Photo of Sylvester James Gates Jr.

Sylvester James Gates Jr.

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For contributions to the mathematics of supersymmetry in particle, field, and string theories and extraordinary efforts to engage the public on the beauty and wonder of fundamental physics.

Jim Gates recounts his father’s reaction to being admitted to MIT for undergrad

Newton saw the apple fall and wrote equations describing what was happening. Einstein saw the galaxies spin and wrote general relativity equations to describe the universe. Physicists in the 20th century discovered particles much smaller than atoms and wrote their own equations to describe what they uncovered and called them quantum mechanics.

All of those equations are beautiful and function quite well within their own scales. The problem is that one set of equations seems all but incompatible with the other. Combining the physics of the large—Einstein’s theory of general relativity—with the physics of the small—quantum mechanics—just doesn’t work.

“When you try to put those two pieces of mathematics together, they do not coexist peacefully,” explains James Gates, Jr. He ought to know. Gates is at the forefront of the charge to bring these two fundamental explanations of the physical world together.

His work in the somewhat strange-sounding fields of supersymmetry and string theory has provided the mathematical underpinnings for the exploration of the universe on tiny scales that were previously unknown and inaccessible. This is the forefront of modern theoretical physics–the hunt for a unifying theory that will tie everything together. And Gates may very well be the man to do it.

When he isn’t crunching mind-boggling equations, Gates can often be found working to spark the public’s interest and understanding in physics and science. He is a sought after speaker and talk show guest, appearing frequently on PBS and other national station programming. He uses his own role as a trailblazing African-American physicist—and one of the brightest mathematical minds of his generation—to inspire others to take an interest in the scientific world. “For me,” he says, “there is a personal joy in participating in [the scientific] adventure. It belongs to everybody, just like great art and great music belongs to everybody. Great science belongs to everybody.”