National Medal Of Science Awarded To Institute For Advanced Study Physicist Edward Witten
President Bush today named physicist Edward Witten as one of eight of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers to receive the 2002 National Medal of Science. The awards ceremony will take place at the White House on November 6. The presidential medal is the nation’s highest honor for researchers who make major impacts in fields of science and engineering through career-long, ground-breaking achievements. The medal, established by Congress in 1959, also recognizes contributions to innovation, industry or education.
Edward Witten, the Charles Simonyi Professor of Physics in the Institute’s School of Natural Sciences, received the award "for his leadership role in advancing a broad range of topics in theoretical physics, including attempts to understand the fundamental forces of nature through string theory; and his unparalleled inspiration in using insights from physics to unify apparently disparate mathematical areas."
Professor Witten may be best known as the world leader in string theory, an attempt by physicists to describe in one unified way all the known forces of nature, as well as to understand nature at the most basic level possible. The combination of the four fundamental forces (electromagnetic, strong, weak, and gravitational) in one theoretical framework was a goal sought but unattained by Albert Einstein (a Faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study from 1933-55). The concept underlying string theory is to replace the usual point-like representation of fundamental particles with vanishingly small vibrating strings. This resolves the incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity, which is the premier challenge of theoretical physics. Dr. Witten's original contributions and incisive surveys have set the agenda for many developments, such as the progress in "dualities," which suggest that all known string theories are related.
Dr. Witten's earliest papers produced advances in quantum chromodynamics (QCD), a theory that describes the interactions among the fundamental particles (quarks and gluons) that make up all nuclei. In particular, he solved the problem of expressing radioactive corrections arising from heavy particles in terms of effective light quarks. In other early work, he understood how to combine properties of the Dirac equation with those of the Riemann curvature tensor, to get a new formula for the gravitational energy, and to give a new and direct proof of the positive energy theorem in general relativity. He also discovered new solutions of the equations of C. N. Yang and Robert Mills, and realized their importance for physics.
Dr. Witten discovered many relations between "supersymmetric quantum theory" and geometry. Supersymmetry lies at the basis of a picture of fundamental particles being searched for at the Fermilab Tevatron, and soon at the Large Hadron Collider under construction at CERN. Dr. Witten showed that a mathematical theory of Michael Atiyah and I. M. Singer parallels supersymmetry and plays a central role in particle physics. He applied this concept to the study of nonperturbative supersymmetry breaking. He used this same concept to produce a new derivation of a fundamental mathematical theory of Marston Morse.
One of Dr. Witten's deepest mathematical insights arose from his glimpsing the relation between the physics of gauge theory and the mathematics of knots. This work has led to a revolution in mathematics, including the understanding of the classification of higher dimensional spaces. For this work, Dr. Witten became the only theoretical physicist ever to receive the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in pure mathematics. Conversely, Dr. Witten was broadly responsible for the demonstration that algebraic geometry and topology, core disciplines of modern mathematics, hold the key to understanding the deepest properties of string theory and gauge field theory.
Dr. Witten, who has been on the Faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study since 1987, is the recipient of a 1982 MacArthur Fellowship; the 1985 Einstein Medal from the Einstein Society of Berne, Switzerland; the 1985 Dirac Medal from the International Center for Theoretical Physics; the 1990 Fields Medal; and numerous other awards. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, a foreign member of the Royal Society, and an associate member of the Academy of Sciences of Paris.
The seven other recipients named by President Bush include biologists James E. Darnell of Rockefeller University in New York City, who discovered RNA processing, and Evelyn M. Witkin of Rutgers University, who confirmed the notion of DNA repair. Leo L. Beranek of Cambridge, Mass., a retired leader in acoustical science, will receive the medal in engineering. Mathematician James G. Glimm of Stony Brook University is being honored for his work in shock wave theory and other cross-disciplinary fields in mathematical physics. John I. Brauman of Stanford University will receive the award in chemistry. Two other honorees in the physical sciences include W. Jason Morgan of Princeton University and Richard L. Garwin at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York City.