Sylvester James Gates, Jr. is an American theoretical physicist working as the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He loves the "super" aspects of physics: supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. To make these "super" notions more lucid for general public, he created a DVD series for the lifelong-learning centric The Teaching Company called Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality. Born in 1950, Gates obtained both his bachelor's and doctor's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Question: Is pursuit of science pursuit of truth?
Gates: Well, you see you asked me if I’m personally looking for truth. You see, as a scientist, we’re even denied that. Earlier, I talked about the fact that all we can do in science is construct theories and that means, for example, that what we’re ultimately doing is not about the truth. This is the confusion I think that exists in many people’s minds. Science is not about finding the truth. What science is about is making our beliefs of nature less false. These are two different things. And the second one involves mathematics, imagination and the ability to measure. So we’re making our beliefs less false. We’re not necessarily finding the truth. In fact I’m not sure truth actually exists in science. And this is in fact a very famous statement that Einstein made that he’s not sure what truth means in the context of science. So no, I’m not searching for truth. That’s certainly not what I’m doing. Sometimes when I look at my own career, I feel a little bit like Captain Ahab and I think probably a lot of us feel that way. That there’s this great white whale that we saw once and we’re trying to capture it. In my own life, I earlier spoke of this interdisciplinary collaboration of mathematicians and physicists and computer scientists. We’re on the Pequod chasing my white whale. There’s this one problem that I know about that I’ve been able to develop some particular insights into and this collaboration is actually pursuing this problem. We’ve been able to turn sets of equations into sorts of pictures. These pictures can be processed, and by manipulating the pictures you’re massively using them to understand properties of the equations. I call these pictures Adinkra. Adinkra is a very interesting word. It comes from West Africa and it basically means pictures that have hidden meaning. And so that’s what we’ve applied to these mathematical objects. And so yes, I have my own personal Moby Dick that I’m after; however, I don’t plan to suffer the fate of the Pequod and its captain.
Question: Does your work inform us about the origins of humanity?
Gates: No, theoretical physics doesn’t really make that kind of contribution to our understanding. In fact another thing I tell people about what science is versus other forms of knowing the universe, in science, and in particular in the physical sciences, you can imagine a family that lives in a home and you could say, “Well, gee I want to study this situation, but I want to put all the people out of the house. I want to study how the house works.” That’s what the physical sciences do in our universe. The social sciences, the liberal arts, the arts themselves, you put the people back in the house and you ask how the whole system works together. So in physics, we don’t answer the question of how the house behaves when the family’s in the house.
Gates explores the tension between science and religion.