The New York Times Remembers A Great Physicist

The untimely and sudden deaths of Steve Gubser and Ann Nelson, two of the United States’ greatest talents in the theoretical physics of particles, fields and strings, has cast a pall over my summer and that of many of my colleagues.

I have not been finding it easy to write a proper memorial post for Ann, who was by turns my teacher, mentor, co-author, and faculty colleague.  I would hope to convey to those who never met her what an extraordinary scientist and person she was, but my spotty memory banks aren’t helping. Eventually I’ll get it done, I’m sure.

(Meanwhile I am afraid I cannot write something similar for Steve, as I really didn’t know him all that well. I hope someone who knew him better will write about his astonishing capabilities and his unique personality, and I’d be more than happy to link to it from here.)

In this context, I’m gratified to see that the New York Times has given Ann a substantive obituary,, and appearing in the August 28th print edition, I’m told. It contains a striking (but, to those of us who knew her, not surprising) quotation from Howard Georgi.  Georgi is a professor at Harvard who is justifiably famous as the co-inventor, with Nobel-winner Sheldon Glashow, of Grand Unified Theories (in which the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear force all emerge from a single force.) He describes Ann, his former student, as being able to best him at his own game.

  • “I have had many fabulous students who are better than I am at many things. Ann was the only student I ever had who was better than I am at what I do best, and I learned more from her than she learned from me.”

He’s being a little modest, perhaps. But not much. There’s no question that Ann was an all-star.

And for that reason, I do have to complain about one thing in the Times obituary. It says “Dr. Nelson stood out in the world of physics not only because she was a woman, but also because of her brilliance.”

Really, NYTimes, really?!?

Any scientist who knew Ann would have said this instead: that Professor Nelson stood out in the world of physics for exceptional brilliance — lightning-fast, sharp, creative and careful, in the same league as humanity’s finest thinkers — and for remarkable character — kind, thoughtful, even-keeled, rigorous, funny, quirky, dogged, supportive, generous. Like most of us, Professor Nelson had a gender, too, which was female. There are dozens of female theoretical physicists in the United States; they are a too-small minority, but they aren’t rare. By contrast, a physicist and person like Ann Nelson, of any gender? They are extremely few in number across the entire planet, and they certainly do stand out.

But with that off my chest, I have no other complaints. (Well, admittedly the physics in the obit is rather garbled, but we can get that straight another time.) Mainly I am grateful that the Times gave Ann fitting public recognition, something that she did not actively seek in life. Her death is an enormous loss for theoretical physics, for many theoretical physicists, and of course for many other people. I join all my colleagues in extending my condolences to her husband, our friend and colleague David B. Kaplan, and to the rest of her family.

7 thoughts on “The New York Times Remembers A Great Physicist”

  1. I am 100% in agreement with you on your one beef with the Times article. There is a disturbing trend in the media nowadays to over emphasize gender. This is sadly ironic, since media “pundits” are attempting to achieve gender equality through such identifications, somehow failing to realize that true gender equality can only be achieved when gender no longer matters.

    This is a terrible loss to the physics community, and in Ann’s case a terrible personal loss to you. I am very sorry, Matt. May Steve and Ann rest in peace.

  2. Prof Matt, we have some questions about an recent discoveries, if you can help please, in articles that you also published: thats are theorized by the discovery of LIGO’s gravitational waves, from Neutron Stars, that heavy elements could only be created by such collisions between NS, where there is a lot of failure on it, because collisions are very rare, would not even fill the immense amount of heavy elements in the universe at all, much less in the huge galaxy-equivalent nebulae, in addition that NS masses are being very small, equivalent to the Sun (90% of Supernova mass would explode on elements and result only 10% for NS core), and dont forgetting that a minimal fraction would be lost on energy (no chemical elements would been also created, but mostly Neutrino radiation), never yielding any good amount of chemical elements.contines..

    • There saids that only NS produces heavy elements, but really there is not enough material on it to produce all of the galaxy and the universe’s heavy masses, and no internally blow up and no material around is there to produce such elements. This well-accepted theory of Dr Metzger does not explain the existence of heavy elements from the entire universe, as there are an tiny fraction existence of NS in the universe, which they are rare and not all itself collides and they can not supply the entire universe on heavy material. And lastly, if the NS gravity is close to BH gravity, how can internal material escape, even under explosions. This Metzger theory is contradictory. Also, if NS is internal formed only by neutrons, how can it create different elements. Please we ask to explain this further, as high energy cases are your studies, despite being astrophysical area. thanks. reference bellow

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