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The Physicist Who is Working to Accelerate Change in Forensic Science

A Conversation with Jim Gates

Headshot of theoretical physicist Sylvester “Jim” Gates
Credit: John T. Consoli/University of Maryland

Theoretical physicist Sylvester “Jim” Gates

Sylvester James Gates, Jr. is a world-recognized researcher in theoretical physics. Formerly of the University of Maryland and now a professor at Brown University, he is most well-known for his research on supersymmetry, supergravity and superstring theory, which all attempt to explain how fundamental particles and forces interact to create the universe. In recent years, he has also become known for his involvement in forensic science, a field that is anything but theoretical. For people involved in the criminal justice system, whether crime victims seeking justice or accused persons seeking a fair trial, forensic science is profoundly applied.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is leading several efforts to strengthen forensic science, and Gates has the distinction of having contributed to two of them. He was a member of the National Commission on Forensic Science, which made recommendations to the U.S. Attorney General on forensic science policy, and he recently joined the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science, which works to promote the development of technically sound forensic science standards. In addition to his involvement in NIST-led efforts, Gates served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology when it authored what has come to be known as the PCAST report on forensic science.

In these roles, Gates has argued forcefully that if a technique is going to claim the mantle of science, it ought to adhere to established scientific principles.

In this interview with Rich Press, Gates discusses those principles and explains why he is optimistic that efforts to move forensic science forward, though difficult and contentious, will ultimately succeed. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For another perspective, check out our interview with Jeremy Triplett, head of the drug and chemistry section of the Kentucky State Police Central Forensics Lab and outgoing chair of OSAC’s Forensic Science Standards Board.

NIST: You’re a theoretical physicist. What in the world does that have to do with forensic science?

JIM GATES: I believe in the unity of science—the idea that all science rests on a common foundation. The details of each science may be different, whether it’s chemistry or physics, or what have you. But how you approach those details is fundamentally the same in all sciences. For instance, all science is built on empirical evidence, and all science acknowledges that anything done by humans will have imperfection associated with it. Scientists might represent that with an error bar. Engineers might call it a tolerance. It’s the part where we’re not quite sure that our representation of nature is entirely accurate. But that imperfection is actually part of how you do great science. You quantify what you don't know.

So, yes, I’m a theoretical physicist. But these are scientific principles, and they apply as much in the field of forensic science as they do in physics.

NIST: How do these principles relate to your view of forensic science and how it can be strengthened?

GATES: I have been part of this effort for four years, and one thing I’ve tried to make clear is that the criticisms that I and other scientists have raised about the use of forensic science are extremely limited. What we’re saying is that, A, if you are going to step into a courtroom and represent a technology or a set of procedures as being scientific, there should be an empirical basis for those statements. And B, presentations of forensic science in the courtroom should acknowledge that there is uncertainty in the result.

This leaves a lot of room for experts to do their work, and I have an extraordinary respect for expertise. Earlier this year, I saw the movie "Sully" [about Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, who safely landed a disabled jetliner in the Hudson River], and there's a scene in that movie that absolutely hit home for me. He was talking about why he decided to put the plane down in the river. He said that he sensed that the engines had failed. He said, “I felt it go.”

To me, that is a distillation of expertise at work, and I have great respect for that, because that's what people like me do when we're pushing the boundaries of science. We don't quite have the answer, but we rely on our senses and our intuition to get us there. 

So, the criticisms and comments that we make have nothing to do with the investigative process. If a detective is working on a case, and they have intuitions about how to resolve that case, we have nothing to say about that. Our criticisms only concern forensic evidence that is ultimately presented in the courtroom. 

NIST: Forensic science has its own unique history and culture that is distinct from other sciences. How can those differences be bridged?

GATES: This is not a problem that's going to be solved in a year or even five years. This is something that's going to take a lot of work. 

During my time at the National Commission on Forensic Science, I met outstanding experts from around the world. And I attempted to educate myself, not so much in the details of their work, because I'm never going to become a forensic scientist, but I wanted to understand something of what I regard as the ethos of forensic science practitioners at the highest level. What do they regard as the most valuable principles that guide what they do?

And what I found among the best practitioners was a willingness to engage, and to me that's the most important thing.

I’ll tell you about one incident that made a big impression on me. An extraordinary young man who runs a forensics lab was briefing the commission about fiber and hair analysis. And during that meeting, I disputed some of his assertions. Then afterwards, the two of us talked. And l tried to make clear to him what it was that we scientists worried about, and he made clear to me the constraints that he and his colleagues work under.

And at the end of the day, l think there was a meeting of the minds. That's a process that l would like to see multiplied many, many hundreds of times over.

NIST: Of all the important causes that you might lend your expertise and authority to, why this?

GATES: My “hero maximus” in the sciences is Albert Einstein. In 2005, people were celebrating Einstein because it was 100 years since he published his work on special relativity. That year, I gave 37 talks on five continents about Einstein, and to prepare, I acquired a library of books on his life.

So that year, I got to know Albert Einstein far beyond what I had understood of his physics, and I re-learned that he was one of the strongest voices for civil rights and against racism in the United States. One of the things that to me was most striking about his life was that here was a guy who first got famous, and then he chose to use that fame to help other people.

And to me, that is an ideal of what a scientist should do. You should work hard to do science, but you should also find ways to marshal your skills and arts and expertise to make a contribution to our society outside your science. That's what he did, and I'm doing my best to follow his example. 

The other part of it is that I’m an African American man in this society, and I've witnessed unfairness in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. And I feel that if I can do something to help make that situation better, I am morally bound to do so.

NIST: Are you optimistic for the future of forensic science?

GATES: I am optimistic. The decision to change forensic science must come from within the forensic science community, and in the four years that I've been involved in this effort, I've met just extraordinary exemplars of the practice. I have enormous admiration for these people, and I sense that they understand the need for change and are actively working to make those changes happen.

Released September 26, 2017, Updated January 8, 2018