Glenn Loury
The Glenn Show 🎙️
Sylvester Gates – Diversifying the Scientific Imagination
Sylvester Gates – Diversifying the Scientific Imagination

My guest this week is the distinguished physicist Sylvester “Jim” Gates. Jim was my colleague at Brown for years (he’s now at the University of Maryland), and we’re both alumni of MIT. Jim has made pathbreaking contributions to areas of physics that laymen like me can barely understand—he’s a deep, deep guy. He’s also got some thoughts on race and diversity in the sciences that give us an opportunity for some friendly debate.

Jim begins by introducing supersymmetry, a subfield in physics he helped to define back in the ‘70s. It’s extremely complex stuff, but he breaks it down. We spend the bulk of our time, though, talking about race in the sciences. Jim stresses the value that diversity plays in an under-recognized aspect of scientific innovation: imagination. In Jim’s view, while tests are important, there are limits to what they can tell us about who is most likely to produce the next big advance in any scientific field, just as there are limits to what tests can tell us about the competency of any given student. He uses himself as an example of a student who was average when he started grad school but managed to transform himself into a cutting-edge researcher. He sees value in giving weight to diversity, and even to continuing affirmative action, but there are limits. He worries, for example, that DEI initiatives classifying basic practices like homework and demanding excellence as “white” are going too far, just as he thinks speakers with unpopular views should be met with debate rather than cancelation.

It’s a pleasure to sit down with a scientist as distinguished as Jim Gates. I think you’ll be seeing more of him on The Glenn Show in the future.

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0:00 What led Jim to the forefront of physics

7:53 Jim explains supersymmetry

11:50 Is there racism in the sciences?

18:12 The role of culture and imagination in the sciences

28:47 The scientific “big bang” in Europe

33:03 How Jim accounts for racial disparities in test scores

49:35 Jim: “Genius” is a verb

54:18 Why Jim worries about DEI and cancelation

Recorded February 6, 2023

Links and Readings

Clarence Williams’s book, Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999

Jim’s essay, “Equity vs. Excellence: A False Dichotomy in Science and Society”

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Physicist Stephon Alexander’s TGS appearance

Stephon Alexander’s book, The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link between Music and the Structure of the Universe

Stephon Alexander’s book, Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics


Glenn Loury

The Glenn Show 🎙️

Weekly conversations on race, inequality, and more, with Glenn Loury. Bi-weekly appearances by John McWhorter.