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Edward Witten

Edward Witten (1951– )

“The hardest part of research is always to find a question that’s big enough that it’s worth answering, but little enough that you actually can answer it.”
–Edward Witten

National Medal of Science recipient in 2002 “for his leadership in a broad range of topics in mathematics and theoretical physics, including attempts to understand the fundamental forces of nature through string theory, and his inspired use of insights from physics to unify apparently disparate areas of mathematics.”

Edward Witten grew up in Baltimore, Md., where he attended the Park School of Baltimore. Witten’s early interests were diverse. He was introduced to science by his gravitational physicist father and enjoyed astronomy, though he was deterred from becoming an astronomer because traveling to space “seemed scary.”

He lived in Israel for a year with his family, which sparked a lifelong passion for peace in the Middle East and kept him connected to his Jewish cultural heritage. As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, he majored in history and took courses in linguistics and, after graduating, he spent six months working on George McGovern’s presidential campaign.

Ultimately, Witten decided that he did not have the skills necessary for a career in writing and politics. He borrowed books on science and mathematics from the library and from his sister, a math student, and chose to attend Princeton University to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. After graduating in 1976, Witten spent several years as a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and then returned to Princeton in 1980 as a full professor. His unusual style of lecturing inspired to students to dub him--with great respect--“The Martian.”

At Princeton, Witten revitalized research on string theory, a conceptual framework that suggests that the particles that make up the universe are actually loops of vibrating strings. Developing this framework, which would unite general relativity and quantum mechanics, had been attempted but unachieved by Albert Einstein, and the theory was largely abandoned in the mid-1970s when it was determined that it only made sense in 10 dimensions. Witten’s research drew attention from his colleagues in the field, and he has since been credited as one of the physicists responsible for launching the “second superstring revolution.”

Witten has been commended for his brilliance as a mathematician as well as a scientist. His approach to string theory involves applying sophisticated mathematical techniques that go beyond the typical training of a theoretical physicist, and he has in turn used the study of physics to generate new mathematical insights. Witten was the first physicist to receive the Fields Medal, a prize for outstanding mathematical achievement presented at the International Congress of Mathematicians.

In 1987, Witten left Princeton to become a member of the permanent faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study, also located in Princeton, N.J. The institute was the workplace of Albert Einstein when he immigrated to the United States, and was directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer for two decades. The legacy is appropriate, as Witten has been recognized by his peers and the general public as one of the biggest names in science today. Colleagues in the field have compared Witten to Einstein and Isaac Newton and in 2004, he was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”

As it was in his childhood, science for Witten remains a family affair. He authored a scholarly paper with his father in the 1980s and his wife, Chiara Nappi, is a physicist at Princeton. Their three children are all pursuing careers in science. In an interview with the Institute of Physics after receiving the 2010 Newton Medal, Witten expressed excitement about what lies ahead.

“What’s great about science is that the frontiers are still there,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to discover a new continent, and climbing a mountain that hasn’t been climbed before is getting harder all the time. But in science, even though the frontiers are different from what they were in the past because we know so much more, there are frontiers that are every bit as exciting as the frontiers of the past.”

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