DATE: Saturday, May 31, 2008
PARTICIPANTS: Janna Levin, Jim Gates, Peter Galison, Leonard Susskind

Albert Einstein spent his last thirty years unsuccessfully searching for a ‘unified theory’ — a single master principle to describe everything in the universe, from tiny subatomic particles to immense clusters of galaxies. In the decades since, generations of researchers have continued working toward Einstein’s dream.

Renowned physicists Leonard Susskind and Jim Gates, and prominent historian Peter Galison discussed what’s been achieved and tackle pivotal questions. Would a unified theory reveal why there is a universe at all? Would it tell us why mathematics is adept at unraveling nature’s mysteries? Might it imply we are one universe of many, and what would that mean for our sense of how we fit into the cosmos? Moderated by Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse.

This program is part of The Big Idea Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.

Image © istockphoto/xac to

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Paul Nurse

Sir Paul Nurse is a Nobel Laureate and the President of Rockefeller University, where he continues to do research in cell biology. He is the former Chief Executive of Cancer Research in the United Kingdom. Nurse was knighted in Great Britain for his contributions to cancer research.


Janna Levin_200px

Janna Levin is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University and the author of Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space. She is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a center for arts and sciences in Brooklyn, and has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime. Her previous books include How the Universe Got Its Spots and a novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which won the PEN/Bingham Prize. She was recently named a Guggenheim fellow.


Sylvester James (Jim) Gates, Jr. is currently the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland-College Park. In spring of 2009 he was appointed to serve on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the Maryland State Board of Education. Gates is a theoretical physicist and received two BS and a PhD degree from MIT, the latter in 1977. His thesis was the first at MIT on supersymmetry, part of string theory. In 1983, Gates coauthored Superspace, or One Thousand and One Lessons in Supersymmetry, one of two comprehensive text books in the field to this day. Gates has been featured extensively on many NOVA PBS programs on physics, most notably The Elegant Universe in 2003. In 2006, he completed a DVD series Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality and a book, The Art of Physics (in Italian). Gates is strongly committed to education. In the summers of 1971 to 1985, he returned to his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, to work with freshmen in the same minority student program by which he had entered that university. He was instrumental in the development of Ph.D. physics programs at Hampton University in Virginia, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Science Historian

Peter Galison is a leading historian of science whose research explores the interaction of experimentation, instrumentation and theory in physics. An author, film producer and MacArthur Award-winner, he is the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University.

Theoretical Physicist, Author

Leonard Susskind is the Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, and one of the discoverers of string theory, a candidate for a theory that unifies all laws of physics. An award-winning author, he is a proponent of the idea that our universe is one of an infinite number.