Edward Witten


One individual has stepped above others to do justice to the ideas of Albert Einstein’s work with Relativity and Quantum Physics. His work with string theory and the follow-up work has given the concept a foundation for others to follow. Who is this man, Edward Witten?

Early Years

edwardEdward Witten was born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 26,1951. He is the son of Louis Witten and Lorraine W Witton. Just as other notable mathematicians seemed inclined to go into the field because of influence of family in the world of mathematics; so too Edward seemed on is way in that fashion. His father was a theoretical physicist. He spent considerable time into sharing his love of math and other subjects with the young man. However, of this endeavor on the part of his father, Witten had this to say in a lecture entitled “Adventure in Physics and Math”;

For a while, math was my passion. My parents, however, were reluctant

to push me too far, too fast with math (as they saw it) and so it was a long time after that before I was exposed to any math that was really more advanced than basic calculus. I am not sure in hindsight whether their attitude was best or not.

However, the result was that for a number of years the math I was exposed to did not seem fundamentally new and challenging. It is hard to know to what extent this was a factor, but at any rate for a number of years my interest in math flagged.

Louis Witten had a high regard for the intelligence of his son. It is said he once made to a comment to member of the press that he would carry on conversations with Edward as an adult equal.

Unlike other children of his era, Edward held high views about American politics. He wrote a local newspaper, at age 12, his thoughts about the Vietnam war in a series of editorial letters.

He has a brother Matthew that is a notable television producer and screenwriter. His education was spent attending a private school in the Baltimore area. He remained there until 1968. After graduation, Edward Witten enrolled in Brandeis University and was accepted.

Young Witten graduated from Brandeis in 1971 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. At the time Edward appeared to have a passion in the humanities, especially journalism. When George McGovern ran for president in the 1972 election, Witten worked for McGovern’s campaign.

From there Witten on to Princeton University, where he earned his Master of Arts degree and finally his Ph.D. in 1976. It was there he made the decision to follow a path in physics. However, he was not satisfied to just end there and went on to Harvard.

A Harvard, Edward Witten went for his postdoctoral fellow )1976-77) and then his Junior Fellow 1977-1980) which was the beginning of his chosen field in physics as a career.

Noted mathematician, Michael Atiyah, said of the physicist;

Although he is definitely a physicist (as his list of publications clearly shows) his command of mathematics is rivalled 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 his brilliant application of physical insight leading to new and deep mathematical theorems.

In 1980, Edward Witten went back to Princeton to become a professor in the physics department. He went into the position as a full professor and impressed many of his colleagues.

For one thing, Witten was one of the youngest full professors to be on staff. His style of lecturing was low-tone, but he never failed to gain the respect of many of those he instructed.

A major area that soon became a strong interest for Witten was in quantum physics. In 1988, Witten was speaking at a symposium of the American Mathematical Society. In his speech he stated;

It used to be that when one thought of geometry in physics, one thought chiefly of classical physics – and in particular general relativity – rather than quantum physics. … Of course, quantum physics had from the beginning a marked influence in many areas of mathematics – functional analysis and representation theory, to mention just two. … Several important influences have brought about a change in this situation.

One of the principal influences was the recognition – clearly established by the middle 1970s – of the central role of nonabelian gauge theory in elementary particle physics. The other main influence came from the emerging study of supersymmetry and string theory.

Major Work of Study

The area of string theory was something Witten became very interested in.

When Albert Einstein passed away in 1955, he left the world of physics with a renewed interest interest in rationalizing the connectivity of quantum physics with general relativity.

The mindset was that there was nothing new under the sun to be found in the realm of mathematics and physics.

The disconnect brought on the thought of string theory; looking at the natural world in terms of strings and loops make up the particles of life. They act like violin strings that have resonance. The concept, as difficult as it may seem for laymen to understand, is an easy one for physicists.

Edward Witten developed a great interest in the concept. The idea had been thought of one time having 26 distinct dimensions, but through continued discussion and research, that count lowered down to just 10 dimensions of string theory.

Witten communicated the idea that “anomalies that occur during radioactive decay” could be studied through shape connection or topology.

This had to be done in 10 dimensions as he wrote (World Mathematics). Since his findings seemed to match that of earlier scholars in the field, the world of physics was boosted by the claim.

Witten was encouraged by the response of the physicists and mathematicians that voiced their praises to Witten. His confirmation of the idea of 10 dimensions created what was to be known as the “superstring theory”.

This area of particular study was a boon to Witten as he once pointed out that he felt his life’s-calling was in this particular area.

Edward Witten was one of a few physicists and mathematicians making note of the string theory. Before long there close to half a dozen ideas on the concept of string theory and no two were the same.

Witten had no doubt that string theory would impact common held beliefs in the years to come. Infact, he was so impressed by the idea that he became the noted endorser of the idea by writing almost 20 papers in the course of year about string theory.

Witten left his staff position from Princeton. He was invited to take over the mathematical professor position at Institute of Advanced studies.

He began his career there in 1987 where he could devote more time to his work. What is notable about the Institute is that Albert Einstein’s final years were spent there.

The physicist was not convinced that his theory was the only possible truth. Witten took the five varying string theories that had come out and developed another theory known as the M Theory of String theory.

He figured that just because the ideas were all so disconnected from one another, it did not mean they lacked value. His M theory basically placed the five ideas into one connection. As he put it they were all part of a bigger whole.

He emphasized this through an illustration where he said just because blind men touched different parts of an elephant and came up with different descriptions; one could not did not disregard the fact that it was still one elephant. The parts can be the whole.

His work with the M Theory and the compiling the five various theories influenced Witten to establish one more dimension to the puzzle. Witte went so far as to say that the strings were membranes and might gain in size to that of the universe.

As such, Edward Witten is considered to be the most advanced and successful contributor to the work in string theory. In an article in Time, a fellow member of the Institute of Advanced Studies is quoted as saying,

Most other people have made one or two such contributions. Ed has made ten or 15.

The idea by Witten and others is that the string theory can eventually provide answers to the bigger questions of origins of the universe.

There are those in the field that believe Witten’s work relies too much on equations of math rather than his practicing field of physics. They felt that Witten should have placed into the work on string theory, more in the way of technical support to back up his concept.

Whether that is an accurate assessment or not, no one can deny that Edward Witten’s work did not awaken fellow professionals to further research the string theory focus.

Witten has a response to those critics, again from is lecture “Adventure in Physics and Math”;

Perhaps I should conclude by briefly explaining my view of the significance of the mathematical and physical work that I have been involved in. It actually is simplerto explain my opinion on the mathematical side.

Quantum field theory and String Theory contain many mathematical secrets. I believe that they will play an important role in mathematics for a long time. For various technical reasons, these subjects are difficult to grapple with mathematically.

Until the mathematical world is able to overcome some of these technical difficulties and to grapple with quantum fields and strings per se, and not only with their implications for better-established areas of mathematics, physicists working in these areas will continue to be able to surprise the mathematical world with interesting and surprising insights. I have been lucky to be at the right place at the right time to contribute to part of this.

In his own words he directly states that he wasn’t able to use strictly mathematics to handle the issue of string theory; although math is definitely an aspect of it all.


Edward Witten has achieved a high recognition in his work with theoretical physics. His studies with string theory established a level of expertise that no one had previously been able to accomplish.

As such, his command of the mathematical level he possesses has garnered him considerable accolades in his work. One award that Witten was presented with was in 1985 with the Einstein Medal and the New York Academy of Science Award for Physics and Math Science.

The greatest recognition a scholar in mathematics is said to be able to earn is that of the Fields Medal. This honor is a reflection of distinction given to those in mathematics that have distinguished themselves under the age of 40.

It marks that someone so young has made great strides in the field of math and corresponding disciplines so quickly. The honor was established in 1936 and is considered the highest mark of distinction for someone in that field. In 1990, Witten received the award in Kyoto, Japan.

Besides these two impressive awards, Edward Witten has earned multiple other awards and honorary degrees.

In an article that was published in 1984 (Journal of differential equality), Atiyah wrote this about a paper by Edward Witten;

It also contains a brilliant proof of the classic Morse inequalities, relating critical points to homology. … Witten explains that “supersymmetric quantum mechanics” is just Hodge-de Rham theory.

The real aim of the paper is however to prepare the ground for supersymmetric quantum field theory as the Hodge-de Rham theory of infinite dimensional manifolds. It is a measure of Witten’s mastery of the field that he has been able to make intelligent and skilful use of this difficult point of view in much of his subsequent work.

The clarity that Edward Witten places into his work brings a major contribution to the work in theoretical physics.

Witten’s work gives catalyst for others to look upon the theorems he established to attempt to create proofs.

Oftentimes the men and women that do the work in physics cannot always establish solid completions of their work; but their creative advance to form a framework are what Witten and his colleagues help to breed.

Edward Witten is married to Chiara Nappi, a gifted physicist and has taught Princeton and other colleges.