Starships and String Theory: Chasing the big questions at Brown

Physics professor Sylvester "Jim" Gates charts his path from sci-fi fan to theorist, teacher, and collaborator, and reveals how he's using a centuries-old language to uncover new possibilities.

Professor Jim Gates


Gates talks about his childhood fascination with space, his work on supersymmetry and string theory, and why he came to Brown.

Brown's Sylvester "Jim" Gates is a physicist—a theorist on the frontiers of supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. But the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics and director of the Center of Advanced Theoretical Sciences was first drawn to science facts courtesy of science fiction. He has recently co-authored a new book, Proving Einstein Right, with novelist Cathie Pelletier. It tells the stories of astronomers who worked for a decade to get images of a solar eclipse, which ultimately showed that Einstein's theory of relativity was correct.

In the fall, he sat down to talk about the genesis of his academic journey, the value of endowed professorships, and the power of collaboration at Brown. 

Starting early

My interest in science dates back to when I was four years old and living with my parents and siblings in St. John's, Newfoundland. Mom took me to Spaceways, a science fiction movie. I took away from it that science was a doorway to adventure and excitement, and it had the ability to allow an individual to shape the course of their life. My parents said that that evening I tried to explain to my father how rockets worked. Four years later, when I was having trouble learning to read, my father gave me children's books on space travel written by Willy Ley. My difficulties disappeared relatively quickly.

Speaking the language of mathematics

Many say that mathematics is the language of our universe. I say that mathematics is the only human language we have created to access how the universe works: It's something internal to us. Mathematics is about an interaction between conscious minds observing the universe and then creating models in those minds of how the universe works. And it's the language that allows our technology to come into being. Of all the human languages, mathematics is our only language that leads directly to apps.

There's a precision to this language that is not present in other languages. Physicists speak a slang version, allowing us to be innovative and creative in what we generate. Our new pieces of mathematics can then be studied by mathematicians: It's a centuries-old, two-way exchange that continues to empower the progress of both physicists and mathematicians. 

Asking extraordinary questions

Some extraordinary questions exist in physics about the structure of the universe. One of them is, 'Why are we here at all?' In the late '60s and early '70s the first piece of mathematics predicting the Higgs boson was completed. In the last five, six years, the Higgs boson has been discovered. These are the kinds of discoveries that technologies rely on about 100 years into the future.

When you discover these strange mathematical facts about our universe, you can potentially set in place the foundation for revolutions approximately a century into the future. It was clear to me when I was a graduate student studying supersymmetry that it was a new idea that predicted new forms of matter and energy no one had ever seen possible. What will it be good for? When you open up new ideas about the nature of things in physical reality, you open up new possibilities. 

Providing opportunities for undergraduate research

In 1999, another professor and I began the Summer Student Theoretical Physics Research Session, giving undergraduates access to the kind of research that I do. During the one-month program, we teach students a set of mathematical tools and what collaborative skills look like. Nearly half of the participants wind up as co-authors of my papers: I have co-authored 22 papers with more than 50 undergraduates because of this program.

Celebrating collaboration

The cross-disciplinary reality at Brown is best exemplified by research that I posted online this summer. I'm not an astronomer, a cosmologist, or astrophysicist: I'm a mathematical physicist who worries about weird little mathematical objects. Yet at Brown, I had the ability to talk to experts in other areas in order to make a prediction about something that might be in the sky. I have also been in conversation with a member of the ecology and environmental biology department, because part of my work involves something like evolution. I have a structure around me here that will allow me to continue to explore and am in a very happy place right now, professionally. 

Valuing endowed professorships

A great university charges its faculty with conducting research. Typically, it is funded by philanthropic or government agencies. But those agencies have agendas and support that is important for their mission. Endowments, however, allow individuals who have established some record of innovation over a period of time to ask questions that require funding without worrying about an externally imposed mission. In my career, it was extraordinarily important that I was an endowed professor when I created the piece of mathematics we call Adinkras. In order to attract minds that ask questions unfettered by what the answers will be, offering an endowed faculty chair is the gold standard. 

And finally...what about those starships?

Will we ever construct spaceships like those in Star Wars? Well, the first person who will likely know is someone who's working on equations like those in supersymmetry and string theory. We also may be able to answer questions about dark energy and dark matter which, from our observation, are necessary parts for how you construct our universe. Answering big questions about the universe is a joyful challenge. 

Professor Gates's interview has been edited for space and clarity.