When I took the single quantum mechanics class offered at my liberal arts college designed specifically for students with no science background, my intent was to hopefully dispell some of the mysticism surrounding my knowledge of science after years of watching Star Trek and Doctor Who on repeat. In fact, after three months of studying quarks, particle spin, the very nature of gravity, I was even more mystified than ever. Confused, sure, but also so much in awe of the physical properties of the universe that I was sure something so complex and beautiful could only exist in fantasy.
On Feb 28, however, physicist Sylvester James Gates Jr., John S. Toll Professor of Physics, and Center for String & Particle Theory Director, who earlier this month was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Obama, sat down with NPR’s Tell Me More to set the record straight about String Theory. Though tempted as we might be so to characterize this theory as sci-fi, Gates Jr. insists that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
First Jim, as he prefers to be called, reminds listeners that String Theory has not always been a popular realm of study among physicists. But being awarded this medal means that though String Theory is considered outlandish, his research is at the forefront of new methods of engaging with the universe. “It might even be important,” he tells us.
His research is important for another reason too. As the interviewer, Michel Martin, points out, he is “the first African American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major university.” Coupled with the fact that String Theory remained on the outskirts of the physics community for many years, Gates Jr. seems like something of a scientific outsider. He paraphrases Albert Einstein’s maxim that being an outsider means a different, often fresher perspective, and that’s never a disadvantage.
Gates Jr.’s love of science blossomed the way many mine, and I can imagine, many other people’s does. At age four, he went to see a sci-fi movie with his mother, complete with space suits and aliens. It was his imagination that led him to the scientific world.
59 years later, a YouTube video explaining String Theory in 30 seconds went viral on the internet. Gates Jr. asks the viewer pretend that the universe is a yardstick that you can cut into ten pieces. “Throw away nine,” he says, “and keep one, then cut that piece into ten pieces. Do this ten times and you have an atom. Now do it 35 times. What’s left of the universe after all that cutting?” he asks. That’s the question that String Theory is attempting to answer. No science fiction there, just a cut and dry explanation that tells us String Theory is an attempt to measure matter at it’s most fundamental level, those tiniest nuts and bolts that keep the universe running. Futhermore, Gates Jr. reminds us that doing so is a purely mathematical process. All equations, no waxing poetic of the nature of the universe. String Theory comes down to the numbers.
Still he is quick to point out that gathering those numbers together and structuring them into the equation he needs to unravel String Theory means that he still has to have a firm grasp on the ideas that make up the theory. So yeah, maybe there is a little poetry in there somewhere. And he reminds us though he can make a thirty second clip boiling down the theory to a simple analogy, the truth of this ongoing exploration into String Theory is still unknown.
He compares himself to a story teller: A writer has characters that make up a narrative, but does a mathematician, only his characters are numbers. The act of creation is the same. And in that way it is striking that scientists must remind their awestruck public that their research is no sci-fi drama being played out on a stage. Because in some ways it is: the men and women doing this research are writing a story that happened in the very distant past. We already know the ending—our universe as we know it today—but we’re still trying to work out all the juicy plot details, in reverse.