Sylvester James Gates was a mere 4 years old when he was first captivated by the wonders of science while watching a movie with his mother. The astronauts and rockets flying through the air on the big screen mesmerized the preschooler.
A fascination that centers on the complex world of science and communicating it to others also was launched in that dark theater.
Today, Gates, 62, is not only an established physics professor for the University of Maryland, but also a regent professor for the University System of Maryland (USM) and a recipient of the National Medal of Science from President Obama.
“I finally made it,” Gates told the AFRO. “It feels good to finally get into the history books next to my friend,” he said, referring to a close graduate school classmate, the late Ronald Ervin McNair, an astronaut on the doomed 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger mission.
Gates was born in Tampa, Fla. on December 15, 1950 into the often-mobile military family of Charlie Engels and Sylvester James Gates, Sr.
The family relocated several times because of his father’s Army career, but the importance of education was stressed. By age 8, Gates, by way of the family encyclopedia collection, already was being introduced to physics equations.
He would eventually earn undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The young scientist took a strong interest in the studies of supersymmetry, a type of complex particle physics that delves into the relationship between the tiniest physical properties of matter and energy. Since no faculty member specialized in the work, Gates self-taught and unearthed the content of the study, producing a dissertation on a subject that had never been explored before.
“The way I pursued my career was very individualistic and was based on things inside of me,” he said.
After earning his doctorate degree, Gates completed three years as a junior fellow with the Harvard University Society of Fellows, followed by two years at the
California Institute of Technology. Gates briefly returned to his alma mater (which one?) before taking a position at the University of Maryland in 1984.
Gates is a strong supporter of variety among the nation’s arsenal of scientists. He said, “the reason you want diversity in science-is exactly the same reason you want diversity in music.”
“The world would be a much colder place if the only music that existed was classical music. We have classical, rhythm and blues, hip hop, jazz, and big band music and the richness of the music makes it completely obvious that we need diversity and want diversity.”
Gates is also a music and history enthusiast, with a large collection of music from all genres, and books and artifacts from the Civil War - one of his favorite periods to study.
“He’s an amazing teacher, but more importantly he can take something like quantum mechanics, physics, or string theory, and break it down so that an average person can at least get a little understanding of what he’s talking about,” said Dianna Elizabeth Abney, Gates’ wife for 28 years. “That’s very important because science in America is often paid for by public dollars. It’s important that we explain what their tax dollars are paying for when they give their money to a research institution.”
Gates demonstrated this uncanny ability to simplify even the most complex physics theories in a 30-second challenge sponsored by PBS’s “Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.”
In that half minute Gates explains the basics of string theory, telling viewers to picture a yardstick cut into ten equal pieces. He then asks the audience to throw away nine of the parts and cut the remaining piece into ten smaller, equal portions – that measures the size of his fingernail.
“If you do this process ten times - you get to the size of the atom. Suppose you did that say, 35 times what’s left of our universe,” Gates asks.
With no solid way to measure what would remain, Gates explains, “people like me have been working on a piece of mathematics called string theory and superstring theory to answer that question. We think there are filaments there.”
“Thanks to the sacrifices they’ve made, the chances they’ve taken, the gallons of coffee they’ve consumed - we now have batteries that power everything from cell phones to electric cars,” said Obama, in a video of the National Medal of Science event archived on the White House webpage.
“We have a map of the human genome and new ways to produce renewable energy. We’re learning to grow organs in the lab and better understand what’s happening in our deepest oceans,” he said. “But what also makes these individuals unique is how they’ve gotten here-- the obstacles they’ve overcome and the commitments they’ve made to push the boundaries of our understanding.”
Gates is a member of Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and is directly involved with creating policies related to how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (STEM) are used to move the country forward and how these subjects are addressed in schools across the nation.
“This has been an amazing challenge to operate in this new domain,” said Gates of the position he took in 2009. “We’ve got to empower our teachers - many times we find that teachers have not been properly prepared to teach math and science.”
Gates said the United States must improve its STEM education – especially among minorities. He has called on the current administration, school systems, and private foundations to raise funds for the training and adequate compensation of 100,000 new STEM teachers in the coming years.
“Our economy is going to sink or fall on our ability to form innovative processes and products to drive the American economy. Engineers create new net worth for our society- that comes from new things like iPhones and iPads built by engineers,” he said.