Jim Gates, physics professor and string theorist at the University of Maryland, is best known outside academia for his ability to explain the super-cerebral world of theoretical physics to scientific dummies.
In one oft-viewed PBS video, Gates endeavors to define string theory in 30 seconds, asking: What’s left after splitting an atom 35 times? “We have no instruments to measure that, and so people like me have been working on a piece of mathematics called string theory and superstring theory to answer that question. We think there are filaments there.”
For his lifetime contribution to science and research, Sylvester James Gates Jr. is among 12 men and women who will receive the National Medal of Science from President Obama during a ceremony Friday in the East Wing of the White House.
“The joy of discovery, it’s almost indescribable,” Gates, 62, said with a grin recently. “To solve a problem and be the first human being to solve that problem, that’s a feeling that’s unlike almost anything I can describe. And that happens. And so that’s a very special treasure in life for people like me.”
Gates, born in Tampa, began his career in physics in the mid-1970s at MIT, where he received two bachelor’s degrees and a PhD. As a graduate student, Gates wanted to work on supersymmetry, a theory that tries to relate two types of particles — one generally associated with mass, the other with energy — by adding extra dimensions. He couldn’t find a professor at MIT who studied supersymmetry so he taught it to himself, writing his PhD thesis on the subject.
Weeks after the White House said in December that he would be awarded the National Medal of Science, Gates received another piece of unexpected good news. He was named a University System of Maryland regents professor, just the sixth since the honor was established in 1992.
Since 2009, Gates has also served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the Maryland State Board of Education. He has used both appointments to advocate STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics education).
“As important as Jim’s contributions have been in physics, I am equally appreciative of the work he has done to inspire the next generation of doers and makers,” said John P. Holdren, Obama’s science and technology adviser. “He understands what gets kids interested in science and engineering . . . and he is a tireless advocate for getting minorities and girls, who are underrepresented in most science and engineering fields, to pursue these subjects.”
Gates’s wife, Dianna Abney, contributes to his understanding of community. She is a practicing physician and the Charles County health officer.
They met at MIT when she was an undergraduate and he was a post-doc. Their twin son and daughter, Sylvester James Gates III and Delilah Elizabeth Abney Gates, are both in their second year at the University of Maryland. Sylvester studies biology and has “mad computer graphic skills,” Gates said. Delilah is a double major in mathematics and physics, just like her father.
Abney said her husband also loves classical music and history, and has collected books on the Civil War and World War II. She said his mind never really stops working.
“He does relax like most normal people, but there are times when he will — the back of his mind, it’s like a computer program running in the background,” she said. “He’s always thinking, always working.”
Beyond explaining complex science to ordinary people, Gates said, his communication skills are important because he can help them understand the value of scientific research.
“The first person who will know if it’s possible to build a starship,” he said, “will be someone who’s working on equations like those of string theory.”
Joshua Seftel, the executive producer of the film company that developed the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers,” said Gates was one of the most popular scientists featured.
“I think everyone wants to understand string theory and almost no one does,” Seftel said. “This is one of the first times where I’ve seen a video, such a short video, where you’re like, ‘Oh, I get it.’ ”
Gates, the director of the Center for String and Particle Theory in the U-Md. Department of Physics, is the first African American “to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major U.S. research university,” according to Black Issues in Higher Education. He has been the John S. Toll professor of physics at Maryland since 1998.
“He’s everywhere, and he’s everywhere at an incredibly high level,” said Drew Baden, chairman of the Physics Department. “I like to say there’s a lot of people who have great contributions to science. . . . There’s very few people like Jim Gates who can do what he does on that scale at that level of excellence.”
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the committee of scholars that recommended Gates as a regents professor found him to be a “triple threat.”
“He does this research at the highest levels of scholarship and the frontiers of physics on the one hand. He’s a brilliant teacher in addition,” Kirwan said. “And then, thirdly, he is such an amazing communicator and expositor on science and science education at all levels.”
Gates described a fourth pillar in his career: public policy and his work as an advocate for math and science education. Gates said there are hundreds of thousands of available jobs in new fields for which employers can’t find Americans to hire.
“And these skill sets tend to be the kind of skills people who train in science, technology, engineering and mathematics possess,” he said. “If we can have Americans fill those jobs, we’re going to have to have an education system that gets them ready for it.”
Getting involved in the policy world, he said, has been like being an undergraduate and graduate student all over again. Asked whether he was enjoying earning these new degrees from this real-life college of policy and politics, he paused, then laughed.
“I’ve told some friends that this has been the most difficult thing I’ve done since I went away from high school to go to MIT,” he said, “because that’s what it felt like.”