College of Science talks with S. James Gates, Jr.

S. James Gates, Jr. talks about his career, the physics question that has become his "white whale," and what fulfills him most in life.

Gates will be speaking on March 8 at 7:00 p.m in the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center on campus as part of the Discover Science Lecture Series. The event is free and open to the public.


2/28/2018 | By: Jennifer Sande |

For those lucky enough to find their calling in life, there is often a point of inception when a passion for a specific topic or idea emerges. For S. James Gates, Jr., theoretical physicist and speaker at the Discover Science Lecture on March 8, that moment came at 8 years old when his father brought home a book about space. The realization that "the stars in the sky were not just lights, but places to go" expanded his view of the universe, opening up a world of discovery that, through the use of science and technology, Gates could enter. And so, he did.

Gates is widely known for his research in the field of theoretical physics, leading the field on the topics of supersymmetry and superstring theory. His research has been recognized with the National Medal of Science and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, both honors presented to him by President Obama.

Gates has also drawn attention for his discovery of what he describes as computer codes in the mathematical laws of the universe, leading him to speculate - in a mostly joking way - that our world may not be much different than the world described in the science fiction film The Matrix. It is these error-correcting codes that Gates will be speaking about at the Discover Science Lecture on March 8. His lecture titled "An Inchoate Epoch: Possibility of Evolution in Mathematics Laws of The Universe" explores a theory that the laws of physics have gone through a process similar to evolution in genetics. As Gates explains it, understanding this new description of the universe could lead to fresh insights into the theory of supersymmetry, and perhaps even the very nature of reality.

The College of Science talked with Gates recently to discuss his research and career as a theoretical physicist and professor, what it was like hanging out with President Obama, and the things that have fulfilled him most in life.

College of Science: As a public figure in science you often take very complex ideas or theories and translate them into narratives that are interesting and able to be understood by the general public, as you will be doing for us on March 8. What do you find most challenging about bridging that gap?

Gates: When I was a young physicist, I spent time as a postdoc researcher at Caltech in the group where Richard Feynman was one of the leaders. Like many young physicists, I was a huge admirer of his ability to explain complicated issues in physics so that you thought you understood them. He clearly cultivated this ability. From watching him and others like him, I came to understand that the gap was always around the issue of finding a shared language. One must pay attention to how the audience conceives concepts.

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College of Science: Why do you think it is important to do?

Gates: Though many in our society are not prepared for a future where economic leverage will be tied to the mastery of more complicated skills as automation/artificial intelligence/ information technology and robotics move into jobs formerly done by people, we as a society must give our population the chance to acquire and use their skills in this context. Learning to explain complicated ideas is a step in this direction.

College of Science: We are very excited to hear you speak about your research on the connection between evolution and the laws of physics. I read in an interview you call this research pursuit "the deepest physics question" you have ever asked in your life? How did you arrive at this question and why is it important?

Gates: I don't know that the answer is important. I do know that no one in over forty years has been able to answer this one question in theoretical physics in the area called "supersymmetry." The fact that it has not been answered in this amount of time suggests there is something very intriguing going on. I first saw this question when I was invited from my position at Harvard University to spend some time at Caltech. We did not solve it in either place. I have only in the last part of my career returned to this problem I first saw in 1980. I often call this problem "my Moby Dick," or "white whale" as it is a little like Captain Ahab chasing his white whale. In my case, I hope not to be dragged down to the ocean depths in my quest!

College of Science: In 2013, you were awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama. Can you speak to that experience and what that honor meant to you?

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Gates: It was an honor I could not have dreamt of in my wildest dreams. I became the first African-American theoretical physicist to receive this recognition. Of course, it was special to have received it from President Obama. As I had served on his President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology since 2009, there were many occasions when I was in meetings with him before the award ceremony. But this was different.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one other recognition that also came in 2013 when I was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS was created by President Lincoln and had also never had a theoretical physicist of my ethnic heritage before. So in 2013, I was told I made it into the history books, right next to my friend, classmate, physicist, and astronaut, Ronald McNair.

College of Science: In a recording published by The Moth podcast you talk about attending an integrated elementary school before moving to a segregated all-black high school, all prior to attending MIT. How did those different experiences shape your life?

Gates: From my earliest life experiences, I attended many schools that were ethnically diverse. So, I knew the theory that one race was intellectually superior was bogus. I had almost always been the best or top student in all my classes.

College of Science: How have those different experiences shaped your view of education in America?

Gates: It is sad, but racial discrimination is very much a reality in education and many other arenas in the USA. My experiences have convinced me that though this is the case, one can as an ethnic minority make one's dream in science or mathematics a reality. When I was a young physicist, I dreamt of finding a piece of mathematical magic that was also an accurate description of something hidden deep in nature. With my work on a mathematical concept called "adrinkas," this may actually have been what I have done in my life as a scientist.

College of Science: What advice would you give to students of color pursuing science today?

Gates: Study and work as hard at developing your mind as others do their bodies. Dream big and do not be afraid others may know more about your abilities than you.

College of Science: You recently retired as Regents Professor and John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. Can you talk about your time there? What have been some of the most influential moments for you as a professor to young physics students?

Gates: I will always be grateful for the tremendous support that I received at the University of Maryland for my research, teaching, and service efforts. I have often said that I doubt I would have been able to have built as successful a career at any other institution in the USA. Likely the most impact I have had on young physics students is through the SSTPRS (Summer Student Theoretical Physics Session) effort, which I co-founded with Professor Vincent Rodgers of the University of Iowa beginning in 1999. This is a unique program to my knowledge as it appears to be the only one in existence exclusively aimed at undergraduate (and sometimes high school) students with an interest in theoretical or mathematical physics.

College of Science: Now that you have retired from the University of Maryland, what's next?

Gates: I am not really retired at all. That is a joke I tell people. I just changed my university affiliations [Gates will begin teaching at Brown University in the Fall of 2018 as the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics]. It came as quite a shock to me that one of the nation's most esteemed universities was apparently interested in a 66-plus-year-old faculty member. When I was young, every adult I knew retired when they were 65! When the possibility of this change first appeared, I kept asking close friends, why would they be interested in an "old car" like me? Finally, one of them explained, "Jim, you are not an old car, but an antique car and those are valuable." Duh.

College of Science: When you hit your max of pondering the great questions of the universe, what do you do to clear your mind and relax?

Gates: Either read or watch history.

College of Science: Besides science, what has fulfilled you in your life?

Gates: Even more fulfilling for me is my family. I have a daughter who is completing her third year in the Ph.D. physics program at Harvard. I wrote research papers with her when she was an undergraduate. Her twin brother, with a B.S. degree in biology, is currently assisting me in a set of computer-enabled calculations involving thousands of operations. So shortly, I will likely have the pleasure of publishing scientific papers in mathematical physics with both of my children. In addition to my twins, my wife is a pediatrician who has a reputation for giving expert and caring attention to her patients. She is also a small business owner and has served as a county health officer.

About the Discover Science Lecture Series

The Discover Science Lecture Series was founded by the University's College of Science in 2010, with the goal of bringing the country's top scientists to the University to share their knowledge, research and wisdom with the community.

Gates's lecture is the third in the 2017-2018 series. The final speaker of the academic year will be University trustee and bio-pharmaceutical researcher Mick Hitchcock on April 5.

Past speakers in the series include astrophysicists Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson; Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic; and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Discover Science Lectures are always free to the public. They are held at the Redfield Auditorium in the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center on the University's Reno campus at 7 p.m.

Free parking for the event is available in the lot south of the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center on the south-east corner of Evans Avenue and Record Street. For more information, call the College of Science at 775-784-4591 or visit the Discover Science Lecture Series website.


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