Professor James Gates delivers his big ideas in analogies and metaphors.
Setting lax standards for schoolchildren in science classes is like teaching them to dunk a basketball on a 9-foot-high hoop, when kids the next town over play with one 10 feet high, the state school board member says.
Without diversity of thought and perspective among collaborating scientists, you get nothing but classical music, the physicist argues. "When you let different people create different music, you get things like rock 'n' roll, jazz," Gates said. "I have a particular kind of individualized viewpoint about the way mathematics I do should work."
His research at the University of Maryland, College Park focuses on translating that complex math into something digestible for other scientists and the rest of us. Much of his work seeks to replace messy equations with a (relatively) simple set of pictures and diagrams that can help reveal characteristics of theoretical subatomic particles.
It is both his groundbreaking ideas in the field of particle physics known as supersymmetry and his ability to explain them better than anyone else that have landed Gates seats on the state school board and on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Last year, he received a National Medal of Science from the National Science Foundation, and on Friday, the Harvard Foundation will bestow on him the title of Scientist of the Year.
Gates enjoys about as much celebrity as a theoretical physicist can have. In a popular video by the PBS show "Nova," he attempts to explain string theory in 30 seconds.
As he continues his own exploration of science, he is also making efforts to ensure young scientists are ready to pick up where he leaves off.
"Most scientists, we get busy with our own work. Not many take the time to spread it at a level that is accessible to the general public," said Jogesh Pati, University of Maryland professor emeritus who led the effort to recruit Gates to College Park in the 1980s. "Jim has great strength in doing it. Beautifully, he does it."
Seeking to understand the universe
His work is devoted simplifying the complex.
His specialty, supersymmetric string theory, seeks to mesh the two dominant branches of physics, Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, into a single set of rules governing the universe. The former explains gravity in the context of the vastness of space and time; the latter focuses on the rules guiding atomic and subatomic phenomena.
The 63-year-old's interest in the physics of things was sparked by a science fiction movie he saw as a small boy and a book on space travel his father brought home. Before delving into a career in physics, he was a round or two of cuts away from entering the space program as an astronaut.
After his mother died when he was an adolescent, Gates spent much of his teenage years asking the sorts of existential questions many others grapple with later in life. Nowadays he considers himself a Quaker, but for years he delved into world religions and mythologies until, around age 16, he says he "didn't have any deep remaining questions."
"In 40 to 50 years since then, I have not seen anything that informs me I made a misjudgment," Gates said.
Other questions later led him into the field of supersymmetry. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his doctoral thesis was the first on the topic — and drew a compliment from faculty member Ernest Moniz, now U.S. energy secretary, for the best thesis defense he had ever seen, Gates recalled with a mix of pride and embarrassment.
Gates said such praise doesn't evoke pride, but rather encouragement.
Colleagues say any scientist needs to tread into new territory to make an impact, but Gates stands out for his ability to lead others along his path.
"He sees things in a geometric way, which, in a broad sense, is a way that allows you to visualize things and makes things more understandable," said Martin Rocek, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who was part of a group of physicists Gates has collaborated with on key supersymmetry research.
One of Gates' first and seminal papers was "Superfield supergravity" in 1979, a collaboration with Warren Siegel, another Stony Brook professor. Rocek recalled that Siegel had some provocative and original ideas in papers he had published on his own, "but nobody understood them at all." When Gates joined Siegel on the 1979 paper, he elucidated the ideas so much that the work has been cited hundreds of times since.