S. James Gates Jr. —
Uncovering the Codes for Reality

Are we in the matrix? Physicist James Gates reveals why string theory stretches our imaginations about the nature of reality. Also, how failure makes us more complete, and imagination makes us more knowledgeable.

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is Toll Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland in College Park. He serves on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Selected Readings

Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality

Cover of Physics World June 2010Physicists have long sought to describe the universe in terms of equations. In this article, S. James Gates explains how research on a class of geometric symbols known as adinkras could lead to fresh insights into the theory of supersymmetry — and perhaps even the very nature of reality.

"On the Universality of Creativity in the Liberal Arts and in the Sciences" by S. James Gates

In response to a gathering at Westmont College exploring the role of science in liberal arts education, Mr. Gates develops his ideas on how how the sciences help us understand the value and meaning of our lives.

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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

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Please keep in mind that I remember Dr. Gates comment explaining a physicist is going to lie when he speaks to the public, and my physics grade was saved by extra credit and lab quizzes...

Krista and Dr. Gates--well done, good and faithful...extremely stimulating conversation from childhood memories to super-symmetry in the cosmos. The primary notion I have kept thinking about since listening to your conversation is centered in String Theory. I get the explanation of how the Adinkra vibrate and are related in essence to the strings on a stringed instrument. However, one note that fell short for me was an explanation, or relation, of the varying Adinkra vibrations with the vibrations from differing stringed instruments. In other words, Dr. Gates used an analogy of a note (I think I remember C) being similar (in affect, not effect) to an electron, and other particles being in similitude to other notes on the scale. I guess my question could be stated: Notes in music can and are represented by vibration patterns visually, correct? A C note has a certain wave form. However a C note visualization from a piano would/should have a different pattern/representation from a Taylor guitar playing a C note. Additionally, I would think a C note played on the aforementioned Taylor by BB King is going to have a differing form than a C note played by Eric Clapton on the same Taylor using the same set of strings? If BB King played a C note on same Taylor with old strings, then replaces the strings with a new set, and play another C note, would they have differing representations (considering that you could make other variables constants/controls)?

I'm guessing Dr. Gates' description of String Theory was limited due to context and audience--either that or there are many facets of that string's vibration that are yet to be explored by physicists.

Wow, I'm at the point of needing to write a blog post due to my genuine interest propelled by ignorance.

Here's another set of thoughts I ran into while listening: Regarding Dr. Gates statements about physics being like language, i.e. you can have a non-fictional statement, but real/deeper meaning is gained when the text moves to poetry (I believe I remember Krista adding critical thought here as well). Immediately after listening to your conversation, I went to a group that I am mentoring for their 'Branding/Marketing' messages. I drew a parallel for them from your conversation, but went a step further. In marketing, there are 3 graphical representation types that can be used: Symbols (rational text), Icons (resemble the thing they stand for), and Indexes (primal; there is a physical connection to the thing they represent, i.e. a foot print). Drawing a parallel from your language function to graphical representation, a set could/would be: Symbols=Text (non-fiction, straight-forward statements); Icons=Poetry and/or Narrative/Fictional tales (text is put to rhythm or story, and the combination begins to contain deeper meaning); Index=Song (text/language is combined with rhythm and story, but sound vibrations are added)--Music is created. One of the primary aspects of these differing forms of communication is that Song is easiest remembered and yields the creates emotional connection. Another note should be made here regarding Dr. Gates' post on Akimbra--symbols and doodles make notes that are remembered much longer and understood more readily than an outline of text.

Since the time of the fire-lit cave walls, song has been the form of communication mankind has used to convey his understanding of the world that surrounds him. I believe String Theory sounds like the song of the universe.

I'm trying to understand your reference to the the tone that we call the note of "C" ,not sounding like "C" based on the instrument, or two different individuals playing an instrument, of which you use the guitar and piano as an example. I believe "C" vibrates at 440 hz regardless of who is striking the note;yes? Piano and guitar have different tonal qualities, as does a trumpet compared to a violin, but a "C" is still a "C", and thus vibrates at the same rate, if that "C" is played in a the same octave range. It'a an interesting point that you've brought up though.

the note A vibrates at 440 hz. This is what is called a fundamental frequency. Only a pure sinewave will have only a fundamental frequency. If you analyze sound in a frequency spectrum analyzer, you will see the fundamental freq as well as any harmonics and overtones created by the instrument recorded. The reason why pianos and guitars have different sound even while playing the same note is because the physical shape and size of the string as well as its method of being struck cause different harmonics and overtones thus producing a different sound even with the same fundamental frequency.

I am listening to the program as I write this. I still need to digest what I'm hearing. Gates is a great commnicator of his specialty - super symmetry. Next Wednesday is my 77th birthday and the interview has been an early present. I have a PhD in Rheology from Purdue University so science and physics is not foreign to me, but Gates' clarity was appreciated.

Most scientists today are wrapped tightly in very narrow avenues of inquiry and thickly insulated from exploring broad metaphysical questions. James Gates opens doors, inspires imagination, and breathes new life into curiosities that my have become narrowed or faded over the years.

I want to thank you for the beauty of yesterdays show and for the flood of new images and perceptions it continues to gift me with. I happen to be reading a Miguel Serrano book of his relationships and conversations / letters with Herman Hesse and Carl Jung. Quite a synchronous endeavor, life! So, my mind continues to work in all these images and perceptions, in the cosmos in which I breathe, with many, as yet, unfinished streams of ideas coming to tentative conclusions to check out. The image of imagination that most pleases me so far is the congruity I am seeing between andrykas (sp?) and my image of these as mandalas appearing as if from the unconscious - underlying the mathemeticians labors of love searching, searching.... Thanks again and may you be well, happy and peaceful. Mike

An excellent program, of course. Listening to equations to hear what they have to say is a form of listening at prayer. Dialog with nature, dialog with mathematics, all at the same time in the presence of God.

Mr. Gates is a real physisicist: 'What we can't measure falls outside the realm of science'. 'Science does not permit us the illusion of certainty.' 'That question has to be left to theologians.' This is different from the scientists who claim science shows that theological truth is imagination, science can't say that. Theologians find that science supports its conclusions more and more.

It seems to me that a unified theory must exist, so it might be super string theory. It seems to me, for theological reasons (Revelation, new heavens and a new earth, 12 courses of stone), that it will be found to have 12 dimensions - but that's imagination from a scientific point of view. And imagination, as stated, leads where one looks for knowledge.

Isn't it beautiful that matter is a form of energy. Dovetails well with creation. And that it would be perfectly elegant and beautiful.

Not sure how 'we are essential to these new laws of physics', maybe it's in the uncut interview.

In some senses scienc is catching up to theology, but Mr. Gates is right, when science shows evidence for something that theology has asserted, it is a powerful reinforcement (e.g. that we come from one male and one female in the human genome project.)

It seems to me that there were two big bangs. The first in time was the creation of the physical universe, this is the one that scientists study. The second in time is the Incarnation of Jesus in Mary's womb: the start of the Kingdom of God on earth. Both develop and grow and expand. Theologians study the second. But (God does everything twice) they are related, of course, have similarities, and can inform each other.


I am embarrassed; but are you in danger when math makes you so happy? My personal discovery is math is the language of God and the universe. Human homeostasis is a complete formula. Sickness, anger, and that math pattern that does not fit with nature; it is an incomplete equation that the sickness or anger is produced because of the inability of the body to cycle the logarithmic equation present. There are thousands all running parallel in the body all at one time. They all produce energy unless the equation does not work then the energy is sent into the body as an affectation. To cure sickness fix the math. That part will take me longer. Thanks for listening.


That is a very perceptive concept. It fit's nicely with my thought that what we are currently experiencing may quite literally be a "hacked" reality. The "hack" is limited and superficial compared to the much larger, far more precise and perfectly efficient "system" it is interfering with and leeching off of. We can witness evidence of both but are fundamentally unable to untangle one from the other in any significant way. Your thought also fits with the concept that our reality and our interface with it is a type of quantum equation being solved on/in a computational "device" so (by our standards of intelligence) staggeringly complex we will likely be completely unable to map it in anything but the largest of general details. I read recently that there is a general debate as to why we find math in every aspect of reality, whether it be because we interpret it INTO the observation as a type of "language" or it exists of it own accord. I tend to find it more rational to understand that it is inherent in the observed phenomenon...which I believe supports the concept that we "exist" in and as a functioning part of a "technological system/device" of super-intelligent design possibly designed to sum some monumental equation. Consider for a moment, if the double slit experiment is reduced to it's fundamental rule, all conscious "intention/action" is evidence of a binary stream....1 this way...0 that way. I've heard this also described as a co-creative environment. Perhaps that IS the hack. Scary version: Perhaps consciousness itself is the objective of the "hack" but is an affront to the larger system.

this is a reply from 2 years on, why do you call yourself jay-rod;


I wrote this poem. It is titled Between Seasons
In the backyard-- overturned barrels, waterlogged pots the tarp intended to protect uprooted, splayed on the bruised cement. It is reassuring to be told the design will stabilize, branch out from a still point like a voice inside the self. From dead leaves, roots, torn weeds, and broken branches: the cadence of compost dark, golden potential. Patterns will emerge, says the physicist who argues against chaos theory, from the ripped cushion Flung from the chair, from a naked table frame can be deduced the rhythm below, a sublime design in the discard pile, the fact of theory. Linda Pizzi

I listen to your show as often as I can. I usually pick it up on my way to work on the weekends. A few months ago you did a show that was very interesting to me. You spoke about what it is that keeps us from losing our minds with all the bad, frightening, and often painful information we are bombarded with. I would like to read that again but can't remember what the name of the show was. Could you let me know?

I love listening to your show........

The mystery I feel concerning the universe when observing the stars at night is very similar to the mystery and awe I experience when contemplating James Gates mind while listening to this interview.

Dr. Gates' use of pictorial representations for his ideas sounds like sacred geometry and Plato's forms. A related field is the biogeometry of Dr. Ibrahim Karim. This is about the energy of shape and how it affects well-being. For a great introduction to this work see . Dr. Ibrahim would be a great person to interview on On Being.

Good People, Until hearing Dr. Gates' closing story about Music and Scoring compared with Mathematics and Computing, one enormously significant factoid always stood in my way--blocking any reasonable and earnest access to string theory. "How can you NOT prove anything you want to prove when you resort to sets of partial differential equations with eleven variables?" is the mantra in my head for several years now. Perhaps Dr. Gates' story offers the prospect of approaching the "difficult" relationships in modern physics by somehow seeking to see the rain forest a little more coherently--and concisely (and elegantly)?
THANKS for engaging my imagination. - Ralph Palasek, Arlington, Virginia

What a fantastic show! I love sciencey content, especially on NPR, but this is something I did not expect from On Being. The ideas contained in this show are astounding, thought-provoking, and it produced one of those moments where I am really happy to have public radio.

As a mathematician, amateur author and philosopher, I have been exploring the possible cosmologies that arise from the quantum physics models of reality, both in my poetry and in my fiction. Indeed, I have as my status note on GMail that

    "The Universe operates in the Rational number space, but I randomize using the Real number space, therefore I have free will.

" By this I mean that if the universe is a discrete simulation it must operate on the Rational number system, with planck distance and planck time being the cause for the discretization. In this case, eventually (after countably many cycles) all possible states and transitions must be experienced. (Here, countably is in the mathematical sense, the Rational numbers are of course, countable.) But such a universe is deterministic in the weak sense of the word, while if my interactions with the universe are based on the Real number system, then even the Universe cannot tell how I feel about my existence, and cannot predict with even quantum certainly what I will do, which certainly must be one of the oldest definitions of free will.

I enjoyed this talk very much, thanks you!

As a mathematician, amateur author and philosopher, I have been exploring the possible cosmologies that arise from the quantum physics models of reality, both in my poetry and in my fiction. Indeed, I have as my status note on GMail that

    "The Universe operates in the Rational number space, but I randomize using the Real number space, therefore I have free will.

" By this I mean that if the universe is a discrete simulation it must operate on the Rational number system, with planck distance and planck time being the cause for the discretization. In this case, eventually (after countably many cycles) all possible states and transitions must be experienced. (Here, countably is in the mathematical sense, the Rational numbers are of course, countable.) But such a universe is deterministic in the weak sense of the word, while if my interactions with the universe are based on the Real number system, then even the Universe cannot tell how I feel about my existence, and cannot predict with even quantum certainly what I will do, which certainly must be one of the oldest definitions of free will.

I enjoyed this talk very much, thank you!

My knowledge of physics and information science is limited, but this show was inspiring to me as a parish pastor. I couldn't help but think about the first creation story in Genesis in light of the discussion. First, God creates by speaking, and the first thing created is "light". So, there are two things in creation--darkness and light. Could that be the "0 and 1" which underlie everything else? Just a thought. Thanks for another thought-provoking show.

What a beautiful, beautiful voice. He could be talking about anything and I would listen.

Fantastic interview. Krista did a wonderful job as usual. I thoroughly enjoyed S. William Gates, Jr. He has a rare ability to take complex concepts from physics and translate it into lay terms that I can understand. Moreover, Dr. Gates is an extremely thoughtful person and conscientious scientist who understands both the potential and limits of science without pretending that science can do philosophy or metaphysics.

I have posted some thoughts on the interview on my blog.

W. Ockham

Love the show, send me your new address

What a fascinating conversation. I found myself pausing it numerous times to look up the theories and ideas Dr. Gates was discussing so I could have a deeper understanding of his thoughts and claims. The concept that mathematics can be a sensory experience and allow one to see the unseen was what I found to be the most interesting idea in the piece. I appreciated his example of Einstein being the first to “see” the electron via a mathematical equation; something that seems relatively impossible to someone who struggles with elementary elements of math! I was also struck by his disclosure that components fundamental to equations for supersymmetry mirror those found in computer code. I agree with his further explanation that just because two things are found to have similarities does not imply they are related, but agree it would be an interesting avenue to explore!

The overall conversation showed the power of the mathematical equation and its practical implications for everyday life. It moved math from purely scientific, finite discipline to a fluid concept that can address challenges in various disciplines. I appreciated Dr. James’ ability to discuss mathematics in a manner of possibilities and opportunities; his respect and enthusiasm for theoretical physics was evident through the conversation.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'An Essay on Mind' (1826) would be worth your reading Ms. Tippett & Dr. Gates. Post Newton, Science positioned itself as superior and separated from culture. A very young & brilliant EBB wrote this long and detailed poem refusing this idea and declaring poetry / art as the superior process, with all due respect of course. One must also read Goethe's 'Theory of Color'. Similarly, he refused to accept that how the eye sees was something outside of his sight, his eye. I no longer see any of the disciplines as separate but rather in synergy with each other. All this of course very briefly stated.

Professor S. James Gates and it turned out to be right.

Simulation have an "observer" POV. The very subjective act of "observer",simulating complex perception& intelligence, which cannot (yet) be matched even by the best supercomputer cluster is just astonishing. What is this "observer" ? Us? What is "us"? And why somehow we are tempted to relate "us" to the "simulated universe" ?

Is not code in equations, is humans coding to explain nature. Be cautious or your thought can be used like quantum physics is used to explain reincarnation

...What illimitably gripping implications!

James Gates does communicate well and is an engaging personality. However, though he did not dissemble in any way, I think that nonphysicists listeners might come away with some misimpressions from this interview. In particular, I think it worthwhile to note that

1. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever for supersymmetry. The interview is dated 2012. Since then the first physics run at the LHC failed to find any of the predicted particles though many physicists hoped that it would. (That run did find the Higgs, whose prediction does not require supersymmetry.) The failure shocked and dismayed several physicists of my acquaintance.

2. Despite huge and mathematically formidable efforts over almost 30 years
, string theory has not even been able to quantitatively account for what we already know about submicroscopic physics as formulated in the Standard Model. This failure has led some physicists to abandon the effort. I recommend the book 'The Trouble with Physics' by (former) string theorist
Lee Smolins.

This is to try to restore a sense of perspective and is not intended to imply any disrespect for the larger quest for a unifying theory in which the people involved are engaged.

I've always wondered if you could win the Nobel prize for an Idea?

I am not classically trained in anything near having to do with math or physics, but I love it!
Something like intuition drives my mind to the apparent contradictions between Emc2 & quantum physics. Probability theory says ,in my understanding, no matter how impossible something may seem when all other explanations have been proven wrong what remains, no matter how improbable, must be true.
Classical [relativity] physics explains , very accurately , the world around us. Even at an celestial scale down to the macro.
Quantum physics ,on the other hand, describe events so small that it would be impossible to even observe with our limited senses without the help of very powerful measuring instruments, which we haven't always had. Quite frequently we find reality acts in a counterintuitive way on the "Quantum" scale.
Take the propagation of the interference pattern in the famous double slit experiment. We are all familiar with the wave propagation collapse when one or the other sides of the slits are observed to see which side the electron, photon etc.. went through. All the great minds of our time couldn't figure it out but the Quantum physicists came up with the probability equation which they believed explained the electron positioning, but not the collapse. What causes that?
What if classical physics was right after all? Quantum physics says the electron exists as probability. The electron is more likely to be at a crest and less likely at a trough. It exists, according to Quantum theory, as both a wave and a particle! Talk about counter-intuitive.
I propose Quantum Physics is close but ultimately flawed. Take for example so called Quantum Computers. If it was working as these physicist predicted it would have been faster by orders of magnitude than a conventional computer. Well they've built these Quantum Computers , but guess what, they work no faster than conventional computers which seems to imply that their equations Are Flawed!
I also propose that the reason the interference pattern collapses is quite simple, the detector set up at the observing slit blocks the vibrations of the ether that the electrons initiate and "ride" on . I believe the reason photons and electrons behave the way they do, like both a wave and particle, is because they create a wave in the ether [The 99% of the universe we can't perceive possibly] and because they are more buoyant than the ether they ride its "surface" not unlike a ball floating on water.
I also propose the weight of an electron or photon dictates its "frequency", for example a heavier particle will vibrate less than a lighter particle. I also believe an equation can be formulated to describe the ethers mass and/or density by taking into account the weight and frequency of certain particles propagating through space. Using this equation we can take the properties of the matter we can see to describe the density of the "ether" we can't see. This way we may find a tool to help us describe the near, estimated 99% of the universe we cannot observe through conventional methods.
One more interesting thought, these particles that appear to "phase" in and out of existence may merely be the equivalent of a heavier particle being submerged [to take the floating particle on water analogy a little further] intermittently underneath the "surface" of the ether,maybe because its near neutral buoyancy.
I'm thinking Einstein's description could be enhanced if we imagine the part of our observable universe floats on the surface of the ether [which is probably four dimensional]and the Other 99% is just below the surface all around us but submerged where we can't detect. What kind of world lies beneath the surface?

Please consider the number 2 in that binary code. It is the missing link to completing some sequence. I am constantly seeing the 1's and 0's but there are 2's in there as well. I am reminded that Tesla had some connection to 3's which is the sum of 1 and 2. It holds an amazing answer to questions about other dimensions.

Your binary numbers reflect geometry, also you hint at some sort of holographic image. I have some work along these lines that may be of interest.

Printing coded adinkra onto dark matter alloy

I concluded that the Standard Model is a mishmash of 3 theories: EM, Strong, and Weak forces in which each theory leaves its footprint in the theory. Hence it's not a theory of everything especially when it doesn't include gravity. Some scientists have declared that they need a single theory that describes all the forces without recourse to the existing theories.

I believe that unification of the forces is the wrong way of developing a TOE as the results become more and more complex and require higher and higher energies are required to prove them when natural phenomena occur at ordinary temperatures i.e. requires affordable amounts of energy.

I suggest that we take each of the forces of nature in turn and describe the other 3 in terms of the chosen force. The strong and weak forces can't be used because they're short range. That leaves the EM and gravity that can be used. Nobody understands gravity so that one is out for the time being. Einstein gave us a theory for gravity in the form of GR but scientists can't use to explain the other 3 forces. This leaves the EM force.

If you consider protons and neutrons to be made of nuclei of positrons orbited by electrons like atoms; when they combine, they would do so electromagnetically forming nuclear bonds just like atoms form nuclear bonds. This means that the strong force is a manifestation of the EM force. The short range means that bonding can take place only when the nucleons are close enough.

The weak force defines the beta decay especially when the neutron decays into a proton, an electron, and an anti-neutrino. If you consider the structure of the neutron as being made of positrons and electrons, then one of its electrons loses it's place within the neutron - that explains the electron. What's left behind is a positively charged particle - this is the proton. The new theory probably doesn't contain any neutrinos; maybe they're inventions of current scientists who cannot explain what's going on.

According to the definition of antimatter, matter and antimatter annihilate each other into pure energy. And that the proton is a matter particle whereas the positron is an antimatter particle. But, when you put a proton and a positron together, they don't annihilate each other. In fact they repel each other like mad. This proves that antimatter is ill-defined and doesn't exist - it's another invention by scientists who can't explain natural phenomena properly.

Now that we've described the strong and the weak forces in terms of the EM force, it leaves gravity to be described as a manifestation of the EM force. Atoms have very, very tiny nuclei with all the positive charges in them thereby giving the nucleus a very high charge density. The same number of negative charges as positive ones are very thinly spread over huge surface areas of the electron shells giving them a very small charge density. This disparity of charge makes the atoms dipolar which led some scientists to develop a theory called dipole gravity. It's in its embryonic stage of development but it's a better candidate for a TOE than the current mismash of theories that need special conditions to be true.

The new TOE only requires two particles, the electron and the positron, one force of nature, the electromagnetic force, and one boson, the photon, which is the carrier of the EM force. Very neat and simple and only requires 19th century physics to develop and prove it.