I interviewed James Gates once before, a few years ago, when we were creating our show on Einstein’s ethics. We talked then about Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his childhood in segregated schools — experiences he does not take for granted now that he is a preeminent, African-American physicist. But what I was so taken by in that conversation years ago was how he explained Einstein’s social activism in terms of the values and virtues of scientific pursuit. He spoke of empathy as a potential byproduct of the process of discovery. A scientist’s “What if…” questions can evolve into human “What if…” questions.

S. James GatesJames Gates’ capacity to share both from his humanity and his life in science strikes me again, and comes through even more forcefully during our more recent conversation in “Uncovering the Codes for Reality.” This time, I spoke with him about his particular passions. He is a string theorist, with a special emphasis on supersymmetry — a quality in the universe which, if demonstrated, might help support string theory as a way to reconcile the greatest puzzle modern physics has tried to solve since Einstein. Simply put, the universe seems to follow different rules at the highest and the smallest levels of reality. String theory imagines that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, all of reality is brought into being by filaments of energy. These “strings” might span the whole of reality, and possibly explain why gravity behaves so differently from varying vantage points. Some leading string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions — far more than the three or four dimensions we are equipped to experience.

That is about how far I comprehend the idea behind string theory. The lovely thing about a conversation with James Gates is that my incomprehension does not matter. He gives me much to chew on, and be enriched by.

For starters, he is just the latest voice — others include the astrophysicist Mario Livio, and the astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — to let me in to the secrets and power of science’s language of mathematics. He calls mathematics a kind of sixth sense — an organ of “extrasensory perception” — for scientists. By way of mathematics, scientists perceived and described the atom years before microscopes sophisticated enough to view them could be invented. Now, with mathematics, he and his colleagues are tracing clues and cosmic hints that may never be provable with our five senses — but that may shift our very sense of the nature of reality.

One of the things James Gates and some of his colleagues have “seen,” for example, are underlying codes embedded in the cosmos — error-correcting codes, like those that drive computer programs. (Full disclosure: he’s a fan of The Matrix — so am I — and we hear a little bit of that iconic movie in our one-hour podcast.) This is just one of many observations he makes that raises questions, he says, that physics alone can neither answer nor probe.

Cover of Physics World June 2010He is also working on an interesting frontier of expanding science’s own imagination about mathematical equations in describing reality. He and his colleagues have recently employed something called adinkras, visual symbols that may be able to unlock truths that equations alone cannot capture, just as there are truths that only poetry can convey.

There’s also a lot of fodder for one of my fascinations with the realm of science — the creative, playful, even spiritual act of naming things, especially in physics: beauty quarks and anti-beauty quarks, sizzling black holes, and superstrings, for example. The term adinkras, which comes from West Africa tradition and connotes pictures having hidden meaning, carries on this tradition.

James Gates’ own delight is infectious and illuminating, as much when he is letting us in on mysteries of the cosmos as when he shares the human lessons of his life in science. I’ll leave you with this, for example, as an enticement. When I asked him what he thought of Einstein’s statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said he had puzzled over this for many years:

“For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it’s constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.

So how could it be that play is more important than knowledge? It took me years to figure out an answer. And the answer turns out [to be] rather strange… Imagination is more important than knowledge because imagination turns out to be the vehicle by which we increase knowledge. And so, if you don’t have imagination, you’re not going to get more knowledgeable.”

Share Your Reflection



It's sort of interesting to see all these elderly physicists coming to Jesus.  After they have left us with the greatest threat to man, even perhaps the planet.  Mathematician  Boronoski for example speaks of imagination in his series recounting the development of the capacity for nuclear  bombs and the rest.  He elevates the people who did this to heroic proportions then comments that they never expected it to be used on real people.  

They would benefit from human relationships for the understanding their and all human nature than fanticizing about strings and the now disgraced neutrinos.

Care to give us all a course in ethics?

Why does there always have to be some fruitcake pushing an antiquated religious perspective when it has absolutely no relevance at all? Sheesh.

I think that "God" is a metaphor for the mathematics we don't (yet) understand.

Thanks for feeding our imaginations, Krista.  And thank you James Gates!  Made my day!!

<<<< :) I am a fan of the Movie  The Matrix and I think of math as a language and a tool of our intuition. TWH stardate 03042012

Reason and Imagination are two complementary frontal lobe faculties like right and left hemispheres of the brain are. TWH stardate 03042012

The only 'strings' James Gates talks about I understand are those we weave together to create our fabric of existence. In his story about "encountering God on a mountain top" he implied he heard God say "Make your own trail." If I could I would ask James if it is possible he heard God say, "Follow your own path." If we followed our genetically determined paths toward the limits of our unique potential capacities and self-realization, our paths would not cross and we would live in peace. We have spent centuries making our own trails in our vain efforts to fill "the void" and we've created a hell of a mess.

Apparently Gates also said,  “By embracing our limits, by embracing our fallibility we become more knowledgeable.” We in fact acquire knowledge by "reaching out to the limits of our capacities, to others and to God", by following "our own path", the "ideal reaction to the void." The only mistake it is possible to make is to not "reach out..."

Whether "imagination" or "knowledge" is more important than the other should never have been an issue because Einstein shouldn't have connected the two words. If anything he should have said "wonder is more important than knowledge" but even that is like saying the right side of the brain or heart, is more important than the left. http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poem/

The absence of human relatedness in all these memoirs and musings of age severely limits the capacity for reality testing. It's absence really makes the distinction between fantasy and reality impossible.  

thoroughly enjoyed starting my day with this interview - learned a new topic for exploration in the adinkras and found the 1's and 0's discussion also will deserve follow-up.

Thanks for another great broadcast

I like the connection made here between imagination and knowledge. I think it is as true as the fact that we learn by our mistakes. Without mistakes and active imaginations, learning would not exist and we wouldn't know very much. Thank you for sharing this enlightening discussion, Reya. 

not sure how this scientist's point about the role of imagination in expanding existing fits in with Krista's "incomprehension", he is surely not saying that poetic revery is a replacement for understanding so how do these two views meet?

 oops, sorry should read "expanding existing knowledge"

For me is very funny but embarasing too, how this interviewer insist so much to try to make such important American cientist agree to God or the esperitual. Even she can not stop when he say so clearly: "It is not teological" ¿How she can not understand it? Maybe she do not want. We many times too still have this problem in my country because of the strong catolicsm imposed by Franco and the fascism. Sorry for my English.

Greetings from Spain,Juancho