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UM physics professor a lauded scientist, passionate teacher

James Gates known for research in supersymmetry, work on science education standards

By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

7:03 PM EDT, March 27, 2014

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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.

Embracing teaching

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.

As the ideas gained traction in the physics community, Pati and others took notice. After meeting Gates at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy one summer, Pati began pushing to lure Gates from MIT to a tenured position in Maryland.

"I realized there was a lot of potential in that field. It was still not in a fully developed state," Pati said. "I actually pleaded with the department that we should hire him, and they agreed."

Since joining the faculty in College Park in 1984, Gates has taught classes nearly every semester, with this spring among his few breaks. He first learned of his penchant for teaching while tutoring members of MIT's Black Student Union, at a time many black students still didn't feel comfortable asking teachers for help, Gates said.

"To me that was really exciting, to get that light to turn on in their eyes," Gates said.

Students and colleagues who have listened to his lectures said his style is illuminating, thanks to Gates' ability to explain broader connections and the bigger picture. In a class on quantum mechanics, for example, Gates explained it in the context of Newton's classical physics, even though the two are miles apart, said Stephen Randall, a junior physics major in College Park.

"Everything I had heard about quantum mechanics to that point was that it was just a total departure, and in a sense it is," Randall said. "A lot of teachers will present quantum mechanics in a vacuum as this totally new, independent thing. Jim connected it to what we already knew, and in a nontrivial way."

Setting standards

Gates' responsibility extends far beyond his own students. In 2009, Gov. Martin O'Malley chose him in 2009 to help schoolchildren statewide. "Maryland is, as far as I can tell, the only state in the country that has a theoretical physicist on its board of education," Gates said.

As he does in science, he takes an evidence-based approach to his role on the board. Laws requiring primary education of American children helped power the country's economy to its superpower status, he said. Failing to keep the country's education system apace with economic changes like globalization mean ignoring that history, he argued.

As a result he has helped state education officials champion the curriculum changes known as Common Core. He also weighed in on new national science curriculum guidelines known as the Next Generation Science Standards.

"We couldn't buy that kind of credibility," state schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery said of having Gates behind the state's curriculum changes. "It has brought great integrity to the process because he is a man of integrity. He's not just a brilliant scientist."

He also has used his position to focus on achievement disparities, arguing that all students should have the opportunities he did. While Gates rose to MIT from a segregated Florida high school, thanks in part to good teachers there, when he became a professor, he noted that many students lacked the same grounding in science he entered college with, despite attending some of the country's best high schools.

"He's very focused on saying, 'It's one thing to look in the aggregate, but then when we peel back the onion, are all students succeeding in the same way?' " said Charlene Dukes, the school board president and president of Prince George's Community College. "If they're not, what are the things that need to be put in place so every student has an opportunity to be successful?"

Making science accessible

His powers of explanation have helped him bring science to general audiences.

As part of a "Nova" series called "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers," he lays out in half a minute the idea behind string theory — or most of it. "I tried," he says at the end.

In another, he lays out a lofty standard for success — that "I will, by the end of my career, have done something of value for our species." Science, he said, is the foundation for the technology that improves our lives, and could ultimately save us from global warming or other perils.

In 2012, he drew widespread attention for saying he had detected a pattern resembling a form of binary computing code — similar to that running search engines and Web browsers — within supersymmetry equations that intend to describe rules that govern the universe.

"I'm left with the puzzle of trying to figure out whether I live in the Matrix or not," joked Gates in a panel discussion with prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, referring to the 1999 film in which reality as perceived by most people is a computer simulation.

The comments stirred big questions for some. "Most professional physicists are not too happy with it," Rocek said. "He's making claims that are in no way justified by the work he's describing."

The organizers of the Harvard award said Gates is being recognized not just for his contributions to the supersymmetry field, but for his efforts to spread scientific knowledge into the general population, said S. Allen Counter, a Harvard neuroscience professor and director of the Harvard Foundation.

Gates acknowledges that he is unlike most scientists.

"I'm unusual, according to a lot of people," he says. "I like to say I'm slightly crazy."

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S. James Gates

Age: 63

Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bachelor's degree 1973, doctorate 1977

Occupation: John S. Toll Professor of Physics, director of Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, College Park

Family: Married to Dr. Dianna Abney, pediatrician and Charles County health officer; two children

Honors: University System of Maryland Regents Professor, 2013 National Medal of Science recipient, 2013 Mendel Medal winner, member of President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology