Science

Doyen of particle physics Steven Weinberg passes away

Undoubtedly the most influential particle physicist in the last five decades, Prof. Steven Weinberg died at the age of 88 on July 23 at Austin, Texas.

Though Prof. Weinberg died last Friday and that information was shared on social media by shocked scientists, there was no mention in mainstream print and television news media. The uncertainty continued for 48 hours, leading to speculation that it was fake news. However, a condolence note from the University of Texas where he was Professor, put to rest all rumours though details of the cause of death are still not known.

Steven Weinberg shared the Nobel prize for Physics in 1979 with Sheldon Glashow of Harvard, U.S.A. and Abdus Salam of Imperial College, London, UK, for his discovery of the Unified Theory of Weak and Electromagnetic Interactions. He was the Director of Theory Research Group and Regental Professor at the University of Texas. His wife, Louise Weinberg, is a Professor in Legal Studies at the University. They have one child.

He had his education at Cornell and Princeton University. He was a faculty at California University at Berkeley, MIT, Columbia University and became a Professor at Harvard. He moved to Austin in 1982 from Harvard and was instrumental in developing the High Energy Physics Group there. His outstanding research on elementary particle physics and cosmology got him the Nobel Prize in Physics, the National Medal of Science, and American Philosophical Society awarded Benjamin Franklin Medal, Oppenheimer Prize, and many other awards. He was elected to the National Academy of Science and Britain’s Royal Society and other academies, and holds sixteen honorary doctoral degrees from internationally well-known Universities. The list of awards, honours, memberships of societies runs into several pages.

Prof. Weinberg has more than 350 publications of great repute and 15 books to his credit. These books include his exposition of The Quantum theory of Fields I, II, III and Gravitation and Cosmology - Principles and Applications of the General Theory of Relativity. These books are like the Bible for all graduate students pursuing research in high energy physics, gravitation or astrophysics. He has more than 50,000 citations, many of which are classified as highly influential.

Seminal contributions

He is well known for his Electro-weak unified theory, Weinberg angle, Weinberg-Witten theorem, Asymptotic safety, Axion model, Technicolour and several other contributions. His work on electroweak unification needed a new gauge particle known as W boson which was discovered 10 years later. The same work left a gap for a particle known as Higgs particle, needed to break the symmetry which had to wait for 40 years to be discovered.

His extraordinary abilities to expose complex subjects led him to write books such as The first three minutes: A modern view of the origin of the Universe, which has been translated into 22 languages including Tamil, and Dreams of a final theory (translated into 16 languages). His latest book, To explain the world, published in 2015, brings out his deep commitment to understand nature and its laws.

Prof. Weinberg was a rationalist and spoke against irrational anti-science ideas without hesitation. He wrote the book Facing Up: Science and its Cultural Adversaries, exposing the harm done by irrational and religious ideas. In now, oft-quoted remarks, he said: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion. Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things”.

He was a self-declared atheist and firmly committed to science and expressed his view on religion and God fearlessly: “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible not to believe in God.”

Before Big Bang theory started having evidence he was attracted to Steady State theory of Hoyle and Narlikar: This he attributed to: “The steady state theory is philosophically the most attractive theory because it least resembles the account given in Genesis.”

My personal interactions happened on two occasions. The first was when I visited Texas University at the invitation of another great physicist, Prof. E.C.G. Sudarshan. I attended Prof. Weinberg’s lectures on quantum mechanics — new proposals which were brilliant. On the second occasion, when he visited Dublin for a lecture at Trinity College, he explicitly put in the dustbin the claims that ancient Indians had knowledge of atoms, and speed of light as mentioned in Vedic literature. He said there were no equipments, technologies and machinery available at that time to make these claims.

In the late 80's there were serious efforts at building a superconducting super collider (SSC) in Texas, proposed by Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate of the `God Particle’ fame. Prof. Weinberg was in the Science Policy committee for the SSC. He argued vehemently in favour of the project. However, after spending $2 billion, the program was cancelled due to opposition from some senators. They were also backed by other prominent scientists like the Nobel Laureate P.W. Anderson from the field of Condensed matter physics, who probably thought that it would be a drain on resources available for other fields of research.

Weinberg was disappointed with the cancellation. The result was that the rivals in Europe achieved the construction of Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Geneva, which made fantastic discoveries that ended up with the discovery of the missing link the Higgs particle. Prof. Roy Shwitters, the Director of SSC Laboratory speculated that, had the project been completed, it would have led to the discovery of the Higgs boson particle 10 years before.

Pushed for peace

Weinberg was against the U.S. withdrawal from Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. He along with 50 intellectuals and scientists asked the U.S. Congress not to support funding for missile components which would result in violations of the treaty. Unfortunately the U.S. withdrew from the treaty in 2001.

He was also against the climate change deniers. He remarked after receiving an honorary doctorate from Rockefeller University, “It is generally foolish to bet against the judgements of science, and in this case of climate change, where the planet is at stake, it is insane.”

His books, contributions in particle physics and his views on social issues are extraordinary and his demise is a great loss for science and the world.

T.R. Govindarajan is professor (retired), The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai


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