Physical Sciences

Our Lives, Our Laureates: Sylvester James Gates Jr.

"When I saw that smile, I instantly knew that I been accepted into MIT."

“At age seventeen, my dad joined the U.S. Army during the Second World War. He lied about his age, and he weighed all of 128 pounds. I tell people those three pounds made an enormous difference in my life. Because if he had been 125 or less, he wouldn't have been accepted.

So he went off to war, and never finished high school. But, there's a very strange kind of relationship between mathematics and my family. My grandfather could neither read nor write. But he could do mathematics and arithmetic, which was of use in a farming community. All the black farmers had to deal with the store owners who were European Americans, and so my grandfather had this special role to play because he could understand the books. And so my grandfather had this facility with math…

My grandfather could neither read nor write. But he could do mathematics and arithmetic, which was of use in a farming community. All the black farmers had to deal with the store owners who were European Americans, and so my grandfather had this special role to play because he could understand the books.

As a kid I watched my father studying algebra and trigonometry while he was in the U.S. Army. He enjoyed mathematics; and he always dreamed that his children would have the opportunity to go to college, the opportunity he had not had.

And so when I finally was accepted to MIT, I'll never forget the day. Because I came home early, I came home from school at my usual time, we were living in Orlando, Florida. In the South there's a habit of having rocking chairs out on the front porch of a house. And I came home and there was dad in our rocking couch on the front porch with this enormous smile on his face. It was unusual, because see my father was never home before I got home from school, so I knew something was up.

When I saw that smile, I instantly knew that I been accepted into MIT. I ran to him and got this enormous bear hug which I can recall to this very day. He was ecstatic.”