AAAS Press Release: Public Understanding of Science Award

Public release date: 14-Feb-2007

Contact: Lonnie Shekhtman


American Association for the Advancement of Science

Physicist S. James Gates, Jr. receives AAAS award

2006 AAAS Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award goes to University of Maryland physicist

SAN FRANCISCO -- AAAS, the world's largest general scientific society, today named physicist S. James Gates, Jr. of the University of Maryland as the winner of the 2006 Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award for his outstanding contributions to the popularization of science.

Gates, the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at Maryland, is an engaging lecturer and an enthusiastic guide to the often bewildering world of particle physics and string theory. He has published widely in the technical literature, but also has shown a knack for explaining difficult concepts of physics in clear language. As he once told an interviewer, "I'm one of those scientists that sort of feels that as scientists, we owe our public open reports on what it is that we do in their name."

Gates says he developed an interest in physics and math when he was about eight years old and his father brought home a book about space travel. "And in this book I learned that the stars in the sky were not just lights but places to go," Gates said. "And suddenly my universe got very much larger." He learned that science and technology might provide a way to get such places. Science also provides a way to understand the cosmos, a challenge that Gates has been pursuing through his studies of such topics as supersymmetrical particles, strings and unified theories of the sort envisioned by Albert Einstein.

When Gates was named the first Toll professor at Maryland, he became the first African American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major research university in the United States. He received his B.S. degree in mathematics and physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973 and his Ph.D. degree in elementary particle physics and quantum field theory in 1977, also from MIT. Gates has held teaching appointments at MIT, Harvard, the California Institute of Technology and Howard University in addition to the University of Maryland. He has served as a consultant to the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Educational Testing Service and Time-Life Books. He has appeared in three scientific documentaries on PBS, including "The Elegant Universe." In 2005, he spoke at numerous national and international events celebrating the World Year of Physics and Einstein's remarkable output of path-breaking papers in 1905.

The AAAS award cites Gates for "sustained and career-long contributions to public understanding of physics through a wide variety of media, including special emphasis on communicating science to underserved communities."

He was featured in a cover story of the magazine, Black Issues in Higher Education, and is a past president of the National Society of Black Physicists. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Quality Education for Minorities Network.

In one interview, Gates acknowledged the difficulty of learning concepts such as supersymmetry, with its formidable mathematical constructs. But he said, "For someone who carries out a life of research, in some sense that part of life never changes. It's like you always have a homework assignment that is due the next day, and you keep on churning and churning through it. So it's the benefit, it's not the actual pain" that makes the pursuit worthwhile.

The award will be bestowed on 17 February at the 2007 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco.


The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science ( AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS ( is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!,, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

For more information on AAAS awards, see Awards will be bestowed at the 2007 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco on 17 February.

AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society, dedicated to "Advancing science - Serving society."

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