Monday, March 30, 2015

Arthur Wightman, physicist and teacher

In academia, there are theorists and there are teachers. Arthur Wightman was both. He stood on the shoulders of giants, and giants now stand on his shoulders, including Harvard's Arthur Jaffe and Caltech's Barry Simon.

Wightman was a founder of the axiomatic approach to quantum field theory, and originated the set of Wightman axioms. I have no idea what these are, but I know what they mean: He advanced Man's knowledge of the universe, and continues to advance it through the men and women he taught.

Born on March 30, 1922, Wightman grew up in the Rochester, New York. Upon graduation from Yale in 1942, he served in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he entered graduate studies at Princeton under Eugene Wigner, the brilliant physicist who would win the Nobel in 1963. But Wigner's work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory took him away from his work at Princeton.

John Archibald Wheeler became Wightman's advisor. What a great backup. Wheeler would win everything but a Nobel -- the Albert Einstein Award (1965), the Enrico Fermi Award (1968), the Franklin Medal (1969), the National Medal of Science (1970), the Oersted Medal (1983), the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize (1984), the Albert Einstein Medal (1988), the Matteucci Medal (1993), the Wolf Prize in Physics (1997) and Einstein Prize (APS) (2003).

Wheeler also popularized or coined such science terms as "black hole," "neutron moderator," "quantum foam," and "worm hole." Not only did this help science but it gave science fiction a vocabulary.

Perhaps this inspired Wightman to be a teacher as well as a theorist, or maybe it was his nature. The tributes following his death on January 13, 2013, from Alzheimer's are heartwarming.

"I can say I've been a student ever since. Arthur set me on the path of what I spent most of my life doing. I think of Arthur as the spiritual leader of mathematical physics and his death really marks the end of an era. It's hard to think of who will step into Arthur's shoes with the same wonderful breadth of interests, insights, understanding of people and ability to inspire the best from others. In the meantime, I mourn his loss," said Professor Arthur Jaffe of Harvard.

"During my four years as a math major at Princeton, I didn't get to know Professor Wightman well; indeed I spoke with him only once, on my way out, so to speak, at a small reception the Department held for graduating seniors and their parents after the graduation ceremony. Though we had never spoken before, he introduced himself to me and my parents and surprised me by not just knowing who I was but by speaking quite knowledgeably about work I had done with Professor Dwork for my senior thesis. He spoke to me as if I were already a fellow mathematician: he was enormously kind and encouraging. The whole conversation lasted maybe ten minutes, but it was my last interaction in the mathematics department as an undergraduate and made a lasting impression. In many ways, it was emblematic of the Princeton experience, where even a fledgling student on his way to learning his craft was not only noticed but treated like an equal by a giant of the field.  Historians of Mathematics and Physics will remember Professor Wightman as a founder of mathematical physics -- I'll remember him as a Professor who was as classy and elegant in his human interactions as he was in his mathematics," Professor Farshid Hajir of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

"Arthur Wightman was not intimidating; he was avuncular. I made frequent appointments with Arthur, which he would record in the pocket-size little black book that professors used to carry in those days. But sometimes I would find him alone in his office when I passed by, and with an undergraduate’s sense of entitlement (particularly pronounced at Princeton, at least according to the graduate students), I would barge in to ask a question. He almost always received me amiably, and these impromptu visits sometimes turned into long meetings. I sometimes felt uncomfortable, sensing that graduate students and postdocs, who may have had more compelling reasons to claim some of Arthur’s time, were a bit annoyed: That kid is talking to Arthur again! I kept coming back because Arthur always made me feel like he genuinely enjoyed my company. Maybe he made everyone feel that way," Professor John Preskill of Caltech.
"Wightman was known for his honesty and his adherence to the highest scientific standards, attributes that he tried to communicate to whoever crossed his path. His lectures in Princeton were legendary for their careful planning and for content that included constant attempts to integrate the latest research directions into his courses. Behind the scenes, Wightman worked tirelessly to encourage Princeton to accept the most talented undergraduates, to improve and to preserve Princeton’s famous library of mathematics and physics, and to create a research atmosphere in the department that stimulated outstanding work," Professor Barry Simon of Caltech.

Science needs more men -- and women -- who can research and teach. Giants need large shoulders to stand on.