‘Gangsta’ astrophysicist journeys from the ghetto to the stars

Some years back, a magazine profiled my transformation from James Plummer Jr., a nerdy kid from some of America’s most deeply scarred urban ghettos, to Hakeem Oluseyi, sole black physicist inside the science mission directorate at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). The article ran with the tagline: “The Gangsta Physicist.” The handle stuck, and I carried it with me wherever I went. I understood that it was an eye-catching tag that could open doors and young minds that my science degrees alone could not. But over time I grew to resent it. “Gangsta Physicist” didn’t describe the totality of who I was, how far I’d travelled, or how hard I worked to get there.

As a bookish child, I was an easy target growing up in the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, Houston’s Third Ward, and the Ninth Ward of East New Orleans. My gangbanger older cousins taught me the rules of the street by the time I was six: who you could look at in the eyes and who you couldn’t, how to tell if the dude walking towards you was “Crip” or “Blood”, friend or foe.

Early on, I became intrigued by the wider universe, including the night sky. But I couldn’t see many stars from the streets where I grew up, what with the big-city lights and the smog. And for the sake of my own survival, I didn’t want to be caught staring off into space. Celestial navigation wasn’t going to help me find my way home without getting beat up or shaken down.  By my early teens, I’d adopted a thug persona to protect myself, walking and talking tough, carrying a gun for protection. But I never joined a gang, and no matter how hard I’d tried to straddle the gangsta-nerd divide, I was mostly a science geek play-acting a thug. 

Growing up, they called me “The Professor” because by the time I was 10 years old, I was reading every book I could get my hands on.  If anyone had told me I’d grow up to be an actual professor, I wouldn’t have believed them. In my hood, that kind of daydreaming was more likely to get you jacked than help you find your next meal or a safe place to sleep indoors.

I don’t believe in fate, whether written in the stars or anywhere else.  I wasn’t destined to find a path through the heaviest hoods in America to an elite career in astrophysics.  It could have gone either way for me. At any of a dozen junctures in my life, I could have turned left or right, a gun could have gone off in my hand or in someone else’s.

My youth traversed a multiverse of possibilities. In one universe, James Plummer Jr got shot during a drug deal gone bad and died in the streets of Jackson, Mississippi. In another, nonparallel universe, he found his way to a PhD physics programme at Stanford University, learned to design rocket-launched telescopes that could photograph the sun’s invisible light spectrum, and became Professor Hakeem Oluseyi.  None of those names — James, Hakeem, Professor, Gangsta Physicist — defined my journey through the multiverse. But they remind me, like star trails across the night sky, of the limitless possibilities in this quantum life.

My ancestors were forced to change their names when they came to America as enslaved people. When I earned my PhD in physics, I decided to change my name as a matter of choice and self-determination.  I felt like I’d grown from a boy into a man. Going forward, if I could one day make a significant contribution to science, I wanted people to know, just from hearing my name, that I was a black man, descended from Africa.

I wanted my first name to express who I wished to become: in cultures from North Africa to east of India, Hakeem means “wise”. I wanted my middle name to express who I felt myself to be: Muata is Swahili for “He seeks the truth.” I wanted my last name to be West African, where my African ancestors are from, and to have a noble meaning: Oluseyi is Yoruba for “God has done this.” I wasn’t bowing down to any particular god. But after everything I’d been through, and had put myself through, I figured it was time to start treating my life as something sacred.

Embracing my future as a research physicist meant putting the street in my rear-view mirror. But I didn’t want to leave my community behind. I knew I wanted to help the next generation of outsider scientists avoid the self-destructive cycle of fight-and-flight I’d been caught up in. I worked hard at school, but I would never have made it up and out of the hood without the teachers and professors who threw me lifelines at crucial moments. I was determined to pay that debt forward.

 In 2002, shortly after earning my PhD, I began travelling to Africa to help educate the next generation of astro-scientists in Swaziland, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. In 2008, when I’d become an astrophysics professor at the Florida Institute of Technology on Florida’s Space Coast, the Kellogg Foundation gave me a five-year grant to create a mentoring programme for black astronomy students in South Africa. At the time, I was the only astrophysicist in America who had graduated from a historically black college and had gone on to win respect as a researcher in the field. So, it was no accident that the Kellogg Foundation saw me as a role model for aspiring black astronomers halfway around the world.

At first, my South African students didn’t identify with me at all. To them, I was an affluent American astrophysicist and professor. They had grown up in poor black townships and villages. I had to show them I understood the two worlds they were struggling to straddle. Back home, they were heroes — the brilliant kids who’d gone off to Cape Town to become astronomers. But here at the university, they felt like under-educated, second-class students. 

I shared with them my own struggles to overcome those feelings of inferiority, win the acceptance of my academic peers, and master the rigours of high-level science.

I grew up inside a black box where my own people kept telling me, “Black folks don’t …” or “Black folks can’t …” When I finally fought my way out of that box, and into the world of research, I ran right up against the this-guy-isn’t-one-of-us syndrome. At my first job out of grad school, I was one of two black PhDs in a company of 3 000 white, Indian, Chinese, and Korean PhDs. I had to become a nimble code-switcher to make myself heard and seen and my contributions acknowledged by that team, regardless of how many patents I piled up or how many papers I published. When I got my job at Nasa, I discovered that fifty years after Hidden Figures, Nasa is still an almost exclusively white collective.

I knew that if my South African students were going to compete with the best at the University of Cape Town, and later in the international scientific community, I had to set a high bar for them. So instead of drilling them on the material they’d be tested on, I decided to jump way ahead and teach them cosmology and quantum field theory — subjects considered the apex of physics. Once they conquered the apex, they’d know they could learn anything — and they’d believe in their futures as scientists.  

And that’s the way it went. Not only did every one of my students pass their honours exams, they all passed in the top 20%. The percentage of black astronomy PhD students in South Africa spiked way up that year, and it’s continued to climb ever since.

Soon after we launched our mentoring programme, South Africa entered and won the international competition to host the most powerful radio telescope cluster in the world, the square kilometre array (SKA). If you look at the photo of the South African SKA team, you’ll see four of my African students smiling proudly in the front row. I’m not in that photo, but believe me, I’m standing tall and proud right next to them.

When I became a research cosmologist, my childhood dream of counting the stars finally came true. I’ve made one of my biggest contributions to my field by developing detectors that can count the multitude of visible and invisible objects in our universe. It turns out that the cosmos is a lot more vast and star-filled than we ever imagined. We now estimate that there are two trillion galaxies in the observable universe, with each galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. But even our universe of a hundred-billion-trillion stars is finite — not infinite. By some quantum calculations, even time is finite. The closest thing to infinity I’ve ever observed is hope — the infinity of hope in the faces and imaginations of my South African students.

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Hakeem Oluseyi
Hakeem Oluseyi, president-elect of the National Society of Black Physicists, has taught and conducted research at MIT, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Cape Town. His memoir, A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey From The Street to The Stars, co-authored by Joshua Horwitz, is published by Little Brown and available South Africa through Jonathan Ball Publishers for R310

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