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Physicist Edward Witten, on the trail of universal truth Interview with the Genius

February 12, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

Whether or not Edward Witten is the smartest person in the world is, of course, unprovable. And ultimately unimportant. Certainly it is to him. He dismisses with a shrug all suggestions of comparisons to Einstein and Newton and to the fact that he is currently the most cited physicist in the world.

"Well, I don't read the newspapers, but I'm sure there are lots of other well-known mathematicians and physicists who are cited the same way by the press," Dr. Witten says, his voice edged with a shy humor. "So, I think we have to take this with a grain of salt."

Edward Witten, by the way, looks like a genius. His dark hair, which appears to be in the process of an electrical charge, rises straight up from his high forehead. His eyes are lively and penetrating but seldom make direct contact; they seem always to be looking at something the rest of us can't see. Dressed in an open-necked shirt and cotton pants, he looks more like a graduate student than a member of the elite, 22-person institute faculty.

(It should be noted, however, that there are an additional 150 to 170 scholars working at the institute, but, unlike permanent faculty, they come and go.)

Adding to the "genius" legend that surrounds Dr. Witten are tales of how he works out his complex calculations. Things like computers, pencils and paper do not play an important role in the life of his mind.

"I have a tendency, more than most other physicists, to try to figure out everything all at once, before I publish," Dr. Witten says. "And even to try to figure out everything in my head, without pencil and paper."

He lets out a laugh. "And even though I may occasionally have some success in that direction, trying to be too ambitious in that way leads many times to my failing to finish things. It's always one of my New Year's resolutions: to try to be more concrete, to keep my feet on the ground. . . . I have to say that, to my way of thinking, my main weakness is that I don't always keep my feet on the ground enough."

He declines to comment on what he judges to be his main strength, saying, "For the most part you will have to get that from other people."

Physicist Nathan Seiberg offers his analysis of the source of Dr. Witten's preeminence in his field: "The main strength is that he's powerful in everything. Both in math -- the most sophisticated math -- and physics. In physics one needs physical intuition. And he has remarkable physics intuition as well as complete control over the math that is needed. And in that respect I think he's unique."

Although genius is a word that has little or no currency among scientists, it is a word often applied to Dr. Witten. But not by his Italian-born wife, physicist Chiara Nappi. She doesn't believe in the concept of geniuses. Still, she says: "I think Ed comes as close as you can get to being a genius. But what I think Ed really is is an accident. And accidents like Ed don't happen so easily."

Ms. Nappi, a warm, outgoing woman who is an elementary particle physicist at the institute, means this description of her husband as the highest possible compliment. Few would argue with her assessment, although they might rearrange the vocabulary a bit.

She also has her own idea of what makes her husband unique in his field.

"I always have this view of how he works as compared to other people," she says. "It's like with Ed you have a field which is completely illuminated, totally lit up, so he just has to look around and figure out the connections. For most other people it's dark, or mostly dark, and you go with a flashlight until you find something that makes a connection with what you have seen before. But it comes natural to Ed to be able to make a connection. And this is an advantage."

Baltimore beginnings

Before we move on to supersymmetry accelerators, quark confinement and other good stuff like that, let's move back through time, back to Edward Witten's formative years in Baltimore. A good place to begin tracing the trajectory of young Edward's journey to the top of the physics world might be with his father, physicist Louis Witten.

"I would talk to him about scientific subjects the way I would talk to adults, and he would understand what I was talking about," says Dr. Witten, now professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati.

His son, by the way, was a preschooler at the time of these talks.

When young Edward did get around to going to school, says his aunt, Ethel Klavens of Pikesville, he was always ahead of his teachers. "The public schools didn't know what to do with him," she says. "They skipped him from the fifth to the seventh grade, and then when he was at Park School, they had a professor from Hopkins teaching him math."

Mrs. Klavens remembers teaching her nephew how to play bridge. He was 10 at the time and about to travel by ship with his family to Israel. "A week later, his mother told me Eddie had won the bridge tournament on the ship going over."

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