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The Physics of Nationhood
One of my first assignments as a reporter in 1991 was to cover a lecture given by Prof E A Power of University College, London, on Rudranath Capildeo. About ten minutes into his lecture, Prof Power looked at the audience and said: “I’m afraid I was misinformed as to the type of audience I would be addressing.” Prof Power thought he was going to explicate the still-important work of an important physicist to his scientifically-minded countrymen. He was wrong.
It was an audience of ethnic admirers who were there to venerate Capildeo—since this is how Trinis are taught to see Capildeo, and other heroes, like E Williams: as icons, not creators of living bodies of work, which must be added to. The good Prof dumbed down, but from the glazed-over looks of the audience, it was more painful for him than them.
The one thing I remember from the lecture was Prof Power’s description of Capildeo’s Theory of Rotational Gravity (formulated in 1964), which was crucial to the US and USSR’s space programme. I’d forgotten all about the incident, and the theory, till recently when another Trinidadian physicist reminded me of it. The physicist is Prof Stephon Alexander, a cosmologist, and one of the leading young scientists in the US and the world. At 41, he’s a professor of physics at Dartmouth—which (to state the obvious) is a very big deal.
I heard of Prof Alexander a couple of years ago, when my colleague and friend Vaneisa Baksh did an article on him in UWI Today. I was fascinated by his story and got his contact information, and asked him to do an article on the future of Caribbean science for the ANSA Caribbean Awards magazine, The Laureate. He did it willingly, and outlined a very optimistic vision for the future of Caribbean science.
Recently he was back in Trinidad, as a guest of Niherst, to address its Caribbean Youth Forum on Science, and I met him. He’s a cool dude to have a beer with, but more than that, from talking to him, it was clear he represents something desperately needed, and missing from Trinidad: a concrete example of an alternative future, one where we might win a little, instead of the lose-lose-lose scenario we’re in now.
Prof Alexander left Trinidad about 30 years ago, and his abilities were recognised instantly in the US system. He was awarded his doctorate in 2000 from Brown University, and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Imperial College in London. In person, Prof Alexander looks and sounds like any Trinidadian. Except that he’s passionate about Trinidad in a way that few Trinis are. During his years as a student, he told me, one of the main drawbacks was the fact that he saw few scientists of colour.
This was so debilitating, it almost terminated his career before it began. The work wasn’t the problem: it was the perception that non-white people did not have the aptitude for or right to do science that nearly defeated him. He left college on the eve of major exams, and headed for Maracas beach, where, away from the oppressive environment of other people’s expectations, he cured himself.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that many, or any, others could say this. UWI produces science doctorates, but they don’t produce many people like him—or any that I know of. And you might ask, at this point, why so many Trinis excel abroad, but flounder at UWI. There are many reasons for this, but Prof Alexander discovered one of them on his recent trip back.
It was almost surreal at his lecture in August to the Youth Science Forum, to hear teenagers talking about the Higgs boson, special relativity, and the nature of time and space. And it was surreal for the teens as well. After the lecture, he told me that many of the students told him they were astounded to hear that they could be something other than steelpan tuners, wire-benders, and calypsonians.
And this wasn’t all. One of the things Prof Alexander noticed here was that the more he offered to help, to lecture, to talk to students, to encourage them to be scientists, and to be ambitious generally, the more suspicious of him, establishment figures seemed to be. He did give a lecture at the UWI on one of his days here, but this was because he met a UWI professor at a social event and was asked off the cuff, and he eagerly accepted.
As I think about the next sentence before I write it, I’m struck that I seem (over several columns) to be repeating one thing over and over again: Trinidad has the potential to produce scientists, thinkers, and innovation in areas other than ole mas, but not only is this potential ignored more and more, it appears to be suppressed in favour of a paralysing insistence that all we’re good at is Carnival and sport.
The situation is such that Trinis can go abroad and overcome racism and tremendous odds to realise their potential in a variety of fields, but Trinis can’t stay here and overcome the prejudice against smart people, and indeed, anything that challenges the concept of ethnicity, violence and ignorance as the foundations of “culture.” The present government’s greatest failure—magnificently illustrated in the pathetic Independence gyrations—is that rather than trying to deliver the nation from that ignorance, they’ve dived head-first into it.
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