Witten, Edward

Witten, Edward
▪ 2005

      Edward Witten, a theoretical physicist who had a hand in many of the important developments in string theory from the mid-1980s onward, was named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people of 2004. String theory is an attempt to link quantum mechanics and general relativity, which would thereby lead to a “theory of everything” applicable to all physical forces and forms of matter. According to string theory, matter at a fundamental level consists of vibrating one-dimensional elements (called strings), not pointlike particles.

      Witten was born Aug. 26, 1951 in Baltimore, Md. He intended to become a journalist and attended Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., where he received a B.A. in history in 1971. He went on to Princeton University and earned an M.A. (1974) and Ph.D. (1976) in physics. He held a fellowship at Harvard University (1976–77) and was a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows (1977–80). He joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1980 and was a professor of physics there until 1987, when he assumed a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J. From 1997 he was the Charles Simonyi Professor of Physics there.

      Witten's early work in physics was in electromagnetics. As the study of string theory gained importance in the early 1980s, he turned his attention to that field and was soon considered its leading mind. In the 1990s he proposed a theory, called M-theory, that unified five different string theories (called superstring theories) and a theory for 11-dimensional supergravity. This unification moved scientists a giant step toward a theory of everything and became known as the “second revolution in superstring theory.” Colleagues such as physicist Nathan Seiberg were quoted as saying that Witten was leading the scientific community to all of its major breakthroughs in superstring theory. Seiberg and others credited Witten with having unsurpassed skills in mathematics as well as physics, which made him uniquely qualified to blaze new trails in his field.

      Witten received numerous honours and awards, most notably the Fields Medal, in mathematics, which he received at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Kyoto, Japan, in 1990. He held a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1982 and in 1985 received the Einstein Medal of the Einstein Society and the Dirac Medal of the International Center for Theoretical Physics. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1988.

Anthony G. Craine

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▪ American mathematical physicist
born August 26, 1951, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.

      American mathematical physicist who was awarded the Fields Medal in 1990 for his work in superstring theory (string theory). He also received the Dirac Medal from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (1985).

      Witten was educated at Brandeis University (B.A., 1971) in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Princeton University (M.A., 1974; Ph.D., 1976) in New Jersey. He held a fellowship at Harvard University (1976–77), was a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows (1977–80), and held a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (1982). He held an appointment at Princeton (1980–87) before moving to the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, in 1987.

      Witten was awarded the Fields Medal at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Kyōto, Japan, in 1990. His early research interests were in electromagnetism, but he soon developed an interest in what is now known as superstring theory in mathematical physics. He made significant contributions to Morse theory, supersymmetry, and knot theory. Additionally, he explored the relationship between quantum field theory and the differential topology of manifolds (manifold) of two and three dimensions. With the physicist Nathan Seiberg he produced a family of partial differential equations (partial differential equation) that greatly simplified Simon Donaldson (Donaldson, Simon Kirwan)'s approach to the classification of four-dimensional manifolds.

      Witten's publications include, with Sam B. Treimen, Roman Jackiw, and Bruno Zumino, Current Algebra and Anomalies (1985) and, with Michael B. Green and John H. Schwarz, Superstring Theory (1987).

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Universalium. 2010.

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