Wednesday, November 30, 2016


The "Trail of Tears" was the name given to a forced relocation of Native Americans living in the Southeastern United States. Different nations -- primarily the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole -- were required to leave their lands so they could be settled by Europeans. Uprooted and sent to modern-day Oklahoma, many perished on the journey as well as after their arrival. Although these nations had a significant urban presence in the southeastern US, their recovery after the relocation was not swift. They maintain significant presences in their resettled lands today, but the entire story offers a good example of just how poorly Native Americans have been treated by the United States government.

And still are, Naomi Schaefer Riley says in her 2016 book The New Trail of Tears. Riley sketches a host of social and economic ills faced by modern Native Americans that continue to produce misery for them today, long after active efforts to exterminate them via soldiers and rifles have ceased. She lays the blame for many of these on outmoded government policies that prevent Native Americans from using their own land the way every other citizen of the United States can and which deprive them of access to the same court and legal system every other citizen can access. Those policies provide a lot of bureaucracies with reasons to exist and bureaucrats with paychecks, but may or may not actually help Native American people or allow them to help themselves.

Riley paints a picture about as bleak as the northern plains winter scene on the cover. The centerpiece points of her proposed solutions -- allow tribal members some measure of private property rights over the land they live on and increase tribal members' access to redress through non-tribal court systems while overhauling and reforming the tribal ones -- might very well help but would require the kind of paradigm shift usually unavailable to the bureaucratic mind. The ancestors of today's Native people were forced to leave their lands in order to satisfy the interests of wealthy and powerful people; today they are being forced to remain behind in a system that serves those wealthy and powerful folks and notes them only incidentally, if at all.
Often students from inner-city or less well-off schools don't move towards work in the hard-science world of things like physics. It has less to do with whether or not they are smart than with whether or not they even believe they can succeed in fields where few share their forming experiences. And additional layer of work comes when we focus on minority students from those same schools. Stephon Alexander has been one of those students who's worked to try to nudge the door open behind him for other talented students who may not think they can measure up. The Brown University physicist has also published papers on several theories in modern cosmology and physics that are often cited by others in the field.

And he's a jazz saxophonist who had the privilege of working a little with legend Ornette Coleman. His 2016 book The Jazz of Physics offers some reflections from these two fields and interests in his life and how they might intersect.

Jazz is structured as a semi-memoir of Alexander's own developing interest in both jazz and physics. Interest in the one helped fuel thought and interest in the other, he found, as he progressed through his schooling. The improvisational nature of jazz seemed a nice fit for the theoretical and largely mathematical work being done on the cutting edges of cosmology and physics. A saxophonist could improvise through a solo only if he or she knew how the different notes would sound together and which combinations and riffs worked and which didn't. Exotic ideas such as string theory or the multiverse -- which might never be proven experimentally -- can only be acceptable if they agree with things that can be verified, like the formulas used to express them.

Alexander is poorly served by his publisher with his book's subtitle: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. He really doesn't ever offer anything like that, nor does he pretend he's going to. Some discussion of how waves in the universe immediately after the Big Bang could be seen as sound waves is interesting, but it's in no way the centerpiece of the book. Jazz is an interesting read even in its memoir guise, because Alexander thinks about interesting things. The book can prompt a reader to do so as well, but it never really makes a good case for why it should be a standalone book instead of an extended essay in a journal or magazine.

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