How jazz and physics can help us understand the universe

Physicist and jazz musician Stephon Alexander muses about the interplay of jazz, physics, and math. And cosmologist Katie Mack unpacks the latest thinking about the mysteries of dark matter, as part of the Perimeter Institute Public Lecture series.

Musician and physicist Stephon Alexander is the author of The Jazz of Physics and Fear of a Black Universe

A side profile of Stephon Alexander, a Black man wearing a dark suit with a mint green shirt is writing on a chalkboard.
Physics professor Stephon Alexander explains how the search for answers to deep cosmological puzzles parallels jazz improvisation, in his talk as part of the Perimeter Institute Public Lecture series. (Gabriela Secara/Perimeter Institute)

Stephon Alexander grew up in a musical family in the Bronx. It was expected he would follow in their footsteps. But reading comic books where superheroes and villains were once scientists became an enticing career to ponder. He was torn.

"I grew up with this tension. Should I be a musician? Should I be a scientist? And that conflict has continued throughout my life. And what you do to resolve a conflict is that you write books about it, and you give public talks and you bore your friends with the stuff you know," Alexander said in his Perimeter Institute Public Lecture, a series created to share the power and wonder of science.

In the end, he didn't have to choose. Alexander is a jazz musician and a professor of physics at Brown University. He's also the author of The Jazz of Physics and Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider's Guide to the Future of Physics.

In his public lecture delivered at the Perimeter Institute in April 2023, Alexander riffs on the connections between science, math and music from the ancient Greeks to hip hop — and how jazz music can be a framework for understanding quantum physics and cosmology.  

Alexander brought his saxophone on stage during his lecture and was accompanied by bassist Dennis Rondeau.

Watch Stephon Alexander's lecture, The Jazz of Physics.

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A guided tour on dark matter

In our IDEAS episode, theoretical astrophysicist Katie Mack also delivered a talk, co-presented by the Perimeter Institute, and the McDonald Institute at Queen's University.

She is the Hawking Chair in Cosmology and Science Communication at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the author of The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking).

Like many scientists who study dark matter, Mack says the only thing we really know about it is that there's five times as much of it as known matter. 

Mack joined dark matter researcher Ken Clark to share their insights into the ubiquitous, mysterious stuff that seems to have been essential to the formation of galaxies.

Watch their talk on dark matter:


Listen to the full episode on IDEAS wherever you get your podcasts, or stream episodes through the CBC Listen App.

*This episode was produced by Chris Wodksou.

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