Review of A Quantum Life, by Hakeem Oluseyi and Joshua Horwitz

A Quantum Life

(Adapted for Young Adults)

My Unlikely Journey from the Streets to the Stars

by Hakeem Oluseyi and Joshua Horwitz

Delacorte Press, 2023. 333 pages.
Review written January 14, 2024, from a library book
Starred Review
2024 Mathical Book Prize Winner, 9th-12th grades

I usually read nonfiction fairly slowly, a chapter at a time, interspersing with novels. I managed to start this book that way, but it didn’t last long. I took one break from it, but when I picked it up again, I couldn’t stop. The novels could wait.

This book tells the story of Hakeem Oluseyi, who began his life as James Plummer Jr., and who progressed to be a renowned astrophysicist. His road to get there was not easy. There were times reading this book when I was almost afraid to turn the page, and I’d have to remind myself that the book flap said he indeed became an astrophysicist.

Here’s how he describes his childhood in the Prologue:

As a bookish kid, I was an easy target in Watts, Houston’s Third Ward, and the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. My gangbanger older cousins taught me the rules of the street by the time I was six: who you could look at in the eyes and who you couldn’t, how to tell if the dude walking toward you was Crip or Blood, friend or foe. I developed a sixth sense, what I thought of as my “dark vision,” that let me see all the dirt in my hood: where a deal was going down and where the undercover heat was hiding. The scariest time was after sunset, when the predators came out in force.

I was intrigued by the wider universe, including the night sky. But I couldn’t see many stars from the streets where I grew up, what with the big-city lights and the smog. And for the sake of my own survival, I didn’t want to be caught staring off into space. Celestial navigation wasn’t going to help me find my way home without getting beat up or shaken down. By my early teens, I’d adopted a thug persona, walking and talking tough, carrying a gun for protection. But I never joined a gang, and no matter how hard I’d tried to straddle the gangsta-nerd divide, I was still mostly a science geek playacting a thug.

This was a Black kid with a very unstable housing situation growing up — changing schools frequently and not having reliable adults in his life. Yet this same kid taught himself quantum mechanics by reading the encyclopedia and had a prodigious memory and strong curiosity.

And here’s a spoiler that’s not really a spoiler: This kid from a drug-using family was the first in his family to graduate from high school and went on to get a PhD in Physics.

He had help along the way and got into some tight spots, but he did it. And that story is both riveting and inspiring.

I was happy to be part of the committee that gave the 2024 Mathical Book Prize for books for high school to this outstanding book.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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