Edward Witten Biography


Born August 26, 1951, in Baltimore, MD; son of Louis W. Witten (a physicist); married Chiara Nappi (a physicist); children: Daniela, Ilana, Rafael. Education: Brandeis University, history degree, 1971; Princeton University, masters degree (physics), 1974, Ph.D. (physics), 1976.

Addresses: Home —Princeton, NJ. Office —Institute for Advanced Study, School of Natural Sciences, Einstein Dr., Princeton, NJ 08540.


Freelance writer, early 1970s; aide, George McGovern presidential campaign, 1972; junior fellow, Harvard University, Society of Fellows, 1977-80; full professor, Princeton University, Department of Physics, 1980-87; Charles Simonyi professor of mathematical physics, Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton, NJ, 1987—.

Member: International Centre for Peace in the Middle East, Tel Aviv, Israel; board, Americans for Peace Now; attended Emergency World Jewish Leadership Peace Conference, Jerusalem, Israel.

Awards: MacArthur Fellowship, 1982; Einstein Medal, 1985; New York Academy of Science Award for Physics and Math Science, 1985; National Science Foundation, Alan T. Waterman Award, 1986; Fields Medal, co-winner, 1990; named one of 25 most influential Americans, Time, 1996; named one of 100 most influential in the world, 2004; Dannie Heinemann Prize, 1998; Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in mathematics, 2000; National Medal of Science, 2002.


In the world of physics, Edward Witten is a super-star, and considered by many to be the savior of the field. His participation in the discovery of the super string theory and his M-string theory has sparked much debate in the science community as physicists and mathematicians everywhere researched to prove these theories right or wrong. Because of his contributions, he has been awarded the Fields Medal and named as one of Time 's 25 Most Influential Americans.

Witten was born on August 26, 1951, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was highly intelligent as a toddler. His father, Louis W. Witten, a gravitational physicist, was talking physics with him at the age of four. His father told Jack Klaff of the Guardian, "I would talk to Ed about science the way I would talk with adults." Witten attended Baltimore Hebrew school as a child. At the age of 12 his letters denouncing the Vietnam War appeared in the local newspaper's editorial section. Although Witten was fascinated by physics, he wanted to become a journalist. He attended Brandeis University, and graduated with a degree in history.

Witten wrote articles for the Nation and the New Republic. He also worked as an aide on George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972. With his interest in both journalism and politics waning, Witten returned to school. He entered the doctoral program at Princeton University. At first unsure of whether to study mathematics or physics, he chose physics and earned his masters degree in 1974, and his doctorate in 1976.

Witten began his career in physics as a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. Later he returned to Princeton in 1980 as full professor, one of the youngest to be appointed to that position. He taught in the physics department and many of his students nicknamed him "The Martian" because of his soft-spoken voice and his style of lecturing, which included long pauses as he gathered his thoughts. Despite his nickname, many of his students had the utmost respect for Witten.

When Albert Einstein released his theory of relativity, he breathed new life into the field of physics. Einstein spent his later years expanding his theory and trying to combine relativity with quantum physics, which both contradicted each other. He died in 1955 before finding the solution. Many thought all of the major discoveries in physics and mathematics had been discovered. Three particle theorists developed string theory which theorized that nature is not made up of miniscule particles but of tiny loops and strings, which also vibrated like a violin and instead of four dimensions, there were 26. A number of physicists disproved of the concept and it was later abandoned. A couple of physicists later lowered the number down to ten.

Witten devoted his energies to further developing string theory. He told John Horgan of the Scientific American , "It was very clear that if I didn't spend my life concentrating on string theory, I would simply be missing my life's calling." In 1984 he and a fellow physicist wrote a paper "about anomalies that occur during radioactive decay that could only be studied in terms of topology [shape connection] and only in ten dimensions," according to World of Mathematics. This hypothesis cemented previous findings that stated string theory required the presence of ten dimensions. This theory also became known as the superstring theory.

Witten's papers energized both the mathematics and physics community. Soon five varying ideas were competing as the string theory. Witten's belief that superstring theory would change the world was so intense he wrote a record 19 papers in one year, making him the chief proponent of string theory. He ended his teaching career at Princeton, and in 1987 became the Charles Simonyi professor of mathematical physics at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), where Einstein spent his last years.

With five varying ideas of string theory, string theory reached a stalemate. However, Witten worked to find which idea was indeed the one that defined string theory. His research soon discovered that all were in fact aspects of the string theory. He combined them all to form the M-string theory. He published his findings in 1995. Again Witten sparked a flurry of debate in the community. Using "the analogy of blind men examining an elephant to explain the course of string theory until 1995," Nathan Seiberg, also working at the IAS, told Alok Jha of the Guardian, "One describes touching a leg, one describes touching a trunk, another describes the ears. They come up with different descriptions but they don't see the big picture. There is only one elephant.…"

Witten's M-theory while bringing together the five various ideas into a workable equation, also added one more dimension and suggested that the strings were membranes or branes. These branes could exist in at least three dimensions and could grow to the size of the universe. Witten also theorized that our universe could be sitting on a brane.

Witten continued to develop new theories, including working on the twistor theory, which was created in 1965. Working this theory with the new discoveries of the day led Witten to conclude that all of the extra dimensions in both string theory and his M-theory were no longer needed. However, he told Jha of the Guardian , "I think twistor string theory is something that only partly works."

In the area of string theory, Witten has been the most prolific contributor. Another colleague at the IAS, Juan Maldacena, told Michael Lemonick in Time, "Most other people have made one or two such contributions. Ed has made ten or 15." Witten and many others believe that string theory is one step toward developing the "Theory of Everything." This theory would provide the answers to nature, the Big Bang theory, and everything else.

Witten was not without detractors. With him being a theoretical physicist, his main focus was on using calculations versus running experiments. As a result, some thought he relied too heavily on mathematics rather than actual physics. Also many believed that string theory was loopy and pure conjecture, since technically, nothing has been proven.

Witten, however, has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards. He won the Einstein Medal and the New York Academy of Science Award for Physics and Math Science in 1985. In 1990 he shared the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award given in mathematics, also the closest he could get to a Nobel Prize. He also won the Dannie Heinemann Prize in 1998. In 2000 Witten received the Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics and was also awarded the National Medal of Science for his contributions to mathematics and theoretical physics in 2002.

Witten is considered by many to be a genius or as close as one can get. He is married to Chiara Nappi, a physicist at Princeton University. They have three children. In addition to his many discoveries, Witten is very active in such organizations as the International Centre for Peace in the Middle East and Americans for Peace Now.



American Decades, Gale Research, 1998.

World of Mathematics, Gale Group, 2002.


Guardian (London, England), March 19, 1997; January 20, 2005.

Science News, August 25, 1990, p. 119.

Scientific American, November 1991.

Time, June 17, 1996, p. 66; April 26, 2004, p. 110.


"A Theory of Everything?," Florida State University Physics Department, http://www.physics.fsu. edu/Courses/spring99/AST3033/theory.htm (November 21, 2005).

"Institute for Advanced Studies," School of Natural Sciences, http://www.sns.ias.edu/%7Ewitten/ (November 22, 2005).

Ashyia N. Henderson

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