Gates, Jr., Sylvester James 1950–

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Sylvester James Gates, Jr. 1950

Professor of physics

At a Glance

Encouraged by Parents

The Game of Physics

String Theory


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To borrow a phrase from the television series Star Trek, Sylvester James Gates, Jr. has made a career out of going where no man has gone before. For the past 20 years, he has been on the leading edge of exploring and trying to explain the basic building blocks of the universe. His work in the area of mathematics and physics has led to four notable contributions and many smaller ones to the creation of a new theory that promises to finally explain the ultimate nature of the universe, according to the Washington Post. This theory is called superstring theory.

Gates has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Howard University, and the University of Maryland at College Park. He has written one book and edited two others. He has published more than 120 research articles in dozens of the worlds most important physics journals. He has given numerous presentations about his research to both fellow researchers and the general public. Yet with all this keeping him busy, Gates also finds time for young students, too. He has spoken at many schools in the Washington, DC. area. He also advises many graduate students in their research. He is well liked by his students and had been featured on television shows.

Sylvester James (Jim) Gates, Jr. was born on December 15, 1950, in Tampa, Florida. His father, Sylvester James Gates, Sr., was a career military man in the U.S. Army for 24 years, before retiring to work for the postal service and being a union organizer. Because of his fathers work, Jim Gates, along with his younger sister and two younger brothers, moved often during their youth. Gates had lived in six cities by the time he reached the sixth grade.

When Gates was 11 years old, his mother, Charlie Engels Gates, died of cancer. Outlook stated that Gates invented a vivid fantasy life, playing games of space travel and rockets, in order to escape the grief over her death. Explaining that Gatess mothers death made clear the difference between reality and fantasy, Gates himself told Outlook, When my mother died I grew up immediately, emotionally.

Gates recalled that his interest in science began early in life. He remembers his father bringing home a book on

At a Glance

Born Sylvester James Gates, Jr., December 15, 1950, in Tampa, Florida; son of Charlie Engels, a homemaker and Sylvester James Gates, Sr., a career mil itary employee, postal worker and union organizer; married Dianna Elizabeth Abney, a pediatridan; children: one son and one daughter.fducat/on; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, B.S. in physics, 1973, B.S. in mathematics, 1973, Ph.D. in physics, 1977.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assistant professor of applied mathematics, 1982-84; University of Maryland at CollegePark, associateprofessorof physics, Î 98488, professor of Physics, 1984-88; Howard University, professor and physics departmentchair, 1991-93. Coauthor (with M. T. Grisaru, M. Rocek, and W. Siegel), Superspaœ, orí001 Lessons inSupersym-metry, Benjamin-Cummings, 1983. Coeditor (with R. N. Mohapatra), PrœeedingsoftheFirstlntemationalWŒkshopon Strings, CompositeStruauresandCosmology, WorldScientific Publishing, 1987, (withC. R. Preitschopf and W.Siegel), Praœedngso/theSfr ing, 1989.

Awards: Natl.Merit Scholarship, 1969-73; National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, 1981-82; Martin LutherKingAward, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1985; 21 St Century Initiative Award, Howard University, 1992; 1993 NationalTechnical AchieveroftheYear Award, National Technical Association, 1993; 1993 Physidstof the Year Awarct National Technical Association, 1993; University ofMaryland Outstanding Minority Teacher Award, 1996.

Memberships: Natl. Society of Black Physicists, (president, 1992-94); American Physical Society, (general councillor, 1997-2001).

Addresses: Office-do Office of Univ.Relations, 2101 Tumer Building, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, 20742-5411. [email protected]

planets. He also read many science fiction novels and comic books. Somehow seeing those images and reading those things spurred me to create fantasy places in my mind. In the end, I wound up drawing some comic book characters of my own and creating adventures with them, he said in the Washington Post.

Encouraged by Parents

Gates also believes that his father encouraged his interest in science. When I was a kid, I had lots of wild questions. And I can not remember my dad ever saying that he did not have time to answer, he said in Outlook. He was a disciplinarian, recalled Gates in the Washington Post, and, frankly, I attribute my success, whatever that may be, to picking the right father. Hes still one of my very best friends. When his father remarried, Jims new stepmother helped to reinforce the need for education. She was a teacher and made sure that access to books in the home was a priority.

When Gates was ready to begin the sixth grade his family moved to Orlando, Florida. It was the first time that he had to attend a segregated school. I had been used to living with people from many different cultures, Gates said in Outlook. It was not an issue in my life. Suddenly we were moved to an environment in which we were forced to go to all-black schools. Gates went on to say that he had not encountered racism until that time.

At the new school Gates and a friend started a chess club. The matches were always at what we called the white high schools, Gates said in the Washington Post. The difference in learning environments was profound. Itd be an amazing experience because youd see audio-visual equipment that we had no dreams of having, swimming pools, tennis courtsthings that were just unimaginable. So I understood pretty quickly that the cards were really stacked against us [blacks]. Gates believes that caring black teachers made up for some of the things lacking in the poorly funded black schools with their sorely outdated textbooks. Meanwhile, Gatess chess team never lost a match to a team from a white high school according to the Washington Post.

The Game of Physics

In the 11th grade, Gates took a course in physics. He has said that he knew immediately that it was what he wanted to do with his life. To me, mathematics was something we did in our heads and was thus, almost by definition, an element of our imaginations, he said in the Washington Post. It was a game whose rules we learned to play in school. But like every game of fantasy, those rules could be changed at our desire. Physics showed Gates how to apply those mathematical rules to real life. It showed him that real events in life could be explained mathematically through science.

Gates advice to the young is to take algebra. As he commented in Outlook, I tell them that if as a ninth grader you choose not to take an algebra course, 57 percent of the possible jobs you could have had will no longer be accessible. You have a choice. You can be poor in this society, or you can choose to get an education. And it starts with algebra. Continuing to discuss education Gates told Outlook, It is not clear to me .that we do a good job of getting our kids to understand that education is the basis of high-tech industry and the basis of their future. I see messages that say, become a basketball player, become an entertainer, youll make millions of dollars.

Though Gates always did well in school, he almost did not attend college. Though several colleges had contacted him about attending their school, Gates was afraid to apply for fear of being rejected. I came from an intact family with a father who was an excellent role model, said Gates in Outlook. And yet by the time I was a senior graduating from high school I had bought into the idea that this society would not afford me the opportunities it did for other bright kids.

Gatess father eventually convinced him to apply, and, happily, he was accepted at the MIT, one of the most academically exclusive colleges in the country. Gates completed all of his education there, receiving bachelors degrees in both physics and mathematics and a Ph.D. in physics. His accomplishments were made possible in part through a National Merit Scholarship, loans, and jobs. He then went on to earn post doctoral fellowships at both Harvard and the California Institute of Technology.

While he was in his doctoral program, Gates met and became friends with another student, Ron McNair, the physicist and astronaut that would later be killed in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion. Gates had applied to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to be an astronaut and made several rounds of cuts but did not make the final cut. In the Washington Post, Gates said of McNair, We approached physics problems in different ways. Id naturally take one approach, but he would come at a problem from an entirely different direction. We both got the same answer. That taught me the value of looking for different approaches to a problem.

String Theory

Gatess main focus has been in trying to understand the universe at the smallest levels. Up until the 1970s, scientists thought that the universe was based on smaller and smaller particles: atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons; protons and neutrons are composed of quarks; and science wondered whether quarks and electrons were composed of yet smaller particles. Experiments seemed to say no. Until recently, the assumption in these experiments had been that everything in the universe from quarks to planets are points. String theory suggested that the smallest particles are not points but strings. The strings may be so very small that even to the strongest microscope strings appear to be points.

String theory originated because the two main theories about the behavior of stuff in the universe-Einsteins Theory of Relativity and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics-have different ways of explaining gravity. Physicists such as Gates have spent the last 25 years or so trying to figure out a way to join these two theories with an explanation for their differences. All the physics that weve done for 2,000 years has been based on the notion that when you get matter in its smallest pieces, essentially, youre looking at billiard balls, Gates told Outlook. Thats what a point particle is. Gravity wouldnt go together on the small scale of this model. If you replace the notion of tiny billiard balls with tiny pieces of spaghetti, it seems to work.

Thereve been lots of other attempts to reconcile relativistic gravity and quantum theory, but theyve all failed, Gates told the Washington Post. The only survivor is string theory. A lot of us think it is right and that we may have finally answered the great question. Most of the work Gates does in his field involves creating and solving mathematical equations that try to explain what happens in the world at that small level, a task where he gets to use that imagination that used to create rockets and cartoon characters. To me, he said in the Washington Post, this is the most intellectually exciting thing to think aboutand the most fun.



McMurray, Emily J., ed., Notable Twentieth Century Scientists, Gale, 1995.


Outlook (University of Maryland at College Park), September 6, 1994, p.8

Washington Post, December 11, 1996, p. H1; December 11, 1996, p. H6.

Steve Stratton

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Gates, Jr., Sylvester James 1950–

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