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, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/26/science/ann-nelson-dies.html, 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.