The New And The Next: A New Breed Of Speedracer, Gangsta Physics, African Art Reimagined Can science be cool? This week, Ozy co-founder Carlos Watson tells NPR about a gangster-turned-astrophysicist and a race car driver working to making science "sexy" again. Plus, a look at the changing landscape of African art — no tribal masks allowed.
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Science Becomes 'Sexy' With Fast Cars And Gangsta Physics

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Science Becomes 'Sexy' With Fast Cars And Gangsta Physics

Science Becomes 'Sexy' With Fast Cars And Gangsta Physics

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From NPR West, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

It's time now for The New and The Next.


RATH: Carlos Watson is the cofounder of the online magazine Ozy. Each week, he joins us to talk about what's new and what's next. Welcome back, Carlos.

CARLOS WATSON: Arun, always good to be with you.

RATH: So I want to start off with my favorite story. I love tales of brilliance from unexpected corners. And physicist Hakeem Oluseyi, he definitely fits the bill. I can't think of another gangsta scientist.

WATSON: I mean, what a fantastic story. Now, today, those who love the Discovery Channel or increasingly National Geographic will enjoy his television shows. But little will they know that before he was a Stanford Ph.D. astrophysicist, Hakeem Oluseyi was a college dropout, always loved physics, from the time he was in the fifth grade, in fact, made his way to college but didn't do well, dropped out and pursued much more of a gangster lifestyle and ultimately doubled back, got his degree and made his way through a very rigorous program at Stanford and today is one of the increasingly popular public scientists.

RATH: And what was wild as well about the trajectory is he's made it big, he's got all these patents. He was working in the commercial world but he decided to give that up.

WATSON: He did. So he was working at one of the big firms, Applied Materials, for a number of years after his Ph.D. but ultimately decided his heart wasn't in it. And so he said: I want to go back to academia and research and study and in particular spends a lot of time looking at space exploration.

RATH: So we have a gangsta college dropout who becomes a scientist. It makes kind of a nice pairing with another peculiar trajectory. That's J.R. Hildebrand. This kid, he's on a path to maybe becoming a scientist himself. He's at MIT but decides he wants to be a race car driver.

WATSON: Hold cow. So J.R. Hildebrand started racing go karts at the age of 14, realized he actually was pretty good at it, maybe even better than he was at baseball. But better than either of those two things was his aptitude for math and science. And, Arun, he was so good that he got an acceptance from MIT. And ultimately he said no so that he could go out and try and become the next Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon.

RATH: He gets this natural relationship between physics and racing, but he wants to help other kids understand science using that as a bridge.

WATSON: He thinks that, you know, for so many people who don't relate to math and science, what better real-life example is there than kind of fast cars and big-time races? As much as he wants to win the Indy 500, what he really wants to do is make math and science sexy again.

RATH: So switching gears - sorry about that - but something that's always bugged me: I love modern art, but it always seems that exhibits of modern art and even discussions about it, they all draw from the developed world - it's Europe and the Americas. But it sounds like things are changing.

WATSON: Things seem to be changing indeed. I mean, look no further than the very famous Tate Museum in London, and one of their big exhibitions recently had to do with African art. But it wasn't the same kinds of African art that we used to think about, meaning the tribal mask and some of the other things. Instead, these works of arts coming from Ghana and Benin and Kenya and some other places had as much to do with race, with class, with aspiration. Arun, I think this is part of a broader rediscovery, if you will, of Africa.

RATH: Do you think it's problematic at all that, you know, this is high art. It's being consumed, you know, by elites. Does that do good for Africa on the whole?

WATSON: I think so. To the extent that the artists in various parts of Africa have the opportunity to be supported and flourish. And in fact, the younger emerging artists can see that there's a career path forward, I think that's incredibly important. Now, I think one of the real important questions, though, will we start to see any interesting galleries and museums on the African continent, and will those be available to students and to families and to everyday people so that they can enjoy it as well?

RATH: Carlos Watson is the cofounder of the online magazine Ozy. You can explore all the stories we talk about at Carlos, thanks again.

WATSON: Arun, always good to be with you. Look forward to seeing you next week.

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