Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More On Ed Witten's Genius

I just posted an entry about Edward Witten, who is probably one of the smartest people on Earth and quite possibly the world's greatest living theoretical physicist. I just found some more material about him that I'd like to share with you.

In his bestselling book The Whole Shebang, acclaimed science writer Timothy Ferris says this about Witten:

In the high carrels of theoretical physics, where intelligence is taken for granted, Witten is regarded as preternaturally, almost forbiddingly, smart. A tall, boyish-looking man, he wears the habitual small smile of the theoretician for whom sustained mathematical thinking has something like the emotional qualities that mystics associate with meditation. He speaks in a soft, high pitched voice, floating short, precise sentences punctuated by witty little silences--the speech pattern of a man who has learned that he thinks too fast to otherwise be understood. Though he is the son of a theoretical physicist, Witten came to science in a roundabout fashion. He graduated from Brandeis College in 1971 as a history major, wrote political journalism for the Nation and the New Republic, and worked in George McGovern's presidential campaign. Primarily a mathematician, he picked up physics along the way, almost as a hobby. But colleagues who compare him to Einstein have something more specific in mind than his imposing intellect: Like Einstein, Witten is a geometer. "The great ideas in physics," he says, "have geometric foundations." String theory, he believes, provides a geometric basis for particle physics--which means, among other things, a way to make everything out of nothing. He calls string theory "part of the physics of the twenty-first century that fell by chance into the twentieth century." It caught his interest and kept him in physics. He published nineteen papers on strings in 1985 alone and has bustled on at a similar pace ever since, laying tracks on which mighty trains can run. (221-222)

And to quote from a web page dedicated to Witten:

He shows the direction for the rest of us," stated Institute physicist Nathan Seiberg, who collaborated with Witten on a series of groundbreaking papers. "His main strength is that he's powerful in everything. Both in math -- the most sophisticated math -- and physics … 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.

In the left-hand column toward the top of that web page in a box titled
WATCH THE VIDEO is a link to a fascinating and fairly lengthy interview with Witten about his work in superstring theory and his life as a mathematical physicist. If I've succeeded in piquing your interest in this mathematical and scientific genius, I highly recommend that you check out the video. You might also want to listen to this Witten lecture, aimed at nonspecialists, on the future of string theory.

Finally, below is another video segment featuring Witten talking about string theory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While staring at the medium grey background of a web site today, I saw a vision of boundless what I'll call geodesic domes, sans the outer skins. They were tangled and intermingled in every which way and I thought, "Wow, three dimensional string theory !"

I got home from work and finished reading my 3-Minute Einstein and there he is on page 142, Edward Witten with a description of his string theory replacement-a theory of higher dimensional membranes. Could these membranes be in the somewhat ordered configuration of intermingled dome struts ?