In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, astrophysicist, STEM educator, multi-patented inventor, keynote speaker, and author of A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars. In the conversation, Hakeem Oluseyi shares his journey of overcoming adversities and becoming a leading astrophysicist of this generation. Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi also talked about his ability to explain astrophysics in a way that engages audiences and the value of exposing more children to science. Finally, Dr. Oluseyi shared some mind-stretching perspectives about the nature of our existence.
-Hakeem Oluseyi on the importance of reading and how it impacted his life
-Facing challenges as a young adult and falling in love with the universe and physics
-Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi on a quantum life and the role of willpower
-Astrophysics and the importance of learning about the stars
-Hakeem Oluseyi on the sun, stars, and the future of life on earth
- Art Walker, solar physicist and a pioneer of EUV/XUV optics
- Dr. Kervin Evans, research physical scientist with the USDA Agriculture Research Service
Connect with Hakeem Oluseyi:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming. Professor Hakeem Oluseyi .Professor Oluseyi is an astrophysicist cosmologists inventor, educator, and television personality. He was named a visiting Robinson professor at George Mason university, which is a distinction by which the university recognizes outstanding faculty.
He has held professorships at MIT, University of California at Berkeley, the University of Washington and the University of Cape town. Dr. Oluseyi has also served as the space science education manager of the science mission directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC, Chief Science Officer of Discovery Science and President of the National Society of Black Physicist
He has appeared in science and engineering programming on Netflix, Discovery Science, Nat Geo, PBS, BBC, and appears as a commentator and scientific authority on science channel television shows, including How the Universe Works, Outrageous Acts of Science, Curiosity, NASA 's Unexplained Files, Space' Deepest Secrets, and Strip the Cosmos.
As if that wasn't enough. Professor Oluseyi has written an outstanding book on his own life journey, A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars. So in this conversation, we talk about that unlikely life journey. I really enjoyed this conversation with a great sense of humor and energy Professor Oluseyi has an outstanding way of explaining both his unlikely journey and also concepts around the cosmos. So all of us can understand and relate better to the world around us. I'm sure you will enjoy the conversation too.
I also really enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. email@example.com. There's also a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. Really enjoy getting those voice messages.
Don't forget to follow the podcast. Tuesday conversations with magnificent change-makers from the greater Washington DC region. Many of them with national and global impact like Professor Oluseyi and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders, primarily leadership book authors.
Now, here is my conversation with Professor Hakeem Oluseyi
Mahan Tavakoli: Hakeem Oluseyi Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Thank you, sir. I'm happy to be here.
Mahan Tavakoli: I Hakeem there was so much about your own life,
the ability you have to communicate science and space in a way that is accessible. That really energizes me about this conversation, but would love to know about that initial upbringing.
And you wrote about it in your book, a quantum life. So want to start with the title of the book? Why quantum.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Yes. So I wrote quantum because I feel like human lives are more like the. Mathematics and philosophy of quantum mechanics, which is the study of the subatomic world, much more so than the world we're used to the deterministic universe. So here's the difference in a deterministic universe. If I give you the initial conditions of some motion, the equations of physics tell you that there was one trajectory and one final outcome for that motion.
The quantum world, by contrast the initial conditions, don't tell you exactly what trajectory is going to be followed.
It tells you what are the possible in the macroscopic world, we're made up of so many tiny particles that we only see the highest probability outcomes, . Because it has to be this and that. And then. But we do experiments at the quantum scale.
What you see is that these crazy trajectories that seem completely impossible actually do occur at this small percentage that laws of physics predict the quantum physics predicts. So I'm such a person, right? There was a small probability based on my initial conditions for me to end up where I am today.
So the title of the book the subtitle is my unlikely journey from the street to the stars. So it's a quantum life, my unlikely journey. So that unlikely also goes back to quantum because it's an unlikely outcome.
Mahan Tavakoli: It is unlikely. And one of the things I appreciate about both the way you tell your story and the entire experience is the humility with which you approach it. It's not that I, from the beginning. Was looking at the stars and wanted to become an astrophysicist. And I did it all by myself. There are so many other factors that played a role in that.
Hakeem Oluseyi: It was really important to me to, , be a physicist. Okay. And so thing about being a physicist is, I go around the world. I give these talks about the universe quite often someone will pull me to the side and say, Hey you know, you said science says this, but this other source
say is something different. And I always correct them. And I say, you know what? Science doesn't say anything. Science listens. You listen to the universe and you like the universe. Tell me what you are. And then science has a rigorous process of making observations and measurements. It's the exact same way when I was evaluating my life
. I had to look back and observe it as objectively as I could given that it's me, but allow it to tell me the story of what it is because before writing my book, , I never did. Overall look at my life the way I did, but when I did, I could not help, but see all these times where people stepped into my life and gave me exactly what I needed to get to the next step.
Now I give them credit because I have to, at the same time, there were people that stepped into my life and were like, yo do this horrible thing. And I did that too. . So I didn't want to focus so much on those things, but, I think there is a focus to be made there , to bring forward some truth because the truth is, , when people make bad decisions, quite often, it's not really a decision.
It's what makes sense for them at that time in their life. as you read my book, there are times you were like, at one point when I'm in grad school, I point out, oh, you thought I would've made a better decision here, but I didn't. And the reason why I did was because it was beyond just making a choice.
It was something. of the an outside force that was pulling on me that I didn't understand.
Mahan Tavakoli: with that,
approach, I Hakeem as you looked back at your life, after you were for your parents divorced, what got you to fall in love with reading, studying
Hakeem Oluseyi: we become our parents and my mother was an avid reader. Okay. And I had an older sister. And when you're a young boy in a family of females, you kind of take care of you. And I remember I would look through my aunts, encyclopedias at the pictures of snakes and my mom in the evening it was a time when you didn't always know.
TV and stuff to do at night. So what are you going to do at night? You open up a book. That's pretty much it. If you're going to talk to each other or read or play a board game, it wasn't a digital world yet. That's what we did. My mother was always reading. That encouraged me. And then my mother's best friend, her childhood best friend who grew up to have seven children.
Her youngest child was two years older than me, Darren brown. And he also had like an intellectual leanings. And I'm younger than him, two years on him , trying to keep up with him. He was a great athlete, right? He went on in high school to beat his MVP of his high school football team in new Orleans.
He goes to the Navy and becomes a Naval officer. rises high in the submarine fleet. But he was a guide as well. So I did have people pushing me in that direction, not telling me, oh, this is what's important for you to do not like that. It's okay. The people around me, they play basketball. I play basketball, they play chess.
I play chess. They farm, I farm, they read books. I read books, but I was reluctant to read adult book. Until I turned nine years old. when I virtually had no choice, because that was the only thing around and I was bored. So
Mahan Tavakoli: Along with reading those books that came, it seems like you were also really into experimentation and especially with fire.
Hakeem Oluseyi: man, absolutely. You know how it is if you ever have kids are in everything. So turn a little nine year old kid loose on a ball. And people it's Mississippi. Buyer is amazing. I don't know if you ever. Just looked at flames when you're working on a farm in those days it wasn't a mechanized farm.
We literally used plow pulled by a mule that's not what I did. That was uncle Henry and Mr. Will they had to do that, but I was amazed just watching how to plow goes through the soil. Turns it it was just like, whoa it was like, it was opening it up.
But at the same time we had all these flammables around gunpowder because of hunting gasoline, which was often used as a cleaning aid. Cause we're always getting our hands orally and gasoline really got rid of and use oil for various things. The best example I can think of is when you castrated pigs, right?
You would have a stick with a cloth wrapped around it, a rag wrapped around it. And after you slice open and you slice out one of the testicles that rag is dipped in dirty oil and you put that dirty oil there, and that prevents them from getting an infection or some parasite getting in there.
So you had uses for these things around you. So once I leave the country Hey, I'm still interested in Billy with flammables. But here's the thing. They let me, like when I was a nine year old, my cousins in Mississippi that I hung out with were two years older than me. And they would show up with rifles.
That'd be like, yo, let's go, honey. Come on, city cousin, let's go hunting. And we walk off into the woods or rifles and shotguns were nine, 11 years old. chopping wood. I'm using the Kaiser blade fling you're doing all these stuff that is today in our world of helicopter parenting and worried about liability parents wouldn't dare do we did.
Mahan Tavakoli: Hakeem Jonathan height. He's a professor at NYU has written a bunch of books, including coddling of American mind talks about the fact that with keeping our kids so protected. In many instances, they don't build up the resilience and the anti-fragility to be able to survive in the external world.
So you had a lot of these things thrown at you, but also while , when you turned around 11 in 16 months, you lived in nine different households, five different schools. That's more than any one individual could potentially handle.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Man. And the thing that you didn't mention that was even crazier is that in each household the man of the house abused me some way typically physically beating me, hitting me working me. There was this one family we lived in. So my mom had, was living with us there shortly that she went back to Mississippi and left me.
And so we had a system where the son in the house and I. Trade off on who did you know, to set of chores in the hole? He did it when we got down to where we, once mom left, I was Cinderella. Yeah. And the key thing is another important point is that when I say nine households, that's just the place that I was at for more than two weeks.
If I put in places that I was at less than two weeks, I could add four more places to. Yeah, it was a crazy time. And the neighborhoods, south central LA Houston, third ward, Houston south park area new Orleans, ninth ward, new Orleans east in rural Mississippi those are all challenging communities for kid to be alone and unprotected.
What I learned at that point was it's better for me to intimidate you than you. There's better than throw the first punch, then take the first punch. So that kind of, , that time period of having to fend for myself and now when you achieve puberty at 13, I'm a tallest guy and I already had always had a deep voice.
So now the whole world targets you there are some people that won't target a child, but then once you start looking like an adult right now, everybody's coming at you
Mahan Tavakoli: so you had all the reasons in the world who came not to make it, even at that age. What was it that kept you going.
Hakeem Oluseyi: I don't think I have anything in particular that special. I think that humans do. I think that I look at news and people who are refugees and people will walk across deserts for hundreds of miles with their children in tow, humans, If your a willpower is intact and it is right, then you can't be stopped.
And so for me everybody around me was struggling to survive, we all were, we're all striving and struggling to survive. Now we did it differently. The thing that was different about me is I got drawn into stuff that the world values economically, that could lead to a white collar career.
Now my family had skilled laborers, all my mother's side of the family, all the males from the first one in the. eighten Hundreds of come over to today, there are plasterers, and my father's side of the family, they were farmers who became bricklayers. So even though these skills were in the family and that's what it seemed like, the thing to do, I was a bookish kid and no matter what was going on, I was always like people who I know from.
Because we moved around so much, sometimes at a holiday, people will come that you didn't see since you were like 12 or nine or whatever. And the people always have the same thing to say about me as a little kid. Number one, that I was his little boy with a deep voice. And number two, no matter what else is going on, I was somewhere in the corner with a book.
So you're like, what's wrong with you? Go outside and play like.
Yeah. I wouldn't say I think it's a lot harder to get up every morning. my folks still back in Heidelberg, Mississippi they still live that life. And I'm not going to say that my life now is harder than their life it's not hard.
It's just that what I was interested in was something that was valued., so back then it. Wasn't valued. They called me Booksmart oh, that boy Booksmart don't mind him he has some value, even though he's not as cause listen, man, like I am not exaggerating.
People were driving cars at 10, 11, 12 years old. You drive grandma to town. And I told you you work from like age of seven when I got to Mississippi, these kids knew how to change carburetor in your car, replace a heads. They knew all this stuff and they couldn't understand how I didn't know it
how could you be 13 years old and don't know how to drive. It was mind boggling for them. So it's just different worlds, different times, different expectations a person like myself, I could tell you friends that I was like, dude, this guy was smarter than me.
He wasn't as bookish. But as far as problem solving, as far as like kicking my ass and these games we would play, all that's there. But I happened to fall in love with the universe and physics and that's value.
Mahan Tavakoli: As you were doing that Hakeem, one of the things I have been reflecting on a lot in reading your
personal story is a couple of sides of the coin. One is that you could have very easily gotten caught up because of the involvement with drugs and other activities. You could have easily been pigeonholed and real routed to.
Part of life, which we do still a lot in our society. And on the other side the small time that you spent in Houston, just getting the exposure to the different clubs and as swimming to caring teachers that also had an impact on
Hakeem Oluseyi: Oh, absolutely. It did. It did. Those people who reached out to me made an impact because I was in a way left to fend for myself right out there in a world. Especially after my sister got married, when I was 10 years old, it was just me and the teacher sort of most part, my mom was in and out until high school time came around.
I was in these tough communities and the teachers, when they saw a kid who had academic talent like me, they wanted to do something to help. So I was in Houston going to school in the third ward and teacher's yo joined the math club. Yo. And the year before that it was the same way with the IQ tests, it was like, yo they see this Juul of a kid in the sense of their interests and talent to go with the interest and the only reason why it appeared that way was because I was such a fond reader. If you read everything that people think you know, everything, you don't, you don't know everything, right?
No one does , you become good at word stuff. You become good at memorization. Working out your brain, right? You're practicing your brain. So that's what happened with me is that I worked on that muscle. what I could do on my own is the education that I received, and so I say to this day, so that did not include math, a strong education in mathematics or science. Except for what I taught myself. So I'm a firm. It seems to me that the evidence is pretty clear that the only way a person gets a good science and mathematics education before they are an adult is only one of two ways.
One it's in your family slash community or two, you just got. If you were able to learn at school, you got lucky, most schools aren't rolling like that. Most teachers aren't rolling like that. I, unbeknownst to me was preparing myself by reading so much.
Mahan Tavakoli: As you did that, you also had an opportunity,
to join the Navy and for the Navy to catch you up on some of your core skills.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Absolutely. So the Navy did a few things for me. Number one discipline and honor, while always very important in rural America. So at the time, five years. And Mississippi that was hammered into me over and over again. So I get and then you have to go through these tough things.
Then I get to the military again, honor. They take you through hell and you have to rise to the level and it teaches you what you're made of, but then two other things happen. I got
health insurance for the first time of my life.
So I got a diagnosis that was real on the horrible skin condition I had been suffering with which allowed me to finally treat it well.
So I'm not in pain all day, every day. And I learned algebra so in that program, I was in, it was designed to give you the academic skills to go to the university. This is for enlisted people. And then you come out and you give them five or six years as an officer. Okay. So it was a program designed for taking people from places like the inner cities, like rural America, where you have a poor education, chances are, but you have the talent and the smarts and the honor and the character.
And you are qualified to be an officer, but just because of circumstances, you ended up enlisted. And so this was a mechanism for bringing people into the officer ranks. And so I got there, there were two math classes the regular class and the remedial class, I was in the remedial class. And in that class, we were taken from arithmetic through calculus in one year.
And so I got kicked out just before the program ended because skin condition I have, that I was diagnosed with properly for the first time, you're not allowed in the Navy with it. cause it impacts readiness. it's time of the manifestations. You can't be over itching know.
Because it's horrendous , you actually scratch your skin off of yourself is so horrible because it has this weird property that you scratch under you itch under your skin, not on your skin. So to get in there, you'll rip your skin off. But yeah, so the Navy was really good for me in that way.
And believe it or not, I'm still in contact with my Navy buddies til this day yeah. There's a couple that I wish I could get in contact with that I haven't been able to, but a lot of them,
they reach out to me, I'll reach out to them, but we still chat. We hang out when we're in the same city.
Mahan Tavakoli: that gave you some additional capabilities
your story is,
a great movie and a universal has signed a contract at some point. They're going to do a great
movie. Go ahead.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Well, I got to update that. Okay. So I got the deal with universal through with Chadwick, Bushman in collaboration and he passed away. And so when the option ended, universal informed us that without Chad and we not going forward. So this last summer 2021 by Asian arranged meetings with other producers.
And now I have new deal with two people. You may have heard of Oprah Winfrey.
And Robert DeNiro, technically Harpo productions and Tribeca, right? Yeah. So that's bill just got closed at the end of last year. So we're about to start on the script and a treatment that sort of stuff
Mahan Tavakoli: wait, Robert DeNiro is not going to play USC.
Hakeem Oluseyi: No, even in a previous one, Chad, wasn't playing me. It's the story. The story is when I'm like 30 years old. It can't be somebody in their forties or fifties playing me or sixties, so it might be like the movie Moonlight where you have your adult actor and maybe a teen and a kid that you flashed back to or something.
Mahan Tavakoli: part of what makes your story so fun is that every time I was
He made it now. Then I realized actually you hadn't made it. So when you went
Hakeem Oluseyi: Yeah.
Mahan Tavakoli: you ended up dropping out there.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Yup. I did, man. I tell you. So I was. The self-destructive right. when I wrote the book at first, they was written differently. Now there's a lot of small chapters before I had major segments and the chapters had titles and one chapter where that time period, we talked about where I moved, lived in all those different households.
I was going to call that section of the book worthless, because that's how I. felt unprotected worthless. And the other thing to realize about the hierarchy that is our nation and every nation, there was always a hierarchy, an identity hierarchy, and the people at the bottom of it, you receive messaging your entire life about your worth and your value.
I was basically self-destructive and so after I suffered this one tragedy that I write about in the book having to do with birth of my first child. I want to stop myself from feeling anything. And so I start using the drugs that people were using around me that I had just hadn't use.
just thought, oh, that's heavy. That's not, I don't want to do that. But then everybody was talking it up around me for a year and a half and I had some sense of what it could do. And so I went in and I went in hard and ultimately. After my first research project, I come back to school and by midterm I have all else
so I knew that if I ever was going to continue college, I had to not let all F's get on my transcript. So I dropped out of school. And I realized that I needed to clean up my. And so I left that life and I got a job. The job I could get, which was being a janitor at a hotel. And I drop out, I'm working as a janitor and I don't see a pathway.
But I'm looking for opportunities, but not having any real strategy. Other than let me put in applications. Okay. Apparently $4 an hour here. Oh, a job opened up. They're taking applications. Let me go put it in an application. That's how that works. Ultimately what happened is I attempt to move up to bell hop so I can get tips at eight don't, let me move up to bell hop.
And I realized at that point that without a university education, even though I didn't know what was on the other side of it, the whole world kept saying, oh, this is what you do. And you make more money than if you don't do that. So I'll be like I don't want to be a janitor my whole life.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being a janitor. Cause you know, the other people I was janitors with where these three dudes from the blind school. And think all work is valuable and in fact I will be a janitor again tomorrow if I had to, I'm not gonna jump off a building. If I become less fortunate than I am today, I'm going to get to work and whatever it is I can do. That gave you the essence of the importance of that education, eventually finishing and going to Stanford.
Mahan Tavakoli: going to Stanford, where people, first of all, wondering what country Tougaloo college is
Hakeem Oluseyi: Yeah. And nobody. Yeah. That's when I got my forays, nobody had heard a Tougaloo, so I tell people, oh, that's cause it's so exclusive. We don't even let other people know it exists. Yeah, it was a small, historically black college in Mississippi. You will see a white kid or two on campus because we have this exchange program where brown university.
And what's really interesting is that sometimes those students would transfer to Tougaloo and finish their degree there. And that's the same of our professors. We have these professors in the sciences who came down during the civil rights era the idea was, oh, I just got my PhD from Harvard or Cornell or wherever Caltech, I'm going to go down there and help out for a couple of years and then go do my science career.
And he just ended up staying. And those are the cats who made me My professors are just those people.
Mahan Tavakoli: you got the opportunity also at Stanford to work with art Walker who had a significant impact on many people, including your life.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Absolutely. So art Walker. Was the first person to have an x-ray satellite to look at the sun. Okay. And his first graduate student was Sally ride, our America's first woman in space. And so I was one of his team , in the early nineties, right after I joined, showed up at Stanford in 91. my life had been in the hood and the country. Nothing in between, nothing beyond. Where I came from a dude like art, we would call whitewashed. Okay. And the world that I grew up in was so racially segregated. When I saw his research group was primarily white dudes. I was like, what the hell? And so I was there, I did two years, undergrad classes, 91 to 93.
Then I started in the grad program completed at 99. I got my master's in 95 PhD in 99. And I went to Silicon valley and art was a different kind of black dude than the kind I had interacted with because Why is he giving his. knowledge to white guys, shouldn't it be reserved? Isn't it like us against them.
But art taught me a different way of being right. And you treat everybody the same. And let's not be tribal, right? Let's be Americans, let's be humans. And that's a better way of being in my estimate. That's how I have behaved ever since art taught me that way. And the other thing too, is I handling
difficulties, especially in the workplace, most people had two ways of dealing with things. Tell you off, punch you in the face. I was no good at tell you off. So I just had punched you in the face.
That was it. So true story. I'll tell you a funny story. One of the guys who was older than me at Tougaloo, he now is a researcher for the U S department of agriculture and He invited me to speak in , , Pretoria, Illinois, where he lives in 2018. And I go, his name is carbon Evans, Dr.
Carbon Evans. And I was talking to, I was like, Kervin, man. I just want you to know you about favorite person to basically listen, to speak physics at Tougaloo. You had it like nobody else knew it. I just want you to know how much I looked up to you back in those times and curve and say, is this to me? He goes, When I first met you, I thought you were a cool dude too, but you remember in that day in the cafeteria where you jumped across that table and punch that dude in the face after that, I was like, I can't hang out with him.
Yeah. Now here's the thing I had a reputation, not for being violent, but for being a good fighter from my childhood. nowadays I can be honest about it. I wasn't a good fighter. I was scared. That's what I was right. I was like, oh no, let me not get hit and throw as many punches as possible.
And I was good at taking hits and Dodge and hits. And I wouldn't hit the other guy more than they would hit me. So everybody's oh, he's a great fighter. No, I'm not. I'm a scared, that's what it is.
Mahan Tavakoli: after finishing your PhD and postdoc Hakeem, you ended up in Silicon valley. Why not stay in Silicon valley? A lot of people aspire to make their billions in Silicon valley.
Hakeem Oluseyi: For me, Silicon valley was like a mystery that I wanted to experience. So I'm leaving. So from 23rd, so I'm all hood, right? So I'm 13 years old. I'm in the country. Then I go to Stanford, Silicon valley and people are talking about when I got to Stanford, I didn't even know that Stanford was this highfalutin university.
All I knew was that they had graduated 30 black PhDs in physics. So I thought that's a place I could go and stand a chance of actually completing my degree and graduating. Now I had no idea of this place called Silicon valley, but I was very active in the student community in various ways.
And so I kept hearing about Silicon valley, these companies stock options, all this. So I wanted a piece of that. So when I went on the job market, I got offers in regular academia. I got wall street offers because I was a modeler solving differential equations computationally.
Options trading was new, right. Black Scholes model. And I got these offers from technical industry. And so I ended up going into technical industry because art Walker's wife stopped me in the grocery store and scolded me and told me I better make it official. Dammit, because I was like waffling. And so I went there
with the idea that I'd get stock options. They'd vast. I leave and come back to academia and everything was going great. I had over a half million dollars in stock options, but the problem was I finished school in 1999 and the bubble burst in 2001. That was the end of that. got a great education because one time I was the only non Korean member of my group.
Groups were like five, six people. One time I was the only non-Chinese member of my group. One time was the only non-Indian member of my group. I find myself me and a group of Germans be in a group of Israelis, me and a group of Brits. And so I learned how different cultures interact, how they negotiate.
And I also learned about traditional historic animosities that I knew nothing. I so like when I was in the Korea group, you're like, yeah, we handle Japan. And that region of the country, we need a non Korean to talk to the Japanese. Why? I didn't know that the Brits, the Scottish and Irish, and so I'm stationed in Ireland for a month and they're telling me all this stuff.
So it was a great education in technology. And intellectual property. Cause I got several patents at that time, but also in how to interact with different. And here's the other thing, ? When I got to Stanford, I knew how vastly undereducated I was, but I also knew that I was a tougher beta tougher stuff.
even at a military I could outwork anybody. I had that country background where at 12 years old, he got you in those woods working harder than any adult should. Man, I get to Silicon valley and I think I want to use my outwork, everybody superpower.
And I show up Saturday night at 2:00 AM. Guess who else is in the building? Not in any Americans, but dammit the Chinese, the Indians in Korea. They're in there too, right? I was like, oh, there goes my superpower. Now I gotta be, I need another angle to distinguish myself.
Mahan Tavakoli: think your superpower is why we are fortunate that you decided to return to academia and also educate the public on astrophysics because your superpower is your ability to communicate, not just with your natural energy and enthusiasm, but with an ability that makes the science accessible.
A lot of scientists have a heck of a time communicating to a none scientific community so that you are capturing that superpower. And I am glad that you decided to then pursue both academia and education through whether it's the TV series you're doing through the books you have written. So you are an astrophysicist.
What is astrophysics? What does an astrophysicist do? Hakeem
Hakeem Oluseyi: I am a terrible example. Okay. Because whenever I joined a university, there's always a debate between the physicist and the astronomer slash astrophysicist of which what AM I? Because I've done both and asked the thing. And so astronomers don't typically build experiments, but I worked for Al Walker and we had the great benefit of.
Designing the experiment, building it ourselves, blinded ourselves, analyzing the data ourselves. Okay. So then I go to Silicon valley where I'm developing technologies. Again, I'm developing the tools that make the chips and I'm developing the chips themselves experimentally. Then I go to Lawrence, Berkeley laboratory, where.
There is a new detector that's made by this guy, Steve Holland, that is done detector now for what's going on. The it wouldn't in a dark energy camera is going into the VR Rubin telescope is used in cosmic microwave background radiation. No, No, that's the T yes, I'm sorry, but this type of detector
I went there and I was both developing the detector as an instrument, as well as going to the observatory and
and observing supernova. So I do both of them. And the thing about me is that. I get bored fast. So I moved from field to field. And what I've learned is that in 18 to 24 months, , if you go into a new field and you work on some problems and you get what you get, I'm not going to say solve it you make a contribution.
You write the paper at that point. You're now one of the few world's experts on that topic. So an 18 to 24 months, you can be a world's expert on the topic. So that's what I've done. I went from solar. The semiconductor physics to dark energy and cosmology to big data, and near-field cosmology to ion propulsion.
And now I'm even starting to work on an experiment in climate change to reverse help engineer our atmosphere. What I do is not representative of what astrophysicists or astronomers do in general.
Mahan Tavakoli: you like to dabble in a lot of different areas. And
part of your fascination is with the sun. That was your PhD thesis
And at eight is the energy source for everything that's on earth. And you say as the sun is getting bigger every day, eventually the earth won't last.
what is that concept? And how can we understand that Hakeem
Hakeem Oluseyi: it was an interesting thing about stars because I think that we've done a poor job of educating people about stars. And one of the things that's bad about it is that a star is really best thought of as two things. We think of it as one thing. One part is the core where the fusion reactions are going on.
And the other part is that which surrounds the core and goes up to the surface and we call that portion, the envelope. And so the envelope presses down on the core and if you compress a gas, you make it hotter. It's just a law of physics. You expand the gas, it gets cooler so the core is super hot, which allows it to undergo nuclear fusion today.
It's about 15 million degrees kelvin but the core of the envelope evolve together and separately. So the thing about star is that there's so much matter gathered together that gravity would just push it down to nothingness and turn it into a black hole. If there was nothing else pushing out, but there is something pushing out.
And the main thing pushing out that prevents it from going down and collapsing on itself is the pressure from the light streaming out from the core okay. Now when the core is burning on the sun is what's called hydrogen fusion produces a by-product of helium, and the core is not hot enough to burn the helium.
the hydrogen burning begins at 10 million degrees. Helium doesn't burn until it gets to a hundred million degrees. All right. What did I say to temperature? Our Cory is right now, 15 million. So what that means is, inside that core, there's a lump of helium sitting in there. That's not burning.
So that means that non burden helium does not have an outward pressure from light coming out of it because it's not burning. So that means that the core shrinks down even more. Which makes it hotter the envelope and response expands, right? So the core has a non burning core inside of it, right?
It's like a, the core of the core is non burning, which caused the, to shrink, which caused the core to become hotter, which caused the envelope to expand. So every day, the core shrinks a little more and the envelope expands a bit more so you have to recognize that the earth orbit is 200 times the sun's radius, like 215 to our 16 times the sun's radius.
So when the sun expands to becoming a red giant, it's going to swell up to be in over 200 times. Its current size.
Mahan Tavakoli: just the tip of the iceberg with the power. Also have your explanation where even someone that hasn't fully studied, the science can understand the concept. Of why the sun would expand and how eventually that would result in earth, not lasting. Now
my daughter found out I'm talking to you and she, the 15 year old is very curious because you say the universe we see is an illusion, and she's been very much fascinated with that.
We'd love to know some of your thoughts with respect to that also Hakeem
Hakeem Oluseyi: Oh man. Don't get me started, man. Let's just start with a simple thing, mass. How do we define that? What does matter? Anything that has mass and takes up space? So what's this stuff mass. I'll tell you what it is. It's an illusion. It doesn't exist. And Albert Einstein figured that out first, right? When he wrote down what a lot of people call E=MC2, what he wrote down was M equals E divided by C square.
And here's how he thought about it. If I have a chunk of iron let's take this. This is my chunk. And let's say, for example, I add something to it and that something has no mass. Does it become heavier so the stuff he imagined is heat. I can transfer heat from one piece of metal to another, just by putting a hotter piece in contact with it.
All right. Now the next question he asked was suppose I have a piece of metal and I take something away from it that does not have mass. For example, I can take a piece of iron and heat it up. So it's glowing now, light is leaving it and the light has no mass. Does it become lighter? Does it weigh less?
And he answered in both cases was yes. You add heat to a mask. It becomes heavier, even though heat has no mass. If it emits light, it becomes lighter. It weighs less, even though the light that left has no mass. And so what I, Albert Einstein wrote down was not E equals MC square. He wrote M equals E divided by C square.
And so the way that is interpreted is if I add heat that's a certain amount of energy. He is as if I added a tiny amount of mass E divided by C squared, the speed of light squared. If it glows that energy, that light that's leaving possesses energy. And it says if a small amount of mass left the object that has a mass equal to the energy of that light divided by the speed of light squared.
Mass is an illusion and you're mostly empty space. The nuclei to make up your body. There are hundreds of thousands of times, their own size apart from each other. So if humans were distributed that way what's a hundred thousand times my size. If I'm roughly two meters, the nearest human will be
200 kilometers away.
If the humans on earth were distributed, like the atomic nuclei in your body, there would be no human within 200 kilometers. Yet you think you're solid? Another thing, check this out. If you look at the galaxies in the universe, they tend to be 10 to a thousand times their own size, apart from each other.
All right. You know what else is about a thousand times its own size apart from each other, the molecules of air and your room so thinking of the universe of galaxies, the best model for it is the gas in your room. All right. But one big difference. And that is, is that the galaxies are operating under the influence of gravity.
So they collapse down into these structures, filaments and voids. Whereas air in the room was pretty much evenly distributed if you step back far enough on the universe, it looks like the air in your room. So what is our universe really? So the way I look at it is there are these different realms that exist, right?
There's the realm of the normal, there is a realm of the subatomic, there's the realm of the cosmological and there's potentially realms beyond those realms, right? The realms of fields, the realm of the multi-verse, which now seems to be real, which is insane.
Mahan Tavakoli: It really is. And again that's just the beginning of it, both with respect to your own personal story and your communication of these elements of whether it's science astrophysics all of these aspects that I have found myself even more excited about learning. I appreciate much of your enthusiasm and your ability to communicate these things.
in addition to your own book, Hakeem, where can the audience both follow you? And for those that are interested in finding out more about the science, learn more from you
Hakeem Oluseyi: so the first thing is the new series season 10 of how the universe works is now out on Seigel app discovery, plus I'm also in a Netflix series that came out in October called bacon impossible. And I'm in a
PBS Nova. Universe revealed is the name of that one, which is also available via streaming.
I am on social media. I am primarily on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. I need to get some Tik TOK, goin I kinda dis what does the phrase disconnected from Facebook a bit, but I try here and there to put announcements there. And yeah, so my book, you can find in, on Amazon and bookstores everywhere, and there's even the UK version of it, which is out of hatchet publications here.
It's penguin, random house in the UK has hatchet.
Mahan Tavakoli: Your book is outstanding inspiring in so many ways, in a way that also communicates humility and the responsibility that the broader community has to the individuals. You also have. Coauthored a great children's book on science. You continue to put out great content on science, which I really appreciate because I was first fascinated with your own personal story Hakeem
and the more I learned about it and the more I saw your work, the more fascinated I
became with your work.
So you have pulled me into this science.
Hakeem Oluseyi: too now.
Mahan Tavakoli: yes,
want be nerd. And that's part of what you do brilliantly. That's why I'm happy that you chose this as a profession. You make the science accessible to those of us who are not
scientists. let me give you an insight. A lot of people used to say to me, oh, thank you for dumbing it down. I don't dumb down anything. This is just how I think and talk. So it's not that I'm like, oh, let me say it in a way that other people can understand. It's no, let me tell you how I understand.
combined with your enthusiasm. It's beautifully done.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Thank you.
Mahan Tavakoli: you did a
three minute talk. In a prison where you ended it by saying you and I have infinite choices. And to me, that infinity is hope. Thank you so much for. Giving hope through your story and giving hope through making the science and the astrophysics more accessible to so many other people.
I really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your journey and some of the science with the partnering leadership community.
Hakeem Oluseyi: thank you, Mahan .
It is my honor. And pleasure to be here.