While Professor of Physics and Director of the Brown Theoretical Physics Center S. James Gates, Jr. has only taught at the University since 2017, Gates has an astounding body of achievements in the physics field under his belt. Recently, Gates co-wrote the book “Proving Einstein Right: The Daring Expeditions that Changed How We Look at the Universe,” which was selected as the prize for the 2019-2020 Brown University Book Award. His book will be given to high school juniors as a part of the award.
This was the first book written by a physics professor to be chosen by the University for the award, Gates said. The book will be presented at participating high schools to juniors “who best (combine) academic excellence with clarity in written and spoken expression,” according to the Brown Bookstore’s website.
This is not the first accolade Gates has received: He has previously been recognized by the likes of former President Barack Obama with the National Medal of Science in 2013 and was named Harvard’s 2014 “Scientist of the Year.”
Gates, who insists on being called “Jim” by students and friends alike, became enraptured by science at the age of four, when he watched a science fiction movie with his mother, he said. Since that eventful moment, Gates’ love for mathematics steadily grew throughout primary school. In high school, he was drawn into the field of physics with the guidance of his teacher and mentor.
Now — decades since his first encounter with a science-fiction film — Gates has been featured in over 20 science documentaries, including a NOVA documentary series also featuring Neil Degrasse Tyson. Still, Gates does not consider himself a public figure, joking that he is “still worried about plus signs, minus signs, zeros and over two billion equations at the same time.” Although Gates primarily works to develop his own research, he has helped explain complex physics concepts to the average person.
In September, Gates co-published “Proving Einstein Right” with writer Cathie Pelletier. Described as “a scientific band of brothers story,” the book follows seven astronomers who worked for nearly ten years to prove Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. To measure the bending of starlight during a total eclipse of the sun, the scientists traversed areas of war, famine and other dangerous conditions.
Though the experiment was successfully completed in 1919, it had actually almost been finished in 1914. At that point, the mathematics behind Einstein’s theory from 1911 were incorrect — meaning the scientists would have disproved Einstein’s theory if their experiment had succeeded. Einstein corrected his mathematics in 1915, and the scientists provided proof for his theory with the 1919 experiment.
“So much of life is not predictable, it’s uncertain, you can’t be confident about how the story is going to end; the only thing that you can do is to work really, really hard to get it right, and if you’re lucky, you will,” Gates said.
Gates came across that same stroke of good fortune when co-author Pelletier reached out with a book proposal after uncovering old interviews with Einstein’s secretary and learning about total eclipses. Pelletier contacted Gates after seeing him speak in a Turbo Tax commercial on television, she said.
A well-established fiction novelist, Pelletier sought a collaborator of great scientific knowledge and reputation, she said.
Gates accepted her proposal — he had long “wanted to write a book that explained what science is like for real people, how they really do it; (scientists are) people — they’re not magical alien zombies who just think genius thoughts,” he said. While Pelletier brought her literary sensibilities to the writing process, Gates was able to fact check the scientific concepts.
“Our combination (of efforts) set the tone for the book,” Pelletier said. “One professor told me, ‘This is the first book that I can teach to students who are not really physicists … but might become called to (physics) because of this book. Suddenly, these people are human beings. They’re not just names in a book; they have families.”
“The audience … likes to read, to know, that there is adventure behind the discovery — that this is not just people toiling away in labs and attics,” Pelletier said. The book is unique because it “tries to embrace human beings first, and then the physics and science later.”
Over the process of writing the book, Gates and Pelletier developed a tight-knit relationship, calling themselves “Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle,” after the pair of characters in the musical “My Fair Lady,” Pelletier added. “This is a very magical kind of journey that you go on … (Gates) was just simply always there when I needed him. … He is a gentleman of the highest order — so knowledgeable, yet not vain.”
Brown Bookstore Director T.J. Cochran and Trade Books and Promotions Manager Tova Beiser wrote in an email to The Herald that the decision process for choosing the Book Award involves several rounds of voting, narrowing down candidates to the book receiving the most votes from the award committee. “This particular book was fresh, has broad appeal and was written with young people in mind. … Those who read the book were intrigued that the story was so exciting, which can be unusual for a scientific work,” Cochran wrote.
There are still many unanswered questions in physics, some of which Gates sets out to answer in his current research. In a recent paper, Gates and his team found that error-correcting codes — those used in all kinds of digital communication — exist inside mathematical equations. Error-correcting codes only exist in one other place naturally, formed through evolution: in all genomes. Considering this information, Gates asked, “Could there have been some kind of evolution of mathematics that led to our universe?”
Luck may have played a role in the success of his career, Gates said, as it did with Einstein’s. He attributed his success to his unbounded imagination, dreaming up mathematical possibilities, and the fortune he has had in encountering fellow African American physicists who became his mentors.
Gates currently serves as Director of the Brown Theoretical Physics Center, where University students have the opportunity to work alongside him as he continues his groundbreaking research. There, he is a mentor himself.
“When I met Jim, I understood what genuine leadership is. Jim recognizes each team member’s efforts and cares about everyone deep-heartedly. As a theorist, Jim has lots of brilliant insights,” Sze Ning “Hazel” Mak MS’18, a researcher in Gates’ lab, wrote in an email to The Herald.
Yangrui Hu, another PhD student (PhD’23), wrote in an email to The Herald, “Jim is an amazing physicist and advisor. His passion for physics and research influences and encourages us a lot.” Hu said that Gates explains complex concepts, does not pressure his students and has helped her feel accepted as an international student.
Gang Xiao, professor of physics and engineering, chair of the physics department and researcher on material physics, said that he learns so much from watching Gates teach in documentaries and other settings. “Gates is a fantastic mathematician, as well as really good at articulating complex concepts for people to understand.”
Although Xiao and Gates specialize in different fields within physics, they work closely together in their directorial positions. Xiao called Gates “a treasure to our department.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly used the pronoun "him" to describe Yanguri Hu PhD'23. The correct pronoun is "her." The Herald regrets the error.