One of the shows on my iTunes podcast feed is NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippett. It is a refreshing rarity of a relatively mainstream radio show that offers significant substance on topics relating to religion, philosophy, science and the meaning of life. Last week, On Being aired the replay of an interview with S. James Gates, Jr., a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland known for his work on supersymmetry, supergravity and superstring theory. Gates is distinguished in his field, winning the prestigious National Medal of Science in 2013 and serving on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Now, I am not a scientist, and I do not pretend to be able to discuss these concepts in significant depth. My knowledge on these subjects is limited to the general audience books I have read on these subjects (primarily from Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking). That is why I appreciate listening to people like Professor Gates who have the ability to take complex theoretical physics and “dumb it down” for non-scientists like me so that we can grasp the main points he is making.
My prior exposure to Professor Gates was limited to Gates’ appearances on NOVA’s series “The Elegant Universe” and a few assorted appearances on History Channel, Science Channel and the like. I was not previously exposed to an in-depth view of Professor Gates’ thoughts so I had no preconceived notions. However, as I was listening to the On Being interview with Professor Gates, I became fascinating with both his scientific work but more importantly, his articulation of the relationship between science and philosophy.
You can find links to the podcast, transcript and background material here. However, I would like to summarize three points from the interview.
Adinkras and the Nature of Reality.
One of Professor Gates’ major work in recent years is a paper on adinkras, which was published in Physics World in June 2010. Adinkras are geometric objects that encode mathematical relationships between supersymmetric particles.
“we were led first to a graphical technology, something we called the adinkras. This is a word that comes from traditional West Africa languages. But we found these mathematical objects which sit inside of the equations with the property of supersymmetry.
Then secondly, even more shocking for us, when we analyzed these objects very carefully, we found out that they have attributes of ones and zeros in precisely the same way that computers use ones and zeros to send digital information. And in particular, the kinds of codes we found, which was the most shocking thing for us, is that there’s a class of codes that allow your browsers to work in an accurate way. They’re called error-correcting codes. We found a role for error correcting codes in the equations of supersymmetry, and this was just stunning for us.
In fact, it was so stunning that it was at least eight months before any of us would sort of admit how bizarre it was.”
To provide a very brief summary, when searching for the mathematics to reconcile the standard model with supersymmetry, Professor Gates found a class of codes that may explain the standard model. In the words of Professor Gates:
“Could it be that codes, in some deep and fundamental way, control the structure of our reality?”
Theological Implications of Adinkras
The theological implications of the potential existence of adinkras are obvious: if there are computer-like codes embedded in the very nature of supersymmetry, they are additional evidence of a Creator. This subject was briefly mentioned in the On Point interview with reference to “a religious blogger, also a scientifically literate person,” who was discussing this subject. I do not know who the blogger is but I strongly suspect it is Catholic Commentary, a UK blog who published an article on this topic shortly after the Physics World came out. As Professor Gates said in the interview:
“About the adinkras and the codes. This blogger, who, to this day, I don’t know this young man, read the article and he raised the question that, if the equations of fundamental physics are based on information theory and essentially information theory is at the very center of string theory, how did it get there? And his implication is that indeed this is something for theologians to contemplate. You know, that was, again, for me a stunning assertion and it still has yet to be fully studied. But it probably will not be studied by physicists [laugh].
Relationship Between Science and Theology
The other item that struck me in Professor Gates’ interview was that he understood and clearly articulated the symbiotic relationship between science and theology. The interview did not go into Gates’ own beliefs (or lack thereof), nor was I able to find much on his personal beliefs on the internet. However, a 2009 article from the Cornell Daily Sun summarized a speech by Professor Gates:
“Gates said instances like the Big Bang and human evolution tend to affirm matters spiritual — an origin of the universe, and the common link of all humans, no matter their race. But in most instances, Gates believes science is mute on matters spiritual — science neither affirms nor denies spirituality. . . Science, which Gates said is defined as the study of reproducible observations, has no laboratory experiment that can deal with spiritual matters. As such, science was “mute” on religion, and thus had no ability to refute spirituality or the existence of God. “
Further, although I was unable to find out whether Professor Gates has any religious beliefs (in the extended On Being podcast he says he grew up Anglican and won an award in high school for being able to memorize the Bible), the language he uses certainly suggests he does. Further, Professor Gates has a deep respect for Christianity. In describing James Maxwell, a leading 19th century theoretical physicist, Gates emphasizes his strong Christian beliefs:
“Maxwell is a hero to Gates — both being theoretical physicists with a firm faith in God. Gates expressed disappointment in how few people know of the man.
‘Most people have never heard of James Clerk Maxwell, which is rather odd,’ Gates said, ‘since many fields would not exist in the form they do today without him.’
Gates described how Maxwell, in addition to being devoted to theoretical physics, memorized verses from the Bible. ‘This is one of the three greatest physicists who ever lived, and he was a devout, traditional Christian,’ Gates said. ‘He did not see a wall between the two.’ “
In summary, it was a fantastic interview with Professor Gates and I encourage you to listen to it. I am sure I messed up some of the science description, but perhaps some of this blog’s readers on these subjects, especially those who are more knowledgeable in science than I am (e.g. Professor Erik Andrulis who runs a great blog who pushes my ability to understand the science).