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Among the brilliant theorists cloistered in the quiet woodside campus of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Edward Witten stands out as a kind of high priest. The sole physicist ever to win the Fields Medal, mathematics’ premier prize, Witten is also known for discovering M-theory, the leading candidate for a unified physical “theory of everything.” A genius’s genius, Witten is tall and rectangular, with hazy eyes and an air of being only one-quarter tuned in to reality until someone draws him back from more abstract thoughts.

During a visit this fall, I spotted Witten on the Institute’s central lawn and requested an interview; in his quick, alto voice, he said he couldn’t promise to be able to answer my questions but would try. Later, when I passed him on the stone paths, he often didn’t seem to see me.

Physics luminaries since Albert Einstein, who lived out his days in the same intellectual haven, have sought to unify gravity with the other forces of nature by finding a more fundamental quantum theory to replace Einstein’s approximate picture of gravity as curves in the geometry of space-time. M-theory, which Witten proposed in 1995, could conceivably offer this deeper description, but only some aspects of the theory are known. M-theory incorporates within a single mathematical structure all five versions of string theory, which renders the elements of nature as minuscule vibrating strings. These five string theories connect to each other through “dualities,” or mathematical equivalences. Over the past 30 years, Witten and others have learned that the string theories are also mathematically dual to quantum field theories — descriptions of particles moving through electromagnetic and other fields that serve as the language of the reigning “Standard Model” of particle physics. While he’s best known as a string theorist, Witten has discovered many new quantum field theories and explored how all these different descriptions are connected. His physical insights have led time and again to deep mathematical discoveries.

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Category: Science