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Hakeem Oluseyi Publishes Memoir: 'A Quantum Life'

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Hakeem Oluseyi is an astrophysicist. As a kid, he did all of the astrophysicist-y (ph) things. He was always counting and doing experiments and taking apart electronics. His mom was what he calls a mover. She'd pick up and leave whenever a job or a relationship failed. He lived in Texas, California, Mississippi, Louisiana. His dad had a factory job and ran a small nightclub. He also grew and sold weed. Oluseyi writes about all of this in his memoir, "A Quantum Life," and about being very different from his family.

HAKEEM OLUSEYI: At every turn, my family was apologizing for my weirdness, right? They were - my sister would be like, oh, he just has a vivid imagination. And I just was in love with everything around me, how everything worked, the natural world. And I wanted to see how the electronics in my home worked and the appliances worked, so I was taking everything apart. And also what was strange is that I always wanted to be inside doing this stuff rather than outside playing. And so, you know, I got whippings for all of my explorations and all of the things that I broke, but it started to create an identity in me. But then I bonded with books and it was my older sister's "Mythology" book by Edith Hamilton. It was the first thing that drew me into this world of imagination and strange happenings, but it only went from there.

KING: Tell me about the encyclopedia set and how that kind of opened up a world in your mind.

OLUSEYI: Well, it was a situation where I was left alone a lot. So when I was out of books to read, I looked around our apartment and I saw the encyclopedias sitting there and I decided at the age of 10 that I was going to read them from A to Z. Well, I didn't make it any farther than E. So I was sitting there in our little stairwell in our apartment in the New Orleans Ninth Ward, and the lights were out, and I had a little flashlight. And I'm reading the page and I read about Einstein and relativity. And I'm turned on by the fact that he seemed to be a weird dude like myself. But also, look, this stuff about time dilation and space bending and expanding and - I just thought that was everything. And so I became obsessed instantly with Albert Einstein and relativity and decided to teach myself.

KING: In the book, there's a lovely story - and I will admit 20% of it I didn't understand because my brain is not built that way. But you go running out of the house and you do an experiment in the theory of relativity, having only encountered it a few hours before. To whatever extent you can, I just - I'm wondering if you can tell me what happened.

OLUSEYI: Yeah. So I decide that I'm going to redo Albert Einstein's thought experiment on the train that led to him realizing that time moves differently for - based on the rate of motion between two locations. So it's very simple. Suppose you're riding in a car and you're sitting in the car and you're throwing a ball straight up and straight down. If the car is sitting still or if the car is moving at a constant speed, it's just like if you're sitting in a chair throwing it straight up and straight down. But to a person outside the car, where you throw it up is a different location from where you catch it. So the ball does not go straight up and straight down. It makes, like, a triangle.

Now, if you were to measure the speed of the ball, you would see that it goes the same speed up and down in both cases. But while you're moving in a car, it also goes forward. So it's going faster. So even though it goes up and down the same amount of time, it went further to the person standing outside the car in comparison to the person inside the car. And so if the ball were light, which always moves at the same speed, the only way you could get - resolve the two differences is that time traveled differently for the two of them. So in our normal experience, it's distances that are different and the speed of the ball changes. But with light, the speed is always the same. And given that the distance changed, time had to be different.

KING: He was 10 when that happened. He graduated from high school at the top of his class, joined the Navy, then went to Tougaloo College in Mississippi. He'd been smoking weed since he was a kid, but at Tougaloo, he started smoking cocaine also. A few years later, while getting his Ph.D. at Stanford, he realized he needed to quit or it was going to kill him. What made Stanford even harder was that he was one of the very few Black men in his field there.

OLUSEYI: I was chatting with my mother in my first year, and she brought up race because, you know, we lived in the Deep South where race was always an issue. And I just responded organically to her and I was like, Momma, being white ain't even good enough here.

KING: (Laughter).

OLUSEYI: And the reason why is because I was introduced to this new notion of class. And in combination of being right out of rural Mississippi, the way I spoke was different. People didn't understand me when I spoke because we spoke, where I'm from, very fast, we dropped the consonants. And, you know, it was a more of a class thing than a racial thing I felt. And the other thing about it is academia does have this elitism in certain places, right? So I do television - science television. How often have you seen a science communicator with a deep Southern accent?

But in my psyche, it came together when there was an explicit rejection of me. And I write the scene from the physics library for my first year where basically I end up helping a bunch of students when they - I was a head on this one idea in quantum mechanics. And then I was behind on another issue, and I turned to them for help, and they plain out rejected me and accused me of not working hard. And it was so bad that a more senior graduate student - I stood up in the library and just went off on them for how they were treating me. But that was it for me. I was no longer working with anyone after that night.

KING: You eventually had a mentor step in and give you some hard talk but also give you some love. Tell me about him and who he was and how he helped you.

OLUSEYI: Yes, this would be the late, great Dr. Arthur Bertram Cuthbert Walker II, my Ph.D. advisor. So Art Walker was one of the first three Black astrophysicists in America. And like me, he was military. He went to the Air Force first, and he was a proper gentleman, and he was short of stature, maybe like 5'8", 5'9". But in his presence, you know, you felt like you were - he was seven feet tall, right? He was that big of a presence, and he didn't play, right? He was serious about his science because, you know, he had come up through the '50s and the '60s, right? And so, you know, whatever I faced, he - you know, he had educated parents, but, you know, he had faced his share of challenges as well. And so he turned me into a scientist and a gentleman. You know, just being next to him every day and seeing his example meant everything for me.

KING: Physicist Hakeem Oluseyi, author of the new book "A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey From The Streets To The Stars," thank you so much for being with us and congratulations on a wonderful book.

OLUSEYI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHROMONICCI'S "HILLSIDE.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.