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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

This symbol represents why I remain buoyed by the Internet. Knowledge and learning resurfaces in unexpected ways, and then catapults itself to our list of top blog posts after a two-year hiatus.
The string theorist S. James Gates wrote an article for Physics World titled "Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality." Here he 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.

This symbol represents why I remain buoyed by the Internet. Knowledge and learning resurfaces in unexpected ways, and then catapults itself to our list of top blog posts after a two-year hiatus.

The string theorist S. James Gates wrote an article for Physics World titled "Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality." Here he 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.


Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality

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.

Adinkra by Mat WardComplex 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,” which translates as “he who does not know can become knowledgeable through learning.”

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.

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Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge

by Krista Tippett, host

I interviewed James Gates once before, a few years ago, when we were creating our show on Einstein’s ethics. We talked then about Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his childhood in segregated schools — experiences he does not take for granted now that he is a preeminent, African-American physicist. But what I was so taken by in that conversation years ago was how he explained Einstein’s social activism in terms of the values and virtues of scientific pursuit. He spoke of empathy as a potential byproduct of the process of discovery. A scientist’s “What if…” questions can evolve into human “What if…” questions.

S. James GatesJames Gates’ capacity to share both from his humanity and his life in science strikes me again, and comes through even more forcefully during our more recent conversation in “Uncovering the Codes for Reality.” This time, I spoke with him about his particular passions. He is a string theorist, with a special emphasis on supersymmetry — a quality in the universe which, if demonstrated, might help support string theory as a way to reconcile the greatest puzzle modern physics has tried to solve since Einstein. Simply put, the universe seems to follow different rules at the highest and the smallest levels of reality. String theory imagines that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, all of reality is brought into being by filaments of energy. These “strings” might span the whole of reality, and possibly explain why gravity behaves so differently from varying vantage points. Some leading string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions — far more than the three or four dimensions we are equipped to experience.

That is about how far I comprehend the idea behind string theory. The lovely thing about a conversation with James Gates is that my incomprehension does not matter. He gives me much to chew on, and be enriched by.

For starters, he is just the latest voice — others include the astrophysicist Mario Livio, and the astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — to let me in to the secrets and power of science’s language of mathematics. He calls mathematics a kind of sixth sense — an organ of “extrasensory perception” — for scientists. By way of mathematics, scientists perceived and described the atom years before microscopes sophisticated enough to view them could be invented. Now, with mathematics, he and his colleagues are tracing clues and cosmic hints that may never be provable with our five senses — but that may shift our very sense of the nature of reality.

One of the things James Gates and some of his colleagues have “seen,” for example, are underlying codes embedded in the cosmos — error-correcting codes, like those that drive computer programs. (Full disclosure: he’s a fan of The Matrix — so am I — and we hear a little bit of that iconic movie in our one-hour podcast.) This is just one of many observations he makes that raises questions, he says, that physics alone can neither answer nor probe.

Cover of Physics World June 2010He is also working on an interesting frontier of expanding science’s own imagination about mathematical equations in describing reality. He and his colleagues have recently employed something called adinkras, visual symbols that may be able to unlock truths that equations alone cannot capture, just as there are truths that only poetry can convey.

There’s also a lot of fodder for one of my fascinations with the realm of science — the creative, playful, even spiritual act of naming things, especially in physics: beauty quarks and anti-beauty quarks, sizzling black holes, and superstrings, for example. The term adinkras, which comes from West Africa tradition and connotes pictures having hidden meaning, carries on this tradition.

James Gates’ own delight is infectious and illuminating, as much when he is letting us in on mysteries of the cosmos as when he shares the human lessons of his life in science. I’ll leave you with this, for example, as an enticement. When I asked him what he thought of Einstein’s statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said he had puzzled over this for many years:

"For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it’s constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.

So how could it be that play is more important than knowledge? It took me years to figure out an answer. And the answer turns out [to be] rather strange… Imagination is more important than knowledge because imagination turns out to be the vehicle by which we increase knowledge. And so, if you don’t have imagination, you’re not going to get more knowledgeable.”

String Theorist S. James Gates: A Twitterscript

by Susan Leem, associate producer

S. James GatesS. 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.

  1. "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 

  2. “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 

  3. "It’s about balance…we humans, it seems like we’re coded to look for symmetry." - Professor James Gates 1:19 PM, 25 Jan 

  4. "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 

  5. "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 

  6. "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 

  7. "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 

  8. “In many cultures the act of naming is regarded as a very powerful thing.” –Professor James Gates 1:33 PM, 25 Jan 

  9. “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 

  10. "Math is an extrasensory organ for those who learn to use it that way." -Professor James Gates 1:36 PM, 25 Jan 

  11.  “I’m a hidden-dimensional refusenik.” -Professor James Gates 1:38 PM, 25 Jan 

  12. "It’s almost like the equations are trying to tell you a story." -Professor James Gates 1:40 PM, 25 Jan

  13. "When you do the calculations, it seems there’s an imperative to follow the path." -Professor James Gates 1:41 PM, 25 Jan

  14. "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

  15. “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

  16. An Adinkra: “He who does not know can become knowing by education.”
    -Professor James Gates 1:56 PM, 25 Jan

  17. “A large fraction of the fundamental science done at this point has been inward-looking.” -Professor James Gates 2:01 PM, 25 Jan

  18. "Science in my experience does not permit us the illusion of certainty." -Professor S. James Gates 2:10 PM, 25 Jan

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

  20. "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