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Gates named MLK Visiting Professor in Physics

Supersymmetry pioneer will conduct research this year at MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics.
Sylvester James Gates, Jr. ‘73, PhD ‘77
Sylvester James Gates, Jr. ‘73, PhD ‘77

Sylvester James Gates Jr. ‘73, PhD ‘77, a physicist and mathematician renowned for his pioneering work in theoretical physics and for his commitment and creativity in communicating scientific concepts, has been named Martin Luther King, Jr., Visiting Professor in Physics for 2010-2011.

Gates, currently the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland College Park, will be a visiting professor at the MIT Center for Theoretical Physics (CTP) and a scholar in residence in Simmons Hall. Wesley Harris, associate provost for faculty equity, and Department of Physics Head Edmund Bertschinger jointly announced Gates’ appointment.

Gates is a leader in the field of supersymmetry, a theory that relates the spins of elementary particles and predicts the existence of many new particles waiting to be discovered. Supersymmetry is an element of string theory, a relatively new development within theoretical physics that proposes the tiniest bits of matter are neither particles nor points, but strings that connect everything like a boundless, invisible 11-dimensional web. String theory and the more recent M theory aim to reconcile competing theories of gravity — those of relativity and of quantum mechanics — en route to discovering the elusive Unified Theory of all Physics, which has been sought by generations of scientists, including Einstein.

Particle physicist Edward Farhi, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and director of CTP, said he anticipates an inspiring year with Gates. “Jim and I go way back and our paths have crossed many times. I am thrilled that he will be spending a whole year as a member of the CTP.”

Gates, 59, has published over 120 articles on the subject, winning accolades for his contributions to physics and to physics education. His MIT dissertation, completed in 1977, was the first MIT PhD on the then-new topic of supersymmetry. Gates’ recent research focuses on the mathematical origins of the concept of supersymmetry.

Asked if there were practical applications for his work, or for string theory in general, he pointed to the long arc of time often required before research in basic science may show up as an “app” in peoples’ lives. The equations that led to cell phones were written in the 1870s — who can know where today’s supersymmetry equations may go?

Gates’ own journey into physics began with a Eureka! moment in his Florida high school classroom. A math formula describing the relationship among distance, rate and time came to life for him in a simple experiment — a ball rolling down an incline plane — and Gates was hooked. “That was — and is — the closest thing to magic I have ever seen,” he said.

Encouraged by his father, a career military man, Gates applied and came to MIT, earning undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics in 1973 and remaining for graduate work in physics. He credits members of MIT’s Black Student Union for sustaining him as he navigated the “open ocean” of his undergraduate and graduate years. An avid bowler as a student, he recalls BSU’s bowling victories with relish.

At MIT, Gates previously taught physics and directed the Office of Minority Education. He has also held teaching and leadership positions at Howard University and postdoctoral fellowships at Caltech and Harvard. A member of the American Physical Society and a former president of the National Society of Black Physicists, Gates serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology with fellow MIT-trained physicist Shirley Ann Jackson ‘68, PhD ’73.

While balancing the demands of his own research, teaching, writing, travel and family life, Gates has maintained his sense of wonder and optimism in physics. He’s quick to point out that tiny spaghetti strings and starships may sound far-out, but there’s nothing fanciful about using imagination to nourish new discoveries. That’s where he started his journey, and that’s what keeps him pursuing it.

“Imagine you had lived your entire life in a dark room,” he said. “If suddenly there appeared a window, you might not yet be able to get out of the room, but you might try. Scientific discovery is like a window for our species, and the construction of a string theory that accurately describes some aspect of our reality would be a new such window.”

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