Steven Weinberg, Groundbreaking Physicist Who Won Nobel Prize With Abdus Salam, Dies At 88
American physicist Steven Weinberg died on July 23, aged 88 at the University of Texas, Austin. Weinberg won the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics for his theoretical contributions unlocking the mysteries of some tiny particles and their interaction (electromagnetic) to the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics. He was one of the key intellectual leaders in physics during the second half of the 20th century, and remained a leading voice, contributor and teacher through the first two decades of the 21st.
Steven Weinberg was born in New York on May 3, 1933. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, which has seen seven former pupils go on to win the physics Nobel. He received a degree in physics from Cornell University in 1954, and after a year at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (now the Niels Bohr Institute), he returned to the US to complete his PhD at Cornell, graduating in 1957. After a stint at Columbia University, in 1959 Weinberg went to the University of California, Berkeley, before heading to Harvard University in 1966. A year later, Weinberg became a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he carried out much of his pioneering work in unifying the weak and electromagnetic interaction. In 1973, Weinberg went back to Harvard where he also held a position at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. In 1982, he moved to the University of Texas, where he spent the remainder of his career.
Among his peers, Weinberg was one of the most respected figures in all of physics or perhaps all of science. He exuded intelligence and dignity. As news of his death spread through Twitter, other physicists expressed their remorse at the loss: “One of the most accomplished scientists of our age,” one commented, “a particularly eloquent spokesman for the scientific worldview.” And another: “One of the best physicists we had, one of the best thinkers of any variety.”
He is one of the founding fathers of the SM of particle physics and is commonly regarded as being among the most influential living theoreticians. In the 1960s, Weinberg’s work was instrumental in understanding the weak interaction in particle physics, which is best known for its role in nuclear decay. He shared the 1979 Nobel Prize with American physicist Sheldon Glashow and Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam. Their work improved the understanding of how everything in the universe relates, according to a UT statement. “This work helped physicists unify two forces of nature, subatomic forces known as nuclear forces,” said Sean Carroll an American physicist at the California Institute of Technology.
He was an early advocate of superstring theory as a promising path in the continuing quest to complete the standard model by unifying it with general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity. Many physicists have voiced their admiration for Weinberg’s work and life. Jay Hartzell, President of the University of Texas, said in a statement that, “For millions of individuals, Weinberg unveiled the mysteries of the universe, enriching humanity’s concept of nature and our relationship to the world”.
Weinberg realised a desire to communicate more broadly. He did important technical work in other realms of physics as well and wrote several authoritative textbooks on such topics as general relativity and cosmology and quantum field theory. His popular book ‘The First Three Minutes’, published in 1977, told the story of the origin of the universe and the fundamental science underlying that metaphor. His 1993 book ‘Dreams of a Final Theory’ explains his belief that physics was on the verge of discovering a theory that would unite physics. One of his last books, ‘To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science’, examined the history of physics from the ancient Greeks to the present day. He also wrote deeply insightful examinations of the nature of science and its intersection with society.
Weinberg was the recipient of numerous prizes including the National Medal of Science in 1991 and the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Science in 2004. Last year, he received a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental physics – and with it $3m – for his contributions to physics.
As he told the Nobel Institute in a 2001 interview, he first became interested in science when a cousin of his who had been given a chemistry set passed it along to him. The cousin had decided to take up boxing instead. “Perhaps he should have stayed in science,” Dr Weinberg said.
Weinberg was right that he would not be around to see the final theory. And perhaps, as he sometimes acknowledged, nobody ever will. Perhaps it’s not experimental power that is lacking, but rather intellectual power.
“Humans may not be smart enough to understand the fundamental laws of physics,” he wrote in ‘To Explain the World’. Future science historians will perhaps insist on assessing Weinberg’s own work in light of the standards of his times. But even if viewed in light of future knowledge, there’s no doubt that Weinberg’s achievements will remain Herculean.