Leading Theoretical Physicist to Discuss Einstein's Political Side

A trail-blazing black physicist whose groundbreaking work on string theory might one day help explain the ultimate nature of the universe will speak at the University of Houston Friday. 

Sylvester James Gates Jr., a physics professor at the University of Maryland, will discuss Albert Einstein’s little-known but progressive views on race and civil rights when he delivers the latest installment of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Dean’s Lecture Series. 

The talk will begin at 1 p.m. Sept. 21 in Room 117 of the Science and Research Building 1 (SR 1). 

Gates is the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major U.S. research university. He is widely known in the field of theoretical physics as a leading expert on string theory, which posits that the building blocks of space, time and matter are tiny string-like particles that vibrate at resonant frequencies.

String theorists seek to explain all of the fundamental forces of nature – including quantum mechanics and general relativity – in one theory. The potential of this “theory of everything” to reveal how the universe works at the most microscopic level has made it the subject of popular science works in recent years. Among these was a lengthy PBS production about string theory that featured Gates and other leading physicists. 

Gates has been at the vanguard of the movement since his doctoral dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the university’s first on supersymmetry. He later received the American Physical Society’s first Edward A. Bouchet Award and was named the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at UM.

He and other theoretical physicists follow in the footsteps of Einstein, who also searched for a unified theory of physics. While the public is familiar with Einstein the genius, Gates will shed light on Einstein the civil rights advocate. 

Einstein’s emigration to the U.S. from Nazi Germany made him sensitive to the discrimination endured by blacks in America. He co-chaired the American Crusade to End Lynching and denounced racism in his speeches.

Gates’ lecture is the third in the series, which began earlier this year. These talks are designed to expose minority students to the possibilities of research and encourage them to pursue graduate studies in science and engineering. It is sponsored by the NSM Office of the Dean, the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) and the Houston-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (H-LAMP).

Gates speaks frequently on the need to better educate black youth in science, math and technology and was featured in the PBS series “Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America.” He earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and math, as well as his Ph.D. in physics, from MIT. He co-authored “Superspace or 1001 Lessons in Supersymmetry.”

The lecture series will wrap up for the year in November when it hosts Valerie Taylor, head of the computer science department at Texas A&M University.

For more information about the lecture, contact Christina Chan, UH-AGEP director, at (713) 743-3242 or agep@nsm.uh.edu.