Oluseyi, who’s tall and charismatic with an easy laugh, recalls the arrival of the 22-volume set, how powerful it looked lined up against their empty wall. He quickly opened the first volume, starting at “A” and began fervidly reading.
When he reached “E” something life-changing happened. “I met Einstein,” he says.
After devouring Einstein, the teenager raced straight to volume “R” for Relativity and was soon conducting his own experiments, dodging street gangs on his bicycle while testing a speed-versus-time theory.
Soon he was teaching himself to code the school’s one computer and when an outreach program encouraged his school to enter a science fair, young Oluseyi created a code that could demonstrate Einstein’s relativity and entered into the computer division.
The judges were impressed by his coding but didn’t understand the science, so they moved him to the physics division. To his great surprise, he won the fair.
We could do so much better, we could be Star Trek tomorrow – we have it in us.
— Hakeem Oluseyi
But the streets were taking their toll. His father offered him his first taste of crack, determined that the boy should try it at home rather than risk the deadly neighbourhood outside, and he soon developed a crippling habit.
But he pushed on, making it all the way to Stanford University, where he slammed headlong into stifling classism at the almost exclusively white, middle-class university. He admits he stood out.
“First week on campus I turned to a guy and said, ‘You see all these squirrels on campus. How come no one eats them?’”
Study groups formed without him and Oluseyi shunned them right back, determined to make it on his own. But the isolation sent him back to the neighbourhoods he felt comfortable in, and back to drugs. By now he was married and living a dark double life, roaming the streets at night searching for a hit, studying all day. Life was spiralling out of control.
Then he met Art Walker, a black physics professor. Walker was pioneering methods of looking into the sun and soon Oluseyi joined his team, helping to design, build and launch the Multi-Spectral Solar Telescope Array, which has advanced science’s understanding of our giant star.
“I realised I was now one of a select few humans anywhere on Earth to behold the invisible face of the Sun,” he writes in the book. “After tens of thousands of years of squinting up at the bright orb at the centre of our solar system and wondering, we could finally see the sun’s true nature.”
Walker became a mentor and a life-long friend. But things weren’t improving with his fellow students, where Oluseyi’s swagger and street talk – so essential for survival on the streets – were gaining him little respect. He knew he could rein it in, but why should he? Just how much of his identity and culture, should he shed to fit in?
What’s in a name?
In the end, it was his name he let go. James Plummer jnr kicked the drugs and took an African name to reflect his pride, determination and black identity.
“I wanted my middle name to express who I am, my first name to express who I wish to become,” he told the BBC. “So when people called me by my name it would remind me of my goal. And my last name would be something that would honour my west African heritage, that would make my ancestors proud.
“Hakeem means wise, my middle name Muata, is Swahili for ‘he speaks the truth’. And my last name is Oluseyi, ‘God has done this.’”
Did people treat you differently, more respectfully, after the name change? “Yes, they did.”
From there, there was no stopping him. After graduating, Silicon Valley called and Oluseyi helped design the computer chips that we all use every single day. But the lab beckoned him away from the corporate world and back to pure research.
What does he make of this incredible journey, from poverty to financial comfort, from street drugs to NASA?
He smiles. You can clearly see the internal light that has pushed him forward, refusing to let him break.
“I’ve lived the American version of impoverished. If you look at the economic spectrum, I haven’t been at the top part, but the upper-middle class and everything below, I’ve lived. Sometimes I’m just, ‘What if I just stayed in the country and just had a simple life?’”
Things are simpler now for the 54-year-old. Oluseyi has returned back to the country life in Virginia, working on his next book, but life is hardly quiet. He is a university professor, a TV presenter and involved with the SuperNova/Acceleration Probe Mission (SNAP) project, which is working on a space-borne telescope for studying supernovae and dark matter.
Oluseyi has long been asking the big questions of the universe and recently weighed into the debate surrounding the release of the Pentagon’s UFO files.
He was also part of the (very cool-sounding) 100-Year Starship Symposia, a four-year talkfest jointly sponsored by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA. Its mission is to provide grants to businesses with a view to get humanity off Earth and living on another planet.
There’s also his outreach programs for disadvantaged black schools both in the US and across sub-Saharan Africa, where he is part of a program teaching basic science as well as HIV awareness and sustainable development.
“I ended up travelling the world, starting at the age of 30, and seeing all these different ways of being and realising it doesn’t have to be this way.
“We could do so much better, we could be Star Trek tomorrow – we have it in us.”
A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars by Hakeem Oluseyi and Joshua Horwitz (Hachette).
The numbers game … a rapid-fire Q&A
AFR: Zero to 10, what’s the chance that sentient aliens will ever respond to our SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] signals?
AFR: Is that because space is too big?
Oluseyi: Travel by spaceship to our closest intergalactic neighbour, the Canis Major Dwarf, would take almost 750 million years with current technology. Even a radio signal, which moves at close to the speed of light, would take 25,000 years.
AFR: So, like the film Alien. A civilisation may hear our radio waves but by the time they get here we’ll be long gone.
Oluseyi: Yes. I was on every news channel talking about it, and let me tell you, are they mad at me, the true believers!
AFR: How many pages are there in your book?
AFR: Maybe that’s the American edition. I’ve got 337. 342 if you count the epilogue.
AFR: One to 10, the likelihood of wormholes that we can use for space travel.
Oluseyi: Zero. They’re incredibly unstable, based on the mathematics. One can come into existence, there’s nothing that prevents that, but it would collapse in on itself immediately.
AFR: Like in a particle accelerator – these things appear but collapse straight away.
Oluseyi: Exactly. I can’t say that they don’t exist, but I can say we ain’t going through one.
AFR: You were part of the 100-Year Starship Symposia, with the aim of re-establishing humans on another planet. What is the likelihood of that?
Oluseyi: If you’re going to try to send humans that’s what makes it very difficult. Unfortunately, you’re not going to just find another planet that we’re going to be able to survive on easily.
If you change the oxygen percentage in the atmosphere, by how many percent up or down does a human get in trouble? Two or three per cent. So, what’s the probability you’re going to go to another planet and it’s going to be within two or three per cent?
If you do it robotically, then it becomes much more feasible. Sending humans, you’ve got to look at either sending embryos because you’re not going to find our gravity, our atmosphere … you’re going to have to bioengineer the beings when you get them there so that they can survive in that environment.
Then you get into, what does it even mean to be a human? So, the idea is, you send embryos and robots – the robots do their thing, and they put the embryos in their little incubators, grow them, and then, wow, humans on another planet.
AFR: We’d be a whole different species in the end.
Oluseyi: Ultimately. But, if you separate the western hemisphere from the eastern hemisphere for long enough, we’ll become two different species. Life, it does its thing.
AFR: Out of 10, how did this interview go?
Oluseyi: I’m going to say 10.