Physicist Jim Gates on decoding string theory, the cosmos

World Science Festival
Prof. Sylvester James Gates Jr. at the 2008 World Science Festival in New York City.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Physicist Jim Gates knew he wanted to study science at the age of 8. Reading a book from his dad about space travel, Gates said he realized that "the stars in the sky were not just lights but places to go. And suddenly my universe got very much larger and I knew that science was the way, science and technology, the way to get to such places."

Today, Gates has been recognized worldwide for his work and his inspiration of others through his ability to explain complex scientific theory in layman's terms. Earlier this year, he received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.

"The joy of discovery, it's almost indescribable," Gates said in The Washington Post. "To solve a problem and be the first human being to solve that problem, that's a feeling that's unlike almost anything I can describe. And that happens. And so that's a very special treasure in life for people like me."

Much of his work focuses on string theory. He explains it in 30 seconds for PBS:

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He hopes his string theory research finds the first signs of supersymmetry and a unification of the four forces of nature, he tells NOVA:

For about 2,000 years essentially all of our physics has been based on billiard balls. The technical name is geometrical point particle, but the idea at the end of the day was that if you can figure out how billiard balls work, then you can actually figure out everything. It got us to the moon, it got us computers, it got us all sorts of marvelous technologies that we now take for granted. But these billiard balls also ran us into a conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics. String theory seems to get us out of this. I think Einstein would be extremely happy with the way things developed, because he called for a unified field theory long before anyone else imagined that such a thing was possible, and string theory very definitely is a unified field theory.

Gates joins The Daily Circuit to discuss string theory and other mysteries of the cosmos. He's one of the featured speakers at the 49th annual Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College Oct. 2.