoral adviser was Arthur B. C. Walker. The African American astrophysicist, whose telescopes gave unprecedented views of the sun, had mentored students from under-represented groups in physics. Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, was his first doctoral student.
Walker told Oluseyi that some still believed that while Black scientists could build ingenious gadgets, they weren’t gifted enough to make insights in pure physics or in the analyses of data and observations. While Walker got credit for his novel technology to study the sun, doubters said he had few pure science publications. Oluseyi worked with his mentor to seal his legacy before Walker died in 2001.
Today, Oluseyi is one of a handful of Black astrophysicists, but he has been working to change that. In 2008, he received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to set up a mentoring programme for Black astronomy students in South Africa. They were brilliant, but felt second-class at university, says Oluseyi. He shared his struggles as he taught the students advanced topics. They passed in the top 20 per cent of the class.
South Africa will eventually co-host the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s most powerful radio telescope cluster. Four of Oluseyi’s students are in the front row of a SKA team photo. He wasn’t there, but says “believe me, I’m standing tall and proud… next to them”.
Vijaysree Venkatraman is a Boston-based science journalist
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