On Being with Krista Tippett

S. James Gates

Uncovering the Codes for Reality

Last Updated

June 6, 2013

Original Air Date

March 1, 2012

Are we in the matrix? Physicist James Gates reveals why string theory stretches our imaginations about the nature of reality. Also, how failure makes us more complete, and imagination makes us more knowledgeable.

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S. James Gates Jr. is Toll Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland in College Park. He serves on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.


June 6, 2013

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: S. James Gates is a physicist, a theorist on the exotically named frontiers of superstrings and supersymmetry. These are fields where science is trying to reconcile its own most baffling contradictions. And whether you can fully comprehend string theory or not, its basic assumptions stretch our imagination about the nature of the universe we inhabit. James Gates brings this home with ideas and questions we can all chew on and be enriched by. He lets us in to the playful, creative, even spiritual, act of naming in science. He’s working to evolve the cosmic language of mathematics, much as poetry evolved alongside prose, to tell the whole story of what we’re made of and where we came from. And he sees codes embedded in reality, something like the codes embedded in computer programs.

DR. S. JAMES GATES JR.: I remember watching the movies, The Matrix, and so the thought occurred to me, suppose there were physicists in this movie. How would they figure out that they lived in the matrix? One way they might do that is to look for evidence of codes in the laws of their physics. But you see that’s what had happened to me already.

MS. TIPPETT: “Uncovering the Codes for Reality.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.

Sylvester James Gates Jr. is a professor and director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, where he’s a Regents Professor. He’s also a member of the National Academy of Sciences. I interviewed him in 2012; I also spoke with him once before, years ago, for a program on Einstein’s ethics.

We talked then about the inspiration James Gates drew from Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his own childhood attending segregated schools, but he went on to become the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major U.S. research university. And his work on supersymmetry — a feature of the universe that might help illustrate string theory — is part of the greatest controversy in physics since Einstein.

How to explain the fact that the universe seems to follow different rules at its highest levels and its smallest levels? String theorists suggests that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, filaments or strings of vibrating energies animate all the richness and diversity of the cosmos. James Gates’ own early interest in science was sparked by books about rocket ships by a writer named Willy Ley, and a movie called Space Waves.

MS. TIPPETT: Isn’t it interesting that space is the word we use? It doesn’t even begin to convey what you know about [laugh] what we call space now.

DR. GATES: I like to tell people that, from reading the books by Willy Ley, I had my own personal big bang between my ears because, around age eight or so, you know, I had an idea about how large the universe must be and it didn’t come from any great deep insight. The point was that, as an eight-year-old child, I saw these tiny dots of light in the sky and when I realized that they were places, the question was, well, gee, how far could they be if they were that small? So I just had a sense of the enormity of the size of the universe, not by any scientific or mathematical skill, but just sort of in a personal relationship sort of way. That’s when I kind of knew where I was in the universe. You know, it’s a very strange thing for an eight-year-old kid to come upon, but that’s what happened to me.

MS. TIPPETT: And you also, I understand, were reading science fiction. You had a big science life and a big fantasy life and, in fact, both of those things worked well with going into physics [laugh].

DR. GATES: Absolutely. That drive to learn to read actually caused an intersection with another very famous name of science fiction, namely Isaac Asimov.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, right, right.

DR. GATES: Isaac Asimov had another pseudonym called Paul French, and he wrote a series of children’s books of adventures on Mars.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I didn’t know that.

DR. GATES: Yes. And the character’s name was Lucky Starr, with two R’s. And my mother died from cancer in 1963, and one of the ways that I avoided having to deal with that horribly painful situation was to escape into the world of science fiction and fantasy. So that was a very powerful force impelling me to exercise my imagination. Then on top of that, we have kind of what I call a math bug in our family. My grandfather could neither read nor write, but he could do simple arithmetic. And my dad never finished high school, but he was clearly interested in mathematics. I remember watching him studying trigonometry and even some calculus as he was a soldier, particularly when he was working with artillery in the U.S. Army.

MS. TIPPETT: So I wonder, when you — is it right that you wrote the first-ever doctoral dissertation at MIT on supersymmetry?

DR. GATES: That is absolutely true. I can’t say it’s the first in the world because it probably wasn’t. There’s no kind of official registry of these things.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. But it was pretty new when you were writing about it.

DR. GATES: Absolutely. And I was just totally blown away by the idea that I was alive at a time when there were these mathematical equations that said there were more forms of matter and energy than anyone had ever imagined before. I just couldn’t believe I could get so lucky.

MS. TIPPETT: So I’m going to risk asking some really silly questions.

DR. GATES: Oh, there are no silly questions.

MS. TIPPETT: But I’m not the only … well, OK, all right. So one thing I do understand is that symmetry is a quality that’s found in nature lavishly.

DR. GATES: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And so is this kind of a magnified, expanded manifestation of that?

DR. GATES: Yes. Let me talk about symmetry for a second because it turns out that we humans are exquisitely wired for symmetry. The symmetry of the face is apparently something we are perhaps even genetically coded to look for in faces. It shows up in strange places, in our art, and in our music. Like I said, it’s almost like …

MS. TIPPETT: In flowers, right? I mean, in the design that you could say that’s out in nature.

DR. GATES: In nature, you’re right. And then perhaps our human affinity for this is a reflection of what nature does because nature uses symmetry in enormous numbers of places for the shape of flowers, snowflakes, any place where we humans look out and we find something beautiful. If you analyze it long enough, you’ll probably figure out that we’re looking at a symmetric image. But then nature turns around and pulls a trick on us because, if the world were perfectly symmetrical, we could not exist. So nature in the end breaks symmetries. And it turns out that it’s by the breaking of those symmetries that the laws apparently of nature that allow human beings to exist occur in the way that they do.

MS. TIPPETT: This may be a stretch to go here, but when you were a young physicist, physics had made incredible foundational breakthroughs in the early part of the 20th century. And then those breakthroughs enabled other breakthroughs, which led to, you could say, an incredible lack of symmetry in terms of the understanding of the universe, right? That they were fundamentally …

DR. GATES: That’s a good way …

MS. TIPPETT: Is it [laugh]?

DR. GATES: Krista, are you sure you’re not a scientist?

MS. TIPPETT: I’m trying. I’m doing my best [laugh]. So there were fundamentally competing, unacceptably — irreconcilable understandings of gravity.

DR. GATES: Oh, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: And as, you know, Freeman Dyson, he gave me a picture that has been useful that there were ways to observe the laws of physics, what he called the mountaintops, which is where Einstein was so astute. Then the other end of things was the rain forests, was total chaos, seething chaos.

DR. GATES: Yes. Right. And, yes, you’re exactly right. That’s a great analogy and a way to think about physics. When I was a young theoretical physicist, I wanted to do something I think a lot of us want to do: I wanted to find a beautiful mathematical piece of magic that was also an accurate description of something in nature. That desire drives us. And so when I began to understand the kind of mathematics that Einstein established, the mountaintop mathematics, let’s call it, and also the mathematics of people like Schrödinger and Heisenberg and Bohr, which we can call the rain forest mathematics, I was in fact particularly struck by how very different they were. When I was in the rain forest mathematics, I even had a waking daydream about the equations I was studying called Schrödinger’s Equation. So this dichotomy struck me in my second year of college like, wow, can it really be so very different?

MS. TIPPETT: And string theory is an approach to reconciling those things, right?

DR. GATES: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Is that the right word, reconciling?

DR. GATES: No. That’s a great word to use because one of the interesting things about symmetry is that, even though we get to these places where things look different, sort of deep underlying that, we have kind of an intuition that it’s got to be simpler than that.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And then if you think about, say, the mountaintops where everything is orderly and the rain forest where everything is chaotic, the quantum and the higher levels of physics is that the idea that this string, you know, is one entity, but, that depending on what forces are playing on it at different ends, it may look wildly different or sound wildly different.

DR. GATES: Depending on — in fact, it works like a real string. Depending on how it vibrates determines what kind of force you think you saw. So it can vibrate one way and you’ll say, hmm, that’s an electron. Let’s say that’s a C note. If it vibrates a different way, you say, no, no, that’s a photon. Let’s call that the F note. And so all the various ways in which the string vibrates are, from our perspective, we would identify as different particles.


DR. GATES: That means that our view of the universe is very different. One of the things I like to tell people is, with string theory, we have a view of the universe where we become essential to its structure. That’s not true for the equations beforehand.


DR. GATES: So at a philosophical level, we become part and parcel of what our universe is in a way that I’ve never seen done in science before. With string theory, it’s as if we get a more complete version of the telling of the story of our existence.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Uncovering the Codes for Reality” with string theorist S. James Gates.

MS. TIPPETT: Something that you’ve written about that’s part of your endeavor is naming what you see, right? So, I mean, is that one way that we interact with these physics, just by naming what we see?

DR. GATES: You know, in many cultures, the act of naming is regarded as a very, very powerful thing.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, yes. It’s creative.

DR. GATES: For us, the naming represents a celebration of becoming aware, of knowing the universe at a different level than we had known before. One of my favorite examples is something that today we just take for granted. It’s called the electron. But there was a time before anyone ever dreamed that such an object could exist. In fact, we know the first person who had that dream. It’s a guy named G.J. Stoney. He was an electrochemist in England, and he said, “Hmm, there’s a funny bit of possibility that there’s a bit of matter smaller than an atom.” He was a person who later actually named the object the electron. So what does the naming do for us? Well, once we know it’s there, we can start to use it. And, boy, we’re using it at the very instant with the electrons that we’re manipulating to talk back and forth.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, all right.

DR. GATES: So this comes from the naming. So it’s a little bit like magic. You know, it’s like in the Harry Potter movies, there are all these spells, conjurists, this and thats.

MS. TIPPETT: So thrilling, yeah.

DR. GATES: Exactly. So in some sense, if science conjures, it’s when we get a clear picture of something that we didn’t know and we give it a name.

MS. TIPPETT: So everything we’re talking about here, the strings and even the electrons until not that long ago, were not proven they’re unseen, but you talk about the telepathic nature of mathematics.


MS. TIPPETT: So that even before some of these things can be seen in this literal sense, the theoretical physicist has this extrasensory perception organ [laugh].

DR. GATES: Yes. Mathematics is a sensory perception organ for those who learn how to use it that way. The example I like to point out most is the idea of the atom. Again, today a very mundane idea. You say atom and people yawn and say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we know all about atoms.” But you can ask, who was the first person to understand how big an atom is? You know, this is a question you very seldom encounter, but the answer turns out to be rather surprising. It’s a guy named Albert Einstein.

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

DR. GATES: Yes. Using his equations and comparing that to what was observed, he had to figure out what was the size of the atom, and he did. So in that sense, it was his mathematics that let him see the atom. Nowadays, we actually have technology. You can go in some very fancy laboratories and look through things called atomic force microscopes and we can actually see atoms. But Einstein was the first person to do it and he did it with math.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I really want to ask you — I’ve talked to various people over the years about this notion of whether mathematics is invented or discovered. You know, you use language that is related, but also distinct and interesting about science being about uncovering the codes for reality.


MS. TIPPETT: How do you think about this invented versus discovered question?

DR. GATES: I oscillate, Krista [laugh].

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. OK. Right. Yeah.

DR. GATES: Quite frankly, I oscillate. It feels as though one makes a discovery of something that was already there. It often feels that way. It’s almost like the equations are trying to tell you a story. It’s a little bit what I hear about when authors discuss how they work, that when you write a character, then the character at some point begins to take over and begin to determine …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. They come to life.

DR. GATES: Right, come to life, and then gets you to tell the story that the character wants to tell. This sense of finding the mathematics that was already there is very similar to that, I think. That we discover these things, but there’s something that seems to be pushing often. I mean, when you do the calculations, it’s as if there’s an imperative to follow a path and that this path then tells you the deeper story that the equations are trying to get out for us.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, when I was reading you and just kind of digging around on the Internet, I found a religious blogger, also a scientifically literate person, who was taking your idea of codes that structure reality that are imbedded in the essence of reality and just thinking about that theologically for its theological potential.

DR. GATES: Sure. Sure. So let me try to give a little bit of background. As you earlier asked me in this interview, I’m one of the first people in the U.S. to worry about this thing called supersymmetry, and I’ve been worried about it all of my professional life. We’ve never seen an experiment saying that, yes, I’m here in nature, but the mathematics has just been amazing. But there are problems that no one has solved yet in this mathematics.

In the middle ’90s, I decided I was getting sufficiently old that I could make a fool of myself if I wanted to, and try to solve some of these problems that people regarded as unsolvable. And in doing that, we were led first to a graphical technology, something we called the adinkras. This is a word that comes from traditional West Africa languages. But we found these mathematical objects which sit inside of the equations with the property of supersymmetry.

Then secondly, even more shocking for us, when we analyzed these objects very carefully, we found out that they have attributes of ones and zeros in precisely the same way that computers use ones and zeros to send digital information. And in particular, the kinds of codes we found, which was the most shocking thing for us, is that there’s a class of codes that allow your browsers to work in an accurate way. They’re called error-correcting codes. We found a role for error correcting codes in the equations of supersymmetry, and this was just stunning for us.

In fact, it was so stunning that it was at least eight months before any of us would sort of admit how bizarre it was. And this is a group of mathematicians and physicists. It wasn’t just me. I really do need to acknowledge. People think that science is solitary. It turns out it’s not solitary. It’s a communal activity. So there were three physicists and three mathematicians, and we wrestled with this stuff. Like I said, it was months before we would admit how bizarre this result was.

MS. TIPPETT: What was it for you that was so bizarre that you hadn’t expected to see? That overturned what you went into it with?

DR. GATES: Well, because I was just trying to solve — like always, I’m just trying to solve the equation. But to find things that are in the same classes of strings of ones and zeros that are also allowing browsers to work, I never imagined that that was possible. In fact, there was this physicist named John Wheeler who maybe 20 or 30 years ago made the assertion that goes by an aphorism he invented. He said, “It from bit.” It means everything; bit means computer bits.

Most of your listeners probably have never heard of John Wheeler, but he’s also the man who invented the word “black hole” and almost everybody knows that word. So when he made this statement about the structure of the universe — that’s the it — must somehow come about from information — those are the ones and zeros — I thought the guy was crazy. There was this earlier phase in my career where I couldn’t imagine that the equations of physics would wind up having a substructure of ones and zeros, not because you’re trying to calculate something, but because it’s intrinsically part of the equations.

MS. TIPPETT: And so one place to take this is that, rather than it being a theological notion, that we are in fact a computer program.

DR. GATES: Yes, but let me give your blogger some due, though, some props, as some young people would say.


DR. GATES: Because there is a blogger who — we wrote this story for an English journal called Physics World. It was published in the summer.

MS. TIPPETT: About the adinkras, right?

DR. GATES: About the adinkras and the codes. This blogger, who, to this day, I don’t know this young man, read the article and he raised the question that, if the equations of fundamental physics are based on information theory and essentially information theory is at the very center of string theory, how did it get there? And his implication is that indeed this is something for theologians to contemplate. You know, that was, again, for me a stunning assertion and it still has yet to be fully studied. But it probably will not be studied by physicists [laugh].

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. But it couldn’t be proven wrong any more than you could prove wrong that in fact we’re not inside the matrix somehow, not really.

DR. GATES: Well, let’s talk about the matrix.


DR. GATES: Again, I’m a science fiction fan even to this day and I remember watching the movies, The Matrix. And so, the thought occurred to me, suppose there were physicists in this movie. How would they figure out that they lived in the matrix?


DR. GATES: One way they might do that is to look for evidence of codes in the laws of their physics. But, you see, that’s what had happened to me already.

MS. TIPPETT: That you had found them?

DR. GATES: That I and my colleagues indeed, we had found the presence of codes in the equations of physics. Not that we’re trying to compute something. It’s a little bit like doing biology where, if you studied an animal, you’d eventually run into DNA, and that’s essentially what happened to us. These codes that we found, they’re like the DNA that sits inside of the equations that we study. So, yeah, do we live in the matrix?

Well, I told you earlier that I thought John Wheeler was crazy. What this experience has taught me was, if you do physics long enough, you too might become crazy. That’s what happened to me. But another physicist by the name of Eugene Wigner cautioned us about this sort of stuff. He said …

MS. TIPPETT: Is he the one who said “the unreasonable effectiveness in mathematics”?

DR. GATES: Eugene Wigner is the author of a very famous article called “On the Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics.” He basically said that just because you find a single piece of mathematics in two different systems — and I’m paraphrasing — doesn’t mean that the two systems are related to each other. So just because we have found these codes sitting in the structure of these supersymmetric equations and since these codes are like the ones that you might find in a browser doesn’t mean that a browser is related to reality, but it’s fun to think about.

[Soundbite of The Matrix]

MORPHEUS (AS PLAYED BY LAURENCE FISHBURNE): This is the construct. It’s our loading program.

NEO (AS PLAYED BY KEANU REEVES): Right now we’re inside a computer program?

MORPHEUS: Is it really so hard to believe? Your appearance now is what we call residual self-image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.

NEO: This — this isn’t real?

MORPHEUS: What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo.

MS. TIPPETT: In case you hadn’t guessed, that was The Matrix, a movie I admit I also love. It may be debatable whether the idea behind the matrix is any easier to grasp than the idea behind string theory. Toward that end, we suggest Brian Greene’s TED talk, “The Universe on a String.” We’ve linked to it at onbeing.org. A colleague in physics of S. James Gates, he brings string theory to life with dazzling, helpful visuals. He describes what scientists call strings as dancing filaments of energy.

And you can also see some wonderful pictures of James Gates’ “adinkras” at onbeing.org. While you are there, subscribe to our email newsletter. Each week, you get a link straight to our latest podcasts, invitations to live events, and a list of the most popular blog posts. Click on the newsletter link at onbeing.org.

Coming up, what James Gates’ life in science has taught him about how fallibility makes us more complete, and play makes us more knowledgeable. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. My guest is the physicist S. James Gates, a leading thinker in the world of string theory and something called supersymmetry. This is a way of reimagining the way the universe works to reconcile the competing theories that now hold sway. He’s done some groundbreaking thinking recently, proposing that the mathematical equations that have worked so well for physics up to now may not capture the codes that may underlie the whole of reality.

He’s been talking about an article he wrote, which introduces a West African word, adinkras, to describe visual objects, geometric symbols, that may unlock some of science’s deepest puzzles.

MS. TIPPETT: The piece you wrote that I could kind of follow about the adinkras, you’re talking about using visual symbols and geometric symbols, so in a way moving beyond equations adding to the vocabulary that scientists have to describe the nature of reality. And what it made me think of, it made me think of the way, in terms of language language, that there are truths you can convey with poetry that you simply can’t get at with, you know, factual sentences. Is that …

DR. GATES: No, no. That’s exactly right and, in some sense, that’s what’s been driving me in a lot of this effort to develop this because, remember, I told you there are these unsolved problems that are out there hanging around? Well, I became convinced that using the language that I and my colleagues have been developing for 30 and 40 years was probably not going to allow us to solve these mathematical problems.

So I was consciously looking for an alternative language. A moment ago, you used poetry versus prose. I was kind of looking for a new prose that would allow me to get at these problems in a way that no one had ever thought about before. So that was quite conscious that we tried to develop this alternative viewpoint to study these properties of the equations. We didn’t set out to create a graphical image-based language, but as I said earlier, mathematics often seems as though it tries to make you tell its story. That’s what happened to me. In this study, I was driven to this image-based approach because …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So it pointed you also to needing different tools for telling the story.

DR. GATES: Exactly. It turns out it’s about listening. In a very strange way, it’s about listening as if one would listen to what a character says as you’re trying to author a story. You listen very carefully and it’s amazing what happens.

MS. TIPPETT: And doesn’t that word adinkras also connote hidden meanings?

DR. GATES: Yes. Adinkras have existed in West Africa. Not our mathematical type, obviously, but the word has existed in West African cultures for a very long time. And adinkras are symbols that have hidden meaning. One of my favorite is one that was the cover of the British magazine Physics World, in which our story was the cover story. There’s an adinkra, which you look at it and it’s a bunch of shapes and it translates roughly as “he who does not know can become knowing by education.”

And so it’s a symbol that, for me, I thought was a great choice. And I have to credit my editor because I didn’t know this, but it’s a great choice for what physicists do. We become knowing through education and our education is actually a dialogue with mathematics on the one hand and nature on the other.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, this is kind of woven through our conversation, but there’s something so lyrical and whimsical about a lot of, just for starters, the way physicists name things [laugh], you know. I mean, quark or we could think of so many examples. I remember reading when the Hadron Collider made its first observation of a new particle, and the language was that it was made up of a beauty quark and a beauty anti-quark, [laugh] I mean, what is this?

DR. GATES: Yes. Well, you know, there are a couple of different interpretations people have about this sort of naming things. Yes, we do it in a whimsical manner. One reason, quite possibly, is because we are so frustrated most of the times that we get delirious when we find something new and nice. That’s one explanation I’ve heard people give. It’s kind of a tradition that’s been established that, you know, we’re having a little bit of fun. It probably can be traced back to Murray Gell-Mann and his use of the word quark, because he’s the person who did that. There was another physicist by the name of George Zweig who would have called them aces if he had had his way, but quarks won out.

MS. TIPPETT: Why would he have called them aces? Quarks was from — was it from James Joyce?

DR. GATES: That’s right. That’s exactly right. But the point is that, who, you know, the person who gets to these things first, you get to choose the name. George and Murray and were actually working independently of each other, so they didn’t know that they had both gotten to the same place.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, and Murray Gell-Mann, he also coined this phrase, “the eightfold way.”

DR. GATES: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, that’s another kind of thing you’ll find, a play with language that has these Buddhist echoes.

DR. GATES: Yes. Yes. All I can say, you know, when I was young, I thought that kind of stuff sort of annoying, quite frankly [laugh]. I’m like why couldn’t they name it like the chemist? You know, chemists use words like electronegativity. But we physicists, as I said, I think partly is the joy in what we do. You know, I’ve just passed my 61st birthday and I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had thinking and doing theoretical physics. And that perhaps is reflected in the way that I use language to describe the things that I’m doing and that I and my collaborators find. It’s kind of consistent with the way that we work these days and the fun that we have. I suspect this will continue for a very long time in theoretical physics.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s another one I found just digging around, but “sizzling black holes” [laugh].

DR. GATES: Well, from my perspective, that’s what Stephen Hawking did. Early we talked about the mountaintop and the rain forest. He’s the person who said, “Hey, you, up there on the mountain” and “Hey, you, down there in the rainforest. I can get to the tree line and you guys have got to agree on something.” That’s effectively what Stephen did with his sizzling black holes.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a line of yours I’d love for you to tell me what it means. We talked about how different part of that tree line where he was looking both directions was different explanations of gravity. But you said this: “Gravity is the odd man out for deep philosophical reasons.”


MS. TIPPETT: Talk to me about the deep philosophical reasons.

DR. GATES: Well, first of all, let me use a phrase that my colleague Steven Weinberg used in the Elegant Universe video. He said that when Newton described gravity, he joined the celestial with the terrestrial. And that’s kind of right because the celestial in those days of Newton was, gee, why do the planets move around the sun in the way they do? Or why does the moon stay up in the way that it does? The terrestrial, well, why does an apple fall on my head when I’m sitting under the apple tree?

So Newton comes up with an equation that describes both of these things and yet most of what we scientists do, with the exception of people like astronomers and cosmologists, mostly what we do is look inward. So that was the thing that I was alluding to is that a large fraction of the fundamental science that has been done to this point in our species’ history has been inward-looking.

And when you get to the point of saying that by going inward, you actually wind up having to face the outward-looking part of our universe, to me that’s a different sort of philosophical transition, which has been occurring in theoretical physics for about two decades now, where we have been forced to think that, gee, you actually have to look in both directions. You have to be that person at the tree line who understands what’s going on from the mountaintop view, but also from being under the canopy of the primeval forest. You have to understand both of those viewpoints and that, to me, that’s a different kind of philosophical approach.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being, conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Uncovering the Codes for Reality” with string theorist James Gates.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m not sure if this is at all correct, but it seems to me that the word force — I mean, I’m not sure as a nonphysicist exactly what the difference is between force and energy. I’m wondering, is force a term that physicists are using more or differently now?

DR. GATES: Yeah. Well, we do because, well, one thing I tell people is when you get people like me talking about physics to nonphysicists, we’re going lie to you, but we’re lying to you in the service of truth [laugh]. So the point is that, if I’m teaching a class of physicists, there’s a very precise meaning of the word force. If’ I’m teaching that same class of physicists, there’s a very precise meaning of the word energy. If I’m talking to the public, I cannot trot out three lines of equations to talk about what the differences are. But what I can do is to tell an accurate story about the way the universe works and, in that sense, the forces between things like electrons also represent a form of energy because photons carry energy. So I will blur that distinction in the service of trying to get this larger message out.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And, you know, force is another one of those words when you start talking about things like that and the way nature works. That language also can be theologically evocative for people.

DR. GATES: It can be, and one of the assertions of science is that we don’t know everything and that, in order to increase our knowledge, we have to be in dialogue with nature and it has to be a constant dialogue. And it’s not sufficient to end that dialogue because, as we increase our ability to measure nature, we can ask questions that are finer and finer level. And so we keep finding new things not because nature is changing, but because we are increasing our capacity to ask the questions of nature.

On the other hand, there could well be things that we can’t measure. And if that’s the case, that falls outside of the realm of science. As I have experienced science, it’s about what I can measure; it’s about what humans can discuss and create and ultimately falsify. It’s in fact not about the things that I see in faith. So, um, although it may seem theological, as I have experienced science, I don’t see how it can be theological.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, your science, the science you do, is not about human life. Your science is not explaining what it means to be human biologically, right?

DR. GATES: No, no.

MS. TIPPETT: But, but how does the science you do, the view you have of the universe, how would you think about how that then informs your sense of what it means to be human?

DR. GATES: Well, I think the deepest message I take from science is that, as humans, we actually have to embrace our fallibility. We have to embrace what we are in terms of our ability to measure, our ability to know, and that by embracing uncertainty actually, because — I think a major difference in the way that scientists view the universe and perhaps non scientists is that science in my experience does not permit us the illusion of certainty. It does not allow us to say we can be certain, and that’s one thing that causes very great difficulty in talking to the public.

Um, when you — as a scientist, as when we talk to each other and someone says, “What do you know?” First of all, the word know implies knowledge. Knowledge is a very finite thing and, when you ask a scientist about a measurement, we will tell you two things. We will tell you a number that’ll be something we have measured, and then we will tell you of something called the range of uncertainty. And what that represents is how good we are at measuring it. In science, if you give the first number without the second, it’s actually — it’s considered bad science. So we are forced by the structure of science to recognize human fallibility, human limits. And because I see in science a call for us to always be mindful of our limits, I don’t then understand how science can actually be used to attack faith.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. GATES: Science is not equipped to do that. If it’s something we can measure, sure that’s in the realm of science. But if you are talking about things that are outside the realm that I can measure, my feeling is that you — if you are going to be honest to science, you have to be mute.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And, you know, if I think about what comes to me when I read you and talk to you and look at your work in terms of your humanity being informed by your science, I mean, I also think of things like just the joy you described a minute ago in doing this. And also the — and this is another way to talk about what you just said about fallibility, the huge perspective that you get. I mean, I watched a video of you just being interviewed informally at a gathering in Australia, I believe.


MS. TIPPETT: Where somebody was talking to you about race, you know, and I mean, it’s one of the many credentials you have, one of the distinctions is you are, I believe, the first African-American physicist to hold an endowed chair and you went to segregated schools for a time in your childhood. But does this view of the universe you have now, what does it do with that kind of obsession that we have culturally?

DR. GATES: When I look at what science does for us, the fact that we can study our genomic structure, the DNA that’s inside of each of our cells, and use that to reconstruct the human story of populating the planet, that to me is the kind of demonstration of what science does for us. In this part of the story, it tells us how the part of humanity that we normally call European, how they’re related to the part of humanity that we call African to the part of humanity we call Asian and the various populations. It literally tells us a story that many religions have said for millennia, that all humans belong to a single family. And now science does it with a precision that none of them could. It can tell us how your cousin in northern France is related to a relative in Botswana or how the native people of South America are related to the African peoples of, say, Somalia. This story has been revealed through the workings of science. And so by embracing our limits, by embracing our fallibility, we become more knowledgeable.

MS. TIPPETT: Someone reminded me recently that Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. I think you like to quote that as well.

DR. GATES: I do because it puzzled me for so long in my life. How could that possibly be true?

MS. TIPPETT: Really? Well, I just wanted to ask you, you know, where’s your imagination taking you now? But tell me first why it puzzled you so much.

DR. GATES: Well, because earlier we talked about my life of imagination and how I used that to deal with the difficult circumstance of losing my mother as an 11-year-old child. So for a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts and monsters and traveling in galaxies and, you know, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth, you all of that stuff. That was all in the world of the imagination.

On the other hand, reality is all about us and it’s constraining and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive. So how could it be that play is more important than knowledge? And it took me years to figure out an answer.

And the answer turns out being rather strange, I believe. The bottom line is, the reason imagination is more important than knowledge is because imagination turns out to be the vehicle by which we increase knowledge. And so if you don’t have imagination, you’re not going to get more knowledgeable. So that’s why I finally came to understand that statement of Einstein.

MS. TIPPETT: So what’s especially piquing your imagination and curiosity now?

DR. GATES: Well, we’re still trying to solve some of these 30-year-old problems. We’ve got these new tools called adinkras. We’re trying to understand them at a far more precise level. It turns out that these things apparently are new pieces of mathematics, so that occupies my imagination as trying to get this story complete.

We’re nowhere near completing the story. When I and my student, a young woman from Pakistan by the name of Lubna Rana, first started this journey, I had a sense that we had stepped onto a new mathematical continent. I felt a little bit like Columbus. I still have a sense that that’s where we are.

If supersymmetry shows up in nature, then this mathematics says something very powerful about the universe. If supersymmetry doesn’t show up in nature, this is still what I suspect is going to ultimately be found to be really intricate and beautiful and perhaps important mathematics. So my imagination sits on those subjects in science these days.

MS. TIPPETT: Sylvester James Gates Jr. is the Toll Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland in College Park. And he serves on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In 2013, he was awarded the National Medal of Science and elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

In closing, we asked James Gates to read a story for us that he likes to tell. He speculates that with computers, the language of mathematics — and therefore the view physicists have on reality — might become more accessible to more of us. He suggests this by way of an analogy with music.

DR. GATES: Imagine a world on which there existed no sound at all, but where there were beings who were roughly equal to us in intelligence. On this world, could music exist? Now many people would say the answer is no because there’s no sound, but I would argue the answer is yes. If by some means, one of these beings happened upon the idea of musical scoring, then they would have access to music. They might be inspired to marvel at the beauty and the elegance and the power of this world of symbolic representation.

With the introduction of sound in musical instruments, of course, that changes everything in our story. In our world, we know of musical geniuses who have never learned to read scores. I have a suspicion that, with a sufficiently long interaction between humans and their computers, something like this might happen with mathematics. I can imagine a mathematical genius who has never learned to manipulate the traditional symbols. This would herald an enormous shift for human culture.

MS. TIPPETT: To delve more deeply into James Gates’ thinking, go to our website at onbeing.org. There you’ll also find lots of ways to listen to this interview again and share it with others. Also, please consider subscribing to our email newsletter with a heads-up on new podcasts, news of live events and behind the scenes insights. We ask for your email address. That’s all. Click on the newsletter link at the top of any page on our website. Again, that is onbeing.org.

On Being on-air and online is produced by Chris Heagle. Stefni Bell is our coordinating producer. Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.


MS. TIPPETT: Next time, the delightful slam poet Sarah Kay. She teaches teenagers to listen while finding their voices. Please join us. This is APM, American Public Media.