Profiles / Voices

Superman of Physics

Sylvester James Gates, Jr.

Professor of Physics, University of Maryland

I can trace my early childhood roots as a lover of science and math. My first fascination with math – I have this first conscious memory of sort of thinking about it – goes back to when I was age eight. Mathematics in our family is something we kind of liked. My grandfather could neither read nor write, but he could do simple arithmetic. My dad never graduated from high school, but during the period when he was trying to get an equivalency exam, he studied mathematics. So I remember watching him learning trigonometry and algebra. And, you know, that’s kind of unusual to watch your dad learn mathematics.

Dr. Sylvester Gates’ study of the mathematical laws that govern hypothetical forms of energy and matter have paved the way for 21st century exploration of the universe at tiny scales never before previously accessible. He has published over one hundred research papers, co-authored one book and contributed numerous articles in others. His research is in the areas of the mathematical and theoretical physics of supersymmetric particles, fields and strings, and covers topics such as quarks, leptons. gravity superstrings and Einstein’s unified field type theories. He coauthored a book, Superspace, that provided the only advanced treatment of supersymmetry for more than a decade. In the 1980s, Dr. Gates worked on structures called “superstrings” and “heterotic-strings” and showed how a 1930s physics concept called “isotopic charge space” applied in four dimensions. In 1996, he formulated a model by introducing the superpartners “pionin” for the nuclear force.

Born in 1950, Gates obtained both his bachelor’s in Physics (1973) and Mathematics (1973) and doctor’s degrees in elementary particle physics and quantum field theory (1977) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I always did well in school in mathematical subjects also. So it’s kind of the family bug. My kids like mathematics, interestingly enough. So we’re just like – you know – we’re fond of it. But this conscious memory goes to a specific event. When I was about nine years old, dad had bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I was paging through one day and I found this thing that was clearly mathematics because it had equal signs in it. It had plus signs in it, but the rest of it, as the saying goes, was Greek to me. It was literally Greek symbols. And the equation that I saw was one of the most important equations for understanding the world of the very small; it’s called a Schrodinger equation. And for me, this thing felt like walking along a beach, seeing a very beautiful and shiny shell, looking at it, and saying gee, I wonder what made this. And so that’s the reaction I had to it.

For those that may not be familiar with the Schrödinger equation, well, a lot of people have heard about quantum theory, this sort of spooky behavior that goes on when you look at parts of our universe that are extremely small like atoms. So you need to have a precise understanding of how these tiny objects work. And the way that science does this is we have found that there’s only one human language that is accurately constructed enough so that we can describe nature and that language turns out to be mathematics. When we write our equations, we’re actually trying to describe something. So the Schrodinger equation is the first equation that describes the quantum weirdness that electrons and atoms demonstrate and which allow us to build things like cell phones.

One of our greatest challenges we face as a nation is this question of scientific literacy.

We would want people to know is that science is a process by which we are trying to decrease our ignorance. We want to know more about the universe. We want to know it more accurately. And the ultimate purpose of this knowledge is to increase the storehouse of human knowledge, which is ultimately to be used to increase the quality of human life.

I think most of us who do science would not do this if someone said, “You can learn all these things, but at the end of the day, it’s not for increasing everyone’s quality of life.” So I would personally want a scientifically literate citizen to understand that scientists are people who are really working on behalf of not perhaps you, but that would be nice, but maybe it’s your children or your grandchildren or your great-great grandchildren or your great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great grandchildren. It is, in fact, a commitment to humanity.

What I’d like for the scientifically literate citizen to do is to be a lifelong learner, to not disengage because most people disengage from science after they leave university because it’s not relevant to their life. They’re doing something else, making money, making a life. But we’re now moving into a period in the history of our nation where, for example, we have genomic science. I like to challenge people and say, “Look. Suppose you could have a daughter that played tennis like Venus Williams and looked like Kournikova and played golf like Tiger Woods. Would you choose not to give her that opportunity?”

Well, with genomic science, that may not become a theoretical question. So we’re going to have to make clever choices as a society about the way we apply science, genomic science, nanoscience. You know, I walk around normally hooked up to a cell phone. I see people with plugs in their ears listening. A lot of us are really plugged in. Well, imagine that you had a genomic device, rather a nanoscale device that you could surgically implant in your brain that would allow you to directly access the web. Would you make that decision? Well, you might think that would be really convenient until you remember there are hackers out there. Do you want people hacking into your brain? So there are really some great challenges.

Science is really putting us into the position of redefining what it means to be human. But if that’s going on, we better have as broad a discussion as possible in our society about what it is that we want. This will not happen if the general public disengages from science.

Science and the modern world

Theoretical physics doesn’t really make that kind of contribution to our understanding. In fact another thing I tell people about what science is versus other forms of knowing the universe, is that in science, and in particular in the physical sciences, you can imagine a family that lives in a home and you could say, “Well, gee I want to study this situation, but I want to put all the people out of the house. I want to study how the house works.” That’s what the physical sciences do in our universe. The social sciences, the liberal arts, the arts themselves, you put the people back in the house and you ask how the whole system works together. So in physics, we don’t answer the question of how the house behaves when the family’s in the house.

Being a scientist, and in particular being a theoretical physicist, we are what I like to call hopeless optimists. Now what do I mean by this? Well, when we look at the world, obviously there are many, many conditions of humanity that cause us to despair, hunger, poverty, war, bigotry, and so it would be easy to lose hope if you just look at these parts of human behavior. On the other hand, if you’re a theoretical physicist, you’re doing something that you will likely be done at its most fundamental level. You’re doing something that most likely in your lifetime you will never see a single fruit come from it. And so you’re creating ideas in, what I like to call, the storehouse of human knowledge. In order, for these ideas to become of value however, will take time. It’s a little bit like putting a note in a bottle and simply casting the bottle into the sea with the hope that someone will find this note and it will be of value to them. That’s what doing theoretical physics is like on one hand.

So I understand that it’s the life I’ve chosen for myself. It’s a life where we get to think about the universe and it’s a life where at the end of the day it’s a personal engagement with the universe at a profound level. On the other hand, it’s not something that I think of as separating me from the rest of humanity because in fact, the whole point of the exercise is to do something valuable for humanity.

There is a wonderful saying by Horst Mann who said, “You should be ashamed to die before you have won some great victory for humankind.” And that’s what being a physicist, a theoretical physicist is like. You’re trying to make that wonderful victory for humankind. And so it’s a profoundly connecting sense of what it is that we do. So when I look at the world and doing theoretical physics to me is a profoundly human activity because it’s an expression of optimism in our species. And that’s why I say we are hopeless optimists.

I often hear colleagues speak about the matter of K through 12 education in science and mathematics because students come to colleges and universities, professors have to teach them. . From my perspective, there are problems, but it is wrong for the nation’s professors to say it’s the students’ problem. If there were two businesses side by side and one of the businesses was thriving and the other one was sort of going downhill, if the proprietor of the one going downhill came out and said, “There’s something wrong with the customers,” you’d look very strangely at that person. And so it is not the right answer for university professors to say that’s their problem. Both of us will have to try to fix this problem.

On the university side, I think the professorate of the country is going to have to understand that it has to change its ways, its habits, the way that we deliver education. And part of this will be a more efficient use of information technology.

So for example, there are some of us who in our classrooms are already at the stage where we bring our laptops into the room, we hook them up to a projector and we start running animations in the classroom as teaching tools or we go on the web and extemporaneously a student can ask a question. Google is such a wonderful device, you can in real time, not having prepared beforehand, but in real time have a question come to you, type the question into Google. Because if you’re a professor, you’re supposed to know where to find the information, pull the question up on Google, go to the webpage and show that to the classroom in real time.

Now this is an approach to teaching I see some of us starting to adopt in the classroom. It’s more and more of this real time processing of information. I think that’s something that we can bring as a change that may, in fact, interface more immediately and more effectively with the young people coming into the classroom.



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Sylvester James Gates, Jr. is an American theoretical physicist working as the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He loves the "super" aspects of physics: supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. To make these "super" notions more lucid for general public, he created a DVD series for the lifelong-learning centric The Teaching Company called Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality.