I heard this morning the news that Steven Weinberg passed away yesterday at the age of 88. He was arguably the dominant figure in theoretical particle physics during its period of great success from the late sixties to the early eighties. In particular, his 1967 work on unification of the weak and electromagnetic interactions was a huge breakthrough, and remains to this day at the center of the Standard Model, our best understanding of fundamental physics.
During the years 1975-79 when I was a student at Harvard, I believe the hallway where Weinberg, Glashow and Coleman had offices close together was the greatest concentration of the world’s major figures driving the field of particle theory, with Weinberg seen as the most prominent of the three. From what I recall, in a meeting one of the graduate students (Eddie Farhi?) referred to “Shelly, Sidney and Weinberg”, indicating the way Weinberg was a special case even in that group. I had the great fortune to attend not only Coleman’s QFT course, but also a course by Weinberg on the quantization of gauge theory.
Weinberg was the author of an influential text on general relativity, as well as a masterful three-volume set of textbooks on QFT. The second volume roughly corresponds to the course I took from him, and the third is about supersymmetry. While most QFT books cover the basics in much the same way, Weinberg’s first volume is a quite different, original and highly influential take on the subject. It’s not easy going, but the details are all there and his point of view is an important one. When you hear Nima Arkani-Hamed preaching about the right way to understand how QFT comes out uniquely as the only sensible way to combine special relativity and quantum mechanics, he’s often referring specifically to what you’ll find in that first volume.
Besides his technical work, Weinberg also did a huge amount of writing of the highest quality about physics and science in general for wider audiences. An early example is his 1977 The Search for Unity: Notes for a History of Quantum Field Theory (a copy is here). His 1992 Dreams of a Final Theory is perhaps the best statement anywhere of the goal of fundamental physical theory during the 20th century. His large collection of pieces written for the The New York Review of Books covers a wide variety of topics and all are well worth reading.
At the time of the 1984 “First Superstring Revolution”, Weinberg joined in and worked on string theory for a while, but after a few years turned to cosmology. In early 2002 he was one of several people I wrote to about the current state of string theory, and here’s what I heard back from him:
I share your disappointment about the lack of contact so far of string theory with nature, but I can’t see that anyone else (including those studying topological nontrivialities in gauge theories) is doing much better. I thinks that some theorists should go on pushing as hard as they can on string theory, and others should do something else, but it is not easy to see what. I have myself voted with my feet (if that is the appropriate organ here) and switched entirely to work in cosmology, which is as exciting now as particle physics was in the 1960s and 1970s. I wouldn’t criticize anyone for their choices: it’s a tough time for fundamental physics.
A couple years after that time, Weinberg’s 1987 “prediction” of the cosmological constant became the main argument for the string theory multiverse. This “prediction” was essentially the observation that if you have a theory in which all values of the cosmological constant are equally likely, and put this together with the “anthropic” constraint that only for some range will galaxy formation give what seem to be the conditions for life, then you expect a non-zero CC of very roughly the size later found. I’ve argued ad nauseam here that this can’t be used as a significant argument for string theory in its landscape incarnation. One way to see the problem is to notice that my own theory of the CC (which is that I have no idea what determines it, so any value is as likely as any other) is exactly equivalent to the string landscape theory of the CC (in which you don’t know either the measure on the space of possible vacua, or even what this space is, so you assume all CC equally likely). One place where Weinberg wrote about this issue is his essay Living in the Multiverse, which I wrote about here (the sad story of misinterpretation of a comment of mine there is told here).
Weinberg’s death yesterday, taking away from us the dominant figure of the period of particle theory’s greatest success is both a significant loss and marks the end of an era. His 2002 remark that “it’s a tough time” is even more true today.
Update: Scott Aaronson writes about Weinberg here, especially about getting to know him during the last part of his life.
Update: For Arkani-Hamed on Weinberg, see here.
Update: Glashow writes about Weinberg here.