By George Tatoris
One day, Sylvester James Gates, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and a pioneer in the field of supersymmetry, was observing one of his classes solve a physics problem in groups.
One group of three caught Gates’s eye. While two students were fighting in front of the chalkboard over how to solve the problem — “spinning their wheels,” according to Gates — the third stepped up to the board, scribbled an equation and sat back down without a word.
It took the two others a moment to notice what the third had written, but when they did, they realized it was the correct answer. The next class the same thing happened, but this time one of the two at the board turned to the third and asked, “How did you guess that?”
“I don’t guess,” the third said.
Gates noted that the two students at the chalkboard were a part of the majority demographic of the class, however, the third was a part of the minority.
Gates shared this story at the second annual Barbara Meyers Pelson ’59 Lecture — entitled “Einstein v. Roberts, Diversity & Faculty Engagement” — on March 21 in Mayo Concert Hall. He was there to explain the importance of diversity in a science class.
Gates holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and was the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major university in the U.S. He also co-authored “Superspace, or One Thousand and One Lesson in Supersymmetry,” the first comprehensive book written on supersymmetry, an attempt to fill the holes in the current Standard Model of the universe.
Between his research and media appearances in NOVA programs, Gates served on former President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In 2013, Obama awarded Gates the National Medal of Science for his contributions.
Gates wrote an essay in 1995 on why diversity is important in science. It was entitled “Equity Vs. Excellence: A False Dichotomy In Science And Society,” and since then, he’s been an advocating for more diversity.
In Mayo, Gates first pointed to an example everyone in the audience could relate to — American styles of music. Rock ‘n’ roll, Gates said, was created by Western musicians “having a conversation” with African musicians. The styles of music blended to create something new and exciting.
Like music, mathematics also has different styles, Gates said. Looking back at mathematical literature from centuries ago reveals a stylistic shift from today’s literature, according to Gates. If you have an eye for seeing these mathematical styles, you might also notice differences in literature across different countries, races and cultures.
Gates also used the example of diversity in biology. The more diverse a species, the better equipped it is for survival.
With more diversity comes more styles of thinking and viewing science. With more diversity, scientists can be better equipped to make discoveries.
“Diversity enhances innovation. That’s what we learn from these examples,” Gates said.
In the case of science, like with art, Gates believes imagination beats knowledge.
“Knowledge is like a finite ball. It has an edge beyond which we don’t know the answers,” Gates said. “But If you come back in 10 years… you’ll notice we have more knowledge.”
But how did the ball get bigger? The answer is imagination, according to Gates.
Scientists need to think creatively or irrationally to create new knowledge, according to Gates. Reflecting on his time at MIT, he noted that whenever he’d get an answer right in class, it was because he was thinking “out in left field” away from everyone else.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge because it’s the mechanism by which we increase it,” Gates said.
Having access to a more diverse group of styles of thinking can really impact scientific progress. If there is just one or more people in a group of scientists that can think outside the box, the possibility of success increases greatly.
“If you’re trying to solve a problem where maybe one of those crazy ideas of yours is the exact key to solving the problem, that means collectively, if you’re looking at a group of scientists, the group is more capable of making progress,” Gates said.
Gates referenced a world where there were only classical musicians. Such a world would be “much more limited,” he said. Diversity enriches music and much more.
Sheen S. Levine, an assistant professor of organizations, strategy and international management at the University of Texas at Dallas, quantified Gates’s observations with an experiment involving traders and bubbles. Two groups — one homogenous and one heterogeneous — traded in the stock market.
The more diverse group matched true prices 58 percent better than the homogenous group because members of the homogenous group were less likely to question their peers. The same experiment was conducted in North America and Asia.
A well-known physicist and personal idol of Gates, Albert Einstein, would have been overjoyed to see Levine’s results. Einstein was both a man of science and a man of conscience. He condemned racism.
Einstein referred to racism as a “disease of white people” in a 1946 speech at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first school in America to let blacks earn degrees.
In a 2013 court case, Fisher v. University of Texas, the plaintiff fought affirmative action, claiming she was not let into the university because she was white. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, the judge in that case, asked in 2015, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?”
Gates penned a response titled “Einstein v. Roberts,” identifying Einstein as another minority that brought a creative approach to science.
“Why Einstein?” Gates asked. “Well, Einstein was Jewish and he lived in Germany as a child — that made him a minority, and, therefore, many of the kinds of things I experienced in my life, he had experienced as a child in Germany.”