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Science Lecture: Sylvester James “Jim” Gates Jr.
November 8, 2018 @ 4:10pm
One event on November 9, 2018 at 5:00pm
BOZEMAN — A world-renowned physicist and sought-after speaker who is a recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Science will spend two days at Montana State University sharing his passions for science and mathematics with students and the public.
Sylvester James “Jim” Gates Jr. will hold a physics colloquium at 4:10 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8, in MSU’s Procrastinator Theater. He will also give a free public lecture at 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, in the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium.
Gates, the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics at Brown University, is a theoretical physicist whose expertise is in supersymmetry, supergravity and superstring theory. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he is well-known for his engaging lectures where he breaks down math and complex physics theories, so they can be easily understood by a general audience.
In August, Gates was elected as the American Physical Society’s vice president for 2019. He will then serve as president-elect in 2020 and president in 2021.
MSU gravitational physicist Nicolas Yunes, who counts Gates among his academic mentors, said he invited Gates to campus so students would benefit from “being exposed to a physicist of such stature.”
“Jim is an amazing scientist and communicator,” said Yunes, co-founder of MSU’s eXtreme Gravity Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science.
“He is not only a pioneer in the physics of the ‘really small,’ but he also manages to make the ‘extremely hard’ so simple to understand,” Yunes said. “It’s a real treat to have him visit.”
During his public lecture, Gates will discuss the “decay of the false vacuum,” one theory of how the universe might end, and how a principle of particle physics called “supersymmetry” may protect the universe from this dire fate.
During his physics colloquium, Gates will explain why a tetrahedral topology may anchor physical reality, melding concepts from group theory, particle physics and computer science.
In 2009, Gates was named to then-President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, a team of the country’s 20 leading scientists and engineers selected to advise the president and help the administration formulate policy on science, technology and innovation. In 2013, Obama bestowed the National Medal of Science on Gates for his “contributions to the mathematics of supersymmetry in particle, field and string theories and extraordinary efforts to engage the public on the beauty and wonder of fundamental physics,” according to the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation.
A member of the board of trustees of the Society for Science and the Public — an organization that promotes the understanding and appreciation of science — Gates shares his knowledge on many platforms, from a Turbo Tax commercial and public speaking to appearing on television shows that reach wide audiences.
In 2016, Gates was a panelist at the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate that pondered the question “Is the Universe a Simulation?” The event, which sold out in three minutes, has been viewed nearly 2 million times on YouTube.
In 2003, Gates appeared on Nova’s Emmy-winning program, “The Elegant Universe.” The three-hour program was based on the bestselling 1999 book of the same name by Brian Greene, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize nonfiction award.
Gates also appeared on Nova’s Emmy-winning Web series, “Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers,” where he attempted to explain string theory in 30 seconds; answered 10 questions about himself including which celebrity would portray him in a movie (it’s Morgan Freeman) and discussed his early inspiration spurred by the “space race” and an episode of the television show “Make Room for Daddy,” in which a character “studied the good stuff like math, physics and science” at a place called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s where I want to go to college,’” Gates recalled in the video.
Gates did make it to MIT, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1973 and 1977, respectively. His doctoral thesis was MIT’s first on supersymmetry. In 2010, he returned to his alma mater as a Martin Luther King Jr. visiting scholar and was a residential scholar at MIT’s Simmons Hall.
Yves Idzerda, head of MSU’s Department of Physics, said he is honored to have Gates visit MSU.
“Professor Gates is not simply an eminent scientist, he is an eminent scientist who can explain things in terms we all understand,” Idzerda said. “If you want to hear a physics orator, come hear Professor Gates at his public lecture and meet a national treasure.”