Jim Gates' father had a 24-year career in the military, so the family moved often when Gates was young. His mother died when he was 11. Perhaps these events encouraged his interest in comic books, fantasy creations, then science fiction, and then, science. He recalls being fascinated by a book about planets that his father brought home.
When he was in sixth grade, the family moved to Florida and Gates went for the first time to a segregated school. He and a classmate started a chess club at school. They competed mostly against all-white schools, which were often surprised by Gates' club's winning record. In eleventh grade, Gates took his first class in physics and he knew immediately it was for him. He had always thought of math as a game with certain rules -- but here was a way to apply it to real life. Gates almost didn't apply to college. Although he was a good student he felt sure he would be rejected anyway. His father and step-mother (a teacher) coaxed him to rethink the decision, and he applied and was accepted to MIT.
After receiving his degree, he did more physics research at Harvard and Cal Tech. While in graduate school, he tried out to be an astronaut but didn't make the last cut. He made friends with Ron McNair, who did make it and was in the Challenger crew killed in the 1986 explosion. Gates and McNair seemed always to approach problems from different directions but get the same answer. From this, Gates learned the value of looking at problems in various ways.
Throughout his career, Gates has focused on string theory, an extemely mathematical view of physics, joining relativity and quantum mechanics. Strings are theorized to be the stuff that even the smallest subatomic particles are made of; they are merely points and yet they vibrate like a violin string. Gates is a college professor, author, and an expert at explaining complex physics to the non-physics audience.