Sylvester James Gates, Jr., professor of Physics at the University of Maryland, traces his early childhood roots as a lover of science and math.
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Sylvester James Gates, Jr. on Becoming a Physicist Question: What drew you to math at a young age? Gates: My first fascination with math, I have this first conscious memory of sort of thinking about it, goes back to when I was age eight. Mathematics in our family is something we kind of like. My grandfather could neither read nor write, but he could do simple arithmetic. My dad never graduated from high school, but during the period when he was trying to get an equivalency exam he studied mathematics. So I remember watching him learning trigonometry and algebra. And, you know, that’s kind of unusual to watch your dad learn mathematics. And then I always did well in school in mathematical subjects also. So it’s kind of the family bug. My kids like mathematics, interestingly enough. So we’re just like- you know, we’re fond of it. But this conscious memory that you ask about goes to a specific event. When I was about nine years old, dad had bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I was paging through one day and I found this thing that was clearly mathematics because it had equal signs in it, it had plus signs in it, but the rest of it, as the saying goes, was Greek to me. It was literally Greek symbols. And the equation that I saw was one of the most important equations for understanding the world of the very small; it’s called a Schrodinger equation. And for me, this thing felt like walking along a beach, seeing a very beautiful and shiny shell, looking at it, and saying gee, I wonder what made this. And so that’s the reaction I had to it. Question: What is the Schrödinger equation? Gates: Well, a lot of people have heard about quantum theory, this sort of spooky behavior that goes on when you look at parts of our universe that are extremely small like atoms. So you need to have a precise understanding of how these tiny objects work. And the way that science does this is we have found that there’s only one human language that is accurately constructed enough so that we can describe nature and that language turns out to be mathematics. So when we write our equations, we’re actually trying to describe something. So the Schrodinger equation is the first equation that describes the quantum weirdness that electrons and atoms demonstrate and which allow us to build things like cell phones.