Dr. Sylvester James "Jim" Gates Jr. (pictured left) is a preeminent theoretical physicist and a champion of superstring theory, science's best hope for a unified field theory. While mathematics is the foundation for his study into the nature of the universe, he credits his family and upbringing for providing him with the foundation for success. Dr. Gates needs only look at a brick bearing his father's name at a monument to World War II veterans in Orlando, Florida, to remind him of the foundation of self-determination his father gave him.


The elder Gates joined the Army after deciding he was not going to be a farmer like the rest of his Alabama family. He became a driver for the massive (mostly African-American) Allied supply convoy through Europe during World War II, called the Red Ball Express. He attained the rank of sergeant major, the highest possible for an enlisted man. His ambition would carry over to his son. In addition, he taught his son responsibility. Dr. Gates recalled a period of time when his father took care of him and his three siblings while his mother suffered from terminal cancer.

Throughout his educational career, Dr. Gates encountered both segregated and integrated educational experiences, however, he was "typically number one or two" in any given subject. After the family moved to Orlando, he entered a segregated school system which seemed to further nurture his intellectual ability. He compared the support he got from his classmates at Jones High School to "being like a basketball star that aced tests instead of dunking in basketball games." Jones High School was also where his love of math and physics was born. One day his physics teacher wrote an equation on the board that explained the relationship between distance traveled and time1 and then proved it by rolling a ball down an inclined plane.2 Dr. Gates realized that physics could deliver mathematics from the fantasy of his books, comics, and imagination into the real world.


If you'd like to read more about Dr. Gates, please check out his biography published in Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999 by C. G. Williams (MIT Press). The book includes 175 biographies of outstanding leaders who have helped shape the world including United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Dr. Shirley Jackson, president elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Next Wave).

After high school, Dr. Gates attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he earned two baccalaureates in math and physics (1973) and later his Ph.D. (1977) in elementary particle physics and quantum field theory. While searching for a thesis project, a chance encounter with an unfamiliar mathematical symbol introduced him to the fledgling field of supersymmetry and changed both the field and his life.2 He quickly rose as a leader in supersymmetry during his postgraduate studies3 at Harvard University (1977-1980) and the California Institute of Technology (1980-1982). Dr. Gates isn't an intellectual snob by any means and equates his profession as an extension of his boyhood dreams. He states, "I'm simply trying to make a contribution to understand this beautiful order. That rich and vivid fantasy life I had--even as a teenager--is exactly what I use now in creating new forms of mathematics and new equations" (see box).

The Superstring Theory

The known universe is composed of matter--protons, neutrons, electrons, and quarks--and the forces that affect matter--gravity, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear forces. Unlike the forces that affect matter, all known matter obey the exclusion principle (two identical objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time). Quantum mechanics explains the forces that affect matter, except for gravity and the behavior of large bodies such as planets. Conversely, general relativity explains gravity and the behavior of large celestial bodies, but doesn't explain the other forces or the behavior of atoms. When these two explanations are combined, they fail to accurately describe the universe.

However, using supersymmetry, the superstring theory offers a unified field theory that would explain it all. Supersymmetry rejects the conventional view of reality by postulating new forms of matter and energy called "superpartners" which theorizes that matter and force are "equal, almost symmetrical, participants."4 Furthermore, it proposes that the smallest particles in the universe are not dimensionless points (geometric point particles), but are one-dimensional strings tiny enough to resemble a point.4 Therefore, the superstring theory states that everything--matter and energy--is composed of indistinguishable strings which vibrate at different frequencies. The superstring theory, although elegant in its ability to explain the natural world, is presently a much-debated, theoretical model. Although the technology needed to test the theory is unavailable today, science will continue to evolve which may make string theory experiments a possibility in the future.

Professional Life

Dr. Gates now embraces Einstein's expression, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." He has found knowledge to be finite, while imagination pushes the boundaries of possibility. To him mathematics is an "extrasensory perception organ" that allows him to perceive the world in ways beyond our conventional senses. "The universe is an incredibly ordered structure and mathematics is how we understand that order," Gates says. He likens it to musicians in a world without instruments who can only speak about sheet music to one another. While nonmusicians do not understand the conversation, musicians hear the notes and melodies in their head.

Dr. Gates started teaching college students as a junior in MIT's Project Interphase, a program for incoming minority students, but this enthusiasm followed him into the ranks of professor. Gates says, "I came to academia because I love to teach. Every second that students invest in education is like putting money in the bank. It will literally come back as money in their futures." In 1998, he became the first African-American endowed chair in physics at a major U.S. research university when he was named the inaugural John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. In 1999, the Washington Academy of Sciences awarded Dr. Gates with the honor of "College Science Teacher of the Year."

For more honors and awards, see Dr. Gates's Web page.

Facing Criticism

Dr. Gates gives scientific lectures all over the world, speaking to fellow scientists and translating the complexities of superstring theory to general audiences; however, he must be prepared for a variety of comments from audiences. In the mid 1980s, a white American spectator told Gates at a talk he gave in Switzerland that he had "never met a black man who speaks the white man's magic so well." Dr. Gates remembers another conversation between two African-American faculty members after one of them had completed a seminar. The one asking the questions said, "Brother, why did you educate yourself so far beyond your people?"

Gates emphasizes that African-American students must overcome such negative intellectual expectations, because race "doesn't preclude them from being intellectually excellent." He says, "The kind of research that is principally supported at HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] is not at a level that is making a vital contribution to moving scientific boundaries and technical fields forward." He feels that HBCU leadership should consider the increasing importance of mathematics, engineering, technology, and science to the economic future welfare of the African-American community. Gates believes that such a commitment would "bring our own voice to these fields in the same way that we have brought our voices to music."

Dr. Gates is indeed a leader in every sense of the word. His commitment to students has helped shape the lives of many future minority physicists. His quest for the theory of everything will undoubtedly change the face of science.


  • Jim Gates, "Viewpoints on String Theory," Nova: The Elegant Universe


  • Physics Central


  • The String Theory Web Site; Jim Gates, a supersymmetrist from superspace


  • Stringing Us Along


  • Clinton Parks is a staff writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.

    Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.