I just noticed, via this article at the Guardian, that not only has Edward Witten been awarded the Institute for Physics’ Isaac Newton medal, but his lecture at the ceremony has been posted online for all to see! See the link below. It is not often that you get an opportunity to see Witten, one of today’s giants in theoretical physics, on the public stage, to the extent that most people outside the field have not heard of him at all. The public view of who is driving forward and massively contributing to the field is rather skewed as a result of the number of appearances and grand pronouncements (often on subjects they’d be better shutting the hell up about!) from certain other renown theoretical physicists. So here’s an opportunity to hear from one of the true masters of the field.
When you speak to sensible people in the subject, whatever their own work is about and whether they like some of the things he works on or not (such as string theory), they will quite readily concur that he has done a huge amount for the field, driving forth many powerful ideas, sharpening the way we think about certain kinds of problems, conceiving of new ideas, and overall strongly influencing much of the basic manner in which practitioners think about the physics they are doing. Often, even if he is not the originator of a particular striking and valuable idea, it is usually easy to find a path back to his clearing the way for the idea to emerge, or sometimes he takes the idea and shows exactly what can be done with it, often with far-reaching consequences. His papers are often simply things of beauty. Over the years, there have been so many times when I’ve been reading one of them, and arrive at several moments when I just have to sit back, look away and into the distance and just sigh, like happens when listening to a truly great piece of music, or reading great literature. It sounds like exaggeration, I know, but please believe me when I tell you it is not. Others will tell you similar things, I am sure.
I learned a lot from him in my time at the Institute for Advanced Study in the early to middle 90s (see some related remarks I made about that time), and worked closely with him as my mentor then, at a time when a huge amount of the groundwork for much of what we are doing in modern approaches to field theory and string theory was being laid. As part of the group there, I was able to witness first hand a lot of the transformation taking place, and of course was one of those transformed, as the field sharpened its teeth while developing things like mirror symmetry, techniques for mining non-perturbative information from field theories (being around when Seiberg-Witten theory was being developed was magical. I had the pleasure of showing Ed, who was in the office next door to mine, how to use a computer-algebra program -Maple, I think I recall- to manipulate certain polynomials, searching for roots, etc. I later understood, once their paper came out, what he needed that for… They represented what are now called Seiberg-Witten curves…see here and here), topological field theories, and so on and so forth.
A note on the man behind the physics is in order. From my time at the IAS, I also remember the legendary combination of respect, and of fear, that would often be present at the lunch table, in the minds and behavior of almost everyone present, be they young or old. (Over the years, the dreaded and seemingly innocent “What are you working on?” question became a favourite of mine to witness being answered. There are few things funnier, and perhaps more sad, than otherwise very sensible people putting themselves at a disadvantage in a conversation by trying to explain what they are thinking about by first dressing it up in a language that they think will sound more sophisticated and profound. They tried to talk about what they were doing on his terms, not theirs. Tip for future encounters to those who care to listen: This sort of thing is not necessary – he’s a physicist, so just talk about the physics.) I came to realize that the fear part was almost entirely self-generated by people. The man’s talent and reputation would play on people’s minds, and their own insecurities would make them project interpretations onto his manner and demeanour that were simply not there*. We all did it (although some of us learned it was a mistake) and it probably goes on to this day. I learned from watching at lunch and other gatherings, and from my own one to one interactions with him, that he was remarkably generous with him time, more patient than you might have imagined, and definitely very strongly encouraging to young people such as myself who were trying to find their way. He was not at all the terrifying, dismissive and thoroughly unkind person that you often see people of much lesser talent and stature become once they start believing in their own distorted view of themselves. (There are plenty enough of those to go around in our field.)
Well, there are all sorts of further things to be said in reminiscences of this sort, both about the physics and the people doing the physics, but that is for another time.
Enjoy Witten’s lecture. It is a click or a tap away here. I’ve not listened to it yet, but am sure it will be worth your time, whether you are in the field or not.
*Although this is an extreme version, given his stature, the phenomenon is not particular to Ed, I have found. Some of you reading, possibly successful scientists or other people whose job it is to mostly think at a highly specialized level, may have been on the wrong side of analogous versions of this sort of projection in your own interactions. Because of a view of you they have constructed in their own minds, and maybe amplified by some of their own internal issues, some people simply decide that you look down on what they are saying, or are critically analyzing them and what they think, about your subject and sometimes beyond. It sometimes produces unfortunate and sad misunderstandings, I have found.
Some Related Asymptotia Posts (not exhaustive):