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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

By the age of 12, she recalls, he was writing lengthy letters to The Sun, opposing the war in Vietnam. "They printed many of them," Mrs. Klavens says. "I don't think they knew how young he was."

In both age and intellectual ability, there was always a gap between Edward Witten and his classmates. And it created some problems. Richard Kravitz, a classmate from the Park School, remembers his first impressions of Edward in the ninth grade.

"He was two years younger than anyone else and at least 2,000 years smarter than anybody else -- and that makes for an awkward time of it," says Dr. Kravitz, now a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine. "And Ed was an awkward kid. Socially awkward, physically awkward. He was a gangly kid with terrible allergies who wore these dark-rimmed glasses. And this was tough. That kind of kid could get just destroyed, even in a place like Park School where individuality is respected."

But that didn't happen. Instead, Edward found a group that accepted him for who he was, classmates who shared his interests in academic pursuits and political events. Even now, when asked to recall their impressions, his friends and teachers paint a remarkably consistent portrait of the adolescent Edward. Brilliant, of course, but also ethical, kind, gentle, politically informed, a person of honor and decency. And it quickly became apparent that he was not just a math and physics prodigy. History, literature, writing, politics: He excelled in all of them.

The one thing he didn't excel in was athletics. Kenneth Greif, who taught young Witten English at Park School, also served as class adviser. He remembers the only piece of advice he ever gave to Edward. "I advised him not to concentrate on baseball," recalls Mr. Greif, who was singled out by his former student as an inspirational teacher. "Because I was the baseball coach too, and I was concerned. He wasn't the best athlete. . . . So I put him way in the outfield. I didn't want the ball to hit him in the head."

Ethel Klavens recalls her nephew's frustration about his lack of athletic ability. "He always wanted to be on the team and he was always the last one to be picked," she says. Later, of course, that order would be reversed: in physics and math, Edward Witten is usually among the first to be picked. Since the age of 30 he has won many prestigious awards, including the Einstein Medal, the Dirac Medal and the Fields Medal, considered by many to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in mathematics.

His two younger brothers and a sister have also accomplished a great deal. One brother is a lawyer, the other a playwright. His sister is a physician who also holds a doctorate in math.

The roads not taken

Despite his obvious brilliance in math and physics, say his

former teachers and friends, it was not a foregone conclusion that science was the intellectual path Edward Witten would choose.

History and current world affairs were at least as interesting to the adolescent Edward Witten as math and science, says his former history teacher Brooks Lakin. "When he warmed up to a political subject, he could totally dominate a conversation in my class," Mr. Lakin recalls. "I would say he has a very strong personality behind a quiet exterior."

History, in fact, was the subject Edward Witten chose to pursue in undergraduate school. He graduated in 1971 from Brandeis University with a degree in history. But during his undergraduate years he also immersed himself deeply in linguistics and economics. "He was so smart he could devour whole fields in a short time," recalls Peter Baida.

Those close to him at the time sensed some ambivalence in him about his future.

"I think for some number of years he was sort of running away from physics and math," Mr. Baida says.

He even took a stab at being a political journalist; he wrote one or two articles for the Nation and the New Republic. For a six-month period during 1972 he worked as a low-level aide on George McGovern's highly unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Mr. McGovern doesn't remember him at all, which is not unusual given the number of low-level aides working at his headquarters. Still, when informed that his former aide Edward Witten now was considered by some to be the smartest man in the world, Mr. McGovern replied: "Well, he was smart enough to back McGovern in '72, and I judge everybody by that criteria."

Now, sitting in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study, Dr. Witten is asked about all these detours before he moved on to Princeton, the institution from which he obtained his doctorate in physics. These detours, by the way, didn't really slow him down. At the age of 28 he became a full professor at Princeton, and, two years later, he won one of the first so-called genius grants from the MacArthur Foundation.

His answer is characteristically understated.

"Well, there isn't much to say about all that," he says. "Regardless of any deviations it was clear I was supposed to end up in math and physics."

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