Prof. S. James Gates on How Scientists Proved Einstein Right

Professor S. James Gates has spent his career pioneering modern physics and diversity in science. His most recent book, written with novelist Cathie Pelletier, is about how scientists proved Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of relativity all those years ago. Walter sits down with Gates to find out just how they did this, and how his own upbringing played such a pivotal role in his success.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: We now turn to facts, evidence and a revolutionary physicist who changed our understanding of the planet, Albert Einstein, of course. Professor James Gates has spent his career pioneering modern physics and diversity in science. His most recent book, written with novelist Cathie Pelletier, is about how scientists proved Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of relativity all those years ago. And our Walter Isaacson sat down with him to find out just how they did this and how his own upbringing played such a pivotal role in his success.


WALTER ISAACSON: Professor Gates, thank you for joining us.


ISAACSON: This is an amazing book. It’s about an international your group of adventurers who go around the world to look at eclipses to see if they can prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Why did we need eclipses to prove it?


GATES: Well, first of all, Walter, thank you for the invitation to be here. Why did we need eclipses? Well, because — let me just talk about how — what they were after. If I had a glass full of water, and I passed it between the two of us, it would look like your face was moving just from the glass. Why? Because the light bends as it moves through the water. And so you have to — the astronomers were trying to see if the sun could produce that effect. But since the sun is very bright, in the day, you can’t see it, so you need an eclipse to actually see the moving…

ISAACSON: So, in other words, Einstein tells us that gravity bends light waves.

GATES: Exactly.

ISAACSON: And so the gravity of the sun would bend it, but you can’t really look and see the light from a star going by the sun, because the sun gets in your eyes.

GATES: Too bright.

ISAACSON: So you got an eclipse, right?

GATES: Need a total eclipse to see this.

ISAACSON: So what did they do?

GATES: It was a number of people, first of all. They went to places where there are total eclipses. A total eclipse, the moon completely covers the face of the sun. And, therefore, you can see the bending around it. And they wound up going to like a series of a total eclipses, because, every year, eclipses actually happen someplace in the world. So they would go too far-off lands. They might wind up in Africa, in South America, Australia, which, back in the early 1900s, was a far-off place. And even in the middle of wars, in 1914, they tried to actually measure the eclipses, even though there was a war going on. So you just go, you point a camera at the sun, and you take a picture of the stars around the sun, and then ask, is — are they in the same place or were they — if the sun was there or not.

ISAACSON: The most famous of the expeditions was the one organized by Sir Arthur Eddington. Describe what he does. Where does he send people and how do they announce it?

GATES: Sure. So, when it’s successful, it’s the year of 1919, as you mentioned, and he – – there are actually two different groups that he’s the head of. So he goes to — he goes to Africa, actually, in a small island off of the west coast of Africa. And then two other British astronomers actually wind up going to Brazil. They — both sets of them have relatively comparable equipment. And on eclipse day, they point their telescopes at the sun, looking to see if they can measure these locations of the stars.

ISAACSON: And until then, we did not know if Einstein’s theory of general relativity was correct or not.

GATES: That’s absolutely right. One thing people often do not seem to appreciate about physics is that it is an observationally based science. That’s what stops it from — I like to tell people, we’re not a faith-based organization.


GATES: Because we look at — right? We look at nature and see what she says. And so no one had actually been able to make this measurement until 1919, even though people had started trying to make it as early as 1911.

ISAACSON: Now, what happens when they get all the data? And there’s a pretty famous scene at the Royal Academy where they announce it.

GATES: Absolutely. The results are announced starting with the comments from Frank Dyson, who was basically Eddington’s patron. So, Dyson begins the process by talking about the importance of the measurement and the how it had sort of built up. And then Eddington gets up and makes the presentation. He talks about comparing Newton to Einstein. And the thing that’s really interesting is, he doesn’t go all in his presentation. What he does is says, our observations support the law of Einstein, but not the theory. He explicitly doesn’t say the theory of Einstein. And so, therefore, he’s leaving a little bit of wiggle room for the future.

ISAACSON: But let’s be clear here. Every other data set subsequently has proved Einstein right.

GATES: Absolutely. In fact — absolutely. So, although there was some controversy about this set in 1919, an American astronomer in 1922 by the name of William Wallace, who later went on to become the president of Berkeley University, made a set of measurements in Australia. And they absolutely vindicated everything that Eddington had said.

ISAACSON: The other thing that I love is when Einstein gets the news, because he’s not there at the Royal Academy. He gets a telegram. And he’s with a graduate student. And the graduate student, a woman, says to him, that’s great that they proved you right. But what would you have felt had the results been otherwise?

GATES: And, as you well know, from your excellent…



GATES: … the response was: “I would feel — I’m — this is paraphrasing, roughly, but he said, “I would have felt sorry for the good lord.”

ISAACSON: Because the theory is correct.

GATES: The theory is correct.

ISAACSON: Right, right, right. So, tell me about yourself a little bit. You grew up sort of with an Army background and your parents, but you went to a segregated school in Florida, right?

GATES: A high school, yes. So, my whole life is actually kind of weird and interesting. As you mentioned, I was — I’m the son of an Army veteran. He went in during World War II, served for 27 years. And so I was born around the military. I spent the first 11 years growing up on military bases as a dependent. And then, at age 11, my biological mother died from breast cancer. At that point, about a year later, my dad remarried. I had a stepmom. And my stepmom lived in Orlando, Florida. At that time, and it had been the tradition, segregation, even though the law had changed, had not really changed in terms of practice. So, I wound up going to Jones High School. It’s the traditional African-American high school in Orlando. It’s over 100 years old. It still exists. And that’s where I spent all of my grades seven through 12.

ISAACSON: And in 11th grade, you take physics.

GATES: In 11th grade, I had to have one of the country’s best physics teacher, a gentleman by the name of Mr. Freeman Coney. And I was the only junior in the class because, well, sort of, I was kind of the — I was known as a smart kid at school. So I was running through classes, getting them a little bit earlier. So I was the only junior in the class. So, seniors — Mr. Coney, who was in love with physics, afire with physics, and he had at least one student in the class who loved it as much, and that was me.

ISAACSON: What intrigued you about physics in high school?

GATES: Because I — to this day, Walter, I say this is the only thing I have ever seen in life that looks like magic, you know, magic, like in “Harry Potter” magic. If you go to a “Harry Potter” movie, people learn to say Latin expressions, and the world changes around them. In physics, it’s mathematics that plays a role of the incantations, and I had always been fascinated with mathematics from a very young age. But I always thought of mathematics as a game whose rules teachers taught you to play in school. That was all it was to me. I didn’t think it had much to do with the real world, until I saw it in the class. And then, suddenly, I recognized, like in “Harry Potter,” that mathematics allows you to create spells that affect the world around you.

ISAACSON: So then you get admitted to MIT, which was probably unusual from an Orlando school.

GATES: I was the first person from my high school, I believe, admitted to MIT. And — but I’m sure Orlandoans had others before me.

ISAACSON: But you go to MIT, both for your bachelor’s in physics, and you get a doctorate from MIT in physics. Do you think affirmative action played a role in getting you in, and do you defend that?

GATES: Well, first of all, I don’t think it needs a defense.


GATES: But, absolutely, it played a role. I’m convinced of that. Let me just — the way I tell people is, I was extraordinarily lucky to be born in 1950. Why? Well, because if I had been born earlier than that, there’s probably no circumstances that I can imagine that would have allowed me to be admitted to Mr. MIT. 1969, the year I graduated from high school, was really the first time that majority institutions decided, hey, let’s take a chance on these black kids and see what they can do. And so I was in that leading class. And so, absolutely, it played a role. And the other thing that, to me, was really interesting about the experience was, although I was aware of this sort of shift in our society, I didn’t think of myself as being particularly different from so many other of the students that I went to high school with. I went to a fantastic high school, lots of talented kids. One of my classmates became an opera singer, for example.


GATES: So, we had an incredible range of talents there. And so I just happened to be the kid who could play with math best. That’s the way I thought of myself, right?


GATES: So, I go to MIT and I actually, in four years, got two bachelor’s degrees, one in math and one in physics. And it kind of confirmed to me what I had thought when I — before I lived in a black community, because, remember, I told you, I grew up on Army bases. And this is in the ’50s, where the only parts of our society where diversity actually existed was the military. So I’d started school with kids who were Asian, European American, Hispanic. And so I know from my early childhood experiences that all of the propaganda about African-Americans not being capable of this, I — from my lived experience, I knew that wasn’t right.

ISAACSON: And you have been a defender of diversity, and even in scientific articles explained why diversity matters.

GATES: Sure.

ISAACSON: I remember Chief Justice Roberts said something about diversity, and you said, no, let me explain it to you.

GATES: Yes, exactly. I wrote an essay in 1995 called “Equity vs. Excellence: A False Dichotomy in Science and Society.” So, why does it matter? Well, what I argued in this piece was, let’s look at nature and ask, where is diversity and what does it do? And so the first thing I did in the article is say, I know one place I can see it, in genetics, because, if you are looking at a species, and the environment becomes hostile, it is the genetic diversity of that species that allows it to survive and change and mutate into something that has a better chance at survival. So, diversity, you can see it right there in genetics, is — the lesson is writ broad. Then I said, well, gee, can I see it someplace else in nature? And the next place it was obvious was actually what we call the Green Revolution, because there it is the diversity of the botanical stocks that allowed the world to feed itself at a level where we had been worried that we would not have enough food. So I have now identified what diversity does in nature. The next thing I did is say, OK, so I have a good grounding in understanding this concept in nature. Let’s go to something more complicated. And the thing that occurred to me was, although I didn’t have the language at the time, genes, everybody understands. Memes, people nowadays ascribe to the Web, but memes actually have an original meaning, which is actually that it’s essentially a set of collections of ideas that mimic the behavior of genes. So, I was ask…

ISAACSON: In other words, they are ideas that replicate and spread.

GATES: Exactly. And so I said, well, gee, let’s see. Let’s follow this. And the most obvious place I could find evidence for the same kind of behavior I saw in nature was in music, because — especially American music.

ISAACSON: Especially jazz.

GATES: Especially jazz. I have spent now over 30 years traveling around the world. And one of the things that — I’m sure you have had this experience too. One of the things that’s really clear as you are an American traveling around the world is how our music influences people around the world from different cultures to look at us. And so there’s a kind of vitality about American music that is suggested by this behavior. So, where does that actually come from? Well, as you mentioned, jazz, but let’s go all the way back. It — really, the first time where you see what I call the kind of merging that I saw in the genetics rule, in music, is actually ragtime. And it’s Scott Joplin and that period. So you get ragtime. Then you get jazz later. You get rock ‘n’ roll, which is really big. You get R&B. And so you can see it’s the infolding of two traditions, European traditional forms of music, African ideas about music. You put them together, and you get American music. So, how could we have gotten there if the — if we’re just ignoring half of it? And that’s the argument I have made about science and innovation.

ISAACSON: But Chief Justice John Roberts sort of said, OK, that might work in music, but why would that work in science?

GATES: Right.

ISAACSON: And what was your answer?

GATES: So, the last time there was a major hearing on college admissions and diversity, during the arguments before the chief justice, he asked a very pointed question, which was, what benefit does a minority student bring to a physics class? And I was astounded by the fact that he would raise this question in my discipline. But a number of people wrote responses. None of them satisfied me. And so what I did is, I wrote an essay that appeared in “Science.” And what I did in the essay is to talk about what I had seen in my then 30 years of teaching what diversity does. And I did this in the form of a story. If you want to hear the story, I will…

ISAACSON: Tell me a story.


GATES: OK. So, the way it goes is, one day, I was teaching a group of students in a summer program that I run, things that are typically beyond undergraduates, I mean, stuff that they will run into graduate school in the ordinary course of affairs. So I had a different — I had different groups of students at the board. I had sort of given them hints, like bread crumbs. I said, OK, you folks, show me what you can do. And in one of the groups, there was a minority student. Most of my students are European American or Asian, very few African-Americans. But, in this one group, there was a minority student. So, I have the students. And, at the board, they’re arguing. They’re making a little bit of progress. And my alpha guys, because you’re always going to find some guys that are showing off, right?



GATES: So, my alpha guys are going at it, and they’re — but they’re stuck, and they’re just spinning the wheels. And so the minority student is actually very reticent to engage in the conversation. But, at some point, the student goes to the board and writes something. Everybody else in the group ignores the student, until they have sort of run out of gas. And then one of them looks at the board and says, “Hey, that’s — that’s right.” And then they start again making progress. So, a few days later, we see exactly the same sequence of events. The minority student is reticent to engage in the verbal discussion, but, at an appropriate point, goes to the board. This time, the discussion immediately stops. Everyone turns, looks at what the student has written on the board. They understand almost immediately that it’s right. And what this demonstrates is that the learning becomes more efficient with the input of this minority student, who, if that student had not been there, maybe that wouldn’t have happened. So it’s intellectual diversity that we have to worry about, because that’s the fire that drives our ability to innovate. And I have some strong suspicions that, like in music, intellectual diversity, or, in the case of music, musical diversity, is probably connected with people’s backgrounds and cultures and histories.

ISAACSON: A federal court recently upheld the notion of diversity in college admissions in the Harvard case. It also revealed that 43 percent of the white students who get admitted are either legacy or athletes or staff. Tell me your reaction to that decision and why diversity matters in that case.

GATES: Sure. So, as I said to some friends, we’re encouraged by the decision, because, if the case had failed at that level, then it meant that people like me will simply not be allowed to emerge in a society. More generally, however, it — the thing that worries me most about the possibility of the lawsuit being upheld is that it will ultimately hurt my country’s ability to innovate, because it’s — the whole issue about music is pretty innovative. In fact, I recently asked a group. I said — of students. I said, music over here, physics over here, which is most innovative? They said, oh, why, music. I said, well, why do you think that is? And a couple of students thought for a moment. They said, because everybody does it. So that’s what we want for our science, technology, engineering, mathematics. We want that same level of vigor in terms of ability to innovate.

ISAACSON: And it is true, starting with Einstein, in his own way, being Jewish in Germany at that period, being an outsider gives you a slight advantage for seeing things differently.

GATES: That’s exactly right. Einstein himself comments on the little bit of an advantage that an outsider has in trying to reason through a very complicated situation where the rules are not understood or known. And that’s the important thing to understand about this whole argument. Most people think — and, in fact, when the chief justice asked the question, I could imagine he was thinking, oh, it’s about teaching kids rules, they memorize them, and then they show you that they — that they know the rules. But if you’re going to have innovation, it’s not about the rules. It’s actually about the ability to go beyond where the rules guide you. And for that, I like to say it’s like composing music. How do you get great music? Well, you let people practice the part of something that is embedded in their subconscious. That’s why I’m a lover of classical music. I love Satie and Debussy. I love Grieg. I love Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky. All of these are different forms of music, but all of them are great, but they all emerged from the cultures of the people that produced them.

ISAACSON: I have one simple question I have always wondered about maybe you can answer. How did the universe begin?


GATES: You call…

ISAACSON: And why?

GATES: You call that a simple — well, first of all, the why question is outside the realm of science. So I can’t answer that one at all. But how it began, we think Albert Einstein gave us a very valuable clue. It’s this thing we call the Big Bang. Now, math — math — what’s really weird about the Big Bang is, it’s a piece of mathematics, actually. The Big Bang — the first idea for the Big Bang actually starts with a piece of mathematics. It was, by the way, not introduced by Albert Einstein, but by an Augustine priest of the name — by the name of Lemaitre. So that’s where the Big Bang idea actually starts. In fact, when Lemaitre proposed the idea, and Einstein first heard about it, he said — he tried to brush it away. And it was only later that he came to accept that, hey, wait a minute, this priest actually understands my equations better than I do.


ISAACSON: And he’s a priest who is a great mathematician.

GATES: But he’s a priest, but a great mathematician, absolutely. So, that’s where the Big Bang was actually — the actual idea of the Big Bang, how it came to us. So, it starts with math, but where a man of the cloth who was trained as a mathematician looks deeply into the equations and then brings it to this guy named Albert and says, hey. And Albert says, what?

ISAACSON: Dr. Gates, thanks for being with us.

GATES: Walter, thank you so much for this opportunity.

About This Episode EXPAND

Henk Ovink joins Christiane Amanpour to discuss historic flooding in Venice, Katharine Hayhoe explains why we need an energy revolution and AllBirds co-CEO Joey Zwillinger discusses the importance of eco-friendly business practices. Plus, Professor S. James Gates tells Walter Isaacson about his new book that examines how scientists proved Einstein’s theory of relativity.