For Elite Physicists, Einstein Remains a Potent Force for Science and Humanity
S. James Gates Jr.
S. James Gates Jr. is a pioneering modern physicist, but when he came to AAAS Sunday to discuss the influence of Albert Einstein, he focused less on Einstein's Theory of General Relativity than on his creativity, spirituality and humanity.
In an eloquent and wide-ranging homage at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Gates dispensed with the characterizations of Einstein as an aloof genius whose equations earned him rock-star status. Instead, looking beyond Einstein's well-known intellect and accomplishments, he described a man who had problems in romance, who was pained by racism and who had a deep, if unconventional, religious sensibility.
Guided by that legacy, Gates said, scientists should engage in a "respectful" debate with proponents who want faith-based "intelligent design" given equal billing with evolution in American public school science classes.
Gates said that he is one among many people who find no conflict between dedication to science and personal faith. To reject the challenge "would be a betrayal of our cautiousness in approaching the gaining of wisdom," he said. "Secondly, history shows that faith-based communities do have the power to turn off science." But, he added, "Those who would join the inhuman perfection of religion to the human imperfection of science do both grave damage.
"Unless we rigorously and openly engage this debate, our nation will move into the third millennium educating young ones who will be less than able to continue the progress we have made so far."
Gates' address was the cap of a day-long series of symposia and lectures on Einstein's scientific influence, held as the opening U.S. event in the World Year of Physics celebration. The event, co-sponsored by the American Physical Society, brought together more than a dozen influential physicists and Einstein scholars to mark the centennial of his "annus mirabilis"the publication of the three papers on energy, light and time that forever altered our understanding of the physical universe.
Sunday's event came at a time of simmering conflict in American culture. String theory, which posits the unifying explanation of physical mechanics that escaped Einstein, is being featured in popular books and television shows; at the same time, a large bloc of the American public seems unaware ofor hostile tosome of the most commonly accepted facts and principles of science.
During several symposia, physicists discussed such alluring yet elusive concepts as frozen light, covariant electrodynamics, dark energy and the notion that gravity is a function of space and time. Sometimes they communicated more in equations than in words. Often, however, they spoke passionately about the challenge of scientific exploration, the need for engagement with the public, their worries over diminishing student interest in physics and the perceived risks of the current political and social climate.
They also detailed the many technological advances that had been made possible by physics, from radio and nuclear power to radar, global positioning systems and nanotechnology. (Einstein himself once designed a refrigerator, but its patent was bought and the machine apparently was never produced.)
Elias Zerhouni and Neal Lane
Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, talked about broad advances made in medical imaging since the 1970s, and the ways that biology and physics will come together in pioneering study on the brain.
Neal Lane, a former director of the National Science Foundation who served as the chief science adviser to President Bill Clinton, proposed that physicists might take a lead role in solving the energy challenges that will confront the world in the next 50 years.
And Barry Barish, the Linde Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, announced a plan to recruit thousands of members of the publicand their home computersto help search the universe for gravitational waves that were predicted by Einstein.
Barish is the director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave ObservatoryLIGO for shortwhich has facilities in Washington and Louisiana. LIGO is the first of its kind: a large, supersensitive system of laser beams intended to observe gravitational waves, which are believed to flow from cataclysmic events such as the collapse of a star.
The "Einstein@Home" project has already recruited 7,000 volunteers during a test phase of the all-sky search. "Maybe one of you can be the one who observes gravitational radiation, the collapse of a star, a gamma ray burst, or a collision of black holes," he said. "Any of those can work [to cause gravity waves]."
After the session, Barish explained the importance of the project. "Everything we know about the universe comes from looking at electromagnetic radiationlight," he said. "Gravity waves would provide a completely different way of looking at the universe."
Gates began to wonder about the universe as a young student in the 1950s and '60s. After attending a segregated school in Orlando, Fla., he took a physics class in 11th grade and was hooked. Though he doubted that he'd be accepted at MIT, his parents urged him on and he won admission, gaining in four years a degree mathematics and one in physics. Later he served on the faculties at MIT and Howard University. Currently he is the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland, the first African American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major American research university.
Early he focused his studies on supersymmetry, and now is widely regarded as a pioneer in the search for a new understanding of physical reality. His research, in the areas of the mathematical and theoretical physics of supersymmetric particles, fields and strings, covers topics such as the physics of quarks, gravity, and unified field theoriesinterests which make him a direct descendant of Einstein. He also is regarded as a top teacher at Maryland, known for his mentorship to aspiring scientists.
To understand Einstein, Gates suggested, it is necessary to pull back the husk of popular myth and adulation, and to see him as a man. In his later years, he was troubled because in the public imagination, he was so closely associated with the atom bomb. Two marriages ended in failure.
As a Jew arriving before Europe in the years of Hitler's gathering power, Einstein was "grateful and joyous to be an American," Gates added. But he also was troubled by systemic racism in his new country, and reached out to African Americans in Princeton in friendship and support. "Einstein clearly informs us about the unity of our species," he said.
Einstein stressed that imagination is as important as skill to the scientist, and that is a matter that preoccupies Gates. He sees the diminished interest in sciences among students, and the misconceptions in large parts of the public; he believes that they do not recognize the creative and even playful character of science. Math, he says, is like musiclike jazz, even like rap. It is a different way of describing the world, and, like music, it can be sensitive and eloquent.
"This is one of the things we must press in our discussions, especially with young people," he said. "It is young people who bring a fresh, new eye to whatever problems the world may possess, including the problems of science."
Gates' encouragement of students, and his interest in firm but respectful dialogue on the intelligent design controversy, are characteristic of his efforts at constructive engagement. And as his talk closed, he put the current conflicts in a more timeless context, expressing amazement at how the big bang that produced the universe roughly 14 billion years ago had given rise to the earth, and life, and consciousness.
"The universe has spent all this time developing one copy of you," he concluded, "through transitions of energy, matter, time and space, which represents to my mind a kind of preciousness that every individual conscious on this planet possesses. How then are we able to discount other human beings?
"Each one of them represents the same effort by this universe in which we live. To me, this is the greatest legacy of Albert Einstein."
See also the complete text of Gates' speech.
Edward W. Lempinen
21 February 2005