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*by S. James Gates*

*Physicists have long sought to describe the universe in terms of equations. Now, 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.*

* Complex ideas, complex shapes Adinkras — geometric objects that encode mathematical relationships between supersymmetric particles — are named after symbols that represent wise sayings in West African culture. This adinkra is called “*nea onnim no sua a, ohu

In the land of theoretical physics, equations have always been king. Indeed, it would probably be fair to caricature theoretical physicists as members of a company called “Equations-R-Us”, since we tend to view new equations as markers of progress.

The modern era of equation prediction began with Maxwell in 1861, continued through the development of Einstein’s equations of general relativity in 1916, and reached its first peak in the 1920s with the Schrödinger and Dirac equations. Then a second, postwar surge saw the development of equations describing the strong force and the electroweak force, culminating in the creation of the Standard Model of particle physics in about 1973. The equations trend continues today, with the ongoing struggle to create comprehensive equations to describe superstring theory. This effort — which aims to incorporate the force of gravity into physical models in a way that the Standard Model does not — marks the extant boundary of a long tradition.

Yet equations are not the only story. To an extent, geometrical representations of physical theories have also been useful when correctly applied. The most famous incorrect geometrical representation in physics is probably Johannes Kepler’s model of planetary orbits; initially, Kepler believed the orbits could be described by five regular polygons successively embedded within each other, but he abandoned this proposition when more accurate data became available.

A less well known but much more successful example of geometry applied to physics is Murray Gell-Mann’s “eightfold way”, which is a means of organizing subatomic particles. This organization has an underlying explanation using triangles with quarks located at the vertices.

For the past five years, I and a group of my colleagues (including Charles Doran, Michael Faux, Tristan Hubsch, Kevin Iga, Greg Landweber and others) have been following the geometric-physics path pioneered by Kepler and Gell-Mann. The geometric objects that interest us are not triangles or octagons, but more complicated figures known as “adinkras”, a name Faux suggested.

The word “adinkra” is of West African etymology, and it originally referred to visual symbols created by the Akan people of Ghana and the Gyamen of Côte d’Ivoire to represent concepts or aphorisms. However, the mathematical adinkras we study are really only linked to those African symbols by name. Even so, it must be acknowledged that, like their forebears, mathematical adinkras also represent concepts that are difficult to express in words. Most intriguingly, they may even contain hints of something more profound — including the idea that our universe could be a computer simulation, as in the Matrix films.

Tagged: #adinkras #astrophysics #cosmos #mathematics #physics #science #string theory #supersymmetry #longreads

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*by Susan Leem, associate producer*

S. James Gates is known for pioneering supersymmetry, a theory that could “explain some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, such as how elementary particles got their mass.” There’s actually a symmetry between these two fundamental entities that compose the universe, invisible partners with names like selectrons (partner of electrons) and photinos (partner of photons). Gates shares with us a scientist’s rich, connected way of looking at the universe, “where we become essential to the universe.”

We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Look for our show with him in the coming weeks, and follow us next time at @BeingTweets.

- "My understanding of the word ‘space’ is so different than my understanding of space at age 4 or age 8." -Professor James Gates 1:10 PM, 25 Jan
- “I ended up at MIT which itself was a dream…a school where you studied the good stuff.” -Professor James Gates 1:14 PM, 25 Jan
- "It’s about balance…we humans, it seems like we’re coded to look for symmetry." - Professor James Gates 1:19 PM, 25 Jan
- "It shows up in our art and music, but if the world were perfectly symmetrical we could not exist." -Professor James Gates 1:25 PM, 25 Jan
- "The Higgs particle we believe is responsible for the creation of mass for everything else in the universe." -James Gates 1:26 PM, 25 Jan
- "With string theory we have a view of the universe where we become essential to the universe." -Professor James Gates 1:30 PM, 25 Jan
- "We become part and parcel of what our universe is in a way I’ve never seen done in science before." -Professor James Gates 1:31 PM, 25 Jan
- “In many cultures the act of naming is regarded as a very powerful thing.” –Professor James Gates 1:33 PM, 25 Jan
- “If science conjures, it’s when we get a clear picture of something we didn’t know and give it a name.” -Professor James Gates 1:35 PM, 25 Jan
- "Math is an extrasensory organ for those who learn to use it that way." -Professor James Gates 1:36 PM, 25 Jan
- “I’m a hidden-dimensional refusenik.” -Professor James Gates 1:38 PM, 25 Jan
- "It’s almost like the equations are trying to tell you a story." -Professor James Gates 1:40 PM, 25 Jan
- "When you do the calculations, it seems there’s an imperative to follow the path." -Professor James Gates 1:41 PM, 25 Jan
- "We’re not trying to find solutions, we’re looking at the structures of the equations…like DNA." -Professor James Gates 1:47 PM, 25 Jan
- “Adinkras have existed in West African cultures for a very long time. They are symbols that have hidden meaning.” -James Gates 1:54 PM, 25 Jan
- An Adinkra: “He who does not know can become knowing by education.”

-Professor James Gates 1:56 PM, 25 Jan - “A large fraction of the fundamental science done at this point has been inward-looking.” -Professor James Gates 2:01 PM, 25 Jan
- "Science in my experience does not permit us the illusion of certainty." -Professor S. James Gates 2:10 PM, 25 Jan

- "We are forced by the structure of science to recognize human fallibility, human limits." -Professor S. James Gates 2:12 PM, 25 Jan

- "By embracing our limits, by embracing our fallibility we become more knowledgeable." -Professor and physicist S. James Gates 2:14 PM, 25 Jan

*Photo of S. James Gates by John Consoli/University of Maryland*

Tagged: #James Gates #Physics #String theory #Supersymmetry #Twitterscript #science #astronomy #cosmology #string theory

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