The Universe According to Jim Gates

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The Universe According to Jim Gates


Rachel Kaufman

  S. James Gates is pictured outside the physics building at the University of Maryland, College Park. Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Supersymmetry expert S. James Gates, distinguished professor and Center for String & Particle Theory director at the University of Maryland, will be featured as one of the keynote speakers at PhysCon.

If we are living in the Matrix, Jim Gates will probably be the first one to figure it out.

The theoretical physicist, who will give one of the plenary talks at PhysCon this year, has spent his entire career looking for supersymmetry. It’s a concept tough for many to wrap their heads around, but it proposes that all particles have partners (that we haven’t discovered yet).

Along the way, Dr. Gates has gotten attention for discovering what he says is computer code in the math of supersymmetry. Specifically, he said he has found an error-correcting mechanism; others have analogized this code to the checksums that make the Internet work by ensuring that transmitted information is accurate. This find has led him to speculate—in a mostly joking way—that we might be living in a giant computer simulation.

What this would mean for our universe is not yet clear. But Gates is content to keep looking until he finds out.

Sylvester James Gates, born December 15, 1950, in Tampa, Florida, was fascinated by science at an early age. He cites books on space travel that his father bought him at age eight as sparking his interest. “A world exploded in my head,” he said in 2013, “because I could see from these books that these tiny points of light in the sky at night were places you could go. And somehow in my young mind I knew that mathematics and science had something to do with going to those places.”1

A bit character in an episode of the sitcom Make Room for Daddy inspired him to set his sights on MIT. Gates told NOVA that seeing a smart kid who attended MIT on that show was “how I found out that there’s a place you can go to college where they only make you study the good stuff,” the good stuff being math, science, and engineering.2

But as he grew older, Gates, who is African American, faced racial biases on the road to college. “I had to learn to be black,” he said in a 2013 speech.

A few years prior to Gates discovering MIT, his father left the US Army and moved to Orlando, Florida. At that time, the army had integrated schools, but Orlando did not.

“Segregation is an interesting phenomenon to experience,” he said. “The people that are the minority come to believe the things that are said about them…One day on the playground…another African American said, ‘You’re pretty good at school.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ And he said, ‘But you can’t be as smart as a white guy.’”

When it came time to apply to college a few years later, “I understood lots of things about the rules of how our society worked in those days, and I thought there’s no way in the world that I would have the opportunity to go to such a place.” He would have stopped himself from applying, but his father “literally forced me to fill out the application form.” 3

Gates was accepted. At MIT he earned two degrees, one bachelor’s in math and another in physics, and went on to earn his PhD there four years later. His dissertation was the first written about supersymmetry at MIT, and no professors there could help him. Undaunted, he taught himself, earned his degree, and moved on to Harvard.

After a number of prestigious research and teaching positions, Gates landed at the University of Maryland in 1984.

Since then, Gates has been plugging away at supersymmetry and string theory. His research has been recognized with the National Medal of Science and the Mendel Medal, as well as an appointment to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

We do not yet know whether string theory or supersymmetry is true. The first round of experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider found no evidence of supersymmetry. But that’s just a push to keep going, Gates says.

“String theory is often criticized as having had no experimental input or output, so the analogy to a religion has been noted by a number of people,” Gates told NOVA. “In a sense that’s right; it is kind of a church to which I belong. We have our own popes and House of Cardinals. But ultimately, science is also an act of faith—faith that we will be capable of understanding the way the universe is put together.”4

And if string theory is correct, so what? Well, Gates admits he doesn’t know. But think of scientists like James Maxwell who unified electricity and magnetism. “One can imagine saying, ‘Professor Maxwell, what do your equations mean?’ He would struggle for answers. He would say, ‘Well, you know, the electric and magnetic phenomena are not separate, they’re part of a unity.’ But beyond that I think he would be rather hard-pressed to tell you what it means. One hundred and fifty years later we can answer this question very easily. A large fraction of our technological basis rests on his work.”5

“So if string theory is correct, what does it mean? Well, one can imagine 150 or 200 years from now some marvelous piece of technology that’s beyond my imagining. Maybe it’s a transporter from Star Trek, perhaps it’s warp drive, maybe our species finally is released from … being contained in a single solar system.”6

Until then, Gates will keep looking.


1   World Science Festival. “The Moth: Go Tell It on the Mountain - Jim Gates”. YouTube video, 21:17. December 5, 2013,
2   Gates, Jim. Interview with Joe McMaster. NOVA, Public Broadcasting Service, July 2003.
3   World Science Festival, 2013.
4    McMaster, NOVA, 2003.
5    Ibid.
6    Ibid.

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