STAG Online Lecture

On Wednesday 12th May Southampton University organised an on-line public lecture called ”People No One Can Imagine Anything Of”. In previous years I would have taken a minibus of students down to the University theatre to watch the lecture, but due to restrictions Southampton University decided to live-stream its STAG lecture.

I was delighted to learn that almost all the A Level Physics students would be attending; I am not sure whether the titled inspired them or the lure of pizza and nibbles and time to hang out with their friends contributed to the high attendance!

The talk was given by Sylvester James “Jim” Gates, Jr., who is an American theoretical physicist. He received his Ph.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is well known for work in supersymmetry, supergravity and string theory, as well as for his advocacy for science and science education in the United States and abroad.

The inspiration for his talk came from two famous scientist:

  • Einstein who said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

and

  • Turing who said, "Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine."

The speaker took inspiration from these quotes to solve a fifty-year-old puzzle in theoretical physics and the presentation described his journey.

I must admit feeling a little apprehensive at the start as supersymmetry, supergravity and string theory are not a field of Physics that I have much knowledge of. Luckily it was a gentle start taking us through particle physics and we were all able to keep up.  The presentation continued to review the latest discoveries, such as the discovery of more hadrons at the LHC and gravitational waves.

We seemed to cope well, discussing a few points as they came up and working out what was meant by the “wiggle” of particles. The students studying mathematics seemed delighted that the subject was referred to as “the language of physics”, but a few eyebrows were raised when he mentioned that when they hit a problem they just invented new maths! I guess that is where we gain inspiration from Einstein and develop our creativity.

I think that we would all admit that probably the last section had all of our minds blown, with the theory flying over our heads. There was a Q&A session at the end and we were delighted to have our question answered (What role has computer science played in your research?); the speaker became very animated and advised that it is important for physicists to learn how to code, although his coding had been done in Fortran!

In reality I never expected to understand it all (I really am more of a practical rather than theoretical physicist), but I came away inspired and excited about the subject; I have even ordered “The little Book of String Theory” to see if I can make more sense of it all. It was a delight for us to be able to have access to somebody so passionate and inspirational about their subject. Our aim as teachers at TWA is to inspire our students and I hope that this event was able to do that.

Michela Raymond

 

General info about the speaker I did not include:

He held a number of prestigious positions first at the University of Maryland and after 2017 in Brown University. Gates served on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 2009-2016. He has been elected in numerous Societies and Academies and is a past president of National Society of Black Physicists and the current president of the American Physical Society. He received the 2011 National Medal of Science, the highest award given to scientists in the USA.