Yours is an extraordinary story. You grew up impoverished — moving frequently from city to city across the South — and then became a successful astrophysicist and science educator and advocate. Are you tired of telling the story of your background?
Well, it is an important part of what I’m doing now. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Right now I have a research group of over 20 students and very few of them are from similar a background to myself — but I have a special place in my heart for people like me.
Childhood was just rough, difficult. I felt like I was running the gauntlet. I had a mother who worked all the time, always gone. And I just felt like there was always a predator at my heels. She’d leave two dollars for me to go buy myself dinner, and I’d walk to the corner store and buy a can of pork and beans.
My response to this was: I wanted to be bad. I wanted to outgangster the next gangster. KRS-One, the rapper, Boogie Down Productions? He has a song I love that goes, “Where I’m from, if you’re soft you’re lost, cuz to stay on course means to roll with force.” And that’s how I was. You’ve got to intimidate this next dude before he intimidates you. Otherwise you’re going to be the victim. So by the time I was a teenager I was carrying a gun, I was involved in all these crazy things. I carried protection because I lived in a violent world. But the other side of this story is that I was also really interested in physics — it’s what I did for fun. In my own communities, I was seen as some kind of weirdo nerd kind of guy. A cool nerd. A gangsta nerd.
As I became a young man, my mother saw the handwriting on the wall, and one of the things she did was she moved me out of the inner city. Because we’d lived in New Orleans, Houston, inner city areas. She finally moved me to rural Mississippi where my dad was from.
And there, at Tougaloo College, you had a breakthrough.
Yes.These three grad students from MIT and Harvard came to Tougaloo, where I was one of two physics students in 1986. They were all black physics students from the Cambridge area – and each of them thought they were the only one! They came to realize that kids from certain communities just have no idea that physics as a career exists. They decided they’d start the National Council of Black Physics Students, to help the most down-and-out kids in the country. So where did they go? Mississippi. They showed up on our campus.
Because of them, I ended up meeting recruiters from Stanford University that ended up accepting me to Stanford for grad school. In all of Stanford’s history, at that time, there were only two black professors in all of the six schools of natural sciences and mathematics. One was my PhD advisor, Art Walker, who was also the PhD advisor of Sally Ride. Just being in his presence showed me a different model of how I could be.
But when I first got there, I was still doing the same things. Right next door was East Palo Alto, which in that particular year was the murder capital of the country for per capita murders. I was involved in drugs and these sorts of things. And I was hanging out in the hood. It was all bad. I had this one particularly horrific night. I told Art what I had been up to, and Art looks at me and he goes, “Well, you’re not going to do these things anymore, are you?”
Why would you do that? You were at Stanford.
When I got to Stanford I quickly realized that class was more important than race in this particular environment. And I pretty much felt rejected and dejected. I did face some initial hostility. Not only that, I was faced with a type of failure that I had never seen before academically. My first reaction was: “Let me go home. Let me go to where it’s familiar to me.” The first thing you’re going to do is run to the ghetto. If you’re from the hood and you end up in a Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, you don’t want to be around those people.
Those are the “bad” guys, where you’re from. And they treat you like you’re the bad guy in their world. I remember, after my first week — I was married at the time — I came home and said to my wife: “You know, I really cannot see myself being around these people every day, but I can see myself being out on the corner every day. That’s a big problem.” How can I become what it is I want to become, when on the one hand the image that I have of myself is inappropriate, and on the other hand, the way that society is made up is something that scares me? Can I fit in? And it’s tough. I kind of struggle with it even to this day, but not to that extent, of course. And it never happens among international groups of people.
But in the end, Art’s support changed it for me. It was like two different lives. I ended up changing my name from James Edward Plummer to reflect how my life had changed so drastically. I wanted my middle name to reflect how I am. So my middle name is Muata and it means “He seeks the truth.” I wanted my first name to reflect what I want to become. My first name Hakeem means “wisdom.” And my last name is from the West African Yoruba people, and it means “God has done this.”
When did you finally realize you do, in fact, fit into your role in life?
I was in graduate school — the year was 1995 or 1996 — and a colleague and I had to go to NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center, to calibrate the data that we had taken in a rocket flight. I’m such a scientist groupie nerd. When you get into a field and you’re becoming an expert, you’ve got to be current and you’ve got to read all the papers. You quickly begin to recognize who the big players are. My attitude in those days was: “OK, you’re a big player, Ron Moore, I’m going to get every paper Ron Moore ever wrote and I’m going to read them.” And that’s what I went about doing. So I got to NASA and whose names are on all the doors? All these people that I idolized. And I’m just like, “Wow, wow, wow!”
And so we’re hanging out in the hallway, and these three scientists walk up. And the local graduate student introduces us. We all start talking physics. And it just amazed me that, here I was, having a conversation at an equal level with these guys about physics, about the stuff we were doing. And I remember the other graduate students really couldn’t even participate because they hadn’t been putting in the work that I had. They’d always treated me like I was this intellectual welfare case, really being mean to me about it.
After the scientists left, they looked at me and said, “You’ve been reading, huh?” And it was at that moment that I realized, “Whoa, could it be true?” Soon I started publishing my research papers, and I realized I was able to solve problems that people all over the world had failed to solve. At this point I really opened up. After graduating from Stanford, I moved on to a position at a large company in Silicon Valley, and I realized that all of this was for me. I could be a physicist! I could do these things. And so I wanted to experience more. In my first year in Silicon Valley, I ended up getting eight patents.
What did you invent?
I worked on computer chip manufacture and creating a new generation of transistors. First, we had to come up with processes to construct transistors with new materials. The main problem was developing an “overetch” process that worked with the new materials. Imagine you have a table and on that table you have a sheet of granite and on that granite you have a sheet of butter. And now I want to carve out a shape in that butter without damaging the layer of granite underneath. That was the old process of etching polysilicon on top of silicon dioxide. It’s really easy to remove the butter from the granite. When we move to the low-resistivity metal, the metal was tungsten, one of the hardest substances that exists. And so imagine trying to remove a layer of granite on top of a layer of Jell-O without damaging the Jell-O. This process is known as the over-etch. In order for the process to be commercially viable, you have to remove the granite at a rate 100 times faster than you remove the Jello — whatever process you use. Everybody in the world was stuck at 30 to one. I started working on the problem and in a month’s time I had achieved infinity to one. That resulted in three or four patents.
And then another problem is that when silicon chips were being made, every time there’s a step in the processing where test wafers are tested at the end of every step, and are thrown away — a huge waste of money and resources. Same with testing chips. So the question was, How can we ensure that everything was done right without using test wafers and chips? My company had hired a man named Moshe Sarfaty who had the idea that if you monitor the light emitted from the plasmas that are used in many of the steps for making computer chips, you can probably tell what’s going on in the chip. They got nowhere after a couple of years of working with this idea, but then I came in with my background in spectroscopy. Very quickly, I solved all their problems. And that resulted in four or five more patents.
Based on these patents and the work I did in industry, chances are my technology is in your computer chips, wherever you are!
So why aren’t you a millionaire?
Well, at the time I had over a half-million dollars in stock options that were growing. And then the Silicon Valley crash happened in 2001. By that time, I had a bad taste in my mouth for industry. First of all it was all male, and then when the dotcom bubble burst, the way people turned on each other was very distasteful to me. And while I wanted to talk about the universe, everybody wanted to follow stocks all day and talk about silicon wafers.
So I felt very unfulfilled, and I missed the interaction with students. I walked away and took an $80,000-a-year pay cut to come back to academics. And I joined the Supernova Cosmology Project — the group that discovered dark energy. It was the very first research in physics that I did when I was between undergraduate and graduate school, and I worked in Saul Perlmutter’s group. I decided, “Okay, let me go back and work with these guys.” I wanted to do cosmology. So I went and actually worked on technology for a new satellite and new observatories. And now that technology is being deployed. I was not the inventor of the technology — I just helped to develop it at a critical time early on. Again, I made a good name for myself research-wise.
What is your primary field of study now?
I ultimately decided I would do cosmology. Now, this was a humungous risk: I had established myself as a name in the technology side of science, and now I was just going to completely leave that behind and do something different. I was interested in big data, statistics, and this problem of mapping out the galaxy. Basically, if you map the locations and the motions and the compositions of, say, a hundred million stars, you can trace and disentangle the individual substructures that came together to build up our galaxy. And based on the answer that you get, that actually impacts how our universe came into existence. So the idea here is that you observe the nearby universe and that tells you something about the universe as a whole.
These types of studies are called near-field cosmology. My first big paper on this topic came in May or April of this year in Astronomical Journal. And that instantaneously made me one of the world’s leading experts on astrostatistics. Recently I went to North Carolina to a meeting of the Who’s Who of cosmology and these big data problems — exoplanets, near-field cosmology. It was really crazy for me because I still see myself as that kid from Mississippi. I’m always in these rooms with the top super scientists in the world, and I just never get used to it. Because I’m still a groupie. For me, hanging out with these people is like hanging out with Brad Pitt for a regular person.
Now I’m heavy into computation and statistics; I do astronomical observing. My colleagues and I just won a proposal to use the four-meter telescope in Chile — the dark energy camera. I also run small telescopes. We have one Florida, one in Chile, and one in Arizona that we use that are about one meter in diameter. I’ve also had to invent a couple of things in order to continue moving forward. I’ve never been more excited about my research.
At TEDGlobal 2012, you talked about leading the One Telescope project, which aims to supply each nation in the world with at least one research-grade telescope. Why is this project so important?
Let me tell you something: If we put a hundred of these telescopes on Earth, we are not revolutionizing the developing world, we are revolutionizing Earth. This would be unprecedented. And given my life experience, I recognize the impact of culture and identity on the choices that a person makes. If you put a telescope in a country and you create an educational outreach program around it, you’re going to get the kid here and there who says, “Hey, I want to be involved in this,” and they’ll spend their entire summer doing observations and taking data and analyzing data.
There is a company in Germany that can deliver fully robotic, incredibly robust observatories for way less than anyone else can do it, only $200,000. This is for an entire observatory. In today’s era of science and astrophysics, exoplanets are being discovered left and right. It takes only a tiny telescope to do it. And so anyone with a research-grade telescope can, for relatively little money, be participating in the discovery and characterization of exoplanets.
How do I know this? Because I’m a part of an exoplanet discovery collaboration. The camera that does it is called the KELT Survey. It has two really tiny little cameras, one in South Africa and one in Arizona. And when they see what looks like it might be an exoplanet candidate, it has to be followed up with other telescopes. And the telescopes that follow up range in aperture from 25cm to 60cm for the most part — the vast majority of them. This is the size of backyard telescope like many people own. Now, all the people who participate are planet discoverers. So can you imagine when people in Zambia or Mangaia in the Cook Islands can say, “Hey, we discovered this planet with our telescope!” And these kids are doing this sort of thing. Just as my self-image was modified when I saw that I could do science, theirs will be too.
But it’s not just about encouraging young scientists in developing countries. Right now we’re in the era of survey science. In my collaboration, there are certain objects that we discover that are anomalous. They don’t make sense. We discovered them in this survey data. And they have to be followed up with telescopes to find out what exactly they are. The fact is, there are not enough telescopes in the world currently to do this follow up. And there are also very special events that happen. Recently, the nearest supernova in several decades happened. Imagine suddenly you could turn a hundred telescopes around the world to this event. You can also follow it constantly. The sun will never set on a worldwide network of telescopes. There’s so much that you can do by just having this ability.
I think ultimately all it takes is finding people who actually want to pursue these goals of educational and scientific development and connecting us with funders and enabling science. Let’s combine everybody into a single intellectual community, and let’s do really amazing science.
Are you still doing outreach and development in Africa?
Yes. In a week I leave to go to South Africa to do a lecture tour at schools. The Systemic Education and Extramural Development Support (SEEDS) program is an initiative of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to strengthen education in South Africa. I’ll also visit Soweto where I received two grants from the US State Department to form a hands-on astronomy data education grant in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg. Then I’ll visit Cape Town visiting schools for education outreach.
When I look at my colleagues in the developing world, their problem is not that they’re ignorant. Their problem is that they’re broke, and their governments are broke, and can’t spend money on certain things because there’s a problem of development and poverty. Spending money on basic science can look like a waste in these circumstances. But human beings, we’re more than just survival. We are artists, we’re scientists… There’s a story of Africa, a perception that it’s a place without science or scientists. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy when you don’t enable them to do real science.
How has the experience of the TED Fellowship had an impact on you?
It was the first time that I really felt on an emotional level that someone appreciated and recognized my outreach work — something the science community doesn’t always value. That really means a lot to me. And it was at TED that I saw the value in openness, in open source. I was inspired there to start a second project — combining people into a global intellectual community through openness. So every time we decide, “OK, let’s take some guys and start a new astronomy program at the University of Nairobi,” for example, where will they get lectures from? Where will they get the proprietary knowledge that everybody needs to have in order to actually do the science? I’ve broken into that knowledge circle, and I’m planning to give it away. That was completely inspired by TED.
Is there anything else you want to do at all besides astrophysics?
I would very much like to do work in the media. I love to tell stories, entertain, educate and inspire. I definitely want to do that. I’d love to write books.
Will we someday see you on television as a presenter about astrophysics?
It doesn’t have to be astrophysics. It could be science of any sort. I know a lot of science stories no one else knows, for the most part. For example, I gave a talk at this Unitarian Universalist church on Sunday, on humanity’s evolving understanding of the universe. But the way I tell it is very different from “You had the Greeks — fast-forward 1,400 years and you get Copernicus.” I know I’m the kind of science storyteller that no one ever sees.
Life chose me for what wonderful things I’m doing. I never set out to be Mister Inspiring Speaker or Mister Science Communicator. But often, after giving talks and doing these sorts of things, people come up and say, “Oh, man. You’re so inspiring.” Or “I thought I was stupid until I met you.” In other words, I help people see you can be who you are, and just through love and hard work you can make it in the field. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. Impacting people’s lives in that way is something that gives me a lot of fulfillment. There really isn’t anyone like me who’s delivering this message.