Nobel Prize in Particle Physics Steven Weinberg ’54 Dies at 88
Steven Weinberg ’54, the theoretical physicist whose Nobel Prize-winning work transformed scientists’ understanding of fundamental forces, died on July 23. He was 88 years old.
“[His work] is basically the foundation of everything we do in particle physics, what we now call the Standard Model,” said physicist Professor Csaba Csaki. The Standard Model explains the fundamental particles and interactions that make up the universe.
In his most significant work, the former Cornell student and former guest speaker proposed the electroweak force, which unifies the electromagnetic and weak forces, two of the fundamental forces that explain the behavior of all particles in the universe.
The electromagnetic force is the push or pull that occurs between charged particles, while the weak force is responsible for radioactive decay, according to Csaki. In his groundbreaking theory, Weinberg suggested that these two forces are identical to very high energies.
To reach this conclusion, Weinberg relied on the Higgs mechanism, which explains how the particles that carry the fundamental forces and allow the exchange of energy acquire mass.
“Weinberg took the Higgs mechanism and applied it to [develop] a theory that correctly describes nature,” Csaki said.
Weinberg predicted the properties – including mass – of a force-carrying particle known as the Z boson in a 1967 paper. Bosons are elementary particles – particles that cannot be broken down into subparts smaller ones – which carry the fundamental forces.
“The funny thing is, when he wrote that article, nobody took him seriously,” Csaki said.
“For about five or six years, there were almost no citations. Then around 1973, experiments and theoretical advances appeared, and they began to show that the world really is as Weinberg predicted.
This evidence included the Nobel Prize-winning work of Gerardus ‘t Hooft and Martinus Veltman, who developed a mathematical theory that validated Weinberg’s prediction in the early 1970s.
As the evidence for Weinberg’s theory mounted, the initial skepticism he faced began to fade. In 1979 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for electroweak unification, along with contributors Sheldon Lee Glashow and Abdus Salam.
Since then, physicists have constantly verified Weinberg’s theory of electroweak interactions. In 1983, the Z boson was first observed, and its properties were exactly as Weinberg had predicted. The discovery of the Higgs boson – another force-carrying particle – in 2012 provided further experimental evidence for the mechanisms underlying Weinberg’s theory.
Csaki explained that Weinberg also laid the foundation for an effective field theory, which describes another fundamental force, the strong interaction. The strong force is what binds the nucleus of an atom.
Weinberg’s theoretical advances revolutionized particle physics and continue to define the field’s trajectory.
Its influence can be seen in current efforts to develop a theory that adds the strong force to his unification of the electroweak force, according to Csaki. This theory would show that the three forces are identical under certain conditions.
Beyond his Nobel Prize-winning work, Weinberg has contributed to some of the most important areas of modern physics, including general relativity, cosmology, and quantum field theory. According to Csaki, Weinberg’s three-volume textbook on quantum field theory is considered one of the most comprehensive works on the subject.
Csaki added that Weinberg’s success as a scientist was partly due to his open-minded nature and his desire to keep learning, even late in his life. Weinberg’s interest in theoretical physics dates back to childhood – he became interested in the subject at the age of 16, motivated by the encouragement of his father.
“He was always expanding his perspective, even in old age by volunteering to teach a class slightly [outside] his expertise, using it to really deeply [delve] in the subject and then writing the textbook about it,” Csaki said.
Weinberg was also passionate about bringing science out of the classroom and into contexts accessible to a more general audience. His 1977 book titled The first three minutes gives a glimpse of the first moments of the universe.
Weinberg earned his undergraduate degree at Cornell and later earned his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1957.
In 2007, Weinberg returned to Cornell and lectured on the history of science as part of the University’s Messenger Lecture Series, which highlights topics understandable to the general public.
Weinberg is survived by his wife Louise and daughter Elizabeth.