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Credit: John Thomas Consoli, University of Maryland
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Sylvester James Gates, Jr. by David Zierler on July 30 and August 3, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Sylvester James Gates, Jr., Ford Foundation Professor of Physics and Director of the Theoretical Physics Center at Brown University. Gates discusses his preparations to lead the APS and the value of his service for PCAST for this new role. Gates recounts his family heritage and he discusses his father’s military service and the death of his mother. He explains how his family navigated racist challenges during his upbringing in El Paso and then in Orlando and how he navigated his own intellectual abilities in school. Gates explains his interest in physics in high school and the opportunities that led to his admission at MIT for his undergraduate work. He recounts the many mentors who made a positive impression on him and he explains his realization that his specialty would be at the boundary between math and physics. Gates describes his earliest interactions with string theory and he explains his decision to remain at MIT for his graduate work to work with Jim Young on supersymmetry. He paints a broader picture of supergravity research at this time and the rising importance of computers for this work. Gates describes his postdoctoral research at Harvard as a Junior Fellow, where he worked closely with Warren Siegel, and he describes his decision to join the faculty at MIT after a subsequent postdoctoral position at Caltech. He addresses Shelly Glashow’s criticism of string theory, and he explains his decision to leave MIT for a faculty position at the University of Maryland. Gates reflects on his teaching and mentoring career at Maryland, he describes his time at Howard University, and he discusses the broader issue of diversity in physics and AIP’s TEAM-UP Report. He describes his more recent interests in graph theory and the broader effort to unify gravity with the other forces. Gates reflects on how he became an advisor to President Obama for PCAST and how he worked with John Holdren to translate reports into policy changes. He explains his decision to go emeritus at Maryland and to take a new position at Brown, and why joining the Watson Institute was an attractive part of the offer. Gates reflects on assuming leadership at APS during the twin crises of Covid and racial strife, he surveys the state of string theory and high energy physics, and he explains why supersymmetry might offer a path to understanding dark matter. At the end of the interview, Jim conveys his hope that his work in math will yield deep insights into nature, and he considers the possibility of pursuing an autobiographical project.
OK. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 30th, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with Professor Sylvester James Gates Jr. Jim, thank you so much for being with me today.
Well, thank you, David, for the invitation. I have to tell you, I’m always concerned when these sorts of things come up because I feel over-exposed even as it is. I was an extraordinarily shy child and young teenager, and so I jokingly tell people all the time that somewhere that 12-year-old version of me is still running his code in the interior of my one remaining brain cell.
Well, for that reason, I want to thank you specifically because I know that this is not particularly easy for you, but I’m sure you recognize the importance of us doing this for the historical record, for the moment that we find ourselves in, for an opportunity to discuss all of your achievements in physics and beyond and it is a really special opportunity for me personally, and on behalf of AIP, knowing that you are about to assume leadership of APS at a remarkable time in the physics community and in our country in general, it is quite special and important that we’re able to do this.
Well, thank you. I have also been thinking deeply about the challenge of leading the American Physical Society, (APS) as its President. In fact, there’s a training course for it. First you are elected as vice president, then you rotate and become president-elect, and then finally the president. You get two years of training to do the job—and by the way, it is on the job training because you are really harnessed into the running of the organization, getting to know the organization—and then there’s a fourth and fifth years of “incarceration” also when you are the past president, you’re there to provide continuity and institutional memory.
Right. Well, you can’t say you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into, right?
Actually, that isn’t a true statement. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I thought it was simply more ceremonial and to tell you the truth, I didn’t think I had a chance to win the election. The person I was standing against is someone for whom I have enormous admiration, a physicist by the name of Rocky Kolb.
And, you know, when I noted that I’m like, “Ah, I don’t have to worry about it. Rocky’s going to get it and I could get back to doing the stuff I really, really, really love, which is my mathematical physics. I’m in my 48th consecutive year of teaching either physics or mathematics to students all the way up to postdocs - usually from colleges and universities. However, I sometimes work with high school students on odd circumstances.
Jim, just to orient ourselves, would you please tell me your title and all of the relevant institutional affiliations currently?
Oh my goodness. Can you give me a second to actually look that up?
Yes, no problem.
Let me do the simple part first. I am the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics at Brown University. That is an endowed position and I’m the current holder of the position. I’m the Brown Theoretical Physics Center Director as well as a physics professor in the Physics Department here at Brown University. I’m also an affiliate mathematics professor here in the Math Department, and have an affiliation in the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs because of my continuing work in the policy domain. Also, as I retired from the University of Maryland in 2017, I hold the title of emeritus professor there.
Those are all my titles and that’s why I had to look it up because I never actually remember that stuff.
Now, are you the inaugural holder of the Ford Foundation Chair?
I believe that I am. I think I’m the inaugural endowed professor with this title.
Now that’s interesting because, of course, the Ford Foundation has been around for a while. What’s your sense of how they became involved in supporting your work at Brown?
I don’t know because that all occurred before I arrived here, but as you mentioned, the Ford Foundation has been working in this general area for decades. In fact, as a graduate student, I held a Graduate Fellowship from National Fellowship Fund, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, 1973-1977. So in some sense, it is a return to the ancestral figurative ‘hearth.’
I have a soft spot in my heart, I was a Ford Foundation fellow myself.
Ah, very good.
When you came to Brown—between the fact that the Ford Foundation is so active in the policy realm, as you mentioned, and because of your work for the Watson Institute—was that all sort of part of a single package or vision for you in terms of what you wanted to do at Brown?
Yes. Let me back up a little bit because you’re asking about multiple institutional affiliations, as I said, Brown University is my home now, but I spent thirty-three years on the faculty at the University of Maryland. While I was there, I was the John S. Toll Professor of Physics and there, I’m sure I was the inaugural recipient. It was named to honor one of the university’s great leaders, John Sampson Toll. John, by the way, was actually a friend of mine. I got to know him in the 1990s before neither of us knew that such a chair would come into existence. At the University of Maryland, I also had a relationship with the mathematics department.
So when Brown came to start “poaching” me in a word, we talked about what would make an attractive package for me to move during the 2016-2017 timeframe. As we’ll probably get to, I had served on the President’s Council of Advisors of Science and Technology from 2009 to 2016. From this experience as well as serving on the Maryland State Board of Education and the National Commission on Forensic Science, I gained experience and feedback that I really had chops—as they would call it in music—in the policy domain. It was like working to receive a graduate degree in public policy, while continuing in my other careers of mathematical and theoretical physics research, university level educator, and contributor to science documentaries on an international level.
So when Brown came to discuss this with me, I said, “Well, I’m probably going to continue my work in public policy and I would like an academic home for that work.” So, yes, it was all on the table when I came here.
And I can’t help but think that your impending leadership for the APS—you also look at this as an opportunity to exercise your policy chops as well as your physicist chops?
That’s exactly right. I feel extraordinarily fortunate at having the experience at that level of national responsibility, being an advisor to the president of the United States is not something I ever—it was nowhere on my radar in a billion, billion, billion years to do something like that, but it happened. It molded me in a way that had not occurred previously in my career, although I had engaged the usual sorts of physicist advisory involvement with the National Science Foundation, serving on advisory boards in the Department of Energy and some other organizations, including some relationships with the Department of Defense, that experience on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, as it was called)—molded me to start thinking about what potential I might have to contribute in an area between Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) domains and public policy.
I am grateful to a number of PCAST colleagues for their enormous guidance to help me grow in this direction. Among these people to whom I especially owe a debt of gratitude are John Holdren, Eric Lander, Shirley Jackson, Admed Zwail, Craig Mundie, William Press, and Eric Schmidt in their leadership positions as well as Rosina Bierbaum, Chad Mirkin, Mark Gorenberg, Barbara Schaal, Chris Chyba, Dan Schrag, and Wanda Austin for so many thoughtful interactions.
It was very rewarding because on PCAST, we did an arc of studies on STEM education as that was one of my primary portfolios, so on every single one of those studies, I would talk to primary domain experts, authors, etc. and therefore, I always thought, “That if it fails, someone gets the finger pointed at them and that would be me as a lead author.”
But I also was amazed at the fact that I have now done some things in life that actually impacted my whole country. I mean, there are in all the books now the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—there are parts of that act that look like they came out of some of the reports I led. So I like to tell people, “Remember that Schoolhouse Rock episode about how a bill becomes a law? I have now sort of lived that.” That’s really a strange thing for a physicist to do. And so that public policy experience has definitely fed into my approach to thinking about the presidency of the American Physical Society, and I think it actually has already had a substantial impact. However, there were other reports on which I was not one of the lead authors and the one on electromagnetic spectrum (wifi) allocation, led by Mark Gorenberg, was one I appreciate having been able to contribute.
As you probably know, in this year of 2020, the American Physical Society cancelled its March meeting. This is traditionally the first major meeting of each year with upwards of 10,000 people from all over the globe who would have on descended Denver, Colorado during the first week of March. At the very last minute, the APS executive leadership and corporate board cancelled that meeting. There were already people in transit, there were already some people who had arrived in the city from destinations around the world, and we cancelled the meeting on a Saturday evening becoming the first major professional organization to do so. Later I was to learn from professionals in the meeting planning industry this had an unexpected, at least to us, impact on many other professional organizations.
There was a phone conference with all of the leadership (about thirty people) that began at 9:30 pm EDT on 29 February to bring all the responsible leaders into the discussion under the behest of Dr. Kate Kirby, APS CEO. This would be final step in a “no/no-go” process that would conclude at process that had actually already started a week ago. The reason the schedule call was held as there had been an increasingly urgent discussion and debate that entire preceding week about the dangers of holding the conference.
And a few of us were — (in fact, two of us had “our hair on fire”) quite frankly had the gravest concerns about this. And in my case, when I thought back on it, I began wondering why was I so sensitive to this matter? As best I can reflect on this, the most probable proximate cause was my service on PCAST with President Obama. I was there when that administration faced the challenge of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. It had apparently left a deep subconscious impression in my mind. I had watched and, participated in a meeting with President Obama and that made an indelible impression on me, so ever since that point in my life, I was apparently primed to be on guard, to think about these horrible pandemics that people like Bill Gates have been warning about for decades.
Jim, I can’t help but think also it must have dawned on you in March of this year that it was such an incredibly different situation with regard to the response coming from the White House. You had worked for an administration known for a deep respect for science and scientists and a policy response that reflected that, superficially with the Ebola crisis, and I wonder if even as early as March 2020, you appreciated that you were operating in a very different political and scientific environment?
Yes, it would be impossible for any physicist I can think of not to recognize the lack of appreciation, quite frankly, that the current administration holds for what science can do to protect and increase the quality of life of our citizens. That point just does not seem to be understood, whereas for President Obama, this was part of his intellectual and logical DNA.
Jim, let’s go right back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about your mom and your dad and where they’re from.
OK. Let me start first with my dad. At this point in my life, I’ve been asked to give biographical talks many times. I am going to put my brain on the “recite” tape and just let it run and tell you what’s inside.
You got it.
My father’s name was Sylvester James Gates, Sr. He was born in Alabama. The nearest large town — and I use “large” figuratively — was a place called Minden. Dad’s father, my grandfather, was a sugarcane farmer. My dad was born in 1925 to Joseph and Annie Gates in the town of Myrtlewood in Marengo County where the county seat was Linden, Alabama. Annie was of mixed heritage, native American (Creek) and African American. During the last few years my younger sister, Sylvia, has done a fair amount of genealogical on-line investigation and traced some of our family’s roots back to prior to the Civil War. In my forties, one day it dawned on me that my father was actually an incredible man. I often tell people—many times people have applauded the things I have been able to do in life, and I say, “Oh, that was easy. I just picked the right dad.”
Of course, that’s not a choice I had anything to do with, but my father was an incredible person. But so was my grandfather, it turns out. So as we will probably get to later, I have actually been interested in science since I was four years old, and part of that—as I reflect upon that coming from the way that I was raised, but then I began to go back and think about questions that I got about use of intellect and logic and mathematics, that I could identify it in my childhood coming to me from my father, not by preaching, but by example.
Near the Battle of the Bulge Memorial at Lake Eola in Orlando, a brick bears the following inscription, “S.J.Gates, Sr., S/SGT Q.M. TRK., Red Ball Expr.” The brick and inscription (standing for Staff Sergeant, Quarter Master Truck, Red Ball Express) are a small symbol of the story of a young man who, at age twelve, told his father, Joseph, he would seek a better life than one most likely afforded a black southern farmer in a milieu ruled by ethnic bigotry and racial terrorism. How did a twelve-year-old boy come to possess that kind of courage, sense of perspective and awareness? I don't know. Previously, I have described my relationship with my father and his absolutely critical role in my becoming a scientist in a book entitled Technology and the Dream: Reflections of the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999 (M.I.T. Press, 2001), by Dr. C. G. Williams. Metaphorically, the brick described above has an even greater significance to me. It represents a foundation laid for my life.
My father never finished high school, but as a child, I remember watching him learning trigonometry and some beginning calculus as he studied for his high school equivalency. And he had an extraordinary regard for education. You often hear the stories of—especially of African American families—where people say, “How did you get interested in higher education?” Well in my case, it was very simple. When all of my siblings and I began school, in the evenings we would have dinner together as a family. I had three siblings, a mother, dad—and dad’s question was almost always, “So have you figured out what college you’re going to?” And that’s just the from the earliest grades. And I was sort of thinking, “College? What is that? Grade 13?” I knew that there were grades after 12 but I had never heard of anything more beyond that.
Did your father grow up on the farm?
My father did grow up on a farm, at least partially. Up until age ten or twelve, he lived with his mother in a nearby town, but afterwards he moved to the farm. This was in a time of course when segregation in the south was rigorously enforced — the terror of Ku Klux Klan and all that was associated with theories and practice of racial supremacy were part of my father’s life. His father, Joseph Gates actually owned land according to our family’s stories which distinguished him from many African American families who were would sharecroppers, that is working land owned by someone else.
Also, he was unusual in the family stories in another way—and with current experiences across many families’ lives—we’ve come to regard family stories as more reliable than before. My grandfather apparently could do simple arithmetic, although he could neither read nor write. It was a very practical skill, according to family stories because it was a typical situation in the south that there were a lot of very impoverished African American farmers and families. It was impossible for African Americans to own businesses. The people who owned businesses are all European Americans in towns, and anyone familiar with an agrarian life knows that farmers and their families often have to borrow to buy seed and implements, and those debts were paid back when crops come in.
There were books kept by the storekeepers tracking the debts. Sometimes disagreements would occur over what the ledgers indicated were owed. The family stories are that people on both sides of this divide would take my grandfather’s skill at ‘cyphering’ as a method to reach some resolution of disagreements. And so the statement is my grandfather could ‘cipher.’ He could neither read nor write, but he could do arithmetic.
This clearly made an impression on my father about the importance of education because he always said he wanted all four of his children to have the opportunity to go to college. Specifically, his words were, “Get your education because that is something no one can take from you.”
Jim, what opportunity did your father not have himself to pursue higher education?
Sure. With my dad, in 1941 or 1942, he joined the US Army. He had to lie about his age, as did his father, and there’s this expression that most people may not recognize this, it was called “putting up your age,” which means to tell a recruiter that you’re older than you actually are. So they “put up” his age so he could get in…weighing all of one-hundred and twenty-seven pounds. This was just two points more than enough for him not to be declared 4-F, unfit for service. And again, the family stories were that part of the reason he had to do that was out of fear of his life because he had worked in an icehouse. Most people don’t know what an icehouse is these days, but they had ice houses back then and one day, one of the people who was in a supervisory position, again, a young European-American man, was trying to show off with some young woman and he was telling her that he could kick any of the N-word workers and they wouldn’t do anything. And he said that to my father, and my father apparently said, “If you do that to me, he could find this ice pick inside of, somewhere.”
And so that meant my father’s life was at risk at that point because that’s not the kind of thing a young, African American man living in the south in the 1920s and 30s — you wouldn’t these days unfortunately — if you’re in a rural situation, that puts your life at risk. The stories are that part of the reason why he joined the army was to make sure that he could survive, that he could live. So he joined the army. He spent not quite 28 consecutive years because he though he went into the army at ’42, he got out actually in ’48, something I only recently learned about. Prior to learning this, I thought he had been in continuously. But he got out only for about one or two years working as a porter on railroads. One day in a conversation with an older porter, he was asked what he had done before working on the railroad and responded he had been in the Army and World War II. The older man responded that dad’s best bet would be to re rejoin the army where he remained until he retired completely in 1967.
His early life, was spent going from farm, joining the Army, (while stationed in the San Antonio area getting married to Charlie Anglin before), going off to war where he served for 13 months in the European Theater of Operations as it was known technically. He was a driver for an organization called the ‘Red Ball Express.’ The ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ was an African American group of flyers. The ‘Red Ball,’ consisting essentially of African American soldiers, was the supply arm of General Patton’s Army as they rolled across western Europe, pushing back the forces of Nazism and fascism. One can actually read about the Red Ball in many places though it is not as famous as the Airmen. But in the African American community of Orlando, I learned about both and other similar groups like the black tank units.
I mean, our society now knows a lot about these folks, but when I was growing up, you had to be in the African American community to actually hear about Tuskegee Airmen or the Red Ball Express. My father was a Red Ball Express driver following his life as a farm boy. I look at my father’s life, and I’m actually amazed because his father, having possession of land, wanted to pass that as a legacy for his son. Grandfather also possessed a reputation as a hard-working person who once reputed said, “People don’t mind being around people who know how to work hard.” My father also had a half-brother, unfortunately my uncle died relatively young, so there was only my father.
But my father — well, the way my father said it on a couple of different occasions that when he was a young man, he figured there had to be more to life than looking north at the south end of a mule. You know, looking up from the plow behind a mule, right? And so, around age 12 or so, my father said he was not going to stay on the farm. He wanted to find a better life for himself and that happened at age seventeen with the opportunity to join the US Army in World War II.
Jim, is your sense that he knew he would be going into a segregated environment in the army?
Yes. I’m sure he knew because he also, my now-deceased father also told us other stories about how he decided the army was a place for him to go. When he was in high school, he said before his incident triggering incident, he saw visiting graduated former student who had joined the Army had come back and they were meeting some of the younger kids that they knew, and my father said, “Those guys looked so sharp in those uniforms.” And he said, “If they can do that,” he knew he could be a great soldier [laugh] because apparently my father was a really good student in school compared to some of these guys! So that too was part of how he actually first started thinking about the US Army.
The incident where he realized that he was putting his life in danger, did your father have a bravado about him?
Probably at that age, I would say yes.
And do you know if he had to contain himself in similar ways in the army?
No, I don’t think—well, maybe at first, but I don’t think that lasted very long. Yes, there was the story my father told me about why he went into the Army partially preserve his life, potentially, but also when he got in the Army, because he was a good student, he was what I think of as a contemplative personality, namely you put someone in a situation, they don’t just react. They actually think about where they are.
And one story that my father told me once or twice was that the thing that really got him thinking seriously about being a good soldier was talking to an older African American soldier who actually had been a Buffalo Soldier when he was young. You know, they were one of these groups of black cavalrymen in the west. So, some of those guys were still around when my dad joined the US Army.
And he said this one guy, I don’t know the gentleman’s name, he engaged in a conversation was really impressive with and said something like, “Young man, read and learn and remember the US Army regulation booklet because if you go by those rules, you have the potential to go far.” And this one conversation, as I said, my father was a good student, reading was something he actually liked to do. I don’t know if he had a taste for reading regulations, but apparently he did it.
Dad seemed to have been promoted pretty regularly which is another sign that he exercised a high degree of performance and discipline. Other stories involved his adroit driving handling of a “deuce and a half” (i.e. a two-and-one-half ton six-by-six cargo truck). Finally, there is one of my favorites that showed his analytical skills on maneuvers. He was in a jeep with an officer (as essentially African American officers did not exist) this other person was not black. The office wonder when the task force he was leading would me a second such force. Dad took out his map, looked at his watch, did a quick calculation in his head and said, “We should see them in about twelve minutes, sir.” After it happened as he predicted, the office was surprised and complimented him on his mental abilities.
So from that story, I intuited that pretty early on in my father’s service in the US Army, he found it a place where he felt secure, and even though it was a segregated army, there were rules. And that’s a most important thing that there are rules and people on both sides of the racial divide agree that they’re going to abide by those rules. And so that made it someplace where he actually could thrive as a person.
In a way, that perhaps in Alabama, there were not rules that would have governed the kinds of incidents that he had to get away from.
That’s right. There were rules in book, but not rules about reality, whereas in the Army, it seemed to him those rules existed in reality. One other thing I will say about my father. I am my father’s product, I mean, so let me go on just a little bit longer. Some years ago I did an interview on C-SPAN with Brian Lamb and about two or three weeks after that, I got an email message out of the blue. A gentleman had said he had seen the interview and he sort of congratulated me on it, and then he said, “Are you the son of Sylvester Gates who was a soldier at Fort Bliss in the early 60s?” And I wrote back, “Yes.” And then I got an email message back saying, “Your father,” in the 30 years that this gentleman has served in the Army, “your father was the most impressive soldier I ever met the entire time I was in with the Army.”
And then another indication of my father’s performance as a soldier was that he was among the first 50 or 100 African Americans promoted to become what’s called an E-10, a Sergeant Major which is the highest enlisted rank in the US Army. My father had a reputation of being a superb trainer of young soldiers on Fort Bliss’s base, and he was known as such up and down the chain of command on that post. By the way, I did not realize it then, but Ft. Bliss is only about one-hundred and fifty miles from Trinity Site, the location of the first atomic bomb test in history that took place in New Mexico during World War II.
When my mother died, the Commanding General flew a color guard to my mother’s funeral in San Antonio. Fort Bliss is in El Paso, that’s about five hundred and seventy miles away, but that says something about the regard the Commanding General had for my father and what my father had done because while my mother was dying of cancer — it was about a two year long period — my father raised four children all by himself while he was on active duty.
It is high praise what your father’s colleagues said about him in terms of his service. What do you think he learned over the course of his career and the characteristics that he had built among himself for him to be regarded in this way by his peers and superiors?
You know, I often tell people that my father was the quintessential soldier. That meant he ran the household like it was part of the Army. [laugh] From those experiences, I can intuit some things about him. He was a disciplinarian, as a father. It is funny to me now that later in my life, my father became one of my closest friends. As a child, I could never imagine my dad being a friend. [augh] He set the rules and, you know, you followed them. Corporal punishment was not out of the realm of possibilities in my household as a child.
It was really funny; Dad was hard in the way of setting standards and trying to draw the best character out of his children that he could. I remember he always demanded that you work to your utmost ability to accomplish what you said you were going to do. That was a primary lesson. He also had extraordinarily high regard for intellectual accomplishment and achievement. In other words, Grade A was the expected norm. Anything other than that could get you in trouble.
But the really weird thing about my dad, as I reflect on him, he was a strict disciplinarian and all the things that a lot of people experienced from military dads. I told you he raised us by himself for about two years, but earlier than that I had an experience with my father that led me to never doubt how much my father loved me. And that was when I was learning to ride a bicycle, and there was some old, abandoned airfields around Fort Bliss that had been left over from the Second World War. My father, on consecutive Sundays, every Sunday, took me just the two of us, out to one of these airfields so that I could learn to ride my bicycle. I knew that his work during the week was long and difficult, but here he was running along next to his son trying [to] teach him how not to fall off between his work weeks.
I never had the sense that dad, even though he was strict, I never had the sense that there was an absence of love there because my dad did so many things that proved he was a typical, I guess, man of the 1950s. Men in the 1950s didn’t tell their children they loved them. They showed them that they loved them. My dad was a typical dad like that, and he listened to his children in a way that, as I reflect on it now, I didn’t understand it then, but he listened to his children in a way that I find extraordinary, and in fact, led to my becoming a scientist. His strength through the times of my mother illness to death, and my attending six different elementary schools (Hughey, Travis, Fort Bliss, Logan, Fannin, and Hannibal in three cities and two states) was sustaining. I attempted to describe the experience of being his son at his memorial service in 2007 by the delivery at his eulogy “An Allegorical-Elegy for A Sergeant-Major,” a bit of prose I created.
Before living in El Paso, and Fort Bliss in the desert, when I four years old, I lived in Canada with dad and my mom and my siblings. Our family would not return to the continental United States until 22 May 1956 arriving on an airplane called a “C-119 flying boxcar.” The plane took off from Harmon Field in Newfoundland and landed at McGuire Field in New Jersey having transported all six members of the Gates family and four other military personnel.
My youngest brother was about to be born in a few months as we boarded the ship, I believed sailed from New York, that conveyed us to St. John, Newfoundland in Canada. The nearby Fort Pepperrell we to be out home for four years.
When I ask people, “Do you know where is the location of Newfoundland?” Most people say, “No.” I said, “Well, you’ve probably heard of Nova Scotia. Go there and then head north and east and you’ll get to Newfoundland.” It is cold and dank. It is one of the Canadian Maritime provinces and in 1954 or so, my mother took her then three children to see a science fiction movie named Spaceways. Somewhere toward the middle of the decade between 2010 and 2020, I was able to track it after about a ten year-long on-line search. From this movie, I first heard the word “science,” in it I first saw astronauts. As portrayed in the movie, science to me was a doorway to have adventure and fun. It just seemed an amazing life. What four-year-old boy would not be attracted to adventure and fun?
So at four years old that evening, (I have no recollection of this), but I heard the story from dad when he came home, I wanted to explain to him how rockets worked. And he sat and listened. An irony of this was a few years later and toward the entire end of his career, he worked with rockets (the “Hawk” missile – the predecessor of the Patriot missile, Nike Ajax and Mike Hercules missiles) battalion and artillery. I do not know if he had the same interest, however, his listening was to have important implications for my path to becoming a scientist. And that’s emblematic of dad because from ages four to about eight, I had tons of questions about everything. The person I would ask was my father. And I had a recollection that he answered every single question no matter how odd it was.
When I was in my 40s or so, it occurred to me how odd that fact was and maybe my childhood recollections weren’t accurate. On one of my visits to my father’s then home in the Orlando area where he spent the last 30 years of his life, he lived in a small, famous African American town called Eatonville, FL. It was incorporated in six miles north of Orlando during 1887, one of the nation’s first African American self-governing cities. As county and local police authorities then often refused to protect African American citizens in these times, such communities sprang up in many places in the United States in order to protect themselves. This community exists to this day in 2020.
On this visit I asked “Dad, do you remember me asking questions?” His response was, “Yes.” I next said “Do you remember answering all of the questions?” He said, “Sure, yes.” And I said, “How did you do that?” I knew my dad never finished high school but earned a high school equivalency degree while at Fort Bliss and also in 1957 earned a Certificate of Award from the US School of Music after our family’s arrival there.
And then he told me something that astounded me, he says, “Well, I remember you asking the questions. But there’s something you don’t remember.” And I’m like, “Well what is that?” He said, “If you had a question that I could not answer, what I would do is to tell you was “hold on.” In the intervening time I would go read, I would go ask someone, and then the next day I would come and give you the answer.” And that got me used to the idea that when you have questions, there are answers that can be obtained—a key foundational part of a scientific personality. And that came from my dad. As I said before, this came not by him telling me, but by learning this from his example.
There were other things he did that supported my blossoming interest in science—when I was in second grade, I was having difficult learning to read. Arithmetic, by the way, was no problem. This is a trait in my family that I’ve now seen for four generations from granddad to my father to me to my children and to relatives —I mean to nieces and nephews also. All of us seem to have this liking for mathematics and we’re pretty good at it. I tell people, “Mathematics is the family business.”
Since I was having trouble learning to read, my reading teacher suggested that dad should go get some books about something in which I already had an interested. This was around age seven or eight. He remembered his four-year-old son had an interest in rockets, rockets and space travel, so he brought home some books by an author named Willie and from those books, I basically learned to read very quickly after that. But it also reignited my interest in space, which is the old four-year-old rocket thing, right? The books also got me to thinking about how big the universe must be for those tiny dots of light in the sky to be places to which one could go.
So dad did that. He also brought home a ‘Universal Map of Outer Space’ by the Rand McNally company. It was one of my prized childhood possessions in early grade school levels! He had listened and recalled what was inside of my head and heart, this interest in science and space and what have you, and then he took concrete steps to nurture it. I never heard him say anything special about this, but he kept on doing these things.
Jim, your father as a soldier par excellence suggests, of course, both a high level of patriotism and a great respect for authority, and so I wonder how he might have navigated those kinds of feelings and also convey that he was raising children in a society that suffered from systemic racism?
Well, one of the things that most Americans certainly your age and younger have not been informed about is that actually, in the 1950s, the military was one of the few places in our society where diversity — even before the word existed — where diversity was actually the norm. And so the kinds of exhibitions of racial animus and hatred that most African American children of my age experience in their lives were absent from my childhood because my father was in the Army. This awareness would come later after my mother’s death on 27 March of 1962. About a year later, he remarried, and I gained a stepmother, Edythe Bradshaw Gates. She was an elementary school teacher in the Orlando area and we then lived in a segregated southern city, somewhat improved over the conditions my dad encountered as a child. But my encounters with racism did not begin there.
There were one or two incidents I don’t remember. Dad used to tell the story about the first time I heard what people now call the N-word. We were in Canada at Fort Pepperrell where I had gotten excited about science. And so my father came home one day and I asked him the question and he said, “Where did you hear that?” And I told him so and so, you know, one of the other kids that was in the neighborhood. After that father went over and had a conversation with the father of the other kid. I had never heard that word before, you know.
I have no recollection of hearing that, but I never heard that word the entire first 11 years of my life.
And you had no idea the toxicity when you first heard it?
No, I didn’t even know what it meant. In fact, that’s why I had to ask my father what it actually meant.
Because I had no clue. So the US military in the 50s was a cocoon—and I’ve talked to a few other African Americans who have had similar experiences with dads in the service in that decade — and my story is not unusual in this way. It also meant that I started school in integrated schools and I was always one of the best one or two students in all of my classes after learning to read. So I never had a chance as a young African American to onboard mythologies about lack of intelligence because I was and am a person of color who out-performed essentially all of my classmates no matter then ethnicity in my class constantly.
So that’s a failure mode that I often see in young African Americans now because no matter how much lip service is paid to the idea of the equality of human beings, this society is rife and full of messages for African American young people and the messages say that, “You are less when it comes to the exercise of your inherent intellectual ability.” And so as a young child, I never had a chance to onboard that because my father was in an environment where that was not tolerated.
And probably you were lucky enough to avoid a lot of the trauma that so many of your contemporaries who didn’t have that experience had to contend with.
Yes. I believe that’s also the case. I should tell you that my life started to change when I was in fifth grade, my biological mother died. So, at around age 12, I went from having friends of diverse ethnic backgrounds to — well, it is a little bit more complicated. There was a transitional period while my biological mother was dying, I lived in San Antonio for about a year or so, but prior to that — because we had lived on Army posts — I had been just one of the kids among a sea of kids — most of whom were European American — there were occasionally some Asian American kids and some Hispanic American kids, right—so we were just all together. During the time in San Antonio, I went to Fannin Elementary School on Houston St. Prior to this, our family had always been among the handful of people of color in the communities in which we lived. This changed in the neighbor around Fannin which is less than two miles from the Alamo. The number of European American families decreased and here was an increase in the number of Mexican American families and African American families.
When I look back to my time living at El Paso, I think we were sort of like Spanky and the Gang from the old 1920s and 30s movies. That’s what we were. And none of us—I don’t recall a single incident in that period of my life around being attacked because I was the only black kid in the crowd. Not a single incident. But when we moved to Orlando, things changed radically.
As I said, my stepmother lived in a segregated community, the historical part of Orlando now called ‘the Parramore District’. That meant that I lived in a segregated community. But that also had a particular development because of the absence of European Americans, you never had direct unpleasant events around race because there are only black people. However, what I then encountered was the — well it is something that Einstein said, but I encountered in real life so to speak — Einstein once said that one of the terrible things about segregation is that those who are segregated against often come to believe what is said about them by those who enforce the conditions that segregate them. What I started to encounter in my life in Orlando was the indirect uploading of these terrible apps that sit in the heads of many African Americans because of the extent to which our society supports racist theories of ethnic superiority vs. ethnic inferiority.
And it was very clear to me right after I moved to Orlando, because I was finishing up my sixth grade year—my stepmother was teaching at a school in Winter Park, so the four of us would get in the car, along with my stepmom, and she would drive us to school, and you know she’s a new mom so she goes from zero kids to having four. So you have to think about that transition, right? But one day — I went to a school called Hannibal Elementary and one day while I was there maybe three weeks or a month or so after we first got there, we were at recess and there was a young African American fellow student of mine in my class named Michael and we were playing and he stopped and we were talking, he said, “You know, you’re really pretty good at this school stuff.” And I said, “Well, thank you.” Because I didn’t know what else to say. And then he said something which I’ve never forgotten. He said, “No matter how smart you are, you can never be smart as a white kid. You will always be two years behind.”
Now, my reaction to that—and I remember it because it was so stunning — I didn’t know what he was saying. Because of my life experience — remember, I’m coming from an integrated environment where I’m always the top one or two students in the class, and so he’s suddenly saying something that is inconsistent with my life experience.
It simply did not compute for you.
Exactly. Literally, it did not compute. And so, I remember just sort of standing there trying to figure out what it was he was saying to me because I couldn’t. And then finally I did — I don’t know whether it took 20 seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds, but eventually I figured out what he was saying and I understood immediately it was the result of the fact that he and so many other kids like him never had interactions with European American students and students of other races so that they could get a realistic view their own intellectual capacity of in comparison to others. If you’re in a segregated environment, you have no basis for comparison, and when you encounter these ubiquitous messages in a society, you might begin to say, “Well, gee, there must be something to that.”
My time in Orlando turned out to have been an extraordinarily valuable time in my life because it prepared me for our society as it is, not that cocoon that I had been raised in up to that point. I sometimes tell people, jokingly, I had to switch from loving the music of the Beach Boys to loving the music of The Temptations. And one of the things that—although it is sort of a joke, it is not completely a joke — because of the trajectory of my life having been in six different schools — I had acquired a working understanding of the difference between culture and ethnicity. Any kid who moved to a many of school would understand this. Moving to a different school means necessarily one encounters a different school culture. Having had to navigate this pathway, I continued to do so.
One of the things I remember learning from that experience was that the rules for playing games actually change depending on where you were. Now I look back and think of this as my first awakening to what culture is because for a kid, culture is a lot around the games you play. And if the games are different and we change the environment, you have to learn to change to play by the new rules, otherwise you’re cheating, right?
I began to understand that culture is actually a negotiation. That it is not really, as a lot of people think, that race and culture are the same thing, and from those early experiences I understood that was never true, nor ever likely to be true.
When I arrived in Orlando, I had all of the resources to negotiate the environment in which I found myself, but I also came to understand the toxicity and the unfairness and the immorality of how racism plays out in this country. For those who against who discrimination and segregation are existent, it is like being forced to swim constantly in a pool of acid or as a terrible miasma against which there is no possibility of a hermetic isolation.
Another time this was starkly brought to my attention was a few years later, probably in 11th grade or so. A friend of mine named Phillip Dunn, who I met when we were in ninth grade, formed a chess team (that I wickedly named “Le Noir Chevaliers et Ajax”). We first started playing chess in ninth grade when he began to teach me. We were serious chess players. Eventually we attracted a group of other guys watching us. “Hey, that’s not checkers. What are you guys doing?” By the time we were in tenth or eleventh grade we decided to form a chess team. We got one of the teachers, my physics teacher, to be a sponsor. And we challenged high schools in Orlando.
Since my high school, Jones High, was traditionally the only high school where African Americans could get a secondary education, it meant the schools we were challenging were all off limits for us. The students were only European American students and that meant those were our chess competitors. We never lost a single match.
But what it allowed me to do was to go into those schools for the first time and to see the difference in resource investment, whereas in my high school, books were often out of date and falling apart. Sometimes there were not enough books so that we had to put two desks together so you and the student next to you could each have a book to read from. At those high school for others and you look around and there are pools, there are new books, everything was shiny and clean. The gym is immaculate. Then I look at my high school. At that point, I intrinsically and immediately understood how stacked the deck is against African American youth in our land and its global broadcasted message of justice for all.
And what you’re saying is you didn’t even have to go out and look for these things. The distinctions were so starkly apparent, it just hit you like a ton of bricks, these differences.
That and the fact that I’ve always been what I call a “watcher kid”. I mean, I’ve always been someone who believes that you don’t just experience life, but that you should contemplate life, that you think about what you want. That was always part of my personality. So yes, I thought about it.
Jim, before we get too far afield, I want to go back a little bit and learn about your biological mother’s background. Tell me a little bit about where she’s from.
Sure, thank you so much for returning to that subject. My biological mother—
What was her name, first of all?
I’m going to start there. Her name was Charlie, just like the guy’s name. Her parents had expected her to be a boy, but she was a girl, so her first name was Charlie, which is really unusual.
And a little stubborn of your grandparents not to switch gears.
I don’t know that whole story. Unfortunately, my mother was an orphan also, so I don’t know very much about that part of them. Charlie Engels was her name. She was born in San Marcos, a small town in Texas. So I have Texas roots on that side of my family. She was an artistic personality. She was the opposite of dad. Dad was kind of analytical, and that’s kind of where I — I mean, if there’s some component of genetics in what I do, that’s pretty clear to me that’s where it came from.
But the creative side in what I do probably came from my mother because mom was essentially and quintessentially artistic personality from my meager recollections. Mom crocheted, she knitted, she fired clay figurines, she did watercolor. So, you know, all the signs of an artistic temperament. But she had a certain flair about her. Her favorite movie actresses were Ida Lupino and Loretta Young. And she bore some resemblance to them. I have this one photograph of mom and it was taken in 1942 and I’ve shown it to people and they say, “Gee, you know, how beautiful, your mother looks good.” And she had high cheekbones and she, like I said, she bore a slight resemblance to her two favorite actresses, which is probably why they were her favorite actresses.
And by the way, the science fiction movie that pointed me toward science is possibly connected to my mother’s fascination with Ida Lupino likely played a role in that also in a very odd way. About 10 years ago, when I finally discovered the name of the movie, I noticed the star of the movie was a guy named Howard Duff. Howard Duff was married to Ida Lupino for a while. And since my mother had this artistic personality, I had wondered for years why would she take her kids to see this science fiction movie? When I finally discovered the movie and found out that he was in it, I said, “Probably because the husband of one of her favorite actresses was in the movie. That’s what probably got us into the movie.” So, there’s probably that.
Mom died when I was 11 and a half, so I don’t really have a lot of memories of her, although I have some cherished memories. She clearly loved her children and we were the complete focus of her life. I have these very personal memories that I will not share, but mother love is all I can say (big, glowing letters and flashing lights) mother love, I experienced as a child also.
Jim, you talked a little bit about some of the different social mores with regard to race in the 1950s, I wonder if you could talk about some of the social mores surrounding sickness and how that was dealt with in a way that might be very different than today.
Oh yes, yes, yes, yes. Well, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in third grade. And it was a big secret. It was not something that you talked about.
Cancer was not something that was generally recognized in society at all, and so there was just no place to find out about this as a civilian. I mean if you were medical personnel, then you’d go find information, but as an ordinary citizen, there was essentially nowhere you could find out about this terrible thing.
Mom had to have a double mastectomy probably about the time right after the cancer was diagnosed. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but, you know, there was not really much that medical technology could do for her. At a certain point, she became too ill to stay in the house and that’s when my father had to take over the raising of the kids. As the oldest child of four I was needed to pitch in with the younger ones. I learned how to scramble eggs and iron clothes a bit. But Father carried the lion’s share and did not want his children seen in public in a manner that would reflect badly on us.
I have vivid memories of the last time I saw my mother. This was at Fort Sam Houston, a military base in the San Antonio area which has an excellent hospital. My father had gotten transferred from Fort Bliss to Fort Sam Houston for my mother to get medical treatment.
And like I said, I have a vivid memory of the last time I saw mom. We went to the hospital. We were not even allowed in the hospital since we were children. I was 11 and a half, my brother was 10 and a half, my sister was 9 and a half, and my youngest brother was 7 and a half. We were not even allowed in the hospital. So on this final occasion of seeing mother, she was on a gurney. Some attendants rolled her outside and we saw her.
At first, I didn’t recognize mom. Her physical appearance had changed so much, and she was dying. We didn’t understand that when we went to see her, we were just happy to go visit mom. But she knew it. As I reflect back upon the conversation decades afterwards, what she was saying, she knew she was going to die soon. At the time, it was weird in my memory she was saying these things.
And so that’s how it was in the 60’s for kids facing that kind of a challenge.
Your father didn’t prepare you for what was coming?
Yes and no. That’s an interesting question. On that last visit she did not explicitly say, “I am not going to be with you.” That, “I am going to die.” That was not said. But what she did say was that she (and she was adamant in this in a way that I had, at the time, I remember I was puzzled by) she said, “I want you to take care of each other.” And she said it over and over to all four kids. “You’ve got to take care of each other.”
The other thing she said, which I also remember, was she told dad, “Don’t break them up.” I told you earlier my mother was an orphan. She had a brother, but after her parents died and I think her mother died before her father—but after both her parents died, the way they were raised was each were sent to different family members. In other words, they were broken up. And so this admonition she was giving to my father, “Don’t let them get broken up,” came from her childhood experience, I’m now convinced.
And my father, I mean, he didn’t. We were never separated as children. So, you know, like I say, she was a person of imagination, so I think that’s how I got my imagination. When I was in early school, I used to draw a lot and I’m pretty sure, all kinds of figures, characters, cartoon superhero characters, my own comic book—I’m sure all that came from mom. The analytical skill from dad and the emotional artist temperament from mom seem to have been wielded together in my pursuit of creating mathematical/theoretical physics adventures…attempting to comprehend something subtle and profound mathematically that is deeply hidden in Nature.
Jim, I can only imagine the pain and the fear and the emotional turmoil your father was going through just to be bereft of his wife, and to maintain a career, and have these four small kids. Did he share what he was going through with you or was your sense that — not that he necessarily bottled it up, but that when he would break down — and I’m sure he would break down — that he did so privately?
So let me talk about a couple of things to respond to that question. The day that mother died, we did not go to the hospital. At that point, we were living with — well, we were living with the woman who had raised my mother. Remember I told you she was sent away to a relative when she was a child? When my father was transferred from Fort Bliss back to San Antonio, we lived with — the lady’s name is Miss Annie Duplan. She’s the lady who raised my mother when she became an orphan, and now, the four of us and my dad, and also her other daughter and her family, were all in her house in San Antonio.
So the day that mom died, you know, dad had been — we had been in the habit of watching dad go to the hospital and come home, but the day that mom died, dad came home and this is, again, a memory I’ll never forget. He sat down and he had his four children to sit on his two legs, two on the side, and he told us that mom was dead. And he was crying, but not bawling, but just tears running down his face. And he hugged us because we — you know, children hearing such a message — at that point, you know what death is. It is the final decision. And he hugged us and rocked us back and forth and said, “We’re going to be OK. We’re going to stick together like your mother said, and we’re going to be OK.” I can recall feeling the stubble from his beard on my face as we all cried together in a pitiful little huddle. Years later, he told me that after Charlie died, he had walked out of the hospital and could not recall where he had parked the family car. It took him a while to find it before he could drive home with this terrible family news.
The only other memory I have from that time is shortly after that. There were three boys and a girl, so all of the boys shared a bedroom and my sister had her own separate bedroom, which was often the case for African American families. I don’t know about other kinds of families, but that was the general pattern if there were boys and girls in the family, boys had a — and there weren’t enough rooms — boys had a room, girls had a room, so my sister had her own.
But it is only recently in the last year or so, a recovered memory suddenly came back to me and I remember lying in bed, and I was probably crying, but in my recollection I can’t remember, but I remember hearing my brother’s cry. And the room was dark. And I remember dad coming to the door and saying, in a very stern voice, “Be quiet. You have to sleep.” And it was a gruff sort of treatment of children in pain. And at the time, I remember being very hurt by it. But now I reflect on what he must have been going through, and to show you the depth of my father’s love, I’ll tell you a story from much, much later in my life.
So mom died 1962. In the middle 90s, I was invited to a conference in San Antonio, Texas, which is where mom died and is buried. I had not been back to mother’s grave in that 30-year plus long period. When I got this invitation to come to this convention, the hosts were kind enough to provide hotel lodging at a guest house, not a commercial building, a guest house, and the room they reserved for me had two beds in it. I called up dad because that’s where he had met my mother in the nineteen forties, that’s where mama had died, and I said, “Dad, if I send you a plane ticket, would you come to San Antonio and spend the week with me? Because I have a hotel room with two beds in it and you can just get out of Orlando and we can just spend some time together.”
And he said yes. He was thrilled that his son was sending him an airplane ticket. We spent the entire — so during the day, I would go and do my conference stuff, but in the evenings, we would just sit and talk. I heard stories about how he had met my mother, for the first time in my life. I never remember hearing any stories before that. He had met my mother in a bar named Tuckers and he said he was on a barstool with some of his friends and they were drinking. San Antonio was a boomtown during World War II because San Antonio has two major air force training facilities, Lackland and Randolph Fields. That’s where thousands of American pilots for the Second World War were trained. It also has Fort Sam Houston, which is a major US Army base.
San Antonio was a boomtown during the 40s. Lots of young people being trained for the military and, you know, there were many jobs there related to the influx of young service personnel. You might try and fail find a job previously but suddenly there are jobs there that draw young people. So Dad was there with some of his buddies, they were out at the bar Tuckers. My father said, “The first time I saw your mother, I was sitting on a barstool with my friends and in walked these several beautiful young women,” and he said, “I saw this one and I almost fell off of my barstool.”
Now my father was very shy in those days, but he said, “I got up my nerve and I went over asked her if she would have a dance with me. And she did.” I heard about how that marriage got started and I heard about the first apartment they had shared, and these are things I had never known in my life before, so I’m almost maybe 50 and I’m hearing this for the first time.
During that visit, we went to visit my mother’s grave and my father broke into tears again. And he said some things to her, of course she’s not there and he knows that, but I was stunned at the things he had to say. This is 30 plus years later. I was stunned at the intensity of the love that I heard expressed in what he said. And so that’s another strange dichotomy to my father. He’s a very reserved person at one level, which led to his success in the military, but he was actually very deeply emotional engaged, there was a level to my father that I came to understand that day was extraordinarily emotional and involved in his family, both his wife and his children.
Did he involve you and your siblings in his decision to remarry? Did he look at this as a family decision or did he present this as a fait accompli?
Well, we didn’t have a hand in the decision, but—
I mean, you know what I’m saying, like, “Do you guys want a new mom?” kind of thing.
Right, right. I understand. We didn’t have a say in the decision, but let’s just say he auditioned the competitors.
Right. We actually met these folks, right? And there was this one lady who was our favorite, she didn’t win. [Laugh] But my father, in my opinion, clearly made the choice that he thought was best for his children because my stepmom was a teacher. You know, she owned her own home, along with her mother, living together in a house on Carter St. So, he made the right choice, as I look back on it. Even though there was this very attractive other lady that we all were like, “That’s the one, right?” We knew what he was doing, even if we didn’t tell him. We knew what was going on, like I trust one more to raise my children. He made the choice he thought would be best for us. We didn’t say that to him, but we said it to each other.
He must have been aware of her background and where you would end up would very much change the trajectory of the family.
Yes, when my father asked me to deliver my stepmother’s eulogy decades later in the 1990’s when she died, and as I said, my stepmom was not a perfect person. No one is, but she was a point of safe calm in the storm of life that we were going through then. In fact, my stepmom had severe emotional issues which played with all of these kids until we each left her house one-by-one.
Jim, you mentioned when we spoke initially that you sometimes found it difficult to navigate your own innate academic gifts with what society may have expected from somebody who looked like you. Can you talk a little bit about when you first realized that you had these abilities? Not just interests, but abilities and aptitudes and how you might have navigated how to express them or to keep them private to the extent that you were able?
To this day, I do not describe what I do as related to abilities. I just seem to think differently.
For most of my childhood, I did not. In fact, I was not aware there was anything unusual about the way that my mind could work in mathematics or in general in intellectual ways. It just seemed to me that most kids didn’t try and that was my explanation for the difference. It was like, “Well I’m trying hard, that’s why I’m able to do this stuff and they’re not.”
I could no longer keep that illusion by the time I got to tenth grade and there was a very pointed event that caused that. One of my classmates asked me a question one day, and I told him I didn’t know the answer. His jaw fell open and he looked at me and he said, “You didn’t realize that in the entire three years I’ve known you, I’ve never heard you say ‘I don’t know.’” And at that point, I started thinking, “Well, gee, maybe there is something different about the way my mind works compared to my classmates.” But before that, I had never thought so.
I was talking about our chess club earlier, and that was also part of this awakening, that perhaps there’s something different inside. In chess, that I had learned from my friend, Phillip Dunn, it was clear to everyone that only the two of us, being comparable chess players, had minds that worked alike and different from everyone else around us. And so that was also part of my sort of coming to understand the kind of apps and software that run inside my brain.
One difference I learned then within the confines of a segregated community, in contrast to what I see in news media now, was no notion that being African American meant that you could not also be smart. In fact, the sense I obtained at Jones High School was precisely the opposite, “Well if you can do that, then we can too.” It was an affirmation that intellectual ability and achievement was well within the reach of African American who chose such pursuits.
In my high school, I was often described as the smartest kid in my class in school. Even though I wasn’t ragged on incessantly, as one can well imagine when people think you’re the smartest kid in school, that’s probably not going to make you the most popular kid in school. And so around tenth grade, I started doing things because I wanted to change the way that people interacted with me, and one of the things that I did was go to school one day and said, “Call me Jim.” You see, up until that time, everyone had always called me Sylvester and I was perfectly happy with that, but this name change was actually not just a change of name, it was my really beginning to understand how to interact with people in a way that was much more comfortable for me. I could then be around people and have them more at ease. I really started to understand how I was being “socialized” I guess is what I thought. If I developed good “people skills” later on, this was their beginning.
Just the name Jim is more accessible, perhaps, than Sylvester.
Exactly. [laugh] Exactly. And I learned how to dance. At one point, I had a reputation of being one of the best dancers in my school. And you don’t really expect the valedictorian (which I became in my senior year) to be, you know, someone who knows how to dance well, but I did that and it was a conscious effort. It was all very conscious and intentional on my part. It wasn’t something I just accidentally fell into. I was consciously changing the human ecology around me and I knew that and worked at it.
I also joined a young men’s club called the Esquires and they were kind of a high school version of a fraternity, except they didn’t have the wild parties and all the stuff you hear about in the movie Animal Farm, little of that stuff went on. But they were known to be the coolest guys and they dressed the cool part as well. And so, I learned how to do that. I became this very interesting hybrid.
There used to be a character on TV named Urkel (Steven Quincy Urkel) on a comedy series, a smart black kid. I was the anti-Urkel because although I got the highest grades in my classes, on weekends, I was at parties dancing and hanging out with the guys in the Esquires Club. And in fact, recently, well, in the last 10 years, I have been visiting Orlando to support mathematics and science at Jones High. I typically go back to Orlando at least once a year because my high school has an award that carries my name for the student that has the highest performance in science or mathematics, and it has been going on for about 15 years or so, except this year, because of COVID, it didn’t occur. But every year I go back to hand that student a check for $1,000 because I tell them, “This is not a scholarship. This is money to recognize what you have already done.”
On one of those visits, one of my classmates was interviewed in the Orlando Sentinel and he said, “Yes, everybody knew Jim was smart, but he was cool smart.” And looking back on what I had done in the 60s, I’m like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to do.” Yes, I was learning how to interact with people in a way that I still think was rather unusual for physicists, which later contributed to my successful contribution as I went into the domain of public policy and all those sorts of things.
Yes and I was going to ask, I mean just to foreshadow a little bit, in terms of being known as the smart kid, obviously from a math and science perspective, that story kind of wrote itself, but I wonder if you also had a talent or an interest in sort of the policy kind of classes you were taking or the literature classes because obviously those talents require, on your part, an understanding of what makes people tick as well, not just particles.
[laugh] Yes. Interest, no. Talent, yes. I got A’s in those classes too. I had some extraordinary literature teachers. The most extraordinary were Ms. Thelma Dudley, and Ms. Lessie Weaver. So, Romeo and Juliet, 1984, Grapes of Wrath, literature like was part of my high school experience and I passed tests in those classes too. So, interest, no, but exposure, yes, with the chance to look at what people are through the lens of literature. But there’s another part of my experience in Orlando that was even more educational and informative to me.
My stepmother was very dedicated to seeing her four stepchildren also received a religious education. Every Sunday we children were in Sunday School, and then in church service. We sang in the church choir. So every Wednesday, we had choir practice. Thus, the other part of my coming to understand how people work resulted from my involvement with the Mount Olive AME Church in Orlando, Florida. I went to youth church conferences. The first such conference was in a small town about thirty-four miles north of Orlando named Mount Dora. [The most impactful discovery from my attendance happen at a dinner at lunch near to the AME church where I have my first recollection of hearing Motown music!] Another memorable such convention began with a one hundred and forty-three-mile bus trip to the Edward Waters College campus in Jacksonville, FL. Finally, the longest such excursion involved a bus ride over several days to an AME convention in Pittsburgh, PA. So over some days on a group of young Mt. Olive church members rode to complete that nine hundred and seventy mile trip, attend the meeting over a few days, and then return.
In many AME churches, there’s something called Vacation Bible School, which is kind of a several week-long summer camp, at least in those times in the south certainly. My stepmother had us in those also. I believe there’s a copy of a bible somewhere in my home currently that I won for being the student able to correctly name (along with correct order) the most books in the bible. This was also part of my childhood. And like I said, my greater sense of understanding people are came out of that as opposed to just an understanding of religion.
In terms of your family or mentors in the church or people that you respected, did you ever get influences where you thought about the validity of a religious perspective, believing in God?
Of course I did. Are you serious? This is most especially the case as my biological mother died when I was eleven. In fact, that was a corresponding outside component of my life, contemplating beliefs espoused in the church and reflecting on my mother’s death, that made for a whole odyssey. I think a feature of my personality for as long as I can recall, is I always seemed to attempt to process experiences I had lived. When mother died, the question was, “Where did she go?” This happened begin my father remarried. I was already in this process of, what I like to think of as a faith odyssey. During this process, I read a lot about religions, and not just Christianity, but Hindi, Muslim, Zoroastrianism, Greek, Roman, Norse mythology, and something that people call spiritualism. The latter focused a lot on the question of an afterlife and that it is possible to communicate with people after they have died.
I did all that from the time my mother died, which I was 11 and a half, to about I’d say 13 years old, that whole reading period. This was an overlay while being involved in the church and having the formal dogma of Christianity repeated continuously. As a physicist, I’m probably a little bit better informed about religions than most because of that experience, and at the end of the day, probably—other than the time I was I guess 13—I figured out an answer that satisfied me. I do not discuss that answer because I am a private person to some degree and don’t think it is anybody else’s business, but it has kept me grounded in questions of faith and religions for now over 50 some odd years and it is part of the foundation of how I’m able to function in life.
It also suggests a level of emotional maturity perhaps that no one could achieve without having gone through the experience of losing a mother, a beloved mother.
Yes. It certainly was a trigger for me.
Jim, when you were thinking about your next steps in high school, I’m curious what put it in your mind—coming from a segregated school outside of Orlando—that a place like MIT—no matter how smart you were, right—what put it in your mind or who put it in your mind that this was something that was in the realm of possibility for you?
Let me expand just a bit on that. Also during my teenage years, I discovered Marvel comic books and this is actually very important. This is not an aside. The discovery was made because as I was living with my stepmother and her mother in Orlando. My father at this point was still in the U.S. Army and stationed in Kaisersluatern (“K-town”) Germany. After he remarried by stepmom, the two of them transported us four children from San Antonio, TX (while I was half-way through my sixth grade year in school) to Orlando, FL. Although my dad had wanted to take my stepmom and the four of us along with him to Germany, she did not want to leave her mother alone in Orlando.
So, Dad went alone and finished out his career in the Army on service in Germany before retiring. So it was my stepmother, her mom, and the four kids in this house on Carter St. in the (now called) Parramore neighborhood of the city. There was a barbershop close by and at least once every two weeks or so, the three boys were sent to the barbershop for a haircut. The Parramore neighborhood was the traditional home of the African American community in Orlando. It is divided from the downtown area of the city by an elevated highway “Interstate-Four” that runs along a north-south axis.
As is the case with many similar neighborhoods, the Parramore area is slowly disappearing as the wealthy and municipal needs of the bustling city have displaced residences, churches, businesses and the associated people. One day in the early ‘70s, my dad had seen a city planning document that foretold all of this. This included the fact, that our home on Carter St. was slated to be demolished to make way for a new east-west highway, “the 408.” This was one impetus for the family to move from Orlando to the smaller of Eatonville.
Miss Velma’s was the typical — it is funny because it is the stereotypical image and I don’t know how much you know about black barbershops, but they have a culture all of their own — and this was a black barbershop in every sense of the word. There were three chairs where you could get your haircut and a shave if you were a man. Miss Velma was actually the owner of the shop and there was always present one other guy, we called him Mr. Sammy, who took care of customers in one of the other chairs. Sometimes there would be one other barber for the third — sometimes there, sometimes not. But Sammy and Miss Velma, they were always there.
They cut hair for the kids in the neighborhood. In order to keep waiting kids quiet, they had a collection of comic books. That’s how I discovered Marvel comics. Now, the reason that’s important for how I got to MIT is because if you look at the Marvel comic books—and the movies now—but certainly the comic books then, you’ll find that a number of the main characters are scientists. Reid Richards of the Fantastic Four is a scientist. Bruce Banner (also known as the Hulk) is a scientist. Hank Pym (also known as the Ant-Man) is a scientist. Professor X, the leader of the X-Men, a scientist. Soon after my introduction to the 1960’s “Marvel Comic Universe,” I had a substantial collection that ran the gamut of issues from 1963 to 1969. The other thing that made the MCU a source of special inspiration was the regular appearance of African American characters and superheroes. The crew of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, and all the other artists, inkers, etc. showed people of the African diaspora living also in a world of science, most prominently in the character of the King of Wakanda, T’Challa, the Black Panther.
One of the things that reading those adventures did was to reinforce and reconnect me back to my original discovery of science at four years old as a way of having adventures. I was always good in school and I knew from reading science fiction books and paperbacks, watching science fictions movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still as well as television programs like Rocky Jones, Space Ranger that science had something to do with mathematics that I wanted to have in my life as an adult. This was before I took my first physics class and had not yet heard of physics. So what was inspired by a visit to Ms. Velma’s is a foundation on which my science commitment really increased.
When I was around fourteen, I saw a television program in a series called Make Room for Daddy, and in this particular episode, the family that was the focus of this television show had a nephew come and visit them. This nephew was an extremely smart kid and he went to this very special school called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What I got from watching the TV show as a 14-year-old was this was a college where the only — my interpretation at time — where the only thing they made you study was math and science. I used to call that the good stuff when I was a kid.
And so the next time, when father asked, “What college are you going to?” I said, “Well, dad, there’s this place called MIT. That’s where I want to go to school.” And so that’s how MIT came onto my radar. Physics came onto my radar about two years later, so even though Jones High was segregated school—one of the really weird things about segregation is that it meant that people who were extraordinarily talented and qualified were teachers, because they couldn’t get better jobs elsewhere.
And so my high school physics teacher was a gentleman by the name of Mr. Freeman Coney. He actually understood physics. This is something that’s — and in fact, he had a degree in physics — is almost unheard of in the country today independent of the ethnicity of the teacher. Segregation meant that in an all-black school I could have people of extraordinary ability, expertise, and talent even in a field such as physics as my teacher in those days.
When I was a junior in high school, I was attending a physics class, typically physics was taken by seniors, but I was accelerating through classes. Moreover, as I was about to run out of classes, so as an 11th grader, I got a chance to take a physics class, which normally no one ever got a chance to do. I was the only junior in the class. Mr. Freeman Coney was my physics teacher and two weeks into the course, he demonstrated an experiment where you take a plank, tilt it, and watch a ball roll down the plank while holding a stopwatch. There was also a meter stick along the front of the plank so you could measure the distance compared to the time on the stopwatch. I there saw that the distance traveled versus the square of the time measured on the stopwatch.
I was stunned because though I was always good at mathematics, I had always thought of mathematics in the same way that I thought about reading about the Fantastic Four, the Hulk or the Avengers. I thought of mathematics as an element of my imagination. Even though counting real objects and making shapes obviously has something to do with the real world, I never thought algebra had much to do with the real world. Yet when he performed this experiment, all of the sudden I was stunned into silence. I tell people, “This is the closest thing to magic I have ever experienced in life.” Because mathematics is something we do in here. It is like what Harry Potter learns to do with incantations. At Hogwarts, the kids are saying something that sounds like Latin and then the world changes around them.
In physics, we do something in mathematics, and we can then change the world around us. Even though Harry Potter wasn’t around when I was taking that physics class, it had exactly the same impact as watching a Harry Potter movie and saying, “Oh wow, this is real.”
All the geometry I learned in Ms. Edna Williams’ class and the algebra in Mr. Sanders’ class became like an extra sense with which to see the world around me in a new way. Although I did not know about it at the time, Mr. Coney played the role of figuratively reciting for me the words of Galileo’s book, The Assayer:
“Philosophy [i.e. natural philosophy] is written in this grand book — I mean the Universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”
So my wanting to go to MIT came from watching Make Room For Daddy television show. My wanting to do physics came from Mr. Coney’s physics class and understanding the power that physics conveys on people to: (a.) understand reality, and (b.) have impact on it.
For you, it was MIT or bust. You really didn’t care about like a Caltech or a Princeton?
[laugh] It was MIT but not bust, I mean, I applied to other places too. I never actually thought I would get into MIT, and in fact my father played an extraordinary role in that happening, which was the final major contribution to my development as an intellectual scientist before I left his home.
I told you earlier the story about Michael and the fact that in sixth grade, he made a statement that stunned me with disbelief. By the time I was a senior, I understood a lot about the way that race interacts with people’s lives in the US, and because I was planning to apply to college, my idea was to find a way to make physics permanently a part of my life. Although the dream of MIT was on my radar, what I then knew and understand about the unstated rules by which elite institutions operated in my homeland suggested that realistically the dream would not and could not happen. So in one of my backup plans, I figured if I could go to some college, maybe I could come back and teach physics at a local community college. That would be great. And that was my ultimate backup plan.
Because I wanted to go to college, I had to take the SATs to get in, and because I was interested in physics, I took the physics subject exam. My SAT scores were OK. Not too low, not too high, they were just OK. But I scored extraordinarily well on the subject exam in physics. Without a doubt this was the legacy of Mr. Coney, Mr. Sanders, and all of my mathematics and science teachers. This had some interesting impacts because this is 1969 and 1969 was the first time that majority elite universities in this country decided it might be OK to have black kids in numbers as students.
Long before that time, MIT had actually admitted its first African American student, Robert Robinson Taylor, who graduated in 1892. So it is not that MIT had never admitted African- American students. There was almost always a small number, if there were any, such student admitted. Much later in my life, I met his great granddaughter, Valerie Jarrett while I was a member of an advisory council for President Obama. The meeting was in the White House and she had long served as an advisor to him. There was a photograph taken during the meeting that appeared in the New York Times to my astonishment.
Returning to the Orlando 1969 story, I took the exam and then some weird things started happening at school. In high school and in those days, before classes started we had what’s called ‘home room’ where all the students who were studying together. Whenever the bell rung, you went to your various scheduled classes. One morning I was in home room and the principal, as usual, was reading out announcements over the P.A. system about what was to happen that day, that week, general information, and what have you. At the end of the announcement period, the principal had a list of names of students called to come to the principal’s office. Now usually that meant that you were in trouble. You had done something, you had been caught, and you were going to — well who knows what happened next.
On this particular day, my name was called. All my classmates — I remember watching their heads rotating and looking at me, saying, “What did you do?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” So I went to the principal’s office and when I got there, four or five letters from universities inviting me to apply were handed to me. I had done well on, like I said, pretty well on the SAT, but really well on the subject physics test. Thus, I started getting these letters from universities. It was like being an athlete and being recruited as one of my fellow students noted.
I would take them home and show them to my father and at some point, a letter from MIT came. I took it home and put it in with all the rest and I was trying to figure out to where I was going try to apply to college. I was thinking well, there’s a new community college called Valencia that had just opened in Orlando, so that’s where I had my eyes also. A couple weeks went by and one day I came home from school and dad asked, “So, have you applied to colleges yet?” I said, “Well, dad, I’m working on some applications.” He said, “Are you working on that MIT application?” I said, “No, I’m not going to apply there. And he said, “Isn’t that the place, when you were fourteen, you said you wanted to go to college?” I said, “Yes,” but I also said, “But you know they don’t let people like us go to schools like that.”
I had evolved from being in sixth grade having unhindered possibilities for my dreams to being a senior in high school six years later and understanding that in the United States of America, just being intellectually gifted and passionate about wanting to become a scientist—if you were an African American that was likely impossible to happen. I wasn’t going to apply.
My father responded as I said, in rendering a final great service in my development—he said, “You’re going to apply.” Father had spent twenty-seven years as a U.S. Army soldier, so the answer was, “Yes, sir. I am going to apply.” So I did. A couple months later, I was coming home from school and as I walked to our house, he was on the front porch sitting in our rocking couch. Now I tell people from the north you probably don’t know what is a rocking couch, but in the south people sit out on their porches and they have rocking chairs and they have rocking couches.
He was apparently happy about something in the rocking couch just rocking back and forth and I could see him from a distance. At first, he didn’t see me, but I was stunned because my father was never home when I got off from school. He always came home later, not earlier. He was sitting there rocking and when he saw me, he smiled one of the broadest smiles I ever remember seeing. And as soon as I saw that smile, the instant, I knew I had been admitted to MIT.
I ran to him, we did one of those man-hug things, you know. That was one of the happiest days of my life. That dream of going to MIT was suddenly not just a dream. It became a reality…much as mathematics in Mr. Coney’s class became a reality.
Just to go back, Jim, to earlier in our conversation, you made it quite clear that if given the right opportunities, your father definitely would have pursed his own higher education trajectory.
In that moment, he must have been living so gloriously through you, the achievements that he wasn’t able — not that he wasn’t capable — but that he simply wasn’t able to do for himself.
Yes, allowed by our society realized. But it was not just in that moment, David. Not just in that moment. Dad—let me just tell a couple of the dad stories to show you how involved he remained in that. At some point during late 80s early 90s I gave a talk—well, no. Let me go back earlier. There is an early 1980 relevant story. I received my Ph.D. in physics in ’77. Next I went to Harvard in the period of 1977-1980. It is 2020 as this interview is taking place. Within the last two years, I learned I was the first black scientist to be appointed as a ‘Junior fellow’ in the Harvard Society of Fellows and the first black postdoctoral research ever appointed in the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy at Caltech. Looking back, it seems almost comedy that one could make such history in one’s life with no awareness at all.
During time at Caltech a book (Superspace: A Thousand and One Lessons on Supersymmety), was co-authored by me, Marcus, Martin, and Warren. This book was the first comprehensive book in the subject that is called supersymmetry. It may also have been the first book on a subject in theoretical physics that was written entirely on a computer. Currently, the standard electronic editor used in the portion of physics where I research is named ‘LaTeX.’ However, this software package had a predecessor that went by the name of “Nroff-Troff.” The book Superspace may have been the first textbook on a subject in theoretical physics written solely as an electronic document and it was created with Nroff-Troff. It is currently an open-access document that is freely available via the link https://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0108200 on-line.
However, it is only written for researchers who are deeply interested in the subject. I sent dad a copy after it was published and my brother — no, my sister — told me a story about dad and the book. She said, “Do you know dad takes your book to work”— and since he was working then for the Orlando School system delivering mail, he would often run into school principals and what have you and people in the Central school system — my sister said, “Daddy will take your book with him and he’ll show people the book. Next he’ll open it tell them, ‘My son is writing a book about lasers.’ Many have looked at it knowingly and say, ‘Oh, that is very interesting looking.’” And of course there was nothing about lasers in my book. This was about mathematics and the basis of that used in string theory basically, but that was my father having a good joke to himself.
You can’t blame him. Nobody can get their head around string theory.
[laugh] Right. But that was my father. Another occasion, which is a memory I’ll cherish always, occurred when I gave a talk at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He asked if he could come. I responded, “Dad, it is a technical talk. Only physicists will understand.” He said, “I don’t care. I’ve never seen you give a science talk before.” Soon afterward, I contacted the one of organizers, Prof. Pierre Ramond – one of the most important creators of string theory opening the way to supersymmetry. I explained, “My dad would like to come and hear me talk, do you have an objection?” Typically, only physicists would be in the audience. You know, 10-25 people, no larger it is just physics faculty. Pierre said, “No problem.”
Dad drove up to Gainesville from Orlando and sat in the back of the room to hear me deliver a “raw” science talk. He never disturbed the presentation but the smile on his face was ridiculous is all I can say. It wasn’t just that moment. Something similar happened upon on my admission to MIT. There were many fairly constant occurring events around the joy he took that his firstborn son not just went to college-becoming the first in our family line to do so, but got a PhD in physics, earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in mathematics and one in physics, carried out research at Harvard and Caltech . It was completely clear how he felt about me and how he lived through it. So I was very, very aware of his celebration of the fact that though my grandfather was a sugar cane farmer who could neither read nor write (but apparently could ‘cipher’ i.e. knew some arithmetic), and that he had never properly finished high school, the family was still able to produce a mathematically-enabled scientist who was exploring concepts at the very boundary of theoretical physics.
Now Jim, I know your world was a lot bigger than the south because of the travel that you did with your father because of his career. I wonder, though, if you had a sense first of all, in two ways. In terms of race relations, Boston was — and in some ways still is — highly problematic. And second, coming to the college campus, any college campus, in the late 1960s is — that’s a big step no matter where you’re coming from. So I know your world was bigger than perhaps some of your friends and peers because of your father, but I wonder the extent, looking back, if you understood what it was you were getting into heading up to Cambridge in the late 1960s?
In 1969, when I began my undergraduate career at MIT, I expected to be the dumbest kid in class, but I didn’t care because I wasn’t going to MIT for someone else. I was going for me. And to increase my understanding of physics and to broaden my skill set in the mathematics that I do. Because Boston at the time that I was a teenager had the reputation of being the ‘Athens of America’—a phrase that seems no longer used, but it was not uncommon when I was a teenager, that Boston was the Athens of America—so I was actually stunned and surprised because Boston remains—in my entire life’s history—the place where I saw the most overt racial animosity expressed towards me personally up to that point.
And it began even before I began my classes because there was a summer program at MIT called ‘Project Interface.’ It was basically for not just minority students, but for students whose background was not the traditional one coming to MIT. It was the most important academic experience of my life. I didn’t study before I got to MIT, with the exception of memorization such as seemingly impossibly long poems like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Homework was never a challenge before this. This was my experience of high school. So Interphase was not just for African Americans it was diverse as was my early life before my mother’s illness and death.
One day, one of my fellow Interphase participants, who was African American—and I think he may have been the only one of us to have a car that summer—said, “Why don’t we get in the car and just ride around the city to get to know it?” And we’re like, “OK, fine. Sounds like a great idea.” So a group of us jump into his car. We accidentally ended up in South Boston. It was afternoon, going towards evening, a summer day, and as we rolled down a street, there were people who were sitting on the stoops but when they saw us, they started yelling, and literally started chasing the car. It was like being chased by a pack if wild animals. It is the only time in my life I’ve ever experienced something like that. And that happened in Boston.
And this is pure naivety on your part? This is another moment this does not compute, what is happening right now.
Well, I knew it was happening, I was just not expecting it at Boston. I thought I had gotten away from that, all of that stuff. Well that made it perfectly clear it was not the case. I heard the N word walking down the street in Boston more than I’ve ever heard it before or since in my life. That was Boston in 1969.
On the other hand, you didn’t hear that sort of thing at MIT, but although the expression wasn’t there, but the sentiment was not too deeply buried.
People knew enough not to say it, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t feeling it.
That’s about right, and that unfortunately included, in my opinion, some faculty, and staff. It certainly was the case when a group of us were walking across the campus in the evening, literally there were occasions where the campus patrol would drive up off the streets and onto the grassy parts of the campus to follow us.
The most famous story I can tell you, which I think happened when I was a graduate student, was an incident in the campus paper at MIT is called The Tech, and like most campus papers, it is run by students. There was this one incident of a joke which went, “What do you call a black man with a PhD?” That’s the question. The answer was, “The N word.” So that’s even MIT, right?
But you know, this is going after the period where Martin Luther King has been assassinated, Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, John Kennedy was assassinated.
As I had moved to Orlando, the riots had happened around King’s death. The Black Panthers were being murdered. People don’t recall that during that period, there were effectively assassinations carried out by sanctioned forces in this country. And so that sort of level of racial animosity was not something that was surprising to me at all.
When you got to campus—on the academic side, happier question—was it physics all the way right from the beginning or you kept your options open a little bit?
I kept my options open a little bit. I came to MIT convinced that I wanted to become a physicist. I dabbled a little bit because — and I still do to some degree — you always should have a plan B. So, my plan B was electrical engineering because it is something that gave more security in trying to get jobs, right, because electrical engineering is a skill that corporate America realizes.
And so that was another plan B. The summer after my freshman year at MIT, I worked as an assistant to an electrical engineer at a company called ‘Dynatronics’ which was General Dynamics Electronics Division. They had a plant in Orlando. And I had a chance to see what young electrical engineers do, and I’m like, “No way, Jose. I can’t do that.”
In fact, that experience was wonderful in an academic way because the work they gave me tasks so simple I could complete them in almost no time. They’d give the assignment, I’d get it done, and one day the gentleman who was my supervisor came into my little cubby and said, “Jim, I got to talk to you.” I responded, “Did I do something wrong? Did I read a circuit diagram incorrectly?” He said, “No, no, no. Your work’s just fine. My supervisor sometimes walks down the hall and a couple of times he’s walked by your door and you’re not doing anything.” And I said, “Well, that’s because I’ve finished everything you gave to me to do.” He says, “Yes, I understand that, but we got to find a solution because he thinks that you’re just goofing off.” Started taking my textbooks on Differential Equations with me and because I had taken it during my first freshman year—I re-taught myself at a deeper level how to understand differential equations. This worked extremely well, due to my freedom I learned the subject much more deeply than in an effort to simply pass examinations with a high grade. I actually learned the subject far more deeply, as I discovered when I returned to MIT in the fall. By accident, I had focused most of my attention on a differential equation, the Coulomb Wave Function, that is used in Quantum Mechanics…and this was before I had taken a course on the subject and the end of my second year at MIT.
However, something more important and valuable came from this experience. This was the first experience where I came to understand I possessed the capacity to teach myself, without the intervention of someone else’s aid, subject material at an extraordinary high level of complication. I was working as if I was carrying our actual independent research as confirmed during my return to MIT. Today, such experiences are denoted by the abbreviation REU – research experiences for undergraduates. That summer, I self-invented a personal REU. To this current time, I have applied this lesson for over a period of half a century to create such opportunities for precocious students.
I was always sort of looking for things to do for plan B, and then in my second year I noticed my grades in mathematics were actually higher in my grades than physics so I declared myself a math major. And so it wasn’t all a straightforward pathway—yes, my central passion was physics— but how I was going to get there was not always clear. So I felt the necessity to have these sorts of alternative plans.
The plan about mathematics actually worked out just fine. My grades were better. During my senior year, it was clear I was going to get a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, applied at mathematics, again, something that seemed practical. And the reason I have a physics degree is because one of my friends—a young woman by the name of Inez Hope, fellow member of the class of 1969 —one day said, “Jim, what degree are you going to get in the spring?” And I said, “Well, I’m getting a bachelor’s in math.” She said, “Yes, but I know you’ve been taking all these physics classes.” I said, “Yes, I love physics.” Then she said something that had never occurred to me, “I’ll bet they’ll let you get both degrees.” We went over to the physics headquarters, with her taking me over there. They looked at my transcript and they said, “You know, you look just like a physics major, you just have to take a lab course in your senior year and write a physics thesis and you can get a bachelor’s.”
And that’s how I actually got back to physics because I had my desire, but I didn’t think I would achieve it—my plan had been maybe go to grad school in applied math and then after I get my Ph.D. I could work my way back to physics, but because of her intervention I was able to actually directly go to physics in graduate school.
Jim, as an undergraduate, did you ever feel—either from how you were reading the situation or from, you know, what you might have been discussing among your friends—did you ever feel like you needed to even over-perform just to be regarded on the same level as your white classmates?
When I was in Orlando in high school, one of the things that our teachers always told all of us is that as you go out into the world and you are in competition with people who are not black, you have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. And so in the back of my mind, yes, that was something that a number of my teachers for whom I held in a very high regard had always said. I thought there was an element of truth to it, but it was not something that was in my forebrain. It was not something upon which to center to my focus.
I wanted good grades because I wanted to go to grad school and a life spent in mathematically enabled theoretical physics. That was my central focus. The over-performing part — as I remember, I don’t think so — the only thing it was about was grades. I mean, to me, it wasn’t about over-performing. It was about getting the best grade I was capable of generating. And I was confident if I could do that, I could be successful…especially after my first year at MIT when I discovered I was not the dumbest kid in my classes.
One thing I was never into, which maybe was a saving grace, I never actually compared myself to my fellow classmates because I always had the sense—and it was reinforced early on—I saw things differently from my classmates, even regarding physics and science and math. It wasn’t that I thought I was so smart, it was because I thought I think differently about this stuff which is why I could see answers to particular problems sometimes when no one else in a class could find an answer.
Due to these kinds of experiences, I didn’t feel I had to over-perform. I just had to perform to the best of being me.
Were there faculty members who served in a particular mentor capacity for you beyond just being a student among many, but who recognized the unique challenges that an African American student was facing at the time?
Sure. Dr. Shirley Jackson, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute President, was my physics instructor during my time as an Interphase student. She made a tremendous impression upon me…and everyone else. I had not begun my enrollment at MIT yet, and it was clear she knew more physics that Mr. Coney! My difficulty at taking MIT examination first showed up in her class. Once after my first test, she called me to come to her office. Nervous about my first poor performance, I was pretty downbeat. She was as supportive as possible in her comments until I blurted out, “I want to become a physicist!” Her response was “Oh really?” Needless to say, my heart sank. However, several years later as I was taking a course on quantum mechanics, she apparently got a better impression of me and my abilities and was very supportive just prior to her own graduation from MIT.
There were a couple of people like that in my early times at MIT. The first such person—and there was a first and who’s still alive—named Vera Kistiakowsky. Vera’s husband, George, is actually relatively famous in science because he was one of the people who helped develop the A-Bomb at Los Alamos, but physics was her profession, and during my freshman year I took the first year physics class 801.
At the midterm of that class, I was sort of struggling. Each student had to consult with their recitation instructor, and try to figure out what’s going on, and she was like, “You know, your homework is pretty good. In fact, it is great, but you seem not to perform well on tests.” I said, “No, I really cannot, and I don’t know how.” I’ve never been a great test-taker is the bottom-line since coming to MIT. But she made some suggestions for things that I should do, but at the end of the semester when it came time to go and get my final grade, again, each student had to go to their instructor. When I walked in, she looked at me and she smiled broadly and she said something like, “Wow, you really did it.” And then she handed me my final exam. It had a high grade.
But her manner and that smile meant so much to a frightened black student who was aware of all that was not said in his presence at MIT. What she told this young, student coming from a southern segregated school was such an amazing boost. And I think after that happened, I never had a doubt that I would be successful at getting through MIT. Some hard times were still ahead, especially during my senior year when disaster almost occurred with physical symptom of the emotional distress appeared. Bur her encouragement was one of the anchors so that the degree of concern of my earliest year was not present it wasn’t internally the same.
There was a gentleman by the name of Larry Bucciarelli, an aeronautical engineer who later went on to work at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, and Larry was someone who was very supportive of me as an African American and had a sense of what it meant to be there during that time.
Professor Brian Schwartz was another professor with whom I interacted with the consequence of a long-term legacy in my career, most especially the instructional portion of being a university professor. The summer of the year of 1972 saw the first time I had an obligation to step into a classroom to teach at the university level. I was a member of Project Interphase staff by that point. One subsequent summer in the same program, after I step out of a classroom having completed a lecture, Brian—a senior staff member, said, “You look like you really work at being a good teacher. Do you want to be even better?” So under his tutelage, I began honing my craft as a teacher.
How involved were you with the various protests that were going on at campus and how much did you recognize the commonalities of justice that motivated students to protest civil rights issues, women’s rights issues, and anti-war issues?
Well, first of all, I was not a protester except for once. There was a terrible and discriminatory case of—at MIT—in my freshman year. There were custodial staff and there was a pay gap. If you were African American or black, your pay was one level. If you were European American or white, your pay was higher...for during the same job. And that was actually policy on campus. And so some of those people who had those jobs came to the Black Students Union—I was a member—and they asked us to support them in a protest. I took part in that protest.
I recognize the commonalities, but one of the things that was striking to me — at least between the difference between what I saw between African Americans as we were protesting about equity and full rights as American citizens in comparison to the anti-war movement especially — is that from my perspective, we always knew how dangerous that was. As a matter of fact, it was not a celebration. That in fact, you could be murdered. The shadows and lesson of the struggle for Civil Rights as well as the reaction of law authorities to black protester were very clear.
That it was not, in my perceptions then, a sense of this danger in the anti-way movement. Many times when I had a chance to watch or talk to people engaged in the anti-war movement, that sense of danger was not there. It was — there was more than anything I detected, a lack of seriousness. I don’t have any marked memories of the folks who were involved in women’s rights. I think it actually happened a little bit after my time. So I don’t have any recollection there.
The killings at Kent State was an awakening for the anti-war protest movement. It was lost then, and to an extent even to this day, that a few days earlier more students have been killed at Jackson State [while protesting] for equal rights as citizens of the US.
Now I want to limit my question to physics, even though I know you were involved in many other academic pursuits at MIT, to what extent by the end of your undergraduate tenure was your sort of professional identity as a theorist set? Had you done experimentation? Had you worked in labs? Had you already come to the conclusion, particularly because of your talents and interest in math that it would be theory that you would pursue for graduate school?
In order to get a bachelor’s degree, you have to take an experimental physics course, lab course, so I had done that. That reconfirmed my judgment that I was not adept at it. I should avoid that. In fact, what’s worse than that, I would tell people to this day that you shouldn’t let me in anyone’s lab because I can break equipment faster than the speed of light.
I broke things. It was clear to me that I would be an utter disaster in anyone’s laboratory.
This would be the end of your emulation for the Marvel comic scientist?
Well, believe it or not, that was never — I mean, I always suspected it. That was just the confirmation of my lack of dexterity and manual ability to do things. When I began grad school, I did join an experimental research group for a while, but that confirmed absolutely that you shouldn’t let me in anyone’s lab unsupervised. There is physics professor by the name of Margaret MacVicar who in my early years of graduate school was supportive of me in a way that I look back on and I’m very grateful. My valuable lesson learned with finality in her laboratory, was that I would be awful experimental physicist if I ever made the attempt at a career in that direction.
I knew if I was going to be a physicist, it would be at the boundary between physics and mathematics. I had a degree in each one of them.
I was confident that I brought something different to the table that would allow me to create things that, quite frankly, no one else could. And I think in my career I have shown that on a number of occasions. I’ve done things before other people have done them. I’ve done things that are uniquely different and that are correct and innovative. But my sense probably, as a research scientist, probably—certainly by the time I was a senior—that was firmly in my mind. But it wasn’t so much because I had done the research, that’s not quite true.
I told you about my summer experience taking my books with me to work in order to appear to be working. That was actually like what we now call a research experience for undergraduates. I basically had taught myself things that I didn’t know, and in the process, learned how to do that, therefore learned how to do research. That began to formation of my identity as a researcher.
By the time I was a senior through—actually through lots of educational experiences because I’m now in my 48th consecutive year of teaching. I’ve been teaching every year since 1972. And so from working with people in mathematics teaching them, I was completely confident that I could do mathematical physics research and teach.
Jim, how big was your purview in theoretical physics beyond MIT? In other words — this is a question not just about you, but about the curriculum. This, of course, is a golden age of theory in physics, and so I’m curious if you are aware of — right when you were an undergraduate — what people like Len Susskind and John Schwarz were doing in string theory or what David Gross was doing in asymptotic freedom, or some of the work that was being done at the national laboratories, really, you know, finding new particles and doing new physics in a fundamental way almost every year. I’m curious if looking back, if you had a sense for what a truly fundamental and exciting time this was for physics generally?
Yes, very pointedly and directly. One of the experimenters involved in the discovery of the charm-quark at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) was also one of my physics teachers at MIT. So, I was very much aware of the excitement around discovering new quarks. You mentioned David Gross—I first saw David probably around 1975 or so. Let me come back to that shortly.
I was already a faculty member myself before I met Lenny Susskind or John Schwarz. This was sometime after 1982. So, I was not aware of their fundamental contributions during the period they [were] occurring contemporaneously with my early graduate school years. As both of their works would evolve to include aspects of ‘supersymmetry,’ it was only after 1975 that I became fully aware of their works. Somehow I got wind of string theory when I was an undergraduate. I got my undergraduate B.S. degrees in ’73. In the ’72, ’73 time period, I had somehow learned about the fact that if you — I remember asking a teacher and his reaction — I’m saying, “Isn’t there something funny about a system of 26 scalar fields and gravity?” Well, that turns out to be the critical dimensions of string. I’m not sure how I came across it, but I certainly was aware that there was something very interesting and odd going on in theoretical physics. This was also around the time of the birth of supersymmetry, so I was watching the developments that went on across the river at Northeastern because some of the early supersymmetry pioneers were there too and had done some interesting work.
Also, I think I had — at least on the theoretical side — I had a pretty broad picture of the excitement that was going on in fundamental physics, not so much in gravity because there wasn’t so much in gravity going on. And certainly in graduate school I knew that the only things I really possibly wanted to do was either study gravitation or elementary particles. And the thing that made the difference was observations. The fact elementary particle physics had data, and I said, “That’s what drives physics so that’s what I’m going study.”
You mentioned David Gross—I first saw David probably around 1975 or so. He came to talk about QCD and something called the “dilute gas approximation,” on which he was working. Though I had a high regard for him as a theoretical physicist, I thought he was terribly arrogant due to his interactions with some of the MIT faculty…some of whom were my teachers. Among these one I held in extreme and extraordinarily high regard. Since that time on numerous occasions my path has crossed with David’s…among these places is South Africa. Certainly over the course of the last couple of years, we have worked together on leadership issues related to the American Physical Society together. We have developed a great working relation and I think we share an attitude of mutual respect. Perhaps in a word, I have “evolved.”
You mentioned earlier, originally you had career prospects, you thought of perhaps teaching physics at a high school level or a community college. I’m curious if you recognized within yourself either with your talents, your abilities, the kinds of people who were encouraging you, even as a junior or a senior, did you recognize that you were heading for something bigger? Or did you have ambitions, at that point, for something bigger?
Probably in either my sophomore or junior year, graduate school was firmly on my radar. I think before that, as you just reminded me, I was thinking to teach at a junior college but—at least in my mind—I didn’t make the connection to graduate study and doing that. I thought if I got a bachelor’s degree, I’d probably get such a job teaching, certainly in high school, but maybe in junior college. But by the time I was a sophomore, it was clear to me that I needed to go to graduate school and that that would allow me to secure the expertise and knowledge I would require to have the kind of life that I was dreaming about having, which is a life of doing research and physics and mathematical physics.
And of course at some point, you got over whatever interest in job security you might have felt in terms of pursuing electrical engineering or other kinds of electrical engineering that, “Well, I’m just going for it, we’ll see what happens.”
Yes. [laugh] That certainly is true. And that probably happened around the same time that I said I’m going to graduate school for the PhD.
Now of course there’s always two schools of thought when you’re at a preeminent institution like MIT when you’re thinking about graduate school and those are, of course, this is an opportunity to spread your wings and go beyond, look at some other programs, and the other school of thought is you’re at MIT, why would you ever go anywhere else? And so I’m curious what kind of advice you got as you were making that decision about should I stay or should I go.
Most of the advice was go. Most people I talked to said you should go to another institution for graduate education, it’ll broaden you, get a bigger perspective on the field and what have you. And quite frankly, when I applied to graduate school, I was admitted to three different programs. I was admitted to Stanford in plasma physics because I thought I had an interest in plasma physics. I had taken at least one plasma physics course at MIT and I found it intriguing.
I got admitted to — I can’t remember the middle one — and then I got into MIT for physics. What actually decided me in the end is I tell people, you know, like most other people, I was insane so I use an insane decision-making process. I had this “stuff” I had accumulated in four years at MIT. I had a couple of big suitcase/trunks and I looked at them one day and I said, “You know, if I stay here, I don’t have to worry about shipping this stuff across the country.” Now, that’s partially a joke, but that was part of the decision, so I’m going stay at MIT.
I think as a physicist, you’ll recognize how powerful the force inertia can be.
Exactly. And the other thing about staying at MIT was of the places that I had been admitted, the one that had the clearest path for me getting to particle physics or was MIT. So there was that decision also. One person here whose advice weighed heavily in my thinking was Dr. Albert G. Hill. Dr. Hill, MIT Vice President for Research, played a key role at a critical point in my decision. During the Second World War, he headed the component of MIT that had made important contribution to the development of radar.
I forgot to mention that I had also sent application to be admitted to applied mathematics programs, recalling my higher grades in course of mathematics at MIT. The same friend who had informed me I could likely receive two degrees as an undergraduate directed me to speak with him. The most important message from that meeting was he encouraged me to stick to my guns. If physics was my passion, I should not give up on that! He also directed me to a member of the physics faculty there to make a closer assessment of my physics knowledge as I had not taken the GRE related subject test in physics, as I had done in mathematics. The assessment came back positive and that cemented my decision to remain in physics and attend the graduate program at MIT.
Did you think that, you know, only a short time had elapsed, and yet socially and politically, the country literally was going under multiple revolutions.
Did you think that as an African American — both in your maturity as a graduate student, to become a graduate student, or in some of the changing ways that social and political issues were undergoing at the time — that you might have a more positive experience as a graduate student at the same place?
Though I keenly aware of the social and political environment on the national scale, that played little if any role in my decision to remain at MIT. I was comfortable at MIT. I knew the institution (as much as an undergraduate can know an institution). I most certainly knew Boston. People forget there was a school integration crisis in the city at that time in the portion of the city called “Southie.” An African American man walking through Government Square was hit in the face with a flagpole. So, yes I saw all of this. But I had lots of student friends. I had been teaching in summer schools at MIT since 1972. A lot of the students I taught were still students at MIT. You mentioned inertia earlier, you know, there was a large component of inertia. I was comfortable there and no matter what was going on around us in society, MIT, in my opinion, was a fortress. It was a “redoubt.” The outside world didn’t penetrate as much as one might imagine. I chose to stay and pursue my dream there…independent of the obvious societal strife.
Did you have a specific professor in mind that you wanted to work with as a graduate advisee?
One, and his name is Professor Roman Jackiw who’s a very distinguished (I think he’s emeritus now) faculty member. He had made a discovery of something called anomalies in particle physics, he’s very famous for it. And he was kind of the person that I was thinking to model myself after as a graduate student. He had lots and lots of graduate students, so I don’t think I even asked him if he’d be willing to take me on, but as fortune would have it, there was this fairly new faculty member by the name of James Young who, in fact I think it was in ’53, he got his PhD from MIT and he’s an African American. MIT’s first Ph.D. in the discipline. One other interesting fact about Jim was that he also served at the Ph.D. advisor to Shirley Jackson!
And so as I was thinking about trying to find an advisor, one day—and he was a member of the Center For Theoretical Physics. One day, he who had some very casual interactions with me once or twice. I went to him and said, “I’m interested in trying to find an advisor here in the Center for Theoretical Physics. Would you give me some recommendations?” And the first thing he said, “Well, you know, I’m sorry. I don’t have any problems that I could have a student work on right now, but let me think about who I suggest you speak to.” I think that was the Friday. On Monday, he contacted me and said, “You know, actually, I do have some problems.”
He ended up becoming my advisor. It wasn’t planned, it just sort of happened and it worked out super well because some years later on one of my visits back to MIT, I was talking with Professor Jackiw and was kind of reminiscing about me as a student, and I said, “You know, Roman, you’re the person I really wanted to have as my advisor.” And then he said, “You know, Jim, it probably worked out for the best that Jim Young was your advisor because I would not have let you work on supersymmetry.”
[laugh] Why not? What do you think he was getting at with that?
Because at the time, it was something so new and so speculative. I was actually the only person at MIT who knew anything about supersymmetry in those days.
When I had gone to Jim, in my second year of being advised by him, and told him I wanted to work on the subject, he looked at me and said, “You know, I don’t know anything about that.” Then after a second he said, “Actually, nobody at MIT knows anything about that. So how are you going do it?” I said, “Well, first of all, it is a new subject. It is only two or three years old. And so the research literature on the subject is remarkably small and I can come to understand everything that’s known about it as a graduate student. I can basically get to the boundary of what’s known and what’s not known and be able to make fundamental contributions to the growth of the field.”
He recognized that was actually the case and he made me promise to give him a seminar every Friday. That was the driver of why I had to actually learn something new because every Friday I had to make a formal seminar level presentation to him. And it worked out just fine. By the time I wrote my thesis — it was the first thesis at MIT on supersymmetry — which is at the foundation of string theory — I was MIT is first graduate to know anything about supersymmetry. It was a great, fun time. It was like finding a new playground. It felt like being a kid who is the first to discover a new playground. That kid gets to play on the swings and the seesaw, you know, all the things that you do on the playground as a kid. Intellectually and mathematically, that’s what was going on with me and supersymmetry at MIT during my final year of graduate school.
Besides an intellectual adventurousness on the part of a graduate student to take this on, let alone to be the only person in a place like MIT who knew what you were talking about on this topic, it also suggests a level of strategic thinking in terms of setting yourself up.
Yes. In my second year of graduate school, I decided that a physics career is really a business. The things one would do to grow a business are the things one needed to do to have a successful career. And even picking out supersymmetry itself was in fact an example of strategic thinking. When I first began working with Prof. Jim Young as his advisee, he had me working on the kind of physics that involves a weak interaction. W and Z bosons, quarks and leptons, and in fact I actually published, I think, my first two or three papers on those subjects. This is the line of mathematical physics pioneered by Sheldon Glashow, Salam Strathdee, and Steven Weinberg. All three became recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics for their work. The discovery of the Higgs Boson was the ultimate confirmation of this dazzling line of particle physics theory.
However, as I was working in that early period in their field, I noticed that every month we would get these papers called “preprints” which described the latest concepts and idea being explored and presented. Today there is a website called the “arXiv” that serves this function. Now on any day, there can be seen new research posted every day, but in those days, once a month there was this big bundle of mail packages out and the new physics papers would come in it. They were called free prints. I noted the area I was working in was just overloaded with people doing not quite the same thing as me, but very closely related things. And some of these people were senior faculty members who had gotten their PhD maybe almost a decade ago.
I thought, “You know, this is crazy because there’s me and all these young kids like me and we’re trying to do this stuff and you have these experienced professors and they’re doing it too. Who has the better chance of accomplishing something important? It is not us.” So, at that point, I decided to take a survey of everything going on in particle theory. I had these big lists of topics and publications and timelines of when things were developing, and it was this process that allowed me to discover the then new topic of supersymmetry. I was in that process of trying to figure out what’s the best strategic move for my planning in my career? So yes, it was strategic from the very beginning.
We could just do a little intellectual history at the time to see where you pick up. There’s 1970 with Flitsiyan and then there’s 1972 with Schwarz and Green and then along comes QCD and that sort of rains on the parade, right, a little bit on that second model.
Yes, there’s a lot of truth to that analysis. Yes.
Where does supersymmetry come in based on the idea that now QCD sort of lays to rest a lot of that early excitement from 1970 and then 1972 with string theory?
First of all, string theory was dead basically when I decided to study supersymmetry, but what had happened was supersymmetry actually has two different origins, and this is not generally known outside the field. The string theory origin is the one that people are most familiar with here in the United States, but there’s a totally independent origin of the subject that comes from Ukraine.
Two physicists there, Yuri Gelfand and his student Eugeny Likhtman, Likhtman gave a positive answer to a question that most physicists thought was impossible. There’s this result called the Coleman-Mandula Theorem which was developed around that time. Basically, it said the symmetries that we knew then, the kind of symmetries in QCD and the Standard Model, are all the symmetries that mathematics allow… and therefore nature allows. Gelfand and Likhtman probably didn’t know about this theorem, and therefore they went ahead and did the “impossible” to found a symmetry that no one had ever seen before, including the people that formulated the Coleman-Mandula Theorem (CMT). There’s a hole in the Coleman-Mandula theorem, i.e. it is incomplete. The CMT makes some assumptions that are not required to mathematically define a symmetry. Gelfand and Likhtman did not fall into the trap of making the same assumptions. By making less assumptions that were able to mathematically show the possibility of symmetries in Nature that are unlike those of the Standard Model.
This happened in Ukraine during 1972 and this alternative development—you see, supersymmetry actually had — in this evolution — had nothing to do with the standard model. It had nothing to do with QCD. It comes totally out of mathematics and looking for symmetries. That’s how it came into my life because when this strange new symmetry was discovered, people were trying to understand its mathematics in terms of geometry. Two physicists by the names of Abdus Salam and John Strathdee were among them. This was the same Salam who made important contributions for the standard model. Salam and Strathdee invented something called superspace, a way to understand the symmetries that were uncovered essentially by the two Ukrainian physicists. That’s how I found out about supersymmetries, so it was never connected with QCD or the standard model. It was always kind of this drive for symmetry, understanding the higher mathematics for which I believe I have shown some ability.
What was Professor Young working on at this time?
When I became his student, he was working on the weak interaction related to the ideas of Glashow-Salam-Weinberg. He, along with Duane Dicus and Vigdor Teplitz had written a paper — in alternative to the Glashow-Salam-Weinberg sets of equations. It has some elements that are in common, but there are some differences. There were some questions about the Dicus-Teplitz-Young paper that had been left undone. It involves basically hypothetical Higgs-Boson types of particles.
He said, “Oh, I have this problem. We wrote this paper last year but there’s just one thing in it that we didn’t settle, which is the pattern of the masses of the force carriers that are associated with this.” Now these force carriers, these days have been discovered as the W-bosons and the Z-boson of the Glashow-Salam-Weinberg theory. In the Dicus-Teplitz-Yonug (DTY) model, they were W-boson and Z-bosons and some other ones. This latter feature is due to the fact that there are more forces in the DTY model. Jim wanted to know what were the masses of their extra particles that you associated with these things from the mathematics? And so that’s the problem, he set for me. And that’s how I started studying weak interaction physics.
Many physicists tend to downplay the significance of their dissertation, you know, it was a couple papers stapled together, but I wonder in your case—because you had this strategy, you had this entrepreneurial spirit so to speak and because you did really, quite brilliantly, position yourself at the forefront of this quite exciting field that has just gotten more interesting over the years—and so I wonder if you put on your shoulders sort of a bigger burden that this would be a dissertation from its inception that was designed to be more fundamental than just sort of crossing this off your list before going on for a postdoc.
Right. You’re half right. My doctoral thesis is in the archives at MIT and it has now been scanned, so it is electronically available for anybody who wants to take the time to look at it. My thesis actually is an initiation of the research on supersymmetry at MIT, but the thesis itself is bifurcated. In one half, there is in fact the work I did with Jim on the alternative weak interaction physics of the DTY model. This work resulted in after about a year or so of working with Jim, I said I wanted to make this switch. And so the second half of the thesis is actually on the mathematics of supersymmetry using these ideas of Salam and Stophte superspace. I’m very proud of it because in that thesis were the seeds of my later success. For example, but in this second half I even founded in the thesis the first appearance of something called supersymmetric Wilson Loop phase factor. Something that no one had suggested at the time—these things were later to be discovered independently. But they are in the thesis and independently, that’s in the very first phase of my research on supersymmetry. Wilson Loop factors (without supersymmetry or SUSY as it is called in shorthand) is important for considerations of confinement of quarks.
So as a graduate student, these things sit in my thesis and this is one example in my career, where I done things before other people later and realized to be important. I took this as a sign as I was graduating as a signal that I have the ability to be innovative. By the end of my thesis, I started worrying about gravity. Recall I told you there were two things that were on my plate as an early graduate student? One was particle physics, and the other was gravity, but data drove me to particles.
By the time I reached the end of my graduate student period, I returned to gravity because there was a new theory called supergravity, which is the key, by the way, to string theory. Even before I left MIT, I was trying to figure out how does this supersymmetry, this deep mathematics, how does it fit together with ideas from Einstein? As I finished my thesis, the last chapter of my thesis is an attempt to try to do this combination.
It is not successful, but it provided me with a background so that at the next stage of my career. When I got to Harvard, I was perfectly positioned to write — well, first of all, to collaborate with someone else who was also working on these ideas, a guy named Warren Siegel. Within my first two years at Harvard, we wrote the world’s most mathematically comprehensive research that combines the idea of superfield supergravity and Einstein’s theory of general relativity in a geometrical formulation. So, it was a perfect segue for me.
And obviously when you’re applying interest in gravity to these other interests, there are some pretty grand intellectual pursuits at the heart of this, right? Were you thinking along these lines, that it would be possible to have a grand unified theory? Were you using that phrase? Were you thinking that this is where this might be headed?
Not at first. When I first started my interest in supergravity, it came out of the fact that at its heart — if you look at all of my mathematics, I claim that heart — the thing that runs through what I do is geometry. Einstein used the geometry of curved space time to reach his theory of gravity. I was all into—so if we have this other thing called superspace, is there kind of geometry that leads one to understand how supergravity comes out of it? And that’s what actually ended my thesis, and that’s what I settled with Warren in our first works at Harvard, was the answer is yes, but it does it in a way that is far beyond anything Einstein ever imagined in terms of the technical intricacy that it takes to realize it.
Now, in this period, supergravity is being explored by other people and it is noticed that if you make this supersymmetry larger and larger, what happens is in order to study it, you have to not just talk about gravity, you have to start adding forces that look like electromagnetism. And so very early on, there starts to be hints that there’s some kind of approach to unified theories that involve supersymmetry. And then shortly, as I was a postdoc, that idea was pursued more strongly. That strongly suggested physicists needed to study the concept of extra dimensions, and then string theory roars back in, and I find—this is when as I’m an assistant professor, and there’s a piece of work in 1980 by Daniel Friedan which, to this day, does not get the credit that it should, in my opinion. He wrote a research paper with an astounding result. His paper showed that if Einstein had never lived, there’s a way to derive Einstein’s equations. And I was an assistant professor when I saw that paper, and at that point, I knew that unified field theories were some place just around the corner.
Due to my interest, what I had been doing as a postdoc and later as an assistant professor at MIT, I was then in position to be working on the mathematics that empowered string theory before fully developed string theory came into existence. So, my first contributions to string theory was sort of before numerous people were interested in string theory.
Now obviously, you’re dealing with some very big numbers with this research. I want to ask, are computers part of the equation for you? Are you relying on computers? Are computers at that point? Are they relevant based on their computational power, where the technology is? Or are computers playing catch-up with you and the theories that you’re working with?
Let me divide answering the role of computers into two different time zones if I can call them that. The theory of supergravity, invented in 1976 by Dan Freedman, Sergio Ferrara and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen ultimately required a mathematical proof of its consistency that depended on a computer program. The numbers of calculations that had to be done, approximately four thousand, were beyond human capacity. So Peter Van Nieuwenhuizen led the effort to successfully show this. Though this work was done in 1976, it would only much later be recognized properly by the award of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2019. Computers actually enabled supergravity to come into existence. Without computers, there would be no hard analytical proof that this theory was actually mathematically self-consistent. After that role, the use of computers basically disappeared. It was enabling the foundational role, but then it became irrelevant. Since 2014, working with students in my research group, we have made extensive use of computer to make billions of calculations. From my perspective this has nicely come from an overlap in my interest in physics teaching.
Beginning in 1999 work with Prof. Vincent Rodgers of the University of Iowa, there was established the “Summer Student Theoretical Physics Research Session”. This effort permits an on-ramp to undergraduate students and sometimes even high school students to become interns in my research group. In 2014, I was working with University of Maryland undergraduates Mathew Calkins and Delilah Gates, together with a scientist named William Golding my research began an uptake to incorporate modern computational capacity and robust algorithms. There are problems in supersymmetry string theory that are 40-year unsolved problems, and part of the reason for that is because of the computational difficulty.
Is still there, you’re saying.
These problems were still unsolved, which is a major driver of my research these days. In 2014, I began to study the issue about why some of these problems are unsolved, how do you create algorithms to find solutions? I wrote this one paper with these other three folks, and the title was “Think Different: Applying the Old Macintosh Mantra to the Computability of the SUSY Auxiliary Field Problem.”
By 2014, because it is clear to me the computer technology was advancing so rapidly that some of these problems that had defied being solved for decades, now with the aid of computers, we might be able to solve some of them. I started thinking about algorithm architecture design for how to set these things up in 2014. By 2020 we had built out a way of thinking about things, and we have solved some problems in what’s called M-theory, that some believe are the ultimate “theory of everything.” Unfortunately, there remains so little actually known. However, we have increased the ability to calculate systems of this nature with billions of variables.
Let me describe the challenge we recently surmounted. In quantum mechanics, we’re used to the idea that things cannot be in a definite place. They can be in multiple places. When applied to M-theory, there are a number of functions that have to introduced in order to even answer questions that’s consistent with this ability to be in multiple places. And a number of functions for M-theory — and this the lower limit — is 2 billion, 147 million, 483 thousand and 648 degrees of freedom times two.
This is a number that’s so large just to begin, and the simple question is — so let me set it up as a story; let’s imagine there were aliens out there travelling rapidly in a starship and they were watching a physicist make some calculations of in M-Theory. Imagine the physicist made an error. And to make this story even more fanciful, let’s assume the physicist doing the calculation was Ed Witten and he made a mistake – a joke of course. The aliens wish to be helpful, so they want to send a message to correct his mistake. And so they send back information, but if they’re in some kind of starship, that information has got to account for the fact that they’re moving near the speed of light or something.
You have to know how to translate your information in a way consistent with Quantum Theory so that Edward can understand them and make his collection. But it turns out that up until a year ago, nobody knew how to detail—specify these Lorenz transformations needed for these four billion plus functions. Over the course of the last year working with my students, Sze-Ning Hazel Mak and Yangrui Hu, here at Brown, we have figured out how to do this using computers. For the first time, we understand how to construct the Lorentz transformations that will allow the aliens to communicate the correct answer. This could not be done without computers. There’s a large fraction of my research that’s directed to deducing detail codes using modern computer technology to try to address these still unsolved problems that are 40 or 50 years old.
And sort of as a relationship, has the theory generally outpaced the computational power over the course of your career?
For most of my career, but I think maybe mostly yes on that conclusion that that’s not likely be true for very much longer, or maybe it is not even true now.
Because of deep learning.
That’s one example. It is funny you should bring that up because I’m actually—I mentioned this paper in 2014 or so. There’s this young man name Mathew Calkins. He and I are actually working on a paper on deep learning right now—because he works for Google but he’s still interested in physics—but we’re working on a paper right now showing how algorithms and deep learning can discover supersymmetry mathematical signatures.
Given how fundamental this work you were doing was as a graduate student, if we could—I know obviously the narrative continues, it doesn’t just end when you finish your dissertation—what were some of the fundamental questions that your research was dealing with head-on? And in turn, what new questions were raised as a result of this research?
OK. This is from the timeframe as I’m finishing my—
As you’re thinking about — this is as you’re finishing your dissertation, maybe this is the kind of question that you would have been asked in a defense or maybe this is the kind of thing that you would have thought about now that you’re charting your next moves after being a graduate student.
At the time, things I was interested in was all about supersymmetry and its relation to Einstein’s relativity and its generalization. That was the question that was driving me at that point.
And what did you feel was the most productive means to answer that question? What new questions would you need to raise in order to get at that question?
To get at that question — because we now have solved it — we had to go beyond Einstein — or certainly beyond Einstein and even beyond the standard model. If you look at the mathematical structure of the standard model, mathematicians will tell you these are what are called “fiber bundles” and there are functions associated with fiber bundles called connections. The thing that got us to allow supersymmetry was to realize that connections themselves, at least in the context of supersymmetry, have substructures of more fundamental mathematical objects called prepotentials. And Warren Siegel and I, as we were postdocs, were among most deeply studying the role of prepotentials in describing physics or equations that are similar to physics that have supersymmetry.
It was the discovery of prepotentials, but I think it was the big output from that early period in my career when I was trying to figure out gravity and how does it fit together with the connection technology. And it was my collaboration with Warren — it would have never happened if I had not been asking the question, and bumped into Warren — who was also asking the question, but from a very, very different point.
Jim, either based on the papers that you were writing at the time or talking about your dissertation at conferences or basically whatever means you were using to get this research out into the broader physics community, who were some of the most important people who were paying attention to what you were doing? Who, in turn, might have opened up new opportunities and avenues of research for you?
That question is so simple to answer; John Schwarz, Abdus Salam, and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen.
But there’s a slightly earlier—before my thesis advisor, who—professor at MIT named Ken Johnson and when I was a second- or third-year graduate student, he was one of the professors I was trying to see if he would be willing to take me on as an advisee. I walked into his office, I had a transcript of grades and what have you. So I walked in his office and told him what I wanted to do. And then he began to tell me, “Well, you know, this is extraordinarily difficult and rapidly evolving field. Maybe you should think about another area of physics.”
At that point I let the conversation die, but I was highly insulted because from my perspective, he didn’t know anything about me. How was he able to make such snap a judgment? I was insulted. I responded with “Fine,” while silently thinking “Fine, I will talk to someone else.” I continued looking until I ultimately found Jim Young. So fast forward two and a half years, I’m finishing up my thesis — which was by the way very interesting — my defense committee was composed of Professors. Jim Young (my advisor), Roman Jackiw (the person I earlier told you I wanted to be my advisor), and the third person on the defense committee was Ernie Moniz (our former Secretary of Energy), Ernie Moniz.
The thesis defense was wonderful. Figuratively, “They never laid a glove on me.” It is not hard to figure out why because I knew more about what I was talking about than anyone else in the room. They could ask me questions about other things that I wouldn’t perhaps know, but not about what I was doing as a research topic.
And as a consequence, Ernie said something to me, which I have always treasured; he said, “Jim, that was the best thesis defense I have ever seen.” About 15 years ago, while he was the Secretary of Energy I said, “Ernie, you remember what you said about my thesis defense?” I said it in a way as I wanted to make sure I didn’t have a false memory. This my question I said, “Do you remember what you said about my thesis defense?” I didn’t say anything else. He repeated almost exactly the same words. I had remembered clearly! In fact, there is a video on YouTube created at a Department of Energy event where he kids me about this episode. For many years, I was a fan of science fiction. In the lore of the Star Trek series there is an expression “Kobashi Maru” that describes how Captain James Kirk was able to defeat a no-win simulation of a battle between starships. He re-programmed the software prior to taking the examination. In a figurative sense, I had done the same regarding my Ph.D. thesis defense.
When I finished my PhD, becoming a postdoc at Harvard, I became a Junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows. To become a junior fellow, you have to be nominated by a previous Junior fellow. Ken Johnson, that same professor who I felt insulted me so badly, was the person who nominated me to become a junior fellow at Harvard in the Harvard Society of Fellows.
In 2019 I found out I was the second African American man who had ever become a Harvard Junior fellow and the first such scientist they ever had. It had been that same guy, he had been listening and I think he probably interacted with Ernie who said something like, “This kid is fine.” I took away from this experience to try never again to be hasty in judging the motivations of others.
That’s how I got to Harvard. It was those folks. It was the MIT crowd, Ernie, Jim - my advisor, and Ken Johnson. Getting from Harvard to Caltech, which was my second postdoc, was all on John Schwarz. I met John a couple different times while in this period of my life. He clearly had examined some of the work I was doing on supergravity along with my co-author Warren Siegel as we were trying to understand geometry and what have you and was aware of the mathematical intricacy and depth of what we accomplished. Figuratively, and perhaps and little literally, we were following in the footsteps of Albert Einstein. In the period of 1907-1916, Einstein had wrestled with how to use the concept of the geometry of “the four-dimensional space-time continuum” to write a theory of gravitation. The concept of the space-time continuum was not an original idea from Einstein. It originated with one of his former mathematics professors, Hermann Minkowski in 1908. At first Einstein was dismissive of the idea. Later he reversed himself and concluded that the space-time concept was the key to success. By 1916 he showed this was indeed the case.
In the case of supergravity, the analog of the “the four-dimensional space-time continuum” was a 1974 construction proposed by Abdus Salam and John Strathdee who introduced the concept of “superspace.” Thus, their role in 1974 was exactly analogous to that of Minkowski. As did Einstein, Warren and I were attempting to use ideas of the geometry of superspace to reach a theory of supergravity. At first Warren, like Einstein was not particularly interested in the possibility of a curved supergeometry as was obvious in his first brilliant works. On the other hand, I had begun researching a curved supergeometry even in my Ph.D. thesis. In 1979 our first joint publication our disparate viewpoints had been aligned and we succeeded as had Einstein. The title of our paper was “Superspace Supergravity” and we had become the first physicists in the world to give a complete and comprehensive description using curved supergeometry and we had done so connecting to Warren’s insight on a non-geometric quantity called the “supergravity prepotential.”
John was well aware of these developments, and we were both invited to be postdocs at Caltech, and in January of 2019, I found out that made me the first African American physicist ever hired at Caltech by the division of math, physics, and astronomy. To me personally, this demonstrated something I had not been convinced was true. There were a sufficient number of people who were willing to look at the work and forget the whole issue of my ethnicity. Though at the time I did not know his name, I was certain the first person of the African diaspora with a PhD in physics must have faced the opposite condition. It would be a decade later when I learned the identity of Edward Bouchet (1852 - 1918), who in 1876 became the first African American to earn a PhD in any disciple. His degree was in physics, and he met precisely the conditions I had feared.
Yes. Now we talked already about the unique opportunities this presented you, to be the authority at MIT on this topic, right? But if we could just do a bit of an intellectual biographical experiment, if you will, was there any thesis committee at that time where in that room, you wouldn’t be the one teaching them about the topic?
I outsmarted them. I tell them—
No, but I’m saying it is not MIT, I’m saying it is the field. You might have been situated at MIT.
Oh, yes, no. There were a few other places in the world where you could put together a committee whose members knew more about the subject than I did, but not at MIT.
Where? Where could you have been?
One of the places would have been CERN where the Higgs-Boson was discovered in 2012 because that’s where Bruno Zumino had an appointment. He was actually one of the “fathers of supersymmetry” along with Julius Wess. Remember I told you about this geometry, he’s one of the people who used those geometrical ideas, but without initially including gravitation, that I began to learn when I was a graduate student. If I was at CERN, you could have had a committee where people knew more than I did about the subject.
If I was at Stony Brook, you could have had people who knew more than I did about the subject. That’s where supergravity—Peter Van Nieuwenhuizen, who I mentioned, that’s where he was a faculty member. But there were probably no more than maybe a handful of places where that condition could have been satisfied.
Jim, I’m looking at the clock and I’m cognizant of your time. I think for the last question it is a good segue for when we’ll pick up next week. You’ve defended the dissertation and now you’re starting to think about your sort of prospects, where to go next, right? Now, if we just take the identity issue out of the equation, you’re obviously a hot commodity, right? I mean, you’re at the forefront of the field. You are doing work that Ernie Moniz, for example, is saying this is the best defense he’s ever heard. You’re going to be in demand no matter what, right? But on top of that, you’re an African American guy, right?
And so I’m curious if at the time, your sense was this was an asset in the way that it would become later on when there might be any number of departments that would say, “What an opportunity, not just to have a top guy, but somebody where we can really diversity our faculty.” Is this part of the equation at all?
Absolutely not. One of the things that one should be aware of is that the subject of supersymmetry was not regarded as serious science by many of our colleagues. Of course, looking backward at those times, it is clear that I had somehow found my way to the core of an important topic. This was certainly not clear to many people at the time. Recall this is in the time when even John Schwarz, one of two key figures in the development of Superstring Theory, was considered by many established theoretical physicists as doing “quirky” research. This would only change in the middle to late eighties. I had definitely not placed my bet on a sure thing.
Even though I had achieved some outstanding contributions in this subject, the subject itself was not held in high regard in the US. In Europe more so, but in the US at the time, the serious business was studying QCD. They were not studying supersymmetry. And that whole view of supersymmetry existed even after I was a postdoc and leaving Harvard.
It was probably, I would say—it wasn’t until 1985 or 1986 that physicists in the United States understood the magnitude and the importance of supersymmetry. Therefore, I was not this hot prospect...to use your term. I was just following my nose because I—like I said, this is something I tell graduate students, “One of the most important things to do is to develop a sense of aesthetics about physics. To possess a sense, an internal compass, a guide star, that lets you understand what is ultimately going to be important is an advantage.”
I had developed this sense as a graduate student. I was convinced — I didn’t care what other people said because I understood the quality of the mathematics. I understood its potential impact on possible physics and I was making a bet, just like you said, but I was absolutely sure that I was going to win the bet. I remained absolutely convinced I knew more about the prospects of this subject than anyone I typically encountered. The only thing at was my career.
What about the other commodity issue that I asked about? The diversity question. In the 1970s, would this have been something that preeminent institutions would say, “This is a great opportunity to diversify the faculty.”
History shows the answer’s no. In fact, I’m very much aware now — and in the decades since that period — I’m very much aware that various individuals raised this point at Caltech and I’ve been told by at least one person if Feynman had stayed healthy, I might have gotten an appointment there, but he didn’t. No one at Harvard ever made any kind of intimation that they thought I would be a value to the program, although I did get back to my alma mater and this would probably be later. I was in the math department and the main reason I left MIT and remain a critic of MIT is because at MIT, they have fallen into a trap whereby many appear to hold the view that diversity is the antagonist of excellence, and they have never gotten out of that trap in my estimation.
Even though I was an assistant professor there—once I came back from Caltech I judged, “This institution doesn’t align with my personal values.” I left after two years of being on faculty at MIT. I’ve never regretted that decision.
What a brutal statement you just made.
I don’t want to sound brutal, for me it is just seems a fact based on observation.
Yes. So, from the outside looking in — and I guess I’ve been sort of guilty of “presentism” — this hot commodity issue, which seems so obvious looking back — the reality is you were still fighting two uphill battles it sounds like, on the scientific front and on the racial politics front.
Yes. Until I got to the University of Maryland and was on faculty there — because when I left MIT in ’84 — until I got to the University of Maryland, I never had a sense of that — I was at an institution where people were not betting against me. That changed when I became a tenured professor at the University of Maryland. That’s the first time I felt that I was part of an institution that had confidence that I would be a valuable faculty member and would contribute to the institution’s stature and reputation. I never felt that before then.
That is a long time to wait to have that feeling of validation and security.
Well, yes, but that was about 1984. It is not so long. It is sort of, you know—what’s the expression? I threw my hat in the race when I was a second-year graduate student. I had suddenly decided, “I’m going to go for it.” It is just from I want to say ’74 to ’85. That’s only eleven or so years.
Only. [laugh] You have to be a physicist to see eleven years as a small period of time I suppose.
It probably helps. We do tend to think on long time scales. Most people are not aware that a physicist named James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) laid the foundation for today’s WiFi in the eighteen sixties. It took Einstein from 1907 to 1916 to develop this “Theory of General Relativity.
Well Jim, for my last question today, just to set the stage for our talk next week — I think this is a great narrative transition — what were the opportunities that you saw before you after you defended? Did Harvard just sort of like come to you and you didn’t really need to sort of do much in the way of looking out in the broader world or how did that all come together?
OK. Let’s talk about entry to Harvard. As I mentioned, Ken Johnson, a former junior fellow nominated me, and to my very great surprise, the application was taken seriously. And the next stage in the selection process involved a face-to-face interview. Since Harvard was just down the street from MIT, pretty simple for me. In fact, it was even closer than MIT. I was living in Cambridge about halfway between Harvard and MIT. I literally could walk to either institution.
I took the Mass Avenue bus up to Harvard and I had a designated address where the Society of Fellows was carrying out its interviews. So when the interview came, I actually walked over to the location from the bus stop at Harvard Square and I entered a room. There was a long U-shaped table, I silently called it a star chamber proceeding because there’s this long table and seated around the table are the illustrious academicians of the society, and then there’s this one chair set at the open part of the U and I think there was a small desk or table in front of it, and that’s where—as an interviewee—you sat.
There was a round of questions. And the society is not centered on physics. It is a multi-disciplinary collection of very illustrious academicians, but it obviously includes some physicists on the examination committee. There was one physicist named Howard Georgi and when I walked in, it was clear that it was his task to ascertain whether I was a complete dummy in physics or not. There was nothing that actually happened untoward then. It is just my sense of humor here. Nothing pejorative happened. Some say I have a very dry sense of humor. So much so that on some occasion I have been accuse of being totally humorless.
He started asking me a whole bunch of physics questions. They were trying to assess how much of what this young person claims to have mastered has actually been mastered.
We went through that song and dance, and it seemed to go pretty well. In that stage of the interview, it sort of shifted and somebody asked me, “Well, do you have any other intellectual pursuits besides physics that fascinate you?” And my response was, “Why, yes. I actually read history.” In the room it was like an electric charge went through the room. And you could sort of see people say, “What? A theoretical physicist talking about history? What?” I mean you didn’t actually hear it murmured, but that was the general sense that I got of the reaction around the table.
The next question was, “Well, what piece of history have you read recently?” And I had just finished reading a piece on the history of the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece and we had wonderful conversation after that, and a few weeks later, I was offered an appointment to become a Junior fellow of the Harvard University Society of Fellows. I think it had more to do with the discussion of ancient Greek history than anything else.
Did you see this as an opportunity to take your physics to the next level or was this postdoc really kind of like a finishing school to some degree for your acceptance professionally into the big leagues?
Definitely next—well, wait a minute. Just a second. Neither. It was survival. That was the only offer I got.
I neither regard it as finishing school or big league. It was a chance that I had for the system not to kill me as a young professional intellectual. It was my intellectual life, the life of my mind, at stake That’s how I viewed it.
So how did you survive?
You mean to that point or after?
Through it. Through your time at Harvard.
Harvard was a wonderful time for me, but because of providence. When I first went to Harvard, I didn’t think there would be anybody there who had any insight into my research. I thought it would be like MIT where nobody knew what I was doing. I figured I would wind up continuing to educate myself, but I wouldn’t have to worry—I mean I had a three-year period where I knew I was secure, and therefore I could learn as much as I possibly could to up my skill set.
What happened, however, was I met my friend Warren Siegel, who received his PhD from University of California Berkeley. We were both interested in supersymmetry! At first it seemed there was little interest in the subject among the faculty. And gravity. And it was very funny because at the beginning of the semester, there was a gathering of all the faculty and graduate students and postdocs together and there was a secretary by the name of Miss Blanche Maabe. Her last name was Maabe, “M-A-A-B-E,” Maabe. And Blanche was so kind.
I received this invitation to come to this thing and it was before the semester and I went to her office and she introduced herself, and says, “Here, come with me. I’m going to take you to where the activity’s going.” And she took me to the activity. And the room was full of people and there was a buzz and what have you. Of course, I’m the only African American there, right? But before we got into the room, she said, “I’m going to introduce you to someone who does exactly what you do.” And I thought to myself as she said it, “That can’t possibly be true.” But it was.
She took me directly to Warren Siegel who was interested in exactly the questions I was interested in.
And you had no idea of Warren’s work beforehand?
No, because he had never done any work in the area beforehand. He had been a graduate student thinking about stuff and calculating, but not publishing. I had co-authored one paper on the subject with Joel Shapiro, a physicist from Rutgers University.
And who was Warren working with?
He was working with himself. Warren turns out to be a genius. Many times I have told people the only two geniuses I know in physics are Warren Siegel and Ed Witten. When I first met Warren and we started talking I thought, “He’s crazy.” Although he has never said it, in years afterward I began to think he easily could have concluded I was not very bright. I just couldn’t talk to him anymore at that moment. This only changed three or four months later when I realized the two perspectives we brought to the problem were so diametrically opposed was the reason for the apparent inability to communicate. When we first encountered each other, there was no common language. I was talking about it the way Einstein would have talked about it after 1908 with geometry and such things like that. He had a totally different viewpoint.
Later, as we bumped into each other, started talking again, and I realized the goal he was reaching was complimentary to what I was doing, but I knew how to approach the problem in a way he had not. We became collaborators and that’s when we wrote a series of papers that, as I said, at the time were the most comprehensive and mathematical complete description of curved superspace, following along the lines of Einstein and his theory of general relativity came together.
That’s what set up the next part of my career. It was meeting Warren and just pure providence that we both happened to be working and thinking about the same problem, though from different perspectives, and in the same place.
Well Jim, on that note, I think that’s a perfect place for us to cut it here to pick back up next week.
OK. This is fine.
[End Session 1]
[Begin Session 2]
OK, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 3rd, 2020. I am so happy to be back with Professor Jim Gates. Jim, thank you so much for joining me again.
You know, David, thank you very much. My analogy is I’m laying out on the psychiatrist’s coach, so I’m going to try to be as transparent as possible to give you what you need for your purposes.
I appreciate it and the whole history of physics community will appreciate it, so let’s get started. OK. To pick up on where we were during our last talk, I want to pick up on something remarkable that you said reflecting back at your time at Harvard, and to set the stage there, we were talking, to my surprise, about what you felt like your prospects were following the defense of your dissertation.
From the outside looking in, I’m thinking you’re at the vanguard of this incredibly promising field. You’re a barrier breaker in terms of your racial identity, and from my perspective, I’m thinking that obviously the best physics departments in the country would be falling all over to give you the best possible offer, and yet you tell me that not only was that not the case, but your primary feeling about your time at Harvard was that it was a time that you felt like you needed to survive.
My question to start things off today is in what ways did your need to survive that experience make you a better person and a better physicist?
For most physics postdocs at any time, any place, any ethnicity, any gender, and any personal identification, however you dice it or slice it, being in a postdoc phase is always going to be a time of trying. I’m a science fiction fan and was a comic book fan, I used to read comic books, mostly Marvel, in the 60s, as I think I told you in our last presentation. The Marvel character of Thor has a hammer named ‘Mjöllnir’ and that was forged by special conditions. A process something similar to that forging process is essentially what goes on in terms of a personality in one’s scientific preparation as a postdoc.
You think you’ve done a lot in graduate school, but attending finishing school is basically what the period of being a postdoc is accomplishing. What ways did I change in that period, especially at Harvard? Well for me, the most valuable part of my experience at Harvard was not as a physicist, but it was a coming to understand something about the culture of academia because not only was I at Harvard, I was a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows.
As I learned in 2019 it was revealed I was the first African American scientist junior fellow in Harvard University’s history. But that meant I had interactions with other junior fellows and senior fellows. One of the other junior fellows was Edward Witten and this is how I came to formally meet him, though I had once seen him when I was a graduate student at MIT. One of the traditions of the Harvard Society of Fellows is on every Monday junior fellows have dinner with senior fellows. So by this means, I met some outstanding people across a panoply of disciplines and studies, but also I got a chance to sort of look at their culture because again, as I’ve mentioned, in some sense I’ve always been a watcher of what I call “the human ecology” around me. I guess it is working at being a little bit of an amateur anthropologist/sociologist.
I was watching that — and this stems from my childhood being on military bases and what have you — that culture. I was struck by a couple of things. I remember one of the most striking conversations I had was with another junior fellow and he said something striking — we were talking about the history as that’s also an amateur concern of mine — about the United States history and the progress of European American settlers across the country, the so-called “winning the west.” One of his first statements was, “Well, the European settlers had a right to the land because they could increase its carrying capacity for human habitation.” At the time, I thought, “Well, this is really quite remarkable a statement.”
I started playing pool when I was an undergraduate, so I had had my own pool cue. Not too long before hearing that statement and coming to Harvard, my pool cue was stolen. My apartment had been broken into and the only thing taken was my pool cue. So as the statement was made back to me, I was thinking, “You know the guy who stole my pool cue could probably say the same because he’s probably a better pool player than I am. That doesn’t make it morally right.” That kind of reasoning among people who the rest of the world says are incredibly intelligent was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.
Other things, when I said survive — well, survive in the sense of trying to figure out how good a physicist I would become. At the beginning of my time at Harvard I met my friend Warren Siegel, who became my close collaborator, enhanced my research to work, on this theory called supergravity. One of the most profound influences he had on me was to understand that great theoretical physics requires intuition first, and calculation second. I also had met Edward Witten. It was curious to me because the brightest physicists I met—and Michael Peskin (currently physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator) was my officemate. I noted that the smartest of the physicists I met at Harvard had no issue with my ethnicity. I found that a very interesting observation. In some sense, the people at the top of the ecosystem really came extraordinarily close to this ideal of being color-blind in my experience. They really didn’t care if you were green or purple or orange. All they cared about was the quality of ideas that came from you, and that was an extraordinarily encouraging thing for me.
And liberating too probably, right?
Liberating, yes, because I knew I would be able to talk to these people about my ideas, even if some were half baked sometimes, and that I could trust the feedback I was getting. You’ll notice I talked about the top level in physics, where I probed, that’s not necessarily true further down. It was also not true outside of physics as I explored. I found in the some of the junior fellows, people who one might expect are at the very top of the ecosystem, the same kinds of prejudices that one can encounter - maybe in milder forms – elsewhere in our society. But they were there. That was driven home to me by the comment on Native Americans and on my first visit to England also a few years later.
I was at a conference organized by Stephen Hawking in 1980 and met him for the first time. While we were there – there were a lot of us young people around this Nuffield Conference – one day a group of perhaps half a dozen of us were having discussion. In one we were all puzzling about this one mathematical question. As we were all groping towards the answer, I suggested something. There was no reaction at all in the group. A few minutes later, essentially the same suggestion was made by another European physicist, and then all of the sudden it was an enormous insight. It allowed the group to move forward in a grappling of this question. I was like, “OK, I understand what that’s all about.” To this very day, I see this—this touches a name I recently heard, confirmation bias—I’ve seen this behavior thoroughly entrenched for about 40 years as I have been working as a research scientist.
It starts at undergraduate level. If one actually looks at the essay (Einstein v. Roberts) I wrote in a rebuttal to a comment by Chief Justice Roberts, it is about exactly the same process. I’ve seen it in the admissions processes. As I was graduating, Prof. Young warned me about the presence of this process. He called it the “de-legitimization/re-legitimization” process. I’ve seen it in the according of credit of ideas that create innovation. The same process over and over. In fact, to my mind, it is the linchpin for how STEM disciplines fail to be equitable to everybody.
In what ways were you connected to the department of physics at Harvard when you were a fellow?
Well my office was in Jefferson Laboratory, which is one of the traditional homes of the physics department at Harvard. I shared my office for the first two years with Michael Peskin. Warren Siegel had an office on the floor above when we did our work on supergravity. The third year I was there, I shared my office with Paul Steinhardt (currently at Princeton). So I was in the department every day of the week. I went to the seminars. Professor Steve Weinberg, who became a recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979, invited me to be a speaker in the seminar series that he organized.
It was certainly — and again, this is an example of this thing I said that when you look at people at the very top, mostly they’re not having questions about ethnicity or gender. They’re just wondering what the idea is. And so it was nice.
And you would include Weinberg in that echelons? He was one of those people?
Yes, he was. Like I said, he treated me very well. Now, he didn’t seem to invite just everybody to come speak at his seminar series, though. I was quite happy and proud when the invitation came to me. So although he invited me, a few minutes after I began my talk, he went to sleep. I noticed and I was extraordinarily upset by it (at least internally), but of course I continued the presentation and everything went just fine. When he apparently woke up near the end, he asked an incredibly insightful question. Later I was to learn this was not unusual and I had been treated equitably along with others in this way also.
Sometime later after he had moved to the University of Texas, I was invited to visit and speak in the seminar series he organized there. I opened my seminar talk by telling the story about him going to sleep in my first seminar presentation at Harvard in his series when I was a postdoc. I also expressed the hope that maybe he would stay awake this time, which I mean, that was a cheeky thing to do, but you know that’s who I am. He did stay awake…and asked an even more insightful question at the end!
In what ways did your research move forward during your time at Harvard?
The difference was tremendous, absolutely tremendous. As I was leaving MIT, I was considering — the “gauge supersymmetry” equations developed by two physicists at Northeastern, Richard Arnowitt and Pran Nath — what they were trying to do to combine the idea of supersymmetry with Einstein’s General Relativity. However, there was clearly something wrong with what they were doing. Yet my natural intuition was that Einstein’s foundation of some kind of geometry was the right way to go, but why wasn’t it working with their approach to supergravity, which they had created in that time. The problem with their approach was that it ignored a quantity called “torsion” which is essential for a geometrical superspace theory to generalize Einstein’s General Relativity Theory. I was trying to figure this out and fix the problem of their approach.
What was the primary problem was the goal I had set for myself when I went to Harvard. I met Warren Siegel – he had very different ideas – but our two sets of ideas combined together were extraordinarily powerful because we could then immediately connect to Einstein’s ideas, but we could also connect to these new ideas of supersymmetry and especially to curved superspace in such a way that it was consistent with quantum mechanics. So the research advanced enormously.
I also got a chance to work with someone for the second time in my life. The entire time I was an undergraduate and a graduate student at MIT, with one exception, I never worked in groups. I never went to a study group. I never did my homework with other students. It was always, for me, an individual activity, except for the time that I was studying for my PhD qualifying exam with Ronald McNair, the future astronaut to be who died in the Challenger Explosion in 1986.
In fact, during graduate school, Ron and I were friends. We used to hang out with each other, go to each other’s places, go to parties, all sorts of things. I met his brother Carl. Moreover, Ron and I studied together for a PhD qualifying exam at MIT after both of us had failed the first time. This failure was at the time the greatest setback in my dream of becoming a theoretical physicist. This gave me a tremendous reason, and actually motivated me to study with someone else. I said, “You know that old saying about when something doesn’t work, you shouldn’t try to do it exactly the same way again?” I was implementing that by saying, “Well gee, let me study with somebody.” Ron was also a tremendously focused person so we studied together which cleared the roadblocks from both of our dreams.
When I went to Harvard, back to your question, I started working with my friend Warren Siegel. It taught me a lot of very interesting things I had not really understood and about even the way I think about things. I had encountered another intellect that could act as a sounding board in the way that I developed ideas and the way I approached the work. I’ll never forget, one day Warren said something, which I thought was quite remarkable. “You should never start a calculation before you know the answer,” was his comment. I thought it remarkable because I always had thought that’s why you calculate, so you can find the answer. His comment opened my eyes to an alternative viewpoint. One should do calculations to either prove or disprove one’s intuitive understanding of the mathematics required for the physics.
But what the statement really meant to me—which is something quite profound—was an empowering for me throughout my later career. It pointed to the fact the calculations are not the way that one actually makes breakthroughs. It is a very different sort of thing. I can make an analogy to music. You know, composers write musical scores, but the scores come from intuitions that already exist inside their heads prior to writing the scores. Painters paint paintings, but they have these inspirations that sit inside of them that are not the activity of painting. They’re patterns of thought and habits of mind.
What Warren was saying was that you really need to have frameworks and patterns and intuitions before you do the calculations, and that’s what, in fact, has allowed me on a couple of different times in my career to see things before other people have, like the discovery of what are called twisted chiral superfields and twisted superpotentials. These are tied to something in mathematics called mirror symmetry. I completed my work in one of the rare single author works of my career and it was the direct antecedent to a new mathematical discovery, bihermitian manifolds created to expound on solo my work. This was the first genuinely new piece of mathematics that resulted from my individual research. I did that work as a young assistant professor at MIT a few years later because I was thinking differently about the problem…not calculating first.
This was in 1984, but I had started having real confidence I could do that because of those kinds of interactions with Warren Siegel when I was a postdoc. All that forming and forging took place when I was a postdoc. As a result, my output in research papers increased, I expanded the number of people with whom I had interactions. After the work completed with Warren, I became more open to collaboration as a result directly of the quality of collaboration I had with him. In a very real sense, I became a better collaborator from those experiences at Harvard. Perhaps a most interesting aspect of this experience is that I had no mentor among the Harvard faculty. There was, however, a senior physicist who became paterfamilias to me, Warren, and Martin Ro?ek, a Harvard graduate physics student at that time. This senior physicist was a faculty member at Brandeis University, Professor Marcus T. Grisaru.
In what ways did your unique skill sets complement each other with regard to your work with Warren?
You know, that’s a very insightful question on your part because in years later, numbers of other physicists, more mature physicists who watched us made comments to me and one of them was, “Thank God you found Warren because nobody else would have ever understood him.” Another older faculty member said, “You two were both lucky to find each other and the field greatly benefitted from it.” I engaged it seriously enough that we could — that whatever deep insights he was having could actually be propagated and could be amplified by my geometric intuition allowing other people to understand our work together both jointly and separately.
Another comment that people said — a couple senior physicists 10, 15 years older — was, “You know, it was amazing to watch you two very different kinds of people,” because I’m a tall African American, had this enormous afro in those days and Warren is relatively short and a lot of people described him as looking like the messiah-look with the long, brown hair on his shoulders and what have you — and so we were kind of this Mutt and Jeff team.
We didn’t think about it then, but years later when people started making comments, I started thinking, “Well, yes. I guess that’s right.” But we were complementary because as I said, my intuition was grounded in the Einstein geometric viewpoint and things like that, whereas Warren’s intuition about this stuff was just very, very different but complementary, and based on non-geometrical work by Ferrara, Salam, Strathdee, and Zumino and their perspective on super Yang-Mills theories. This allowed us to make these breakthroughs that no other team in the world had accomplished by that point.
And I wonder, you know, there’s a big gap in terms of prominence and seniority from somebody like Warren and somebody like Steve Weinberg, but it probably sounds like, in his collaboration with you, that you were both operating on a level where questions about identity were like way below the plane that you wanted to be operating on.
They were essentially irrelevant entirely. And for me, finding that irrelevance, encouraged me that if I could find really smart physicists, I didn’t have to worry about these whole set of issues around ethnicity.
Has that been an ideal that you’ve always pursued? Like this idea that you just want to do the science and you don’t want to have this extra burden around you all the time, is that sort of an ideal that you’ve always measured reality against? Or to what extent do you embrace the difficulty because you were put in a place with talents and you can do good with these challenges to some degree?
Well firstly you used the word burden and I’m emotionally and psychologically wired in such a really weird way as internally it has never felt like a burden. This is something I’ve heard — particularly from young African American scholars — “How did you manage that burden?” My response, “I didn’t because it wasn’t a burden for me.” I embraced the reality of the situation I was facing. I mean my father was US Army veteran with about twenty-seven years of military service, for God’s sake. If you’re a child of such a parent that nurtures you, there’s a kind of (what I think of as warrior mentality) that comes along with such a parent-child relation. This is one reason why I tell people I was lucky I picked the dad I have. One other such reason is because we have a sort of peculiar family history around the subject of mathematics. According to our family stories, my paternal grandfather, a landowning sugar cane farmer, could neither read nor write, but has been stated he could “cypher,” i.e. do simple arithmetic. So in a strange sense mathematics has always felt like family property.
Yes. Were you thinking about entering the job market after your fellowship postdoc at Harvard or did you want to do another postdoc?
Oh, I never thought about anything but academia from the time that I was a senior in college to becoming a professor, my singular goal was academia, but I did have a backup plan. The backup plan would be I would become a long-haul truck driver.
Wow. We are very lucky that didn’t happen, although you might have done great things in the trucking industry too, who knows.
Well you’ve heard my childhood history. I grew up moving around. The call of the road is something that I still hear to this day. That would certainly be one way to exorcise it.
But my question was after your fellowship at Harvard you pursued another postdoc, and my question is did you think about full-time assistant professor opportunities or you knew that another postdoc would be useful to you long-term?
Again, you’re very insightful, David because although I didn’t think about it — and thank you for asking the question because that modifies something I said earlier — although I wasn’t thinking about it, some physicists at the City College of New York did attempt to recruit me to an assistant professorship. And I was flattered. I mean, I went and I spent sort of a week with them looking at the department, but also looking at New York City. I concluded that in order to live well there the way I like to live, I would have to have an extraordinary amount of money! The prospect of living in The City and living well were two incompatible things.
Like I said, it was very insightful for you to ask that question. That was another possible off ramp that — a serious off ramp that I had — as I went from Harvard to Caltech with one other slight possibility. My friend, Ronald McNair — with whom I had studied with as a graduate student — in that same time period challenged me to apply to NASA because they were looking for a new class of astronauts.
Ron and I had both, as teenagers in high schools—in different states and not knowing one another—had been fascinated by space travel. During our period of close interactions in the MIT Physics Department as graduate students with friends, we talked about our interests in high school. We were both Star Trek fans, for example. He told me his stories about going to the library in North Carolina and asking the librarian about where can he find the books about stars, she directed him — well first of all, they didn’t want him in there because he was African American and this is in the South in the nineteen sixties.
There is a story of an African American physicist tells that when he was much younger asks about where he could find books on stars and the librarian directed him to stories about Hollywood. Those are not the stars for which this particular person was looking. Ron had experiences like that. Ron knew the birth of my love for science was exactly contemporaneous with a love of space travel in a four-year-old child (me) living on an army base Fort Pepperell near St. John, Newfoundland a maritime Canadian territory. As President Obama was to say in 2013 as I received the Medal of Science, “You can be a child living on an army base dreaming about the stars,” and that was me.
Ron knew that also, and so he challenged me to apply as I about to leave Harvard. I did so thinking that nothing would come of it. To my very big surprise, I made it to the—there was several rounds of cutting the applicant pool down—tone just before the final selection of a new class of astronauts. I was invited to the Johnson Space Flight Center and if they had said, “Yes, Jim, we would like to invite you to become an astronaut,” I’m not sure what would have happened. But they said no, and therefore Caltech was my next destination.
Wow. So you were that close to becoming an astronaut.
Yes, I tell people that’s a whole another story in my biography that sometimes elicits queries. I tell people NASA told me, figuratively, I had the wrong stuff. Only people with the right stuff get to become astronauts. But yes, and it was actually quite an experience as a visitor to the Johnson Space Flight Center for a psychological and physical evaluation. While there, in a small office Ron took me to meet three future-famous astronauts. I met Charlie Bolden, who did become an astronaut. He was already in training when I met him. He also ended up his career being the NASA Administrator during the Presidential Administration of Barack Obama. I met Fred Gregory, the first African American pilot of a space shuttle. Also, I met Guion Bluford, the first African American to fly in space!
I met all three of these guys at the same time as I was being evaluated to see if I would be permitted to go from astronaut candidate to journeyman astronaut. That was a really fun day. I look back on that day often and think, “Wow.”
Did you get any specific feedback either on the psychological or physical testing which suggested that you didn’t have the stuff they were looking for?
Well, not detailed enough to figure out why they said no. When I was finally informed, it was via telephone call. A very nice gentleman called and he started off the call by praising all of my qualifications and stuff. These days I tell young people if a call for a position to which you have applied begins like that, you can be pretty sure you did not get the job.
I let him go through his spiel and I said thank you, blah, blah, blah (not literally of course). Finally he slowed and said, “I’m sorry. We decided to go another direction.” At which point I broke into laughter. If they had said yes — I had already gotten the offer to go to Caltech — I would have had two offers to consider, both of them having been initiated as dreams for a four-year-old child. That would have been the most awful professional decision I would have had to make in life. I was so happy at its avoidance that I just broke into laughter. The phone went silent for a short while, and was I’m convinced the gentleman at the other side of the call likely thought I had become hysterical from not being selected.
[laugh] Like click. Jim, I’ve often heard it said that there’s lots of stories I’ve heard about transitions from Harvard to Caltech, either from undergraduate to graduate, graduate to postdoc. A recurring theme is that when you get to Caltech, especially coming from such a buttoned up and formal place like Harvard, you really get a sense of how fun science can be. Did you get that sense when you got to Caltech?
You remember that I was at MIT before I went to Harvard, so I already knew how much fun science could be because at MIT, there were a lot of pranks. To me, the most interesting prank that I’ve ever seen is there’s a picture that—there’s a building at MIT called The Great Dome and it faces the Charles River. In fact, it is the picture of MIT that’s often shown with this long, grassy field and then the big entrance way with the dome (the Great Dome) on top of it. On top of the dome all sort of joking apparition have appeared over the years.
At MIT, those pranks are called hacks. The greatest hack I’ve ever seen was some group of students made it appear as though there was a car on top of the dome. And I don’t know if it was an actual car or just some kind of model that they had put together, but MIT always had this sense of fun in science, so I got that sense long before I got to Caltech…where the same sort of tradition prevails.
Were there particular people you were excited to work with to go to Caltech like John Schwarz, for example?
Well, the odd thing about going to from Harvard to Caltech — and even being at Harvard — is there were no senior people who knew essentially anything about what I did. The junior fellows — I think mentioned this side of the fellowship — were just hired on judged quality. They didn’t hire according to how well you align with what’s going on in the department or on campus. But you have to physically be there. They perceive quality and they make their bets, right? I wasn’t an apprentice. There is a story, perhaps an “urban myth,” that when a very distinguished senior physics faculty member at Harvard was asked about his interest in the subject of supersymmetry his response was being “super uninterested” in supersymmetry. When I got to Caltech — although John Schwarz was, without a doubt, the main reason I and my collaborator and friend Warren Siegel were simultaneously hired to continue the work at Caltech that began at Harvard — but neither of us was not John’s postdoc, nor were we anyone’s postdoctoral apprentices. The person most responsible for this remarkable flexibility was Professor Murray Gell-Mann, a1969 Nobel recipient for his work in particle physics. Murray was also the “motive force” who supported John’s appointments with the Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy division at Caltech.
Warren and I were allowed to be an independent research team working collaboratively pursing the research we thought important. I was excited to be going because Warren and I were getting back together. In the year before we went to Caltech, Warren spent the year at Princeton while I was still at Harvard. There is that old saying about, “getting the band back together and going on the road again,” so that was sort of the excitement. I had my friend, a collaborator, and we’re going to be sharing the office again. Moreover, we’ll be doing our crazy physics again, all that stuff was going go on, and so I was excited about that. John Schwarz was there so this is the first time there was a senior person at an institution who knew something about what we were doing, but John was also in the process of inventing superstring theory!
We also knew something about what he was doing and effectively, no one else at Caltech understood that. There was a kind of a mutual support of people right out on the edge of the boundaries of knowledge putting into new areas, pushing slightly different, but we made it. It was exciting to be in a place where we knew that a senior person had a deep understanding of the work that we were creating.
And at that time, if I understand correctly, string theory was sort of roaring back to life, so to speak. And so—
Yes. The second birth of string theory was gestating.
Right, correct. With that second birth of superstring theory, what was the impact of that on your work with supersymmetry and supergravity? How related were the growths of these two areas?
Well first of all, in order to do superstring theory, you actually have to use supergravity. That’s the first thing. You don’t get to superstring theory unless you use supergravity. The two are intimately tied up, but they’re not the same thing. I didn’t actually work on it — but the birth of superstring theory was after I left Caltech. John was in the process of the struggle with Michael Green to actually create this while Warren and I were there — the way to think about it is perhaps in musical compositions.
Everyone is used to the idea that composers go through great angst and periods of uncertainty and struggle as they’re composing great pieces of music or that artists have these same periods where there’s this internal emotional battle going on while they’re creating a great piece of painting. It works like that in mathematical physics, also. There are these periods that you go through where you don’t know what is going to come out. You are operating on your intuition. Is it going work? Maybe it is all going to crash and burn. Maybe it is mathematically inconsistent, but you will not know that until the end of the process. The only thing that is driving you is your intuition about the equations.
So all that was going on with John and Mike Green, a physicist in Cambridge at the time that I was a postdoc there. Warren and I were quite divorced from that work. We were busy creating a deeper understanding of supergravity theories. In my case, also during that period, when I was at Caltech — there are these mathematical objects called forms, which are extraordinarily important in understanding geometry — this a piece of work that I finally understood how to extend these mathematical ideas into the realm where they were consistent in supersymmetry. They were to prove to play a critical role in performing the mathematical calculus operation in the confines of curved superspace with maximum transparency and efficiency.
So like I said, we were busy pushing the boundaries in the supergravity direction, although we were aware that John was struggling with superstring theory there on the other side.
What were some of the major questions that were being raised as a result of this research?
So this is still before the world kind of — by the world, I mean the physics community — discovered more broadly the importance of these mathematical ideas, so we were still a very small community, and especially here in what Warren and I were doing. There were very, very few researchers in the United States who knew essentially anything about supergravity. Most of the experts were in Europe.
So there were a lot of exchanges where we were talking to our colleagues in Europe, you know, exchanging papers and discussions by letters back in those days, that was before email existed. Going to conferences like the one I mentioned that Stephen Hawking organized. And so our influence and the impact of other people’s influence came from that direction. Like I said, almost no one in the United States was working at this. Interestingly enough, our work had been noticed by a research group in the middle of Siberia. This group involving Joseph Buchbinder, Sergei Ketov, Sergei Kuzenko among others created research that was the only other in the world working at the deep level were exploring.
By the time your postdoc came to an end at Caltech, I’m curious if your marketability on the job market had enhanced in the sense that socially, had diversity become more important at this point or was the field that you represented — was it becoming not mainstream, but was it becoming big enough that departments began to realize they needed this kind of representation on their faculty?
A little bit, but certainly not ethnic representation. Diversity issues largely was not on the radar at major physics institutions. There was some lip service, but beyond the level of lip service, my personal assessment was that it was a charade, which was the reason I — well, we’ll come to that — it was a charade. There was some concern. I can’t say it was absolutely zero, but maybe a few tiny degrees above minus two hundred seventy-three point one-five in terms of real commitment.
So when I left Caltech, I applied for postdoc back at MIT and that brought me to the attention of one of the people who invented supergravity, a professor by the name of Daniel Freedman, and that set in motion discussions which ultimately turned into an assistant professorship of applied mathematics. This was shocking to me because that was the first time I had personally seen some evidence that more major institutions recognized the importance of the area in which I was working. Dan himself had only recently been hired at MIT away from Stony Brook. So someone at MIT finally figured out that these super things were going to be important and make the investment to hire one of the world’s leading experts on supergravity.
That had happened. And then, as I said, Dan was responsible for my going back to MIT, but as for some global interest in either diversity or supersymmetry? It hadn’t quite happened yet as I was leaving Caltech and moved to MIT.
And yet, you joined the mathematics department. You did not join the physics department. And so the question there is did that give you some concern that the fields that you were working on were going to be taken more seriously in mathematics and not in physics?
It didn’t give me concern. I think I stated earlier, it had always been my desire to work at the interface of two fields. I knew I could never be a phenomenologist or an experimentalist. I’m just terrible in the laboratory. I learned that as an undergraduate. So it was never on my radar as a direction, as a viable option for my personal career. I always wanted to exist on the boundary of mathematics and physics as for my earlier telling my story, you know, I have an undergraduate degree in both because I did exist at the boundary as an undergraduate student.
So I wasn’t so concerned because for me, it is a simple matter of survival, you know, very Darwinian. I — at that point in my career — needed an institution that would allow me to continue my work, whether that was under the umbrella of a mathematics department or under the umbrella of a physics department, I really didn’t care. I just wanted continue research I saw not being done by anyone else in quite the same way. To get from PhD to faculty appointment — so postdoc appointments are typically like two years and every two years you’re moving. That is a real rat race, I mean it is very disruptive if you’re thinking about long-term attacks on problems and I was by that point.
So the security of an appointment — when you get your assistant professor appointment, that’s like six years because typically it is a six year appointment, and at the end of that period, there’ll be an assessment about whether you get promoted or not. So six years is three times the length of a postdoc and the average postdoc, so that was certainly attractive.
Let me root the question a little more broadly in one of the fundamental intramural debates in physics over the past 40 years, and you know the perspectives are I’ve talked to Shelly Glashow on one side and John Schwarz on the other, and the criticism of course, as you well know, with string theory is that over the years, it has become so abstract and mathematical and so divorced from the physical world that it really doesn’t belong in physics, right? That’s the criticism and of course you know the counter argument to that. I’m curious if over the course of your career in related fields of supergravity and supersymmetry, if that same perspective has been leveled against your work and what your response might be and I’m rooting this in the idea that—well to what extent did you really belong in the mathematics department at MIT and not in the physics department because of how mathematical both your talents and your research interests were?
So let me try to respond in several different ways to that question as you opened up by talking about Shelly. I think was it 15, 20 years ago, there was this television program called The Elegant Universe, and both Shelly and I are people who comment as participants. Brian Green was the major host of the program, based on his book by the same title. These criticisms Shelly made at the time, I think I take not take very seriously. I do now because although Shelly did not formulate his criticism in a way that—to my mind—what was precise enough, I now can make a precise formulation of his criticism and I agree with it.
The criticism has to do — it is a very deep question that, as I said, if you listen to and take it seriously, you’ll eventually work your way to the deep question that he’s raising. It in fact goes to the foundation of physics, all the way back to the question of “demarcation” as formulated by the extraordinary philosopher of science Karl Popper, and Shelly’s question actually points—if you think about it long enough—points back to the work of Karl Popper. That’s what I had worked through in my mind in the years since that time.
And it is a very precise criticism if you think about it long enough. So if you look at string theory as it is practiced by most people in the field today, it is extraordinarily mathematical, precisely as Shelly was criticizing, but what the string theorists will tell you is well these string theories exist in all these other dimensions and we have this process called compactification that allows us to get down to four dimensions. And so there are lots of kinds of compactification. The one that became first widely known was something called Calabi-Yau compactifications after the mathematicians, Eugenio Calabi and Shing-Tung Yau.
So the business of making use of these mathematical tools to bring string theory down to four dimensions began. However, after that about once every four or five years, someone figured out a new way to compactify. Now the problem with that — if you actually watch the equations you’d figure it out — suppose this goes on forever, that every four or five years, someone finds a new way to compact upon these theories. Well, you have no guarantee this process and if you cannot scientifically describe every single possible compactification technique, then you can never be sure string theory was right or wrong because someone could say, “Well, it is just one of the compactifications I don’t know.”
So this is the problem with demarcation and the language of Karl Popper. And so Shelly has got it exactly right in the sense that if your starting point is string theory in higher dimensions—and that is the vast majority of people, where they start—and they appeal to these compactification techniques to say that’s how we predict physics, then that precisely says that’s not science according to Popper. Progress to ameliorate this sort of “incompleteness” would be most welcome from my perspective. By the way, this sort of incompleteness has no relation to Gödel's “incompleteness theorems.”
So Shelly’s criticism is exactly right for that. However, there’s a hole in that argument. The hole is, suppose you could formulate strings directly in four dimensions. If you can apply a general formulation to strings in four dimensions, you don’t need compactification. That means you don’t need to have to figure out every possible way to compactify. In other words, you reduce string theory to being like ordinary theories, like the standard model. In the standard model, you don’t start off knowing the gage group. You use nature to tell you that it is SU3 because SU2 SU1.
If it is possible to describe four-dimensional string theories directly in four dimensions like that, then this whole criticism that starts with Shelly’s question and winds up with Popper’s answer, that whole criticism goes away. And in 1986 and ’87 and ’88, Warren Siegel and I —at that point back together again now at the University of Maryland this time—showed you can formulate four-dimensional string theories using the same language as used in the Standard Model. It means that this philosophic “trap door” might be avoidable.
It means that at least at the philosophical route, there’s another way to actually attack the problem. In recent time there has emerged the concept of the landscape. It seems to resemble the kind of formation Warren Siegel and I formulated in this late 1980s period.
We were not the only ones, by the way. There were three different groups of physicists in the late 1980s who indicated that one could have four-dimensional string theories with no reference at all to higher dimensions. So it is a very complicated situation. You can’t say that Shelly was completely right, as he certainly raised an important challenge to which no one has given a completely satisfactory response to my satisfaction.
I mean, when you looked at his so-called campaign to make the Harvard Department of Physics quote unquote “string-free” right, I guess one way to read that is it doesn’t have to be sort of attack about is this science or is this not science? Maybe an elegant solution to that is exactly what you did at MIT, which is maybe a department of mathematics is the most appropriate place to pursue these kinds of questions. What would be your response to, “Well, no, actually I am a physicist and I did go on to do academic work in departments of physics.” How do you see all of that playing out?
Well, in 2018, I was on a panel, a two-person panel along with a moderator who said, “So as a mathematician...” and my response was, “I have lots of friends who are mathematicians. They would be insulted if they heard you say that.” They make sure I understand that I am a physicist every single day. This was said in jest. I’ve never thought of myself as a mathematician because I know enough about mathematicians to recognize that that is not me.
As a sophomore at MIT, I took a course in what’s called analysis, which is — to me, that’s the real gateway to true mathematics. Most people don’t even know what analysis is. Most physicists don’t do analysis, but if you take a course in analysis at that young age, you come to understand what principle paradigm by which mathematics works, and I know that that is not what I do. So I’ve never thought of myself as a mathematician.
On the other hand, I do tell people I am a “fallen mathematician.” The words “patois,” “pidgin,” or “slang” drawn from linguistics best describes what I do mathematically. But that’s what almost all physicists do. We actually — because we’re concerned with nature and not with the principle paradigms of mathematics — we get to often create mathematics because it is in the quest of trying to understand a problem in nature.
And that’s what I’ve done in my work throughout my career is that I’ve actually created a piece of mathematics, but not because of the sake of mathematics, but because I was pursuing questions in the field of physics. So by the way, MIT ultimately did hire a string theorist in its physics department a couple years after I left, I mean a decade or so after I left, and in fact, most physics departments from the late 80s to the 90s made enormous investments in the number of string theorists hired in physics departments. So history kind of suggests that they were wrong not to consider it a possibility earlier. The string theorist MIT hired was Barton Zwiebach, whose PhD thesis I had supervised while at Caltech.
So Jim, what is your ready-made answer then and today to the criticism, at least of string theorists, that it is too abstract, it is too divorced from physical reality? What is your ready-made answer to demonstrate you are a physicist, your work in supergravity and supersymmetry is undeniably rooted in the physical world? How do you go about making that point?
The strongest pieces of evidence about that are the—is to understand that string theory—I’m not sure if it is John Schwarz who said that string theory is actually a technology. And what that statement implies is that string theory actually is outputting things that are useful for physics. The most striking example of that is what’s something called the AdS/CFT correspondence. It is about two different kinds of string theories, but the ideas born from this have actually been used in QCD and the standard model to get answers that no one could ever figure out how to get before.
The fact that string theory outputs things that you can demonstrably connect to other physics questions besides a quantum theory of gravitation suggests that it too will ultimately solve that physics problem. That’s what I tell young people, who are thinking about string theory is that you must know you’re a physicist, but not be driven by the mathematical elegance of string theory. In the end it is your physicist intuition that is important. String Theory has enormous amounts of mathematical elegance, but think about how what you learned there is applicable to problems that people cannot solve otherwise in the other parts of physics.
This so-called AdS/CFT correspondence is only one example. This has happened on at least three major occasions in the last two decades or so. However, this is not known to the public generally. It is really only known to mathematical physicists, this recurring thing that string theory opens up solutions to problems that you can’t get in physics otherwise.
Were you happy at MIT as an assistant professor? Did you think that there was a possibility you would just pursue a full career in that position and in that department?
No. About two weeks after I got to MIT, I decided I was going to leave. This was for two reasons. First of all — although Dan Freedman was responsible for my hiring there, at that point in his career he did not appreciate the power of the mathematical tools that Warren Siegel and I had developed. While we were at Caltech, we wrote the first comprehensive book on the subject of supersymmetry. Some people call this book the bible of superspace of the subject these days.
We had two other co-authors, Martin Ro?ek, and Marcus Grisaru. What we completed, while I was a postdoc, was to present the most sophisticated mathematical understanding of how to study supersymmetry. We put it in a book so others could learn these techniques, but the other people we were interested in as an audience were faculty and postdocs. It is not a textbook in the conventional sense of the word to many. If you were a postdoc or a faculty member, you could learn lots of very deep mathematical things about supersymmetry.
This book was completed it became my first book in life. When I got to MIT, Professor Freedman, the senior colleague in the research group advocated a different kind of approach… “component fields” to understand supersymmetry. If I can make an analogy, if you go back to Einstein and relativity, the discussion was about space and time and how translations of information have to be made in order for the consistency of the speed of light. That’s the way Einstein thought about it, but one of his former teachers Hermann Minkowski revolutionized that way of thinking. His view implied no, it is not about just a different mathematical perspective. It is a single structure called space time. We call it Minkowski space today. People often think that Einstein invented this concept. He did not, it was Minkowski, and when Hermann’s ideas first were presented to Einstein — and I’m paraphrasing — but he basically said, “I don’t even understand what I did since these mathematicians have gotten hold of it.”
So there were different ways to understand special relativity back at its birth. There were and are different ways to understand supersymmetry. The works Warren, Martin, Marc and I completed were closer to the approach of Minkowski in spirit. Others took the analog of Einstein’s initial reaction and my senior colleague, Prof. Freedman, held that position. In an analogy, he did not appreciate the approach of this thing called superspace that conceptually is similar in spirit to Minkowski space. This is what we developed in the book. It is in the title of our book is Superspace: One Thousand and One Lessons in Supersymmetry.
As I have read the history of Einstein, it was only sometime after first Minkowski presented his concepts of a unified space-time that Einstein, stopped thinking about space and time as separate concepts. They were a part of a single structure and they have “to talk to each other.” There was one of Professor Freedman’s project that involved supersymmetry and he was the master at that. But just like Einstein didn’t seem to value Minkowski’s ideas of space time manifolds, Freedman did not see the advantages that we had developed in superspace. And he made that very clear to me that he just had very serious question for the general area in which I work.
And so, as a young assistant professor I was very aware of that, but that’s not the reason I decided to leave MIT, however. The reason I decided to leave — there were two reasons I decided to leave within two weeks of becoming a professor — one of them was because I had this friend who had just been appointed an assistant professor at Harvard, his name was Luis Alvarez Gaume, he’s a friend to this very day. He’s the director of the Simons Center on Geometry and Physics at the State University of New York in Stony Brook these days.
But Luis had been a student of Dan Freedman’s and he was later hired at Harvard, I got hired at MIT, same time. One day, we were both in Harvard Square Co-op bookstore and we bumped into each other in front of the books on physics. We both, you know, we’re happy, we’re new assistant professors, we each congratulated the other. Then we began a conversation, “Well, gee, what are you going to do when the semester starts?” My answer was, I got to teach two classes this semester, that’s what I’m going to do. Next I said, “Well what are you doing, Luis?” His answer was, “Well, I have a break so I’m going off to Princeton to work with Ed Witten.”
A lightbulb went off in my head. I thought, “You know, this is really interesting because when I come up for tenure down the road, Luis is going to be one of the people that any cohort of rational beings will say, “We’re looking for”—in real estate it is called—"comparables.” I said to myself, “But he has a year off to go to Princeton with no teaching duties and to devote himself to his research with Ed Witten,” who by that time I knew very well. Ed was fantastic. Ed was also a junior fellow, by the way, while I was at Harvard.
I thought, “So Luiz is going to get this one and only chance to work with Ed and I’m going to be teaching two classes at MIT. Let’s run these equations forward.” I tell people physicists know how to ‘integrate equations of motion.’ So, I immediately integrated the equation of emotion, I said, “Hmm, sure doesn’t look fair to me.” Next I went to the chair of the math department and talked about this and his response was something like, “Well, you know, if you feel this is overburdening, we can make some kind of special distinction for you and we’ll give you less of a teaching load and some more of an administrative mode.” It was clear that this individual had no understanding of what I was saying but was looking at me through what — these days — is called a deficit model. To him I was deficit as a potential faculty member. And so I’m like —
And you picked up on this right away. You saw what was happening.
Most African Americans are sensitive to this sort of thing because unless we learn how to do this efficiently and early, we don’t survive. It is like an evolutionary process.
So I was like, “OK. I understand who you are and my position in this department.” I started thinking about, “Fine. I know who you are, and I know who I am. My job is as a physicist and a creative mathematical physicist independent of what you think about me.” That sort of warrior mentality I talked about — it asserted itself. So two weeks into the job, I’m thinking, “I’m getting out of this place. I just got to figure out how to do it.”
The other thing that —
This is more about the people and not the department. You’re not saying necessarily, “I have to get out of a math department and into a physics department.” This is a comment on the people. So theoretically, the right people could have led you to another mathematics department under the right circumstances.
It was about the culture. I wouldn’t say it was about the people. It was about the culture of the mathematics department as I encountered at my alma mater. In fact, at some point as I confronted this, I actually went to the dean of the college and asked about the possibility of actually moving to the physics department, and in no uncertain terms, I was given to understand that was not a possibility. And so it reinforced me — for me — the commitment to get out of this place — to use a recent expression — where the election was rigged. So, I was not going to go into a rigged election, a rigged evaluation process.
The other thing that was fortunate for me in those days—this is the early 80s—is I used to spend my summers in Italy at the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. ICTP, as it is called, is still in existence today and it was created by a Nobel laureate. In fact, it was one of the Nobel laureates that shared the prize with Steve Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow. I had met the ICTP Director. Dr. Abdus Salam , in 1978 as recall. For the first time I had been invited to come to a conference at the ICTP and make a presentation.
This part is kind of funny to me. So when I first met Abdus Salam and after my talk, he invited me up to his office at some point, maybe a day or two later. He opened up the conversation by s — or somewhere near the beginning of the conversation — saying, “I didn’t know that you were a Black physicist.” And in my mind — because of who I am — I thought, “What did you want me to do, use Ebonic mathematics to convey that message? Should I be writing those equations in Ebonics?” I didn’t say it, of course, but that’s what went through my head — like a “smart aleck kid.”
The point was that Abdus began to mentor me when I didn’t know I needed mentoring. He made sure that I could come to the ICTP — and I had spent about four or five consecutive summers in Trieste. Trieste’s very close to Venice and but the thing that he understood about me, which I did not understand about myself, was that I by hook, crook, luck, or providence, that I had gotten myself through a system that almost never lets a person like me achieve that, but that I was not conscious of what it was that I could potentially do in the future to add my voice to the field.
He said to me something very curious — I don’t know if that was the occasion or a later occasion, but he said to me — he had always been interested in seeing more — and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t remember the exact sentence — but the concept was he had always been interested in seeing more Black people in physics because he was convinced that something like jazz would appear.
Now when he made the statement to me, I was totally — I didn’t even know what he was trying to say. You don’t look at Nobel Laureate physicist and say you’re full of beans, right? I’m trying to figure out what is this guy saying to me? Eventually I figured it out about 10 years later and he was making an argument about diversity. It is an argument that I tell people, “Look. Let’s look at music.” In some ways, music is like theoretical physics. There’s symbolic representation, where you write scores and what have you, but then you have the actual performance of the music and the conceiving of the music, the composition of the music.
Imagine a world where only European derivative forms of music was practiced. It could be quite elegant, beautiful, and accomplished. But are we poorer in our world because we also have allowed principally African forms of music to also propagate, be practiced, and developed? I don’t think we’re musically poor. For many years that’s the thing to which I think Abdus was alluding. If you look at human creativity, it is often embedded in a very bizarre and weird way in folklore and the culture from which an individual arises.
This is even true in classical European music. If you’re someone who likes classical music, you know the difference between Satie, de Bussy on one hand or Grieg and Sibelius on the other. Tchaikovsky and Mozart are different yet still. I mean you can tell the difference in the music. It is all music, but it is different. This difference, typically in classical music, can be traced to the folk music that the people who compose the classical music listened to when they were young.
So there is a cultural imprint on something even within classical European music, you can see this cultural imprint in the diversity and richness of the field. And that’s the thing Abdus was telling me, which I did not understand for a decade, about what could happen in physics.
The idea there is that diversity isn’t just lip service, that different worldviews and different perspectives is actually good for the science.
That’s what he was saying, but he said it in a way that puzzled me for a decade.
Jim, I want to come back to something that jumped out at me the last time we spoke, and that is it was only until you got to the University of Maryland that you felt fully validated as a scientist, as an African American. Did you appreciate what made Maryland special before you got there, or that was sort of an intellectual reckoning long-time coming?
It was not a long time coming. Let me talk about the transition, which only again over a decade later I said, “Wow, they were ahead of me.” So, when I was being recruited as an associate professor — well, first of all, they gave me tenure right off the bat. So, two years at MIT, I immediately transitioned to Maryland with a tenured associate professorship that had been totally out of my reach in life at that point. I just knew that I could do physics as long as I was able and interested in the rest of my life.
So that’s a level of validation. Up until then, it was all conditional. You may or may not be permitted to pursue this field the rest of your life until you get tenure or the equivalent position in the corporate world — you know, in commerce you can become a company scientist or a corporate scientist. At that point, you know our environment from that point onward is going to allow us to practice these skills and talents that we think we have as long as we wish to do that. So that’s the first level of validation.
At Maryland, while they were recruiting me from MIT, they did something very clever and unusual. As a young perspective associate professor in a historically well-developed department and university, it is not common to usually meet with the president of the university, but I did. It was a gentleman by the name of John B. Slaughter who was the President of the University of Maryland and the past Director of the US National Science Foundation. He is also an African American by the way, and had served as the Director of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington. This while the University of Maryland was recruiting me, someone did the clever thing of saying, “Let’s get the University of Maryland-College Park President involved.”
During my recruitment trip, I spent about half an hour in his office, and one of the things that absolutely clinched my leaving MIT was the fact that not only his presence, but the statement that Maryland was genuinely committed to diversity. In our last presentation, I think I told you that to this very day, MIT seems to possess this ambiguous feeling because to me it is fallen into the trap of thinking diversity and excellence are in opposition. That statement made at Maryland College Park essentially guaranteed that I would leave MIT, though I had been pondering such a step almost since I arrived at MIT.
In what ways did this presidential assurance reflect itself in what was actually happening in College Park? Had you seen that or was your recruitment at the vanguard of this effort?
Well, I didn’t know about College Park beforehand. One of the really weird things about my coming to College Park is I only understood that they were an excellent department as I was being recruited there. In some sense, one can understand that. My education had been as an undergraduate and graduate student at MIT, followed by postdoctoral appointments at Harvard followed by Caltech. I was aware of Ivy League presence in physics, but not so much aware of the large public research institutions. “How good are they in physics?” was a paramount question for me to settle.
I was astounded on my recruitment trip when I compared the physics departments at MIT and Caltech compared the physics department at Maryland. It was like having a little piece of MIT moved with me so I’m like “Oh boy, I can certainly live and be productive here.” This feels like home again, right? This feels like being a student again, but with the added reinforcement that this institution is looking to me to be the best possible physicist I can become. They’re not betting against me is the way that I thought about it for the first time in my life, they were not betting against me.
So the story at Maryland is that over the last couple of decades has been very interesting. It achieved one of the highest percentages of African American students of any major university in this country. In terms of faculty diversity it has been a little bit better than most institutions, but not a whole lot better.
How much better did Maryland get over the course of your tenure there?
At the faculty or student level?
Both. Well, I think they’re really likely one of the highest non-minority institutions in terms of percentage of African American enrolment. So they got quite good at that. In terms of physics faculty and productivity the University of Maryland College Park has remained highly ranked globally to my best recollection.
And what were your impressions—I mean, you had been on a grand tour of the most elite physics programs in the country, right? Where did you see Maryland Department of Physics ranking among them at the time that you entered?
Well, it was not like being at MIT and similar private university physics departments. However, in the quality of the science that my concern, I felt a comparable quality was present. Ranking systems ebb and flow. There is one that is very prominent now that originates in China and if you look at their number one, it is Stanford or MIT in physics, not the whole university. However, interestingly enough, Maryland is in the top 20 in the world in physics. So, when I went to Maryland, as I said, it astounded me there was this high-quality physics department I had never before heard about ae I had been plopped into an Ivy League bubble and not known that physics happens at a comparable level at other institutions.
Berkeley I knew about because it is not formally in the Ivy league, but certainly had a long tradition of great physics there. Similarly, the University of Chicago is not formally in the Ivy League, or is it? Who knows? I don’t know. But for the Research institutions like Berkeley and Maryland, they are highly ranked and for my own personal assessment, even as a young assistant professor, I thought, “These places are ridiculously good.”
Now you came in with tenure, that was part of the deal, part of the recruitment.
Now in this long process of looking for job security, bouncing from one postdoc to the other to an untenured position, in what ways was tenure liberating, both personally and professionally?
I knew I could do physics the rest of my life. That’s what I wanted to do. I also knew I would be able to provide for a family because I wouldn’t have—I mean if everything proceeded as normal, I wouldn’t have to go out once every few years and find a way to provide for a family. So, at that level — I mean, there are people that marry and have children in graduate school, but I just thought for me personally that that was just too risky a thing to do, to put other people’s lives into that kind of uncertainty was not something I was going to do.
Did you find that Maryland — going back to the very interesting observation you made at Harvard and elsewhere — that there were people that were operating on a certain scientific level where identity issues were sort of below the fray? Did you get the sense that there were colleagues at Maryland that you’d be able to interact with at that level?
Immediately and concretely.
Like who would you put at that level?
So, let me give contrasting examples. When I was an assistant professor at MIT in the group headed by Professor Freedman, one of the things I wanted to learn was how to write grant proposals, a very important skill if you’re planning to become a professor. So I asked him about, “OK, so I know you have a grant, can I have a hand in writing a part of that?” I mean response it was not an impolite blow-off, it was like, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll ask you to write a few paragraphs, submit them to me, and we’ll get the proposal with it.” So in my internal dialog, it was totally like, “Scram kid, you bother me.” Right?
When I got to Maryland, it was exactly the opposite. I found senior colleagues that when I voiced this desire, said, “OK. Come into the office. Let me show you how to do this.” So yes.
Did you take on graduate students right away?
And what was that experience like for you, finally having your own graduate students that it would be your responsibility to mentor and usher them onto the next stage of their career?
Well, not what you would think. To begin, the first time I mentored — well, this is my 48th consecutive year of teaching. I’ve taught continuously since 1972, including some summers. Of course there are also term time instructional assignment these days, but in every year I have taught. Due to all these circumstances, by the time that I was appointed a professor at MIT in 1984, I had been teaching for eight years. I felt perfectly comfortable teaching undergraduate students, as I had mentored my first thesis B.S. level student during that time.
While I was a postdoc at Harvard, there was a young African American physics student at MIT, an undergraduate, wanted to write a thesis and he approached me about being his advisor. I believe he had an “official” mentor at MIT, but I’m the person who actually guided his thesis. The young man’s name was Melvin Brown, and I can’t remember which exactly was the year he graduated (sometime between 1977-1980), but his thesis was related to quantum field theory and supersymmetry and I served his actual advisor. That was the first experience in my career of guiding a physics dissertation.
That process was very much like guiding a graduate student because the subject about which he wrote his thesis on was actually a subject that a graduate thesis could have been written about. So I wasn’t really very fearful of taking on graduate students. My next such experience occurred during the period of 1982-1984 while I was at Caltech. A young student whose formal mentor was Murray Gell-Mann, needed an ‘unofficial advisor,’ as Prof. Gell-Mann was busier than ever include a dramatic person challenge. So in my final year as a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech, I supervised the PhD dissertation of Barton Zwiebach. Barton would later become a tenured physics professor at MIT and the author of what I regard as the best textbook introducing string theory for the seriously interested student.
In my two years as a faculty member at MIT, something really similar had happened, even though I was in the math department, two African American students in the physics department effectively became my graduate students with me guiding them in the work for their PhD theses and when I left MIT in 1984, I passed them on — they acquired “official advisors” in the physics department — but I continued to guide their actual PhD theses works. By 1984, the internet had come into existence so we could trade equations back and forth for the first time in a very effective way and I was able to mentor those students. Thus. in 1986, there were two young men of the African diaspora — one was named Roger Brooks and another Fuad Mohammed — who were awarded their doctoral degrees. I also actually co-authored some research papers with them. In 1986, they both got their PhDs and I was their advisor a couple hundred miles away in Maryland. They were my graduate students, but with other people signing bureaucratic paperwork at MIT. As only about ten African Americans received doctoral degrees in the US that you, twenty percent of the national output in this demographic was the result of my mentoring.
Now that you were rooted and you knew that you could do physics in the long-term, was your sense that you took on graduate students — African American graduate students — who might not have pursued advanced learning in physics if not for someone like you in their life?
That’s what they’ve said.
You can’t say one way or the other?
No, they’re probably right to my suspicions. It is not that I have had an overwhelming number of African American students. I have to look at my resume to figure out how many total graduate students to whom I’ve served as advisor. It is likely approaching something like the high 20s, maybe low 30s. Of those — let me think for a second. African American student PhD theses that I’ve mentored — the two that I’ve mention to you, Melvin was a B.S. degree. At Maryland I have had three African American PhD students Willie Merrell, Daniel Chapman, and Isaac Chappell among my thirty or so total students have been African Americans.
And obviously it is impossible to know for sure, but it is possible that some or all of them might not have done this if they didn’t have you as a mentor.
For some of them, that’s absolutely true. Yes, this has been explicitly stated by one or the others of them.
Did you find yourself giving them different advice than you would give other graduate students?
Not in terms of the technical skills and expertise they would have to develop, because, you know, if you are telling people to get in the race, then you better teach them how to run. You better teach them how to run as fast as anyone else that’s getting involved. So you can’t slack off on the technical route. That has got to be what I do for all my students. For a young person to become a theoretical physicist is analogous to training a young person to become an Olympic athlete. You do no one a favor by lowering your efforts or expectations.
So in the technical training I give my students, there’s no difference at all because if somehow I did more for my African American students than my other students, then I’m actually practicing racism. That is inimical to my internal belief system. So, I have to go flat out in training all of my students in the same quality and level in terms of technical achievement, expertise and skills. What’s different for me I found — for both my African American students and my female students — is I feel a responsibility to tell them about what I have seen as how either their ethnicity or gender is going likely to play out in their careers. That’s what’s different.
Jim, I want to ask a broad question about your undergraduate teaching career at Maryland. So, you mentioned before you were coming out of this Ivy League Northeast bubble and in a certain way, you can include Caltech in that, at least from an elite perspective. Now at a public, large university like Maryland, the aptitude range of undergraduates that you’re going to experience is going to be much wider than it would be at a place like Harvard or MIT at Caltech.
In other words, I would assume that the best undergraduates that you might encounter at Maryland might be just as good as those you would encounter at a place like Harvard or MIT, but they just decided to stay at Maryland for any number of personal reasons, but on the other side, on the lower end, you probably encountered students who were not nearly as well-prepared academically as what you might encounter teaching at a place like Harvard or MIT.
And so the question is, with that broader range of students — both in terms of diversity, socioeconomic background, educational preparation — in what ways did you see that as a challenge for teaching and in what ways did you see that as an opportunity?
Well first of all, my answer is probably going to be surprising to you. Well, let me start with part of your question. It is absolutely true the best undergraduate students I met at Maryland were as good as the best students I have ever met at MIT and Harvard and Caltech, almost without exception. That had to be a necessary condition for me to move, right? Because as an associate professor, it is still true you rely on your graduate students to help you drive your career, and if you don’t have that quality of help, you are likely to suffer in your own aspirations.
So it is absolutely true that the best students that I met at Maryland — about which I was ‘figuratively was taking the temperature’ as I was looking at going into the institute — and I convinced myself that that was true — and over my 30 year long career in Maryland — to my satisfaction, that condition was certainly met in my personal assessment. Let me start there.
The biggest difference that I found between students at MIT and — I’m sorry, let me make the distinction. There’s actually a big difference between undergraduate and graduate programs at Ivy League institutions, in fact, a shockingly large difference to me. So, in fact, when we were undergraduate at MIT in physics, we had friends at Harvard in physics and we used to laugh about what they did, quite frankly, because it seemed clear to us that it was not at the same level of what we were doing.
And over the years, the perception that — even I’ve heard from some faculty at Ivy League institutions recently — was that at least in physics, the top undergraduates at the large public Research Institutions (RI’s) probably overall are better, which is kind of a surprise to hear, but that’s certainly my assessment too. If you do some general ranking in physics — I can’t say all disciplines — but in physics, it is hard to say that the Ivy League undergraduate program and students are that much stronger or stronger at all than the ones in the physics programs at the large RI’s.
Graduate school was different. And graduate school had some of the Ivies and that of course includes — when I say Ivies here I mean Ivies plus, so Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, Chicago, and a few more etc. who are not formally part of the Ivies, but culturally, they’re all the same cohort of institutions. They share the ethos about physics. Then in specific parts of theoretical physics the universe is expanded again, such as with parts of the UC system and the State University of New York-Stony Brook. The graduate programs there are comparable to what I’ve seen the best anywhere, sometimes in specific areas.
But again, that statement does not apply in a blanket matter in the Ivies either. I have spent now four years and here at Brown and although we have high-quality programs, they’re not as large as, for example, Maryland. Maryland has a huge program with excellence in force across many domains. In my experience and observations find excellence perhaps in one domain or so, and many of them, or in a few domains, but not in the broad range that you’ll find at Berkeley or Maryland or places like that.
So there are these differences in the institutions, and two decades ago, I concluded that if one went to school in a physics program at any of the top 50 or so ranked institutions, the quality of your education will not be substantially different at any of them, with the right choice of courses. That’s my own personal judgment. There’s a huge plateau in physics where—of course and these were undergraduate education—to me it looks pretty much flat with very small deviations. So that’s what my assessment is of undergraduate physics education in our country.
Now in terms of the diversity of the undergraduate student body at Maryland, I assume you encountered far more African American undergraduates than you would have at any of the other schools you’ve been associated with?
That’s a true statement, but not in physics.
Not in physics?
Not in physics.
Did you ever see that you were well-positioned to sort of correct those trends or did you want to?
I made the attempt. Once I made the attempt to in the middle to late nineteen eighties and it was not successful. It was not successful for the students — because I essentially went out and recruited and it was not successful for my physics department either. So, I got burned. It is funny because I’ve been thinking about this in the decades since about why didn’t it work? By that time, I had been at Maryland 15 years. I had made a judgment that there was nothing in the physics department that was a structural impediment for these students to be successful. I actually went out and recruited a group of African American students and we just did not have success in completing.
We’ll come back to this as we talk about your more current work and what’s happening with regard to the TEAM-UP report and APS, but at the time, what were your snap judgments as to not only why were there these problems of underrepresentation among African Americans and why would your efforts — I mean, I can’t imagine a better person better positioned to take these problems head on — why would you not have met with success in this?
So I have thought about it and I believe I understand a part of the problem. Well, first of all let’s get one factor — you know, the quality of education that African Americans largely and especially in the science in this country is not comparable to the quality of education for European Americans that would have interest in physics. It begins with the way that public education is financed in the US. That foundation is property taxes usually. Two facts are relevant; the average African American child attends public schools, and the average African American family possesses about fifteen percent of the wealth of the average European American family. It is not rocket science to deduces there will be huge disparate funding gaps in the financial investment in the children of these distinct ethnic groups. On top of that the number of high schools, available to the children of these average families, that offer physics is also very different.
That’s number one. So you’re dealing with, relativity speaking, a much smaller pool of candidates that — the ratio is not just the same as for one racial demographic to another demographic in the general population. The ratio of who obtains a sufficient high school preparation to enter physics (and in the aftermarket) is a number that is extraordinarily small for kids with high quality education.
So, part of it really is the background with which that students arrive, but a larger part of it, in my suspicion, has to do with this effect that’s sometimes called the “cohort” effect. Namely that if you really want a successful program, it is kind of a critical mass of students, African American students especially, that you need in order for them to form a community that’s successful. Looking back at my own career, that’s something I should have understood because in 1969 when I came to MIT as a freshman, there was a sufficient number of us minority that we could form a self-supporting community.
So that’s something that’s talked about in the TEAM-UP report, and I’ve lived it and I’ve seen it. Both being part of it as well as not understanding that lesson and not having success as a result.
I want to come back to your research at this time, but I think it is a good opportunity to talk about your experiences at Howard University. So the first question there is in attempting—there is a diverse student body at Maryland. You do have this attempt to increase representation among African Americans in physics, it is not working.
I wonder if one of your takeaways from your time at Howard that perhaps, at least for physics, maybe a historically black college or university might be — at this stage in history, not 1969 at MIT, but where we are in the late 80s and early 90s — perhaps a historically black college is the best place for an African American student to pursue a degree in science.
David, I prefer not to address this issue. And one day in the future, this is something I plan to write about. It is a very complicated issue and anything I try to do in a short form would not do the discussion justice. The answer as I understand it is complicated.
So I have nothing to say there.
That’s fine. Let me ask about the opportunity that came about for you to teach at Howard. How did that happen?
OK. In 1990 I was invited to serve as the chair of an external visiting committee looking at the physics department at Howard University. Physics departments almost always have committees for self-evaluation and external visits followed by a report containing analysis and recommendations. So that was a responsibility I took on as a visiting committee chair. It was the first time I really looked very carefully at the Howard University Department of Physics and Astronomy. Even though I had started in 1984 in Maryland and I knew a few colleagues there before that time, and had visited the department, this was the first time to take a careful look. In fact, one of the undergraduates with whom I attended MIT as an undergraduate, who later completed graduate study at Stanford followed by a stint outside the US and finally a faculty appointment at Howard, is a gentleman by the name of Professor James Lindesay.
Finally, I had the opportunity to look at the department as a chair of the visiting committee. So, we could examine the department, put together a report, submit it to the dean. Howard was in the process of onboarding a new university president, Dr. Franklyn Jenifer who was arriving. He had made as a major issue that he wanted was to increase the capacity of the university to deal with STEM subjects. So the dean to whom I submitted the report to — together with this colleague of mine that had been an undergraduate at MIT — approached me and said, “Jim, we have a chair search coming out up in physics. We’d like you to put in your name.”
They explained the new president was coming in and the statements he made about increasing STEM capacity on the campus. Also, they added some other facts that were interesting, this push to increase STEM capacity would likely mean not just a new chairperson for the physics department, but new faculty lines to build capacity in the department. All of that intrigued me, but it was also Jim Lindesay. We had a moment to reflect back to the days we were both MIT undergraduates and both in CCTEP. We formed a small community with a decent number of us to form a self-supporting community at MIT, and Jim was in that community. The student whose undergraduate thesis I mentioned, Mel Brown, was in that community.
In fact, we had this joke at MIT, a room at MIT in the floor under the location of the Center for Theoretical Physics (CTP), we African American students basically petitioned to get access as it was not apparently being used for other purposes. So we thought of it as our own version of MIT’s CTP. where we would gather and work out problems and, you know, it was a place of community. So one of the debates that we used to have in that facility was what, as an African American, do you do when you get your PhD?
A number of things; you get your PhD, you master research skills and you become a faculty member at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). Some of us said no. You get your PhD and you go to a majority institution and you begin to learn how the system really works, and at an appropriate point in your career, if you’re still interested in making a difference in the African American community, then you should try to make a transition at that point.
I had accepted that argument, so when I went to Howard, I was implementing the thing I had argued about when I was at MIT as a graduate student as part of the support of development for the community. So I had been primed to do this, in substance. I had been thinking, 15 or 20 years of my thinking, and so we made the transition. In 1991, I took a leave of absence from Maryland. I then served for two years as the chair in the physics department at Howard University.
This wasn’t just visiting. You were really trying out to see if you were going to make a permanent switch. This was in the realm of possibility.
That’s exactly right. This was not a lark in my mind. You know, in quantum mechanics, a particle investigates all of its possibilities. So like a quantum mechanical particle, I was investigating possibilities.
Jim, I want to ask, in thinking about this seriously, how much of it was about that this might be the best move for you personally and how much of it was about this was the best move for the broader changes that you wanted to see in the physics community?
It was the latter because it was definitely not the best move for me in terms of my personal and professional career. The resources are much more limited and so it was really not about my career. I thought I could make a difference for not just the African American community of physics, but for our total physics community nationally. I thought, going there, I could make a difference.
Why? Why could Howard — at least theoretically — have made a bigger impact, a bigger difference than being at a place like Maryland?
Because since I had spent — so we’re talking about ’91 or so — about 14 years in the physics community in the country learning about the traditions, its habits, the way it operates, funding — one of the things about segregation is that people who are segregated against do not have opportunity to learn these things. If you’re going to try to make a difference — as we used to argue even at MIT — you actually need to know how the system works. If you’re isolated from the system, you just don’t have access to this knowledge.
Well, I had been part of trained in how our larger physics community works and so I had hoped that that would have allowed me to make a difference at Howard University because Howard has fantastic school spirit. I realized that in that spirit — when I was doing this assessment of the department was blown away especially by the students. So, to me, the potential was there.
During the two years I was at Howard, however, we did make some progress. We fought a very long pitch battle with the Department of Energy, which is a series of stories by itself, but to get an affiliation between Howard University and the Argonne National Laboratory where there is located a multi-disciplinary science and engineering center and accelerators. At the height of this battle, we were told, “There are no Affirmative Action beamlines at the laboratory.” That was fine with me as I had come looking for the usual type. Perhaps one day I will more about this period in my career. When I went to Howard, in fact, we were already thinking about poaching an African American scholar from Bell Labs, a gentleman by the name of Walker Lowe. In fact, we were successful in that.
So again, it is bringing this outside expertise into an HBCU. So we were in the process of implementing this strategy and some of the outright racist pushback that we got from DOE, as I said, is another set of stories that maybe one day I’ll comment about, but we were successful in the end. And in fact, I was only at Howard for two years, and this babble took longer than two years.
I was on a plane to Europe before I found out we had won because I was reading Black Enterprise magazine on an airplane crossing the Atlantic when I read a story wherein there was announced the largest research grant that the Department of Energy had ever made to an HBCU had been initiated and it was this thing that I had been fighting for two years, so we actually won that.
As I said on other occasions, there’s a whole bunch of just ridiculous “antebellums,” the types of stories about the racism that I saw directed toward HBCUs, but we won that one. Additionally, I personally took the lead in creating a new research center at Howard. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had a request for proposals (RPF) out for creating essentially what the National Science Foundation describes as Centers of Excellence. This was the NASA version of the Centers of Excellence.
They wanted to create that specifically at HBCUs and so I organized a symposium on campus where essentially what I was looking at it is not just the capacity within the physics department, but the capacity across all the STEM disciplines on campus, to try to create a coherent program where we would put in a proposal that could succeed in this competition. I led the creation of a two-day symposium held in the major auditorium on campus. Faculty members from across the campus were invited to make presentations where I, and a few of my colleagues, were making notes. There were other people in the audience watching and being made aware of some of the latent research on campus.
What I perceived from this activity was that there was a sufficient aligning of skills in the physics department, the chemistry department, and the engineering department to write a grant around the study of atmospheric science. So, though I am not an atmospheric scientist, but the training that I had about grant-writing and managing, I brought to bear in creating this proposal. And so we created the Center for the Study of Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Atmospheres. (CSTEA). It was all around atmospheric science, but the extraterrestrial meant stars, but in those three departments, there was a coherent program that I could put together.
The proposal was successful and I was the first director of the Howard University CSTEA . I was very proud of that accomplishment because I had moved completely out of my own comfort zone in terms of expertise as a mathematical physicist after all, right? “You don’t want me in your laboratory, trust me, you don’t want me in your laboratory.” But yet, that apprenticeship that I had served at MIT, Harvard, Caltech, and Maryland came to bear and we put together a program which exists to this very day, by the way.
So those are the kinds of infrastructure-building things that I went to Howard as what I wanted to accomplish, but in the end, I returned to Maryland because the administration at Howard did not live up to some commitments that had been personally made to bring me there. And earlier, you heard me say that I believe in the reciprocity that our law and institution to hold me to its standards, but then the reciprocity is that I hold them to mine. If you don’t meet my requirements, I don’t — you know, I try to find the possibility to achieve my circumstances. And so that’s what I did in returning to Maryland.
Jim, I want to ask, your experience at Howard—ever since you left high school, you were operating in vastly white majority environments, right? What did you learn about yourself during your time at Howard that you might not have ever learned if you had not had that experience? Both in terms of teaching predominantly African American undergraduates, faculty meetings, graduate students. You weren’t that different at Howard. And so I’m curious what did you learn about yourself that you might never have realized had you just stayed at Maryland?
You know, I’m not sure I learned much of anything about me. I learned about the environment, certainly I think in our earlier conversations, I was the past president of the National Society of Black Physicists, so I had many friends at HBCUs and had visited campuses prior to my going to Howard, but teaching at Howard—I guess for me the bright stars were the quality of the students is just, like I said—of course you meet students who are terribly under-prepared and so you have to try to figure out how to meet their needs, but the quality of the best students in terms of THE quality of mind was so uplifting. I saw so much of that there.
I was just extraordinarily happy to try to be a doorway through such students walk to a brighter future. This has always been my philosophy about teaching is that I should be a door through which students can walk to a bright future of their own creation. That’s one of my fundamental motivations. Seeing that for the largest number — certainly in terms of concentration of African American students — was the first time this had happened in my life, being at a HBCU. So that was very rewarding and fulfilling.
One of the other interesting things is that that was the first time in my life the majority of my really great students were female was at Howard University. So that alerted me that something was going to change in the general society because it often turns out that the African American community is kind of a warning bell about trends that are going on in society, and it certainly lived up in that case where we see, of course, much more gender equitable environment in physics than we did in 1991 and ’92 when I was at Howard, but I saw it among my students first at Howard and not any place else. So those were wonderful things to see developing.
The big difference that I’ve seen in physics departments is not so much ethnically, but it is about size. Large physics departments have a culture that’s really different from small physics departments, and that was emphasized for me again at Howard because we had 14 faculty members around that size, so that’s relatively small, but that meant that we had at least many multiple of 14 in terms of opinions about any particular question.
Were you welcomed back to Maryland with open arms? Was there some concern that you had turned your back on them?
No, because you see, someone there — and I name that someone below — there in College Park “had integrated my equations of motion” and had a sufficient amount of accurate information about what was the most likely outcome and that’s why I was permitted to take the leave of absence. It was Brit Kirwan who did that calculation. So, you know, when I came back, he was not surprised.
And back on the research side, what’s the status of supersymmetry and supergravity during these years?
OK. So, it is interesting that you should ask that question. So, this is like ’91, ’92 — those are the academic years that I was at Howard — and the interest in string theory was still very high. Young string theorists were being hired very prolifically by physics departments. Even Harvard and MIT had kind of figured out that string theory and supersymmetry were good things in which to invest. They were hiring some of these young people, a few years after ‘I was on the market.’ No one approached me about coming back, which was just fine. I was having fun doing what I was doing at College Park and was quite pleased with my physics.
In fact, at Howard during this period, I had a postdoc by the name of Hitoshi Nishino and we wrote a series of papers that are among — for me — works that to this very day are among the ones I’m most proud in my career because we anticipated things that, a decade later, the rest of the physics community would figure out were important. There is a class of theories called supersymmetic Chern-Simons theories. Hitoshi and I actually wrote the first papers in this area with extended supersymmetry when I was at Howard University. Over a decade would pass before other researchers “discovered” these equations. These days, these equations are known as the ABJM (an acronym taken the first letters of the last names of these discoverers; Ofer Aharony, Oren Bergman, Daniel Jafferis, and Juan Maldacena) Model.
So we were ahead of the curve on those things. String theory had not quite broken into the public consciousness, but it was certainly very powerful and dominant among theoretical physicists. That started from a conference around 1985 at Argonne. There had been this meeting and it was sort of like the Woodstock of theoretical physics. String theory certainly burst into people’s consciousness and so that was still sort of true in 1992 and 1993, the after-effect of that.
Did you stay with these topics throughout your tenure at Maryland? Did you take on new fields of interest?
I took on new fields of interest when I returned to Maryland. Let me think. When I returned to Maryland, which was 1993, I started teaching again, graduate, undergraduate courses, but in terms of physics, I started thinking about the fact that there are some problems that at that point had not been solved. A few years later, I was appointed the Toll Professor of Physics. I was an endowed professor, and as an endowed professor, the endowment really allowed me to do research that I didn’t have to explain to other people.
Due to that freedom, I began pursuing questions that nobody else in the field was investigating. Some of these questions have not been resolved to this very day, but I started looking at them using techniques no one had ever thought about using before. We started using graph theory, which is a topic in computer science and mathematics, and we found the equations that most people think about as differential equations can be thought about as networks, the kind of networks that computer scientists study.
We gave these networks a name, calling them adinkras, which is a word that comes from west Africa—if you look many places in my publication record, you’ll see this strange word. In those early days, along with my first female (and to that date, only) PhD student named Lubna Rana, we had begun studying supersymmetry and noticed that in every such system of equations we could study, these unexpected matrices were somehow buried within the equations. So that alerted me, there’s something interesting here.
That all started in that period after my return to Maryland. We didn’t fully understand the importance of adinkras as networks until a decade later, but the first realization of this structure was actually in that period.
I asked you before about computers, was this new interest influenced by all of the advancements that had been made in computational technology to that point?
No, not at that point because computers still were not powerful enough to really provide a lever for progress in the kinds of questions I was interested in answering. As I said, we saw the structure, but we did not anticipate that it would lead to computers — information theory, and technology types of questions and methods for attacking forcefully the questions that arose.
Now, is graph theory a natural outgrowth from your previous interests or did you see this as a new endeavor all together?
The graph theory interests happened a decade later around 2005. It was totally unexpected until it happened. To this, I owe a great debt of gratitude to another physicist, a gentleman by the name of Michael Faux. In 2005, I was in the country of Georgia, a couple of hundred miles north of Tehran, Iran attending a conference. Since the Internet connections were good, every day I was following my usual habit of checking what were the latest ideas that posted at the arXiv, which as you probably know, is the virtual location where the theoretical physics committee holds its daily communal conversation.
One day, I saw a paper by Michael and his collaborator Donald Spector. It was strangely indicative of those matrices discovered about ten years earlier. Thus, I sent him a electronic message saying, “Gee, this is funny. This is kind of like something I found.” Michael and I then began a conversation via e-mail sending questions back and forth and answers-&-answers. Michael kept a fairly detailed set of notes. About six weeks later, I was in a west African country of either Benin or Mali and our questions had evolved into a research paper.
So, it was with that research paper — that’s the first time this word adinkra appears on my resume — and the reason we used it was actually due to Michael. He was in the Czech Republic the entire time we were sending these email questions back and forth. Michael wasn’t even in America as I was to learn subsequently. In fact, he was later to remind me that the two of us had met previously at a conference in the middle of Siberia, Russia! In those years, he was quite a world traveler.
Though he is not African American, he had stepped onto the African continent a decade before I had ever gone there. So he knew a lot about African culture. When we finally discovered these networks that had graphical representations, we were looking for names for them and Michael suggested the name. Part of the reason he may have come up with this was because he knew I was in Africa at the time. That is the story of how these networks and graph theory mathematical objects I research acquired their name.
What has been exciting about graph theory? In what ways has it moved the broader field forward?
Well, some people would argue it hasn’t. We think it has because we’ve been able to do things that other people have not or cannot do. The strongest indication occurred in four papers written in the 2019-2020 period along with my first PhD students at Brown University, Ms. Sze-Ning (Hazel) Mak and Ms. Yangrui Hu.
The most complicated form of supergravity theories is called “eleven dimensional supergravity.” As this name suggests, it is an extension of the type of mathematical theory I began studying as a graduate student. It was created in 1978 by two French physicists, Eugen Cremmer and Barnard Julia. Strings are intrinsically quantum mechanical theories. Since supergravity theories are not a complete version of string theory, their relation to such quantum theories is not as direct as one might imagine.
According to the approach to quantum theory created by two Nobel recipients, Paul A. M. Dirac and Richard P. Feynman, when a symmetry like supersymmetry is present, it is at a minimum convenient to note its consistency with a formulation known as the “Direc-Feynman Path Integral.” This was not true of any of the original constructions of supergravity theories. Later extensions of these original constructions were finally shown to possess this property. The was first shown by the German physicist, Peter Breitenlohner in 1977 for the original supergravity theories created by the two separate research groups of Ferrara, Freedman, and van Nieuwenhuizen (as one group) and Deser, and Zumino (as the other).
In the output of the collaboration consisting of Hazel, Yangrui and me, for the first time in the field, the extension of the type discovered by Breitenlohner has now been found for eleven-dimensional supergravity. One reason why it took over forty years to discover such a solution is because of the tremendous numbers of functions required for the solution. Our solution evolves about 4.3 billion functions! This definitely could not have been found ‘by hand.’ But we had a conceptual advantage also. We were able to such a solution because the use of adinkra-based ideas that suggested a path to a solution that more conventional approaches had not. Since adinkras are graphs, it is natural to use techniques associated with graphs. This also leads to what a computer scientist named Symour Papert (1928-2016) called “computational thinking” (CT). Interestingly enough, CT has emerged as a topic of some debate in STEM education (a topic on which we will discuss later). One definition of CT in education is as a set of perspective and problem-solving methodologies by expressing problems in and their resolution in terms that can be used to create computer algorithms for solution. This is precisely what Hazel, Yangrui, and I have done. The final outcome of our efforts was the design and creation of algorithms that run using Wolfram Mathematica, a software system that we run on laptop computers.
To me, that is all the proof. If you can bring new knowledge into a field by solving a problem that has stymied the field for decades, then you must be doing something right. So how has it moved things forward? Well, these adinkra graphs—what’s really funny is that this is what Abdus Salam was trying to tell me—
Yes, I was going to ask. Right.
It was so bizarre that he was right. So the primary source for our success was because using adinkra concepts we were able to frame the question differently from others. So it was about the framing. Complicated mathematical questions may be posed in many ways. Depending on the formulation utilized sometimes makes it more amenable to find the answers. There are questions in supersymmetry, which is what I know about, that you can formulate in this—what I earlier called superspace, which is what our 1084 book is entitled. But many of these questions can also be posed using the concepts of adinkras as I have been doing so since 2005.
Interestingly, the idea of superspace was actually invented by Salam and another physicists, John Strathdee of New Zealand. So this is a terribly convoluted story, but you can certainly use—so I’m going to use this hand for Salam’s superspace—so you can certainly use superspace and that’s been the conventional tool most of the research community has used with geometrical arguments to study supersymmetry, but with Michael Faux, we created a different lens of networks and adinkras. One can ask questions over here using Salam-Strathdee superspace, but you can also ask the same questions over there using networks and graphs.
For about forty years it was not possible using superspace (nor any other technique) to achieve a breakthrough path of Breitenlohner’s resolution of the ‘Dirac-Feynman Path Integral’ with the 11D part of M-Theory called ‘eleven-dimensional supergravity.’ So if one asked the question of how well these to concepts were understood. It turns out the answer is not very well…up until this year in my opinion.
Now due to the effort I have made along with my two Brown University PhD students, we were able to show if you think about this same question using network-based adinkra ideas, a solution was found. It is highly likely that if we had continued along the traditional path, like all who have previously asked this question using Salam & Strathdee’s superspace, we would not have been able to find an answer. So, this illustrated the importance of Salam’s advice to me about the importance of diversity of viewpoints. It is perhaps ironic that I rejected his idea about superspace but accepted the one about diversity of viewpoint that was the key.
So what’s the answer? What do we know now that we didn’t know before as a result of this?
In physics every breakthrough discovery is but the first to tackle the next problem. One thing we know is that it is possible to follow the path of Breitenlohner in the issue of making 11D supergravity (11D SUGRA) consistent with the approach of Dirac and Feynman. This may seem trivial, but many other physicists have regarded this as an impossibility.
Let me try to tell you the answer in the form of a story. I can tell you it in the form of a story. I thought I had mentioned before, but maybe I didn’t. Imagine that there was some aliens flying by in a starship and observing humans, in fact, they might only be observing physicists trying to figure out how M-Theory. Next assume one of the physicists on earth — and let’s assume it is Ed Witten, to make the story even more science fiction — made a mistake in some M-Theory calculation. Now, of course, Ed doesn’t make mistakes, but this is science fiction.
The aliens might wish to be helpful and want to communicate to Ed what were the mistakes. In order to do that — because they’re in a spaceship flying by near the speed of light or something — they have to take Einstein’s Relativity Theory into account to communicate the correct answers. Until we uncovered our answer this year, there would have been no way to write a dictionary for that communication. That’s what we’ve done.
In what ways has your work advanced the long-term goal of unifying gravity into the rest of physics?
So earlier, I mentioned that working with Warren Siegel when he was at Maryland in the middle 80s, we were able to show that you’re not forced into the idea of writing string theories in more than four dimensions, that you can stay within four dimensions and use the idea of strings and write theories that are built on the principles of the Standard Model. That’s the way to describe our work.
Because of that — now our work is not totally complete as there’s a hole in our work that I don’t know how to answer — in the future this could be very important to imply that our physics can conceptually and philosophically be freed from dwelling conceptual ‘jail’ with the burden of considering extra dimensions. If someone answers the hole, using string theory will become like using the mathematics of Standard Model, and because of string theory, it automatically includes gravity.
When President Obama was elected president, did you have a sense that you were going to get involved in the administration in one form or another?
[laugh] You have got be kidding. All throughout the summer of the campaign, I was traveling to different parts of the world. I encountered numbers of people who asked me did I think that he had a chance to win? Initially I responded, “I don’t think so.” However, at some point my answer was, “It is like trying to send a rocket to the moon. It is really hard, but the U.S. actually did that. So we might actually do it in the case of President Obama. It is like a moonshot in the space race.” So I — like most African Americans my age, David — we were stunned that he was successful.
So let me tell you a story from back at my time as a graduate student at MIT. There was a part of the physics building where we black students used to gather to shave our internal discussions. We gave it a half comical/half serious name the way, the ‘Colored Center for Theoretical and Experimental Physics,’ CCTEP. It was the venue of many great debates. Once in CCTEP, we asked the question “What do you think is going to happen first? An African American is going to get a Nobel Prize in physics or an African American is going to be elected President of the United States?” One should keep in mind this occurred sometime during the period of 1973-1977.
We literally asked this question—and so we were stunned, at least people my age, were absolutely stunned that President Obama was successful elected. And if it had not been for the stock market crash, it probably would have never happened. So, an extraordinary circumstance had to come into existence, an unforeseeable circumstance for this to happen.
Back in those CCTEP discussions I had always said, “It’ll happen first with Nobel Prize.” I had erroneously ascribed greater power to logic. I was and am of the opinion that theories of racial superiority are bogus. Apparently there seemed at the time to me that more progress toward far competition was occurring in fields like science great than in the sphere of politics but it didn’t happen with the Nobel Prize. It happened on the side of electing the first African American president. So that was the number one reason that I was extraordinarily stunned — and that’s why there was such a deep outpouring of emotion in the African American community because, David, we know this country. You know, we’ve been here 400 years. Our culture has been created by this country.
So we also, therefore, know how deeply racism is part of this country. And none of us, in our logic, had seen how that could happen. So I was stunned and I thought, “Oh, you know, the country’s not the place that I had in my theories about it. It is a different place and I need to start to rethink about what is this strange thing called the United States of America?”
I’ve often described this country as the sweetest dream humanity has ever had, and I still believe that, that this is a very strange place in very many ways. No other country could have done what we did with that election, in my opinion. No other country in the world. It is like imagining someone of the Romani people becoming the president of one of the powerful nations in Europe. Romani peoples are otherwise known as gypsies, right?
That hasn’t happened in a lifetime, right? I do not think it will. But this country did that.
So this country—I tell people, “Don’t be so sure in your bets against this country.”
We keep it interesting, that’s for sure.
We certainly keep it interesting here. And we’ve done it up until right now.
So, no. I had zero anticipation of becoming involved with President Obama’s administration, although in January after the election, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Baltimore Sun and it is about the significance of President Obama’s election, but even then I had no idea that I would be involved in any way whatsoever.
To this day, I think of myself as an apolitical person. I can’t support conservative political philosophy because it is so tied up with the racism of the past and this has been obvious to me for people in my community since Ronald Reagan.
People forget about how President Reagan, his campaign, and where it opened it —
Lee Atwater, that’s all you need to know. Lee Atwater.
You’re right. Lee Atwater’s the answer, exactly. But other than an understanding of the way that the infection of racism exists as an undercurrent more strongly in conservative US political movements in this country, I’m apolitical. I’m prepared to support a conservative if I don’t see that current, but that’s like looking for a pink elephant. Perhaps, maybe I’ll see a pink elephant one day, but I haven’t seen it yet. Certainty is something that physics suggests is an illusion many human fall prey to in their beliefs.
Who reached out from the administration?
No, it was not from the administration. Let me tell the full story. The person who reached out initially about what would eventually lead to my appointment to the U.S. President’s Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) was actually Harold Varmus, the Nobel recipient scientist and medical doctor. I had known Harold for — we’re talking now 2009 with the PCAST discussion — so I had known Harold for maybe a decade because our paths had crossed at various conferences. Obviously, we’re not in the same kind of science, but conferences and advisory panels, etc. bring many different types of scientist together.
I was on my way to India and in Schipol Airport in Amsterdam for a layover. I had my laptop computer on and I was looking at my email, there appeared a message from Harold Varmus. Now, although I know Harold, we don’t normally exchange emails. So I’m like, “What’s this?” I opened the message and Harold basically says, “Jim, I’d like to talk to you about something.” I sent back a message, “Harold, I’m on my way to India. I’ll be back in maybe 10 days. We can talk then.”
After I came back to the country, it is a week after I’m back, I haven’t heard from Harold. I started to think, “Oh well, whatever it was, it must have gone away.” This process — a couple days later — repeats. Email from Harold saying, “Jim, I’d like to talk to you about something.” My response was along the lines, “Harold, I’ve been back in the country over a week now, just reach out and we can have a conversation.”
Now where was he? He was not yet director of the National Cancer Institute, right?
No, that’s right. He was not the Director of the National Cancer Institute. I think he was still probably out at NIH, I believe. I typed back, “Happy to talk, just tell me what would be a good time because I’m sure your schedule is probably much more complicated than my own.” Another week goes by and I don’t hear from Harold. As I’m on my way to give a colloquium at University of Florida in Gainesville in the physics department, and off the plane, my mobile phone rings and it is Harold. My obvious response, “Harold, you keep sending these messages saying you want to talk to me but you never talk.” He says, “Well, do you have a few minutes now?” I respond with, “Yes.”
I was walking through the airport with my mobile phone to my ear and Harold said, “Jim, if you were to receive an invitation to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, what would your answer be?” To me, the first thing that went off in my head is that that’s a very interesting formulation. The question was asked in a conditional format. That means that if I say no, it gives Harold the right to say we never invited him. Immediately that flashed in my head as sort of music inside. I didn’t say anything about it, but I thought about it instantaneously. Perhaps, it was a joke was my next thought…a rather strange one.
Next, however, he made me understand that he was serious. My reaction was physical. This was one of the few times in my life when literally my knees went weak and I had to put a hand against the wall not to fall over. So no, I had no such expectation.
My trip to India was either in February or March. Unknown to me at the time, my name had been debated for this appointment since the previous January. Apparently the ‘Public Understanding of Science Award’ from the American Association for the Advancement of Science I received in 2006 and associated activities had put me on the radar of leadership of PCAST. In a very strange way, I owe this outcome to Albert Einstein and his remarkable output in the year of 1905.
The year of 2005 was named the “Einstein World Year of Physics” (WYP) in recognition of Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis – ‘Year of Miracles’ that took place a century earlier. As a consequence, my year of 2006 was extraordinarily odd. I gave thirty-seven talks about Einstein on six contents! By December of 2005 I have alerted to the fact that the WYP was likely to be…usual and I had acquired over a dozen books on Einstein as it seemed likely I would be receiving many related invitations. I did. I even did something else that year in the middle of travel. Since I was on so many flights, during the summer I circumnavigated the globe by stringing together a number of such air-trips while constantly travelling eastward. On these trips there was one constant companion. Walter Isaacson, whom I had known for a number of years, asked me to review the physics in his biography Einstein: His Life and Universe.
Thus, when President Barack H. Obama introduced his PCAST in a program held at the National Academies of Sciences building in Washington, DC that spring. I would be among his group of councilors. My ‘Uncle Albert’ had played his role in making sure I would be meeting a newly installed President. This was the second time in my life for such an occurrence. In 1999, a visit by Stephen Hawking has been the initiating event that triggered an eventual meeting for both me and my wife, Dianna, to meet President Clinton and the first lady in the White House.
Now it was obvious, the historic nature of Obama’s election, but did you recognize even then the historic significance of the respect with which the president accorded science — which was really unique in American history — how seriously he took science and scientists? Was that apparent to you from early on?
I heard the comments during the campaign, but he is a politician. I am conditioned to take what politicians say with a grain of salt, and so at his election, I—my thoughts were to wish him well, but I had a physics career with a lot of plus signs and factors of two in calculations to have as my concerns, right? There were no great expectations. When Harold reached out to me like that, those expectations started to change because only someone serious would be able to reach down deep enough to find me. Because I had never put myself—
Yes, you were not out there.
I was not out there, so the only way you’re going to find me is you have got to come looking. If not you, one of your agents have to come looking for me. I eventually found out who that agent was, it was John Holdren. But Obama and Holdren had a relationship that went back even prior to the beginning of the campaign, but I didn’t know about this. And so when Harold found me, I thought, “They’re serious or else they could not have found me.”
Did you have any preconceived notions of what the Council of Advisors in Science and Technology was or what opportunities this might present you?
Well I had no idea about opportunities. I knew what they were, which is why my knees had gone weak at Harold’s query. I knew exactly who they were. I didn’t think of them in terms of any special opportunities for me.
No, but I mean in terms of an opportunity for you to set an agenda on a national stage.
David, my total response was that of a deer in the headlight. I had no idea what would happen next.
But you said yes.
Yes, because, David, by now, you know enough of my family history — and I think you probably know enough about my psychology — that you would have predicted I said yes.
Just because of the way I’m put together. I mean, this is not something I had ever done before. Wait, I take that back. There’s something that is relevant here that I should tell you. In 2004, I was asked to serve on a physics evaluation by the nation of South Africa. They had conducted about a two year long evaluation looking at the physics infrastructure of their country because South Africa apparently successfully developed nuclear weapons before she gave up policies of apartheid.
That’s something that doesn’t seem to be so widely known, but there’s a whole ton of evidence about that suggesting it did, including this very strange—if you read enough literature, you’ll be able to find a story about a very strange signal that one of our surveillance satellites detected over the south Atlantic that looks like it is someone setting off a nuclear bomb. South Africa has or had its infrastructure, and they were wrestling with the question of how can we use this infrastructure to the economic advantage of our country?
In other words, how do we take this militaristic sort of application of technology and turn it into civilian uses that will benefit the economy? Now, I had been on advisory groups for the Defense Department to some level, National Science Foundation up the wazoo, Department of Energy a little bit prior to this, so people—in particular, Lenny Susskind, now that I think about it—a professor in string theory but also someone I know—had visited South Africa starting in 1999 and he had suggested to his contact there that they ought to invite me. And that’s how I started going to South Africa around 2000.
And from those trips, people had learned that I had been on advisory groups, the Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and so they got the sense that I had some expertise in thinking about policy questions. That’s why I was invited to serve on this international panel to look at South Africa.
We spent about three weeks flying around the country, taking testimony, talking to people in academia, in the corporate structure, in the business community, and we wrote a report that was submitted in 2004. The title of the report was “Shaping the Future of Physics in South Africa.” That report has largely guided South Africa’s science policy with regard to physics and as well as that of other African countries for about 15 years now. So having that experience under my belt meant that in 2009, when I got that invitation from Harold, I was pretty sure I could do stuff like that. I had had an existent experience that pointed some capacity to think in that way at the scale of a nation…though a much smaller and less complicated one. In 2021, my efforts on the commission that created the ‘Shaping’ report was recognized by my induction as a Fellow of the South African Institute of Physics (the South African equivalent to the American Physical Society) and an honorary PhD from the University of Johannesburg.
As you got your sea legs in the policy establishment, what did you learn about what you would be able to accomplish there?
Well as I said, my first reaction was deer caught in headlights. Not sure why I’m there, not sure why I was called to do this. Couldn’t say no because — one of the things I’ve said to people is what American, given the opportunity, what American do you know who could say no to that? Could you say no to try to contribute to this country that has given so much to you. What American can say no to the opportunity?
So I was committed to trying to do my best. It very quickly became apparent to me that one of — and this came from the president also — that one of the things that he was extraordinarily interested in was education in science, technology, and engineering and mathematical fields, the so-called STEM fields.
It became very clear that that was supposed to — there was no formal assignment of portfolios in PCAST but it was very clear to me it was the expectation that would be one of my primary portfolios to carry. And so on all four of the STEM reports — there was an arc of four reports that PCAST completed in that period of 2009-2016, I was always one of the lead authors on every single one of those reports. I did not serve as a lead on other reports, but I was very active on a number. A complete record of the Obama PCAST reports can be seen at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports on-line.
Of the thirty-seven reports, in addition to the ones were I was a lead author, there are six others where I was part of the writing team to create the reports. It was a very exciting time I my life within the domain of policy. In a sense, it felt as though I was subjected to an experience similar to receiving a graduate degree in public policy.
What kind of access to data or just sort of having a much bigger purview in terms of national trends — how did that access to that information change what you had known intrinsically in your own life and experiences up to that point?
It filled in the numbers, in some sense. As you had mentioned, for my life experience, I had broad stroke understandings of STEM education in this country from being a product of the system and thinking about it because I’ve taught students — so in 2009 from 1972 I’ve taught students in HBCUs, in large publics, in Ivy leagues. So, you’re right. My life lived experience gave me broad strokes understanding, but now I had access to data. That’s what I mean by it filled in the numbers. In particular, I have taught in a number of diverse institutions that include Brown University, Caltech, Gustavus Adolphus College, Howard University, M.I.T., and the University of Maryland.
So because of that, I think John’s judgment that I could contribute and reasonably make way to bring forth insights in this because I’m not just an educator. I’m someone out there at the very weird end of doing string theory — I probably had some capacity to do this in a way that was probably unique.
To what extent were you working on physics issues specifically during your tenure in Washington?
Well first of all, since I lived at College Park, I was always — let me put it this way, I spent more time in Washington, DC during that seven year-long period than I had spent in the 20 years beforehand. That was absolutely true that I was — I learned Washington in a way I had never learned living from 1984 to 2009 in the area. I had spent that entire time in College Park and surrounding environs, right? But I really didn’t know Washington until I joined PCAST. I’m sorry, ask your question again because I need a second to think about this.
Obviously you were there to work on STEM issues and representation, but you’re also there because you’re a physicist. And so I’m curious if you saw specific opportunity to advance your own interest or you saw an opportunity to increase physics research as part of the national conversation?
Right, thank you. So again, I did not understand what would — I did not see how what I was doing for PCAST aligned with my own personal interests. I guess what’s really funny is I did not understand that I was becoming a ‘policy wonk’. I did realize now I was put into position to make policy statements that were backed up by both experience and data. I did not understand that at the beginning.
I just thought of myself as part of the collective, that you know, there’s this fantastic group of people around President Obama and we’re going to be anonymous, so people will simply say the White House issues report X, Y, or Z, that we would not — in some sense — be drawn out, but of course that’s not what happened because when you write these reports, your colleagues on campuses see your name and they say, “Oh, I know X.” And then you get invited to be a face representing the efforts of the White House in this domain.
And so only later in the process did I understand that I was literally growing another leg in my own professional career attributes, which became quite intense for a while, and to this day, still functions, which is why my appointment here in Providence is partially in the Watson Institute because of the public policy.
In the period of time so far in my service on the executive line of the American Physical Society, it has turned out that my PCAST experience has provided an amazing resource that I have drawn upon to provide best quality of leadership I am capable of delivering. That experience was of particular importance with regards to the challenges that were presented to the APS, first with regard to its operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and second the environment created in US society generally with the regards to the continue disparate treatment and opportunities given to its citizen on the basis of racial discriminations. These have been challenges neither I nor anyone could have foreseen in 2016 when I allowed my name to be put into nomination for the APS Vice-Presidency.
Jim, thinking back to your strategic thinking as you were developing a dissertation topic, I can’t help but wonder that at some point, you recognized, maybe from a point of cynicism, that in Washington, you write a report, wonderful. And then it gets shelved and nothing happens as a result, right? So in thinking in your talents of strategy and working with people, what opportunities did you see that the work that you had been given, there was opportunity there not just to write a report, but to make a difference with what the report actually said?
David, you’re telepathic. You’re now going into John Holdren’s mind.
Oh, wow. OK.
Because you see, as I told you, although Harold was the person who reached out to me, the person who really saw me as part of this group was John Holdren, and the reason that he saw that was because several years earlier, I had become sort of — the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has this aware called the Public Understanding of Science and Technology (PUST) Award, and it is given to people who have shown some facility to communicate the boundaries of science to the public. During this time of the PUST Award, John was the AAAS President, then later he became the Science Advisor to the US President and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) during the Obama Administration.
I’d have to check my resume for when I received that award, but he had observed my effectiveness in reaching out to crowds of people as a physicist talking about something very technical, but making it very accessible and relatable. There is some amount of evidence in my career by now that I have the ability to actually engage people across a broad range of subjects.
So, John actually understood that I had that capacity not just to write a report, but then to work to get people to actually act upon the report. So again, this is not something I understood.
Once you got working and you were churning out these reports, where was the opportunity to see these reports translated into actual social and policy change?
The entire time that the Obama administration was in office, it was completely clear that there would be essentially zero support from Congress because the conservative opposition was clearly playing a game of running out the car. They didn’t want anything to happen, they would not be supportive of any new initiative, they would not make appropriations for new initiatives. The administration was limited from the time it got into office to what it could do. And it certainly would not get congressional authorizations.
So the strategy John had for not just me, I think there were a number of people in PCAST who have this facility were talking to groups. So their strategy was we will deploy these folks to speak at state levels and at municipal levels, and so I would get invitations to speak to meetings of educators, to speak to meetings of organizations around national school boards, and so the first was to try to influence people at a level under the national leadership, under Congress, and that’s why this speaking ability issue was actually — I don’t know if John foresaw that or not, but that’s why it became such an important lever.
Did you come away from your service in Washington with more or less cynicism for the federal government’s capacity to influence social, economic, and political change?
I came away with what I think of as a realistic understanding of that, not a more or less cynical one. I, like most Americans, had what I think of now as a post-World War II picture of the government. When we were coming out of World War II, our government could do anything, anything that it chose. That’s just not true anymore. Since World War II, power in this country has devolved from being localized in the government to being far more decentralized and especially in our business communities, in our corporate community.
The corporate community in this country has incredible power — so if you look back, you compare now to World War II. The power in the corporate community in this country is exponentially larger. That means because the power has devolved from the central government back to many power centers in this country, that essentially anything the federal government wishes to do, it cannot do alone. There are lots of people, by the way — typically on the liberal side of policy — who understand this extraordinarily well.
This is wrapped up in a philosophy called public-private partnerships, but what you really want to aim for these days are public-private partnerships where the public means the government and the private means corporate America because it is only by working with both of these communities are you going to be able to leverage change. And that was a lesson we understood intrinsically while I was on PCAST.
Now you said previously you considered yourself apolitical, I wonder if your experience in Washington made you more political, even beyond your purview as a scientist, when you had perhaps an upfront seat to Obama dealing with an entirely obstructionist Congress, for example. Or his capacity to try to move forward climate change policy in an environment in which, from a legislative or an economic perspective, it was essentially impossible.
I still do not regard myself as political, but as I said, you’re listening. One of the extraordinary things about PCAST is not only did we regularly meet with President Obama, we met with people all across the government. So, for example, John Brennan, the former — what was it CIA head? We met with John. So I know John. Sally Yates, who was one of the first people President Trump had fired, I mean I know Sally. We were engaged with them.
So we met people across the incredible span of the government, and that includes congress. So I’ve been in meetings with Lamar Alexander and I’ve been in some — I can’t think of the names now — but some of the representatives of Texas. I’ve been in meetings with these individuals. I know these people, conservative people. I still think of myself as apolitical, but I use the word realistic, because I also understand what are the political drivers that have brought our country to this extraordinary location where we can’t even defense ourselves against a pandemic.
So I understand that — look, I can’t say that one side or the other is more immoral, but what I can say is that one side has played politics to the point where the country has been put in danger, and the other side has not, in my opinion. Liberals are not any better, in my mind, because I’ve seen lots of craziness on that side too. I continue to see — in fact, this goes back to my time as an undergraduate. That’s when I first sort of met real liberals during the Vietnam War protest period and the time of the office against organizations like the Black Panthers and I have say some of these people — and I think I said this last time — but I got a sense that these people are genuinely unserious in many, many cases.
So I don’t think of them as somehow holding up a light because that’s not what I’ve seen in my lifetime. On the other hand, since Ronald Reagan, I have seen the conservatives simply play political gains that disadvantaged my country. The liberals, I don’t think, have done that to the same extent.
Were your duties in Washington so significant that you had to put most of your teaching and research capacities on the back burner? Or were you able to keep up that as well?
My research suffers, quite frankly. My teaching, not so much because A, the department was very kind and understood that I had this obligation and therefore they supported me by making sure that — at least so far as my teaching loan — it was something that I could manage. When I could not manage, there were people that I could call upon to teach in my stead episodically when I would be unavailable. So I’m eternally grateful to the department for understanding the situation that I was in and providing the means for my students not to suffer excessively.
Now this is an unavoidable causation versus correlation question, but I can’t help but note that the end of your tenure for the Obama administration wraps up pretty closely with the end of your tenure at Maryland. So I wonder if you saw an opportunity for a new chapter in your life and that was part of the consideration for you to retire from Maryland and take on this opportunity at Brown?
So there’s an element of that which I would agree with that, but let me just point out that I spent a year at Dartmouth before coming to Brown. So the path was Maryland, leave of absence at Dartmouth, another leave of absence at Brown, and then accepting a position at Brown. Partly I think because of my early childhood, I told you by sixth grade I had been in six different schools, I am a tumbleweed sort of mentally — and as much as I love my experience in Maryland and the great success and support — as long as I’m healthy, I have a suspicion that I’m going to shake things up from time to time in my life.
So, was I looking for new opportunities? I was looking for new challenges, is the way I would say it. In fact, that was for me the real selling point of coming to Brown because the president here, President Christine Paxson, outlined some challenges this institution wanted to take on and some of these challenges were things I had never tried to do at Maryland.
Was your year at —
I’m crazy like that.
Yes. Was your year at Dartmouth a sort of tryout period to see if you wanted to move on from Maryland?
Well, they made it very clear from the beginning of that visit that yes, it was a recruiting trip. I am sufficiently old to know that you don’t go someplace without looking first. You don’t just leap headfirst. So I went there and initially their offer was attractive to me, but at some point, they changed the initial discussion. And so that was one thing that — I told you about how I hold institutions to my standards — and so if you’re going to do that, that has a back reaction, in my mind.
And then the other thing about Dartmouth — I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Dartmouth, but it is in this lovely town called Hanover and I loved living in Hanover, but getting in and out of Hanover is a nightmare. I was going to continue to have the national and international profile that my career had suggested for the last 15 or 20 years, it made Dartmouth untenable.
On the other hand, getting to the airport here from where I live in Providence is about a 20-minute proposition. I admit that the rest of my life external to my university home with its international and national engagement was completely compatible with coming to Brown.
This is another theme that’s developed over the course of your life. You look for simplicity and lack of distraction where you can find it.
David, you’re getting to be my psychiatrist.
[laugh] You said your research suffered during the Washington years, when you had picked back up, where had supersymmetry and supergravity and graph theory — where had these things gone absent your daily attention to the major questions?
So the major things that I — watching all along, but I had no chance to participate — would put my finger on is information theory. So there are a number of questions. The simplest way I can phrase this is we’ve all heard of these things called black holes and if some ordinary matter passes inside of the ‘event horizon,’ it gets sucked into that black hole. Matter is actually information because you have information about positions of molecules, atoms, electrons, locations and velocity and the molecular bonds. Naively if a bit of matter is ‘sucked’ into a Black Hole all that information at first glance would seem to be irretrievably lost. Many physicists, including the late Stephen Hawking, believe there is an inseparable bond between information and energy and a loss of information would imply the non-conservation of energy! In fact, there was a long ‘war’ on this subject between Lenny Susskind of Stanford University and Stephen Hawking.
If something gets sucked into a black hole, that means information is actually getting lost from the universe. This is actually a very great conceptual puzzle. And so one of the things that grew up in the spirit when I was sort of just watching was this whole debate about the role of information theory and black holes, and by the way, this is also coming from string theory, by the way, because string theory — actually this can be traced back to Hawking — but the point is that string theory has been the only tool that we know that seems it might help resolve this so-called loss of information paradox.
It is generally believed [that] you need actually a theory of quantum gravity to figure out whether the information is really disappearing or whether there is some kind of conservation of information and if there’s a conservation of information, how does the universe accomplish that? And in string theory, there is a suggestion for how this is done, by the way. And that’s another reason why when people say, “Oh, string theory is mathematics.” No, it is not mathematics, folks. It is asking questions that no other piece of mathematics allows us to try to answer about the way the universe works.
This is another example I talked about quantum mechanics and calculation – this is another set of calculations. So string theory is quite healthy because though the public doesn’t know this — most people outside of fundamental physics don’t know about this — but those ones who are in the game, they’re perfectly aware of it. So, I had been watching this and that’s one thing I thought was really fascinating was the role of information theory, but it turns out these graphs that I had been working on, they are tools from information theory. However, my actual work on adinkras comes at the issue of information theory in an entirely different and distinct direction.
So, I’ve recently had some discussions, for example, with Stephen Wolfram, about our approach versus things that he’s doing, that in some ways look very, very similar to our graph theory approaches. So, I was able to rev up that part of my research, again, and wrap it around some issues around the evolving discussion of quantum error-correcting codes (QECC). So, I’m probably more productive now than I have been in some number of years. I wrote eleven papers in 2020.
Has Brown been a unique experience in the sense that it is not quite an MIT and it is not quite a Maryland? Do you see it as its own kind of animal?
Yes, I do. And Dartmouth also, to some degree. I tell people that institutions are like living organic species, they all have an evolution attached to them. And in fact, if you look at physics in this country, there’s this great book called The Physicists by Daniel Kevles, I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, but it basically is the history of physics in the United States and I read it when I was a postdoc at Caltech. It is a wonderful story about how physics came to its current position. I still highly recommend it.
This is actually a book that probably needs to be updated these days, but it covers the history of physics in the United States from the beginning of the country to the 1980s. That book gave me an appreciation many, many years ago that institutions evolve. If you look at universities in our country, when I was a graduate student, I told you that we used to laugh about Harvard, about our friends that studied physics at Harvard because it was clear to us that the quality of the education that they were getting was not the MIT standard.
Well, across disciplines was where Harvard, at that time, did not have very robust program in were a number of STEM disciplines. Not at the level that MIT did, certainly. That changed around the time that I became a postdoc at Harvard. They began to understand — and the way from my lens of understanding — there’s a company in Cambridge called Genentech, which is one of the first bio-genetic technology companies that came out of a university in this country.
As a junior fellow, I actually knew some of the people that started Genentech. Harvard — because of the Genentech experience — started to understand that increase opportunity and wealth was going to be attached to STEM disciplines in a way that had not occurred beforehand, and they started making investments in genetics and biology, in computer science, and that triggered within the Ivy League a cascade effect.
Yale, which has sort of been in this game even longer than Harvard, upped its role of investment. So among the Ivies during my lifetime, there’s this trajectory where they move a little bit away from their traditional strengths in non-STEM areas and come invest more in STEM areas in their own long-term financial welfare benefit. In the Ivy leagues, the institutions that have been the latest to pick up on this were Dartmouth and Brown. So that’s where Dartmouth and Brown are in my estimation, but both of them actually understand the need to do this and are striving tremendously. By the way, this trend can even be seen in smaller traditional liberal arts institutions.
That’s part of — I told you part of the reason I came to Brown was a set of goals that the president here enunciated. It is around this transformation.
Now the Watson Institute, that wasn’t part of the initial package. That came later.
No, that was part of the initial discussion.
Oh, it was? And what was attractive to you about that, joining the Watson Institute?
I wanted to have an academic home because I had a sense I would continue to work in policy. And, you know, well you don’t know, but I mean — I wrote an essay that — basically it was a challenge to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and so I felt the need for an academic policy home to do work like that. And certainly that has come again to my mind because now we’re facing the issues around racial discrimination and STEM disciplines. I want an academic home when I decide to weigh into these matters. Finally, with my interactions as a member of the executive line of the APS, has provided another reason. This role has seen my direct involvement Congress and departments of the Federal Government.
Now, how did you get involved in that supreme court issue? What was the genesis of that story?
So there was the hearing around a case of Fisher versus Texas. I was in Australia when the hearing occurred, and during the hearing Chief Justice Roberts asked this extraordinary question, which was, “What is the benefit that a minority student brings to a physics class?” I may be paraphrasing slightly, but that’s the tone of the question.
This is extraordinary why?
Because he asked about physics. He didn’t say about college, he didn’t say about biology, chemistry, mathematics, or engineering. He said physics.
So this is the fattest pitch you could ever imagine taking a swing at?
[laugh] Well, yes. I actually may have been part of creating the ball in that pitch, but I’m not completely sure. I don’t have a complete confirmation of that. I know how to get a confirmation, but I doubt if I’ll ever have a chance to do that. Let me tell you a part of the story. Years before this case and its hearing, during 2010 the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Association of Universities put together a document called the Handbook on Diversity in the Law. The purpose of the book was to guide universities as they wrestled with the questions about, “How can we have legal procedures for admitting diverse classes to our institutions?”
I was asked to contribute an essay in that piece, and I did. The title of my piece is “Thoughts on Creativity, Diversity and Innovation in Science and Education.” My essay is basically — it is not data, but about the lived experience that I’ve had teaching over thirty years in these subjects and what I see diversity doing, and since I’m a physicist, I focus on teaching and physics.
The essay could have been read by one, or more, of the Supreme Court’s clerks as this case was being argued. If an intern read this, this question could have been brought to Chief Justice Roberts’ consciousness, and because I raised the question in physics, then the Chief Justice could well have been asking because of this essay. So it wasn’t just that it was a big, slow, fat pitch. I may have figuratively been ‘on the pitcher’s mound’ with him when that ball was a thrown.
What opportunity did you see in writing this paper in terms of moving the policy or the legal judgment forward?
Which one, the essay for AAAS-AAU or the response of Chief Justice Roberts?
So I wrote another essay — it is published in Science magazine, but this second essay was also forwarded to the Supreme Court because one doesn’t have to be a member of the bar for such things. You could be just a general member of public weighing in on questions before the court. I did that. I had a conversation with John Holdren, informing him because this was during my time on PCAST, and I wanted to make sure that the Administration was aware I was going to do this.
This was not something that PCAST was saying, it was something that I was saying as an individual, but I did not want them to be caught unawares. John said he didn’t see a problem with it as long as I didn’t represent myself as PCAST member.
Do you have any idea of how it was received in the court?
I do not, and if I ever have the opportunity to talk to Chief Justice Roberts, that’s the first question that would come out of my mouth. Later, in fact, he did vote to sustain the kinds of policies that preserved admissions of diverse student bodies. Now I can’t say that my essay was causative because many, many people, including Colin Powell, weighed in. But the fact that he asked about physics, like I said, that’s the one to me that is just so bizarre I wonder about the connections.
What else have you been involved in with having the Watson Institute as a sort of home base for your public policy interests?
Just right now, just the work that we’ve done around racial justice in the American Physical Society. These are not Watson Institute documents, but people are aware that I’m in the Watson Institute and therefore public policy is something that I’ve thought about and so I am not just some guy writing sort of this — got up in the morning and said, “Oh, I’m going to write on these issues.” So it is been useful for me in that way.
Also, however, in a slightly different way, I’m contemplating trying to figure out how to use that connection. The Watson Institute appointment comes with some financial support for a project and so—last year was the hundred-year anniversary for the Eddington Expeditions that confirmed general relativity. On that date, I gave a talk at the Fordham Law School and the talk is really about how Einstein has literally had an impact on Federal Jurisprudence in our country. In fact, Einstein’s achievement, via the intercession of Karl Popper — a philosopher — has a direct connection to the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover. This was an attempt to cloak a religious belief in the guise of science. A Republican appointed judge, John E. Jones, III, ruled against those who wish to have students learn about “intelligent design” in science classes. Part of his ruling explicitly calls out the definition of science created by Popper on his observation of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
It is a very strange, but I can explicitly prove all of this with references now, and so I was invited to speak to lawyers about it. Since then, I’ve been thinking about trying to find out if there are other examples where you can find direct connections between the law and physics. And so this connection with the Watson Institute is step forward.
I’m definitely feeling some more theory at play here.
[laugh] I guess so. I didn’t know what he was doing to me when he said that.
I can’t help but plug the American Institute of Physics and the tremendous amount of pride I feel personally in being involved in this organization that put out the TEAM-UP report. Can you talk a little bit about your involvement with the creation of the TEAM-UP report and its relevance to where we are now?
Sure. So, I’m also extraordinarily proud of the American Institute of Physics for having the foresight to weigh in on this area because this decision was taken years before George Floyd’s death and it is before Breonna Taylor’s, and so many more. Yet you have the leadership in the AIP saying, “This is something we need to be thinking about.”
And we don’t need to talk generically about an institute. We can talk specifically about people like Arlene Knowles.
Indeed, like Arlene. And so, they did reach out to me — asked me when the report was being created. In fact, they tried to recruit me to be the chair, but I know how insane my life is right now, and so I said I’d be happy to do all I can to be a member of the report of the committee, but this was just incompatible with other obligations that I have.
In fact, one of the things that worried me a lot was I was already just elected to the Vice-Presidency of APS, and so I was worried about conflicts of interest of having been part of a group — I’m sorry, leading a group, making a set of recommendations that would likely fall on the plate of the APS to follow when I will be in a leadership position in the APS. To me, that was just so rife with the possibility of conflicts of interest that I didn’t see how in the world — again, by my own internal standards, my own internal clock that said —
Right. No one was telling you externally you couldn’t do this, this was just your own reading of the situation.
This was my own reading that I could not put myself in that position. So, although I declined the leadership, I was very happy to be part of the commission-group that put the report together, and in particular, my main function, as I perceived it, was to continue a tradition of AIP reports. Back in the 90s, there was a report called the Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report (SPIN-UP Report). This was in the early 2000’s and led by Robert Hilborn, Ruth Howes, and Kenneth Krane at about the same time I was involved with policy discussion building up in South Africa. As a matter of fact, the TEAM-UP Report is a ‘lineal descendant’ of the SPIN-UP Report. Both ground-breaking and created by the AIP.
I was on the group that wrote the SPIN-UP Report with others, for example Carl Wieman, Bob Hilborn was the leader of SPIN-UP effort. But one of my main functions as the SPIN-UP Report was extraordinarily successful in the physics community was to bring forth the best practices of that earlier effort to the TEAM-UP group. SPIN-UP made a big difference and so part of the reason I was on the TEAM-UP group was to make sure that we followed the model of the SPIN-UP Report and having a report that would be as successful — have successful uptake from the physics community.
In what ways do you see the TEAM-UP report as part of a historical explanation of the problems we’re facing today and how much do you see it as a road map to address those problems toward a more equitable and inclusive future?
Well to my knowledge, it is the first report based on actual surveys of real African American students talking about the failures of the system that they are experiencing. I don’t know of any previous sociological report that exists like that, so it breaks new ground as a policy statement, as a piece of scholarship. I’ve never seen anything like this, so that’s one item.
So it expresses what some people call “ground truth.” A lot of people sit around — and I’m probably one of them — we say, “Gee, we saw this, we saw that, we think this, we think that.” But these are the people who were actually living this experience right then. So, I think the effort may generate movement that other similar efforts or other partial efforts have not created. I’m sure people have done things that are aimed at this problem, but not at this level. So that’s item number one, is its seal of validation has a higher level in my mind than anything I’ve seen before in this domain.
As a road map, well, to me, it opens the conversation because the recommendations that come out of it were derived from the sociological study that was undertaken to ask real-life students what’s going on. It opens the conversation—one of its recommendations is particularly going to be challenging, mainly trying to set up actually some fund that would actually make a difference.
It is even going to be a real challenge given the economic environment of our country that is likely to persist for five to seven years in my estimation. I know people are talking about a V-shaped recovery, I always thought that was the sheerest of fantasies, and now there’s evidence that it is not happening as a recovery, millions are still without jobs and paradoxically millions of available jobs are said to be going We’re going to be down for three to five years as a recovery.
So, what can be done outside of that recommendation? Well, that’s why I say it is a starting point of the conversation because the TEAM-UP Report is really directed not so much at AIP, but to the community as a whole. So, we’ve got to figure out, as a community—and APS is going to be part of that discussion—about how much of the report we can actually achieve. It will be a challenge to get the community to implement because none of us has an infinite amount of power. This is going to be something that the community has to agree it will do. So, we’ll see.
In what ways do you see #ShutdownSTEM in generational terms? In other words, do you see the political impetus by a call to hit pause for a day in STEM as a younger generation response to all of these issues?
It absolutely was a younger generational response. You can tell that if for no other reason by the imprudent language used. I was actually put off by the very language they were using. I thought it, in many ways, was unhelpful to the cause that the — well, look. I tell people when I read the statement that it reminded me of something that in the vernacular of my community, if you want someone to help you, you don’t go up and start talking about their mama. That’s exactly how it struck me.
So, it was definitely a young person’s response. It was useful. I did not personally sign their petition — because there was a letter that was seeking signatures — and I did not sign it. I could not sign it because of what I thought was very unhelpful language. That language, in my mind, creates a hostile environment, which people often talk about.
But the actual pause itself I think was extraordinarily useful. From all the things that have happened since the pause, I think it has proved itself because we’re seeing a higher level of debate among STEM organizations than I have ever experienced before around the issue of the barriers to people of the African diaspora to participate in our disciplines.
Were you vocal about this? Did you make it known that this, as far as you were concerned, was counterproductive?
Yes, to the organizers.
And what was the response you got?
There was not direct response, but a rumor of one.
And what does that tell you more broadly?
These are young people. They don’t have a complete understanding of how — well, the simplest way for me to say it is the following and I’ve actually used this analogy — when we go back to the 60s, there were two major voices around African American empowerment and lowering barriers in this country. One of them was Martin Luther King and the other was Malcolm X. Who won the fight?
You mean long-term?
I mean long-term.
MLK, of course.
Which is a lesson that I think has been lost on many people. It is not that I am denigrating Malcolm X, far from it, as I was still reading his autobiography in my young days. I remember as a college student thinking, “This man is a genius,” which I still do think. But in terms of effectiveness in moving political systems, I think Martin got it more right than Malcolm.
Do you see this reaction as part of a larger problem of “woke” culture?
That’s a really good question and I’ve thought about it a little bit, but I’m not comfortable responding because I don’t know quite what I think. It is certainly something that’s potentially a problem, but I haven’t come to a conclusion.
I mean it is clear that a place like Brown, there is definitely a culture where certain things are just not acceptable to talk about that are off-putting to other people who think that in a free intellectual environment, these things should be inbounds.
Yes, as I said — I just don’t — I’m thinking about it and maybe this will be in one of my next essays.
[laugh] Jim, you’re entering one of the most fraught periods in the history of APS of leadership and part of that you bargained for and part of it obviously you didn’t. I want to get your thoughts on what opportunities and challenges you see within the broader crisis of science policy and communication during this time of COVID-19. What opportunities and challenges do you see in the leadership position of APS to move the conversation forward as productively as possible so that we can get beyond this crisis as quickly as possible?
First of all, this — the morning after the 2016 election, I had to travel from Providence to College Park. There was a meeting I was attending. As I got to the airport, my perception was that there was a hush, a muted way people were interacting with each other. There was a — I perceived it as if you were suddenly hit on the head, there’s an instant before you feel pain when you’re just sort of in shock. That’s what I perceived — what characterized the interactions of these people at the airport.
I was also convinced that the country was going to face some kind of great disaster in the coming Presidential Administration because I knew the history of the incoming US President as a manager, I was filled with dread. The thing I guess that’s kind of funny was as soon as I had those thoughts, I had thoughts about resigning from the APS leadership. I knew something awful was going to happen. I just thought, “Oh my God. If I continue in this, I’m going to be swept up where people are going to ask me to provide some kind of leadership in an unpredictable chaotic and quite possibly violent environment.”
So, I realized that morning, the disaster that — I mean, I did not think the disaster would be a pandemic. So, I can’t say that I had that kind of precision, but I knew it was going to be something awful and I knew that the kind of management skills that I saw would contribute to it even making it worse than it would have been under other circumstances.
So now here we are, and I still have very great trepidations. I still have the dream that I’m going to resign and say, “Folks, I don’t want to do this.” Because I know how terrible this is going to be. This was, for me, the dawning of how bad this would be occurred in February because that’s when — I told you a story that two of us in the executive leadership basically led the effort to shut down our March meeting — so at that point, I was already — I knew how awful it would be.
Then with the business of the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Movement, I mean, none of us signed up for this. So I’m in a struggle to try to do the best I can for my community of physicists, and so far, the feedback I’ve gotten from people who have watched my performance and execution of duties and obligations — both with respect to the pandemic as well as this call for moving policy to get us to a better place to remove barriers for African American participation, and Federal policy that threatens international collaboration — my colleagues, to my joy, think that I have a measured but committed approach to making a difference.
I’ve had more than one person comment directly to me that how fortunate the APS is to have me in this leadership position at the time that we are going through these multiple challenges because of the sequence of things and the role that I played in the leadership of the organization to face these challenges and the way that I continue to engage the community. So, although I’m frightened out of my wits — because I am — I have received encouragement that I am going to be able to contribute something of value to my community.
I wonder also if you see this in some ways similar to the self-sacrifice that you understand your tenure at Howard to be. It wasn’t particularly good for you, but it was good for a broader purpose.
I don’t think I ‘do’ self-sacrifice for me — let me try to encapsulate. Recently, my daughter told me something that I treasure. She said, “Dad, one of the things you said when we were growing up was take time to help others, especially if it doesn’t cost you anything. And even if it does cost you a little.” This is my philosophy of life. To me, the value of that is greater than any sort of thing that could have happened if I acted otherwise. This is just who I am and I’m extraordinarily happy about this point of view of life.
Regarding the generational divide that inevitably you’ll have to deal with that was brought into stark contrast with shut down STEM, I wonder if the fact that you’re the father of two up and coming very promising physicists who are part of that generation—I wonder if you see that as an asset?
I think it is directly from them. [laugh] I mean we do have these conversations. So you mentioned about them earlier. Yes, I hear this from my kids, right? It provides me with a pinhole view into that generation, and yes, I use that as a very valuable resource.
And what’s the counter argument if somebody wants to dismiss you as you’re from another generation, you don’t understand what the situation is now, we respect you, but frankly, your perspective is not relevant, right? Well, your perspective has to be relevant because you’re going to be leading APS. It has to be relevant. So, what’s the counter argument there where you can say, “Actually, what I’ve gone through is not so different from what you’re feeling now.”?
Well, David, all I can do is tell people, “Look, when I was your age, I had an Afro bigger than yours,” because it is true. I don’t know if I showed you that picture of me at Caltech.
I’ve seen it. I know it.
I have never been someone—except for that very brief time in my life when I was in high school—who thought that my identity as an African American person is something that I shouldn’t celebrate because I do. Wearing the hair is a celebration. Naming a piece of physics after an African word, that’s a celebration. Working with the National Society of Black Physicists and becoming Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy on the ‘Hilltop’ (as Howard is sometimes called) were celebration. All I can tell someone when I encounter such criticism — and I do from time to time — look at the body of work that I’ve done, challenging a Supreme Court Chief Justice. I am someone who has existed in this field when people like me normally don’t. I have mentored an African American who is now a string theorist. There are basically no other versions of me in existence right now. So maybe I know something you don’t. My commitment to making a difference is no less than yours. I have a track record of having made a difference that I would like to compare.
Long-term, are you bullish that that’s going to be an effective approach, or it is just the only approach that you know to take?
I think it is going to be effective. I wouldn’t do this otherwise. I tell people that physicists — I think I know physicists and we’re not perfect, but data matters to us and if you can find a way to make a data-based progression in this time it has as good a chance of working as anything humanly possible. That’s why, for example, when you asked me about the TEAM-UP Report, I went to its analytical heart because I think analytics does drive this community.
What are some of the other major structural challenges that you see in physics generally? For example, the future of high energy physics in the United States, just to take one example. What do you see as some of the major challenges and what opportunities as APS president do you have to meet those challenges?
So high energy physics has been nearby or in a crisis for a while, in my opinion. You know, the analogy that people use — which I think is quite apt — about the history of medieval cathedral guilds and the Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais and its collapse and what have you — so high energy physics, in particular, is in a sort of cul-de-sac. This is not something I’ve actually thought about, quite frankly, what we’re going to do about trying to move high energy physics along. However, this is an extremely creative and innovative community.
Look, there’s some micro things that I think are the right things to be doing, so let me talk about the micro things. So there’s an experiment at CERN called LHCB — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it — but they’re looking for anomalous imprecision measurements. To me, that’s one of the things that I think is extraordinarily important for high energy physics.
The program at Fermilab — which is again, a program around precision in neutrino measurements — that, to me, is a place where if people just said, “Jim, you could control the program of high energy physics,” that’s where I would be directing my attention and resources because as I wrote in my — I wrote an essay — let me look that up. Give me one second.
Can you see that? [shares screen]
Yes, I can.
This is an essay as you can see called “Is String Theory Phenomenologically Viable?” It was written in 2006 and what I said in this essay — although I am absolutely convinced supersymmetry is going to ultimately be vindicated — is experimentally, if I could live a hundred years or so, that would be the time scale that we might have to wait to find it.
So this whole approach that the community has taken of building things like the LHCB and now thinking about even larger machines, I think it is actually risky. I would prefer to see that we look at precision experiments, like LHCB, like the neutrino program, and use those to try to push the boundaries on the high energy physics, as well as the approach — just let me stop sharing this — as well as the approaches of astrophysics and high energy astrophysics because right now we are — in my opinion — in a cul-de-sac.
We are essentially, I think, maybe nearing the limits where the current technology around accelerators has reached its end. That’s a view that no one’s going to like to hear, but that’s been my personal view for a long time.
Now we’re living in obviously a world of limited resources, and it is often a zero-sum game in terms of what gets funded and what doesn’t, so looking forward to your tenure, what are the big projects that you think most deserve large scale public support that will do the most good for the most people in physics?
I’m not prepared to answer that question, David.
Well, Jim, at this point in our conversation, I think I want to ask for our final bit of time together, I want to ask a few broadly retrospective questions, sort of summarizing everything in your career and experiences and then a few questions that are sort of forward-looking. The first is over the course of your research in supersymmetry, supergravity, and everything else you’ve been involved in — particularly in light of how ahead of the curve you were on so many of these issues — what do we understand about how the universe works now that we didn’t say in 1974? And what is still a mystery in terms of those same questions that might be as vexing today as they were at the beginning of your academic career?
Well, if you ask most physicists that question, like me, you’ll get the same answer. The greatest mysteries that we know about is dark energy. Why is the universe’s expansion accelerating? The second one is dark matter. Is there another species of particles out there that are the reasons you see these patterns in a way that galaxies and super clusters evolve and stars orbit their centers? Those are two of the big questions.
On the question of dark matter, symmetry seems to point to an answer because if you believe the world is supersymmetric — in fact, let me do one thing to try that. Hang on a second. Let’s see, what should I be looking for?
(Oh, the gentleman by the way, his name is Robert Hilborn for the TEAM-UP report. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Bob or not, but the TEAM-UP report was his baby. Sorry for the delay here.)
I’m failing miserably. Why don’t you go to the next question and I’ll keep looking for what I’m looking for. Do you have another question?
Do you think that the opportunities that were presented to you ever since you realized that you had a natural aptitude for math and science — would those opportunities be more or less difficult to be realized today?
I think it would be more difficult and the reason is because I was fortunate enough to be born at a time when our society had a focused interest on science and had the confidence to have the societal belief that we could trust and in fact trust is actually the right word — we could trust experts to move the country as a whole forward.
This is something I think our country has lost. So, there was more of a willingness to — for the general public to say, “You know, we cannot trust these groups to move us towards a better nation.” That’s the fundamental thing that’s broken in our country right now, in my opinion. So I don’t — and until we can reestablish that, I don’t see how science is actually going to thrive at a level — and particularly fundamental science because in the fundamental sciences you have to trust that the societal investment in things that are not going to return value in the short-term are ultimately going to do so and I just don’t see a lot of that in this country right now.
And those are broader structural shifts than any one person or administration can reverse.
That’s correct. This is a societal problem. So, on the shared screen, I wanted to show you something, which is my version of — can you see that?
So, when people ask me to talk about supersymmetry and why it might solve the dark matter problem, for example, I like to show them this chart because what you see down here that I’m circling with the cursor, those are all the quarks that we know about from all of our most precise experiments to date. Up in this quadrant what we have are the force-carrying particles. This is the particle of light, these blue particles are the Z and W Bosons that carries the weak nuclear force, and these Gs, there are actually eight of them, they’re the gluons for the chromodynamic force.
So this is what the universe looks like if you classify it into particles that carry forces, which is the line that my cursor’s bouncing back and forth, and the particles that feel the forces. Now I’m bouncing back and forth on those. That’s what our universe looks like. If the universe is supersymmetric, it looks like this. It means that there are more of these particles that we didn’t know about before and one of them could be the dark matter particle.
And it is the mathematical structure of supersymmetry that demands these extra particles. So you can really easily solve the dark matter problem. And this chart makes it really easy to understand why.
So if you had your druthers, would a lot more interest and public support be poured into supersymmetry as the most promising means to solve the question of dark matter and dark energy?
As I said, my druthers would be precision particle experiments, not supersymmetry per say. Precision because precision — if there’s something else out there, that’s going to be the gateway to finding it. And it may not be supersymmetry. Although as I said, I actually expect it ultimately to be supersymmetry, but not for reasons about particles. There are some bizarre statements about the ability of the vacuum that really drive my — and I have to say belief because I don’t know an experimental observation of this — but the reason I think ultimately supersymmetry is going to be vindicated has to do something with the stability of the quantum mechanical vacuum. This is a very deep and abstract issue.
Can supersymmetry ultimately be vindicated without operating in high energies like what the SSC was envisioned to do?
Yes, and it is funny you should ask that question because that same series of slides that I showed you contains the reasons why I said yes to this. So let me show you this image. So, we’ll do this. So, this is a paper actually I wrote with my graduate students this year and also — I’m sorry, no. With another faculty member here at Brown and my postdoc. And what we’ve shown in this paper — this is the first paper that shows how string theory may be a definitive pattern on the cosmic microwave background.
Now we don’t know that it is there, but we’ve understood a mechanism by which it could occur, which means that you don’t have to do high energy physics to look for evidence of supersymmetry because it may be capable of leaving evidences in other places.
So that’s my ongoing current research.
And have you been involved with like, for example, the COBE effort? Has that been relevant for your work?
It would be relevant for the thing that I just suggested, but not COBE, but you’d have to increase the sensitivity of COBE-like experiments. As you probably know, the next evolution of those will be the Wilkinson microwave anisotropy probe (WMAP). And so even that’s not really — that’s unlikely to have the precision so to the effects that we were describing as likely needed in that paper, but if you continue the evolution, they might get to it.
So WMAP would be something to pay close attention for —
I will be watching and learning too. This also is in fact what I said in that 2006 paper by the way. I said that if you have a belief system that supersymmetry’s going to be important in physics, you should also be thinking about finding signatures in cosmology and astrophysics. Although this paper I just showed you was the first time I have actually written a paper of this nature, this has actually been a belief of mine since at least 2006.
When you look back at your record of accomplishments, do you tend to separate out what you’ve done in the scientific realm and what you’ve done in the sociopolitical realm? Or do you see it as sort of one big adventure?
I think of them as several simultaneous and different adventures. I don’t think of them as the same adventure. The policy sociology thing is one thing. The media appearance and elegant universe and such—I’ve done about 20 of those things you can find in my resume—I think of them as something as entirely different. My science is my core. Those other things I think of as an auxiliary. My science I think of as my core, and it is my central core in the mathematical/theoretical science I do and then the education I do is about these subjects.
For the future, a Biden administration — it is not out of the realm of possibility. Sorry to say you don’t know. It is not out of the realm of possibility that they would come back to you, right? Do you have an answer as to your interest level in getting back involved in that at this point?
So, I know that you’ve interacted with, Mary [Sutton]. Mary’s been saying this for months and months to me, it is like, “What are you going to do when Joe shows up at your door?” And so, at this point in time, David, I don’t have an answer. It was 11 years ago when I was invited to serve on PCAST, 2009. It would be 10 years if they were to come and ask me after the election.
I was around sixty years-old when they first asked me about joining the Obama PCAST. I’d be seventy if there was a return. Although it may not look like it, my body knows that the time has passed — I’m very much aware of the physical changes in my body. I don’t know if I would be up to the level of physical stress — there actually was a physical stress component to serving at PCAST. If you look at my pictures at the beginning, I had black hair. If you look at the pictures at the end, my hair is white and I don’t think that that was only just biological.
During that period, I was diagnosed with hypertension. That was really funny because I was suffering from the disorder without knowing what was going on. I knew something was wrong, and when we finally got a diagnosis from a nephrologist, she said, “Mr. Gates, do you do anything that has a lot of stress attached to it?” I broke into laughter. [laugh] I said, “Well, if you think advising the President of the United States might be a stressor, the answer’s yes.” She said, “Do you do that?” And I said, “Yes, that’s one of the things I do.”
So, David, I’m not sure I could survive another go around, quite frankly.
And who’s to say that it would just be round two for PCAST. It might be something bigger than that.
And that is the real problem. That is the worst problem, quite frankly, because—well this comes also from Mary. She says, “Suppose he asks you to be his science advisor.”
Yes. And I can see you saying it is like what you said last time about how could you say no when you were asked to be invited on PCAST in 2009?
Because I’m older this time.
Jim, last question.
Looking to the future, there’s limits. There’s limits of time, limits of resource, limits of energy. What do you see — after a career of gaining so much wisdom in the science, in the policy, in the people? What do you want to accomplish in all of those realms knowing that all of those resources are inevitably increasingly more valuable, precious commodities?
Well, the first one is that my own time is running out, David. As I said, I will be seventy in December. My biological mother died in her early forties and I am not going to live forever. My dad died when he was 83 and so that has — in my mind, I’m like probably going to check out around that age, right?
I hope not, but OK.
Well, I’m not being fatalistic. Like I said, I think I’m a realist. You know my story, my mother died when I was eleven, so I’ve known I was going to die since I was that age and I have long been OK with that. I know for a lot of people they’re very uncomfortable in talking and thinking about death. This has never been the case with me. So, I always — in fact, that has always actually, in some sense, worked to my advantage because I knew I didn’t have time to waste. I knew that there’s a finite time that if I was going to do something, it had to actually get done. I had to be thinking about that. To me, that’s one of the things in my life I actually — I mean, it was painful, but it did something good for me.
So I began with that premise, that my time is running out. I’m very much aware of that. So, what is it that I want to leave? Well, on the science part, I’ve said that — hold on a second. Let me see how to phrase this. In terms of my science, I want to have left something that is profoundly mathematical, but simultaneously describes something accurately deeply in the heart of nature. Maybe those kind of markings we described as “rilles” in the cosmology microwave background, maybe that will be it because that is the only thing I’ve ever written about, that there would be a clear signal yes or no. I am hopeful my ideas around adinkras will find Nature’s favor in the history of science and its sociology.
So that’s in science. I think I’ve actually done that. And the other part of that quest for legacy is in these weird graphs that I’ve done because if supersymmetry is found, the computer codes that we have found in the mathematics of these things will not just be in mathematics, they will somehow be at the heart of nature. So those are the two things that I’ve done in my career that if I had the possibility to come back as a ghost, say 200 years from now, I would want one of those two things to have been true and been accurate. And I would be, “Yes, that’s what I went into science for.”
So the science is pretty clear to me, but those are the two possibilities that I would have left that have a real shot at saying that Jim found that deep thing in mathematics that was an accurate description of nature. In some sense, that’s always what I’ve wanted to do, David.
In the mathematics, well, these things that I call adinkras and some associated ideas that are actually completely new mathematical ideas, I would hope that they would flourish by drawing mathematicians to study them more deeply. So, in that domain, I’ve got some finite requests from whatever, from the universe, right? And we’ve actually completed that work, essentially. If I die tomorrow, that stuff can be all sorted out by future generations. So that’s the science in that.
In terms of policy, I don’t have any big such dreams, although I hope that my body of work in policy will have contributed to two things; one, a broader realization of how important STEM education is in our country, and two, the importance of keeping those doors open for all of our citizens for diverse communities to participate. Those are sort of my big wishes in policy and again, if this ghost of me could come back in a couple hundred years and see where a small part of my work did keep those doors open, that would very satisfying.
And unfortunately, it sounds like if the timescale you’re operating on is hundreds of years, we’re talking about glacial pace. Even a slower pace on the society front than on the scientific front.
That’s correct. I’ve always thought in those timescales, though.
In a way to integrate them though, when we talk about diversity, to be clear, we’re not just talking about it because science is good for underrepresented groups. What you’re really saying is that underrepresented groups are good for science, too.
Black talents matter. And that’s not my creation, by the way. The APS — we discussed this.
Jim, I know when we first connected, you regarded this with some trepidation, and you weren’t going to feel too comfortable talking about yourself and I really want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing this. It has been tremendously generous of you. The service of this conversation to the historical record — it is really hard to overstate how important this is going to be as a document in a period of time and all of the different kinds of people who will learn from this record, gain value from this record, and I think hopefully use it for their own productive value in their own lives.
And so, as a member of the historical community, as a member of the physics community, I’m so deeply grateful to you that you were willing to do this and for all of the reasons that we all know too well right now, the only thing I can say is good luck with everything on your plate because you’re going to need it and there’s a lot of people who are rooting for you.
Well thank you very much. Let me thank you for reaching out because I’m hedging my bets. I could be hit by a bus tomorrow, David, and many of the things that we’ve had this conversation about would die with me. I’m hedging my bets in this conversation that if I don’t have enough time to get to this biography — because that’s the other thing I left off my to-do list. I do want to actually write an autobiography that would be useful to people, but I’ve got to do this at a time when I can do it. So, I’m hedging my bets a little bit by talking to you.
If our talk serves as a kernel for that ultimate autobiography, that would be one of the great professional honors of my life, so I very much would be looking forward to that.
Thank you. We’ll see how it all works out.
All right, Jim, it has been great. Thank you so much.