My Quantum Life – A Review

The seeker after the truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspends his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus, if learning the truth is the scientist’s goal, then he must make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.

Ibn al-Haytham, father of optics and the Scientific Method,
Kitāb al-Manāẓir (كتاب المناظر), published 1011-1021,
Quoted in My Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars by Hakeem Oluseyi

I just finished listening to the audio-book of My Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars by Hakeem Oluseyi. This book was just fantastic. While, Prof. Oluseyi is clearly writing for a general audience, he does not shy away from the physics details. Having a physics (and academic) background, I suspect, makes the book more enjoyable.

This book is a memoir of Hakeem Oluseyi’s life from a young black boy growing up in rural Mississippi, New Orleans, Houston and other places during the 1970’s and early 1980’s through to his Ph.D. defense at Stanford in 2000. As a white man from the American South whose parents have done anti-racist work for a long time, the book provided a much more personal perspective on the barriers to high academic achievement that systemic racism places on over half of our population under the age of 16, particularly the 14.5% that are BIPOC[1].

I think that Prof. Oluseyi’s story particularly resonated with me because of the large number of parallels between our personalities: both of us were weird physics-nerd kids who taught ourselves “advanced” topics at a young age. Both of us were taught discipline by being in marching bands and both got some doors opened and critical early encouragement through science fairs in high school. Both of us even had the Greek Myths as our childhood comic books!

These similarities made the difference in privilege that much more stark. Both of my parents have master’s degrees and my mother’s mom and dad were a chemist/mathematician and psychology professor respectively. Prof. Oluseyi was the first person in his immediate family to complete high school. My high school had multiple mathematical tracks and had a strong commitment to science fairs. Meanwhile, Prof. Oluseyi had to convince his high school faculty to support his science fair work. My school had a cloud chamber and digital camera I could borrow. Prof. Oluseyi was lucky to get access to a computer. In addition to my race- and class-based privileges, I also had a benefit of being born about 20 years later: I had the internet, he had the encyclopedia. The strong similarity of interest contrasted sharply with an equally drastic difference in circumstance.

I feel that this book should be read by all scientists (particularly physicists!) both established and budding. For those of us who are more established in the field, I hope that the enhanced perspective will help me be a better mentor to students of color. For budding scientists, the book provides a realistic picture of physics graduate school: the importance of peers to be effective in courses as well as how modern science research is both team-centric while still requiring a large degree of independent work and discipline. I would guess that such a road map would be particularly good for those who are the first in their families to pursue an academic science career. However, even students such as myself who come from families with such experiences would benefit. I know I had some pretty goofy misconceptions about graduate school when I started that this book would have helped rectify. I also presume his description of an undergraduate experience at a small HBCU is equally illuminating. However, I have no experience to which I can compare having attended University of Arizona for undergraduate: a large historically white institution.

In short, this book is fantastic and I would recommend it highly.

[1] The Brookings Institution. The nation is diversifying even faster than predicted, according to new census data. Report. 1 July 2020. Retrieved: 8 July 2021