Martin Veltman 1931-2021

I heard today of the recent death of Martin Veltman, a theorist largely responsible (with his student Gerard ‘t Hooft) for showing the renormalizability of non-abelian gauge theories, a breakthrough crucial to the Standard Model that won both of the them the 1999 Nobel Prize. For the story of this work, the best source is likely Veltman’s Nobel lecture.

My one memory of meeting Veltman in person was when he visited Stony Brook at the time that I was a postdoc there (mid 1980s). There was a party at someone’s house, and I spent part of the evening talking to him then. What most struck me was his great passion for whatever it was we were talking about. One topic I remember was the computer algebra program Schoonschip (which Wolfram acknowledges as an inspiration for Mathematica). I vaguely recall that at that time Veltman had recently ported the program to a microprocessor and he was selling copies in some form. It also seems to me that one remarkable aspect of the program was that it was written in assembly language, not compiled from a higher level language. At the time I was doing computer calculations, but of a very different kind (lattice gauge theory Monte-Carlos). Since my own interests were focused on non-perturbative calculations, I wasn’t paying much attention to Veltman’s work, although I do remember finding his Diagrammar document (written with ‘t Hooft) quite fascinating.

A comment that evening that really struck me was about students, in particular that “you give your students your life-blood!”. This seemed likely to have some reference to Veltman’s relations with his ex-student ‘t Hooft, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t quiz him on that topic.

Many years later, when I was trying to get Not Even Wrong published, I contacted Veltman and he was quite helpful. At the time he had recently published his own popular book about particle physics, Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particles, which contained his own version of the Not Even Wrong critique:

The reader may ask why in this book string theory and supersymmetry have not been discussed. . . The fact is that this book is about physics and this implies that theoretical ideas must be supported by experimental facts. Neither supersymmetry nor string theory satisfy this criterion. They are figments of the theoretical mind. To quote Pauli, they are not even wrong. They have no place here.

That book is quite good, I strongly recommend it. May its author rest in peace.

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13 Responses to Martin Veltman 1931-2021

  1. rhofmann says:

    A giant of theoretical physics and a true loss to the community and to me personally. I spent several hours chatting with Tini and his wife when they visited Heidelberg in 2004 which was a wonderfully natural and insightful experience. Squeezing himself out of our small 3-door car, he smilingly told me that next time the car needs to be bigger. Undoubtedly sharing my warm sentiments for him with many physicists of our time, I do stand in awe of his intellect, unadulturated convictions, and accomplishments in establishing the gauge principle for the description of fundamental particle interactions.
    You’ll be missed greatly, Tini!

  2. shantanu says:

    He also never believed in dark matter. I don’t know much about his relationship with T’hooft. Can you elucidate on that?

  3. David Brown says:

    In 2010, Roger Highfield, science editor of “The Telegraph”, published several comments from theoretical physicists concerning the LHC start-up.
    “Martin Veltman, Nobel Laureate University of Utrecht, Netherlands: ‘It would not surprise me if the experimenters don’t find the Higgs particle. I don’t trust the theory behind it. But if it does appear to show up, it will be crucial to check that it behaves as the theory predicts. I would be surprised if supersymmetry were found. I supported the idea when it was first suggested, but I’ve gradually lost confidence in it, though I might well be wrong. To be sure, if the LHC finds nothing to support supersymmetry, its advocates will just make excuses and keep using it. As for string theory, it’s all mumbo jumbo, with no connection with experiment.’ ”
    https://cds.cern.ch/record/1195875/files/PRESSCUT-V-2009-3073.txt

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Shantanu,
    For a very old blog posting about Veltman and some of his views, see
    https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=106

    About Veltman/’t Hooft, I’ve heard little second hand, and first hand all I know is what I quoted from Veltman in the posting, and comments by ‘t Hooft at the Coleman memorial conference, see
    https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=171

  5. Peter,

    ”his own popular book about particle physics, Facts and Mysteries of Elementary Particles […] That book is quite good, I strongly recommend it.”

    In contrast to you, I strongly unrecommend it. It is very misleading in giving virtual particles an appearance of reality that is not even slightly backed by theory or experiment. See https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/vacuum-fluctuation-myth/ and https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/misconceptions-virtual-particles/

    In contrast, his book ”Diagrammatica: the path to Feynman diagrams”
    https://www.cambridge.org/nu/academic/subjects/physics/theoretical-physics-and-mathematical-physics/diagrammatica-path-feynman-diagrams is a textbook on quantum field theory covering the standard ground up to QED in an essentially standard manner. This technically precise (though not mathematically rigorous) book contains not a single mention of the word ‘virtual’. Instead, Veldman explains here in an exemplary way what Feynman diagrams are and how they are interpreted and used. From the introduction:

    ”Perturbation theory means Feynman diagrams. It appears therefore that anyone working in elementary particle physics, experimentalist or theorist, needs to know about these objects. […] This then is the aim: to make it clear which principles are behind the rules, and to define clearly the calculational details. This requires some kind of derivation. The method used is basically the canonical formalism, but anything that is not strictly necessary has been cut out. No one should have an excuse not understanding this book. Knowing about ordinary non-relativistic quantum mechanics and classical relativity one should be able to understand the reasoning.”

  6. David says:

    There is a statement on Lubos’ blog by ‘t Hooft:

    https://motls.blogspot.com/2005/03/sidneyfest.html,

    “Oeps, in my comparison of Sidney’s fast and brilliant mind with that of my advisor Veltman, I must have left a false impression of my admiration of Veltman. I was making jokes about him (much as how he would do that himself), but please be assured that he is brilliant in his own way, as his richly deserved Nobel Prize testifies.”

  7. Peter Woit says:

    David,
    Thanks. You can also read there Lubos’s description of the ‘t Hooft talk, which starts with “Before the talk, I had roughly 20 seconds to chat with Peter Woit.”…

  8. David says:

    You can also watch the talk here: https://youtu.be/7CLAFRTGZjY

  9. Peter Woit says:

    David,
    Thanks. The references to Veltman are in the first part of the talk.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    All,
    Sorry, but I don’t want to host a debate here about “virtual particles”.

  11. Peter Orland says:

    I remember Veltman giving a talk on problems with the Higgs mechanism in Brighton at a big meeting 1983. I had a job in London, and went down there with some students and other postdocs.

    The beginning of the talk was interesting, but after 15 minutes I was fast asleep. Veltman’s voice was very gravelly and hypnotic; the perfect background noise to facilitate a nap. When I heard the applause at the end, I was very embarrassed by my faux pas. As people asked questions, I looked around and noticed that a few other physicists were still slumped in their chairs.

    I had to find out what the talk was about from the proceedings.

  12. Deepak Aryal says:

    Veltman gave a very entertaining talk titled “The future of particle physics” at 2019 Lindau Physics Meeting (Especially the Q&A part). Here is the video:
    https://www.mediatheque.lindau-nobel.org/videos/38224/2019-meeting-martinus-veltman

  13. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Interesting to hear he and John Bell were such good friends. CERN has some photos to remind us…

    https://cds.cern.ch/record/764869?ln=en

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