Edward Witten (1951-): 'the smartest living physicist'

Mathematical and Theoretical Physicist

"String theory is 21^{st}-century physics that fell accidentally into the 20^{th} century." -- Ed Witten

Charlene Tan "I'm Smarter than You" Dedication I don't usually make dedications, but for this article, I dedicate this to my ex-girlfriend, Char, who was smarter than the rest of the other smart ones. She graduated Magna cum Laude at the University of the Philippines, the country's most prestigious university, garnered top honors and prize-money just by being smart - she didn't even apply to any of them. Most notably though, this is dedicated to her for looking at me straight in the eye and with all seriousness and supreme confidence, stated, "I'm smarter than you." I default to that moment with fond amusement.

Disclaimer I do not present myself here as someone who understands Ed Witten's work (although I hope I could). When he talks, the only things I understand are the pronouns. But I am struck by his brilliance as described in the words of those he has worked with.

Pecking-Order Amongst Smart People The most brilliant physicists on the planet call Witten, 'the smartest living physicist'(at the 1990 cosmology conference). Google Gemini described him as 'A Titan Among Intellectuals'. When the smartest of the lot would not dare challenge you, in no small measure, you are beyond brilliant. When he talks, the most acclaimed of them all shut-up and listen, hanging by his every word. When Eric Weinstein, an intellectual, mathematician and iconoclast challenged any and all "String Theory" physicists to a debate, he expressly stated it was to the exclusion of Ed witten, to whom he was terrified. When the most distinguished award in Mathematics (Fields Medal) is given to a physicist and not to a mathematician, you have to be none other than Edward Witten.

Weinstein: "I'm terrified of Ed Witten"

My Background Story I first stumbled upon Edward Witten when I was researching String Theory back in 2006. When the Theory of Everything was mathematically arrived at by way of an elegant equation devoid of all pre-existing anomalies, the quantum physicists thought they finally cracked the code that explains everything in nature by factoring the 4 known forces in nature - gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. This concept finally unified the chasm that has since divided Einsteins' world of relativity to the emergent world of quantum mechanics.

But before the most brilliant minds of physics could pop the champagne bottle, they realized that String Theory produced 5 variants. So now, the theory of everything became murky, confusing and baffling. You have to keep in mind that these are the most brilliant minds at that time, and they were stifled and stumped. What to do? Collectively, they deferred to the unofficial heir-apparent to Einstein - Edward Witten. Even though all these physicists were smart and brilliant, they all deferred to Edward Witten as being smarter and more brilliant.

Edward stated that he will unveil the mystery surrounding the 5 variants in a forthcoming string theory conference at the University of Southern California in 1995. With that, the world of physics braced itself for the day, in eager anticipation of what the oracle would proclaim. Finally, at the convention, Ed Witten came out with his bombshell that explained and cleared the confusion. This explanation gave rise to the M Theory. Everyone nodded in agreement as if to bow to a deity heralding in unison that they're not worthy to be in the presence of such greatness. Such is the stature and genius of Edward Witten. This episode lingered with me to this day.

Now, while writing about Srinivasa Ramanujan, the math genius, I became curious about what the highest honor and recognition there is in mathematics. The answer was the Fields Medal, comparable to the Nobel Prize. All the awardees were mathematicians with the exception of one - Edward Witten. Witten was the only physicist who won that award. In short, in a vast field of brilliant mathematicians out there, Witten the physicist, out-mathed all of them. That's how brilliant he is in both physics and math. He has garnered more awards than Swiss cheese has holes. That was the tipping point for me to write about him.

M Theory In explaining the 5 variants of string theory, Witten also posited an equation that revealed 11 dimensions to our reality. In our everyday life, we only experience 4 dimensions - 3 for space and one for time. But 7 more dimensions we don't perceive? The ramification was mind-blowing. It means we don't exist in one universe but a multi-verse. And there can be an infinite number of multi-verse. Although unproven, the math is solid. If a Fields Medal awardee calculates the math, it's credible.

Physics and Math They seem to be 2 sides of the same coin, one complementing the other. But on the cutting-edge of these 2 worlds, a great divide is present. The exponential growth of physics in the quantum field required more math than what was available. Mathematicians (not necessarily physicists), do not even fully understand what they are working within the quantum field, let alone develop mathematical expressions that describe and define the field. Physicists on the other hand (not necessarily mathematicians), don't really appreciate mathematical proofs to validate their work. Some don't even fully appreciate the mathematical ideas they are working with.

And that was the great divide holding back the growth and development of quantum physics - physicists who don't have the high-level math required to represent their ideas, and mathematicians who don't know enough physics to put the quantum concept into a mathematical expression.

And here is what makes Witten unique - Edward Witten bridges the gulf between math and quantum physics. He is both a mathematical genius and a physicist of the highest order. He can develop the math to express his theory and experiments in the quantum field like no one can.

Robbert Dijkgraaf and Edward Witten during "The Universe Speaks in Numbers" event at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) May 30, 2019

Late Bloomer Witten was already 22 years old when he took up math (Applied Mathematics at Princeton University), and 25 years old when he received his Ph.D. in physics. Prior to all that, he already had a Bachelor of Arts degree, Economics, dabbled in journalism and politics. In short, up until being a working adult, he wasn't sure yet what career to pursue. Unlike Ramanujan who had a single-focus on math his entire life, Witten was more like a late bloomer in the field where his name would be uttered in hushed tones.

String Theory Challenged String Theory was popularized by Ed Witten in the 1980 and attracted the most brilliant minds and resources in the field. However, despite the initial excitement of its predictions, nothing ground-breaking has come out of String Theory in the last 40 years. There is now a growing voice that calls out its empty promise. While no one is naming Witten, a challenge on String Theory is an indirect challenge to him. Witten has come out saying that String Theory is not an established theory in physics unlike the Standard Model of Particle Physics or Einstein's Relativity Theory, but a framework of a 'long term speculative enterprise'.

Ending Thoughts Witten is now 69 as of this writing. Still vibrant and lucid and ever so smart, I wonder what other revelations are in store for us from his brilliant mind. While fascinating to be that brilliant, I probably would not like to be one. But I'm glad there's one to see us all through this maze of particles, strings and waves.

If there is anyone who can crack the code on String Theory, it is in all likelihood, Witten. I hope he does it in his lifetime - because the next brilliant mind could be decades away.

(Nov 5, 2020) This true story centers on American soldiers defending an indefensible outpost in a valley surrounded by mountains in Afganistan where they were essentially sitting ducks. It showcases their heroism and bravery against the Taliban forces.....more »»

(Jan 24, 2021) I've always wondered how the Chinese of the Philippines have taken a huge leap in one generation - from racially marginalized minority, to economic juggernauts with a stranglehold of the country's GDP. With John Gokongwei's autobiographical book, I finally got a glimpse of how they've done it.....more »»

(Jan 23, 2022) Jiddu Krishnamurti has been a recurring constant since my high school days. I stumble upon friends who talk about him, I stumble upon videos of him giving a lecture, and stumble upon other learned people talk about him in high regard, and come upon features of him in social media. But I've never really rolled up my sleeves to dig deep into this remarkable man. Until now.....more »»