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Nifty Fifty – Bring a Top Scientist to your Middle or High School

Dr. Sylvester JamesGates

Years Participated: Nifty Fifty 2010, Nifty Fifty 2012, Nifty Fifty 2013/2014

Nominated by
Sylvester James Gates DeptEnergy
Theoretical Physics: One Scientist's Attempt to Unite the Forces of Nature

You have to be focused to persevere in a field like theoretical physics. It requires a command of both science and mathematics. The work is highly abstract and fast-paced, and the prospects of getting a job at a top research institution is intensely competitive. While others may shy away from such intricacies, Sylvester James Gates, Jr. says that his foray into the field of physics was almost natural. The way he sees it, he was "born to be a mathematician and physicist."

Jim (his preferred moniker) is among a handful of Black physicists in the United States and his groundbreaking working in such cutting-edge areas as superstring theory, supersymmetry and supergravity has made him a leading expert on these topics. Today at the University of Maryland, he is the first John S. Toll professor of physics, making him the first African American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major research center in the country.

Born in Tampa, Florida, Jim says the fascination with his chosen field has its origins with his father, a career military man. His initial interest in science was born from two books on space travel that his father brought home. ''I recall reading these by an author named Willy Ley and learning two things. The first was that the lights in the night sky (stars) were places so far away that they appeared ever so tiny. I had my own personal 'Big Bang' inside my head as the size of the universe explored in my young mind. Secondly, I learned that science and technology were how one might travel to such places. My interest in science was born simultaneously with an interest to become an astronaut...something else I would try later.''

"When I was eight years old, my father bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica," he recalls. "I was bored one day so I started opening the books, and I came across Schroedinger's equation, which is one of the foundations of modern physics. It was like walking on a beach and finding a marvelous shell and being fascinated by it. I thought to myself, 'Gee, one day I wonder if I could ever understand that.'" This also sparked his resonance with technology and mathematics—an interest that continued into high school where he says meaningful classroom interaction helped solidify his connection with these disciplines. "When I was a student at Jones High School my physics teacher wrote an equation on the blackboard and then performed a very simple experiment—rolling a ball down an inclined plane. He showed that what I saw there in front of my eyes was described by the mathematical equation he had written on the blackboard. This was (and is) the closest thing I have ever seen to magic."

His academic achievements earned him admission to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where within four years he received Bachelor's degrees in both mathematics and physics. He continued on at MIT to earn his Ph.D. in physics, writing MIT's first thesis on the topic of supersymmetry, science's attempt to unite the four known forces of nature in the universe.These forces are: the force of gravity; electromagnetic force—we use that in computers and information technology; the strong nuclear force, the force from which the sun derives its energy, and a weaker nuclear force such as substances that are naturally radioactive, like radium, that glow in the dark. Could there be more forces? The answer is yes, says Jim. "There could be more, but we have not seen them in laboratory experiments, and physics is always about what we see in the laboratory. A unified field theory has to explain all of this and include gravity."

Intricately connected to supersymmetry is the superstring theory – a further attempt by physicists to understand the universe by solidifying the unification of nature's forces and to explain space and, time. Jim, also a pioneer in this area of physics, explains the theory by using the analogy of spaghetti.

"If I took a little piece of dry, uncooked spaghetti and plucked it," he says," it would vibrate back and forth. As it vibrates, it makes a note. The note that you get depends on how you pluck it. Applying this to physics, roughly speaking, when you pluck a set of taut strings a certain way you might be looking at an electron. When you pluck it a different way you might see a particle of light. If you pluck it a third way you might be looking at a quark. All the particles are in fact different vibratory modes of this single object."

The string theory is fast replacing the long-held billiard ball theory as a way of explaining general relativity and quantum mechanics. Says Jim: "I think Einstein would be extremely happy with the way things developed, because he called for a unified field theory long before anyone else imagined that such a thing was possible, and string theory very definitely is a unified field theory."

After completing his Ph.D. degree, Jim went on to complete postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and California Institute of Technology and then returned to MIT as an assistant professor of applied mathematics. In 1983, he authored, along with three others, the book Superspace or 1001 Lessons in Supersymmetry, which more than two decades later remains a standard in the field.

The recipient of numerous awards, Jim is a sought-after speaker for many national and international scientific meetings and events. He has been featured on three PBS television series: "Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America," "A Science Odyssey," and "The Elegant Universe." In addition his NOVA/PBS appearance was titled "E = M c-squared: The Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation.'' He is also a member of the Maryland State Board of Education and serves on the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science & Technology.

As Jim pursues new frontiers in math and physics, he is further impressed with the genius and foresight of Albert Einstein, one of his heroes...and not only for his science. "Einstein made incredibly forceful statements about discrimination and the rights of peoples of African heritage in the U.S. I have argued that you might describe him as a leader of the civil rights movement...before its time.'' On his contributions to science says Jim: "Einstein made the statement once that imagination is more important than knowledge. For a long time I was very puzzled by this statement. Now, having worked as a physicist for over two decades, I think he was saying that when you try to create new knowledge, the only tool we have as humans is our imagination, which speaks to the critical role creativity plays in the scientific process."

The accompanying photograph is from the movie, "The Nature of Existence"

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