‘Mathematics is my first language and English is my second’

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has announced theoretical physicist Sylvester James (‘Jim’) Gates Jr. as the winner of the 2021 Andrew Germant Award.  This award is presented to individuals who have made significant contributions to the cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics. In their announcement, the AIP says the award recognises Prof Gates for ‘being a steadfast ambassador of science policy and the history of physics’.

‘We are honoured to be associated with Prof Gates as one of the members of our Scientific Advisory Board (SAB),’ says Prof Francesco Petruccione, the Interim Director of the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS). ‘His inspirational leadership has been exemplary over many years and it continues to motivate aspiring scientists.’

This leadership is probably best illustrated by Jim Gates’ own comments on being the Andrew Gemant Award recipient: ‘Perhaps I have been able to accomplish something I have described as providing a doorway through which others can traverse to a brighter future… On many occasions, as I have taught across the decades, I have been struck by the fact that sometimes no matter how many occasions I have taught a lesson, some student will come up with a way of thinking about a problem that has never occurred previously to me… Generating a distinctive way of thinking is the key predicate to creative and powerful innovations. There is a cornucopia of such lessons, but this is the most important one for a research scientist.’

Typical of his way of thinking, he quips that ‘mathematics is my first language and English is my second’.

Prof Gates is the Brown Theoretical Physics Centre Director, the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics, Affiliate Professor of Mathematics, and Watson Institute for International Studies & Public Affairs Faculty Fellow at Brown University, where he continues to do research into string theory, supersymmetry, and supergravity. He retired from the Department of Physics and the Centre for Fundamental Physics at the University of Maryland College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences in 2017. Among others, he served on former President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and was also awarded the National Medal of Science, the highest award given to scientists in the USA, by President Obama.  He is currently the President of the American Physical Society, a non-profit membership organisation with 50,000 members around the globe working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics.

Gates comments on his relationship with the NITheCS: ‘My engagement with the South African scientific community dates back to the early 2000s and continues to this day.  In this period, I have had the privilege to visit many universities, the African Institute for Mathematical Science in Muizenberg, and enjoyed a long affiliation with the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS).  I felt very honoured to be on the committee empaneled by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation and the South African Institute of Physics in 2004 and that called for the creation of the National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP), the predecessor to the NITheCS. I was a founding member of its advisory board.’

He continues: ‘Over a decade later, I remain involved in the scientific community of the RSA.  I was recently filled with joy to receive an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Johannesburg as well as being inducted as a Fellow of the South African Institute of Physics.’

As an active researcher to this date, Gates pinpoints ‘solving mathematical/theoretical physics problems’ as something that gives him great satisfaction. In 1995, with Michael Faux, he pioneered a new mathematical concept they named ‘adinkras’ based on visual images.  The name is drawn from the example of traditional adinkras from West Africa.  The work naturally indicates computational thinking towards understanding the mathematics of supersymmetry and has led among other things, in 2020, to being able to solve a decades-old ‘11-D supergravity problem’.  The use of adinkra-based concepts and new mathematical algorithms unravelled a mystery involving 4,294,967,296 unknowns. This work was done in collaboration with Hazel Mak and Yangrui Hu, his two current graduate students.

Prof Gates’, interest in science dates back to age four and his career quest in physics goes back to his 11th grade at school in Orlando, Florida, where he experienced the difference in quality between his segregated African-American school and neighbouring white schools.  Although he ‘understood pretty quickly that the cards were really stacked against us,’ he got hooked on physics and the mathematics of physics—and from there started his road into mastering the subject. He received two bachelor of science degrees (in Mathematics and Physics in 1973) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His doctoral thesis for his PhD (1977) was the first at MIT on supersymmetry.

In the AIP announcement, CEO Michael Moloney says ‘Jim Gates has spent his life and career expanding physics and the physical sciences not only through the advancement of scientific knowledge, but also through his passion and love of sharing the wonders of science with the world.’

Prof Petruccione concludes: ‘NITheCS joins other voices in heartily congratulating and thanking Prof Gates for his invaluable contribution to the discipline. His continued enthusiasm is an example to us all.’
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