An active proponent of education, diversity and communication, Sylvester James Gates is known for both his research in theoretical physics and his commitment to increasing diversity in his field. Gates is the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he studies the fundamental nature of our universe through the lens of supersymmetry—a theory that predicts twice as many fundamental particles as the Standard Model and could be the next step towards a grand unified theory. He’s also the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major research university in the United States.
Gates has degrees in both physics and mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he remained to earn his Ph.D., also in physics. He received the Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006 and was a member of the Maryland State Board of Education from 2009 to 2016. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and in 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Science for his outstanding contributions to the field of physics.
In addition to his work in academia, Gates often speaks publically about the complementary nature of faith and science in contrast to their perceived opposition to each other. Villanova University awarded him the 2013 Mendel Medal (named for the 19th century friar and scientist Gregor Mendel) for working to demonstrate through his life as a scientist that there is no intrinsic conflict between science and religion.
How did you get interested in science?
When I was four years old, my mother took me the movie Spaceways. It was the first movie I ever remember seeing and it was about space travel and astronauts. It was such a strange combination of adventure, love story and murder mystery—but it was the part about space travel that really captured me. That's when I began thinking about science.
Were you one of those kids always trying to figure out how things worked?
Yes. That's certainly true. There was lots of evidence going back to the time I was four that I was that kind of child. My father used to tell stories about how he would bring toys home and I would take them apart trying to see what's going on inside.
Did an interest in math and science run in your family?
It didn’t really come from my family, but I guess you could say it was nurtured by them. Like a lot of children, when I had questions I would go to my dad. My dad could always answer my questions—no matter what they were, no matter how far afield. When I became an adult I reflected on that and thought how odd that was, because my dad never finished high school. He got his GED, the equivalency.
I remember once I asked him, "Dad, do you remember me as a kid asking all kinds of questions?" and he said, “yes.” I said, "you always had answers for everything." And he said, “yes." I said, "How did you do that?" and he said, "what you don't remember son, is if I didn't have an answer immediately I would tell you hold off, and I would go and get some resource and in the next day or so I'd come back and answer your question." So I got used to the idea that questions had answers.
And while my father never had the opportunity to go to college, it was a deep desire he had as a young person, so he wanted that to be an option for his children. At our household at dinner time, the question was never: "Will you go to college?" The question was always: "What college will you go to?"
You aren't afraid to talk about faith, which is somewhat rare for a physicist. Why is that?
My mother died when I was 11. Because of that event, I had deep desire to settle questions about what happened to my deceased mother. That triggered in me a period of intense study about faith because I understood she was gone, but my question was: Where did she go? For me it wasn't just a matter of the physical. I had a strong sense that questions about souls and spirits were also valid to ask.
I loved to read as a child, so the natural thing was to go off and start reading. I read about all the world's great faith-based traditions to try and answer my question. I started reading about Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Norse mythology, beliefs of the Mayans, Incas, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc. I think the most essential questions for human beings are questions like: Who am I? Where am I? What is happening? So this felt like a natural path of inquiry.
How did you get drawn to physics in particular?
There was a particular individual associated with my coming to understand that it wasn't all science that I wanted to do, but instead only physics. It was a gentleman by the name of Mr. Freeman Coney. He was the physics teacher at Jones High School, a historically black high school in Orlando. He had an actual undergraduate degree in physics, so I learned high school physics from someone who had a deep mastery of the subject. Two weeks into the course, I knew that's what I wanted to do.
One day in class, Mr. Coney performed an experiment where he took essentially a meter stick that was attached to the front of a board, and he tilted the board which had a small ball attached to it, a golf ball or something like that. We had a stopwatch, and he showed that the distance the ball travels as it rolls down the board is proportional to the square of the time on the stopwatch.
That is the only piece of real magic I have ever seen in my life—because for me, mathematics is an element of the imagination. It is, by that definition at least, something that resides between my ears; it's one of the apps I run in my head. To see mathematics describe something in the world outside of my ears means that it's also around us in some profound sense. I recognized that at age 16 in this physics class.
I was very comfortable building worlds in my head already, but now to understand that some of these constructs between my ears had something to do with the world around me, that was stunning. For me it was a little bit like waking up and finding yourself in Hogwarts where you find out suddenly that the incantations that you learned from books affect the world around you.
You studied both mathematics and physics before moving into theoretical physics. These fields often revolve around questions that take years, if not decades, to answer—or that can’t be answered at all. Was that a stark contrast to growing up with your dad and the sense that all questions were answerable?
Not really. When one matures, the first thing you come to understand is limits. There are limits to what humans can do. There are limits to what any one person can do in a lifetime. What my dad did for me was get me into the mode of thinking that when you have questions you should go through the process of seeking answers. So I never found that distressing.
Your research focuses on supersymmetry, which speaks a lot to the fundamental nature of the universe. How did you end up specializing in this area?
I always knew that I wanted to make my living on the boundary of mathematics and physics, because what drew me into thinking about physics was that magical, incantation-like property of mathematics in the realm of physics. That's theoretical physics.
Supersymmetry, a subfield of theoretical physics that I’ve now been working on for most of my life, was a very new idea when I was still in school. It was only about two or three years old in the western physics literature. I wanted to distinguish myself from other people who were doing science at MIT. In fact, there was no one else at MIT in 1975 who had any interest in this idea of supersymmetry, in the physics department or any other department.
I was first drawn to it because of its mathematical structure. The mathematics is unlike anything I had ever learned in graduate school up to that point. I also realized that it had an astounding implication: that it’s possible that more forms of matter and energy exist than I had ever learned in any class. These two things convinced me that this was a place that I could possibly make a contribution to science.
In science, both mathematics and physics play large roles in describing and probing the earliest stages of our universe. But some people view the question of where our universe came from as the sole domain of faith or religion. What do you think about how science and faith are often pitted against each other?
I have never found a schism in my life between doing science and having religious beliefs. Evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould explains why faith and science don't conflict using the phrase “non-overlapping magisteria.” I find this idea fascinating, because if it's correct, there ought to be mechanisms in each sphere of belief—whether it's in faith or in science—that are responsible for this property of the non-overlapping attribute.
I spent some years thinking about it and it occurred to me that science seems to have one such mechanism. In science, not only do we tell people our best estimation about what's going on in the universe, we also pay rigorous attention to what we don't know. This is quantified in science as what are called "error bars" or "confidence bars." We pay just as much attention to these uncertainties as we pay to that measured values of things around us. And there will always be uncertainty in any argument based on science.
That's interesting in the context of faith because just as there will be uncertainty in any belief we may have, we will also have uncertainty in any disbelief we have. In my mind, this is the protection mechanism that science has built into it so that it does not intrude into faith-based belief systems.
In religion there's a different protection mechanism. Saint Augustine, a Catholic saint mind you, said that people of faith must recognize that when people talk about the natural world and honestly record and observe phenomena that are in opposition to their belief, it is their belief it has to give way and not the other way around.
In my mind there's this beautiful symmetry about why Gould got it exactly right. They don't overlap, they’re just very different things. I believe that both faith and science are essential for the survival of our species.