Edward Witten (/ˈwɪtən/; born August 26, 1951) is an American
theoretical physicist and professor of mathematical physics at the
Institute for Advanced Study
Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Witten is a researcher in string theory, quantum gravity,
supersymmetric quantum field theories, and other areas of mathematical
In addition to his contributions to physics, Witten's work has
significantly impacted pure mathematics. In 1990, he became the
first and so far the only physicist to be awarded a
Fields Medal by
the International Mathematical Union, awarded for his 1981 proof of
the positive energy theorem in general relativity.
1 Early life and education
2.1 Fields medal work
2.3 Other work
3 Awards and honors
4 Personal life
5 Selected publications
7 External links
Early life and education
Witten was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to a
Jewish family. He is
the son of Lorraine (Wollach) Witten and Louis Witten, a theoretical
physicist specializing in gravitation and general relativity.
Witten attended the Park School of
Baltimore (class of '68), and
Bachelor of Arts with a major in history and minor in
Brandeis University in 1971. He published articles in
The New Republic
The New Republic and The Nation. In 1968, Witten published an article
The Nation arguing that the
New Left had no strategy. He worked
briefly for George McGovern's presidential campaign.
Witten attended the
University of Wisconsin–Madison
University of Wisconsin–Madison for one semester
as an economics graduate student before dropping out. He returned
to academia, enrolling in applied mathematics at Princeton University
in 1973, then shifting departments and receiving a
Ph.D. in physics in
1976 under David Gross, the 2004
Nobel laureate in Physics. He held
a fellowship at
Harvard University (1976–77), visited Oxford
University (1977–78), was a junior fellow in the Harvard
Society of Fellows (1977–80), and held a MacArthur Foundation
Fields medal work
Witten was awarded the
Fields Medal by the International Mathematical
Union in 1990, becoming the first physicist to win the prize.
In a written address to the ICM,
Michael Atiyah said of Witten,
Although he is definitely a physicist (as his list of publications
clearly shows) his command of mathematics is rivaled by few
mathematicians, and his ability to interpret physical ideas in
mathematical form is quite unique. Time and again he has surprised the
mathematical community by a brilliant application of physical insight
leading to new and deep mathematical theorems... [H]e has made a
profound impact on contemporary mathematics. In his hands physics is
once again providing a rich source of inspiration and insight in
Edward Witten (left) with mathematician Shigefumi Mori, probably at
the ICM in 1990 where they received the Fields Medal.
As an example of Witten's work in pure mathematics, Atiyah cites his
application of techniques from quantum field theory to the
mathematical subject of low-dimensional topology. In the late 1980s,
Witten coined the term topological quantum field theory for a certain
type of physical theory in which the expectation values of observable
quantities encode information about the topology of spacetime. In
particular, Witten realized that a physical theory now called
Chern–Simons theory could provide a framework for understanding the
mathematical theory of knots and 3-manifolds. Although Witten's
work was based on the mathematically ill-defined notion of a Feynman
path integral and was therefore not mathematically rigorous,
mathematicians were able to systematically develop Witten's ideas,
leading to the theory of Reshetikhin–Turaev invariants.
Another result for which Witten was awarded the
Fields Medal was his
proof in 1981 of the positive energy theorem in general
relativity. This theorem asserts that (under appropriate
assumptions) the total energy of a gravitating system is always
positive and can be zero only if the geometry of spacetime is that of
flat Minkowski space. It establishes
Minkowski space as a stable
ground state of the gravitational field. While the original proof of
this result due to
Richard Schoen and
Shing-Tung Yau used variational
methods, Witten's proof used ideas from supergravity theory to
simplify the argument.
A third area mentioned in Atiyah's address is Witten's work relating
supersymmetry and Morse theory, a branch of mathematics that
studies the topology of manifolds using the concept of a
differentiable function. Witten's work gave a physical proof of a
classical result, the Morse inequalities, by interpreting the theory
in terms of supersymmetric quantum mechanics.
By the mid 1990s, physicists working on string theory had developed
five different consistent versions of the theory. These versions are
known as type I, type IIA, type IIB, and the two flavors of heterotic
string theory (SO(32) and E8×E8). The thinking was that out of these
five candidate theories, only one was the actual correct theory of
everything, and that theory was the one whose low-energy limit matched
the physics observed in our world today.
Speaking at the string theory conference at University of Southern
California in 1995, Witten made the surprising suggestion that these
five string theories were in fact not distinct theories, but different
limits of a single theory which he called M-theory. Witten's
proposal was based on the observation that the five string theories
can be mapped to one another by certain rules called dualities and are
identified by these dualities.
Witten's announcement led to a flurry of work now known as the second
Edward Witten with
David Gross and Stephen Hawking
Another of his contributions to physics was to the result of
gauge/gravity duality. In 1997,
Juan Maldacena formulated a result
known as the AdS/CFT correspondence, which establishes a relationship
between certain quantum field theories and theories of quantum
gravity. Maldacena's discovery has dominated high energy
theoretical physics for the past 15 years because of its applications
to theoretical problems in quantum gravity and quantum field theory.
Witten's foundational work following Maldacena's result has shed light
on this relationship.
In collaboration with Nathan Seiberg, Witten established several
powerful results in quantum field theories. In their paper on string
theory and noncommutative geometry, Seiberg and Witten studied certain
noncommutative quantum field theories that arise as limits of string
theory. In another well known paper, they studied aspects of
supersymmetric gauge theory. The latter paper, combined with
Witten's earlier work on topological quantum field theory, led to
developments in the topology of smooth 4-manifolds, in particular the
notion of Seiberg–Witten invariants.
With Anton Kapustin, he has made deep mathematical connections between
S-duality of gauge theories and the geometric Langlands
correspondence. Partly in collaboration with Seiberg, one of his
recent interests include aspects of field theoretical description of
topological phases in condensed matter and non-supersymmetric
dualities in field theories that, among other things, are of high
relevance in condensed matter theory. From a generalization of SYK
models from condensed matter and quantum chaos, he has also recently
brought tensor models of Garau to the relevance of holographic and
quantum gravity theories.
In general, Witten has done influential and insightful works in many
aspects of quantum field theories and mathematical physics, including
the physics and mathematics of anomalies, integrability, dualities,
localization, homologies and so on. Many of his results have deeply
influenced many areas in theoretical physics (often well beyond the
original context of his results), including string theory, quantum
gravity and topological condensed matter.
Awards and honors
Witten has been honored with numerous awards including a MacArthur
Grant (1982), the
Fields Medal (1990), the Nemmers Prize in
Mathematics (2000), the National Medal of Science (2002),
Pythagoras Award (2005), the
Henri Poincaré Prize (2006), the
Crafoord Prize (2008), the
Lorentz Medal (2010) the Isaac Newton Medal
(2010) and the
Fundamental Physics Prize
Fundamental Physics Prize (2012). Since 1999, he has
been a Foreign Member of the
Royal Society (London), and in March 2016
was elected an Honorary Fellow of the
Royal Society of
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI appointed Witten as a member of
Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Pontifical Academy of Sciences (2006). He also appeared in the
list of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of 2004. In 2012
he became a fellow of the American Mathematical Society.
In an informal poll at a 1990 cosmology conference, Witten received
the largest number of mentions as "the smartest living physicist".
Witten has been married to Chiara Nappi, a professor of physics at
Princeton University, since 1979. They have two daughters, Ilana,
a neuroscientist at Princeton University, and Daniela, a
biostatistician at University of Washington, and one son, Rafael,
and a granddaughter Nava. Witten sits on the board of directors of
Americans for Peace Now and is also on the advisory council of J
Street. He supports the two-state solution and advocates a boycott
of Israeli institutions and economic activity beyond its 1967 borders,
though not of Israel itself. Witten is also a keen tennis
Some Problems in the Short Distance Analysis of Gauge Theories.
Princeton University, 1976. (Dissertation.)
Roman Jackiw, David Gross, Sam B. Treiman, Edward Witten, Bruno
Zumino. Current Algebra and Anomalies: A Set of Lecture Notes and
Papers. World Scientific, 1985.
Green, M., John H. Schwarz, and E. Witten. Superstring Theory. Vol. 1,
Introduction. Cambridge Monographs on Mathematical Physics. Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 9780521357524.
Green, M., John H. Schwarz, and E. Witten. Superstring Theory. Vol. 2,
Loop Amplitudes, Anomalies and Phenomenology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 1988. ISBN 9780521357531.
Quantum fields and strings: a course for mathematicians. Vols. 1, 2.
Material from the
Special Year on Quantum Field Theory held at the
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, 1996–1997. Edited by
Pierre Deligne, Pavel Etingof, Daniel S. Freed, Lisa C. Jeffrey, David
Kazhdan, John W. Morgan, David R. Morrison and Edward Witten. American
Mathematical Society, Providence, RI; Institute for Advanced Study
(IAS), Princeton, NJ, 1999. Vol. 1: xxii+723 pp.; Vol. 2: pp. i–xxiv
and 727–1501. ISBN 0-8218-1198-3, 81–06 (81T30 81Txx).
^ "Announcement of 2016 Winners". World Cultural Council. June 6,
2016. Archived from the original on June 7, 2016. Retrieved June 6,
^ a b c d Woit, Peter (2006). Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String
Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. New York: Basic
Books. p. 105. ISBN 0-465-09275-6.
^ a b c
Edward Witten – Adventures in physics and math (Kyoto Prize
^ a b Atiyah, Michael (1990). "On the Work of Edward Witten" (PDF).
Proceedings of the International Congress of Mathematicians.
pp. 31–35. Archived from the original (PDF) on
^ Michael Atiyah. "On the Work of Edward Witten" (PDF). Mathunion.org.
Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 March 2017. Retrieved 31 March
^ Witten biography - MacTutor History of Mathematics
^ The International Who's Who 1992-93, p. 1754.
^ Interview by Hirosi Ooguri, Notices Amer. Math. Soc., May 2015, pp.
^ a b Witten, Edward (1988), "Topological quantum field theory",
Communications in Mathematical Physics, 117 (3): 353–386,
^ Witten, Edward (1989). "Quantum Field Theory and the Jones
Polynomial" (PDF). Communications in Mathematical Physics. 121 (3):
351–399. Bibcode:1989CMaPh.121..351W. doi:10.1007/BF01217730.
^ Reshetikhin, Nicolai; Turaev, Vladimir (1991). "Invariants of
3-manifolds via link polynomials and quantum groups". Inventiones
Mathematicae. 103 (1): 547–597. Bibcode:1991InMat.103..547R.
^ Witten, Edward (1981). "A new proof of the positive energy theorem".
Communications in Mathematical Physics. 80 (3): 381–402.
^ Schoen, Robert; Yau, Shing-Tung (1979). "On the proof of the
positive mass conjecture in general relativity". Communications in
Mathematical Physics. 65: 45. Bibcode:1979CMaPh..65...45S.
^ Schoen, Robert; Yau, Shing-Tung (1981). "Proof of the positive mass
theorem. II". Communications in Mathematical Physics. 79: 231.
^ Witten, Edward (1982). "Super-symmetry and Morse Theory". Journal of
Differential Geometry. 17: 661–692.
^ University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Future Perspectives
in String Theory, March 13-18, 1995, E. Witten: Some problems of
strong and weak coupling
^ Witten, Edward (1995). "
String theory dynamics in various
Physics B. 443 (1): 85–126.
arXiv:hep-th/9503124 . Bibcode:1995NuPhB.443...85W.
^ Juan M. Maldacena (1998). "The Large N limit of superconformal field
theories and supergravity". Advances in Theoretical and Mathematical
Physics. 2: 231–252. arXiv:hep-th/9711200 .
Edward Witten (1998). "Anti-de Sitter space and holography".
Advances in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics. 2: 253–291.
arXiv:hep-th/9802150 . Bibcode:1998hep.th....2150W.
^ Seiberg, Nathan; Witten, Edward (1999). "String Theory and
Noncommutative Geometry". Journal of High
Physics (9): 032.
arXiv:hep-th/9908142 . Bibcode:1999JHEP...09..032S.
^ Seiberg, Nathan; Witten, Edward (1994). "Electric-magnetic duality,
monopole condensation, and confinement in N=2 supersymmetric
Yang-Mills theory". Nuclear
Physics B. 426 (1): 19–52.
arXiv:hep-th/9407087 . Bibcode:1994NuPhB.426...19S.
^ "Edward Witten", The President's National Medal of Science:
^ "Il premio Pitagora al fisico teorico Witten". Il Crotonese (in
Italian). September 23, 2005. Archived from the original on
^ "Foreign Members", The Royal Society.
^ List of Fellows of the American Mathematical Society, retrieved
^ Lemonick, Michael (April 26, 2004). "Edward Witten". Time. Retrieved
November 1, 2011.
"At a 1990 conference on cosmology," wrote John Horgan in 2014, "I
asked attendees, who included folks like Stephen Hawking, Michael
Turner, James Peebles,
Alan Guth and Andrei Linde, to nominate the
smartest living physicist.
Edward Witten got the most votes (with
Steven Weinberg the runner-up). Some considered Witten to be in the
same league as Einstein and Newton." See "
Physics Titan Edward Witten
Still Thinks String Theory 'on the Right Track'".
scientificamerican.com. 22 September 2014. Retrieved 14 October
^ Witten, Ed. "The 2014
Kyoto Prize Commemorative Lecture in Basic
Sciences" (PDF). Retrieved 28 January 2017.
^ "Faculty » Ilana B. Witten". princeton.edu. Retrieved 18
^ "UW Faculty » Daniela M. Witten". washington.edu. Retrieved 9
^ "Advisory Council". J Street. 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
^ "For an Economic Boycott and Political Nonrecognition of the Israeli
Settlements in the Occupied Territories", NYRB, October 2016.
Jewish American Physicist Says He'll Send Part of $3 Million Prize
to J Street". JTA. 4 August 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2017 – via
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