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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

As for his foray into politics and political journalism, he says: "Whatever truth there is about that, I think I can safely say that I learned I didn't have . . . um . . . the sort of common sense that would translate into those areas."

He bristles at any suggestion that he is, as one magazine article described him, "a liberal Democrat."

"I'm actually, for the most part, a complete agnostic politically. My only active concern is with peace in the Middle East. But if I were interested in other issues, which I'm not apt to be, they would have been economic development in the Third World and the environment."

The question of what he does for fun comes up. He doesn't seem to understand the concept. "Well, I don't care about movies," he answers after a long silence. "I tend to play badminton once a week. Right now the children take so much time that it's hard to answer the question."

"He is very good with the children, much more tolerant than I am," says his wife, who met her husband in 1975 when both were attending a physics summer school in Les Houches, France. They have been married for 16 years and have two daughters, 14 and 10, and a son, 4. But, she says, "He is much more theoretically oriented than practically oriented. Every time he has to make a little decision, it's always a big deal to Edward."

Take, for instance, the Case of the Exercise Machine.

"He really wanted to buy an exercise machine," says Ms. Nappi, "and he wanted me to tell him which exercise machine to buy. I said, 'Go to a shop and see what they have, then figure out what is the best thing for you.' And that is an impossible task for him."

The problem, which went on for "years," was finally solved when Ms. Nappi's doctor suggested she needed an exercise machine. "He wrote the name down and gave it to me. I gave it to Ed, and he rushed out to buy that exercise machine."

'Theory of Everything'

Over the past 15 years Edward Witten's work has electrified mathematicians and particle physicists. His work in string theory (sometimes called superstring theory) has been hailed by some as the most revolutionary and exciting idea in physics in more than half a century, one that could represent the ultimate goal of physics: a theory that explains all the forces of nature.

In the mid-1980s his ideas and papers prompted talk of a so-called "Theory of Everything," a term that many physicists, including Dr. Witten, dislike and consider misleading. Still, the pursuit of such a theory -- one that seeks to explain all of nature in terms of one unified field of gravity and electromagnetism -- began more or less with Einstein, who tried but failed to develop one. For many theorists, the search for the Theory of Everything remains an obsession.

In string theory, the universe is no longer made up of elementary particles, as previously held, but of tiny strings that wriggle about in 10 dimensions. Depending on how the strings are vibrating and rotating, they can represent any of the known particles of matter, from electrons to quarks. The string theorists believe that all matter and energy in the universe, all planets, all people, snowplows, vacuum cleaners, cats, dogs, the ink in this paper and everything else result from the actions and interactions of these infinitesimal bits of energy.

In other words: Superstring theory seems like a good candidate for the Theory of Everything.

Although string theory did not originate with Dr. Witten, he was one of the few physicists in the mid-1970s and early 1980s to take it seriously. And because of his reputation, once Edward Witten got interested in string theory, he gave it the credibility that was needed. He'd first learned of string theory in 1975 but was unable to understand it -- an admission that should give hope to struggling math students everywhere.

"The literature was rather impenetrable," is the understated way Dr. Witten now describes the enormous complexity of the mathematics required for string theory.

But in 1982, a review paper by John H. Schwarz of the California Institute of Technology and Michael B. Green of Queen Mary College of the University of London -- two physicists whose work he had been following -- helped Dr. Witten understand a crucial element in string theory, one that has stood in the way of providing a unified picture of gravity and quantum mechanics. What the Schwarz and Green review paper helped him grasp was this: that string theory does not simply allow for the possibility of gravity; it requires it.

"It was a long process of struggling to read that review paper, but it was so much more accessible than the previous literature I'd been reading," says Dr. Witten. "And learning how people have been able to show that string theory predicts the existence of gravity whereas standard quantum theories make gravity impossible -- that's a very striking prediction."

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