Sylvester James Gates, Jr.

Sylvester James Gates, Jr.

Distinguished University Professor, University System of Maryland Regents Professor, University of Maryland

John S. Toll Professor of Physics, and Center for String & Particle Theory Director, University of Maryland

Visiting Professor 2010-2011

Hosted by Profs. Ed Bertschinger and Eddie Farhi, Department of Physics

Sylvester James Gates, Jr. is a world-renowned theoretical physicist who serves as Distinguished University Professor, University System of Maryland Regents Professor, John S. Toll Professor of Physics, and Center for String & Particle Theory Director at the University of Maryland.


Sylvester James Gates, Jr. is a world-renowned theoretical physicist who serves as Distinguished University Professor, University System of Maryland Regents Professor, John S. Toll Professor of Physics, and Center for String & Particle Theory Director at the University of Maryland. His research areas are: mathematical and theoretical physics of supersymmetric particles, fields and strings, as well as the physics of quarks, leptons, gravity, super and heterotic strings and unified field theories, and adinkras.

Dr. Gates earned SB degrees in Physics and in Mathematics (1973) and a PhD in Physics (1977) from MIT, where his doctoral dissertation--“Symmetry Principles in Selected Problems of Field Theory”-- was the first devoted to "supersymmetry". (While in graduate school, he tried out to be an astronaut and was friends with the late Ronald E. McNair). Dr. Gates went on to focus on string theory, an extemely mathematical view of physics, joining relativity and quantum mechanics. He is also well-known for using adinkras (West African geometric symbols) to develop graphical representations of supersymmetric algebras.

His postgraduate studies began as a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows (1977-1980) and ended with an appointment at Caltech (1980-1982). His teaching career started in 1972, as a summer calculus instructor at MIT, and he has since taught mathematics or physics without interruption. From 1982 to 1984, he served as an assistant professor at MIT.  Since 1984, Dr. Gates has been on faculty at the University of Maryland at College Park, where in 1998 he was named the first John S. Toll Professor of Physics, the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major research university in the U.S. On a leave of absence from 1991-1993, he served as Physics Professor and Departmental Chair at Howard University.

Dr. Gates has been published in over 120 scientific journals and contributed to numerous books, including Superspace, or One thousand and one lessons in supersymmetry (1984). Other lectures and writings discuss the challenge of technical educations for African- Americans and the issues of affirmative action, diversity and equity. 

His service to the profession is extensive: member of the 62nd College of Distinguished Lecturers of Sigma Xi; fellow and former executive board member of the American Physical Society (APS), which chose him as its first Bouchet Award laureate; fellow of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), of which he is a former president; board member of the Quality Education for Minorities Network (QEM); member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST); and member of the Maryland State Board of Education. Dr. Gates has also served as a consultant for the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, the Educational Testing Service and Time-Life Books. 

He has appeared on many television broadcasts. His work has been regularly featured in PBS programs, notably: "The Path of Most Resistance'' (Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America); "Mysteries of the Universe" (A Science Odyssey); The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements; and The Elgant Universe. In 1998, Dr. Gates appeared on the simultaneous C-Span television broadcast and Internet cybercast of the second Millennium Lecture by Prof. Stephen Hawking from the East Room of the White House; Dr. Gates was asked to provide comments on the topic of supersymmetry for the broadcasts and live audiences, including President Bill Clinton. The Teaching Company's DVD series Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality (2006) features 24 half-hour lectures by Dr. Gates. He also appeared in the 2012 BBC Horizon documentary The Hunt for Higgs.

Dr. Gates has been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences. His many awards include: the 1999 College Science Teacher of the Year by The Washington Academy of Sciences, a Mendel Medal, and a 1997 Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Leadership Award from MIT. 

As an MLK Visiting Professor, Dr. Gates collaborated with members of the Center for Theoretical Physics (CTP) in the Department of Physics. Hosted by Professors Ed Bertschinger and Eddie Farhi, Dr. Gates continued his research on string theory, supersymmetry and supergravity.  He also continued to serve as a member of President Obama’s Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

After his time as an MLK Visiting Professor Dr. Gates was among 12 scientists to be awarded a 2013 National Medal of Science, which brought him “a very strong sense of personal closure about [his] professional efforts as a researcher and theoretical physicist".



Jim Gates receives a 2013 National Medal of Science. Courtesy: REUTERS/Jason Reed

Selected Publications:

I. Chappell II; S. J. Gates, Jr., and T. Hubsch, "Adinkra (In)Equivalence From Coxeter Group Representations: A Case Study,"
S.J. Gates, Jr., and T. Hubsch, "On Dimensional Extension of Supersymmetry: From Worldlines to Worldsheets",
S.J. Gates, Jr "Symbols of Power", Physics World, Vol. 23, No 6, June 2010, pp. 34 - 39,
C.F. Doran, M.G. Faux, S.J. Gates, Jr., T. Hubsch, K.M. Iga, G.D. Landweber,
(b.) https://arxiv.or/abs/1108.4124

On The Higgs Boson & On SUSY:

Science & Education Policy:

Prepare & Inspire Report
Maryland State Board of Education

Non-Scientific Essays:

On the Universality of Creativity in the Liberal Arts and in the Sciences
Science, Irrationality, and Innovation


S. James Gates, Jr. as a Project Interphase instructor at MIT, 1975. Courtesy MIT Museum



Education in the United States: Evelyn Higginbotham, Sylvester Gates, and Paula T. Hammond, MIT, 17 March 2011

The drive to make American universities more diverse shows some success, but consistent and meaningful inclusion of under"represented minorities seems elusive, according to four academics whose own experiences help illuminate the problem. Physicist Sylvester James Gates takes stock of diversity from a variety of vantage points. He notes that "nature uses diversity as a survival mechanism." As an American traveling the world, he has "found American music almost every place," and credits diversity for creating rock and roll. In physics, and other sciences, "diversity is a force multiplier for innovationYou want the most diverse group of people present asking questions." Gates also has a personal take on diversity and MIT. In 1969, he was one of 50 African American undergraduate students in a class of 1000. "Wow, talk about lack of diversity. We were it." Those were trying times, and Gates relates episodes of racism on campus, including the routine questioning of black students by campus police, "who wondered who we were." Gates ultimately decided "MIT was not a place where diversity could be lived out and was genuine," and left. Although he finds the university markedly more multiracial these days, Gates concludes, "You folks got a ways to go."




The History of Project Interphase at MIT (2014)